Feeling out a new position coach is nothing new for Buffalo's receiving corps. New receivers coach Sanjay Lal is the fifth to coach the position in the last five seasons. When it came to convincing the players in his room that he's capable of making them better wideouts however, the buy in may have been the fastest ever for a Bills assistant coach.
"We were sold right away," said Chris Hogan flatly.
So what has Lal done that has Buffalo's pass catchers believing they're already a better route running contingent than they were at any time last season? In a word, precision.
Lal made it immediately clear to his wideouts that route running would be a top priority. If you can't be a consistent route runner catching the ball doesn't count for much because you'll never make yourself available as an open target in the first place.
"We look at route running like an art form, a lost art in this league," said Lal. "We liken it to if you were trying out for 'Dancing with the Stars.' Those guys work four, five, eight hours a day on footwork. We're no different. We're choreographers, dancers, whatever you want to call it, but there's a choreography to route running."
Buffalo's receivers coach breaks each receiver's route running technique down to the finest details. There are specific critiques for each of the 12 wideouts on the roster. There are basic principles like keeping your body on the same horizontal plane throughout your route so the defensive back can't predict where or when the break is coming. Then there are very specific breakdowns of things like foot placement, especially at the break.
To illustrate the consequences of a less than sound route, Lal has the team's video department shoot video of players running routes at field level from just about every possible angle for review in the meeting room.
"If your foot (placement) is off six inches you can't come out of the break as cleanly and efficiently as you normally would," Lal said. "So we'll film every route from ground level, from behind, from the side, whatever is appropriate and break it down in slow motion.
"Where are their feet hitting? Where is their chin at the break point? Are their eyes coming back early enough or too late? So we'll break down every route to its minutiae and get it right so they understand what they're doing and then just keep working it and trying to get it in muscle memory."
Though there have only been nine OTA practices, a voluntary veteran minicamp and a mandatory minicamp this week, Buffalo's receivers feel they've made significant strides in the consistency of their route running.
"It's been great. He's a great coach," said Sammy Watkins, who has been limited to individual position drills due to an offseason procedure. "So far I haven't been on the field much with him, but I feel my game has improved with just the little things and the details. You see every receiver right now becoming true receivers and he's teaching us the way to play the game."
"Our first couple of meetings he explained to us that he'll stay up late at night trying to find ways for us to get better," said Chris Hogan. "It shows. Every single day he's got something new for us to do. Whether it's a cone drill or something with our routes, whatever it is he's always trying to find ways to make us better as receivers."
One receiver in particular who has appeared to be a direct beneficiary of sweating the details on route running is Marquise Goodwin. The speed receiver has been much more consistent in OTA practices in getting behind the defense to turn in big plays.
"I think they've developed an appreciation that when you tell them something like, 'Hey move your foot out six inches on your break point.' And it brings them out of their cut really efficiently a light goes off and they say, 'Oh wow it really is about geometry, physics, center of gravity and all of that.' They get a new awareness of the science behind it," said Lal. "So there's a good appreciation. When we're showing those clips in slow motion it could be tedious, but everyone is buying into it and seeing that it will make them better route runners."
"I think those first couple of practices out there he really started helping us," Hogan said. "Sometimes it's a little different for guys. Some guy comes in and tries to change the way you run routes and you're not sure about it. This year was different. I think everyone really came into this offseason with an open mind.
"It was like, 'Okay let's take every little bit of coaching we can. We have this great offensive coordinator who came in with this great offense and great weapons on the field.' So we decided to buy into this stuff. I think once we got out there probably that first minicamp I think we saw that technique on the routes helping us."
More efficient route running has catered to better timing in the passing game, which builds confidence with the quarterbacks.
"From a technique standpoint it's been great," Hogan said. "It's really been helping us and honestly the four years that I've been here and this new group, this is the best I think we've looked running routes. He's been able to help guys like Percy (Harvin) who has been in the league for seven years. All the way to the rookies he's really had a chance to mold us into better receivers and I think it shows on the field."