Today is the day that the Buffalo Bills begin assembling at St. John Fisher. They have all been preparing in their own ways, separately and together as a team for the upcoming season. Pretty much since the last season ended. But tomorrow, when they take to the practice field, in front of a couple thousand fans eager to see their “weekend warriors” back in action, the 2010 season begins in earnest.
The expectations for this year’s version of the Buffalo Bills are expectedly low. Ten straight years of non-playoff, mediocre (or worse) football will earn you that. But, just like the organization did four years ago, they come to camp with a completely new face.
And I do mean completely.
Let’s Start From The Top
From the top down, the organization has changed. Gone are Dick Jauron and essentially all of his staff. Even Russ Brandon, who has been called the Bills’ General Manager for the past few seasons (though that was never officially his title, to my knowledge) has been “promoted” to Chief Executive Officer. That’s a really good move, actually, as Brandon has done a great job of marketing and growing and sustaining the organization as long as he’s been here. He should do a great job as the Bills’ CEO.
But a “football guy” he is not.
Enter Buddy Nix. Nix was working for the Bills last year as a head scout I believe (I forget exactly what his duties were) but this off-season, in the first move to remake the Buffalo Bills, he was hired as the team’s new General Manager. A “football guy” who has been around players and made player decisions for decades, and who knows that you need “football guys” to win football games.
Enter Chan Gailey. The very not highly-acclaimed Chan Gailey. Although names like Bill Cowher, Marty Schottenheimer, Mike Shanahan, Brian Billick, and Jon Gruden were not only “thrown around”, I believe most of those well-known coaches were interviewed by the Bills (or were themselves trying to get an interview with the team). In the end, the Bills eventually landed on Chan Gailey.
New Coach, New Hope
So, why Chan Gailey? The Bills are hoping that Gailey can have the success he’s had in the past, but… it’s becoming the distant past, in the world of sports. Gailey was last a head coach in Dallas in the late 1990s. And although he took the team to the playoffs two straight years, with 10-6 and 8-8 records, he was fired after just two seasons.
In contrast to his Bills predecessor, Dick Jauron, Gailey has always been a winner. In reviewing his (albeit quite small) record as a head coach at both the professional and collegiate levels, he has only had one losing season ever: 5-6 with Division 1-AA Samford Bulldogs. (Compared to Dick Jauron, who has more head coaching experience and has only ever had one winning season. Ouch.)
Gailey has a history of joining struggling teams and quickly “righting the ship”. That’s clearly one thing the Bills are banking on. Also, Gailey is an offensive-minded coach. For longer than I care to think about now, the Bills have been just ridiculously bad offensively. Offensively offensive, to be sure. So his being a successful offensive coach was definitely another reason that Gailey was chosen.
The question will be, does he have enough to work with?
The New Faces Under The Helmets
The Bills did not make the so-called “big splash” in free agency or the draft (many were hoping for more trades to happen in the draft) but they are certainly not the same team that we saw last year.
Of the 82 players the Bills had on their roster at the start of training camp last year (4 unsigned rookies and 78 signed players) only 47 are returning this year. That’s 35 new players. (The Bills currently have only 2 unsigned draft picks, and 80 players under contract.)
“But, who cares about training camp rosters,” you say? “The regular season roster is 53 players. That’s only 6 new players?!” A valid point, until you look at the roster for the opening game last season. Then you’ll notice that there are 23 players who began 2009 that are no longer on this team. (To be fair, that number does include eight practice squad and eight other reserve players.)
However you look at it though, the Bills definitely added to their team. If nothing else, simply by subtraction. When the new coaching staff came in, the first thing that happened was a massive cut of what were predominantly special teams players. I found that interesting in that those were the players who seemed to excel on our less-than-stellar roster. However, Bruce DeHaven (making his second appearance as Bills Special Teams Coordinator) must have disagreed.
Several WRs are among the more notable names who are gone: WRs Terrell Owens, Josh Reed, Justin Jenkins (one of those Special Teams guys). And yet, though clearly lacking experience, there is an abundance of talent at the WR position. Actually, there are several positions where the talent exceeds the number of roster spots. Besides receiver, the coaches will have a tough decision or two at LB, DB, RB, and even QB. (We’ll get to that in a bit…)
The Main Questions
Aside from the question of whether their head man was the right man for the job, the Bills clearly have many other questions. You probably know them all, so I’ll list them only briefly here:
- Offensive line. This unit was so badly injured last year that it’s hard to really assess the talent level. Returning are last year’s rookies Andy Levitre and Eric Wood, along with 2008 7th-round pick, Demetrius Bell. Add rookies Ed Wang (5th round) and Kyle Calloway (7th round) to an already vastly inexperienced line, and you’ve got a recipe for potential disaster! Geoff Hangartner, Kirk Chambers, and free agent Cornell Green are the only three players with more than two years of NFL experience among the Bills offensive linemen. Yikes.
- Quarterback. Clearly this is a big question for the team as well. For years now the Bills have never found “the guy” to lead their team under center. Just a season ago it was Trent Edwards for sure. But, with that broken offensive line, and poor play calling (as well as apparently, differing opinions amongst the coaching staff regarding that play calling) and likely other factors, Edwards was benched for a very mediocre Ryan Fitzpatrick, and later Brian Brohm was given a shot against the Falcons late in the season. Sadly, nothing has really changed, except reports are that Edwards seems to be “a different person.” More engaged, more leadership, and still has great physical ability. All three QBs will be given a shot to win the starting job… we’ll see what comes of that…
- Running Back. This offseason the rumors were flying regarding RB Marshawn Lynch’s future with the Buffalo Bills. Would they trade him? Were his days numbered? All of that followed the Bills using the 8th pick overall in the 2010 draft to get RB C.J. Spiller from Clemson. Spiller is a dynamic, exciting player, who has endurance and power also. He’s much like the Saint’s Reggie Bush, and the Bills are hoping to get that sort of production from him. Big plays. Last season Fred Jackson set records for the team with 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards in kick returns. He literally was the offense for this team. And if Marshawn Lynch returns to the form of his rookie season … the Bills don’t have question marks in their backfield, they have definitive exclamation marks. (Assuming their offensive line can hold together!)
- Linebacker. As I’ll discuss below, another big piece of the face lift for the Bills this season is their shift to a 3-4 defense. What that means is position shifts for many players. Several defensive ends moving to linebacker, and some of the LBs moving to other positions (outside linebacker to inside linebacker, or vice versa.) This not only means learning new positions, but it might mean some players don’t make the cut. Another one of the more deep positions for the Bills is LB with 14 players vying for a spot including: Paul Posluszny, Kawika Mitchell, Aaron Maybin, Andra Davis, Reggie Torbor, Keith Ellison, Chris Kelsay, Aaron Schobel, and more. Definitely a position to watch.
- Defensive Back. This is actually the most solid position on the team (besides maybe kickers and kick returners). Last year the Bills’ only Pro Bowler was S Jairus Byrd, a rookie with 9 INTs on the season! He was fairly amazing at being in the right place at the right time. (And he put up those numbers in only 11 starts!) Aside from Byrd, the unit returns all but one of their players from last season, adding a few free agents for training camp competition. The Bills also get CB Leodis McKelvin back who had a fairly promising rookie season in 2008, but was injured early in 2009 and missed most of that year. Good talent, and good depth, and—rare for this team—unit cohesiveness over a few seasons should lead to this being the most reliable, and perhaps most productive unit on the team.
- Special Teams. It deserves to be mentioned, althought usually these guys are (somewhat justifiably) overlooked. Even though the Bills have been mediocre or worse over the past decade, they have consistently led the league in many special teams categories. That will likely continue, or even improve in 2010. Thanks mostly to the return of their primary guys: K Rian Lindell, P Brian Moorman, PR Roscoe Parrish or CJ Spiller, KRs Spiller, Leodis McKelvin, and last year’s main guy, Fred Jackson. Bruce DeHaven (ST Coordinator for the Bills during their Super Bowl years in the 1990s) returns to head up this talented group and figures to maintain a high level of performance in this arena. The thing to watch will be just who actually gets picked to return the kicks. There is a really amazing level of talent and depth at that position for the Bills.
The “3-4 Defense”
If you know what that means, then you are a true football fan. The subject has been much discussed this offseason, after the Bills announced that that was the defensive scheme they would primarily employ in 2010. The “3-4” defense is a defense that features three defensive linemen (the guys right on the line of scrimmage) and four line backers (as it sounds, they are “back” off the ball, away from the line of scrimmage).
Previously (and like most teams have been in the NFL for a while now) the Bills ran a 4-3 defense, with four linemen and three linebackers. The main difference is that a 3-4 uses smaller, faster, lighter players. This actually will work to the Bills advantage in some ways as several of their defensive linemen will fit perfectly as outside linebackers in the 3-4 defense. (Aaron Maybin, Chris Kelsay, Chris Ellis, and—if he does not retire—Aaron Schobel are all former DEs moving to OLB this year.)
Adjusting to a new defensive scheme is always hard, but the Bills do seem suited to a 3-4. (And if you Bills fans will recall, the 3-4 is the defense that has given our team FITS over the past couple season, and is used by all of our division opponents.)
Another advantage will be the more frequent use of man coverage. The previous defensive scheme (a version of the “Tampa 2”) employed many zone coverages, which did not necessarily take advantage of the talent the Bills have in the defensive backfield. The cornerbacks and safeties are licking their chops for the added responsibility in 2010. The DBs will play tighter, one-on-one, and look to be up to the challenge. (Also this frees up players like ball-hawk Jairus Byrd to roam the backfield even more … adding to his already impressive INT totals!)
So, while it will be an adjustment, to be sure, the move to the 3-4 defense should also provide a marked improvement to a beleaguered, downtrodden Buffalo Bills organization.
There’s Hope, But…
So with many promising changes, and the hope of returning players gone for most of 2009 … the Bills really do have much reason for optimism in 2010. However, even if everything falls into place for them … check out this schedule:
Sept. 12 – vs. Miami
Sept. 19 – at Green Bay
Step. 26 – at New England
Oct. 3 – vs. New York Jets
Oct. 10 – vs. Jacksonville
Oct. 17 – BYE
Oct. 24 – at Baltimore
Oct. 31 – Kansas City
Nov. 7 – vs. Chicago (in Toronto)
Nov. 14 – vs. Detroit
Nov. 21 – at Cincinnati
Nov. 28 – vs. Pittsburgh
Dec. 5 – at Minnesota
Dec. 12 – vs. Cleveland
Dec. 19 – at Miami
Dec. 26 – vs. New England
Jan. 2 – at New York Jets
The AFC East has improved (most notably the NY Jets, but the Dolphins added WR Brandon Marshall, and the Patriots still have Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and Wes Welker. Oh, and that guy… Bill Belichick…) and the Bills face the AFC and NFC North. All (but Detroit and Cleveland, perhaps) quite formidable foes. That’s quite a tough schedule for a team who finished last in their division last season!
In the end, there are WAY too many questions about this year’s Buffalo Bills to have any idea about how they may fare. However, there are certainly enough bright spots to keep their biggest fans (and perhaps their smaller fans) hopeful that THIS will finally be the season the Bills are at least relevant… if not actually in the playoffs in 2011.
Sadly, though, the reality is that all indications point to this major “face lift” begun by the Bills in 2010 signifying that they are thinking long term. That means that likely 2010 will be setting the ground work for future seasons. That means… another season without playoffs.
That may be the reality, but for now… it will be fun to start with the blank slate of training camp and preseason and a fresh, new, NFL football season in September!
Bring it on! Go Bills!