After going winless the first two months of the season, the Bills played .500 football for first-year coach Chan Gailey. Unfortunately, any signs of progress were wiped out by losing the last two games of the year to AFC East rivals New England and New York by a combined score of 72–10.
That finish established the gameplan for the offseason: Do whatever it takes to improve the NFL’s 24th-ranked defense, one that ranked dead last in stopping the run, 28th in points allowed, and did little for the offense in terms of takeaways and field position.
It could not have been easy for an offensive-minded coach like Gailey to avoid taking a quarterback with the third overall pick, but Buffalo went with Alabama defensive lineman Marcell Dareus after Auburn’s Cam Newton went No. 1 to Carolina. Gailey surmises that the best way to help his 25th-ranked offense, one that features a host of young talent, is to improve the defense. Time will tell.
The Bills were one of only nine NFL teams in 2010 to feature a 3,000-yard passer (Ryan Fitzpatrick) and a running back (Fred Jackson) and receiver (Steve Johnson) with more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage apiece. What hurt the Bills over the long haul was lack of a consistent running game and red zone scoring (19 TDs on 37 trips).
With their learning curve with Gailey’s system behind them and with the starting lineup returning virtually intact, the Bills should make noticeable strides in terms of finishing off drives.
For the first time in his six NFL seasons, Fitzpatrick enters a campaign as a starter and not an insurance policy known more for his Ivy League brains than his arm. His teammates love his low-key leadership style, and he and Gailey clicked from the start.
Helping Fitzpatrick is one of the league’s deeper receiving pools. Johnson, a former seventh-round pick, emerged as the team’s top threat with 82 catches for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’ll need fewer dropped passes at key times to be anointed an elite receiver, but signs are positive. Signs are also positive for the youthful trio of David Nelson, Donald Jones and Naaman Roosevelt, a group that combined for 58 catches as rookies. Roscoe Parrish found new life after nearly being cut, catching 33 passes for 400 yards before a wrist injury cut his season short. The team still lacks a true threat at tight end. Free agent acquisition Brad Smith could fill a variety of roles, including handling the ball in the Wildcat package.
At running back, Jackson and C.J. Spiller form a strong tandem — on paper. Jackson fell just shy of his second 1,000-yard season, and while he doesn’t have a lot of wear on his 30-year-old body, he’s likely to give up carries to Spiller, the team’s first-round pick in 2010 who was underutilized as a rookie with only 74 carries.
As for the offensive line, Buffalo will return four out of five starters in Demetrius Bell, Andy Levitre, Geoff Hangartner and Eric Wood. Right tackle is up for grabs with Erik Pears, a sixth-year pro out of Colorado State, getting the early nod. Run-blocking consistency is a primary concern for this unit.
Former Bears and Dolphins head coach Dave Wannstedt was hired to coach the linebackers and help clean things up on the defensive side of the ball. The Bills have two great building blocks up front to work with in Pro Bowl nose tackle Kyle Williams and Dareus, the team’s first-round pick. Williams is a one-man wrecking crew, while the 6'3", 319-pound Dareus can play inside in a four-man look and outside as an end in a 3-4. He has the potential to be the team’s most dominant defensive lineman since Bruce Smith.
The release of veteran Marcus Stroud, meanwhile, frees up playing time for young players such as Alex Carrington and Torell Troup in the team’s rotation.
More size up front should benefit a linebacking corps that was decimated by injuries last season. The Bills lost Paul Posluszny in free agency but filled his spot with veteran Nick Barnett, who spent the previous eight years in Green Bay. Barnett will team with rookie Kelvin Sheppard on the inside. Andra Davis, who is coming off shoulder surgery, and Akin Ayodele, who had a nice season in 2010 with 106 tackles, will be in the rotation as well. On the outside, steady veteran Chris Kelsay should be more effective after making the switch from end a year ago, and Arthur Moats, who showed flashes of stardom as a rookie, is back in the mix. Aaron Maybin, the club’s 2009 first-round pick who has yet to record a sack, has not improved his ability to shed blocks, and his coaches won’t be nearly as patient this year.
Meanwhile, former San Diego All-Pro Shawne Merriman will look to resurrect his career as a situational pass-rusher if he can show that his recent history of injuries is behind him.
Buffalo’s secondary should remain a team strength. Cornerback Drayton Florence, an unrestricted free agent coming off a strong year, was signed to a new deal, giving the team a strong rotation of corners — Florence, Terrence McGee and former first-round pick Leodis McKelvin. In addition, the Bills spent their second-round draft pick on Texas corner Aaron Williams, who is expected to contribute as a rookie. At safety, fourth-round pick Da’Norris Searcy will join solid veterans, Jairus Byrd, George Wilson and Bryan Scott.
Kicker Rian Lindell’s record streak of successful extra points to start an NFL career ended last year at 321, but the team’s second-leading all-time scorer (814 points) still had one of his best seasons, converting 16-of-21 field goals. Since 2006, his 97.6 percentage rate on attempts inside of 40 yards is second only to Atlanta’s Matt Bryant at 97.7. As for punter Brian Moorman, he holds team records for most punts (775) and best career average (43.5). He’s played in 160 consecutive games for Buffalo, longest streak among NFL punters.
Spiller and Parrish return to handle the return chores. Spiller’s 1,014 kickoff return yards were third-best all-time for a Buffalo rookie, and Parrish’s 12.12 career punt return average is tied for ninth all-time in NFL history.
Better use of Spiller and the addition of Dareus should make the Bills a better team at running the ball and stopping the run. A year ago, opponents ran for almost 1,000 more yards and scored 12 more rushing touchdowns than the Bills, so improvement here will undoubtedly improve the record. GM Buddy Nix and Gailey probably need another year to end the team’s playoff drought, now at 11 seasons. But things are headed in the right direction.
Outside the Huddle
Defensive lineman Marcell Dareus ignored his agent’s advice about staying away from workouts with veteran players during the NFL lockout. Without a contract and insurance against injury, the No. 3 overall pick in the draft was taking a chance. But Dareus felt that it was more important to meet his new teammates than it was to protect his health. "There’s some risk involved; there’s some risk in getting out of the bed," the former Alabama star says.
The Bills will sport new uniforms in 2011. They last made a change in 2002. The team retained its charging buffalo logo, and red, white and blue scheme.
Bills owner Ralph Wilson, 92, has no plans to sell his team while he’s still alive, but potential buyers are lining up for the day the team does become available. Toronto, where Buffalo has played a regular-season game every year since 2008, remains a logical destination. However, potential local purchasing groups, including one that’s headed by Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly and another headed by Los Angeles bond investor Jeffrey Gundlach, are getting their ducks in a row. Gundlach is a Buffalo native who would keep the team in western New York.
Defensive tackle Michael Jasper, the team’s seventh-round draft pick out of Bethel University in Tennessee, is listed at 6'4", 394 pounds. Amazingly, he tipped the scales at 448 in January but shed enough weight to earn the honor of getting drafted by an NFL team. "He’s not as big as you’ve got him listed," GM Buddy Nix said with a wink. "He’s lost down to 378, so he’s drying up to nothing."
From the department of ugly statistics: The Bills lost their final two games of the 2010 season to AFC East rivals New England and New York by a combined score of 72–10. In those two games, the Bills surrendered 493 yards rushing — 246.5 yards per game — and committed 13 turnovers. The defense accounted for the only touchdown.
Thank Heaven for Harvey
Chan Gailey’s 4–12 record in his first season with the Bills was bad, but it wasn’t the worst season by a first-year coach in the club’s history. That dubious distinction belongs to Harvey Johnson, who went 1–13 in 1971, his first full season as the head coach. "There are two types of people (in this business) — the humble and humbled. If you’re not in the first group, you’ll be in the second group at some point in time," says Gailey, who has been an assistant coach in four Super Bowls.
When the Bills face the Bengals on Oct. 2 in Cincinnati, they will be looking to extend their streak of wins against them to 11. Their 10 wins in a row against the Bengals ties the club record for most against one team (New York Jets 1987-92).
A much kinder schedule could help the Bills in the win column after a tough slate in 2010, when the Bills faced seven playoff teams and four division champions. Among 2011 opponents, only the Patriots, Jets, Chiefs and Eagles made the playoffs a year ago.