THE T.O. SHOW,Terrell Owens's VH1 vanity project, failed to set any Nielsen records thissummer, but the ratings that really mattered started strong and remained so. OnAug. 5, even with training camp well into its second week, the sellout crowdattending a 7 p.m. practice at St. John Fisher College was gripped by acommunal paroxysm more befitting Twilight groupies than Bills fans when theirnewest hero, wearing his favored Lycra tights with his fourth NFL team, lopedonto the field (at 7:04, it should be noted). His teammates spent the preseasonsimilarly, if more warily, enthused.
"He's alwayshad a reputation that's followed him, and so far I haven't seen it—he's been asintegrated as could be," said tackle Langston Walker.
"He makes itlook so effortless to get open," said quarterback Trent Edwards.
"He's drivenby wanting to win, and to be successful at his craft, and he has brought a verypositive energy to this city," said player personnel chief John Guy.
Owens, whomBuffalo signed to a one-year, $6.5 million free-agent deal after the Cowboysreleased him on March 4, gives his new team one of the more dangerous sets ofskill players in the league. The Bills will be one of three teams, along withthe Falcons and the Packers, with two receivers (Owens and Lee Evans) who eachgained 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 onthe ground. To capitalize on that firepower, coach Dick Jauron and offensivecoordinator Turk Schonert have installed a diversified scheme that will includethe Wildcat and the no-huddle. "Our coach is a big defensive guy," saysEdwards, "so he knows that what keeps defenses off-balance is anattack-style offense."
It will be Edwardswho'll be kept off-balance and under attack unless his line can hold itsground, an issue that constitutes Buffalo's most pressing concern. In April theBills traded disgruntled Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters—the anchor on theline and arguably the team's best player—to the Eagles, leaving Buffalo with anew starter at every position on the front five. Walker, last year's righttackle, will try to fill the gaping void at left tackle; last year's rightguard, Brad Butler, will replace Walker; and the line's middle will consist offree-agent center Geoff Hangartner, late of Carolina, and a pair of rookieguards in first-rounder Eric Wood (a center at Louisville) and second-rounderAndy Levitre (a tackle at Oregon State).
While the playersand 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 workingtheir asses off to teach us technique," says Walker. But it's generallypreferable for players to have more or less mastered the intricacies of theirpositions when the regular season is mere weeks away.
The line'slearning curve will have to be steep, as the Bills will face a stiff Week 1test when they play the Patriots in Foxborough. A poor performance by the linethere and in the weeks that follow could breed frustration among talented skillplayers who find themselves unable to deploy those skills. Few NFL players haveever proved to be as prone to frustration as the breakfast-cereal-endorsing,popcorn-popping new face of the franchise. In this case, though, the problemmight not be that the quarterback isn't throwing the ball to Owens as much asthe receiver would like; it might be that the quarterback can't throw the ballto 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—asbig, perhaps, as the 1,602 pounds of starting offensive line on whose shouldersthe Bills' season rests.
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
57--76 in NFL, fourth season with Bills
Eric WOOD (R)
Fred Jackson (130att., 571 yards; 37 rec., 317 yards; 3 TTDs) will fill in at RB while Lynchserves a three-game league suspension.
DE Ryan Denney, ina backup role, tied Mitchell for the team lead with 4 sacks; 11-game starter KoSimpson (64 tackles) moves to nickel safety.
(R) Rookie:College statistics TTD: Total touchdowns
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2008 RECORD 7-9
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 14 > 22 > 25
DEFENSE 22 > 13 > 14
14 at New England (M)
20 TAMPA BAY
27 NEW ORLEANS
4 at Miami
18 at N.Y. Jets
25 at Carolina
15 at Tennessee
22 at Jacksonville
3 N.Y. JETS (T)*
13 at Kansas City
20 NEW ENGLAND
27 at Atlanta
(M) Monday (T) Thursday
* in Toronto
NFL Rank: 6
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .570
Games against playoff teams: 6
After having one of the easiest schedules in '08, the Bills face only threeteams coming off sub-.500 seasons: Cleveland, Jacksonville and Kansas City.While all eyes are on T.O., the Bills' D will be tested by five of the 10best-scoring teams and five of the top 10 rushing attacks. Buffalo's got totake advantage of early home opportunities, because the last three aredaunting.
Demetrius Bell, Tackle
SO MUCH about Bell reminds you of him: the barrelchest, the heavy-lidded eyes, the shoulders that seem a yard wide. But Bell isthe son of NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone by biology alone. Malone has fatheredthree children out of wedlock—the others are WNBA star Cheryl Ford and her twinbrother, Daryl—but Bell is the only one of them with whom Malone has norelationship and whom he has not publicly acknowledged. "I think about itsometimes," says Bell, 25. "Then I go on with my day."
For the 6'5", 307-pound Bell, those days includetireless weight-room work—he bench-pressed 225 pounds just nine times at thecombine in 2008 but says he can now do 25 reps at that weight—and a continuingeducation in a game he's played for just five years, since the football coachesat Northwestern State got a look at the basketball team's long-armed, nimblepower forward and suggested he might want to give their sport a try. Belldidn't play a snap as a rookie after Buffalo drafted him as a seventh-roundproject last year, but he should see time this season at both tackle spots onthe remade line. "He's light-years ahead of where he was last season,"says offensive line coach Sean Kugler.
For Malone, Bell says, "I do have questions, butthat's down the line. Right now, I have my own story to write."
SCOTT BOEHM/GETTY IMAGES
STAMPEDE Owens brings explosiveness, but any hope for progress rests with the O-line.