ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – The process of becoming great often requires some early suffering. That's something the Buffalo Bills' trio of rising offensive stars knows about on and off the field.
For quarterback Trent Edwards, running back Marshawn Lynch and wide receiver Lee Evans – who have played a huge role in the team's 4-0 start – the situation hasn't always been pretty. Each has faced some adversity that shaped who they are in ways reminiscent of those that made the holy trinity of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed great.
"I hate to make comparisons with the guys I coached, but I see some similarities there, especially when it comes to performance," said Marv Levy, who coached the Bills teams that went to four straight Super Bowls from 1990-93 and drafted Lynch and Edwards in '07.
"The three guys you're talking about are all very serious, focused individuals who want to be good, We're not talking about stats, but we're talking about the team's performance. You see that with Edwards, you especially see it with Marshawn," said Levy, who served as the franchise's general manager for two years. "He's good in every facet of the game and while he's going to get his numbers, that's not what he talks about. He reminds me of Thurman that way. Evans, he was here before I came back as GM, but there's a seriousness about him, a work ethic."
The better term for it may be resolve, a willingness to do whatever it takes. In the case of Edwards, the hard hits he took for three quarters in Week 3 against Oakland made him stumble for awhile. But this is a second-year starter who was so beaten up at Stanford that he missed 10 games over four seasons and left other contests early because of injuries. On top of that, the program was woeful, going a combined 14-31 over his four years.
Ultimately, Edwards' draft status was affected as he dropped from a first-rounder on many teams' boards to the third round.
"Our plan that year in the draft was to take another quarterback, but we were looking at the sixth or seventh round, a young guy who we might work with for a few years and develop if he showed something in camp," Levy said. "But we had a first-round grade on Trent and after he made it through the first round and then all the way through the second round, we all looked at each, (director of college scouting) Tom Modrak, coach (Dick) Jauron and even (Bills owner) Mr.(Ralph) Wilson and we said, 'Hey, we have to take him.' "
Shortly after the draft, Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh called Levy to say that the Bills had gotten a steal with Edwards. Walsh, a one-time Stanford coach, watched Edwards up close while working for the university.
What the Bills seem to have gotten is a guy who is unflappable.
"I said this after the game, where I felt this was the type of game where everything was going wrong," Edwards said following the victory over Oakland, which featured a field goal at the gun. "All of the breaks were going the Raiders way and we could have packed it in. We could have just said it's not our day and sometimes you lose games and that could have been the attitude this team took on, but I don't think that was the mindset anyone had. There was still plenty of time left at the end of the game and we still felt like we were a better team."
That attitude is backed up by Edwards' performance in the fourth quarter over the past three games. He has completed 24 of 32 passes for 334 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in the final quarter of those three games combined. Even more, Edwards is leading despite the precarious balance he must strike in the locker room. Former starting quarterback J.P. Losman, who was the team's first-round pick in 2004, is still with the Bills. It's a situation where there could easily be resentment going in both directions, particularly between two young players with great aspirations.
"Give them both a lot of credit for being really professional about it," Evans said. "J.P. especially could be really upset, but he doesn't show it and Trent is really respectful of him. They've worked it out really well."
For Lynch, the situation is much less about the physical than the mental. Lynch was widely considered the second-best back in the 2007 draft behind Adrian Peterson. But Lynch was downgraded because of concerns about his rough background coming out of Oakland.
Then, this offseason, Lynch pleaded guilty to a minor hit-and-run accident in June in Buffalo. The incident drew attention to a guy who tries to remain private much of the time. Following the win over Oakland, despite making several key plays in the fourth quarter and rushing for 83 yards and two touchdowns, Lynch left the locker room without talking to reporters.
"Marshawn just has a different way about him," Buffalo running back coach Eric Studesville said. "It's not that it's good or bad, it's just him. It takes him awhile to trust, to hear what you're trying to say and believe that what you say is really what you mean."
Finally, there's Evans, the antithesis of the cliché diva wide receiver. Evans suffered his worst day of the season with only four catches for 65 yards, was called for offensive pass interference and had one pass taken away from him for an interception by Oakland cornerback DeAngelo Hall.
But there was no moping about the situation. Rather, Evans was one of the last players to leave the locker room, enjoying the victory and what he hopes is the growth of the team.
"We don't win games like that before this season," Evans said, referring to his first four seasons after being a first-round pick in 2004. "This team is showing something. We're overcoming mistakes and bad plays. We're growing."
Evans has seen the other side of the maturing process. In 2005, as he was taking over the No. 1 receiver role from former Bills great Eric Moulds, Evans felt the jealousy, according to a former teammate. In a December game against Miami, Evans scored three touchdowns in the first half to help Buffalo build an early lead.
Instead of reveling in Evans' strong play, Moulds got angry that he wasn't getting the ball, according to the former teammate. Moulds threatened not to come out for the second half. The Dolphins ultimately won with a furious comeback.
These days, with a different cast of guys who understand real suffering, it's the Bills who are winning with comebacks and putting themselves in position to be something special.