The Bills had a team bonding exercise on Wednesday. Doug Marrone took his team out for an airball game. From what I can gather, it’s basically Paintball without the paint. Grown men run around and shoot air pellets at each other and find out how much they really care for one another.
Marrone said it was a positive experience for everyone. The coaches had a chance to compete along with the players. The offensive and defensive players were split up. No one got hurt, and no one crashed a car.
“There was good interaction, and we accomplished what we were trying to do,” Marrone said Thursday on the final day of voluntary workouts at the stadium. “The players responded. And we came back today and had a good practice. I’m happy with the way it went.”
The question is why Marrone made the abrupt decision to have one of these bonding events. Perhaps it was because the Bills’ practices had been sluggish at times, or because the Marcell Dareus street racing fiasco had cast a bad light on the team’s discipline.
It’s pretty clear that Marrone is searching for more accountability from his players. He’s also looking for more signs of internal leadership within his team as the Bills approach one of the most critical seasons in their history. A unified team generally has more of a competitive edge.
I asked Marrone if he was trying to develop better internal leadership in his team. He hesitated and pursed his lips, which is usually a sign that you’re hitting on some difficult truth.
“Interesting point,” Marrone said. “If it develops, it develops. I learned a long time ago not to try to push it, not to try to point out that stuff, not to try to identify or put people in those type of roles.
“I do see a team that’s come together and is getting to know each other better,” he said. “Which at least gives you the ability to step up from the leadership standpoint amongst the team.”
It sounds as if he’s still waiting. Marrone wants his team to develop a fiercer competitive personality. He’s eager for his players to be more accountable to each other and act as if they’re sick and tired of the franchise’s chronic losing.
The Dareus mess, compounded by a street racing episode, left the impression that this Bills team lacks the focus and maturity to live up to management’s assertion that this is a must-win season.
“There’s a lot of room to grow, leadership-wise,” said center Eric Wood. “One of Doug’s big things when he got here was leadership from within, being accountable. That’s a former player saying it, so it holds a lot of weight.”
Wood said there are many ways to lead. He tends to be more vocal. He was involved in a testy exchange among the linemen in practice. Marrone said a team doesn’t necessarily need a lot of leaders.
“I always say, the No. 1 skill you need as a leader is you first need to be a good follower,” Marrone said. “If you don’t want to stand up there and lead, stay in line and be a follower.”
That’s a good point. You don’t need a bunch of rah-rah guys. Marrone said he had one real leader at Syracuse, a linebacker named Darrelle Smith. Maybe he wants his younger players to see how his two elder statesmen, Fred Jackson and Kyle Williams, go about their daily business.
Jackson and Williams have one burning desire (Wood, too), and that’s to win, to end the exasperating 14-year playoff drought. But how do you transfer that gnawing, desperate feeling to some oblivious rookie, or even a complacent veteran who is set financially for life?
“This is a desperate franchise,” Wood said. “We pulled an all-in type move. We gave up next year’s first-round pick, which won’t be that significant if we win as many games as we expect. When you do that in the draft, it shows the passion we have for this season.
“The young guys will feel that by the start of training camp, if they don’t already.”
Of course, nothing breeds leadership like winning. You don’t hear people questioning the leadership on the Patriots and Broncos. A quarterback with the talent and swagger of a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning has a way of inspiring everyone around him.
So once again, it comes back to quarterback EJ Manuel. The Bills want to believe he’s the guy. They traded next year’s No. 1 because they think he’s the guy. But until Manuel consistently makes the tough throws and shows he’s a true franchise guy, he can’t be a genuine leader.
Marrone needs internal leadership, but he desperately needs it from his young QB.
“I think it’s a natural thing by position,” Marrone said. “We need him to play well. He’s in a natural leadership position, same as the center or the middle linebacker who calls the play.”
Team bonding is nice, but there’s no substitute for a quarterback who makes the big throws on Sunday. Ultimately, the Bills’ competitive fate doesn’t lie at the end of an airgun, but in EJ’s unproven right arm.