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Oohs, aahs and a few Z’s as new Bills take the field

Jerry Sullivan

PITTSFORD — On Sunday night, the Bills held their opening practice of training camp before a packed crowd at St. John Fisher College. There was a palpable sense of optimism in the air. I’m leaning toward picking them for the Super Bowl this year.

OK, I got carried away there. Once I’ve regained my senses, I’ll probably drop back to 4-12. But don’t tell that to the 3,500 or so die-hards who showed up at Growney Stadium. These nuts think anything is possible.

An especially sanguine collection of fans pressed against a metal railing at the bottom of the stands and shouted their belief as the players prepared to run on the field at 6 p.m. They were clad in every conceivable sort of Bills gear – hard hats, caps, red-and-blue beads, masks, foam fingers, leis.

“You know you guys have been waiting for this,” one fan screamed at the players. “We’ve been waiting for this. Let’s go, EJ! You gotta believe. We’re going this year!”

Faced with that sort of unbending optimism, how could anyone suggest a losing record? It’s late July, and anything is possible. In the great, democratic NFL monolith, everyone has a chance at glory when the teams arrive in camp.

It’s a new era, as the Bills like to remind us. A new front office, a new coach, new coordinators, a new quarterback, a reduced role for Ralph Wilson.

There are reasons to believe they’re finally on the right track, and there’s nothing like a Sunday night practice to rouse the believers.

Even I’ve been looking forward to this camp – and I’ll admit, my usual strategy is to schedule enough vacation time to keep my camp appearances at a minimum, while maximizing the opportunities to work on my short game.

But EJ Manuel is here. A real franchise quarterback, the only QB taken in the first round of April’s draft. That alone makes this year different. There’s nothing like a new QB to spike your interest, and nothing more intriguing than a spirited battle for the No. 1 job.

I mean, it was nice when Ryan Fitzpatrick was the unquestioned starter two years ago, but it didn’t make for very compelling camp stories. Manuel makes every throw a news event. Will he look like a leader? Will he crush Kevin Kolb and seize the job by the throat? Leap over tall linemen with a single bound?

We got our first real look Sunday night. Manuel looked good. On his first play of camp, as fans and media held their collective breath, he handed the ball off to Tashard Choice. Kolb looked good, too. So did the third-stringer, whose name escapes me.

Come on, it was a practice, in shorts. There was no tackling, which made it look a lot like some of the Bills games last season.

The practice was lively and absorbing at times, dull and forgettable at others. They did calisthenics. I’m not sure I’ve ever typed that word before. A few times, they brought out a JUGS machine that propelled footballs skyward to the punt return men. I think the machine is having a great camp.

At around 6:45, they brought the quarterbacks and receivers over to the track and field stadium, adjacent to the main stadium. The entire media contingent followed, like school kids in a fire drill. Manuel was going over there. He was going to throw again.

The QBs completed 98 percent. Of course, the receivers weren’t being covered. Manuel made some nice throws. He was a little off on some others.

His physical skills are obvious. The kid is big, and he moves well. But Kolb is a little more polished at this point, which is to be expected.

After about 15 minutes, the QBs and receivers rejoined the rest of the team in Growney. They moved into one-on-one passing drills, with the receivers now obstructed by actual defensive backs. I’ll offer one observation:

Second-year cornerback Stephon Gilmore can really play.

The first nine throws were deep passes, which is more than Chan Gailey called all last season. The crowd ate it up. It was a chance for Doug Marrone to remind the fans that this year will be different, that the Bills plan to be aggressive and attack defenses down the field.

They certainly have the speed. Manuel’s first bomb went to T.J. Graham for a touchdown. He hit Graham with another bomb. By that point, the die-hards surely had the Bills in the Bowl. “EJ to T.J.!” That could become a catchy theme if Graham can actually do it in the games.

It was like watching a home run derby. Too bad they couldn’t have done it for an hour. They broke into 7-on-7’s, then 11-on-11’s. Stevie Johnson showed his great hands on one catch. Kolb made a terrific throw to tight end Scott Chandler on a deep out to the right sideline.

Chandler looked great, by the way. He was one of the few real bits of news on opening night. He has made remarkable progress since tearing his ACL in Week 16 last season. His presence will be a big plus for a team that has speed but few receivers who have established themselves in the NFL.

In 11-on-11’s, Kolb had a pass intercepted. Manuel missed badly on a throw over the middle. Running the no-huddle, Manuel fumbled handling the snap on an option play. The closer they got to real game action, the more difficult it was to execute.

They play a lot of 11-on-11 in the NFL, so there’s work ahead.

At least there were no injuries. That was significant, considering how many teams have lost players to season-ending injuries in the opening days of NFL training camps.

Mario Williams didn’t participate in drills. He told the Bills’ training staff he had a sore foot. It’s always something with the guy. But Mario has been saying he’s excited for camp and feels like a new man.

As I said, it’s July. Everyone shows up inspired and ready to go. The JUGS machine is in mid-season form, and the sky is the limit.


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