It dawned on veteran running back Fred Jackson in the locker room immediately after the Vikings game. Friday marked the first time in his eight years with the Bills that they had won their first two preseason games. Has their preseason futility really been that long? And has Jackson really been here that long?
Jackson has more seniority than anyone on the roster other than kicker Rian Lindell and has suffered through more losses than he cares to count since he was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Coe College. Fellow alum Marv Levy gave the running back an opportunity during his brief, forgettable stint as general manager.
The time passes so fast that you lose perspective.
Jackson was a great story after he arrived. He was a backup on his high school team. Scouts thought he was too small and too slow for Division I football. He beat the odds and made a successful jump from a Division III school to the Bills. He spent his first year on the practice squad, playing running back and defensive back on the scout teams.
Early in his career, he would have been thrilled to play one snap in the NFL. He’s 32 years old now and has watched hundreds of players come and go. He has reached a point where he desperately needs to win. The Bills have never finished .500 in his career, let alone made the playoffs. Only once have they been higher than third in the division.
“This is my eighth year,” Jackson said. “To not even have a sniff at the playoffs is disheartening.”
If he thinks seven years is disheartening, he should try imagining how much suffering Bills fans have endured. The Bills have missed the playoffs for 13 straight seasons. They haven’t won a playoff game since 1995, which marked the end of Don Shula’s coaching career with the Dolphins.
The vast majority of high school seniors weren’t even born when Buffalo won its last postseason game. Jackson was a high school senior in Texas the last time the Bills reached the playoffs. His boyhood home in Arlington has since been razed. Why? To make room for the current Cowboys Stadium.
Obviously, times have changed.
The Bills have remained the same.
Jackson noticed a difference this year. He insisted that it wasn’t just preseason rhetoric that comes from every team during training camp. He said the optimism was genuine this time around. He looked around the locker room Friday and saw more talent and sensed a better attitude.
“It’s a mind-set,” he said. “Since I’ve been here, this is the first year where we’re going into the preseason saying, ‘We want to win these games.’ It’s the general mentality every time we step on the field. We’re coming to win football games. Everybody is feeding off of that. The whole mentality is different.”
It would be nice to believe him, but Bills fans know better than to get too excited about them beating the Colts and Vikings in two games that meant nothing. They won their first two preseason games in 2005 and finished 5-11 under Mike Mularkey. But there does seem to be a shift in attitude, starting with their approach.
The Bills’ defense has played an aggressive, attacking style that has been absent for far too long. It was obvious again Friday when their starters had Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder under siege in the first quarter. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is dialing up different schemes to create pressure from different areas. They’re less predictable than they were under Dave Wannstedt’s archaic defense.
“For the most part, most coaches say the same things,” defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “But there are different deliveries; there’s different expectations. Sometimes, it just takes the smallest button to be pushed to get people excited. We’re showing different things and giving different looks. It’s not a wooden Indian deal, where you know where everybody is going to be. That helps us a lot.”
Nose tackle Marcell Darius, for example, lined up at defensive end and sacked Ponder on one play. Outside linebacker Jerry Hughes had two sacks. If you thought Kevin Kolb was bad against the Vikings — and he was — Ponder was worse against the Bills. He completed only 5 of 12 passes for 53 yards and looked lost.
The Bills seem more intent on punishing their opponents than they had before Pettine arrived. Eric Wood talked extensively Friday about being tougher than the other team. There’s much work ahead, of course, but he has noticed the same qualities that Jackson found, qualities that had been missing in the past.
“Nobody respects us in the league, and we know it,” Wood said. “Nobody cares that we’re 2-0 in the preseason. We won the games and feel good about it, but we don’t care about the preseason. We want to be the tougher team. You can hear the hits from the sideline. It’s something we haven’t had.”
What does it mean? Not much for now, really, but an optimist would argue that it beats the alternative. Too many times over the years, the Bills would go through the motions during preseason games and fail to establish anything remotely resembling a winning attitude. It can make for a powerful shift when everybody climbs aboard.
Jackson said it starts with their new coaching staff. We’ll see how Doug Marrone & Co. respond on Sunday afternoons. Change is often mistaken for improvement. The coaches before them had a penchant for outsmarting themselves and making moronic decisions. Marrone will need to prove he’s capable of making the right calls when it matters.
Still, there’s no ignoring the change. It’s about time.
“Definitely,” Jackson said. “Guys legitimately believe things will be different this year. The energy we have this year hasn’t been in Buffalo for a long time. We’re feeding off of change. A lot of guys are flat-out sick of being the same old Bills. We want to do something about it. And it’s 100 percent real.”