Even for a head coach that considers himself 'old school' and has made his share of adjustments on the fly throughout his years in football, the 2011 offseason is presenting Chan Gailey and his coaching staff with new challenges when it comes to getting his players ready for the upcoming season.
As the Bills open training camp they do so with nine draft choices, a host of undrafted rookies and a handful of veteran free agents that have not executed a page of Buffalo's playbook on the field. The rookies have not even performed live in front of the Bills coaches other than at their pro days last spring or at the Senior Bowl. Not having spring workouts due to the league's lockout has kept Buffalo's coaches and every other NFL staff from developing a firm base of knowledge about each and every player on their roster.
Suffice to say its uncharted territory. Though Gailey and his staff is undaunted the task of evaluating talent will have to happen with less to go on.
"With respect to the new players everyone is going to be at a disadvantage this year because you don't have that evaluation process (from the spring) behind you and you don't have anything in the bank there," Gailey told Buffalobills.com. "It's going to be difficult to evaluate these guys and give them a true evaluation because they are on such a fast learning curve. You don't know if it was a physical mistake, a mental mistake or they just can't do it. You don't know which one of those it is.
"It's going to be a process and we'll try to give these guys every opportunity to show what they can do. You don't want to make it too complicated for them early so that they can play football."
Gailey and his staff plan to ease the players into the process of what they have to absorb and execute over the course of the next five weeks. The pace of play installation initially will be slower.
"We'll get it all in by September 11th," he said. "You usually have it all in by the second preseason game. Now it's going to be all the way to September 11th before we get it all in."
Knowing the young players are coming in cold, Gailey will be relying on his veteran players all the more to handle important roles, based more on the reality that the true abilities of the rookies are an unknown as camp begins.
"Those guys are more entrenched in their positions than any other year that I can remember because you don't know if there are any young guys that can help you right away or not," said Gailey.
Certainly top flight draft choices like Marcell Dareus and Aaron Williams should have significant roles on the team, if not in Week 1, within the first month of the season. But taking the time to let undrafted talent prove itself, which Buffalo was very successful in doing last offseason (See: David Nelson, Donald Jones, Cordaro Howard, Naaman Roosevelt) may not be an option.
"It's going to be a difficult year for those guys," said David Nelson, an undrafted rookie that made the roster in 2010. "It was difficult just because you had to work your way up from the bottom to the top, not only being a rookie, but being undrafted. These guys haven't touched the playbook, they haven't stepped on the field. They haven't met any of the guys or the staff. A lot of the guys are wide-eyed and have no idea what's going on. I was lucky to be able to go four or five months and get all that out of my system and by training camp I was comfortable."
That's why the veterans will also have to be coaches on the field and in the classroom with young players to ensure they're ready to contribute come the fall.
"I think there is going to have to be a lot more of that," said Ryan Fitzpatrick. "I know the veteran players understand that. It's not only going to be the mental side of it and the classroom work. For a lot of these young guys they don't know how to prepare for an NFL season physically. A lot of them are probably coming in in good shape from training for the combine and draft and all that, but it's a whole different ball game to get ready for an NFL football game. There are going to have to be some older guys stepping up to show what it's going to take and lead the way."
"I have a lot of experience and I have worked with different groups of guys before," said 10-year veteran linebacker Andra Davis. "Me and Reggie (Torbor) will go out there and contribute and produce, but help the young guys come up as well and make their jobs a lot easier."
The long offseason layoff also presents a greater risk of injury. The majority of the players on Buffalo's roster have done all they can on their own to be football ready, but with almost eight months away from the game getting back into football shape will be an adjustment. Gailey and his staff will have to balance being safe with their players against having the tempo of practice at a level where they can make effective progress.
"If we err we'll err on the side of making sure that we don't over extend these guys," he said. "If you push them too hard and you get them hurt then you might not get them back until September 11th.
So you're trying to walk that line of pushing them hard enough to get work in and get them conditioned, but not push them so much that you get them injured."
It's all new ground even for a veteran coach like Gailey, but with the majority of the roster returning from last season, Buffalo has an edge on a good number of other clubs that have new coaches, coordinators and players. Those staffs know even less about the capabilities of the talent on their roster in terms of what they can and cannot do in their systems.
"I really believe strongly in our team's character and work ethic so I'm hoping they've put themselves in the position to give us a leg up on the other teams," said Gailey. "We do have several players returning so I believe that gives us a little bit of an advantage."
Chief among them is Fitzpatrick who will be the starting quarterback from the very beginning.
"I think it's going to put us that much more ahead only because right now this is my show from the very beginning," he said. "We're able to build on some of the good things we did last year and we have a lot of the same pieces and a lot of the same players."
"You can't even put a value on that," said Gailey. "It's so much better having that and us all knowing exactly where we're going with that position."
And hopefully the solidification of that position in 2011 will help the team solidify their standing in the AFC East.