Bills rookie class can end days of irrelevance

Kiko Alonso was the runner-up for the defensive rookie of the year in 2013.

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 2, 2013 issue of Sportsnet magazine

Stevie Johnson is standing in the locker room of the forever-ordinary Buffalo Bills, his eyes moving from stall to stall, taking in the present and the future all at once.

For the better part of a decade, these Bills have been one of the worst franchises in the NFL. They haven’t had a winning season since 2004. They haven’t won a playoff game since 1995. They haven’t made the playoffs in 13 years—the longest drought in the league. This is Johnson’s sixth year with the team, and he’s never experienced a winning season. He likely won’t have one this year, either. But this season feels different somehow.

“It’s the first year we’ve had a bunch of guys like this,” Johnson says. “We even have guys who haven’t even played yet who are talented. We’re excited for the future. Our record isn’t as good as we’d like it to be, but we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with—sooner than later.”

It’s the year of the rookie in Buffalo. Halfway through the season, the Bills are getting more from their NFL freshmen—on the field, in the front office and in the film room—than any other team.

The starting quarterback, middle linebacker and two wide receivers are all first-year players. GM Doug Whaley has been on the job since May. Head coach Doug Marrone was hired away from Syracuse University in January. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett is only 33 years old and has never held a high-profile position with an NFL team before.

And so far, all of it seems to be working. They’re not winning yet, but that will come. Walk from rookie to rookie to rookie in the locker room and the youthful optimism starts to feel contagious.

“Once we get rolling, we can be great together,” says Robert Woods, the first-year receiver from USC. Once upon a time, Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Andre Reed might have said the same thing in this city.

In their place today is E.J. Manuel, the franchise quarterback, and Kiko Alonso, front-runner for NFL defensive rookie of the year. There are also Woods and Marquise Goodwin, the new wide receivers, as well as safety Duke Williams and undrafted cornerback Nickell Robey.

In the first month of the season, the Bills’ rookies played a combined 1,159 snaps. The next closest team in terms of rookie production was the Jacksonville Jaguars, at 982. The Bills boast not only their best group of rookies in decades, but the best 2013 rookie class in football. There are 11 first-year players on this team: Three could end up in the Pro Bowl in the not-too-distant future; Alonso can probably book his ticket to Hawaii now.

The love affair between Buffalo and Alonso has already begun. On municipal-election day in November, one Bills fan spoiled his ballot by writing in Alonso for mayor. Of all the rookies the Bills are smiling about, Alonso is the star of the show.

The 23-year-old from Oregon has had the sort of immediate impact that reminds some fans of a combination of former Buffalo greats Cornelius Bennett and Darryl Talley. Through nine games, Alonso led the Bills, and all rookies in the NFL, in tackles—heading into week 10, he was a single tackle off the outright league lead. He was tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with four. And he also leads the league in having nothing to say about his own contribution to his first great season. “We’ve got such a great defensive line that it’s easy to play linebacker,” Alonso says.

More remarkable than the production of the Bills’ high draft picks—Manuel, Woods and Alonso were chosen 16th, 41st and 46th overall in April, respectively—is the contributions that have come from the team’s lower-profile freshmen. Especially from Robey, an undersized cornerback who was a long shot to make the team. “We’ve got a lot of rookies who are playing some big roles,” says Robey, who has an interception for a touchdown, 16 tackles and eight pass deflections playing in nickel packages. “They trust us. We proved that when we first came in. The coaches made a decision [to use us] and from that point on I think we’ve transitioned well.”

Even the lowest rookie in the pecking order, Jeff Tuel, the backup to the backup quarterback, has made his mark. He, like undrafted free agent Thad Lewis, filled in when Manuel was out for four games with a knee injury.

So why hasn’t this happened more often for Buffalo, which has certainly had enough draft picks over the years? More to the point: Why have they been devoid of quality young players making an impact for so long?

Outside of Oakland, no team has drafted as poorly as the Bills. Aaron Maybin, John McCargo, Mike Williams, J.P. Losman, Torell Troup and James Hardy were all high picks by the Bills and none became productive in any way.

And when Buffalo did find productive players, they weren’t able to keep them. Marshawn Lynch, a Bills first-round pick in 2007, is one of the best running backs in football. He has rushed for more yards than any other player since the middle of the 2011 season — but for the Seattle Seahawks. Donte Whitner, Buffalo’s first-rounder in 2006, has become a key cog for one of the league’s best defences. Not in Buffalo—he had his breakout season in San Francisco. Willis McGahee, who couldn’t stand playing in Buffalo, became a consistent starter in Baltimore and Denver and is still carrying the ball in Cleveland. All three players were high Bills picks. All Buffalo has to show for the trio now is a backup offensive lineman.

That’s the culture Whaley and Marrone have to change. This team needs stability. That comes from the top and trickles down. After too many seasons of finding and discarding coaches—Chan Gailey, Dick Jauron, Gregg Williams and Mike Mularkey — the Bills gave Marrone a four-year deal, and he has been impressive in year one.

“He’s created an environment that has made it easy for the newcomers,” Alonso explains. “It just credits the people here, the coaches and the veterans helping us with the way we prepare and practice.” Goodwin echoes that sentiment: “He’s made it easier by giving us an opportunity. We’re a pretty young squad, so having the opportunity to show what got us here is allowing us to make a name for ourselves.”

No longer are the Bills pushovers, despite what the standings say. In their first seven games, even while dealing with quarterback health issues, they were one of only two NFL teams to score at least 20 points in every contest. Now comes the hard part—turning those close losses into victories. “I feel we’re [this close to] being a great team,” Robey says, holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. “A lot of people say young teams should expect growing pains and immaturity, but I haven’t seen that so far here.” According to Woods, a surprisingly polished receiver for a 21-year-old, fans haven’t seen anything yet: “We’re better than what we’ve put on tape so far.”

It has been a long time coming for a franchise best known for losing four straight Super Bowls. Too many irrelevant years. Too little to believe in. Stevie Johnson, who is rarely quiet, understands that better than anyone. He is less integral to the team’s passing game this year but seems more optimistic than ever. “I’m just happy to be part of this receiving group,” says Johnson, who used to be the receiving group. But just-happy-to-be-here isn’t a feeling that’s going to last long with the new-look Bills.

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