Change for the better. That's undoubtedly how Buffalo's coaching staff looks at the decisions they made to revamp their offensive line for the 2009 season. Offensive line coach Sean Kugler made no secret of his desire to not only change the personnel up front, but change the culture and competitive approach of his men in the trenches.
"We were looking to really get guys that are blue collar guys, guys that have a strong work ethic and guys that are tough and compete," Kugler said. "In this division, it's a very competitive division with outstanding defensive lines and we wanted to get some tough guys in here."
There's no question that the Bills have more of that now with the additions of rookies Eric Wood and Andy Levitre. But there's no getting around the fact that all five positions will be manned by different players than the men who lined up in those spots the season before. The only other time that degree of change happened in Bills history was 1961.
It's rare, and more importantly it's hard to pull together quickly, knowing the collective chemistry required to get five linemen acting in unison as one cohesive group. If the line can't make it happen come the regular season making full use of the team's offensive weapons will prove far more difficult.
"There's no doubt it's a challenge, but I believe we have the right group of guys for it," said head coach Dick Jauron. "They work well together, they enjoy working together. They're a bright group, football smarts, they think the game and talk the game a lot. That gives us a chance, but it won't be easy."
First and foremost Buffalo will be relying heavily on their two tackles to anchor things down early. Langston Walker and Brad Butler are both familiar with Turk Schonert's offensive system. They along with new center Geoff Hangartner will have to help bring the guards up to speed, especially if they wind up being rookies Eric Wood and Andy Levitre, who got a healthy amount of reps in the spring with the first unit at right and left guard respectively.
"The good thing is if we do have young guys playing, I'm an older guy and both of our tackles are older guys that have played a lot of football so they're going to have a guy to either side of him and they can kind of give them a little guidance and a little help," said Hangartner. "Our young guys are sharp guys too. They'll catch on quickly, but if they need some guidance we've definitely got veterans on either side of them."
Wood and Levitre will be competing with veterans Seth McKinney and Kirk Chambers, and though some might see the rookies at a disadvantage in terms of experience, McKinney is new to the offensive system and Chambers has been primarily a tackle in his career.
Everyone agrees the sooner the starting five can be identified the better.
"Once we get the pads on we want to make a quick decision because we want to get the five up there and starting to work," said Kugler. "We want to have our starting five together as quickly as we can."
"That'll work itself out and it's something we won't know probably until at least after the first preseason game, first couple of preseason games," said Hangartner. "All four guys that are playing the guard spots are good players and we'll be fine however it works out. But yeah you would like to have it done sooner, but it's one of those things we're just going to have to work through."
But will there be enough time for the starting five to really have a feel for one another and execute their assignments effectively together when the regular season rolls around?
No one knows for sure. The main reason why is offensive linemen, though they practice in the spring with the rest of the team, are not playing full contact football. Contact and working leverage and technique at full speed against their opponent is the essence of line play, and that's a missing element when the team is in helmets and shorts.
"We don't start the real football until training camp and really for an offensive lineman you don't play real football until the first preseason game because we won't finish our teammates," said Hangartner. "We're not going to finish guys on the ground and we don't cut block our teammates. So we really don't get to play real football until the first preseason game."
Fortunately for the offensive line the Bills have one extra preseason game this summer as Buffalo will be participating in the Hall of Fame game in Canton to give them a total of five before the preseason starts. It figures to offer the starting five some valuable extra work to get acclimated to one another in a true game setting.
"You always hear the word chemistry on the offensive line and I think it really comes down to communication," said Butler. "When you have new guys in there, you have to learn to communicate. Fortunately the guys that they drafted, and the guys they already have are big communicators. I think with (Eric) Wood and (Andy) Levitre here and the guys we brought in from free agency and Langston and I still here, we're all able to talk and I think that's how we'll overcome the gap that we have to make up on experience."
As much as the collective intelligence and superior work ethic of the offensive line contingent will help in pulling the starting five together, it will still be a process.
"We'll just have to spend a lot of time together," said Hangartner. "It's one of those things where you can try to rush it, but it's one of those things that just happens naturally and we're going to do our best to have it all in place by the time the first game rolls around."