Safety George Wilson’s eyes light up when reminded how Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey asserted himself in the face of hecklers at the close of his first training camp two years ago.
For a hard-luck team enduring yet another coaching shuffle and searching for identity, Gailey’s message — “If you dog one of us, you dog all of us,” he said, in addressing the teenage hecklers — was both welcome and regarded as being a definitive moment for players who had grown weary of being perennial punch lines even among their own supporters.
It makes no difference to Wilson that the target of the fans that day, former starting quarterback Trent Edwards, is long gone after being released a month later.
“What I think it showed us, not just Trent at the time but everybody on this team, that coach Gailey has our back,” Wilson said. “It might not seem like something major or big right now two years later, but I definitely think it set the tone.”
Two years later, Gailey’s message still resonates as these new-look Bills (No. 19 in the AP Pro32) close training camp in suburban Rochester with their final open-to-the-public practice Tuesday night.
“We’ve never had that before,” Wilson added. “We’ve had hecklers. We’ve had players who have been harassed by people who attend our practice. But we’ve never had a coach address it in the manner that coach Gailey chose to that day.”
These Bills might still have plenty to prove after going 10-22 under Gailey, and are in the midst of a 12-season playoff drought that stands as the NFL’s longest active streak. And yet, there is a belief that this team has both the confidence and talent to succeed.
Making a big splash in free agency sure helps after the Bills signed free agent defensive end Mario Williams to a six-year, $100 million contract in March.
It goes beyond that, because the veteran players believe there’s been a change in culture in Buffalo that can be traced to Gailey’s influence.
“We’ve grown tremendously as a team,” running back Fred Jackson said. “He wanted to establish that identity of not hoping to win, but expecting to win. And that’s how guys approach this game now.”
In one unscripted moment, Gailey began to define his tenure and prove himself to a team in need of leadership and vision. Those are two things that had been lacking during what’s regarded as a lost decade in which the Bills had a revolving door at both head coach and general manager.
“Yeah, things had been bad, and we were trying to get it turned around,” Gailey said. “That wasn’t a ploy. It wasn’t planned. But if you don’t stick up for each other, nobody else will, I can promise you that.”
And the Bills needed defending, because they had sunk to a laughingstock level around the NFL after making numerous off- and on-field blunders.
Former coach Mike Mularkey quit on the team in January 2006. The signing of Terrell Owens to a one-year deal in March 2009 helped sell tickets, but failed to translate into victories. And despite the small-market team’s desire to spare no expense in landing a high-profile coach following Dick Jauron’s dismissal in November 2009, the Bills found no takers in being snubbed by both Mike Shanahan and Bill Cowher.
They eventually settled on Gailey, who was regarded as a consolation prize and a retread after bouncing between the NFL and college ranks following a two-year head-coaching stint in Dallas.
Center Eric Wood understood the questions regarding the Bills new coach, and saw Gailey begin to prove himself in how he defended his players by addressing the fans.
“It showed he wanted to be here. He was in it for the long haul,” Wood said. “Where Buffalo went out and tried to bring in a bunch of bigger-name guys, he’s the guy that wanted to be here. And that’s ultimately what we wanted.”
Gailey deflects praise for what happened, saying he had no ulterior motive that day except to do what he thought was right.
“That’s for other people to decide whether it’s had a long-term affect or whether that made a statement,” he said.
BILLS’ 2012 SCHEDULE
Aug. 9 WASHINGTON L-7-6
Fri. @ Minnesota 8:00 p.m.
Aug. 25 PITTSBURGH 7:00 p.m.
Aug. 30 @ Detroit 7:00 p.m.
Sept. 9 @ N.Y. Jets 1:00 p.m.
Sept. 16 KANSAS CITY 1:00 p.m.
Sept. 23 @ Cleveland 1:00 p.m.
Sept. 30 NEW ENGLAND 1:00 p.m.
Oct. 7 @ San Francisco 4:25 p.m.
Oct. 14 @ Arizona 4:00 p.m.
Oct. 21 TENNESSEE 1:00 p.m.
Nov. 4 @ Houston 1:00 p.m.
Nov. 11 @ New England 1:00 p.m.
Nov. 15 MIAMI 8:20 p.m.
Nov. 25 @ Indianapolis 1:00 p.m.
Dec. 2 JACKSONVILLE 1:00 p.m.
Dec. 9 ST. LOUIS 1:00 p.m.
Dec. 16 Seattle (@ Toronto) 4:00 p.m.
Dec. 23 @ Miami 1:00 p.m.
Dec. 30 N.Y. Jets 1:00 p.m.