3 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

A new day is dawning at One Bills Drive with the impending arrival of a new team owner, a spiffed up stadium that will dazzle fans who pass through its newly erected gates, and a new headliner named Sammy Watkins who could become one of the most exciting players to represent the Bills since the Super Bowl days.

What isn't new is this: Buffalo hasn't been to the playoffs in 14 consecutive years, the longest active drought in the NFL, and the patience of a passionate fan base has been stretched to the outer limit.

"Being where we've been as an organization on the field is unacceptable," said team president and CEO Russ Brandon. "It is certainly unacceptable to me. It's all about winning. There is nothing else, absolutely nothing else that matters. We've made changes and we're not going to sit on our hands and not let any sand get under our shoes when it comes to trying to put a winning product on the field. That's what we're all about."

Brandon speaks with force and conviction on this topic, but he's done that in years past, too. No matter who the owner is, or how nice the $130 million in renovations make Ralph Wilson Stadium look, or how many touchdowns Watkins scores, Brandon's voice will be a hollow echo if the Bills stumble again in 2014.

"In the NFL, every year is a big year," said general manager Doug Whaley. "Everyone is expecting some big things from us and we're expecting big things."

If this team doesn't deliver a postseason appearance, heads could roll, starting with Brandon, and trickling down to Whaley and coach Doug Marrone and his staff. That's just the reality of having to answer to a new owner who didn't hire anyone in the organization and has the well-earned prerogative to make changes if they wish.

"We're in a profession now where you have to win or you're in trouble," Marrone said. "There's no more coming in and having a four-year plan or a five-year plan, that stuff's gone. You can't even mention that stuff, people don't want to hear it."

Whaley understands this, which is why he made some audacious moves in the offseason in an effort to get the Bills over the hump.

The trade up in the first round to draft Watkins; bringing in two players who have had issues in the past in linebacker Brandon Spikes and receiver Mike Williams; trading away fan favorite Stevie Johnson; and refusing to upgrade at backup quarterback and therefore placing full trust in second-year man EJ Manuel to stay healthy and live up to his 2013 first-round draft pick status.

It was quite an offseason for Whaley, and now he has to hope it will result in a breakthrough season for his team.

Naturally, much will depend on the performance of Manuel, the somewhat controversial first-rounder who has much to prove in his sophomore NFL season.

Manuel missed six-plus games with various knee injuries in his rookie year, and when he played, he was erratic, to say the least. He shoulders a tremendous burden this year, because he has to play well if Buffalo is going to contend for a playoff berth.

"I'm optimistic," Whaley said. "I'm eager to see him get out and perform for 16 games, because you started to see the growth in that Cleveland game and then he got hurt. I think this year is going to be a big leap for him, and for us."

The Bills have certainly given Manuel some resources. The drafting of Watkins and offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, the acquisition of Mike Williams, and the hiring of quarterbacks coach Todd Downing, added to an established cast of characters led by C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, Robert Woods, Scott Chandler and Marquise Goodwin, are all reasons to believe Manuel will make strides this year.

"He's put in a lot of work, and he has a much, much better understanding and it's exciting," Marrone said. "What you hope to see as training camp and the installation goes in, you hope to see it better the next time around."

On defense, new coordinator Jim Schwartz is expected to pick up where departed Mike Pettine left off, honing a defense that made marked improvement in 2013, though it'll be tough doing so without linebacker Kiko Alonso, out for the season with a blown out knee. Adding linebackers Spikes and Keith Rivers, defensive back Corey Graham, and returning almost everyone of value except Alonso and safety Jairus Byrd, should be a big benefit for Schwartz.

The Bills have good players everywhere, and this is the deepest roster they have assembled in several years.

"That was our goal, to create competition everywhere," said Whaley. "There's competition at the top of the roster, but also at the bottom of the roster. Competition elevates everyone's game, and that's what we have to do, we have to elevate our whole product so we can get to the playoffs."

The Bills need to get there. Enough is enough. This team is noticeably better, at least on paper, and the time has come for the Bills to step up and do something special.

"We're confident as a football team, and I'm extremely confident in the roster we have, so now it comes down to execution," said center Eric Wood. "We have a solid group from top to bottom, with some depth to withstand a full season which is crucial in this league. I'm excited about our roster."

MAIORANA@DemocratandChronicle.com

Twitter.com/@salmaiorana

3 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://on.wgrz.com/1mxJ6k3