GUARANTEED TOhappen in training camp: wideout pulls a muscle, superstar wants torenegotiate. Generally these things get worked out, especially the holdouts."The summer of discontent," Al Davis calls it. But there comes a timewhen a contract stalemate becomes serious, and that's what the Bills wentthrough this summer. Their best player, 26-year-old Jason Peters, the Pro Bowlleft tackle, not only wanted his deal reworked but also went incommunicado. TheBills weren't negotiating until he returned to camp, and they were usingLangston Walker, the right tackle, to fill Peters's spot on the left.
The new offensivecoordinator is Turk Schonert. That means a new system and new offensive linecalls. That's not impossible for Peters to pick up on short notice, but notideal, either. The new general manager is Russ Brandon, a decent person who hadto confront one of the more merciless agents, Eugene Parker, the guy callingthe shots for the Peters camp. New G.M., huh? Let's see how tough you are.
"If only I'dhear from Jason, but there hasn't been a word," Brandon said early in camp.Ah, but that's the strategy. The big stonewall. Peters, a converted tight end,was in the third year of a five-year contract that would pay him $3.25 millionthis season. He's far outperformed those numbers. And while a new deal waslikely to be worked out at some point, his long absence has made a fragileBuffalo operation even shakier.
An All-Pro lefttackle can solve a lot of problems. It means you can put a monster on the rightside of the line and just ask that guy to knock people off the ball. Walker,6'8" and 366 pounds, fills that role, and then some, but the experiment onthe left just wasn't working. Walker is a mauler. Peters, 6'4" and 340, isgifted and agile, a natural left tackle. The rest of the line is decent. Itcould be a force, eventually—but only with Peters anchoring the left side.
Still, the Bills'offense isn't designed to run up big scores. Fifth-year wideout Lee Evans is aflashy long-ball threat. Marshawn Lynch was one of the league's more productiverunners as a rookie last season, with 1,115 rushing yards. But third-yearquarterback Trent Edwards, who started nine games in 2007, is a careful guy whodoesn't want mistakes to mess up his first full season as the No. 1. IfBuffalo's going to win, it will be with a spirited defense and with specialteams.
No one gave theBills much thought last year. They got off to a slow start, but then theirdefense kicked in. They won six of eight, holding opponents to less than 300yards in five of those victories, and at 7--6 they were poised to make a run atthe playoffs. Three straight losses ended that dream.
Oddly enough, thebulk of their free-agent pickups were on defense—tackles Marcus Stroud of theJaguars and Spencer Johnson of the Vikings, and linebacker Kawika Mitchell fromthe Giants' Super Bowl unit.
Buffalo's 2008first-round draft choice, Leodis McKelvin out of Troy, is a cornerback withgreat skill as a return man. He opened everyone's eyes in the second exhibitiongame, running a kick back 95 yards for a touchdown against the Steelers.Special teams coach Bobby April, who had the league's top punt returner lastyear in Roscoe Parrish and a solid kick returner in Terrence McGee, believesyou can never have enough of them. "Terrence is a regular cornerback,"April says. "He kills himself running back kicks. Having McKelvin is anunbelievable luxury."
The formula couldwork for coach Dick Jauron, himself an old cornerback. It's an old-fashionedway of winning: Control things with the defense and the return game, then topit off with just enough offense. But there must be stability, all the pieces inplace, all players working at the top of their game. And that includes one ofthe most treasured gifts an NFL team can have—a really talented lefttackle.
PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH DICK JAURON (50--67 in NFL), thirdseason with Bills
Darian BARNES --New ACQUISITION
Kawika MITCHELL-- New ACQUISITION
SACKS 3 1/2
SACKS 2 1/2
Marcus STROUD --New ACQUISITION
SACKS 6 1/2
2007 RECORD 7--9NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 15/30/30 DEFENSE 25/29/31
14 at Jacksonville
28 at St. Louis
5 at Arizona
19 SAN DIEGO
26 at Miami
2 N.Y. JETS
9 at New England
17 CLEVELAND (M)
23 at Kansas City
30 SAN FRANCISCO
14 at N.Y. Jets
21 at Denver
28 NEW ENGLAND
NFL Rank: 27
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .449
Games against playoff teams: 5
SI.com's personnel expert Michael Lombardi evaluatesthe Bills' units.
Edwards shows flashes; good backup in J.P. Losman.
Not much beyond Lynch's speed, power; that may be enough.
Talented group could upgrade to A if all reach their potential.
Mystery position: no pass-catching playmakers here.
Peters is an elite player and makes the line very good.
Stroud bulks up the front; great pressure from Schobel.
Small across the board but active, can run and make plays.
Physical but no shutdown corner; need Simpson to play huge.
Excellent kickers, topflight return and coverage squads.
The Bills' defense is built on emotion, and Mitchell,a big free-agent pickup, fits in perfectly. Whipping, driving, barking hiscalls, he was at the heart of a 2007 Giants defense that got stronger as theweather got colder. "We never felt there was any give in us," he saysof his former team. His new one expects the same.
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
December 17, 2007
HE RISES from his chair and walks easily to thekitchen, opens the refrigerator and takes out a drink. Then he walks back. Itis a beautiful thing, to see Everett move, a towering victory hidden inworkaday acts. "I'm so proud, I want to bust out and cry," says hismother. "All you heard was people saying 'catastrophic injury' and 'neverwalk again,' and now just you look at him."
-- Tim Layden
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MARCH ON Lynch can pile up yards, but most wins will come through the D and special teams.
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