Being it voluntary organized team activities or mandatory minicamps for rookies or veterans, there is a certain amount of grumbling that goes on among players and coaches. The NFL regular season is long enough and offseason down time is precious.
But take football out of the offseason equation completely and it's clear how much is lost. That was the case last year during the NFL's shutdown over labor issues, and teams like the Bills are making up for lost time.
"We've learned a ton about individual players over the last few weeks," said coach Chan Gailey before the start of a three-day minicamp for his team that added to that knowledge. "We've been able to install a lot of our offense, defense and special teams so we've gotten a ton out of this. It's certainly a lot better than last year's offseason work."
Minicamp ended June 21. The Bills will convene again as a full team on July 26 at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y.
This is a critical year for Gailey, who enters year three with the Bills, a year where owners and general managers expect to be watching a playoff team. With 4-12 and 6-10 seasons under Gailey, Buffalo's playoff drought is an NFL-worst 12 seasons.
Gailey's previous stint as an NFL head coach (Dallas 1998 and '99) wasn't this daunting. Those much more talented Cowboys teams were 10-6 and 8-8 and made the post-season both of Gailey's years.
"You want expectations to rise," Gailey said. "When I came in here I said, 'We want to expect to win, not hope to win.' I want expectations to be high not only from without but from within and they are. I think that we understand it. I think we have a mature enough team to understand where we are. Yes, there are expectations and yes everybody's excited. But we haven't proven anything yet and we've got to go out on the field and prove it then. We've got a long way until we get to that point."
That's why Gailey and his staff have put great emphasis on this offseason of work. Practices have been very productive in terms of installation, particularly on defense where new coordinator Dave Wannstedt will be playing a 4-3 look. The Bills were a base 3-4 last year when they allowed a club-record 5,938 yards.
"The walk-through meetings that we had prior to OTAs gave us a chance to get a little bit of a jumpstart with it," Wannstedt said. "The coaches on defense have done a great job. We've spent a lot of time obviously going through this and the players have been outstanding and responsive to what we're doing. And we're not taking it too fast, obviously taking it probably at a little slower pace. I think at this point where we're at that's the best way to approach this thing. We've got competition. It's tough really to talk much about it because of the pads and we're not banging or doing any of that. When we get the pads on at training camp it's obvious that we've got good speed on defense and the completion (of plays) is a lot better on defense."
Despite not hitting, defensive end Shawne Merriman can sense progress.
"I think we're gelling a lot more," he said. "Guys are understanding more of their responsibilities, where we have to be and where we have to get to. And that's happening a lot faster for us now. It's been fun because a lot of us haven't played together yet; me, Mark, and Mario. We haven't really had a chance to play with each other and also in the different schemes. It's happened pretty fast."
On the offensive side, most of the players have played together. Still, there is work to be done for a unit that struggled the second half of last year.
"I think consistency happens in the offseason when we are out here with the 10 OTA sessions and the minicamp, being able to build on what we did last year," quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. "Me as a quarterback, I cannot have enough practice. To get out there against a live defense, especially our guys, the No. 1 (unit) defense out there flying around and getting a look versus them. It is good competition. That is something that I cannot get enough of."
Gailey was most pleased that attendance at voluntary sessions was near 100 percent.
"I think they have a mindset of wanting to be a championship football team and you can't be a championship football team unless you take the proper steps to get there and this is one of the proper steps for everybody to be here," he said. "When you have your great players showing up all the time it gives you a chance to be a successful football team."
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