THERE WAS fresh optimism this summer at St. John Fisher College, the site of the Bills' training camp. It was based on the belief that the 2013 team will look nothing like the '12 version. "I expect our offense to be explosive," says top receiver Stevie Johnson, "not as stagnant as we were in the past."
The organization remade itself this off-season with a new G.M., new coach, new offense—and a new quarterback.
Eight seasons without a winning record meant overhauling the most important position on the field. Ryan Fitzpatrick started 53 games for Buffalo from 2009 through '12, but Bills brass cut the signal-caller in March, releasing him with five years left on the six-year, $59 million extension ($24 million of it guaranteed) he signed two years ago. The team started over with a two-part plan: They signed veteran free agent Kevin Kolb to a two-year, $6.1 million contract with playing-time incentives and selected strong-armed, versatile EJ Manuel (Florida State) with the 16th pick in April's draft. Then they let the two QBs compete.
Many of the pieces are in place for a turnaround. On defense the Bills are installing a new look under former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who wants to run the multiple-front attacking scheme he learned under New York coach Rex Ryan. That complex package of blitzes will put pressure on a secondary that has one shutdown corner, Stephon Gilmore (when he returns from a hand injury), but also a lot of other, lesser players who will have to learn quickly.
On offense Johnson has surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in each of the past three seasons, and fourth-year veteran C.J. Spiller has become one of the league's most explosive running backs, averaging 6.0 yards per carry in 2012 and establishing himself as an elite weapon in the passing game as well as on the ground. The Bills also drafted a pair of receivers in the second and third rounds, and both look ready to contribute: Robert Woods from USC and speedster Marquise Goodwin from Texas.
But Buffalo's future hinges on a quarterback capable of running new coach Doug Marrone's up-tempo offense. With Manuel running the show—and he almost certainly will once he recovers from a preseason knee injury—there are numerous possibilities: some spread to leverage the team's depth at wide receiver and Spiller's dual-threat excellence in space, perhaps even some read-option to take advantage of Manuel's size (6' 5", 240 pounds) and dexterity. Manuel impressed the coaching staff with his deep, steady throws and his coolly executed two-minute drive at the end of the first half of Buffalo's first preseason game, on Aug. 11, a 44--20 win over Indianapolis. Manuel led the offense 92 yards to a touchdown, completing all nine of his passes on the drive, including a 17-yard scoring strike over the middle to tight end Dorin Dickerson.
As in any fast-paced offense, there is a premium on decision-making, and Johnson sees the necessary attributes in Manuel, whom he notes has done well at calling audibles, reading coverages and directing teammates. "We are going so fast, and pieces are all over the place, so if you have a guy back there like, 'I'm a rookie; I don't know,' it's not going to work," says Johnson. "[EJ has] taken over that role as the communicator, and I'm happy to see that from him."
But how long before Marrone can use Manuel in a regular-season game? That remains up in the air. Either way, the Bills' offense will enter the season still a work in progress. The first-team offense has missed important preseason reps with both Manuel and Kolb, who missed the first exhibition game after tweaking his knee and left the third with a serious concussion.
You have to rewind 13 years to find the last Bills offense that ranked among the NFL's top 10. Last season's group was in the bottom half of the league in most categories: 21.5 points and 342.9 yards per game; a total of seven pass plays of 40 yards or more.
"Playoffs, a winning season—that's what's riding on this," says Johnson. "We need that leader, that quarterback leader. We can't go anywhere if our head is cut off."
They're going somewhere—maybe not to the playoffs, maybe not this year. But at least the direction is forward.
THE CASE FOR ...
Running back C.J. Spiller
Only two starting backs averaged six or more yards per carry last season. One was MVP Adrian Peterson. The other was Spiller, who has shared the Bills' backfield with Fred Jackson since being drafted in the first round in 2010 and who had his most productive pro season (1,703 all-purpose yards on 250 total touches) after Jackson went down with a right-knee injury last fall. Spiller's spotty use by former coach Chan Gailey was a seasonlong story line in '12, but new coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has already made it clear that he will give Spiller the ball "until he throws up." Spiller's explosiveness and versatility fit the up-tempo system that Hackett and coach Doug Marrone brought to Buffalo, and a strong ground game is an important security blanket for a team breaking in a new quarterback. Jackson will still have a role in the backfield, but he'll likely transition into Spiller's complement. In '12, Spiller was the NFL's eighth-leading rusher, despite his part-time deployment; the seven backs who ranked ahead of him had anywhere from 78 to 144 more carries. If the Bills follow their plan to feed him, his totals from last season could end up being just a starting point.
SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE
(R) ROOKIE— COLLEGE STATS
QB EJ MANUEL