Since the start of off-season training activities (OTAs) nearly two weeks ago, Buffalo Bills fans have enjoyed many interviews with players and the coaching staff. John Murphy has been hosting a number of players and coaches on his radio show over the last couple of weeks.
One of the more interesting themes that emerged in player interviews are their responses to questions about the previous coaching regime. Most players try to stay politically correct making statements to the media about previous coaches, and rightfully so.
Once in awhile a disgruntled player will be critical of a coach if they are unhappy or have a specific issue causing problems in their relationship. It’s relatively uncommon for a player to bad mouth a coach in the media unless there is a specific reason. There are too many chances for these types of statements to haunt players down the road.
So, when questions about Marrone’s departure were inevitably asked of players upon their arrival in Buffalo, there was a surprising number of candid comments about how bad things were with respect to the player/coach relationship last season. Most, like EJ were somewhat measured in their responses.
EJ’s “God works in mysterious ways” (wink, wink) was a classic, especially if you saw how he smiled when he said it. Even past players like Thurman Thomas and Jim Kelly didn’t mince words when asked about the previous regime by Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas.
It’s one thing to have one or two players talk about how bad things were under Coach Marrone, but there wasn’t a single player that had anything good to say about him. Most hinted that they were glad that his departure led the team to hire Rex Ryan.
Most fans were aware that the relationship Marrone had with players and staff was tense at times. However, it wasn’t until he blew out of Buffalo that we got wind of the devastation he wreaked upon certain players.
Guys like Fred Jackson and Sammy Watkins are guys known for being quietly forthright about their view regarding any issues going on with the organization. And, earlier this week Sammy made a point of emphasizing how much he believes EJ Manuel’s approach to the game and his skill level have changed since last season.
Though Sammy did not come out and say it point blank, he did infer that EJ would be getting a “fresh start” with a new head coach, and it would likely help him gain the confidence he needs as a starting QB in the NFL. However, EJ is far from the only player likely to benefit from a “get out of jail free card”.
The etiology of the foibles regarding what happened to the Bills offensive line last season are quite clear now. As stunning as it seems, an ex-NFL offensive lineman actually was the head coach of the Bills, and actually did made them worse over the course of the last two seasons.
The big uglies don’t and won’t complain outwardly, but you know as a Bills fan that they were stuck between a rock and a hard place last season. Marrone’s excessive interference and obsession with tinkering was something I whined about since training camp.
Why does this matter now? It matters because the assumption that EJ Manuel is a ‘bust’ happened in great part because of the way Marrone bungled his development. It also matters because in truth, we really don’t know what this offensive line is capable of until Roman & Kromer get things sorted out.
In both cases (EJ & OL), they were messed with by Marrone to the extent that neither position group could gain enough consistency to grow within their respective positions. For all we know, this offensive line may already have the talent necessary to win a championship. The same may hold true at the QB position. It will be interesting to see who the Bills draft in terms of where they view the intersection of value and need.
Oddly, the draft this year does seem less important than any draft in recent years. And, it’s not only because there are less picks (and no first round pick), but because the team really is already stacked with talent. Free agency was the ultimate bomb for Bills fans this year.
Furthermore, OTAs are revealing a lot more than just the sordid details of the previous coaching regime. If you want a peek at what team chemistry looks like, take a gander at how these bad boys are talking about each other and what they expect to do this season on the football field.
As far as chemistry, this Bills team is like none I’ve ever seen outside the 90s Super Bowl teams. There is just the right blend of veteran leadership, young players on the rise, and free agents coming in with playoff experience. There is also a collection of redemption seekers who will serve to keep each other humble along the way.
This team is ripe with numerous “us against the world” themes that can used to keep themselves emotionally fueled as the season unfolds. Players like EJ and Percy have known each other since childhood, so there’s a good chance that long term familiarity will serve to bind them even closer together as teammates.
People have also mentioned concern about having so many star players on the team that they may end up bickering over who gets fed the ball. Good grief, there was no greater bunch of prima donnas than our beloved bickering Bills of the early 90s. Other than epic fails in Super Bowls, I think it worked out pretty well for them.
When was the last time a Bills head coach spent over twenty minutes with reporters during OTAs? How many times has the media had a chance to interview a departing first round player (CJ Spiller) on his way out of town while he lamented how much he would miss Buffalo, and always have a special place in his heart for Western New York?
Has any player ever thanked Jerry Sullivan like CJ Spiller did the other day? It also should be duly noted that among his many “thank you” mentions, he did not specifically include Doug Marrone in that group.
Nothing about this new era Bills team is like anything we’ve seen in the past. If OTAs are any indication, this is definitely no longer Dick Jauron’s fear-based “please don’t get hurt” Club Med training sessions. Good riddance to mediocrity.