Commentary

Bills' offense goes back to basics

Originally Published: August 4, 2010
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

JacksonKevin Hoffman/US PresswireDefenses still haven't figured out how to deal with running back Fred Jackson's deceiving speed.

PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- At least this season the Buffalo Bills decided to huddle on an offensive plan.

The Bills entered training camp last season with a plan not to huddle their 11 offensive starters during a practice or a game. "No-huddle" left "no job security" for coach Dick Jauron and offensive coordinator Turk Schonert, who was fired before the season opener. At least Chan Gailey, the team's new coach, comes to Buffalo with a solid plan on how to rebuild the offense.

Gailey has the Bills going back to basics, which can't be all bad. The Bills spent more time than most working on basic, smashmouth running and blocking drills. In a league of finesse passing, Gailey wants the Bills to go old school.

Unfortunately for Gailey and Bills fans, there aren't enough teacher's pets or star students to offer hope of great offensive production. A team that needed help at quarterback, offensive tackle and wide receiver used its top-10 draft pick on a running back (C.J. Spiller), a position that wasn't in bad shape with Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch on the roster.

Gailey really doesn't know what type of offense will emerge from the hard hitting and good work by his players this summer. He'll take each day and evaluate which plays work and which plays don't.

In the week before the opener, he'll huddle with his coaching staff and make a plan. Whatever comes out of that will be sounder than last year's fling.

Here are the three key observations from Bills camp.

1. Sometimes you wonder if Lee Evans will ever catch a break. He's like Steve Smith, the Carolina Panthers' standout receiver, but hasn't had much luck. The Bills' personnel department has searched long and far to find receiving threats on the other side of the field to pull double coverage away from Evans. Smith has survived because coach John Fox usually has a solid running game and a good defense, plus he had Jake Delhomme as his quarterback until this year. For Evans, each season is like a raft trip down Niagara Falls.

The three coaches before Gailey thought Roscoe Parrish could draw some coverage away from Evans. Those coaches never threw to him. Last year, Terrell Owens was supposed to be the answer. Unfortunately, the offensive line was so bad that the quarterbacks never had time to get him the ball. Evans comes to this camp with perhaps his least-talented group of complementary receivers. Steve Johnson is competing against James Hardy for the starting job. Hardy, a former second-round pick, is tall but gets little separation from defenders. Johnson is a good special-teams player, but the former seventh-round pick isn't a real imposing athlete.

The lack of wide receiver talent would turn most teams to two-tight-end sets, but that's a problem too. Shawn Nelson is a young tight end with promise who could stretch the field, but there are questions about his durability.

The only luck for Evans on the horizon is the possibility of the Bills' drafting quarterback Andrew Luck of Stanford if the season falls apart.

2. The one thing the Bills should be able to do is run the ball in the middle of the field. The interior trio of guards Andy Levitre and Eric Wood and center Geoff Hangartner isn't bad. Jackson is the starting running back, and defenses still haven't picked up on his deceiving speed. He appears to be running a lot slower than he moves, causing defenders to miss him and take bad angles. He has an uncanny ability to bounce runs to the outside for gains.

Lynch runs hard, but you wonder how long he'll run in a Bills uniform once Spiller gets to camp. Over the years, the Bills found out Lynch wasn't as good a receiving threat as they had hoped and his off-the-field incidents have dropped his trade value. Any team calling with a fourth-round choice could grab him, but that's not a priority for the Bills right now. Gailey could keep Lynch for the entire season because running the ball is probably the best the Bills can do on offense.

Gailey is testing an interesting theory: Because more than three-quarters of the league has gone to spread passing sets, defenses aren't used to preparing for smashmouth running teams. He believes that's why the Jets sneaked up on everyone last year and went to the AFC Championship Game.

Figure Trent Edwards to be the starting quarterback, but the tackle situation is so bad, insurance rates would rise if Edwards even thinks of using seven-step drops. Edwards, Brian Brohm and Ryan Fitzpatrick will be restricted to a short passing attack when they throw.

As for the offensive line, the team is cursed at tackle. The only addition was aging Cornell Green at tackle. The biggest commitment in the draft was fifth-round pick Ed Wang, but Gailey said Monday he may need an operation that could sideline him.

3. After failing to beat the 3-4 defenses in the AFC East, the Bills decided to join them by going to a 3-4. The early transition looks shaky. The first casualty was former Pro Bowl defensive end Aaron Schobel. Considered one of team's best defensive players for years, Schobel waffled about retiring for so long that general manager Buddy Nix decided to cut ties with him.

Forget about 2009 first-round pick Aaron Maybin replacing him. He's too light to be a pass-rushing 3-4 linebacker, so the plan for him is to be a third-down pass-rusher.

It's hard to say how the rest of the adjustments are going. Veteran defensive tackle Marcus Stroud looks a little out of place as a 3-4 defensive end. Kyle Williams was probably the Bills' best defensive lineman last season, but he has to handle the nose tackle position. Second-round choice Torrell Troup may be the nose tackle of the future, but he's a little raw. Chris Kelsay and Chris Ellis have to move from defensive end to outside linebacker, but they do have the big bodies to fit the position.

The best thing about the defense is the secondary. The Bills are six deep at cornerback and solid at safety with Jairus Byrd, Donte Whitner, Bryan Scott and George Wilson.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer