It's been a year of replacing and substituting. Trades, swaps and switches. Conversions, variations and modifications. All of it has happened on Buffalo's offensive line this calendar year. Unending change due to personnel moves, injuries and coaching decisions have made it a challenging year for Buffalo's men up front. That challenge has been even greater for Bills offensive line coach Sean Kugler.
The happenings of the offseason are well documented. Jason Peters was traded, Derrick Dockery was released, Melvin Fowler, Duke Preston, Jason Whittle were not re-signed. Geoff Hangartner was signed to be the starting center. Eric Wood and Andy Levitre were drafted and promptly converted to guards. Langston Walker flipped to left tackle. Brad Butler moved out to right tackle.
Once the season started, Langston Walker was gone, Demetrius Bell was the starter on the blind side and all five players on the starting unit would be different from the men that started in those positions a season ago.
Time on the job was to be what would help them cultivate group chemistry, but it never happened. Brad Butler was out for the season by Week 2, Demetrius Bell would miss two stretches of games due to groin and knee injuries. Another rookie would be signed and start three straight games, and Jonathan Scott would miss three games thanks to injury as well.
The only constant was the trio of interior linemen, until Week 10, when Andy Levitre had to play left tackle after Bell's second injury of the season. The following week Eric Wood was lost for the season as well as Seth McKinney, Levitre's replacement at left guard.
Veteran Kendall Simmons was signed and started the very next week.
Firing lines haven't seen this many bodies drop.
Entrusted with holding it together week after week has been Kugler, a no nonsense coach who has pressed his men forward despite the losses.
With seven different lineups in 12 games the task has been tall, but the players credit Kugler for keeping things in sync.
"I think he's done the best job he could ever do in light of the situation he's been in," said Bell, who is still out with a knee injury. "He had to start out with almost all rookies, and right off the bat we were in a position to win a big game in the opener. We've had our mistakes, and then we had injuries. I think he's done the best job he could possibly do."
Kugler hasn't only been forced to juggle his lineup, he's also been forced to alter protection schemes based on who is lining up where to cater to the different individual skill sets of the players.
"Whatever your strengths that's the way he'll coach you," said rookie Jamon Meredith. "He'll coach you to whatever you do best. If you're more athletic he'll coach you to get on guys quick. If you're more of a big power guy, he'll coach you another way. We're all different people with different styles, but it all has to work together."
"Because of a lack of consistency we've struggled in the protection areas and the run game at times," said interim head coach Perry Fewell. "But those guys are going to keep working and we'll keep working as a coaching staff."
Having a significant number of young players, Kugler has harped on the same techniques week after week that he believes will lead to success as a unit.
"It's kind of the same things over and over," said Jonathan Scott. "The same foot work is taught, same techniques are taught until it becomes habitual. He's a blue collar kind of guy and wants us to get it down. He's convinced that the hard work will lead us in a positive direction, and I think it has."
Ryan Fitzpatrick has started just four games, but is fully aware of what Kugler has had to do this season to try and keep the Bills protection scheme intact so the offense can function. Some days have admittedly been better than others.
"He's done a great job all year and that's one thing I think that has kind of been overlooked because of some of the struggles that we've had in the shuffling and the injuries and all that," Fitzpatrick said. "The amount of young guys he's worked with, the amount of guys that he's working with that weren't here at the beginning of the year – without him we'd be lost. He's done a great job just in terms of tying stuff together."
Kugler hasn't tried to hold things together with gimmicks. The only method Buffalo's offensive line coach knows is work. After practice Kugler often has his players spend an extra 20 minutes on technique work. Kick slides, hand punches, jump sets. They're all repeated time and again with the belief that the pay-off will come.
And the players execute his every demand because he's assembled players that share his mindset for the game.
"He has a certain type of player that he likes," said Bell. "One that finishes every play, plays hard and smart."
"He's always reminding us that no one feels sorry for us," said Scott. "I think it's just a matter of going out there and busting our behinds and getting the job done. That's what he expects and that's what he wants."
Perfection however, is hard to come by in the NFL when continuity is not part of your front five. This season the Bills offensive line has been the antithesis of permanence. Still, it doesn't deter Kugler and his players from striving for better.
"Coach Kugs is probably one of the best offensive line coaches I've been around in my life," said Meredith. "He can take pretty much any five people, show us what to do and get the job done. Injuries are a part of the game, but luckily we have a guy that can just teach the next guy the same thing so we can keep moving forward."