Must be infectious. Throughout the Buffalo sports scene is a newfound affinity for toughness. Just off the Elm Street exit, the Sabres drafted the toughest player in the NHL Draft and signed a gritty defenseman in free agency. In Orchard Park, the Bills finally beefed up the lines in the draft.
No, both teams didn't publicly declare a culture change. That'd hint at rebuilding. Which, you know, doesn't exactly sell tickets. But actions speak loud enough. Clearly, Russ Brandon is sick of watching the Bills get bullied around. Even as the team's marketing wiz, he had to see the carnage.
Year after year — whoever was calling the shots in house — Buffalo teased its fan base. A cannonball signing or "I know him!" draft choice replaced disciplined team-building. There was Drew Bledsoe unveiling the new uniforms to the backdrop of the Big Bad Voodoo Daddies. Ugh. And there was J.P. Losman rocking the flashbacks at the Celebration of Championships, with Jim Kelly conveniently standing in his shadow. Double ugh. C-rate players were expected to fill the gaps in the trenches.
Since bombing on Mike Williams in 2002, the Bills haven't drafted an offensive lineman higher than the fourth round.
Until this year. Eric Wood and Andy Levitre should provide long-term stability at guard with free agent center Geoff Hangartner raising the I.Q. level at center. Trend or coincidence? Cross your fingers for trend. Climbing out of this division dungeon will take time. This isn't the AFC West where coaches can come in, run their franchise quarterback out of town and still have a great chance to win the division. All three of Buffalo's division foes are loaded for the future. So while Terrell Owens will sell plenty of jerseys along this one-year joy ride, he is not the long-term missing piece.
At the time of the T.O. signing, it appeared like management was still stuck in one-player-away delusion. You know, D.C. North. Yet again, it looked like this franchise simply didn't understand that PR stunts don't win championships. Here's thinking Brandon has not prescribed to Dan Snyder team-killing.
Contrary to the T.O. splash, Buffalo's boss isn't into instant gratification.
The progress reports on Wood and Levitre are squeaky clean. Both rotated into the first-string offense at minicamp and OTAs and both ooze with grit — unlike the sluggish Duke Preston and Derrick Dockery. Buffalo's offensive line coach, Sean Kugler, said he wouldn't hesitate starting both rookies on opening day. Clearly, they're grasping the scheme rapidly. A great sign considering they must make decisive pre-snap decisions against those confusing 3-4 fronts.
"Both are competing for starting positions," Kugler told the team website. "Both are doing an excellent job and they're good in the classroom and workers on the field. Their production has shown up in the team work. Everything we've asked of them they've done so far and I expect that to continue."
This isn't flowery, kumbaya nonsense. Buffalo is changing protocol. Out are the fun, salary cap-disaster signings. In are conservative, cost-efficient decisions with a vision. Successive drafts chockfull of hardnosed, run-through-a-brick-wall players is what will ultimately resurrect this team. The skill positions players will naturally evolve.
Take off those T.O. blinders for one second. Buffalo is — ready for this? — heading in the right direction. Slowly but surely.
Tyler Dunne is the Publisher of BuffaloFootballReport.com and also writes for the Buffalo News, Olean Times Herald and Packer Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.