Published November 20, 2014
Opening training camp with a belief the Buffalo Bills are finally on the right track, running back Fred Jackson won't hold it against anyone for already dismissing the team as an also-ran.
At this point, that's an argument Jackson understands he can't win given Buffalo's decade-long string of futility. It's a stretch peppered with losing, turmoil and coaching changes, during which the Bills have gone 10 years without making the playoffs.
"We haven't done anything for them to pick us any different," Jackson said, referring to most national publications projecting the Bills to be among the NFL's worst teams this season.
That doesn't mean Jackson has to agree with what's been published, though he does understand that it's ultimately up to the Bills to change the tenor of the conversation.
"For us to get respect, we have to go out and make the people respect us," Jackson said. "The only way to change that is to go out and win ball games."
That's been a familiar lament among Bills players over the years, and one proven easier said than done.
Long faded is the luster of the Jim Kelly-led heyday dominance of the 1990s, and the four straight Super Bowls the Bills appeared in and lost. What's left is the tarnish of a franchise that's lacked identity and vision, reflected by the constant upheaval the team's undergone since its last playoff appearance — the last-second loss to Tennessee in the 2000 AFC wild-card game, which was dubbed "The Music City Miracle."
Since then, the Bills are on their sixth head coach (including Perry Fewell who finished last season on an interim basis) after Chan Gailey was hired in January, and fifth general manager with Buddy Nix.
And of the countless personnel moves that have been made during one rebuilding project after another, the most unsettled position has remained quarterback. Eight players — from Rob Johnson and Doug Flutie in 2000 to Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick last season — have started at least five games for the Bills over that time.
Overall, the Bills went 66-94 last decade, the fifth-worst record over that stretch, not including Houston, which joined the NFL in 2002. Buffalo and Detroit are tied for the NFL's longest current playoff drought.
It's gotten so bad that linebacker Chris Kelsay had to politely correct a reporter when asked how difficult it's been to spend his entire eight-year career in Buffalo without a winning season.
"We had one winning season when we went 9-7," Kelsay said, referring to 2004. "I had to clarify that."
And yet, Kelsay will acknowledge that's not something to crow about.
"We've fallen short. There's no excuses to be made there," Kelsay said. "We just haven't gotten the job done."
Three days into training camp in suburban Rochester, it's becoming apparent how much the Bills have to do to overcome the low expectations, which are being reflected even among their once-hearty fan base.
The turnout at St. John Fisher College so far has been noticeably smaller than previous years, and particularly last summer when Terrell Owens' presence packed the stands during much of camp.
T.O.'s gone, and whatever lingering buzz has followed him, leaving a team that lacks a marquee draw after Nix made no major splashes in free agency and instead followed his build-through-the-draft philosophy.
Now even the Bills' old-guard is starting to question the team's direction.
Attending Kelly's charitable golf tournament in June, former defensive tackle Fred Smerlas criticized the Bills for hiring Gailey, when more established and high-profile coaches were available. He also lamented the team's failure to land a franchise quarterback.
"They make it very tough to root for," Smerlas said. "They bring in a coach no one really knows. When you're playing against (New England coach) Bill Belichick, who makes $10 million a year, I'm not putting Chan Gailey in there. I'm not putting a cat against a lion."
Noting that coach and quarterback are the most important positions to address for any team to be competitive, Smerlas added: "I have to have a game plan, and I need a guy smart enough to execute that game plan otherwise I'm dead. And they're just dead."
Receiver Lee Evans disagreed with that perception. He believes Nix and Gailey are introducing a winning culture to the Bills.
"Not that the other guys didn't want to win, but they just bring a different mentality," Evans said. "Hopefully, I think we've found that, we've at least found a start, a foundation. And now we've got to build from there. That's what makes everybody optimistic."