Lynch one of seven current and former Bills with issues (Photo Source)
"Character." It's the overriding quality of hard work and "team player" that former Buffalo Bills GM Marv Levy and his regime worked hard to build a new team around in his two-year run from 2006 to 2007. Those two character-based teams finished 7-9 in consecutive years under the leadership of Dick Jauron, and with the team moving in the correct direction talent-wise, Levy saw fit to retire for a second time from the Bills organization, which handed the reigns to a trio of Levy's understudies.
In one off-season, however, several Bills players have developed issues that fall outside of the perceived "character" spectrum that could become distractions to the franchise for the foreseeable future. Whether we're talking about legal issues, contractual issues or playing time issues, the fact remains that the Bills currently have five players with very specific stories to follow - all with varying degrees of severity. Ironically, all five are offensive players for the Bills.
Five Offensive Players With Issues
Clearly, the affair du jours is RB Marshawn Lynch's apparent hit-and-run incident from this past weekend. If it's found that Lynch was the driver and fled the scene of the accident, he'll be charged with a high-level misdemeanor and face up to a year of jail time; we haven't even discussed league punishment yet. WR James Hardy (allegedly pulling a gun on his father; no charges filed) and WR Roscoe Parrish (DUI) have also had runs-in with the law this off-season. Hardy appears to be out of the woods, but we have not been able to confirm the same for Parrish, who may face league punishment as well.
Two more players aren't in legal trouble, but have other issues which will provide story lines until the matters are resolved. QB J.P. Losman appears set to play out the final year of his contract as a Bill in 2008 (good for him!), but it doesn't change the fact that he'd prefer to be traded. That isn't necessarily a reflection on Losman's character - if anything, the fact that he's honoring his contract is a good thing for his rep - but it has added to the turmoil of Buffalo's off-season. So has the apparent decision of OT Jason Peters to seek a new contract; Buffalo's best offensive lineman (offensive player?) has missed every practice of the team's voluntary OTAs in what has been described as a tactic to get a new contract.
Even two former Bills - defensive end Anthony Hargrove and linebacker Mario Haggan - have had their issues. Hargrove was suspended for the 2008 season after failing a third drug test; he's likely done with professional football in the NFL for it. Haggan, meanwhile, tested positive for banned substances he apparently acquired from an over-the-counter (legal) supplement. He'll miss the first four games of the '08 season and remains an unrestricted free agent.
What is "Character"?
Maybe Bills fans - including yours truly - have been working under a different assumption of what the word "character" means than the Bills organization itself has. Often misrepresented as "choir boys" or other assorted metaphors, I've personally always viewed character players as guys who work hard, buy into the team attitude, and do their job the right way. Naturally, given this viewpoint (which I'm positive isn't shared by everyone here), I've been disappointed with some of the issues that have arisen this off-season, specifically in the case of Lynch, Hardy and Parrish.
But there's also an important part of character that is going to play a big factor in the future of the three guys I just mentioned - learning from your mistakes. Will Lynch learn from his mistake, follow through on the legal process, accept his punishment and keep his nose clean? Will Parrish do the same? Again, Hardy appears to be out of the woods for now, but he's had repeated issues stemming from his college days - can he stay out of trouble?
To me, character is also about putting aside petty differences and playing the game. We're seeing Losman doing that already - his head is down and he's not talking to the media, but he's practicing (sometimes) voluntarily with the team, honoring his deal. It's likely that Peters does the same, though a holdout is not out of the question. Those guys have character. I believe that Lynch, Hardy and Parrish have high character as well. They just need to start proving it.
One thing is certain - this has been a stressful off-season in Buffalo. Plenty of change (see: free agents/draft class/releases); plenty of gambles (see: Turk Schonert, Trent Edwards); and now, plenty of turmoil. Do the Bills remain a high-character team under the post-Levy regime? Only time will tell.