When Geoff Hangartner takes the field against the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, he'll do so under unique circumstances. After signing with the Bills last February, the fifth-year veteran is the only offensive lineman to play every game at the same position in 2009. So, for a guy adjusting to a new offense, Hangartner also holds a battered line corps together.
Since coming from the Carolina Panthers, where he started 27 games at center over four seasons, the transition period at One Bills Drive has been anything but seamless. During the offseason, the organization parted ways with veteran tackles Jason Peters and Langston Walker, the latter six days before the season opener. At that point, Hangartner suddenly became the anchor of an offensive line marching out five new starters at every position.
What transpired was nothing short of decimating. The unfortunate circumstances of youth and injury have ripped apart any form of continuity among the front five. Now, should Jonathan Scott miss Sunday's game with an injury, the Bills could field their ninth different offensive line combination.
In the middle providing consistency is Hangartner, signed for the veteran presence he could provide an inexperienced offensive line—a distinction he gladly accepted.
"I became one of the older guys pretty quickly, especially with Jason Peters getting traded and Langston Walker leaving, so I was comfortable being older," he said. "The biggest challenge is having so many new faces in and out of the room. A lot of guys are hurt and new guys coming in."
The aforementioned injuries are no secret, leaving Hangartner the responsibility of handling new players almost every week. The Bills placed five linemen on injured reserve at different points of the season, starting in Week 2, as right tackle Brad Butler was lost against the Buccaneers. Following were Demetrius Bell, Seth McKinney, Kendall Simmons and rookie Eric Wood.
In addition to speeding the transition of rookies Wood and Andy Levitre at both guard spots, Hangartner also faced the task of helping newcomers learn the offense quickly. To overcome injuries, the team brought on players such as Jamon Meredith, Simmons and Richie Incognito, who all made starts upon signing contracts.
Despite the turnover, Hangartner expected more balance at this point in the season. Certainly with younger players on each side of the ball, slower development is expected, yet the hope was for better results much sooner than originally planned.
Hangartner believes the injuries still affect the line's ability to develop as a unit. With only one week remaining, he could not grasp the notion the Bills might start another starting group come game time.
"I wouldn't have believed you because I wouldn't think that's possible," Hangartner said when asked if he'd expect such dysfunction before the season started. "We're at the point now where we can't put anybody else on injured reserve because our roster is full."
Entering the season, much of Hangartner's transition to Buffalo hinged upon his chemistry with Trent Edwards. The relationship lasted five games because the coaching staff switched to Ryan Fitzpatrick after Edwards string of mediocre performances. Then, Hangartner had four practices to operate with Brian Brohm before last weekend's loss to Atlanta.
The preparation needed to carry an offensive line, with the number of checks and play calls, is strenuous enough. Adjusting to three different quarterbacks was an added work load.
"They all take snaps different ways, different cadences, and it's usually a big difference from one guy to another," Hangartner said. "They have different strengths and personalities. It really is a challenge."
Levitre, another lineman that has played in all 16 games, said Hangartner's knowledge of blocking schemes and command of the group is noticeable. All things considered, he's remained healthy and handled the necessary changes.
"I think he's done a pretty good job taking snaps and communicating with his guys. There haven't been too many balls on the ground this year," Levitre said. "That's always good with the quarterback-center exchange. So, he's done a good job in the meeting rooms with making sure we're in the right checks and things like that."
The ongoing line struggles are evident, but the accompanying losses don't help matters. While Hangartner admitted they certainly wear him down emotionally, having a short memory sets an example.
"After a loss, the next day I'm not in a great mood and pretty upset. I try to take Tuesday to kind of refocus and get that positive attitude back," he said. "They're have been times I've been down, but most of the time I try to keep a positive attitude, joke around with the guys. Because if it starts getting miserable, like a normal job… you have to have fun doing this."
A benefit to having younger players is gaining pro experience, which hopefully translates to better play down the road.
"It definitely will help us because the biggest thing about depth is having guys with experience, and as bad as this year has been injury-wise, guys have gotten experience and snaps in the NFL. It will surely help us as far as the future."
For the time being, Hangartner and the starting unit have one goal in mind.
"If we can get Fred Jackson 1,000 yards rushing (currently at 850) that would be something to be proud of," he said. "With all the injuries and things we had, the different combinations of people playing, the different quarterbacks, that would be a great accomplishment."