4-12 in an extended training camp.

“They’re probably four or five games away from being a 9-7 or 10-6 team, easily.”

– Bills OLB #55, Shawne Merriman

2010 was the start of an era in Buffalo. We saw myriad changes and adjustments, most notably and seriously the hirings of General Manager Buddy Nix and his Head Coach Chan Gailey. Around league circles, Gailey is – and has been for years – known as a teacher, an artist with the clay that is a young NFL athletic prospect. He’s turned nobodies like Jay Fiedler, Kordell Stewart, and Mike Tomczak into the illusionary facsimile of a legitimate NFL quarterback. His schemes, looks, formations, and gameplans have routinely made something out of nothing in both the college and pro levels. Nix is largely credited with helping former Bills front office members John Butler and AJ Smith build the strong, talented roster that they have in San Diego through the draft and low-level free agent acquisitions.

Their signings with Buffalo were balked at by national and local media alike. Rumblings arose that the pair were over-the-hill has beens, uninspired hires by owner Ralph Wilson. When looking at the four-win season that their team compiled in its inaugural outing, it’s easy to agree with the critics. Sometimes, however, wins don’t tell the whole story. These men milked the advantages of the system, using 2010 as an extended training camp and tryout period. Weekly, there were roster moves, transactions, practice squad shifts, position changes, and depth chart shuffles. Nix, Gailey, and their staff ran a 17 week tryout for their 2011 roster, evaluating every aspect of every body they had under contract throughout the season. The turnover was huge, eliminating hefty portions of the weak group built by previous coach Dick Jauron, who just this week landed in Cleveland with Head Coach Pat Shurmur as their defensive coordinator following a moderately successful season coaching defensive backs in Philadelphia. Some head-scratching moves were made – Trent Edwards opening the season as starting quarterback and quickly being benched and waived, Marshawn Lynch bring sent to Seattle when there were better offers on the table, and linebacker Chris Kelsay being offered a contract extension when his play as a Buffalo Bill has never deemed such a deal necessary come to mind immediately.

All in all, the lengthy evaluation processes and trial-and-error episodes should pay off going forward. The above quote by mid-season waiver wire acquisition Shawne Merriman (formerly of San Diego, a draft pick of Nix) may seem remedial and idiotic, but, when you put thought into it, he’s right. This team was in most every game they played this season and it’s not all too farfetched to fathom that, with a few more key pieces, with a few less personnel mistakes, they could have been in the thick of the division hunt. Could have been involved in the playoff picture. If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we might have won more games, we might have done this, we might have done that. What’s done is done, and we look forward.

Following the season, the only moves made – thus far, at least – have been the release of inside linebackers coach DeMontie Cross (a holdover from the previous staff) and the hiring, just this week, of former Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins, and Pittsburgh Panthers head coach Dave Wannstedt in the same capacity – with the added responsibilities of being the Assistant Head Coach to Gailey. Wannstedt and Gailey are good friends – have worked together with each other on stops in Miami and Dallas, and should mesh well together. This move – the acquisition of Wannstedt – means a few main things for this team. First off, we will almost assuredly be moving to a full-time 4-3 defense. Under DC George Edwards, we began as, primarily, a 3-4 team. Throughout the season, the three-man base was proven un-effective as we shifted to a hybrid scheme and eventually a more successful four man front. Wannstedt is not only a great defensive coach, but a master of the 4-3 defense. Second, we will become much more blitz-heavy. Wannstedt’s pedigree in his coaching history stems from the consistent pressure applied to quarterbacks by his linemen and ‘backers. In 2009, his Pittsburgh Panthers led the NCAA in sacks, and in 2010, led the Big East in the same category. It’s a welcome change, with players such as Arthur Moats, Aaron Maybin, and Merriman coming off the edge behind down linemen like Dwan Edwards and Pro-Bowler Kyle Williams. If effective, it’ll definitely help the secondary, as well. Help them return to 2009 form, when under the tutelage of former defensive backs Jauron and Perry Fewell, they formed the number two passing defense in the NFL. In my opinion, the Wannstedt hire will be a great positive for this team, whose main weak-spot in 2010 was their defense. Wannstedt should hold the same capacity in the defense as Gailey does with the offense, where Curtis Modkins is the offensive coordinator by name, but Gailey runs the show. Similar should be expected with Wannstedt looming over Edwards, and considering how awful the defense was as a whole, that’s a very good thing.

Big news in advancing the defense’s strength and pass-rush capabilities was Merriman’s signing of a two-year extension with the team, something unexpected of him when he was claimed by the club this fall. If no longer a great player, as some have said, he is at worst a great motivator and leader for the young corps that will be leading this defense for the next few seasons – not a shabby stance to hold.

I’d be surprised to see the team go anywhere but defense with their first selection in April’s draft, a topic I will cover ad nauseam over the next few months, so won’t touch on here. Just expect a much more balanced effectiveness between offensive and defensive staffs for the upcoming season, something that may make those four or five games winnable. May make the team more respectable, make them more viable. With the third overall pick in the 2011 draft and free agency upcoming, and the talent the team has already worked on, worked out, evaluated, shifted, and found out about – the Buffalo Bills are primed to have every opportunity to provide their fans with an exciting, improved, and winning ballclub going forward.

For my, your, and the rest of Billsnation’s hearts, I sure hope so, as we could damn well use it after 11 years of disappointment.

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