It's Week 5 of the 2008 NFL season, and the Bills have raced off to a 4-0 start, much to the surprise of the eyes of the nation. The team has traveled all the way to Arizona to take on the Cardinals, looking to boost their record to 5-0 and to move full steam ahead in their quest to make the playoffs.
However, early in the game, disaster strikes. On a pass play, for one reason or another, the offensive line collapses, and Trent Edwards finds himself face to face with the ferocious Adrian Wilson. Sure enough, Wilson lays Edwards out. Buffalo's quarterback never regains his early-season form and Buffalo misses the playoffs again.
For the last 10 years, the run game in Buffalo has been somewhat uneventful. The game-changing, breakout runs a la O. J. Simpson, or Thurman Thomas, have become few and far between, and fans have slowly become content with the classic 3-yard gain on first and 10, where the fans of both teams will always applaud.
The performance of the Buffalo Bills' offensive line in 2008 was anything but spectacular. After a solid year in 2007, all five starters on the line returned in hopes of giving young players in the backfield an opportunity to make plays. Unfortunately, this unit was unable to live up to the hype, forcing running back Marshawn Lynch to create his own yards, and giving Trent Edwards little time to find a man downfield.
During the off-season, the Bills released their starting left guard Derrick Dockery and left starting center Melvin Fowler open to free agency. Once the team's only Pro Bowler, left tackle Jason Peters was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in mid-April. It became all too clear that the Bills and offensive line coach Sean Kugler would again have to revamp the offensive line.
In March, the Bills signed Geoff Hangartner, a center who has previously played four seasons with the Carolina Panthers. In addition, the Bills drafted Eric Wood from Louisville as well as Andy Levitre from Oregon State. These two will be lining up at the guard position, with Langston Walker moving from right tackle to left tackle and Brad Butler moving from inside to outside.
None of the players on the Bills' 2009 offensive line will be starting at the same position that they did in 2008. This Buffalo line has a completely new look, and it is easy to suggest that this is a rebuilding year (a phrase that Bills fans have become all too familiar with over the last ten years). However, with the signing of Terrell Owens to just a one-year contract, Bills coaches, players and fans, know that it is necessary to take advantage of his time here. In order to do this, this new offensive line needs to give Trent Edwards enough time to allow Owens and Lee Evans to lose the coverage.
The T.O. signing has many more implications than the obvious one in the passing game. By drawing so much attention to the wide receivers, defenses will no longer be able to put eight men in the box against the Buffalo offense, potentially giving Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson, and new addition Dominic Rhodes opportunities to run wild. Also, with big playmakers outside the former dull offense that has seen the Bills rank towards the bottom of the league in most major categories has an opportunity to become a prolific one. This could allow a talented Buffalo defense the opportunity to rest.
Of course, all of these improvements mean nothing if the new offensive line is not able to protect Trent Edwards and create holes for the Buffalo running backs. This is certainly plausible, as the 2009 offensive line looks to be a major improvement from the line of 2008.
This is much easier said than done, but the Bills have taken advantage of their opportunities this offseason. Knowing they would likely have rookies stepping directly into starting positions (Wood and Levitre), the Bills surrounded them with veterans, signing Hangartner and placing veterans Walker and Butler next to them. This unique dynamic that the Bills have created by alternating experience with youth has the potential to create a line that could be effective today and in the future.
With a completely new and revamped offensive line, fans are justified in being suspicious about how well the unit can come together by opening day. Although we didn't see much of the starting line in the Hall of Fame Game, what we saw wasn't too promising. Buffalo's starters were pushed around and manhandled by the Titans' front five.
Back in the 90's, led by center Kent Hull, the Bills line was one of the strengths of our team. Quarterback Jim Kelly rarely felt flustered in the pocket, and running back Thurman Thomas was able to find enough holes to carve out a Hall of Fame career. For the duration of Buffalo's playoff drought, this has not been the case.
Signified by the bust of Mike Williams, a lineman drafted fourth overall but turned into an overweight nonfactor, the Bills have been long searching for five solid players that can play together with smarts, strength, unity, and heart. Maybe a wholesale change was what the line needed.
It is not for sure, probably even unlikely, that Buffalo's line will become a force to be reckoned with by the start of the season. Chemistry takes a while to develop, and there will be bumps along the way this season. However, what the team had last year clearly didn't work, and what sense does it make to keep something that fails time and time again?
The Bills haven't made the playoffs this century. Fans are getting impatient here in Bills Land. Rebuilding is not the word that they want to hear. However, this past offseason, Buffalo didn't have a choice but to shake up the line.