ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Four oversized AFC Championship banners hang on the wall in one end zone of the Bills’ indoor practice facility. In between is an oversized cutout of the Lombardi Trophy.
Head coach Doug Marrone, in his second season, wanted them plastered on the walls where his team practices every day to serve as a constant reminder that this used to be a championship-caliber team, and it expects to get back to that level again.
The Bills, a team that dominated the AFC in the 1990s and reached four consecutive Super Bowls, have the longest current playoff drought of any NFL team: 14 seasons.
And yet the Bills toss around the “P-word” liberally this training camp. General manager Doug Whaley wasn’t afraid to talk about the playoffs when trading up for star receiver Sammy Watkins in May’s draft. Marrone hasn’t been afraid to mention “playoffs” to EJ Manuel, the enigmatic quarterback entering only his second season.
Their last playoff game was the “Music City Miracle” in January of 2000, but the Bills, who traded away next year’s first-round pick for Watkins, are definitely “all-in” this season.
“It’s not a secret around here that our goal is to go to the playoffs,” Marrone said. “I always worry about if people have higher expectations than you have for yourself. I always tell the players that. We haven’t been in the playoffs for a while, it’s been 15 years, but that’s what our goal is. We’ve got to get there.”
On paper, the Bills have some nice pieces. Last year they were the NFL’s No. 2 rushing team behind C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. They have a ferocious defensive line headlined by Mario Williams. Former Patriot Brandon Spikes should help improve their 28th-ranked run defense. And Watkins has looked like a bona fide star ever since making a spectacular one-handed catch on one of the first days of camp.
But the Bills went 6-10 last year, and it’s hard seeing them breaking their playoff drought this soon, especially in the AFC East. The Bills have lost 20 of their last 21 games to the Patriots, and that trend probably won’t end any time soon.
“We’ve had them on the ropes so many times, and they still beat us,” center Eric Wood said.
“They are where we need to be, and every move we make is towards beating them and de-crowning them,” Whaley said.
These being the Bills, the initial optimism following Watkins’s arrival has quickly been muted. Training camp has been ugly for the Bills, who spent a whopping 36 days in the dorm rooms at St. John Fisher College while their practice facility back in Buffalo underwent a $130 million facelift.
Before camp even began, they lost star linebacker Kiko Alonso to a torn ACL in July. The offense has been a mess — starters produced just four field goals on their first 18 drives in preseason games — and was booed off the field Saturday against Tampa Bay.
Watkins has a rib injury that kept him out for more than a week. Training camp was marred in the last week by several fights among players, which were recorded and broadcast to the world.
And there was a big embarrassment over the weekend with the release of defensive lineman Alan Branch, who was arrested for drunk driving after he was seen vomiting out of his car window mere hours before the game against the Bucs. The Bills just gave Branch a new contract with a $3.1 million signing bonus this offseason, but didn’t hesitate with the move (Branch also was underperforming in camp).
“The one thing we don’t want to do is just to hold on to people just to make ourselves look right,” Whaley said. “That’s a lesson we’ve learned. Hey, let’s cut bait and move on.”
All of the negativity from camp can be quickly washed away if the Bills get off to a good start in Week 1 against Chicago and if Manuel, drafted No. 16 overall last year, shakes off an inconsistent rookie season.
Manuel averaged 197 passing yards in 10 games as a rookie, with 11 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, and 28 sacks as he battled through knee injuries. He is completing more than 66 percent of his passes this preseason, but isn’t producing yards or points.
Buffalo legend Jim Kelly was asked on Sirius XM radio Monday what he thinks of the team’s quarterback situation — Jeff Tuel and Thad Lewis are behind Manuel — and Kelly didn’t hold back.
“To be honest with you, I’m not happy with any of them,” Kelly said. “That is a position without a doubt that is going to determine how the Buffalo Bills do this year. We’ve got a good defense, we’ve got great receivers, a good running back.
“It’s up to EJ. He’ll take us as far as he can. I just hope he starts playing better.”
Marrone said that Manuel, only 24 years old, puts too much pressure on himself to be perfect on every play.
“There’s a level of frustration that occurs with everyone,” said the coach. “How you handle it is important, especially at that position. And he tries harder and harder and harder, and tries to be more precise. We just need to go back there and relax and go.”
As if Manuel’s progress and finding a replacement for Alonso weren’t daunting enough, the Bills have a seemingly impossible closing stretch to their schedule: at Denver, vs. Green Bay, at Oakland, at New England.
It will take a perfect season of luck, health, and everything coming together at the right time for the Bills to finally end their playoff drought.
“We’ve got to continue to work hard, practice well — all the things you hear coaches say — we’ve got to do that all the time for us to be successful,” Marrone said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin