Orchard Park, NY -- Heading in to the 2011 NFL season, most that follow the Buffalo Bills -- if not all -- weren't exactly enamored by the prospects of the offensive line.
It featured a pair of assumed castaways on the right side, a left tackle that was on his last chance, and no depth to write home about. Even one of their promising youngsters, Andy Levitre, was on the verge of losing his job during the preseason. Things were not looking as though they were trending up.
Then, the regular season started and something happened to quell all that concern. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had time to throw, Fred Jackson found plenty of room to run the ball and did so in bunches, sack numbers against the Bills were way, way down.
How exactly did the Bills transform from their preseason woes to one of the best statistical units early on in 2011?
If you ask the men that make up the offensive line and head coach Chan Gailey, one name will be most prevalent:
Offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris.
"He’s done a fantastic job," said head coach Chan Gailey. "The sacks tell you some of what he does. That tells you a little bit about it. It doesn’t tell you the whole story. Being able to mix and match the people that we’ve been able to mix and match the last couple years and still do a reasonable up there. Good at times for the most part and reasonable at other times. That says a lot about the way he gets those guys prepared."
"With Joe D as our leader, we work probably harder than any other o-line. We get after it in practice, we get after it in the games and I feel like we play you should play the O-line," center Eric Wood remarked. "He's demanding. Demanding coaches usually see results. He will not let you settle, he will never let you get complacent and that's worked really well for a lot of young guys coming in and be able to play right away."
"A competitor," right guard Kraig Urbik called D'Alessandris. "He's always one to take every second of every day to go full speed in the drills in everything, and make sure everything is gone over and make sure we get everything correct so that come game time it's really easy. He does a really good job with that. We do a lot of extra work with him and it showed last year with plugging guys in and how well we did."
The linemen who nicknamed themselves 'The Wolfpack,' an allusion to a speech given by Zach Galifinakis in the ever-so popular movie The Hangover, all point to D'Alessandris as the leader of that movement.
He's known by those at One Bills Drive as a coach that asks the world of his players every single minute of every single day. To D'Alessandris, he's known no other way.
"We need to continue to strive for that excellence -- every day, every week," he said. "When I say every day, [I mean] every day. Because if you do it every day, it becomes habit forming and then it carries in to games. How you practice is how you play and I really believe that."
The production from last season is hard to ignore. With a lot of moving pieces due to multiple injuries, the Bills still were atop the league in fewest sacks allowed (23) and also tied for fourth in yards per carry (4.9).
That all plays in to the intensity exuded by D'Alessandris each day at practice. The next time you're at a Bills practice during training camp, you'll see the offensive line coach as the most animated on the field. He'll get down and roll around on the ground to exhibit how exactly he wants a drill run.
When asked if the word 'fiery' would be a good way to describe his positional coach, Urbik agreed.
"He is, yeah. He gets in those moods. It's pretty fun."
"I think sometimes you're born with certain things, traits," D'Alessandris said. "The game has always been important to me as an ex-player and I also felt to coach, to bring that same kind of passion. Teaching it to the players so that you can see that same passion and intensity when they play. I think you just try to feed off each other."
That intensity is something that has helped make players like Erik Pears, Urbik, Andy Levitre and Wood transcend their collective game in to a level fans of the Bills weren't expecting in 2011.
"The first few weeks it's just like learning the technique of what he does. Ever since then I feel like every week that's gone by I've gotten a lot better," said Urbik" "I look at film from my first few weeks here, I went back this off-season, it's just like night and day. It's pretty crazy."
So where do the Bills go from here? A known proponent of technique, D'Alessandris knows it's all about getting every single one of his players prepared for 2012 no matter the situation.
"I know we ask them to do a lot of things, to be versatile," the offensive line coach said. "I think there's a lot of pride in that room by them individually, I think that they take a lot of pride and I think they're true professionals. They come to work every day to learn their trade and then apply it. So that's the good news, and as a coach, that's all you can ask for."
D'Alessandris and the Bills continue their workouts on Tuesday with the start of mandatory mini-camp that extends through Thursday.