ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - As you walk within the Buffalo Bills Fieldhouse, a sense of history envelops your every step. The eyes of grizzled gridiron greats peer down from their perches along the walls, the yellowed posters of Tom Janik and Paul Maguire, Joe Ferguson and Thurman Thomas - and, yes, even the disgraced O.J. Simpson - offering soulful reminders that a deep sense of pride must be worn beneath this team's uniform.
Chris Kelsay understands that part of it.
"It's got to be us," said the sixth-year defensive end. "We've got to stay united."
Lee Evans does not disagree, but he shows an appreciation for a slice of franchise history that has made the local football citizenry a bit uncomfortable, even as early November has delivered unseasonably warm and brilliant sun-baked afternoons to the westernmost reaches of New York.
"Going back to years past and things that have happened, we had opportunities and let them slide . . . ," said Evans, the Bills' leading receiver, though he dropped that thought in mid-sentence and shrugged. The four consecutive Super Bowl losses in the early 1990s, the late-season rush to the 2004 playoffs that fell short with a last-week loss, even that victory against Dallas last season that inexplicably melted into another head-shaking defeat . . . they are all part of the package up here. So Evans knows the way the first half of the 2008 season has unfolded is a bit disconcerting. Four straight wins pumped life into these ferociously proud and unpretentious fans, but three sloppy losses in four games have left them wondering just what to make of the team's 5-3 record.
Sure, it means the Bills are tied with both the Patriots and Jets for the AFC East lead, but there have been eight straight non-playoff seasons, so you'll excuse folks who aren't quite seeing the glass as half-full. Their beloved Bills are headed onto the road for a game in New England Sunday and could regain sole possession of first place, but first, some order must be restored.
"We have to pull ourselves out of it and we have the people to do it," said Evans, who just a few weeks ago was among a group of players basking in the glow of the franchise's first 4-0 start in 16 years. They had outscored the opposition, 109-63, in those four wins, but have been outscored, 106-73, over the last four games, including crushing back-to-back divisional losses to the Dolphins and Jets in which the Bills turned the ball over seven times.
But the Bills insist there is no reason to hit the panic button; instead, inside the fieldhouse, Evans and a handful of teammates reached for the paddles to unleash energy with some ping-pong.
"It's definitely been frustrating," said Evans, "because the thing is, we know we're better than that. We can play to a higher level."
Can it be explained this simply: that the Bills opened with games against four softies (Seattle, Jacksonville, Oakland, St. Louis) and so the real picture didn't come into focus until they played stronger teams (Arizona, San Diego, Miami, the Jets)? Or is there more to the dilemma on their doorstep, a 4-0 roll having been severely deflated by a 1-3 stretch?
"That's the answer we're trying to figure out now," said second-year quarterback Trent Edwards.
Call off the search party. At least that's the suggestion of Dick Jauron. As quiet and unassuming in times of turmoil as he is when all is well, the Bills' third-year coach rejects the notion that his team's offense has "regressed" in recent weeks.
"I certainly wouldn't use that word," he said. Instead, with the common sense of the Ivy Leaguer he is, Yale man Jauron added, "In the last two losses, I think it's fairly clear why we lost. You can't turn the ball over and think you're going to win football games in our league."
Two weeks ago, the Bills lost three of their four fumbles and one of Edwards's 35 passes was intercepted. Last week, the Bills lost a fumble and two of Edwards's 35 passes were intercepted, with one returned 92 yards for a touchdown by the Jets' Abram Elam. Whereas opponents scored just 13 points off five Buffalo turnovers in the first four games, the Bills' 11 turnovers the last four games have translated into 30 points.
No one moves more quickly to accept some of the blame than Edwards. He has lost four of the team's 10 fumbles and thrown five of the six interceptions, so don't go any further than the onetime Stanford guy.
"I need to take care of the football," said Edwards, who has completed 68 percent of his passes (151 of 222) for 1,725 yards and six touchdowns. "I need to make sure I'm going through my reads and making sure I'm seeing things I should be seeing and throwing balls where I should be throwing them."
Asked if he had stressed ball security in recent weeks, Jauron appeared to say such a concept was a fixture on the landscape, that it wasn't any more important this week than any other week.
"I don't know that we can coach that way, because every single week is so huge in our business," he said. "Almost every play that is run in a practice session for us, somebody is talking ball security. We talk about the fact that we have turned it over too much recently and haven't gotten enough turnovers. We emphasize that at our meetings. But on the field, I'm not sure that we could emphasize it more than we have."
It's all on them
When the Bills thrashed the Rams, 31-14, Sept. 28 to get to 4-0, it was as if everyone felt a heat wave coming through Ralph Wilson Stadium - and it had nothing to do with the weather. "No question," said wide receiver James Hardy, "we all felt the pressure, and not just the players and coaches, but the entire organization."
In the aftermath of a 41-17 shellacking at Arizona and those losses to Miami (25-16) and the Jets (26-17), the Bills are reassessing their emotional wounds and plugging in personnel for key injuries (defensive end Aaron Schobel, foot, the major one). They contend that their heads are held high, however.
"We're family," said Hardy.
And to the critics comes the strong voice of defensive end Marcus Stroud. "Right now, the only thing that counts are the guys in that locker room and how we feel," he said. "We feel like we still have a chance to go out and play good football and win games."
To do so, the Bills will have to produce a running game more like Week 3 (116 yards on 30 carries) than last week (17 carries, a mere 30 yards) and not cough up the ball an average of 2.75 times per game, as they've done the last four weeks. Not that the offense deserves all the blame, because it doesn't. Whereas the Bills' defense gave up an average of 280.5 yards for each of the first four games, that total has inflated to 322.7 the last four and the opposition has averaged 26.5 points as opposed to just 15.7 the first four weeks.
Shake it all out and it's a 5-3 record that certainly offers a variety of interpretations.
"I have confidence in our guys," said Jauron.
Jim McCabe can be reached at email@example.com.