PITTSFORD, N.Y. - The Buffalo Bills' off-season goal was to drastically upgrade on defence, and lock up some of the talent that surrounds quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on offence.
"Our offence last year jumped from 26th to 14th," Bills coach Chan Gailey told me at the scouting combine in February. "But our defence the past two years has been 24th and 26th (out of 32 teams). If we can get our defence to come to where our offence is, and our offence improves a little bit more as well, then we start to give ourselves a chance to be where we need to be to compete for a championship."
Mission accomplished. On paper anyway.
The free-agent signings in March of defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, plus the drafting of two cornerbacks -- a gem in Stephon Gilmore, plus a potential diamond in the rough in Ron Brooks -- should help the defence.
And after locking up Fitzpatrick last fall, general manager Buddy Nix re-signed star wide receiver Stevie Johnson in March, and running back Fred Jackson in May.
On the first weekend of Buffalo's training camp at St. John Fisher College, I sat down with Nix and discussed that, as well as whether his and Gailey's legacy is now tied to all those big-salaried players they've inked; whether expectations now are too high for the club; why the Patriots don't scare him; and what he sees as next year's talent needs.
You ended up getting your cover corner and your pass rushers, which you and Chan said you were hoping to do. On paper, what grade would you give yourselves with regard to your off-season personnel goals?
"Yeah, I think we probably did all that we could do in the off-season. The big thing in this league, if you can get to the point where you can rush the passer with your front four, and not have to blitz and bring extra people, then you've got a really good chance at stopping the run and being able to get off the field. And that's something we haven't been able to do for two years.
"In the off-season, I doubt we could have done much more. We kept everybody that we desperately had to keep, of our own people, and we were lucky enough to get two really good defensive guys."
In locking up your guys, as you said, does that effectively mean that your regime, and Chan's, has gone all in with Fitz, Stevie, Fred, ...?
"Yeah, absolutely. I've never had any doubts about Fitz, and obviously the other two, they've proven themselves also. And we feel good about it. We felt like we had to keep those guys."
How much better can they become, now that you have a defence that presumably is going to stop the other offence more, so that your offence doesn't have to press so much?
"I think that was a lot of what went on with Ryan last year -- the fact he felt like he had to score every time he got it, or he's going to be seven behind. And that's pretty well been the case. But hopefully it won't be that way (this season). And I think another thing, the more they work together -- the quarterback and receivers and running backs -- the better they'll get."
Can you quantify that?
"I don't know how to put a percentage on it, but I know that it's really important, especially in this league, that they depend on each other, and that they feel like the guy will be where he's supposed to be."
Expectations for your team. Are they getting out of hand? Does that concern you a little bit?
"No, I like high expectations. I've never been many places where if you didn't have 'em, that good things happen. So I think they oughta expect a lot of us. We expect a lot out of ourselves. New England, the AFC -- they don't scare me. I think we can compete with any of 'em, and our intention is to try to win the division."
It seems most coaches don't go into the season thinking Super Bowl. Instead, they are obsessed with winning their own division.
"Every really good coach I've ever been with, they emphasize that strongly, and we always have. I think it all starts there. You start depending on the wild card, and you might win 11 games and not get in. But if you win your division, even by winning eight games, you get in. So that's what ya gotta do."
What position groups are you looking for already for the 2013 draft, or is it a little too early yet?
"You know, I think that'll change as the year goes on. Yeah, you're right, I do think about it all the time. That's all I do. But that will really be determined as we go through the year. Sometimes, you think you've got all these pieces in place. Then there are injuries or what have you, and things change."
The 2012 season for the Buffalo Bills will be a success if ...?
"Well, I think anything short of going to the playoffs for me, personally, would be a big disappointment."
BIG MONEY BILLS
Since October, the Buffalo Bills have dropped a quarter of a billion dollars to re-sign their top three players on offence, and lure two of the top free-agent defensive ends. Per reports, the maximum value of these five contracts totals $223.75 million -- $104.4 million of which is guaranteed:
RYAN FITZPATRICK, QB
6-year, $59M deal
STEVIE JOHNSON, WR
5-year, $36.25M deal
FRED JACKSON, RB
2-year, $9M extension
MARK ANDERSON, DE
4-year, $19.5M deal
MARIO WILLIAMS, DE
6-year, $100M deal