PITTSFORD – By now, you know the Bills' stretch of futility. They have missed the playoffs in 14 straight seasons. They haven't won a playoff game since 1995, when they beat a Dolphins team coached by Don Shula. Buffalo has the longest current streak without reaching the postseason.
Here's another startling fact: The Bills also haven't reached the postseason since they moved training camp at St. John Fisher College. They've had only one winning season since leaving Fredonia in 1999, finishing with a 9-7 record in 2004 but missing the playoffs under first-year coach Mike Mularkey.
Remember 2004? It was the year J.P. Losman arrived.
The Bills opened their 15th training camp at St. John Fisher on Sunday evening with the same high hopes that they had in their first. You would think that Marcell Dareus, of all people, would be eager to put the offseason behind him after his arrests for possession of synthetic marijuana and street racing.
Instead, the season had an inauspicious beginning. Dareus reported so out of shape that the Bills didn't even allow him on the field. You have to believe he's nearing the end of the line with the Bills' hierarchy. They're desperate to win given the uncertain ownership situation after the passing of Ralph Wilson.
Dareus already is facing a likely suspension. If he's doesn't take his career seriously enough to show up in proper condition, you have to believe his days are numbered with the Bills. He's already created enough distractions. They didn't need another on the first day.
Otherwise, Sunday evening was like many camp openers over the years. With this time of year comes a renewed but often unrealistic sense of optimism. Coach Doug Marrone reached into the bag of standard answers and reiterated how a new season is a fresh start for every team in the league.
“That's what's great about this game,” Marrone said. “Everyone is going into camp. Everyone is excited. Everybody is fresh. We've done some things as a team with meetings and a walk-through today. We have to keep that enthusiasm. Obviously, that's something we can control.”
Buffalo's playoff drought, the longest in the NFL by three years, almost defies the odds. The NFL, by design, is a cyclical league. Different teams fall back and forward every season. The Bills have stayed near the bottom. For many who have been around all along, it has grown old and tiresome and repetitive.
The law of averages is bound to take over at some point. An optimist would suggest this is the year the Bills finally play well enough and have enough things go their way to challenge the Patriots in the AFC East. But here we are again, not quite sure what to make of this team.
It has become shallow and redundant to say the culture has changed, rhetoric that began when Chan Gailey was still the coach. There may have been a shift in attitude, but that didn't translate to an improvement on the field. The results have looked mostly the same for years.
Sure, the Bills showed signs of growth under Marrone. Perhaps they were only a handful of plays from turning their 6-10 record into a 10-6 mark. In the end, however, they had a losing record for the ninth consecutive season and fifth straight year with six or fewer victories.
So what changed since last season? A few things, actually.
Marrone's direct approach appeared to take hold last season. He didn't turn around the franchise in one year, but he also didn't make the kind of moronic in-game decisions you saw from the men who preceded him. It was a hint of progress, anyway. And now the Bills know what to expect from him.
“Last year, I didn't know a lot of players, honestly,” Marrone said. “This year, we have a background with the players. They've done a good job. Our weight coaches have done a good job. We're stronger and faster than we've been. I like where we are from a talent standpoint. Now, we have to go out there and execute.”
So what's the magic number?
It has been years since I expected to win more than six games, but eight wins for this team seems within reach. If you were to put a gun to my head – and the line starts around the corner – and insist on a prediction, I'd go with nine. If enough things fall into place, they could win 10.
My advice, as always, is to proceed with caution. The Bills already have several variables working against them. Kiko Alonso is sidelined for the year. The Dareus situation becomes more troubling by the day. Enough already with Dareus, who needs to get his act together or catch the first train out of town.
Aaron Williams needs to prove he's a capable safety after taking over for departed star Jairus Byrd. You never know for sure where Mario Williams' head will be once the season gets started. Kyle Williams needs to stay healthy. And there's no telling how the defense will come together under new coordinator Jim Schwartz.
But we've been down this road.
It almost always comes back to the quarterback. EJ Manuel may be entering his second season, but he's about halfway through his rookie year in terms of experience. His familiarity with the offense and his teammates should help. His teammates have talked about him taking more command and emerging as a leader.
The Bills' have surrounded him with more talent than he had last season. Doug Whaley & Co. have staked their jobs on Manuel. If he doesn't make considerable strides over last season, the men betting on him could be headed for the exit. There's no denying their need to win this season.
Manuel should have every opportunity to succeed. The Bills traded up to get Sammy Watkins in the draft. They signed Mike Williams, a true talent if he can stay out of trouble. Manuel developed chemistry with Robert Woods, who had a promising rookie year and should be productive with more talent around him.
“I'm excited,” Marrone said. Manuel “looks good. He looks confident. Obviously, it's a better situation. Last year, you're explaining what the offense is and not really the ins and outs of things. Now, you're explaining the ins and outs, not just with EJ but with a lot of guys on the team who were already in place.”
C.J. Spiller is one of the NFL's most dynamic backs when healthy. Fred Jackson is reliable and still dangerous. The Bills beefed up their offensive line in the draft, which should make them deeper and more effective. Almost every move they made on offense was designed to help their young quarterback.
Finally, they appear to have enough talent to win.
It's not going to matter until Manuel starts beating teams down the field. Last season, only 28 of his 180 completions were 20 yards or longer. And that's misleading. Many were short passes that receivers turned into big gains after the catch. He had just 6.4 yards per attempt, tied for 30th in the NFL among passers with more than 200 attempts.
Manuel didn't strike fear into opposing defenses, but he can make dramatic improvements. His arm is plenty strong. He's big and mobile. He's certain to get better once the game slows down in his head. But if I'm not mistaken, didn't we say the same things about Losman?
A new season started Sunday at St. John Fisher. We'll see where it ends.
“Expectations in regards to where we're going to be at the end of the year?” Marrone said. “Obviously, our goal is to be in the playoffs.”