As I sit here writing this I am (like many of you, I’m sure) taking in a lazy weekend of NFL playoff football – a lazy weekend that just a couple of months ago seemed like it would mean so much more. Back then, about the mid-point of the 2011 season, it looked as if Buffalo was destined for, at the very least, an appearance in the opening Wildcard round of the playoffs, if not a division title. We all know how things have turned out since then, for certain, but now it’s just business as usual for many of us.
The second weekend of January has long since been the time that I pick my dog in the fight and try to decide who I’m going to root for on the path to the Lombardi trophy. Knowing many of you personally, I apologize for the cringe and look of disgust on your face right now. Yes, I do this, and I’ve never been proud of it. I don’t do it in any other sport, but I have such an affinity for football that it feels wrong to be indulging in a game and not pulling for someone. That’s the nature of the sport for me, and it’s why I can’t watch our divisional matchups that don’t include us. A Jet – Patriot game is about as boring as a post-game interview with Dick Jauron to me, and that’s saying something. Still, another year has ended with Buffalo cleaning out their lockers while twelve other teams are preparing for meaningful football, so I mark my allegiance (this year with Green Bay, yet again) and start thinking about the spring.
It’s odd here, though. We go through the same motions at the end of every campaign, it seems. The season comes to an end and fans start to let their disappointments slip away to discuss what next year could hold – what this next team could be. I’ve got to say, as depressing as it is to come to that realization, it’s fun. We’ve always got a little hope, because most of this team’s faithful have an understanding that last year’s numbers don’t matter. Your old records and stats mean nothing in the here and now. Come September, no matter what, optimism will be abound. Ryan Fitzpatrick will be coming into his second season as the team’s starting quarterback (most likely, at least… this is Buffalo, after all) and will be ditching his razor for another few months while he grows out his trademark chin fur until Buffalo’s season is wrapped up again, regardless of how that may occur. Chan Gailey will enter his do-or-die year as the Bills’ head coach, looking to improve upon his 10-22 record with a playoff berth, and some fresh young millionaire will be beginning his professional football career as the most recent 10th overall pick of the Buffalo Bills.
Between now and then, though, many changes will be coming to this franchise. Already, a day after the season ended, coach Gailey came out and made a move that we all had a feeling would happen soon enough when he fired defensive coordinator George Edwards and gave the job to inside linebackers coach and Assistant Head coach Dave Wannstedt. It’s good to see they didn’t delay that move, as it gives Wannstedt plenty of time for evaluation of the 30 some-odd defensive players currently employed in one way or another by the team. One of his first challenges to tackle, as prefaced in his introductory press conference earlier this week, is which style of defense he is going to run in 2012. Wannstedt has an extensive history as a blitz-heavy, aggressive 4-3 coach who likes to be able to put his defensive backs on islands and bring heat on every down. Buffalo has been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, for two years now to make the switch to a 3-4 front under Edwards, and in all actuality, it seems that they truly may be able to make a case for being better with the players they have as a four-man-front team. Sure, tweaks would need to be made here and there, but a front seven based in a tackle duo of Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams plugging the middle sounds mighty enticing, regardless of who you put around them. Many of Wannstedt’s players would project just fine back into the 4-3, and he has a good young group to continue developing with guys like Dareus, Kelvin Sheppard, Aaron Williams, Justin Rogers, and Da’Norris Searcy. No matter which schemes he chooses, with that man at the helm and injured players returning, this defensive unit should be massively improved over what we saw in 2011, and that’s definitely something to look forward to.
Speaking of coaching, my coach-of-the-year for the 2011 Bills team is undoubtedly Joe D’Alessandris, who presided over one of the most consistent offensive lines in football. D’Alessandris’ patched-together unit was best in the league when it came to sacks allowed (23) and tied for 4th with 4.9 yards per rushing attempt (best in the AFC) with the most inexperienced group of starters in the league (154 starts amongst everyone who started a game in 2011 – Detroit, in comparison, led with 523). He didn’t do too shabby in 2010 either with yet another depleted group of guys, so now that there’s some decent depth developing, I can only imagine this upcoming season being another solid one for his group. Returning starters Andy Levitre, Eric Wood, Kraig Urbik, and Erik Pears will go a long way in making that happen, as well as key backups Chad Rinehart (if re-signed) and Colin Brown, regardless of whether Demetrius Bell (a free agent) or Chris Hairston anchors the left side going forward.
The team saw similar production and literally zero drop-off between swaps of Bell and Hairston (as well as Levitre, briefly) at that position. That, right there, is reason enough for me to immediately dismiss the idea of them chasing a ‘premier’ left tackle such as Southern Cal’s Matt Kalil when they pick 10th in April’s draft. At this point, there are only essentially two positions that I can see them going after with that selection. Surely things will change with free agency and trades, and my tune may differ greatly by the time the day actually rolls around, but I think that wide receiver and pass rusher are the most necessary and coveted positions by the Bills in the first round this year. Regardless of whether or not Steve Johnson returns (that’s a discussion for another day), this offense needs another starting-caliber receiver, as Donald Jones and Brad Smith simply don’t cut it. If Johnson walks in free agency, a high selection could easily step in and be Fitzpatrick’s top target – if he stays, the field is just that much more open for Johnson, the rookie, and whomever else is touching the ball. As far as a pass rusher goes, whichever front the team goes with they’ll need someone who can generate pressure on the quarterback. Gailey expects veteran linebacker Shawne Merriman to return, but whether or not he can play is still in question. Buffalo tied for the third worst sack total in the league this year with only 29 – and ten of those came in one game, against Washington. Clearly, some help is needed in that area, whether it comes via a 4-3 end or 3-4 linebacker.
Even if the team only sees a slight improvement, if they can stay healthy at key positions (much unlike 2011), they should have a better record this year – on paper, at least. The Bills have drawn the card of 3rd easiest schedule in 2012 after playing 2011 with the second hardest and producing six wins. Buffalo’s out-of-division home opponents include Jacksonville, Tennessee, Kansas City, Seattle, and St. Louis and they’ll make trips to Houston, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Arizona, and San Francisco. These teams combined for a .419 winning percentage with a 67-93 record – only the Packers and Patriots will face opponents with worse statistics. Again, it’s all based on numbers and this is solely on paper, but things definitely seem favorable for them moving forward.
With still just under two months to go before we can start in on free agency and an additional two before the draft, we’ve got plenty to look at and discuss coming up. Our own contract situations, front office moves, other team’s prospects, college players, and more – I hope you’ll all be here to enjoy it with us as time pushes on. I appreciate each of you for taking your time to check this out as well as sharing with others over the past year, helping the site and it’s activity to grow. I’m looking forward to more of the same in the future – until next time.