Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey delivered a message to his players and to a handful of teenage fans Tuesday: If you mess with one of us, then you mess with all of us.
At the final practice of training camp at St. John Fisher College, the young hecklers chose to make sure the Bills heard their opinions. The kids spent much of the time jeering players, quarterback Trent Edwards in particular.
Gailey spoke to his team at the conclusion of practice and instructed them not to sign autographs for the Statler and Waldorf wannabes, who had stuck around. Then Gailey walked over and told the fans what he thought.
"They said some things during practice that were derogatory to a couple of our players," Gailey said to reporters, "and if you say something derogatory to one of us, you're saying it to all of us. So I told [the players] don't go sign it for that crew."
The gesture might seem minor to some. You might even think it's thin-skinned of Gailey to react this way.
Yes, NFL players should be expected to endure harsh -- even juvenile -- criticism. But that doesn't mean the players have to genuflect in appreciation.
The Bills are starting over almost from scratch as an organization. A feisty attitude and not smiling through the insults is an encouraging departure from the nonchalant tone their shrugmeister former coach, Dick Jauron, fostered.
"Obviously, I’m going to get some criticism," Edwards said. "Hopefully there's more people praising me, but that’s nice that you have a coach that will fight for you. We have fans that want to win. I want to win and they’re more than willing to say what they need to say.
"I'm a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and they're not playing very good baseball right now, and I could probably go off on a couple of their players. I probably wouldn't say it to their face, but if I did I would expect Joe Torre to come after me and say something to me.
"It's nice that I have a head coach that will do that, but they're more than welcome to say whatever they want."
Too many times I've seen fans ride a player unmercifully from the stands only to turn into trembling fawns when the player comes to the rail to sign an autograph or pose for a picture. It's a safe assumption the same fans who grow Internet muscles when they post anonymously on a message board would go scrambling for a Sharpie if they knew they might get to meet the same player they've been ripping online.
A reporter asked Gailey whether he might regret telling the fans what he thought.
"No," Gailey replied. "In my opinion, if you do something you tell people why. When we make a decision with our football team, I tell them why. I told [the players] why we weren't going to [sign autographs], and I told [the fans] why we weren't going over there."