Buffalo's new coaching staff has preached the common NFL refrain that competition makes everyone better, but Doug Marrone and his strength and conditioning staff have fostered competition before a football has even entered the equation.
The Bills offseason conditioning program has been transformed into an intense, demanding regimen in which there is no rest for the hour the players are in the weight room or the hour they're on the field. At the same time the staff has created a fierce competition between the players, who are battling to be atop a leaderboard of offseason participants.
Called the 'Iron Bills' competition players can individually accumulate points for their participation and success in the offseason conditioning program. At the same time those points are counted toward each player's team total.
Buffalo's roster was divided into seven conditioning teams via a player draft.
"There was a draft and the captains were chosen based on guys that have been here the longest and their years of experience in the league," said Fred Jackson, a team co-captain with Kyle Williams. "Then we drafted all the players that were here.
"They told us there was going to be a competition of lifting in the weight room and some cardio and agility things. So you try to figure out who it is that you can get based on availability with guys drafting in front of you knowing you want to get somebody that's going to be good in the weight room. So the co-captains had to put their heads together."
Once the teams were assembled weekly competitions began with point values awarded individually, while also being factored into the team total.
"Every week we have a competition either team or individual, and it's another aspect of competing on the field," said Kraig Urbik. "You don't want to be one of those guys that are in a competition and losing every time. It's one of those pride things where you want to win and get yourself better."
Under the most recent CBA the time the staff has with the players is limited, but for those that were here last offseason they know they're compressing a lot more into their allotted time than they have in the past.
"There's only so many things that you can do, but as far as the amount of stuff we can get done in that time period, it's non-stop," said Brad Smith. "It's a lot of conditioning along with the speed stuff and the high tempo in the weight room, there's no down time, it's always going. It just gets the most out of you."
"That's the big thing in the weight room," said Urbik. "Instead of doing three sets of a high number, we're doing four sets. So we're not only conditioning our lungs for that, but we're conditioning our bodies so in the fourth quarter we're not going to break down as easy."
For the first couple of weeks it was an adjustment for some of the players with several of them tweeting that they were puking from the demands of the running program.
"To have guys throwing up is a good thing because it means guys are pushing themselves further than we have before," said Smith. "But the workouts are pretty tough."
The up tempo nature of the conditioning program has a purpose. With Buffalo's offense expected to be moving at a fast pace the players need to prepare their bodies to handle it week in and week out during the season.
"The number one thing is with this offense and this defense that we're doing there's going to be a high tempo so everything we do for conditioning is high tempo," said Jackson. "They want us to get in shape doing all this, so by the time we get to the season we'll carry it over."
One of the most popular competitions was the tug-o-war between the seven teams. Buffalo's video crew filmed that competition along with all the others. The winners appear on a highlight reel video on the flat screen TVs in the locker room and hallways at One Bills Drive.
There is also a 'Lifter of the Week' for the top performer in the weight room, and top individual performers on the field are also recognized. Fullback Frank Summers, for example, had the best time in the individual 100-yard sled push completing it in 20.85 seconds. His sled push ran on a loop in the locker room this week.
"It's a big deal and they definitely recognize the guys that are putting in the work," said Jackson. "Guys that win individual events, they make it about them for that week. You get to be boastful for a little while the highlight of your winning time or weight is on the video screen all week."
Perhaps the greatest benefit to the program is it has forced players from different position groups to either work together or interact with one another.
"Guys who usually don't compete against each other are competing," said Urbik. "It's just added another layer of competition and compels you to make yourself better."
"It's definitely forcing guys to get to know other guys at different positions and what they're best at or capable of doing," Jackson said. "It's a great way for us to come out here and compete and get to know each other."
"The camaraderie has been awesome," said Smith. "Guys' bodies are getting adjusted. Right now we're a little worn out, but it's all going to pay off for us."
Jackson, who set a personal goal to be the top individual finisher in the 'Iron Bills' competition, currently sits atop the leaderboard through four weeks. However, Torell Troup, Eric Wood, Marcus Easley and Zac Brown are all within 10 points of him.
And the reward for the team that finishes the conditioning program in first place?
"The winning team doesn't have the conditioning test when we come back for training camp," said Jackson.
With OTAs set to begin next week, Buffalo's players have built a tighter locker room through the competitions they've endured in the conditioning program. As valuable as that has been even more important is how the conditioning has prepared them for the pace at which they'll be moving come training camp.
"They want to do everything they can right now to help us," said Jackson. "That's why the program that we're in is so strenuous. They know that coming back we're going to hit the ground running and they want us prepared for that so they're pushing us hard right now."