Practically every offseason conversation about the Buffalo Bills’ offensive line has dealt with newcomers John Miller and Richie Incognito taking most of the starting repetitions at guard, or Seantrel Henderson and Cordy Glenn alternating sides at tackle.
Little, if anything, is mentioned about the center, Eric Wood.
Generally speaking, that’s a good thing. The less said about offensive linemen, the better. When they aren’t noticed, it usually means they’re performing well or, in this case, they’re not an area of concern within a unit that raised plenty of concerns throughout the 2014 season.
Wood hasn’t necessarily become a forgotten man, but nor is he being taken for granted for not giving the coaching staff a reason to worry. In fact, just the other day, coach Rex Ryan gave him some lofty praise when he compared him to Nick Mangold, the six-time Pro Bowl center he had the previous six seasons with the New York Jets.
“I think Wood is right there with the top centers in the league,” Ryan said. “I was blessed with the Jets to be around a great one, and he’s very similar to that.”
When told of Ryan’s remarks after a recent OTA practice, Wood said, “That’s a great compliment, I appreciate that. Things are going well.”
That wasn’t always the case last season, and Wood is the first to acknowledge as much.
The Bills’ offense was mostly inadequate, although much of that stemmed from quarterback play that ranged from poor when EJ Manuel started the first four games to mediocre when Kyle Orton took his place for the balance of the year.
For the first time since 1979, the Bills failed to produce a 100-yard rusher, and while none of their running backs did a whole lot to help the cause, the interior of the offensive line often came up woefully short.
That wasn’t all Wood’s fault. Some of it, and perhaps most of it, was due to substandard play at both guard positions. On the left side, Chris Williams struggled for the better part of three games before suffering a season-ending back injury. Rookie Cyril Richardson was a disaster in his place for the next four games before giving way to Kraig Urbik, who didn’t provide dramatic improvement but was the best answer the Bills had through the final nine weeks of the schedule.
Erik Pears started all 16 games on the right side, and his performance left plenty to be desired. The Bills made him a free-agency castoff, and he wound up with the San Francisco 49ers.
Wood, who is entering his seventh NFL season since joining the Bills as a first-round draft pick from Louisville, doesn’t make excuses for what happened last season. He also doesn’t dwell on what went wrong beyond saying, “We weren’t extremely effective at all times last year.”
His focus is on the present, on adapting to all of the changes that began with the departure of previous coach Doug Marrone and the arrival of Ryan. Wood is part of a new offense that faces a new defense in practice. He has new linemates and sees healthy competition throughout his position group. Wood is exhilarated and feeling optimistic about what’s ahead.
“I’m enjoying learning this offense,” he said. “There are a lot of nuances and it’s a challenge for me daily to identify Rex’s and Dennis” Thurman’s “complex defense. But it’s refreshing. It’s fresh, it’s fun, and we’re working each day.
“There are a lot of moving parts. And we’ve talked about this in preparation for the Jets each year the past however many years we’ve gone against Rex’s defense. There’s multiple looks. With our defense, there are tremendous players across the board. Where you’d like to maybe slide a protection, you think, ‘Well, we’re sliding away from Mario Williams now, so now we’ve got to go the other way. OK, Jerry Hughes is over there. Now, what do we do?’
“It’s created a lot of turmoil at times, but it’s been fun trying to prepare each day for them.”
Wood is finding particular joy working in the creative run scheme of new offensive coordinator Greg Roman. The Bills are expected to do what the San Francisco 49ers did with Roman serving as their offensive coordinator the past four seasons: use a multitude of running plays that will keep the defense guessing.
Roman learned the basics of the approach while studying videotape of the late Niners coach, Bill Walsh, presiding over meetings during which he taught the offense to his players.
“I love the variety of it,” Wood said. “And I’ll just reference San Francisco’s offense from the past. Not necessarily saying how we’re going to be different, but in the past, watching them on film, it appeared that on one play they’re pitching the ball outside, on the next play they have a trap inside, and then they might run a power play, which keeps the defense on their heels.
“At times it seems like the O-line’s trying to play finesse ball and kind of just reach you and scoop you off. And at other times, they’re really trying to knock you off the ball. And for a defense, that’s tough to prepare for and that keeps us on the attack as opposed to trying to beat our head against the wall, doing the same thing over and over and be really good at one thing. We’re trying to be really good at a lot of things. And I think that can be really beneficial.”
The coaches have been happy with what they’ve seen from Wood to date. Keeping up with all of those pre-snap adjustments by the defense is a mental challenge that Wood seems to be winning through a majority of practices.
“I think it starts with intelligence, especially with offensive line,” Ryan said. “You have to be sharp and also” center is “part of a play-calling position. He can do that and obviously from a physical standpoint, you have to have a guy that can handle that type of heavy lifting. He’s really an ideal center.”
It helps that Wood has had Incognito working at left guard and Miller, a rookie from his alma mater, working at right guard through the bulk of OTAs. By all indications, that pairing will stay the same through the mandatory minicamp that runs Tuesday through Thursday.
Still, Wood isn’t counting on that stability to hold up in training camp.
“We haven’t mixed up the lineup a whole lot, but I’d expect there’d be a lot of competition moving forward,” he said. “No lineup’s set in stone yet, and that’s good. That’ll bring out the best in all of us and I know all the twos are working to get in with the ones and that’ll provide a lot of competition.
“I think John’s doing a great job for us, and the best thing he’s doing is just getting better each day, working, doing exactly what he’s coached and he plays hard and it’s easy to work with a guy like that, playing next to him, and I know the coaches are happy with that, too,” he said. “But without the pads on, it’s tough to judge an offensive line. Assignment-wise, feet and hands, you can judge right now, but there are a lot of guys that go one way or another once you put the pads on. I’m anxious to see how that goes.”
Wood isn’t excluding himself from that observation. Just because of Ryan’s compliment and the generally smooth transition to a new offense, he isn’t assuming he has locked up anything, including the starting job at center.
Although there doesn’t seem to be even the remotest chance of the Bills going in a different direction, Wood is acting as if he has every bit as much to prove as Miller and every other offensive lineman on the roster.
“I’m constantly trying to get better,” he said. “I’m a very hard critic on myself and learning the new scheme, going against a different defense, I’ve had my rough days out here and it hasn’t been all perfect. And Urbik’s been at two center and he looks good. Never for a second am I thinking, ‘Well, I’ve got this locked down. I need to help somebody else out more.’ I’m focusing on myself, my technique and constantly striving to get better.”
New offensive line coach Aaron Kromer is doing his part to make that happen. So far, Wood has been highly impressed with the guidance he has provided and his no-nonsense, straightforward coaching style.
“He brings a lot of knowledge with him,” Wood said. “He’s been around for a while, he’s a former offensive coordinator” with the Chicago Bears the past two seasons. “He knows exactly what he wants and teaches us to do that, and that’s helped us learn this scheme and do what the coaches ask us to do.
“And moving forward, we’re just going to keep developing, keep putting new techniques in, give us more tools to work with and I think we’ll have a great year.”
If so, that should mean far less of the wrong kind of attention for the offensive line.