They don't know him, he doesn't know them.
Reputation is all Buffalo Bills offensive linemen have to go on in sizing up Tom Bresnahan, their new position coach.
And it is all Bresnahan has to go on in assessing them -- at least until July 17, when training camp opens at Fredonia State College.
The players are understandably less comfortable with the situation. The one thing they have heard about Bresnahan is that his coaching style is more aggressive than what they're used to, that he won't hesitate to apply a verbal blow torch to any butt he thinks is moving too slowly.
The players, particularly the veterans in the group, are also aware that unlike his predecessor, Jim Ringo, their track record with Bresnahan is zilch.
Bresnahan considers that an advantage -- for him and the Bills.
"There are no preconceived notions on my part," he said recently. "As far as I'm concerned, any one of the offensive linemen we have can be a starter. I have a lot of respect for what the guys did last year, but I'm going in without any real knowledge of it. I don't have natural feelings for them the way a guy would after he's worked with people for, say, three years.
"I'm coming in cold, and I'm going to be as objective as any line coach could be."
Tough. Direct. No sugar-coating.
That is how the 54-year-old Bresnahan has always done it as an offensive line coach. It was the way he did it at Williams College (1963-68), Columbia (1968-73) and Navy (1973-80). It was the way he did it with the Kansas City Chiefs (1981-82), New York Giants (1983-84) and St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals (1986-1988).
How will it play in Buffalo?
"It's going to be a challenge; it's going to be different," said Joe Devlin, the Bills' starting right tackle since 1977. "But I've been through many coaches in my career."
"I bring a lot of enthusiasm for the game and, I think, quite a bit of coaching experience," Bresnahan said. "And my background is in the area that Marv's looking for."
Marv Levy, the Bills' head coach, wants his offensive line to block with much more power than finesse. He
saw that power at times last season -- especially during the stretch from Week Six to Week Twelve, when the Bills rushed for an average of 177 yards per game -- but not nearly enough. The failure to develop a consistently powerful rushing attack has frustrated Levy since he arrived in Buffalo in 1986.
Bresnahan, who worked for Levy in Kansas City, doesn't coach the kind of blocking designed to confuse opponents. He coaches the kind that is supposed to punish them. "Wear 'em out so that, in the fourth quarter, hopefully they're more tired than you when they have to pass-rush to try and win a game," he said.
In Bresnahan's eyes, the offensive line consists of a center and four tackles.
"The old idea of the great, pulling guard -- at least in this approach to run-offense -- is not necessary," he said. "This calls for the ability to knock guys off the ball straight ahead. We're not going to totally not pull. But when we do, it's going to be pretty much straight forward. There's not a lot of pulling and searching for people to block, which is the hardest thing of all to do."
The Bills' offensive linemen had their first full exposure to Bresnahan's philosophy at minicamp earlier this month. Because the practices were without pads, they didn't really get to execute it. But they did see plenty of it on the chalkboard.
"It's more simplistic," left tackle Will Wolford said. "But there's no confusion up front anymore. There are not a whole lot of calls you have to make, and, as a tackle, you know you're going to block the same man pretty much every down."
Three starters will stay put
For the time being, four of the five offensive-line starters in the AFC Championship against Cincinnati continue to start (Dale Hellestrae, who replaced injured Tim Vogler at right guard, has since joined the Los Angeles Raiders).
Three are certain to remain at the same position -- Wolford, left guard Jim Ritcher and Pro Bowl center Kent Hull. There's a chance Devlin will be moved to right guard on an experimental basis, leaving his old spot up for grabs.
Bresnahan isn't optimistic about having Vogler, who is recovering from major knee surgery he underwent last December, healthy in time for the start of the 1989 season.
"Tim feels he's going to be ready to play," Bresnahan said. "But the last time I saw him (in minicamp), he had yet to do anything other than put weight on the leg and walk. And, to my knowledge, he hadn't begun any real physical redevelopment of the leg itself other than the basic rehabilitation stuff that any injured person would do."
Ballard, Strenger may step in
The key to whether Devlin is moved to right guard permanently has less to do with how he performs at the position than with the performance of his replacement at right tackle.
The leading candidates are 6-foot-6, 300-pound Howard Ballard, Devlin's backup last season, and 6-7, 285-pound Rich Strenger, who spent all of 1988 on the Bills' injured-reserve list recovering from knee surgery he underwent while with the Detroit Lions.
Listening to Bresnahan, one gets the idea Strenger has the edge because of his experience -- he spent five seasons with Detroit, as opposed to Ballard, who is entering his second year in the NFL and needs to refine his pass-protection skills.
"I really like Rich," the coach said. "I've looked at his Detroit film, and I liked what I saw. Here's an experienced starting veteran in this league who is a really intense competitor. He looks to me to be a good enough athlete to play for just about anybody."
Meanwhile, the Bills spent quite a bit of money last March to acquire a pair of big, second-year offensive linemen left unprotected by their teams -- 6-3, 300-pound Caesar Rentie from the Chicago Bears and 6-4, 304-pound John Davis from the Houston Oilers.
"Caesar has outstanding athletic ability," Bresnahan said. "He's a 300-pound human being who's as solid as a rock and can move. He's as quick as a cat and extremely intense. But he's also green. There's a lot for him to learn. How he will fit into our program depends on how fast he develops.
"Davis is a huge man to begin with. And he looks to be a nasty football player. He has experience playing every position on the line, and is a long-snapper, too. Whether or not he has enough athletic ability remains to be seen."
Burton faces final chance
Bresnahan sees this as a put-up-or-shut-up training camp for Leonard Burton, entering his fourth season on the Bills' line. Although he played center at the University of South Carolina, Burton has spent the bulk of his NFL career at tackle, where he has made seven starts.
This summer, Bresnahan is going to have him work at center (he would like to have Burton emerge as a solid backup, where the Bills have no depth) and guard.
"Leonard's been a guy who they've had high hopes for here for two or three years," the coach said. "He's had opportunities to play, and has not, up to this time, taken the bull by the horns and grabbed hold of an opportunity. My idea is to give him a shot to play center and guard and see what happens from there."
Two other challengers for backup and/or starting offensive line spots are Tony Brown, who spent all of last year on the injured-reserve list, and Mitch Frerotte, who was cut late in camp last summer and re-signed during the off-season. Bresnahan has been impressed with the little film he has seen of each.
"There ought to be a helluva battle on that line," he said. "I'm looking forward to this camp about as much as I've ever looked forward to one."
Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett has been named the recipient of the 1988 Sington Trophy, honoring him as Alabama's outstanding sportsman of the year.
The trophy will be officially presented to Bennett at a banquet tonight in Birmingham. Defensive coordinator Walt Corey will attend as the Bills' representative.
The honor is one of many Bennett has received for his contributions to the Bills' 12-4 season.