Monthly Archives: May 2012

Bills OTAs — Day 1 news roundup

GILMORE

(That’s Stephon Gilmore going head over heels on a pass breakup early in Tuesday’s positional workouts at the Bills’ OTA session. Yeah, how’d he not kill himself? The kid plays with fire. I know this photo of mine is blurry as hell. But there’s a wee bit of action in it, no? Couldn’t resist. If you can make out the number of the receiver, tweet me. Ha!)

 

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It’s rare when a head coach has anything good to say after his team’s first football practice of the year.

It’s rarer still to hear it from the coach of an NFL team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 1998.

Although Chan Gailey of the Buffalo Bills was far from ecstatic, his comments on Tuesday reflected the uncharacteristic optimism that has permeated this NFL team — and its long-suffering fan following — since the signing of star defensive end Mario Williams.

“We had a lot of energy, a lot of quickness,” Gailey said following the NFL team’s first “OTA” practice session (Organized Team Activities) at its indoor facility.

“(The team) felt bigger on the field. It felt quicker on the field. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but initial observations were good.”

Despite finishing 6-10 last year, the Bills ended their decade-long struggles on offence, thanks to the standout play of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, wideout Stevie Johnson and running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.

The Bills might realistically compete for a playoff spot in 2012, the thinking went, if they could upgrade their 26th-ranked defence.

The free-agent signings of sack-meisters Williams (from the Texans) and Mark Anderson (from the Patriots) in March — plus the drafting last month of elite cover-corner Stephon Gilmore of South Carolina 10th overall — has fans hoping the club has done just that.

The whole league, in fact, has been buzzing about the Bills’ upgrade along the DL. Wisely, Buffalo coaches on Tuesday made sure those players realize that potential is only that.

“We talked about that in our room today — that everything looks great on paper, but we haven’t done anything yet,” veteran defensive end Chris Kelsay said. “Nobody’s made a play, nobody’s done anything — no matter what you’ve done in the past few years.”

Kelsay worked with the first unit on defence. He and Williams bookended tackles Marcell Dareus and backup Dwan Edwards in the Bills’ new 4-3 alignment.

“There’s a lot of work to do,” Kelsay said. “A foundation has to be laid. And that’s we’re doing now, and that’s what we’ll do in training camp — so hopefully we hit the ground running in September. Our goal is to be a great defence.”

Williams is indeed as big and fast as billed. The 6-foot-6, 286-pounder said afterward that he’s been fully recovered for five months from the torn pectoral muscle that forced him to miss a big chunk of last season.

A pleasant surprise Tuesday was that starting defensive tackle Kyle Williams took part in D-line drills, before sitting out 11-on-11 sessions. Williams had bone-spur surgery on his left ankle last November.

“I went from running, to light change of direction, and then for the last couple of weeks I’ve really been doing some hard change-of-direction stuff,” Kyle Williams said. “Felt good.

“I’m not a good watcher … I want to get as much football work in as possible, to avoid any kind of rust or slow start or anything like that. I will do whatever they allow me to do.”

Defensive end Shawne Merriman, meanwhile, was not in attendance Tuesday. He is nearly recovered from the left Achilles tendon injury that prematurely ended his 2011 season.

“Today was the only day (for him) to see the doctor to get final clearances on some stuff,” Gailey said. “He’ll be back Thursday.”

Gilmore worked a lot with the ones. The first pass went to his man on a short crossing route. He broke it up.

On offence, second-year right offensive tackle Chris Hairston had the fun task of trying to ward off Mario Williams, as Fitzpatrick worked through what he called simple “install” progressions with his receivers.

Second-round draft pick Cordy Glenn from Georgia manned the left-tackle spot on the OL.

On one play, third-round draft pick T.J. Graham — one of the speediest rookie wideouts available — got open on a fly route. Fitzpatrick threw him a perfect deep ball, but the North Carolina State grad alligator-armed it and missed it. Hey, it was Day 1.

Of course, top wideout Stevie Johnson is still recovering from the surgery he had May 1 to repair the nagging groin injury he played most of last year with. Johnson did some light running only on Tuesday.

Asked when Johnson would be able to fully practise, Gailey said, “Training camp. I don’t see him making mini-camp (in late June). I’d love to say he would.”

In his bid to become Fitzpatrick’s backup, former Titans star Vince Young rotated with Tyler Thigpen with the twos. In early warmups, Young pumped then threw a perfect long ball for a completion on an out-and-up route. Nice.

The Bills’ OTAs (all voluntary) continue over the next three weeks. A mandatory mini-camp is slated for late June. Pre-season training camp begins in Rochester in the last week of July.

ALSO:

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Mario Williams wore No. 90 in Houston. Bills defensive end Chris Kelsay figured the $96-million man would want his No. 90 in Buffalo.
So he had a plan.

“Basically, when Mario got here I reached out to him,” Kelsay said Tuesday, after the Bills’ first full-squad off-season practice. “I said  jokingly, ‘I bet you want to wear No. 90. Good thing you make a lot of money.’

“He texted me right back — ‘LOL.’ ”

Kelsay explained to Williams that, as a nine-year NFL veteran, he hoped to keep the 90. No probs: Williams switched to No. 94.

Bills OTAs — Day 1 photo gallery

ORCHARD PARK. N.Y. — Lighting wasn’t the best inside the Bills’ indoor practice facility, and in full disclosure I struggled a bit on my aperture settings today.

But here are some pix I took Tuesday afternoon of the 2012 Buffalo Bills in positional drills, before 11-on-11s. Mario Williams … Mark Anderson … Vince Young … Stephon Gilmore … Cordy Glenn … T.J. Graham — all the new Bills were in helmets, having at it.

Even WR Stevie Johnson was doing some light running, as he recovers from corrective groin-pull surgery. And DT Kyle Williams surprisingly took part in positional drills at the beginning, as he continues to recover from bone-spur surgery on his left ankle.

Am working up a video report on Mario and the DL, for posting either tonight or tomorrow, and of course a story. Check back later for those.

Those too anxious can check out my tweeted reports from earlier: @JohnKryk

BUDDY

^ GM Buddy Nix was an interested, involved observer throughout.

MARIO

^ Mario Williams in DL drills

FITZ

Hmmmm. Who’s that peering over Ryan Fitzpatrick’s shoulder? Yes, Vince Young (10).

VINCE

A zone-read handoff from Vince Young to CJ Spiller.

RYAN

Ryan Fitzpatrick addresses reporters afterward.

MARIO

Mario Williams answer questions afterward.

VINCE

New QBs coach David Lee observes Vince Young call a play in the shotgun.

CHAN

Bills head coach Chan Gailey updates the press.

EXCLUSIVE: Bills-in-Toronto to be extended 5 years

(STORY UPDATED AT 4:25 pm EDT)

Toronto will continue to play host to one regular-season Buffalo Bills game per year through 2017.

And tickets will be “significantly” cheaper, according to a source in the position to know.

The NFL’s International Committee on Tuesday morning in Atlanta approved the Bills’ intention to extend its deal with the Rogers Centre, as we first reported here earlier this afternoon.

While a final agreement has not yet been reached between the Bills and Rogers Media, the source said the term will be for five years, the two sides are “very close,” and “you can probably expect an announcement in the coming weeks.”

From 2013-17, then, the Bills will continue to play one of their eight annual regular-season home games at Toronto’s downtown domed stadium. Probably only one pre-season game will be part of the new contract, the source said.

The final regular-season game of the Bills’ original five-year, $78-million contract with Rogers takes place Dec. 16 against the Seattle Seahawks.

The source said the extension will be “significantly” less lucrative for the Bills. As a result, NFL fans in Ontario and Western New York can expect ticket prices to be “significantly reduced.” Rogers has received immense criticism for the high prices of tickets to Bills-in-Toronto games.

Both Rogers Media president Keith Pelley and Bills CEO Russ Brandon have said in recent months that both sides were optimistic an extension would soon be reached.

In response to a request for a comment on this story, Brandon said in a statement:

“The International Committee’s decision to approve the continuation of our games in Toronto is a crucial step in our ongoing efforts to regionalize our franchise. As we have stated on many occasions, the regionalization process remains vital to keeping our franchise strong in Western New York. We are continuing our discussions with Rogers Communications on a new deal and remain optimistic that we can come to an agreement in the near future.”

When reached Tuesday afternoon, Pelley said:

“We are pleased with the International Committee’s decision to approve a continuation of the Bills series. Now our attention will turn to trying to finalize the deal with the Bills.”

Buffalo has won only one of the four regular-season Toronto-series games so far — a 23-0 pounding of the Washington Redskins last October, before an announced Rogers Centre crowd of 51,579.

Buffalo lost 16-3 to Miami in 2008, 19-13 to the New York Jets in 2009, and 22-19 to Chicago in 2010.

Three pre-season games were to be part of the original deal, but only two were held. Buffalo beat Pittsburgh 24-21 in 2008 and Indianapolis 34-21 in 2010. This past February, the third preseason game — slated for August — was moved back to Buffalo, because the Rogers Centre had a “scheduling conflict.”

The Toronto series has been a cash bonanza for the Bills. Not so much for Rogers.

Regardless of how many tickets Rogers sells, or how much they charge for those tickets, the Bills’ haul from each of the seven Toronto games works out to $11.14 million — more than double what the team clears from each home game at Ralph Wilson Stadium, according to the Buffalo News.

What’s more, Bills season-ticket purchases by Ontarians had risen 44% after three years of the Bills-in-Toronto Series, Brandon told fans at a function last year, according to the Buffalo News. And Canadians account for 15% of the club’s overall season-ticket sales — about 10,000 fans at Ralph Wilson Stadium on any given Sunday.

By any measure, the Bills-in-Toronto series got off to an atrocious start in 2008. Ticket prices averaged $183, compared to $51 for Bills home games at the Ralph. Rogers Media had to literally give away thousands of tickets to fill up its stadium.

Meanwhile, Bills fans in Western New York who’d bought tickets in Year 1 searched in vain for a decent place to tailgate — only to learn that (a) no such place exists in downtown Toronto to park and BBQ, and (b) drinking alcohol outdoors in Ontario is illegal except in licensed establishments or on residential property.

In Year 2, Rogers lowered ticket prices by an average of 17%, including 11,000 tickets for under $100. But communications/media giant still had to paper the place. It did so again in 2010 and, to a lesser extent, in 2011.

Renewal talks began last year, gained momentum at the Super Bowl in Indianapolis in February and have continued off and on into May.

The deal is between the Bills and Rogers, rather than between the NFL and Rogers — whereas the league alone orchestrates its annual “International Series” regular-season game in London, England.

At their annual meeting in March, NFL owners voted to delegate authority to the league’s International Committee on the Bills-in-Toronto renewal. On Tuesday at the NFL spring meeting in Atlanta, the committee approved.

The committee is composed of these NFL club executives: committee chairman Clark Hunt (owner, Chiefs), Joel Glazer (owner, Bucs), Rita LeBlanc (vice-chairmain, Saints), Jeffrey Lurie (owner, Eagles), George McCaskey (chairman, Bears), Mary Owen (VP of strategic planning, Bills), Art Rooney (owner, Steelers), Dean Spanos (president and CEO, Chargers) and John York (co-chairman, 49ers).

Rogers Media’s holdings include Rogers Broadcasting, Rogers Publishing, Rogers Digital Media, Rogers Sportsnet (regional cable sports channels), the Shopping Channel, the Toronto Blue Jays baseball club and the Rogers Centre.

Parent company Rogers Communications is Canada’s largest provider of wireless voice and data communications services, and one of Canada’s leading providers of cable TV, high-speed Internet and home telephone services.

As well, pending final approval, Rogers Communications has bought a co-controlling share of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and NBA’s Toronto Raptors, along with Bell Canada.

Bills sign VY — instant analysis

VINCE

Fade to April 2005 …

Vince Young was a superstar college quarterback with one more year to go at the University of Texas. NFL scouts already were salivating over him.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, meantime, was a barely known quarterback who’d completed his college career at Harvard, in a lower NCAA division. He was just hoping to get drafted by any NFL team.

Things sure have changed in the seven years since.

Fitzpatrick is now entrenched as the Buffalo Bills’ starting quarterback. And on Friday, the Bills announced they’d agreed to terms with Young merely for the chance to compete to be Fitzpatrick’s backup on the team that finished 6-10 last year.

It’s a one-year deal. The Bills will pay Young a $2-million base salary, with up to an additional $1 million in incentives, according to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen.

Young is expected to join the club on Monday.

His only serious competition for the No. 2 job would appear to be Tyler Thigpen, a journeyman who barely played behind Fitzpatrick last year.

Brad Smith was the Bills’ third-stringer in 2011, but his role is to run the Bills’ wildcat package, and catch the occasional pass.

Young, the one-time star Tennessee Titans quarterback turned unwanted free agent, must have impressed Bills GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey when he worked out for the team a week ago Wednesday.

“We think adding Vince to our roster will create more competition for the backup quarterback position,” Nix said in a statement. “He brings with him some unique physical abilities that most are aware of and that will make the competition interesting. It’s all about improving our team.”

In announcing Young’s workout last week, and with Nix’s statement above, the Bills could not have underscored more — and indeed have practically screamed — the fact that Young is merely a candidate to compete to be Fitz’s understudy. That’s it.

There is no quarterback controversy here. Period.

As I wrote last week, signing Young is risky. The last thing management wants to do is upset the special team chemistry that everyone on the team sees and appreciates.
Nix and Gailey, though, must be convinced that Young will accept a back-up role behind

Fitzpatrick, even if he’ll no doubt try to show the coaching staff in summer camp that he’s the team’s best QB. That’s fine — every NFLer should have that mindset.

The crux of this whole situation, though, is how Young will behave when he doesn’t unseat Fitzpatrick, whom the Bills committed to last fall for the long-term when they rewarded him with a $59-million, six-year contract extension.

To reiterate, word inside the NFL is that Young has a poor work ethic — or at least did in Tennessee. In five years with the Titans (who drafted him third overall in 2006), Young was said to be a me-first player, blind to his own culpability for his misfortunes as an NFLer.

While he eventually accepted his backup role in Philly last year, Young still said things occasionally that probably made team officials wince.

Young said all the right things Friday in three tweets he sent shortly after becoming a Bill.

“Thanks to Buddy Nix and coach Gailey for giving me the opportunity to come in and play and compete,” Young tweeted. “I am looking forward to playing with the guys and helping where I am needed. I have always respected the Bills organization and am looking forward to being a part of the team.”

Between bonuses and base salary, Young earned $4 million with the Eagles in 2011. The Bills are getting him for much less.

In Young the Bills now have a QB who possesses experience, rare athleticism, a good arm and a winning NFL record as starter (31-19).

Lean and long-legged at 6-foot-5, Young was AFC rookie of the year with Tennessee in 2006, and earned a comeback player-of-the-year honour in 2009, after injuring his knee in 2008 and never winning his starting job back from Kerry Collins.

But Young was benched late in 2010 after a heated argument with then coach Jeff Fisher. Young was done in Nashville. The Titans released him last July.

The Eagles signed Young to a one-year contract last fall to back up Michael Vick. When Vick was injured, Young started three games and looked great in one game — a win over the New York Giants — but awful otherwise. On the season he completed 58% of his passes for only four TDs against nine interceptions.

Philadelphia chose not to re-sign Young. He became a free agent on March 13. Before the

Bills worked him out last week, he’d received barely a sniff.

Now we’ll all have to wait and see if Young is up to snuff — as a backup.

VINCE YOUNG, THE GOOD…

BIG MAN ON CAMPUS: Eventually dominated games in college as few quarterbacks ever have. Tall (6-foot-5), elusive and deceptively fast, he was almost impossible to stop when he escaped the pocket and ran. One year after rushing for 192 yards in a Rose Bowl victory against Michigan, Young as a senior became dangerous as a passer, too. He capped a perfect 2005 season for Texas by defeating Pete Carroll’s best USC team in the #1-vs.-2 Rose Bowl. Carroll threw every manner of blitzes and coverages at Young, but couldn’t even slow him down, let alone stop him; Young ran for 200 yards and three TDs, and passed for 267.

GOOD START: Selected third overall in 2006 NFL draft by Tennessee. Was AFC rookie of the year in 2006.

REGRESSED, THEN GOT BETTER: In Tennessee, Young’s TD/interception ratio actually improved there as his career progressed. Whereas it was 21/30 after his first two seasons — which is horrible —  it was 20/10 over his last two seasons, 2009-10.

IS A WINNER: 31-19 career record as NFL starter.

QUOTE: “Because he’s got a lot of physical ability, every once in a while he’ll make some spectacular plays.” — NFL talent analyst Greg Cosell

VINCE YOUNG, THE BAD…

WHY HE HAS STRUGGLED IN THE NFL: “I think that Vince Young is a quarterback that is limited in the kind of offence he can run,” Cosell told me last week. “He needs to run an offence whose foundation is the run, so you give him the play-action pass game, because that limits your reads, and defines your reads.”

PARTICULARLY BAD IN A SHOTGUN SPREAD: “If you put him in the shotgun,” Cosell says, “he’s not very good at seeing things before the snap, which is a very, very critical part of playing quarterback in today’s NFL — particularly if you’re in the shotgun in a spread, because it’s always up to the quarterback in the spread to figure out who potentially is blitzing.”

AND THAT’S BAD BECAUSE: A spread QB who struggles in the “pre-snap phase” of the shotgun spread is killer because defences will overload their blitzes to one side if they know the QB won’t make accommodations for it.

UMMM, YEAH: The Bills run a shotgun spread offence.

And at the other end of the ex-NFLer spectrum: Al Wistert

Al WistertWhenever a widely beloved person dies in some tragic circumstance, we tend to seek out other such extreme cases, and perhaps connect more dots than exist. It’s human nature to do so.

That is not to belittle, denigrate, question, or in any way minimize the very real and heart-wrenching plights of Junior Seau last week, Dave Duerson last year, or thousands of former NFL players suffering long-term effects from the concussions they received during their playing days.

But at this rate, many casual observers might be left with the impression that every ex-NFLer suffers debilitating post-career traumas, either mental or physical — or both.

Of course, that isn’t true. Indeed, for every yin there is a yang. And at the other end of this post-career NFL spectrum are many former players who have lived long, prosperous, healthy lives with zero regrets about their football-playing pasts.

Players such as Al Wistert.

Albert “Ox” Wistert played nine years in the NFL at right tackle from 1943 to 1951, all in Philadelphia. He was the first Eagles player ever to have his jersey retired — No. 70. (That’s him, above, in his Eagles heyday: photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Eagles)

Wistert was a consensus all-pro for five consecutive seasons, from 1944-48, and he earned first-team all-league recognition more times (24) by the various selecting organizations than any other NFL tackle who played either in the ’30s or the ’40s, according to pro-football-reference.com.

Al_Wistert_football_cardOn its 75th anniversary in 1994, the NFL named the Ox to its all-decade team of the 1940s. (Incredulously, however, Wistert has yet to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame — a glaring omission.)

At only 6-foot-1 and 214 pounds, Wistert was the smallest tackle in the league in his day. He made up for his size deficiency by being the NFL’s swiftest tackle — and its craftiest and most effective blocker.

Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League says that “during the 1940s, the surest gain in the NFL was the Eagles’ Steve Van Buren off right tackle. Van Buren was a phenomenal runner, but it was Wistert’s key blocks at the line of scrimmage that sprang Van Buren into the opponent’s secondary.”

That was the day when starters were seldom substituted for, and most played on both offence and defence. Wistert earned his “Ox” nickname not for his size, but because he almost never came out of a game.

Wistert is 91 years old today. Until just two years ago he was still living on his five-acre ranch in Grants Pass, Oregon. He now resides in an assisted-living facility in that city.

When I first spoke with Wistert in 2006, some 55 years after he’d played his last NFL game, and long after his successful post-NFL professional career of selling insurance, he was 85. The native Chicagoan was proud to tell me he was still beginning each day by doing 50 sit-ups and 50 jumping jacks before taking his dog on a hike into Rogue Valley.

Every day!

I remember thinking at the time, when I myself was badly out of shape, that doing that regimen just once would about kill me. And I was 41 at the time.

I caught up with Wistert the other day by phone. He is still sharper than most his age. And he said he still begins each day by exercising, although not anything like the 50-50 regimen anymore.

I asked Wistert why he supposes he has been so fortunate all these decades later, after having slogged it out for nine years in the pits of leather-helmet-era pro football.

Wistert said he often did take a pounding; speed can help an undersized tackle avoid only so much contact.

“It was always a problem,” he said of his size. “Each guy that I played against outweighed me by 40 or 50 pounds, and that was never easy.

“Playing nine years in the NFL would be a long time in any era. I didn’t have a lot of injuries, though. I usually played 60 minutes and didn’t come out of the game. But I managed to survive it. I guess I was pretty tough.”

Wistert said he doesn’t recall there being any protocols, or even concerns, back in the ’40s about the effects of hits to the head. He doesn’t recall having suffered a concussion, and said he doesn’t know of any teammates who were ever kept out of a game for having had, in the parlance of the day, his “bell rung.”

“No, I don’t remember any serious precautions that they would make about that. So I guess there wasn’t any concern about it.”

Wistert said some of the worst injuries he ever suffered in football occurred on the one and only play on which he carried the ball. It was during his time at the University of Michigan, where he was the second of the three Wistert brothers to suit up for the Wolverines; each wore jersey No. 11, and each was named an All-American.

Al_WistertIn 1941 Wistert’s innovative head coach, Fritz Crisler, had a tackle-around play for him that his quarterback finally called against Northwestern. Wistert gained seven yards on it.

“There were about five Northwestern guys riding on me, trying to get me down,” Wistert told me in 2006. “I broke my left wrist, which is still not right. It had to be operated on twice. And my nose was broken. I said, ‘You guys carry the ball and get all the glory — I’m gonna stick with blockin’ for ya!’”

This week, Wistert said he is not a plaintiff — nor does he intend ever to become one — in any of the now 70 concussion lawsuits filed against the NFL by more than 1,800 former players and family members.

Wistert said he was saddened by the news last week that Junior Seau had killed himself. He was hesitant to comment on it, but made the following points.

“Well, this is a very unusual thing that somebody would commit suicide. He’s the only football player that has committed suicide that I know of. This is not something that happens every other day, ya know.”

“Wisty,” as his college teammates called him, cited the fact he always has been so active for his age as the key factor in his post-career health. He said it was the way he was raised in Chicago by his mother and father, the latter of whom was a policeman killed in the line of duty when Albert was a child.

“I still take good care of myself,” he said. “I still do some exercise each day. I try to stay in shape, and I’m still going strong. I expect to live to age 100.”

Maybe by then he’ll be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

(To sign an online petition to get the Ox into the PFHoF, click here. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1968.)