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THE T.O. SHOW, Terrell Owens's VH1 vanity project, failed to set any Nielsen records this summer, but the ratings that really mattered started strong and remained so. On Aug. 5, even with training camp well into its second week, the sellout crowd attending a 7 p.m. practice at St. John Fisher College was gripped by a communal paroxysm more befitting Twilight groupies than Bills fans when their newest hero, wearing his favored Lycra tights with his fourth NFL team, loped onto the field (at 7:04, it should be noted). His teammates spent the preseason similarly, if more warily, enthused.
"He's always had a reputation that's followed him, and so far I haven't seen it—he's been as integrated as could be," said tackle Langston Walker.
"He makes it look so effortless to get open," said quarterback Trent Edwards.
"He's driven by wanting to win, and to be successful at his craft, and he has brought a very positive energy to this city," said player personnel chief John Guy.
Owens, whom Buffalo signed to a one-year, $6.5 million free-agent deal after the Cowboys released him on March 4, gives his new team one of the more dangerous sets of skill players in the league. The Bills will be one of three teams, along with the Falcons and the Packers, with two receivers (Owens and Lee Evans) who each gained more than 1,000 yards through the air in 2008 and a running back (Marshawn Lynch, due to return from suspension in Week 4) who did the same on the ground. To capitalize on that firepower, coach Dick Jauron and offensive coordinator Turk Schonert have installed a diversified scheme that will include the Wildcat and the no-huddle. "Our coach is a big defensive guy," says Edwards, "so he knows that what keeps defenses off-balance is an attack-style offense."
It will be Edwards who'll be kept off-balance and under attack unless his line can hold its ground, an issue that constitutes Buffalo's most pressing concern. In April the Bills traded disgruntled Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters—the anchor on the line and arguably the team's best player—to the Eagles, leaving Buffalo with a new starter at every position on the front five. Walker, last year's right tackle, will try to fill the gaping void at left tackle; last year's right guard, Brad Butler, will replace Walker; and the line's middle will consist of free-agent center Geoff Hangartner, late of Carolina, and a pair of rookie guards in first-rounder Eric Wood (a center at Louisville) and second-rounder Andy Levitre (a tackle at Oregon State).
While the players and coaches expressed optimism about the line's potential, it was only August, when it's natural to be optimistic in the NFL. "Our coaches are working their asses off to teach us technique," says Walker. But it's generally preferable for players to have more or less mastered the intricacies of their positions when the regular season is mere weeks away.
The line's learning curve will have to be steep, as the Bills will face a stiff Week 1 test when they play the Patriots in Foxborough. A poor performance by the line there and in the weeks that follow could breed frustration among talented skill players who find themselves unable to deploy those skills. Few NFL players have ever proved to be as prone to frustration as the breakfast-cereal-endorsing, popcorn-popping new face of the franchise. In this case, though, the problem might not be that the quarterback isn't throwing the ball to Owens as much as the receiver would like; it might be that the quarterback can't throw the ball to Owens because he doesn't have the time. Of the potential for Buffalo's T.O. experience to turn sour, Edwards says, "I have other things to worry about. If we win, we avoid that situation."
That's a big if—as big, perhaps, as the 1,602 pounds of starting offensive line on whose shoulders the Bills' season rests.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP