CANTON, Ohio – Finally, football is back.
The NFL preseason kicks off tonight (8, Ch. 2, Radio 550 AM) with the Buffalo Bills in the national television spotlight against the New York Giants from Pro Football Hall of Fame Field at Fawcett Stadium.
“We want to go out there and put out a great product,” said EJ Manuel, the Bills’ second-year quarterback. “It’s national TV. It’s the kickoff of the NFL season, so obviously we want to start off with a bang.”
So what does the ideal scenario this evening look like?
“A productive night, a bunch of drives and we move the ball. Whether we score a lot of points – which would be awesome – the main thing is that we want to see guys get in and out of the huddle, go through plays and just execute,” Manuel said. “This is our first game, so we just need to go out there and practice what we’ve been doing out here every day.”
The Bills have gotten a good jump on preparations for the season, having already conducted 11 training camp practices. Tonight is their first of five preseason games, one more than usual.
Coach Doug Marrone isn’t complaining about the added work.
“The extra time and the extra practice, by far. No doubt about it,” Marrone said, is the biggest benefit of an additional game. “For a team that is like ours, a team that hasn’t won, a team that has to work hard, we need the work. I think if you are a veteran team and you’ve won a lot and everything is set, maybe you might look at it in a different light.”
Having played only 10 games as a rookie, Manuel is the first player who comes to mind as benefiting from the extra practice. But Marrone said that’s true of “about 98 percent of our team.”
Marrone has been tight-lipped about how many series Manuel and the starters can expect to see tonight, but it would be a surprise if it were more than a few.
“Obviously things are going to pick up, going against a different team,” running back C.J. Spiller said. “We probably won’t play a ton, but while we’re out there we want to make sure we’re looking crisp. We don’t want to turn the ball over, we want to take care of it and we want to put points on the board. This will be a great stepping stone to trying to become an elite offense.”
The game will also mark the debut of rookie receiver Sammy Watkins – the star of training camp so far.
“Of course,” there will be some nerves, Watkins said, but “at the same time, once I get tackled or catch one ball I’ll be fine.
“All I’ve got to do is be consistent, go out there and make plays and have fun. At the end of the day, there’s going to be good and bad. It’s the first game. Everybody is going to have minor errors.”
Manuel said he’s seen improvement in the offense over the last week.
“I think we’re progressing along the timeline that we want to be progressing,” he said. “We’re still four weeks away from the opener in the regular season, so as long as we continue to bring it each day and get better, I think we’ll be more than ready to go against Chicago.”
The Bills went on a tour through the Hall of Fame on Saturday night before a group dinner, then returned to the team hotel outside Cleveland for meetings. While game-planning in the preseason is kept to a minimum, Marrone said “the expectation is that we’re going to play the game to win.”
Standing on the opposite sideline will be one of Marrone’s mentors, Giants coach Tom Coughlin, a fellow Syracuse alum.
“I’ve always admired Coach Coughlin,” Marrone said. “He helped me out quite a bit when I was the head coach at Syracuse. We’ve always had a good relationship. … I have a lot of respect for him. I’ve always followed him, always admired the work that he’s done. We used to meet once a year, I’d go and talk to him and he helped me out quite a bit.”
Tight ends Scott Chandler (groin) and Tony Moeaki (hamstring) are not expected to play for the Bills, while cornerback Leodis McKelvin is also likely to sit out after not participating in team drills at practice over the last week.
The Bills last appeared in the Hall of Fame game in 2009, the year late owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. and defensive end Bruce Smith were inducted.