DOES THIS have anything to do with the Ocho and Terrell?" Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Bills' leading passer in 2009, asked when told early in training camp that a reporter wanted to talk to him. No, it didn't ... at least, not entirely. But Fitzpatrick's assumption that the questions would be about two of his former teammates—Terrell Owens joined fellow receiver Chad Ochocinco's Bengals in July—and none of his current ones was understandable. After a one-season experiment with T.O., who took with him his reality show, his breakfast cereal and most of the flashbulbs that lit up evening practices a summer ago, Buffalo was left with a deficit of star power in a division loaded with it. Forget the Dolphins' No-Name Defense of the '70s. The Bills are the No-Name Team of '10. "We kind of fit the mold of a Buffalo team: blue-collar, hardworking," says Fitzpatrick. "We don't have a lot of big-name guys."
The Bills' most prominent player, in fact, might turn out to be a guy who has yet to see a regular-season snap: running back C.J. Spiller, the ninth pick out of Clemson, who announced his arrival with a stunning 31-yard touchdown run in his second exhibition game, during which he left three Colts—including two 2009 Pro Bowlers, defensive end Robert Mathis and safety Antoine Bethea—grasping at air. Spiller joins an already deep backfield corps, which includes 1,000-yard rushers Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch. The rookie's presence will occasion a new philosophy for coach Chan Gailey, who liked to rely on single workhorse backs in his previous stops, notably as offensive coordinator at Kansas City. "I gotta change," says Gailey, 58. "With three guys, if it turns out to be three guys, we've got to find a way to use all of them."
The other unit that boasts something approaching star quality is the secondary. The Bills trailed only the Jets in pass defense last season, even though their starters missed a combined 26 games to injury. Wide receiver Steve Johnson—the favorite to fill the void opposite Lee Evans left by Owens's departure—has done his part to get at least one of them, NFL interceptions leader Jairus Byrd (tied, with nine), some recognition. In the off-season Johnson produced a rap to honor the second-year free safety out of Oregon called Byrd Flyin High, which samples a Juelz Santana/Lil Wayne track ("Picked off by the Duck like Byrd, man/Fly guy Jairus, flyin' like birds, man").
At most other spots on the field the Bills' talent seems to match their celebrity. Of particular concern is an offensive line that allowed 103 quarterback hits last season, second most in the league, and added only journeyman right tackle Cornell Green. Among quarterbacks who made more than 30 dropbacks, only the clueless former Raider JaMarcus Russell was sacked on a higher percentage than Trent Edwards (11.2%), who should again open the season as the starter. The line was the major contributor to Edwards's regression (his QB rating dropped from 85.4 to 73.8), his injury (he suffered a concussion on Oct. 18) and his benching in favor of Fitzpatrick in Week 11. The offense in general was futile—ranked 30th in the league—and Owens never clicked. His average of 3.4 catches was his worst since his rookie year of 1996. Unless Buffalo's low-profile linemen unexpectedly improve, it's hard to see the offense becoming more productive.
Edwards was derisively nicknamed Captain Checkdown by Bills fans last season for his inability to get the ball downfield, an unfair tag given the shakiness of his line. Now he's trying to recapture some forward momentum in Gailey's offense. "I'm a glass-half-full type guy," says Edwards, who's entering his fourth season. "It's difficult sometimes to go through the ups and downs, the bumps and bruises, and come back out still confident."
The Bills are doing their best to approach the year with optimism, and they view their anonymity as a strength. "When you're big-name people, there tends to be a lot of division, egos involved," says Byrd. "We're all about chemistry." But there seems little reason to think the Bills' chemistry will produce a positive reaction in a stacked AFC East. Gailey dismisses the common perception that the Bills will be laggards, pointing to the division's last two surprise playoff teams. "Two years ago they weren't talking about the Dolphins," he says. "Last year they weren't talking about the Jets. So, that's my reaction." He's right in one regard: No one is talking about his Bills.
WITH 2009 STATS
COACH CHAN GAILEY