I woke earlier than usual, on my day off this week, filled my bicycle tires with air, and rolled out the door, taking NYS Rt. 96 out of the city of Rochester, NY. Riding into the sunbeams, through construction, dodging cones and jostling over grooved pavement, the ride out was rough, but the humidity had broken overnight, leaving the air crisp and enjoyable.
Rolling up the hill, by the yellow-and-black school busses, offloading streams of red-white-and-blue clad fans, I slipped up a sidewalk to a building with a welcoming bike rack. I tell you: there is no better way to attend a Buffalo Bills training camp than arriving on a steel steed; skipping the cramped busses that remind one of middle-school is freedom itself!
I walked down the stairs towards the magnetic detectors, expecting to find a printed player guide, but none was available. Perhaps they only whip those up for the ticketed practices. Fortunately, I was early, so I could scout out a way get a list of players and numbers. At a VIP tent, near Growney Stadium, a trio of kids in golf polos and Ray Bans twiddled pens and eyed the incoming foot traffic. I approached, and admitted I wasn't a VIP, but asked for one of their tiny-fonted player reference sheets, which one of them graciously handed over. I was set! I slid into a nice perch about 8 rows up, just a few steps south of the 50 yard line. I was between an older gentleman who struck an uncanny resemblance to Colonel Sanders, and a younger guy who looked like he could have played ball. Turns out that he had played linebacker at UB, while Khalil Mack was patrolling the field. Both my seat compatriots were well-versed in Bills intel; it's always refreshing thinking that our fans really know the game. I doubt the same could be said of some of our AFC East rival followers. The Bills really do have fewer fair-weather fans than most.
As has been noted by the training-camp-chronicler-extraordinaire, Astro, Tyree Jackson was the first Bill to hit the field. Coach Ken Dorsey was in Jackson's ear, as they walked through footwork and transitions from a downfield passing stance to a backfield dump-off, over and over. Practice makes perfect. Minutes later, with players and coaches starting to stream in, Robert Foster trotted out, and started working on over-the-shoulder tracking drills. This was reassuring, as some fans have (at times, rightfully so) bemoaned Foster's difficulties with ball-tracking. I liked how we saw two young players, out early, working on specific areas of defect. That's what we need to see out of these young Bills. Hoping it pays off.
As the team portions began, I took note that everything the team did was laser-focused and highly scripted. There was a series of plays where the team would line up for a 3rd down play, not convert, then swiftly swap out players to line up and make a field goal attempt. Not long later, the team worked on punt coverage drills, where Andre Roberts, Micah Hyde, and Isaiah McKenzie (no relation to McKittrick!) would waive off a punt, near the end-zone, and the gunners would attempt to down the ball within the 5 yard line. There were more successes than failures in these plays. I just like how McDermott & Co. are grilling and drilling this team, painstakingly whittling away the yellow flags of yesteryear, play-by-play, rep-by-rep.
I could go on forever on today's camp, but rather than catalog all that transpired, I wanted to capture a couple of flashes and notes. We've been hearing about McCloud through the beginning of camp, and I can confirm that he really is flashing. I had heard that he was never "right" last year, and was slowed by injuries. This year, he looks anything but slowed, and his concentration on some catches was admirable. One thing that really struck me, in terms of wideouts, is that Andre Roberts is definitively NOT just a punt and kick returner. He turned in some of the most impressive catches of the day. Beasley was beastly; just a level-17 wizard of separation. Ed Oliver is a switchblade, slicing between lineman. There was one play where he was double-teamed, and only held off the QB by a Bodine arm-bar across his neck. My UB LB compadre noted that he's not going to get that call, despite my protests (turns out that the former LBer is also a part-time ref for high-school ball; a boon to have alongside you, when watching practice). In another highlight-reel play, near the far goal-line, Oliver and another D-lineman (it was on the far side of the field, so I couldn't tell who), had locked onto Devin Singletary about 2.5 yards into the backfield. It was vintage 2018 McCoy: the line collapsed before he even touched the ball. Singletary, though, had other plans, as he juked back and to the right, drawing the relentless Oliver in, before jump-cutting forward and to the left, evading the two D-linemen, and dancing, unscathed, in for the score! There were some highlight-reel throws by Allen, and a few head-scratchers; I'd say it was more good than bad, though. A definite improvement over last year.
All-in-all, a wonderful camp visit, and not the usual sweat-drenched and sun-bleached camp day I so often have encountered.
The cherry on top? As I was un-locking my bicycle for the ride home, a Bills coach, dressed all in white with shades on, marched up the steps to the Elaine Wilson Formal Lounge, a few feet away.
"Leslie?" I inquired, gingerly.
"I am so excited for the defense this year." He simply nodded once. "How stoked are you for Ed Oliver?"
"Ed Oliver?" He confirmed.
"Yeah, how stoked are you to have him on the team this year?" I prodded.
"Stoked!" And with that, Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier continued his march into the building, I wrapped up my bicycle chain, rolled down the sidewalk, and back onto NYS Rt. 96 West, grateful for a great camp experience, and stories to tell.