Virtually the entire roster was on hand last Thursday for the Bills' final “voluntary” spring workout. Still, it was hard to find a fond, familiar face, one of the guys I'd customarily seek out for a useful comment.
George Wilson, the “Senator,” was no longer around to provide wisdom in measured, stentorian tones. Chris Kelsay was gone after 10 seasons. No more Ryan Fitzpatrick and his beard. Andy Levitre, gone. No Nick Barnett to urge dubious fans to jump aboard the bandwagon.
All NFL teams change from year to year. But it's even more so when you go through a regime change. Management tends to sweep out the old failures and replace them with fresh faces who at least haven't let you down yet.
Things change fast these days. Evidently, they're moving pretty fast on the field, too. The prevailing theme last week was the fast tempo of workouts. Doug Marrone, the new coach, was urging his players to do everything faster, as if the Bills are in a hurry to get somewhere.
Marrone has a reputation for playing fast on offense. He established a quick tempo last year at Syracuse, using a lot of no-huddle, and the Orange became a fast-striking offensive force. That's the way of the NFL nowadays, and you can be sure Marrone will want to be on the cutting edge.
Buffalo fans relish the no-huddle, of course. It was the scourge of the league in the Super Bowl days, when Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas ran up and down the field. I'm not sure they have the personnel for it now. But they do have one player who seems ideal for it: Eric Wood.
Players and coaches from the glory days will tell you the late Kent Hull might have been the key to the no-huddle back them. Hull made the line calls. He was the physical and intellectual pivot of the attack, a tough, agile center who had the footwork necessary to get out and lead plays on the run.
Wood said he welcomes the move to a faster offensive approach.
“Oh, yeah,” said Wood, who is going into his fifth NFL season. “Bring it on. We're excited about the tempo. Hopefully, we can make defenses compromise. That's kind of the way the league is gearing, switching up the tempo.
“You're not always going to be snapping it with 30 seconds on the clock, but it's good to mix it up and keep them on their heels a little bit,” he added.
Playing fast appeals to Wood from both a mental and physical perspective. He believes he will thrive in Marrone's offense.
“I've always prided myself on staying in good shape,” Wood said. “So from a conditioning standpoint, I definitely welcome it. And from a leadership standpoint, I think I can get us in the right spots. I'll have a little more pressure on me this year to make some calls and do whatever. But it's a role I'm comfortable with.”
He has to stay on the field to anchor the offensive line. Wood has missed 17 games with three separate injuries during his four NFL seasons. That's more than one-quarter of his games. Marrone was quick to mention Wood's injury history. Wood knows he must prove he can stay healthy.
“Yeah, that's an issue,” he said. “I've come in each year in the best shape of my life. It's been unfortunate. Last year I said, 'I'm not going to stop moving my feet all year. So if I do get hit, my feet are moving.' Then the defensive end from Jacksonville wipes me out completely and I miss two games with an MCL.”
Wood came back quickly from the knee sprain to show the Bills he wasn't giving up on a bad season. He felt it was important to be a leader. Wood is a natural leader, a guy who has been a locker room spokesman at every level of his career.
Three years ago, he talked about wanting to be vocal in the locker room. Last year, he ripped the Toronto series as a competitive disadvantage for the Bills, attacking a venture the organization considers vital for business.
“I've always kind of been like that,” he said. “But I guess someone's got to do it. I've always felt comfortable being the one to say something. That's led to some confrontations in life.”
Much of the old leadership core is gone. Wood has taken on another of Kent Hull's roles, as a vocal leader, as a “go-to” guy for the local media. At 27, he is like an old man on a rapidly changing team. There are just six players left who were on the roster when he came in '09.
“I definitely feel like I'm hopping into more of a veteran role,” Wood said. “I'm not old by any means. But in this league, going into my fifth year, you're expected to be a leader. Especially if you've been in one spot for five years.”
For four years, Wood had the locker next to former guard Andy Levitre, who also came in that '09 draft. Wood often spoke about the importance of continuity in an offensive line. But Levitre hit free agency a year sooner and signed with the Titans last month for six years, $46.8 million.
When the Bills let Levitre walk, the assumption was they were saving the money for Wood, who will be a free agent after the 2013 season. Wood is a potential Pro Bowler, but centers aren't as valued on the market. His injury issues could suppress his value. The Bills might be wise to re-sign him early, rather than let him test the market.
“I'm not sitting here wondering if it's going to happen, when it's going to happen, or how much it's going to be,” Wood said. “That's why you pay an agent. At this point, I'm not too concerned about it. If it happens, it happens. If not, I'll keep doing my job and keep a good attitude about everything.”
He says his knee feels great. Wood says he's excited about the new regime and can't wait for the new season to start. The new season will be here before you know. Come the fall, things figure to be moving even faster.