Baseball's no fun from now until September, and we can only watch old NFL highlights on YouTube for so long before we need to start prognosticating on the '06-'07 NFL season. Fall can't come soon enough. In the meantime, here's the fourth of our 32 team previews for the upcoming season, the Buffalo Bills.
TOM'S TAKE: Ahhh, poor Bills fans to have to suffer the indignity of living in such a poor sport's town. The Bills are so bad that even their greatest successes are accompanied by severe laughability. What other city could make four straight Super Bowls, and lose them all? Or how about drafting Jim Kelly, only to have him shun the franchise for three years to play in the USFL, only returning to Buffalo when that league folded? Or how about their addition of a young, energetic Heisman winner who would become one of only five men in history to rush for 2,000 yards, but the ONLY man in history to rush for 2,000 yards and later be put on trial for double murder? Laughable!
As recently as 2004, the Bills were a promising team who were riding Drew McQueen Bledsoe's reliable arm, Willis McGahee's bionic legs, and a downright stout defense, leading people to believe going into 2005 that they were a strong playoff team. So what did the Bills do? They let Bledsoe walk, replacing him with second-year "QB" (we use that term loosely) J.P. Losman. Pat Williams? He walked as well, and had a career year in Minnesota. And so 2005 wasn't so good. As anyone with a brain could have told the Bills franchise at the 2004 draft, the Losman experiment was a failure. McGahee had a 1,200 yard season that still seemed like a failure for someone who was considered a potential MVP candidate. And the defense, one that ranked #2 in the league for two years in a row, dropped to 29th overall, including 31st in rush defense. This can be attributed to the loss of Williams and also an injury to linebacker Takeo Spikes. But you certainly get a picture of where that 5-11 record came from.
A team as woefully bad as the Bills were (their record actually masks the level of incompetence displayed last year) needs drastic improvements on both sides of the ball. The Bills started this year by focusing entirely on the defense, applying the "throw a ton of shit at the wall and see what sticks" method. They lost starters Lawyer Milloy, Justin Bannan, and Sam Adams, which hurts their rush defense even more (good news is they don't have much farther to fall), but they'll look to some imports and draftees for long-term hope. The most glaring holes on the Bills' defense is on the line and in the secondary, as with the return of Spikes they've got an above-average linebacking unit. They brought underrated DT Larry Tripplett in from the Colts who, along with draft picks John McCargo (1st round) and Kyle Williams (4th), will help plug the middle of the line. McCargo might eventually develop into the playmaker the Bills envision, but he's a rough project and Williams, who was taken over 100 picks later, is a hard-nosed player who might very well outperform McCargo off the bat. Their other 1st rounder, safety Donte Whitner, will join rookies Ashton Youbouty (CB) and Ko Simpson (S) in guarding the air, but the Bills smartest move in the secondary was franchising cornerback Nate Clements. With Whitner, Simpson, and free agent Matt Bowen, the Bills are now pretty strong at safety which well-suits their switch to a Cover 2 scheme that needs the safeties to help the cornerbacks with coverage over the top. This scheme gives the responsibility of managing the run to the defensive line and linebackers almost primarily, so it still remains to be seen if the new guys in the middle of the line can stay strong enough to be effective.
On offense, if you can believe this, the Bills have gotten even worse, trading receiver Eric Moulds to Houston. Their only "significant" addition was bringing back Peerless Price, who had one 1,000 yard season playing second-fiddle to Moulds before absolutely sputtering when burdened with the responsibility of being a No. 1 for the Falcons. He'll return, tail between his legs, as the #2 option again -- this time behind Lee Evans on the depth chart. Evans showed flashes of brilliance in his rookie year with Bledsoe but suffered at the inconsistencies of Losman and Kelly Holcomb last year. The third year for a receiver is typically their time to breakout, and we'd be pencilling Evans into the Top 10 wideouts in the league for 2006 if it weren't for the quarterbacks getting him the ball. As for those quarterbacks, there's nothing but bad news. If you're into July, training camp is right around the corner, and you don't have a true #1 quarterback, you're basically fucked. It's not fair to judge Losman based on one year of playing time -- quarterbacks take time to develop, and a guy with 1st round talent should be given the playing time and patience to grow. Problem with this logic is that Losman doesn't/didn't/probably never will have 1st round talent. The fact that he sneaked his way that high in the draft continues to baffle me to this day. We're talking the second coming of Rob Johnson -- a daring pretty boy with all the tools except, oh yeah, the ability to play football adequately.
One of my favorite quotes of the offseason belongs to Whitner, who in typical say-all-the-right-things-because-I'm-a-rookie fashion, tries to convince everyone he's thrilled to play in Buffalo: I know the Bills have a great organization up there and I'm looking forward to getting up there and winning some games. I don't think he's gonna get enough wins to quench his thirst this year. Bills fans should be praying for Holcomb to play all 16 games so another five win season remains a possibility. With Losman at the helm, they could very will be holding the #1 pick next April.
KYLE'S TAKE: Hey, Buffalo Bills, what did you kill, Buffalo Bills?
I'm sorry. I had to do a little Beatles since the Out Route is the sports desk of Glorious Noise. But what did the Buffalo Bills kill? Quite possibility Buffalo's love of football season.
OK, that's kinda harsh, but quite honestly, I see no reason they're not going to suck this year. They ditched Mike Mularky for Dick Jauron, who was the interim coach for the Detriot Lions last year after Steve Mariucci. When they announced that, I was surprised. Sure, we all knew Mularky was out the door, but Jauron didn't do anything great with the Lions. And he had a couple good years in Chicago as a head coach a while back, but in such a "What have you done for me now" league, I'm surprised he got a shot.
They also added offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild. Now, most people would overlook this, but as a fan of the St. Louis Rams, I know what's up. While Mike Martz was head coach, he was one of the few head coaches in the league that called offensive plays. He stayed out of the defense's business and that was fine. And while Martz was there, the offense was always a threat. But after he left due to illness/front office turmoil, and Steve Fairchild started calling plays, the offense took a noticeable turn. Defenses read them easier. They got their wins with lucky defense. Just because Fairchild studied under offensive mastermind Mike Martz doesn't make him one.
Buffalo has a poor quarterback situation. Kelly Holcomb didn't have a horrible year. He had pretty good number in all the games he started. I still don't think he's good enough to hold together the Bills (he was 4-4 last year starting). J.P. Losman, however, did not show much in the few chances he got. In fact, he won only one game (his first) out the first four before they decided to bench him. Hopefully Holcomb can stay away from head injuries. They do have Willis McGahee at running back and he's awesome. His 1,247 yards were 10th in the league.
Lee Evans, their #1 receiver, really started to heat up last year, having a hot month of December (including a 3 TD game). Maybe, with a consistent quarterback, he'll put up better numbers than last year. Buffalo went out and signed Peerless Price, who had a nasty year with the Bills in 2002. But since then, he moved down to Atlanta where his career started to die, and after being moved to Dallas, he was eventually released. If Buffalo thinks he'll relive his former glory by returning to the Bills, they're wrong.
Defensively, they released DT Sam Adams and safety Lawyer Milloy. Neither of them had really poor seasons. Although Adams is getting up there (he's 33), they probably could have used his veteran leadership. Last year, Buffalo was 28th in yards per game allowed (343.5) and allowed 44 TDs. Buffalo was thinking defense in the draft. They took Donte Whitner, a safety from Ohio State, who they hope will take the place of Milloy. Their second pick (#26 in the first round) was John McCargo, a DT from NC State, possibly to replace Adams. NC State has always had a good defense and perhaps their first round picks can help out. The rest of the draft was mainly defensively players (and a few offensive linemen) as well, and maybe in a few years, they'll be a good young defensive team.
Their in a tough division, though. The Pats are the Pats and the Dolphins are getting better fast. Maybe they can compete with the Jets for last place in the AFC East. But for this year, Buffalo fans will have to long for the days when they the only game they couldn't win was the Superbowl.