By JOHN WAWROW
Niagara Gazette — PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Mario Williams arrived for the start of Buffalo Bills training camp Friday wearing his expectations in plain sight.
It came in the form of a red, white and blue Superman letter "S," stitched on the cap the defensive end nicknamed "Super Mario" wore while unloading his belongings in front of the St. John Fisher College dorm Bills players will call home for the next month.
"The hat gives me motivation," Williams said. "You can't get any better than Superman."
Williams and the Bills, then, have much to prove if they intend to come anywhere close to resembling men of steel in preparing to open camp with a workout and physicals on Saturday, followed by their first practice Sunday night.
Williams is coming off an inconsistent first season in Buffalo, during which he failed to play to the six-year, $100 million contract he signed in free agency.
And the Bills are coming off one of the franchise's most significant offseason overhauls after a 6-10 finish in which they extended the NFL's longest active playoff drought to 13 years.
Buffalo brought in a new coach, Doug Marrone, promoted Doug Whaley to take over as general manager after Buddy Nix stepped down, purged numerous veterans, and drafted quarterback EJ Manuel in the first round.
Williams shrugged off the past, saying the opening of camp serves as an opportunity for a fresh start. And he sees no reason why the Bills can't be considered contenders.
"It's just as realistic as us standing here right now," Williams said. "At the end of the day, we've just got to go out and we've got to do it. No ifs, ands or buts about it. No excuses."
The Bills came up with plenty of excuses for their woes last year. And that included Williams, who blamed his poor start to the season on a nagging left wrist injury he eventually had surgically repaired after seven games.
"We have to be able to put that behind us," he said. "It's a brand new year, and everything's up for grabs. Everything's up for the taking."
Optimism aside, the Bills open camp with many holes to fill and questions to answer.
They begin at quarterback with Manuel set to resume his competition for the starting job with veteran free-agent addition Kevin Kolb.
Though Manuel showed signs of his potential during spring practices, Marrone had indicated the player lacked polish. Marrone said both will be given a fair shot to win the job before the Bills open the season hosting AFC East rival New England on Sept. 8.
"I think it's a huge opportunity," said Manuel, the Florida State product who was the only quarterback selected in the first round. "I want to come out and make everybody happy, all the people in the front office and just continue to get better."
Another issue is the status of safety Jairus Byrd, who remains unsigned. The two-time Pro Bowl player isn't expected to report this weekend, and could miss the entire preseason because he and the Bills are at a stalemate in contract talks.
The Bills retained Byrd's rights, designating him their franchise player in March. The two sides failed to negotiate a long-term deal before a July 15 deadline. Byrd, who has not participated in practice this offseason, has yet to accept the Bills' one-year, $6.9 million contract offer.
"He'll be missed a lot," cornerback Stephon Gilmore said of Byrd, who led the team last season with five interceptions and four forced fumbles. "You don't come across too many guys like him because he's a great player."
Gilmore and several teammates have been in constant contact with Byrd, and provided him insights on the defense being installed by new coordinator Mike Pettine.
The Bills open the preseason at Indianapolis on Aug. 11. Training camp in suburban Rochester will run through Aug. 21.
There will also be a competition for the second and third receiver jobs behind returning starter Stevie Johnson. Rookie second- and third-round picks Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin along with undrafted rookie free agents Da'Rick Rogers and Brandon Kaufman are among the candidates.
Johnson was also upbeat about the Bills future.
"Why not now? Why not us?" the receiver said. "We're going to do it. We're going to make it happen."