No team has had a longer playoff drought in the NFL than the Buffalo Bills, who haven't been to the postseason since 1999, when they qualified as a wild card entry with an 11-5 record.
In the 10 seasons played since the league implemented four-team divisions in 2002, the Bills have averaged just 6.5 victories per year, finished last in the AFC East five times, posted only two non-losing marks and registered but one winning record. And with New England in the division, there's probably no reason to believe that the Bills will soon return to the halcyon stretch that included four straight Super Bowl appearances 1990-93.
But with the beginning of OTAs on Tuesday, there seemed to be some justification for the notion that Buffalo could be among the league's most improved franchises in 2012, and for at least suggesting the Bills' arrow is pointed northward for a change. Both in reports emanating from the Buffalo-area media, and in discussions on Tuesday evening with some Bills' veterans and a few coaches, there appears to be a genuine sense that things are better.
That's not to say the road back to prominence will be without potholes -- although probably not of the magnitude of those encountered by the Bills last season, when a promising 4-1 start was undone by winning only two of the last 1 games -- but the corner that must be turned seems to at least be in view now.
Especially on the defensive side of the ball.
"The feeling all around is improved; we're just better in general," said standout defensive tackle Kyle Williams, who isn't practicing yet as he still rehabilitates from a foot injury sustained last season, but who's return will bolster a line unit that already looks pretty strong. "The new guys will make us better, for sure, but there was already some talent here. And we're all committed to one another."
The commitment of Buffalo management in the offseason was obvious, as the Bills signed defensive end Mario Williams, arguably the premier veteran available in the unrestricted pool. The Bills followed that up by adding end Mark Anderson, who had 10 sacks for the Patriots a year ago. In the first round, Buffalo selected cornerback Stephon Gilmore, one of the lottery's fastest rising prospects in the month before the draft, and a player who should add size and toughness, and most of all, coverage skills, on the edge.
There is, Williams, linebacker Nick Barnett, and longtime defensive end Chris Kelsay all emphasized, considerable depth with blending the newcomers into the mix. And the promotion of Dave Wannstedt to defensive coordinator should allow the Bills to settle into a 4-3 defensive front, and avoid some of the vacillation of the past couple years, when the unit wasn't quite sure what is was, and play to the strengths of the individual performers.
Although Williams demonstrated he could be a pass-rush force in the switch to the 3-4 at Houston last season, the former top overall choice (2006) has always been a better performer at defensive end than linebacker. Kelsay struggled at times in the revolving defensive schemes of recent seasons. And second-year veteran Marcell Dareus appears better suited to 4-3 tackle, where he figures to team with the underrated Williams to comprise one of the league's better interior duos.
Several reports, including a strong endorsement from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, gushed over the play of Williams in Tuesday's workout.
There seems to be solid depth on the line, a Wannstedt hallmark and perhaps a must as well, since the new coordinator has always been a guy who rotates a lot of people upfront, and doesn't blitz much, relying on the front four to press the pocket. But the alleged newfound depth isn't only limited to the front of the Buffalo defense. There should be good competition in the back-end as well.
"You never know how it's going to all shake out," said Barnett, who is projected at a pure 4-3 weak-side spot for the first time in his career. "But I think the 4-3 suits the talent well, and we're only going to grow better the more we're together and the more we play the defense."
The Bills haven't ranked statistically among the top 10 defenses in the league since 2004, when they finished No. 2 for a second straight season. Buffalo hasn't even been in the top half of the defensive ratings since '08, and was 26th in 2011. But this could be a year, some players noted, that a few famines end for the franchise.
"I mean, we haven't even put on pads yet," Barnett said. "But I think we have some really good players here and a good attitude."