PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Five observations on the Buffalo Bills, based on the training camp practices of Aug. 11:
1. If you dusted Drew Bledsoe for fingerprints, you'd have a tough time collecting any kind of individual matches, given the number of coaches who deal with the quarterback. There's head coach Mike Mularkey. Offensive coordinator Tom Clements, a former quarterback himself. And quarterbacks coach Sam Wyche, the former Cincinnati and Tampa Bay head coach, and a mentor who has helped to develop some terrific passers. The point is that the Bills, coming off a miserable offensive season and one in which Bledsoe looked nothing like the guy who had passed for 3,000 yards eight times in his career and for 4,000 yards in three of those years, are doing everything that they can to rehabilitate the career of the 32-year-old starter. Sometimes, you can have too many voices talking to a quarterback, and the message gets lost in translation, but that has not been the case so far in camp. Bledsoe has looked sharp, opening Wednesday night's practice with a long bomb up the left side in which he hit Eric Moulds in stride, and has taken well to the Mularkey offensive blueprint. The coaches want the ball out of his hand quicker and, to help ensure that, have installed a four-second clock on the field. If the ball isn't into the air in four seconds, a horn blares. There has also been considerable vocal reinforcement as well. It is critical to the Bills, who have more than enough talent to vie for a playoff spot, that Bledsoe regain his previous form.
There is very little experience behind him, although first-rounder J.P. Losman is being groomed as the eventual successor, plus Bledsoe is too young and too talented to see his career go in the dumpster at this juncture. Part of the problem is that Bledsoe has always been the classic, seven-step pocket passer and the game has gone away from that. On Wednesday night, there was a variety of play-action, bootleg, and "waggle" plays, all designed to get Bledsoe on the move a bit, and to get the ball out quicker. This is an offense that, in seven of 16 games last season, didn't score a touchdown. There was a midseason stretch in which the Bills didn't score a touchdown in four of five games, including three straight at one point. Much of the blame locally has fallen on Bledsoe, even if the breakdown wasn't all his fault. But he certainly is the biggest part of the solution and he and the Bills need him to author a real bounce-back campaign. The rebound-in-progress is a weighty issue for Bledsoe, who is noticeably thinner and down to the same playing weight he was for his freshman year at Washington State. A thought on Losman, the latter of the team's two first-rounders, and the quarterback of the future: He still has a long way to go but his arm strength is very good and, when he sprinted out on a bootleg Wednesday night, his speed to the edge was exceptional. Plus the guy is a "gym rat" who works his tail off.
2. While the offense is being remade, the Bills don't need many alterations at all on defense, except for finding a way to create some turnovers. Mularkey retained defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, a sage move, and the unit is a nice combination of speed, muscle and overall quickness. This defense certainly earned its No. 2 overall ranking in 2003 and, even with the exit of cornerback Antoine Winfield in free agency, could be even better this season. The unit does a superb job of chasing people down and, in the goal-line session on Wednesday night, dominated the offense. Everything starts inside with the mammoth tandem of tackles Sam Adams and Pat Williams, and then flows to one of the NFL's best and quickest linebacker corps, where all three starters (Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher and Jeff Posey) can run to the ball. Right end Aaron Schobel, coming off a career year in which he posted 11½ sacks, doesn't necessarily look special, but he's got 20 sacks in the last two seasons and has developed nicely. Third-year left end Ryan Denney is an improving player who comes under close scrutiny because he was a second-round draft pick, but is better than people think, although he'll be pushed a bit by Chris Kelsay for the No. 1 job. It remains to be seen if Steelers all-time sacker Jason Gildon can make an impact in the pass-rush game. He hasn't jumped out much in camp yet, but reported in good shape, and the coaches claim they've seen some flashes. Buffalo had 38 sacks in 2003, the ninth-most in the NFL, but had to create sack possibilities with schemes and blitzes. The coaches would like to get more pressure with less blitzing in 2004. What they would like even more, however, is to increase takeaways. Buffalo had a league-low 10 takeaways in 2003, continuing what has been a chronic shortcoming.
The Bills have now gone 43 regular-season games without an interception by a safety. The hope is that, with strong safety Lawyer Milloy in better shape and more knowledgable about a defense he joined on the run last year, and the addition of cornerback Troy Vincent, the takeaways will mount. Like Bledsoe, Milloy has dropped some weight, apparently 12 to 14 pounds, and looks much quicker. Vincent, too, looks like he hasn't lost any speed. From the way the Bills looked in camp, opponents will have a tough time moving the ball. One young player to watch: Third-round defensive tackle Tim Anderson, who isn't flashy but who is a tough plugger, the kind of total-effort player line coach Tim Krumrie loves. Anderson is already a part of the tackle rotation.
3. For several seasons with the New York Giants, offensive line coach Jim "Mouse" McNally was counted on to make chicken salad out of a collection of prospects with chicken-feathers talent levels. The situation isn't quite so bad here, but McNally has to resuscitate a unit, and one player in particular, that slipped last year. So far: Well, the results have been mixed. The key to the line is right tackle Mike Williams, the fourth overall pick in the 2002 draft, but a player who has missed time in camp because of a personal problem and, more recently, a strained arch. Oh, yeah, he also reported at about 400 pounds, after playing at around 375 pounds a year ago. Bills management would like him to be more in the 360-pound range, but that isn't happening anytime soon. Buffalo has way too much time and money invested in Williams to have the former University of Texas star go bust, so somebody had better figure a way to get his head straight. The left tackle, Jonas Jennings, has developed into a far better player than most scouts felt he could be when he was in the 2001 draft. Jennings doesn't have great feet, but they are good enough, and his size is sufficient to engulf people at times. There will be two new starting guards this year, with free-agent acquisition Chris Villarrial taking over on the right side and youngster Mike Pucillo winning the job at left guard. Both are tough, aggressive, in-line blockers who will help create creases for tailback Travis Henry. An injury to Villarrial, not serious, may have helped the Bills uncover a decent prospect in undrafted free agent Lawrence Smith of Tennessee State.
4. Some people around here still like to pretend there is competition for the starting wide receiver spot opposite Moulds. Don't buy it. First-round wideout Lee Evans of Wisconsin has been exceptional, both mentally and physically, so far. He will bump third-year veteran Josh Reed into the slot and, truth be told, the situation is probably best for everybody. Reed struggled mightily at times in '03, when he was elevated into the lineup to supplant the departed Peerless Price, who was traded to Atlanta. Despite starting all 16 games, he had just 79 more yards than in 2002, when he started two games. Reed scored just two times, the same as in his rookie year. Plus his yards per reception dropped by 27 percent. Clearly, his confidence waned as dropped passes mounted. But working out of the slot, flanked by Moulds and Evans, he appears to be in a comfort zone of sorts again. Reed is at his best working the hashes, finding open spaces and adding yards after the catch. He should get the opportunity to do that again in 2004 and the passing game should be better because of it. Evans is simply a very polished guy, not very big, but with big-strike skills.
5. Despite the national headlines that tailback Willis McGahee scored by netting four short-yardage touchdowns in a recent scrimmage against Cleveland, the former Miami Hurricanes star still has some rust to knock off. The suggestions that he might budge Henry from the starting tailback spot? Ignore them for now. Team officials feel that McGahee will be back to the form he exhibited prior to his catastrophic knee injury by around October. Which isn't to say he won't play until then. McGahee will get some "touches" early on, but Henry remains the workhorse of the running game. And even on Wednesday night, there was still some evidence of McGahee rust, notably in a live, goal-line session. McGahee found the off-tackle hole jammed, tried to bounce the play around right end, and was buried in the backfield. The sentiment here is that he is still going to be a big-time back, but that Henry already is at that level. For whatever reason, Henry doesn't get nearly the national props he deserves. But the former Tennessee star, a compact runner with some slashing tendencies, is a heck of a runner.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.