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What’s that? You were wondering what the odds are of the Buffalo Bills ever making the NFL playoffs again? Us too. After starting last season 3-3, tied for the lead in the AFC East, the Buffalo Bills remembered that they were the Buffalo Bills and assumed the fetal position losing 7 of their next 10 games and missing the playoffs for the 13th consecutive year. After high hopes to break their long playoff drought at the beginning of the season, finishing 3rd in the division and missing the playoffs made for a disappointing 2012 campaign to say the least. The day following the regular season finale at Ralph Wilson Stadium, head coach Chan Gailey was relieved of his duties and the search for a new head coach had begun. This extensive search would eventual lead to the hiring of Syracuse head couch Doug Marrone, seen by many as a peculiar choice when looking at the experience of NFL coaches on the market.
After a phantom game of phone tag orchestrated by a couple of 20-year-olds was played on then GM Buddy Nix and Tampa Bay GM Mark Dominik in which their talk was recorded and given to Deadspin, all hell broke lose. Their seemingly private conversation involved talk of free agents, their frustration with a new three-day negotiation window, and the major handicap of not having a franchise quarterback. When talks turned to Ryan Fitzpatrick, Nix seemed to do everything he could to reveal his frustration with his starting quarterback and the quarterbacks large contract. The debacle lead to the release of Fitzpatrick a day before a $3 million bonus was due. Then, in what can be assumed would have happened anyways but was moved along more rapidly after being the victim of the prank phone call, Nix stepped down to assume a “special assistant” role in the front office a few weeks after the NFL Draft. Assistant general manager Doug Whaley has since been promoted to replace Nix.
Now the question becomes how quickly the new set of personnel can turn this struggling team into a consistent winner again (yes, they were once a consistent winner). In many ways, the Buffalo Bills 2012 team was like a lot of NFL franchises that hit rock bottom. As mentioned above, the season cost the teams head coach, general manager and quarterback(s) their jobs. The difference between Buffalo and other NFL franchises with horrible 2012 seasons is that many of the other NFL teams replaced these positions with proven NFL talent. Buffalo on the other hand is left with many question marks.
Replacing Gailey is a college coach (Marrone) getting his first big break in the NFL and Fitzpatrick will be substituted by either Kevin Kolb, who like Fitzpatrick was once a dangerously overpaid quarterback in comparison to his skill set, or E.J. Manuel, the Bills rookie first-round draft pick. The many questions at quarterback are a big issue for the Bills. If Kolb has blown a tire, and is either hurt or not the veteran hopeful he was once considered, this could rush Manuel into a starting role before he’s ready. Rushing a rookie quarterback into a starting role has historically been known to hinder their long-term development. On the other hand, last years crop of rookie quarterbacks proved that when placed in the right circumstance a rookie could shine at the quarterback position right away in the NFL. Placing Manuel into the starting role right off the bat is a big risk, but one that could potentially pay-off. A minor knee injury that will keep Manuel out for the rest of the pre-season could potentially be a blessing in disguise, as the Bills won’t be forced to put Manuel into a situation he is not ready for, saving his confidence in the long run. As former Bills GM Buddy Nix said in the infamous prank phone call, “if you get one (a dependable QB), everything’s easy”… but the question mark remains.
So then how can the Buffalo Bills compete with anyone in the AFC East? Lets start with the running backs the anonymous quarterback will be handing the ball to. Starting back C.J. Spiller was the Buffalo Bills lone highlight of the 2012 season, rushing for 1,244 yards, leading the NFL with 6.0 yards per carry average and was second behind Adrian Peterson in runs of 20 plus yards, providing evidence that he is one of the most dynamic players in the game. While Gailey was frustratingly reluctant to run the pro-bowler, rookie coach Doug Marrone will have C.J. to lean back on when he becomes overwhelmed by the big stage of the NFL. This is a good thing. When the bulk of the NFL goes to the air, the Bills have to stay grounded. When C.J. grows tired after one of his many 20 plus yard runs, Fred Jackson is a more than capable back to take over some carries.
When teams stack 8 men in the box and figure out our genius game plan we can look towards draftees not named E.J. Manuel, two studs at wide receiver named Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. The two rookies will help higher veteran Stevie Johnson’s production, forcing defenses to respect the depth of the entire receiving core.
On the other side of the ball, the Buffalo Bills will improve slightly but continue to struggle. Even with big names like Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus on the defensive line the Bills were 31st in run defense allowing better than 145 rushing yards a game. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will look to use some of the quality talent on the defensive line to get Buffalo’s run defense back to a respectable level. I believe that the defense will adjust quickly to Pettine’s 3-4 system and improve against the run, but their lack of talent at outside linebacker will be their downfall.
In the secondary, Jairus Byrd’s prima donna turn is a sign of bad things to come. When a player who could have potentially stepped into a huge leadership role holds out on the team one can only assume he will soon be looking for his way out of Buffalo. Our best case scenario with the Byrd-Man is to hope he plays as hard as he can this season to attract likeness from other teams, but eventually realize that Buffalo is where he is meant to be (ya right).
Last years number one draft pick Stephon Gilmore had a stellar rookie season and will look to avoid the sophomore slump, and at the other corner Leodis McKelvin will continue to be caught snoozing when there is a play to be made on the ball. Fortunately, McKelvin is an asset on special teams and will make us quickly forget about him being drastically out of position when he returns punts for exciting touchdowns. In conclusion, this defensive secondary is young and inexperienced and we can only hope the pass rush looks better this year to help the young secondary out.
As far as the opposition in the AFC East goes, everyone thinks it’s the perfect time to pounce on the New England Patriots stranglehold of the division while they’re wounded by the Aaron Hernandez murder scandal. However, history shows that Bill Belichick and his team strive in the face of conflict [Sports Illustrated]. Exhibit A: the Drew Bledsoe against Tom Brady quarterback controversy, going 11-5 that season with a Super Bowl title. Exhibit B: known all too well in Buffalo as the season we stole Lawyer Milloy, destroyed the Patriots 31-0 in the opener, and then proceeded to watch them go 14-2 and win a second Super Bowl. Exhibit C: the Pats are caught taping the Jets signals from the sideline, so they decided to become the first team to go 16-0 in the regular season. Exhibit D: Randy Moss is cut in the fourth game of the season and creates a stir, but the Patriots bounce back and finish 14-2. If this isn’t enough evidence that Belichick thrives in the face of a storm, I don’t know what would be. My prediction, the arrest of tight-end Aaron Hernandez on first-degree murder charges, plus five other gun-related offenses, has made Bill Belichick think that the world is questioning his judgment of football related character. And when Coach Belichick has something to prove, he wins games. And if he feels he has enough to prove, Bill Belichick wins championships. History tells us that even with a lack of leadership, chemistry and speedy athletes who can catch Tom Brady spirals, the Patriots will still find a way to win.
The Miami Dolphins are therefore the team in our division that sit in the way of our Wild Card playoff birth. Last years Dolphins team was a nearly perfect bet on winning every game that you thought they had a fighting chance in (against non-playoff teams). Going 7-9, some of their loses came to the Texans, Colts, Patriots and 49ers. These are all solid teams that went on to make the playoffs. So lets look at this year’s schedule. After facing the Browns in week 1, the Dolphins have some stiff competition, playing the Colts, Falcons, Saints and Ravens. But after their week 6 bye, they essentially have no non-divisional teams to worry about, other than maybe the Steelers. I can realistically see the Miami Dolphins having 9 wins this season. 9 wins for the Dolphins puts our playoff hopes in jeopardy, but even 9 wins could be pushing their luck. With a shaky young quarterback, no name running backs and Mike Wallace as their main athletic threat (who I see having a bad season), I don’t see this Dolphins team as reaching their 9-win potential. So I’m saying there’s hope? I am indeed.
I feel the New York Jets will continue to struggle this season, highlighted brightly by their ongoing love affair with quarterback Mark Sanchez. While Sanchez has done some good things in his short career, he’s done a lot more bad. I think what would help Sanchez most of all is a change of scenery, but it does not appear he will be getting that this season. With Tim Tebow out of New York, the Jets faithful can now chant out the name of Geno Smith when Sanchez is running into offensive lineman’s butts and fumbling the football. This pretty much puts the exact same pressure on Sanchez as Tebow did last season and we all saw how that played out. No matter how the rest of the team stacks up I can’t seem to get past the quarterback position and therefore have this Jets team coming last in the division.
So here are my final standings at the end of the NFL season for the AFC East:
New England Patriots – 13-3
Buffalo Bills – 9-7
Miami Dolphins – 7-9
New York Jets – 5-11
While I have the Bills beating the Dolphins in the regular season standings, I still don’t see the Bills making the playoffs. While 9-7 can get your team into the playoffs, I see the Bills being eliminated in the final days of the season. As you can tell… I’m optimistic about the season, but pessimistic because, well, I’m a Buffalo Bills fan. We will see a lot of positive signs for the future from our young team, but I still see the playoffs as being too far of a jump for a team with little to no chemistry when beginning the season. This doesn’t mean that we’re not putting the pieces together. 9-7 is most definitely a good record for this team and that does give them a fighting chance at a Wild Card birth. I’m certain the Buffalo Bills are moving in the right direction for the first time in many years and am excited to get down to The Ralph for the first week of the season to show those Patriots who’s boss.