Buffalo Bills still work in progress
Not long after the Buffalo Bills traded veteran receiver Lee Evans two weeks into training camp, Fred Jackson looked around the locker room to find a lot of young and unfamiliar faces.
''It's been a major adjustment,'' the fifth-year running back said. ''I can't think of five guys who are still here when I first got here. It's a bit different.''
It is for a team that has nine players left on its roster since 2007 - none of them first-round picks. In fact, the entire 2007 draft class has either been cut or traded, leaving Jackson wondering whether the Bills can ever get it right.
''That's always the hope but you just never know,'' Jackson said. ''You've got to keep going out and preparing and hoping that they do finally get it right.''
The more things have changed, the more they've tended to stay dysfunctionally the same on a team in perennial rebuilding mode.
It has been 12 seasons since the Bills last made the playoffs. It's a stretch in which Buffalo has gone through four coaches, three general managers, countless quarterback carousels, a growing number of first-round draft duds and a one-year flirtation with Terrell Owens only to have enjoyed one winning season - 9-7 in 2004.
And there are questions as to how far ahead they might be entering the second year of their latest new era under coach Chan Gailey and general manager Buddy Nix.
Evans getting traded to Baltimore for a fourth-round pick was a head-scratcher. The Bills gave up a seven-year veteran, a team leader and their most proven receiver on an offense that made modest gains last year by finishing 25th in the NFL.
And there are more question marks than exclamation points in other areas.
The offensive line has proven thin and leaky after two preseason games.
And the usually even-keeled Jackson has started expressing his frustrations, questioning whether he's underappreciated as the team's top rusher.
Gailey didn't have any illusions regarding what he was getting into when he was hired some 20 months ago.
''First of all, you normally don't get a job unless there's a lot of work to do, OK?'' Gailey said. ''I just evaluate where we are, where we want to be, and how we're going to get there.''
And yet he'll acknowledge the Bills aren't getting there fast enough.
''We're still a work in progress,'' he said. ''But I think we've got the ability. If we gain that one intangible of confidence, I think that these guys don't realize how good they can be yet.''
It's as optimistic as Gailey can get given the Bills are still enduring the telltale growing pains that followed last year's start-from-scratch beginnings, which resulted in an 0-8 start and a 4-12 finish.
The Bills aren't bereft of talent or potential.
The most significant improvements have come on defense in a major bid to overhaul a patchwork and porous unit that couldn't stop the run and had difficulty applying pressure last year.
Rookie defensive lineman Marcell Dareus, selected third overall in the draft, has been a run-stopping and pass-rushing beast in practice and preseason games.
The Bills also shored up their linebackers. Eight-year veteran Nick Barnett was signed to replace the free-agent loss of Paul Posluszny. And Shawne Merriman, picked up on waivers in November, is looking healthy and showing glimpses of returning to his once dominating ''Lights Out'' form.
The offense under quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, remains a question mark. He took over the starting job three weeks into last season, and provided a spark, but there's only so much Fitzpatrick can. He plays in front of an unsettled offensive line and with a mostly untested group of receivers. With Evans gone, the Bills are counting on Stevie Johnson to build on his breakout season last year.
Nix has provided varying explanations on the Evans trade.
Initially, he described the move as one that will allow Buffalo's younger receivers to develop.
A few days later, Nix attempted to put the trade behind him by telling The Associated Press that there were a lot of things that went into the deal that he couldn't elaborate on publicly.
Nix didn't handle trade talks, leaving that job with Jim Overdorf, the team's salary cap specialist and senior vice president of football administration.
What's unmistakable is how Evans' departure shed light on much of what's gone wrong.
This is a team that's gone through so many roster turnovers that fans haven't had a chance to keep up. During training camp, there were as many people in the stands wearing jerseys of former players - Posluszny, Takeo Spikes, Marshawn Lynch, Willis McGahee, J.P. Losman and Drew Bledsoe - as there were of current players.
Evans' trade did not sit well with numerous veterans. Cornerback Drayton Florence went so far as to post comments on his Twitter account questioning whether the Bills were ''trying to win now or later?''
It's been 11 seasons and counting.