July 23, 2012
With training camps for the 32 NFL teams getting ready to kick off, what better way to welcome the return of the National Football League to our televisions, radios and stream of consciousness than by talking about the chances for success of teams for 2012?
We’ll start with a team that I’m extremely familiar with in the Buffalo Bills. Yes, these aren’t the Bills of the “K-Gun” days with Hall of Famers all over the roster. There is no Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, James Lofton, Bruce Smith and others being coached by Marv Levy. This team hasn’t shown the ability to obliterate opponents seemingly at will utilizing every possible way to score. While that era of Bills football will forever be remembered for four consecutive Super Bowl defeats, let’s remember that no other team has appeared in four straight Super Bowls, before or since.
No, this Bills team is crafted with underdog players, people who were not expected to accomplish big things in the NFL, if they made it there at all. There’s quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who played college football at Harvard and was a backup in St. Louis and Cincinnati before coming to Buffalo. Let’s not forget he was behind “Captain Checkdown” himself, Trent Edwards, when he first came to Buffalo. There’s Fred Jackson at running back, who spent time in two different indoor football leagues and NFL Europe before ever getting a shot at the NFL.
Buffalo has weapons at wide receiver that were unheralded coming out of college as well. Steve Johnson was a seventh round pick out of Kentucky in 2008, while David Nelson was undrafted coming out of the University of Florida. The same can be said for Donald Jones, who Buffalo signed following the 2010 NFL Draft as an undrafted free agent. The production that the Bills have received from those players far exceeds the projections that would have been made when they were originally acquired.
Fitzpatrick took over the starting quarterback role for good three games into the 2010 season when Edwards was cut loose and has tossed 47 touchdown passes since then along with 6,832 yards. Jackson supplanted Marshawn Lynch after Lynch served a suspension back in 2009 and has rushed for at least 927 yards in each of the last three seasons, including 934 last year in ten games before breaking his leg in a game against Miami.
Johnson became the Bills’ top receiving threat in 2010 when he grabbed 82 passes for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns. That performance made Lee Evans expendable and put Johnson at the top of the depth chart. He responded with another solid season in 2011, hauling in 76 passes for 1,004 yards and 7 scores. Johnson became the first Bills receiver to exceed 1,000 yards receiving in consecutive seasons. Nelson caught 61 balls for 658 yards and five touchdowns a year ago.
Offense: 23.2 points per game (14th), 15th in passing yards, 13th in rushing yards, 25th in giveaways
Defense: 27.1 points per game (30th), 19th in passing yards, 28th in rushing yards, 5th in takeaways
The Bills season was a tale of two halves when you get right down to it. They were 5-2 after seven games, with wins over New England and Philadelphia along with a stirring come from behind win over Oakland to go along with a pair of tough three point defeats to the Bengals and eventual Super Bowl champion Giants. Then the whole thing collapsed as injuries piled up and Buffalo dropped eight of their final nine games to finish 6-10. Buffalo’s lone win in that stretch was a convincing 40-14 pasting of Tim Tebow and the Broncos, who would go on to stun the Steelers in the opening round of the AFC playoffs.
One has to consider all the injuries that the Bills sustained in 2011 as a major influence in their second half tailspin. The Bills lost Eric Wood, Jackson, Roscoe Parrish and Donald Jones on offense during the season. Defensively the hits were harder: Kyle Williams, Shawne Merriman, Terrence McGee and Torell Troup were among the players to have their seasons ended prematurely. Even kicker Rian Lindell ended up on the shelf, fracturing his shoulder making a tackle on special teams against the Jets.
Once Buffalo began losing their key players, the wheels came off the bus rather quickly. Buffalo was walloped by Dallas 44-7, hammered by Miami 35-8, waxed by San Diego 37-10 and crushed by New England 49-21 in the second half of the season. Improved health will go a long way to helping Buffalo as they attempt to end a playoff drought that last saw the Bills in the playoffs in 1999, when they lost to Tennessee on the “Music City Miracle” or as Bills fans call it, “The Forward Lateral.”
Key Additions: DE Mario Williams (Houston), DE Mark Anderson (New England), QB Vince Young (Philadelphia), CB Stephon Gilmore (1st round draft pick), T Cordy Glenn (2nd round pick), WR T.J. Graham (3rd round pick), LB Nigel Bradham (4th round pick), CB Ron Brooks (5th round pick.)
Key Losses: WR Roscoe Parrish (San Diego), T Demetress Bell (Philadelphia), CB Drayton Florence (Denver), CB Reggie Corner (Jacksonville), K Brandon Coutu (Jacksonville), LB Andra Davis (unsigned), K Dave Rayner (unsigned), LB Reggie Torbor (unsigned)
The Bills come into 2012 with a lot of optimism and genuine excitement about their prospects for a successful season. Many in the media are projecting Buffalo as a sleeper team and a good portion of them have the Bills breaking their playoff drought, which is currently the longest in the NFL. Whether that comes to fruition will depend greatly on how healthy Buffalo can stay.
Fitzpatrick is fearless in the pocket and is capable of leading Buffalo’s offense against any opponent, regardless of how ferocious a pass rush or difficult a scheme they run. Buffalo has a devastating duo at the running back position in Jackson and C.J. Spiller, who came on late last season to show that he can play at the NFL level. Jackson was having a MVP caliber season before fracturing his leg and missing the final six games of the year. Spiller averaged better than five yards a carry on his 107 rushes while adding 39 receptions. Should the Bills put both of them on the field at the same time, splitting Spiller out in the slot makes for major mismatches for Fitzpatrick to exploit.
Johnson will again be the Bills’ top receiving threat after back to back 1,000 yard seasons. He signed a five year extension with the team back in March and will be a major key in the passing game. Buffalo will look at a collection of young receivers to try and play on the opposite side of Johnson, including third round pick T.J. Graham from North Carolina State. Derek Hagan, Marcus Easley and Donald Jones will also be in the mix for that spot. Whoever gets the gig will need to make some plays to free up Johnson. David Nelson is a tremendous slot receiver who made some clutch grabs for the Bills last season, including a fourth down touchdown in the final minute against Oakland to give the Bills a come from behind victory. After going years without a viable threat at the tight end position, Scott Chandler stepped up and caught 38 passes for 389 yards and six touchdowns for Buffalo. He is a big body in the middle of the field that can be an effective target for Fitzpatrick.
The Bills offensive line may not be sexy as far as name recognition goes, but they proved to be more than capable in opening holes and keeping Fitzpatrick from being sacked last season. The return of Eric Wood to full health will be a major benefit for the Bills. Andy Levitre may be one of the most underrated interior linemen in the league and he played all three positions on the line last season. All told, the Bills allowed just 23 sacks, which was the fewest in the NFL. If second round pick Cordy Glenn beats out Chris Hairston at the left tackle position, the Bills will have a pretty stable offensive line that will be able to help the offense again. The Bills averaged 4.9 yards per rush last season, good for fifth in the league. The Bills finished 13th in the league in rushing yards, a testament to the offensive line as the club was 27th in rushing attempts.
On defense, Buffalo went out and bolstered their pass rush with the acquisitions of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. Williams was the most highly sought after free agent in this year’s class despite missing much of 2011 with an injury. Anderson racked up 12.5 sacks playing in a situational role for New England. Buffalo will also have Kyle Williams back in the middle of the defensive line to play alongside Marcell Dareus, giving Buffalo a devastating defensive front. Expect Chris Kelsay to see reps as well, with Anderson on the field in definite passing situations. The Bills recorded just 29 sacks a year ago, with 10 of those coming in a 23-0 whitewash of the Redskins.
The linebacking corps for the Bills has a good combination of youth and experience. Kelvin Sheppard may well be the starting middle linebacker in his second year with the team. Nick Barnett showed he hadn’t lost a step last season as he led the team with 130 tackles while adding 3 interceptions. Kirk Morrison has the inside track on the other outside position, though Arthur Moats (aka the man that ended Brett Favre’s consecutive games streak) is a dark horse candidate. Merriman may see snaps here or from a defensive end spot in pass rushing situations as well.
The secondary returns George Wilson and Jairus Byrd at the safeties. Both men were stellar for Buffalo a year ago: Wilson totaled 106 tackles and four interceptions for the Bills while Byrd contributed 98 tackles, three interceptions and forced a team high 3 fumbles. Buffalo expects first round draft pick Stephon Gilmore to step in at one cornerback position. Gilmore was solid at South Carolina and as the 10th overall pick in the draft, the Bills are ready to give him an opportunity from day one. The other side may be a three way battle between the injury prone veteran Terrence McGee, the up and down Leodis McKelvin and the second year man Aaron Williams. The loser of the competition will see plenty of time as the nickel back at worst.
Special teams are solid for the Bills. Punter Brian Moorman is among the league’s best. He averaged 48.2 yards per punt last season, a career high. Lindell was 13 of 15 kicking field goals before going down with his injury and is reliable. McKelvin ran a punt back 80 yards for a score against Denver last season and the kickoff return team is capable of giving Buffalo decent field position on a regular basis.
The biggest change for the team comes in the coaching staff, as Dave Wannstedt replaces George Edwards as defensive coordinator. With that change comes a shift in defensive philosophy from the 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, which the personnel of the team is much better suited for. The team grabbed David Lee to work with Fitzpatrick in an effort to perhaps curtail some of the rollercoaster performances that Bills fans are used to seeing.
Buffalo faces the league’s fourth easiest schedule in 2012 and with the additions to the team via the draft and free agency, seem poised to make a step in the right direction. Will it be enough to propel Buffalo to the postseason for the first time since the Doug Flutie and Wade Phillips era? Much of that will be determined by Fitzpatrick and how healthy the team can stay. Obviously, the team has upgraded its most questionable areas and addressed glaring needs. It’s a matter of performing on the field and for the first time in a long time, it looks like the Bills can do just that.
Prediction: Buffalo finishes 10-6. They aren’t quite ready to catch New England for the AFC East crown, but they are good enough to be in the mix for a wild card berth.