When asked the key to a successful offense, Eric Wood's answer was the same mantra repeated over and over by football players and coaches alike:
It all starts up front.
"The offensive line is the key to everything," said Wood, the Buffalo Bills' starting right guard. "We have to open holes for the running backs and give the quarterback time to throw the ball. Those guys can't do their job if we don't do ours. If we don't play well, nothing will go right for us."
The Bills have been trying to get it right on the offensive line for years. Their inability to do so is a big reason for the current 10-year playoff drought.
As the Bills head into another season, the offensive line is yet again a big question mark.
"We know that a lot of the criticism on offense is going to be over us," Wood said. "It is a motivator, and it was for us last year when we didn't perform all that well. It can't just be a motivator, you actually have to go out there and bring it."
"I don't see anything motivating about it," countered left tackle Demetrius Bell. "Ever since I've been here, people have been talking about the offensive line. Nothing's changed. We're going to do what we have to do to keep them off our back, to keep people from talking about us."
The Bills return four starters -- Bell, Wood, center Geoff Hangartner and left guard Andy Levitre -- from a year ago. The newcomer is Oakland free agent right tackle Cornell Green, 34, the oldest and most experienced of the group.
The strength of the unit is inside. Wood and Levitre were first- and second-round draft picks, respectively, last year. Hangartner came from Carolina in 2009. All three are sturdy blockers. But there's uncertainty about the tackle position.
Green is a journeyman playing for his fifth team in 11 years. The Bills are committed to Bell despite his struggles last season. They declined to pursue other options in the draft or free agency.
Green missed practice time in training camp with an injury, while Bell (torn ACL) and Wood (broken leg) were limited coming off major surgeries. But the five starters played together the last three games, which helped build some continuity.
"They're still a work in progress, but it's coming along," said offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris. "This is a really good group. They're hard-working, tough guys and they enjoy playing together. I'm encouraged by what I've seen so far."
Depth remains a question, though. Tackle Jamon Meredith is the only backup who has played in a regular-season game. Guard Kraig Urbik was a game-day inactive every week in Pittsburgh last season, while tackle Ed Wang and guard Cordaro Howard are rookies.
But no one appears concerned about inexperienced reserves.
"I feel like the first group is getting better. They're playing together better and they're working together better," said Bills head coach Chan Gailey. "But at the same time, [the younger guys] showed they could handle the job as I'm not even going to say backups. I'm going to say part-time players because with our injury situation on the offensive line, I don't think we're going to get full games out of every one of those five from the get-go. Other guys are going to have to play over the course of the game."
Whether the offensive line is better remains to be seen. It can't be any worse than it was a year ago, when it contributed to a woeful offense that ranked 30th in the NFL in total yards, 28th in scoring, tied for 29th in touchdowns and last in first downs.
The line's troubles began last offseason when Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters was traded to Philadelphia. Then his replacement, Langston Walker, was released the week before the season opener. That thrust Bell into a role he wasn't ready for.
The 2008 seventh-round draft pick didn't play a down as a rookie and his first exposure to organized football came in the fall of 2005 when he walked on at Northwestern (La.) State, which he attended on a basketball scholarship. Bell's inexperience showed as he was one of the most penalized linemen in the league before blowing out his knee eight games into the season.
Bell's injury was one of several that decimated the unit and led to eight different starting combinations and 11 different linemen starting at least one game. The firing of offensive coordinator Turk Schonert the week of the first game added to an already chaotic situation.
"Chaotic? Yeah, that's a good way to describe it," said Hangartner, who along with Levitre was the only starter to play all 16 games. "It seemed like every week something was changing. You're fighting an uphill battle with that much change to be successful."
The offense suffered from the line's constant reshuffling. The Bills were only an average running team, ranking 16th in the NFL at 116.7 yards per game. The passing game wasn't even that good as it finished 30th in the league. The Bills were also last in third-down percentage with a 25.8-percent conversion rate that was the second-worst in franchise history and tied for fifth-worst in the NFL over the last 20 years.
Long-yardage situations were a particular problem. On third-and-7 or more, the Bills converted just 14 out of 102 times, or 13.7 percent. On third-and-10 or more they were 4 of 60, with 54 of those attempts being passes.
The third-down problems were due in large part to the quarterbacks not having time to throw. Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Brohm were sacked a combined 46 times, tied for fourth-most in the league. The Bills were also last in sacks per pass attempt. The sack totals don't include the numerous times quarterbacks were knocked down or pressured into incompletions.
"I thought we did OK, but this year eliminating sacks is a big thing," Levitre said. "That was a glaring error for us -- too many sacks. Hopefully we can clean that up and if we can do that, that will help improve our success."
The linemen said last year's nightmare is behind them and they are optimistic about their part in the offense's potential improvement. The team has a deeper, more explosive backfield and a potentially better passing attack.
The offense has an embarrassing streak of seven straight years in the bottom eight of the NFL; ending that run depends on the five guys up front.
"We have talent on offense, so a lot of it is going to come down to us," Wood said. "I think it will come in time and it will come with experience for a lot of us. But we're looking forward to going out and showing what we can do this year."
Cornell GreenJamon Meredith