Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. With a new regime and practices at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and Sept. 12th.
It was the number one question in 2009, and though there's a quarterback question that came awfully close to topping it this year, determining whether the offensive line will have enough time to jell in training camp remains the top question for the Bills one year later.
Quarterback play is what makes your offense consistent. Offensive line play is what makes your offense function. The struggles of the offensive line last season proved that its integrity is the most critical part of having an attack capable of executing.
Last season the men up front were handed the mountainous task of coming together as a cohesive unit despite the fact that there were new men manning all five positions. Then at the close of the preseason the projected left tackle was released leaving second-year man Demetrius Bell, without an NFL start to his name, to man the blind side. By Week 2 their starting right tackle had been lost for the season and the dominoes continued to fall from there.
The positives however, that can be taken from the 2009 campaign are that Buffalo has an interior foundation on which to build. Center Geoff Hangartner and left guard Andy Levitre were the only starters that managed to plow through the entire 16-game slate without missing a start. Right guard Eric Wood suffered a horrific broken leg in Week 11 that could still limit his workload somewhat at training camp.
Still in all, Buffalo's offensive line has three positions nailed down inside with the same men that occupied those roles last season.
"We have some younger tackles and we're young inside, but me, Andy and Geoff had the privilege to work through 10 games together last year, so we need to carry that momentum in," said Wood.
The new face in the projected starting lineup is at right tackle where veteran free agent Cornell Green will replace Brad Butler, who surprisingly announced his retirement last winter despite being just 25-years old.
At age 33 and with 11 years of NFL experience under his belt, Green is anything but… well green.
"Everybody calls me Grandpa-pa around here, old man, uncle," he said. "I get all those names. It's weird, but it's an opportunity man just to share my experience of going through the league and helping these young guys out. We've got a young group, we've got a good group. The guys are hungry to win and I'm just glad to be a part of it."
What Green would like to do is get a lot more reps with Wood when training camp practices begin, as the pair needs to establish on-field chemistry.
"That is one important point," said Green. "We want him to be beside me and I want to be able to work with him, but at the same time we've got to get him back healthy."
All indications are that Wood will be participating right from the start in training camp after practicing on a limited basis the last week of spring workouts. However, seeing Wood practice twice a day on two-a-days might be expecting too much.
"It's important and I'm looking forward to working with Cornell and I've worked with Geoff, but we're going to take it slowly," Wood said. "We have to get some unity up there. We need to have a better year than last year. The sooner I can come back the better so we can start jelling together as a unit."
With Wood not yet a full-time participant in the spring practices, he and Demetrius Bell remain the missing pieces as camp begins. Bell is expected to be ready to participate this week.
"He's ahead of schedule and at one time it was a question of whether he'd make the first of training camp," said head coach Chan Gailey. "I think now there's no question he'll make the first of training camp."
But after more than nine months out of a live football setting Bell will need time to re-acclimate himself in an environment where the pads will be popping and time to get things right will be short. Trusting his surgically repaired knee, while also executing a new offense and competing with Jamon Meredith will put a lot on Bell's plate right from the start.
Bell did the best he could last season as a first-year starter and admits he had his struggles, but he believes the lessons learned in 2009 will only help him a year later.
"I had eight games from last year to build off of and I think I've got a lot to build off of with those games," said Bell. "I can't go anywhere but up, so it's a good thing."
"He's an amazing athlete," said Gailey. "Run, jump and change direction all of that was very good. He went in and started basically as a rookie with no experience. You don't know how hard that is especially at offensive line. Quarterback and offensive line may be the hardest places to start in this league as a rookie. And he went in and did that and held his own. Now, he made some mistakes and you hope the second year he doesn't make those mistakes. But he is really a very good athlete."
Gailey has evaluated both Bell and Wood primarily on game tape from last year. What he needs to determine in camp is how effectively they can operate in his offense and work in tandem with their linemates.
"You have to find out if these guys are what you think they are," said Gailey. "It's very important. Sometimes guys once their knowledge and communication skills become good, they become much better players. Hopefully with a year of experience under their belt they'll be able to take that next step as a player.
"But they have not had a lot of reps yet. So getting them quality reps and what I mean by quality reps is we can't go out there with those two guys and just practice. They can't take the full practice regimen from day one and have us expect them to hold up the whole time. That's not fair. So we have to work them in incrementally and then let them find their way in the offense."
The Bills offensive staff is really banking on both Bell and Wood to come through their lengthy offseason rehabilitations and perform. First and foremost to maintain some continuity on the offensive front from last year, and second because the depth behind the starting five is very inexperienced.
Jamon Meredith, who had a solid spring manning the left tackle spot in Bell's absence, is one of the more promising reserves. He performed well last season logging four starts. Veteran Kirk Chambers looks as though he'll be making a full-time move to guard after spending most of his time there in the spring.
Beyond those two linemen however, the contingent is very thin on NFL experience. Of the eight other linemen on the roster that are not projected starters, only Christian Gaddis and Andre Ramsey have appeared in an NFL game with both seeing action in two games apiece.
Gailey however, is undeterred by youth.
"The bottom line is can they play or can they not play," he said. "There's a bunch of good rookies and first-year and second-year guys out there playing for us. So if they can play, it doesn't bother me. Age doesn't bother me. We'll play the best guys."
Ultimately, there is carry over from last season. Bell, Hangartner, Levitre and Wood took their lumps together last year and are bound and determined to make good the second time around. A successful return to full health and a full football regimen for Bell and Wood will be the final hurdle that will largely determine the unit's level of success this season.
"We've heard all the criticism about how we weren't any good last year and we definitely struggled at times," said Hangartner. "So there's a lot of drive and determination from us to prove people wrong and prove that we can be a good offensive line and will be a good offensive line."