Is it Time to Wear Bags on Our Heads
By Steven Zapel
With the Bills starting the season 0-7, many fans have been left with their head in their hands and yearning for the glory days of old on Sundays. Going into this season, there were not many who felt the Bills had any chance of success in 2010, with most critics and experts predicting the Bills to be at the bottom of the standings when the season was over.
After a close opening game against Miami in week one, in which the defense made all the right half-time adjustments and shut down a fairly potent Miami offense in the second half, many Bills fans felt there could be the possibility for surprise with the rest of the season. If only head coach Chan Gailey could do what he was brought in to do and turn the Bills offense around, the Bills might be able to win more games than expected as long as their defense could play like they did against Miami.
Gailey is known around the league as an offensive guru, based on his previous success in the league as an offensive coordinator. Well, the fans got part of their wish when the Bills released quarterback Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick took over the starting quarterback position; the offense using Gailey’s system began to flourish. With Fitzpatrick on pace to throw 38 touchdowns, with the second highest QB rating in the league (behind only Peyton Manning), and having the first 300-yard passing game in over 60 games for the Bills (ending the longest drought in league history of consecutive games played without a 300-yards passer), Fitzpatrick is leading a Bills offense that is suddenly quite potent.
In Gailey’s system, Lee Evans has reemerged as a serious offensive threat as a # 1 receiver, showing he can do a lot more than just catch the deep ball and finally earning the $9 million a year the team is paying him (which is the largest contract in Bills history). The questions coming into the season as to whether or not Stevie Johnson could be a # 2 in this league and if Roscoe Parrish could be a productive contributor to the offense (despite his small frame without getting injured) seem to have been answered. Johnson leads the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, while Parrish has given the Bills offense a substantial threat as a slot receiver (something the Bills never had under Dick Jauron).
Though it’s not all praise for Chan Gailey’s offense, the running game has been a virtual non-factor during the first seven games of the season and there has been little to no productivity out of the tight-end position. One big question also remains: where is CJ Spiller.
The Bills drafted Spiller with the #9 overall pick in last year’s draft, with the notion of bringing an electric playmaker onto the team, who has the possibility to score from anywhere on the field, whenever he gets his hands on the ball. Besides the game against New England in week 3, Spiller has mainly been resigned to a kick-returner's role, getting very limited playing time on offense. Portrayed as a “do it all” kind of back going into the season, most fans thought they would see a lot more of Spiller (either as a runningback or a receiver).
Whether or not Gailey is trying to protect his investment in Spiller and save him for next year when the team will hopefully have a more legitimate shot at success, many fans bought tickets to see the kid play and Gailey needs to find a way to utilize Spiller’s explosiveness more often in his offense. The lack of playing time for Spiller has some fans beginning to wonder if he's the next in a long line of bad first-round draft picks by the Bills. I say give it a little more time with Spiller and hopefully as he continues to impress with kick-returns, Gailey will feel a greater sense of urgency to get the ball in his hands more often on offense (allowing him to establish a bit of a rhythm, instead of playing 1 or 2 snaps at a time).
With the return of Shawn Nelson from suspension and injury, the Bills should see a significant improvement in performance at the tight-end position. As the season continues and the players become more and more comfortable with Gailey’s system and their respective roles within that system, I look for the Bills offense to continue to improve and to eliminate the types of mistakes being made on the offensive side of the ball that are adding to their 0-7 record.
Even with the vast offensive improvement on the Bills from the Jauron era, the Bills are still not winning, and that can be explained in two words: horrible defense. The game against Miami was a defensive façade and the Bills defense has not been able to even come close to repeating the performance they had week one.
The Bills defense is on-pace to set the league's record for most points allowed by a team in one season since the beginning of the Superbowl era. The defense has given up over 30 points in their last five games (prior to Sunday’s game against Kansas City). Coming into the season, most fans and critics expected the Bills defense to have some holes and to make their fair share of mistakes because they were switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4.
Recent history in the NFL shows that teams making that switch struggle out of the gate but vastly improve by the end of the season, as well as improving from the previous season. Take the Green Bay Packers, for instance (who made the same switch last year that Buffalo made this year). They finished last year with one of the league's strongest defenses and had the league’s defensive M.V.P. in Charles Woodson. Several other teams have made the same shift in recent years, including the Washington Redskins this year, and all of them have had success in the new 3-4 scheme, except Buffalo.
Going into this season, most experts as well as fans felt the Bills lacked the kind of players at the defensive skill positions necessary to run a 3-4. With considerable holes at the outside linebacker positions and the nose-tackle position, the Bills were viewed to have their defensive struggles this year, but I do not believe any fan or expert expected their defense to be this dismal.
Coming out of last year's draft, Aaron Maybin was considered to be one of the college players with the most potential for success at the outside linebacker position in a 3-4 defense. Coming into this season, the Bills hoped he would continue to (some fans and critics might say begin to) develop as a player and be able to step into the role as the Bills' main threat in regards to a pass rush.
Maybin has done the opposite and seems to have somehow managed to regress, resulting in his playing time being reduced dramatically, and was actually made inactive for the Bills last two games -- making him a “healthy scratch” from the game, to borrow a hockey term. Maybin is rapidly approaching the status of being known as the Bills' biggest draft bust, coming in second maybe only to Mike Williams (the left tackle from Texas, drafted #4 overall by the Bills in the 2002 NFL draft).
The Bills drafted Torell Troup with the 41st overall pick in last year’s draft, an experienced nose-tackle in the 3-4 system out of Central Florida, to try to fill the hole they had at the nose-tackle. Troup has shown promising signs during his time on the field, but still has a lot of learning and growing to do before he becomes an elite or even a quality starting nose-tackle in this league.
Kyle Williams has assumed the role of starting nose-tackle for the Bills, but despite his hard-nosed blue collar effort he lacks the size and physical build to play such a demanding position with great efficiency. Williams' small size (it’s hard to call a guy who is 6’1 and 306 lbs. small, but for NFL nose-tackles he is) has proven to be a hamper on this career over-achiever, causing him to battle injuries and struggle to stay on the field this season.
The linebacking core saw the addition of several new faces, who have experience in a 3-4 defense: Andra Davis, Reggie Torbor, and Akin Ayodele. All three are probably best-suited to play inside linebacker, though Torbor has started the Bills last three games at outside linebacker. Torbor and Davis, along with Paul Posloszny, have struggled to remain healthy and on the field.
The other outside linebacker position has been filled by Chris Kelsey, a converted defensive end. Kelsey is another one of the Bills' blue collar style of defensive players who give a hundred percent on every play but is simply over matched and lacks the necessary skills and physical attributes to be successful at his position.
Kelsey is a player who garners a lot of respect in the locker room and tries his best on every play, but in some ways is the epitome of the Bills defense, undersized and under-skilled. The Bills raised a lot of eyebrows as well as concerns among fans recently when they signed Kelsey to a 4-year contract extension, claiming his leadership skills and effort on the field were the main reasons for the extension.
Fans and experts were left questioning the move, not because he does not bring to the table the things the Bills front office said he does, but because anyone watching the last seven games has witnessed Kelsey get beat in coverage, beat by opposing runningbacks, and beat by offensive lineman time and time again. For every good play Kelsey has made this year, he has been burned or beaten on five others.
All of these factors along the Bills defensive line and linebacking core have resulted in the Bills defensive front 7, allowing a dismal 174.5 ypg rushing average by their opponents, which is 16.8 ypg worse than the 31st ranked Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the run.
Coming into this season, the one strength the Bills were viewed as having on defense is their secondary. The Bills secondary finished second in the league last year in yards allowed per game, allowing only 184.2 ypg, and second in the league in interceptions, with 28. Rookie Jairus Byrd finished tied for the league lead with 9 interceptions.
Though the secondary may still be the strongest and deepest unit on the Bills defense, their production has severely diminished early in this season. The Bills defense ranks dead last in interceptions this year, recording only one through the first seven games. The secondary is ranked 9th in passing ypg allowed, which shows that the Bills secondary does still have as much talent and depth as any team in the league, although those numbers might be slightly misleading because opposing teams have been able to run against the Bills defense at will and have not had the need to pass the ball to win in most cases.
With all of this, I am left to wonder if Ron Edwards is the right man for the job as the Bills defensive coordinator. Edwards has not been able to create a successful defensive game plan in any game the Bills have played. And with the exception of the Miami game (Kansas City shot themselves in the foot in the second half, and their lack of points was more due to that than the Bills defense) he has seemed unable to make the proper halftime adjustments needed to put his defense in the position to make plays, create turnovers, or simply slow down their opponent’s ability to move the ball and score points.
Edwards has very little experience as a defensive coordinator prior to joining the Bills, and I believe he lacks the necessary intelligence and understanding of every aspect on defense, which the great defensive coordinators have needed to properly prepare a defense unit for success in this league. Edwards is a great linebackers coach and when limiting his role to that specific unit he has shown great ability and achieved decent levels of success. But I believe he's a little over his head trying to be responsible for the whole defense instead of just the linebacking core.
Will the Bills win a game this year? I think the Bills have several games remaining on their schedule that are winnable. They play the Detriot Lions, who are always sporadic and have a defense equally as poor as the Bills', and are plagued by injuries that could result in the Bills having a great look at beating them. The Bills also get to play the Chicago Bears, and the interception king Jay Cutler. If the Bills can find a way to slow down Matt Forte in that game, Chicago is a team with the potential to lose another upset like they did against Seattle.
Lastly, the Bills play the Cleveland Browns. Now I know the Browns have had our number in previous years, but that was under Jauron’s play to keep the score close mentality which prevented our offense from breaking out and racking up the kind of yards and points possible against suspect Browns defense. As well, the Browns have played their best games at home and been far less formidable on the road, and they have to come to Ralph Wilson Stadium this year.
Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? I believe there is. I have felt for a long time now that the Bills needed to bottom out and actually undergo a complete rebuilding of the team. Under Jauron the Bills seemed to perfect mediocrity and were destined to go nowhere because of their commitment to mediocrity.
As the season plays out, the Bills seem to be a lock for a top three draft pick in next year's draft; currently they stand to have the #1 overall pick. I have believed for a while now that the Bills need to draft a top-tier quarterback to come in and become a leader on this team for the next seven to 10 years, and give the Bills some consistency at the quarterback position.
If the Bills end up with the #1 overall draft pick in the 2011 NFL draft, I feel they are left with no other option but to draft a quarterback, simply because no other position warrants the amount of money given to the #1 draft pick via their contract and the amount of guaranteed money given as a part of that contract. If Andrew Luck or Ryan Mallet decides to leave school and declare for the 2011 NFL draft, the Bills should and almost have to draft one of them.
Recently, however, my eyes have been opened to another possible route for the Bills to take in the 2011 NFL draft. If Fitzpatrick continues to play at the level he has played up to this point for the remainder of the season, and Luck and Mallet both decide to return to school for their senior years (which very well could be possible, given the looming potential for an NFL lockout next season), the Bills could go in a different direction in next year's draft.
Given Gailey’s track record of making the playoffs and having successful seasons with virtual no-names quarterbacks, such as Kordel Stewart in Pittsburg and Jay Fiedler in Miami, I could see and support the Bills taking the best available front 7 defensive player, whether it be a nose-tackle or outside linebacker (inside linebacker could be a possibility as well, if there is one who sets himself far above the rest in the draft).
I believe as a fan and objective observer that the Bills have the potential to rebuild their team around several key players already on the team, and like the Indianapolis Colts when they drafted Peyton Manning, develop a team that can become a serious contender within the next few years. The NFL is a parody-driven league and teams go from the cellar to the attic quicker in the NFL than any other professional sports league. If the Saints can win the Superbowl, any team can -- even the Buffalo Bills.