The Buffalo Bills still are in the football business. ¶ Over the past nine months, though, they’ve operated like a crime-scene cleanup company. They’ve torn up the stained carpets, bleached the walls and removed a bunch of bodies to eliminate gruesome memories of the recent past. ¶ Wave a black light over One Bills Drive, and there shouldn’t be much evidence left. ¶ That’s the hope, anyway. ¶ The caution tape comes off today at Ralph Wilson Stadium. A sparkling new Bills organization will open the 2013 season against the New England Patriots. ¶ The Bills have a rookie team president, rookie general manager, rookie head coach, rookie offensive coordinator and two rookie quarterbacks. The player making the defensive calls will be a rookie. ¶ In scrub, scrub, scrubbing the organization from top to bottom, the Bills have chosen to sanitize themselves to the point they’re raw. ¶ Done properly, that’s probably the best way to control the growth of a new culture. ¶ “Sometimes you have to break it down to build it up,” said Bill Cowher, the former Pittsburgh Steelers coach. “You’d like to be able to do it in stages, but in this case they were
able to do it all at once.”
At last Saturday’s 53-man roster cutdown deadline, the Bills had the NFL’s third-youngest roster. The average Bills player was 25.3 years old, higher than only the Cleveland Browns and St. Louis Rams.
The Detroit Lions were the oldest at 27.2 years. That might not seem like a big discrepancy, but multiply that 1.9-year difference by 53 players. The Bills are a century younger.
Buffalo has 14 rookies and first-year players on its active roster. Eight players have more than six seasons of NFL experience. Nine have played in a postseason game.
Stevie Johnson, graybeard of Buffalo’s receivers at 27 years old, used one word to describe the value of experience: “Priceless.”
Lumps are coming, but the expectation is that encountering them together will help galvanize the organization for the long-term.
“There’s always a happy medium there with how your teams are formulated,” Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “You have inexperience in some spots, experience in others.
“You have to lean on those guys that have been around and been through it to help the younger guys along.”
That role will fall on guys like new Bills linebacker Manny Lawson. He’s entering his eighth NFL season. The only Bills player with more experience than him, safety Jim Leonhard, joined the team six days ago.
“Every team is going to have young guys, regardless of whether you’re the third-youngest team in the league or the oldest,” Lawson said. “But it’s on the older guys to prepare the younger guys for the game.
“It’s really more about adversity, when a play goes astray, when it doesn’t go as it was drawn up. How you respond to that is important. For a young guy, those situations are all new to him. When adversity strikes, how do you respond the next play?”
Bills fans likely aren’t bothered by the approach of resetting the entire operation. They might be hopeful this is progressive, outside-the-box thinking. Veterans haven’t worked for them since Jim Kelly’s days anyway, right?
“Just because you have seven 15-year guys doesn’t mean you’re going to get the job done,” Williams said. “It’s a collective effort from young and old.”
The Bills are young at critical positions.
They will be the first team since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to start a season with only rookie quarterbacks on their active roster. Had EJ Manuel not sufficiently recovered from his knee surgery, Jeff Tuel would have become the first undrafted rookie to start on opening day in the modern NFL.
“That’s the time you can do it, when you have a new coach and a new GM,” Super Bowl MVP and CBS Sports analyst Phil Simms said this week on a conference call to preview the season.
“They can afford to go with rookie quarterbacks like that, but I’m sure it was a situation they didn’t think they were going to be in. We’ve seen some quarterback situations become very difficult through the preseason, but, look, I know they have great faith in EJ Manuel.”
When those quarterbacks experience the inevitable hairiness of NFL action, who will be there to calm them? The Bills’ 33-year-old offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Nathaniel Hackett, will be calling plays up in the press box.
Head coach Doug Marrone said he’ll be the one to settle down his quarterbacks, but that could get tricky when the game clock is running and Marrone has an entire team to run.
“I’m surprised they have at least not gone out to get some kind of veteran, even if he’s the third quarterback,” Cowher said on the CBS Sports conference call.
Simms added: “On a veteran team and with a coach that’s been in the league, that situation would not happen. That’s for sure.”
If not for an injury, victory or defeat today might have come down to rookie kicker Dustin Hopkins, a Florida State draft pick and Houston native who’ll be in for a real culture shock when the winds start howling through The Ralph.
And that’s what growth is all about in the NFL: encountering all the various situations and learning how to deal with them. There’s value in going through that process together.
“You won’t have experience unless you’ve played in it,” Johnson said. “Until maybe you get a full season under your belt you’ve gone through every obstacle football has for you. Some may be worse; I’ve been on that side of the road before.
“But experience is golden, man.”