Doug Marrone, the former Syracuse head coach, is off to a banner start with the Buffalo Bills. Channeling some of that college spirit, Marrone ordered up two 20-feet-tall banners picturing the Vince Lombardi Trophy to hang behind the goal posts of the team’s field house.
For a team stuck in a perpetual rebuilding phase (13 seasons missing the playoffs) and working on its sixth coach since 2000, that’s probably as close as the Bills are going to come to the Super Bowl for awhile. But players appreciate Marrone’s attempt at an attitude adjustment.
“If you are not shooting for the Super Bowl, what are you shooting for?” center Eric Wood says. “That is a good message to have around.”
No doubt. Several regulars have been jettisoned from Chan Gailey’s roster that eked out six wins in the rugged AFC East, and a full-blown overhaul is underway. The offense must identify a starting quarterback, and the defense is starting from square one. The Bills simply remain years away from being relevant.
Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 14th
Related: 2013 Buffalo Bills Schedule Analysis
After turning the page on Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Bills made Florida State’s EJ Manuel the only quarterback taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. Taking Manuel at No. 16 — many critics said it was too high — anoints him as the team’s starting quarterback of the future. The only question is: When will that future be?
Marrone intended to hold an open competition in training camp between Manuel and veteran Kevin Kolb, who signed as a free agent after his release by Arizona. At 6'4", 237 with 4.55 speed, Manuel has eye-popping physical gifts that new coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, known for his creativity out of a West Coast philosophy, can’t wait to incorporate. Unfortunately, the rookie injured his knee in the second preseason game and had to undergo a surgical procedure on it. While the team considers this just a minor setback, Manuel will miss the remainder of the preseason, which all but guarantees that Kolb will at least begin the season as the starting quarterback.
Whether it's Kolb or Manuel under center, they will have at their disposal a supporting cast that features several game-breaking players. But there are also major holes to fill at left guard and tight end.
Fourth-year running back C.J. Spiller is coming off a breakout season in which he gained 1,244 yards on just 207 carries (6.0 average). Veteran Fred Jackson, 32, can punish defenses with his hard, downhill style, but injuries have taken a toll.
Wide receiver Stevie Johnson topped 1,000 yards receiving for a team-record third consecutive season. After ranking 25th in passing, Buffalo made upgrading speed and depth at receiver a major goal. Second-round pick Robert Woods (USC) and third-round pick Marquise Goodwin (Texas), an Olympic long jumper, join second-year deep threat T. J. Graham as players with a golden opportunity to make an impact.
Buffalo boasts a strong offensive line led by Wood at center, guard Kraig Urbik and tackles Cordy Glenn and Erik Pears. But the team must find a replacement for left guard Andy Levitre, who signed a lucrative deal with Tennessee as a free agent. The tight end position is in a state of flux with Scott Chandler coming off ACL surgery.
After fielding three of the franchise’s five worst defenses in terms of yards and points allowed (what else really matters?) under Gailey, the Bills had no choice but to turn the page on a long list of veteran players. Departing via retirement or outright release were Nick Barnett, Shawne Merriman, Terrence McGee, George Wilson and Chris Kelsay.
Newcomers include linebacker Manny Lawson (free agent, Cincinnati), defensive tackle Alan Branch (free agent, Seattle) and three rookie draft picks — linebacker Kiko Alonso and safeties Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks.
The Bills allowed 362.9 total yards per game (22nd in the league) and were especially bad against the run (145.8 ypg, 31st). Taking control is coordinator Mike Pettine, the architect of several strong defenses for the rival New York Jets. While Pettine uses a base 3-4, his schemes are varied — he’ll use up to seven defensive backs, and he’s not afraid to blitz frequently.
Buffalo’s front seven shouldn’t be the pushover it was a year ago. Defensive end Mario Williams, last year’s prized free agent who signed the richest NFL deal ever for a defensive player, finished with 10.5 very quiet sacks. He figures to be turned loose by Pettine, who will look to Pro Bowl tackle Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Branch to stop the run. Dareus had a down year dealing with the death of his brother but should be more mentally focused.
The Bills need more production from their linebackers, who accounted for just five of the team’s 36 sacks. Outside backers Lawson, Nigel Bradham, Arthur Moats and Jerry Hughes, a former first-round pick acquired in a trade with the Colts, will be counted on to create havoc. Alonso could start in the middle as a rookie.
The secondary is led by Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd and cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore, who is coming off a strong rookie season, and Leodis McKelvin. Byrd, who tied for the AFC lead with five interceptions, was designated the club’s franchise player, and the team is hoping to get a long-term deal done. The strong safety spot is wide open with converted corner Aaron Williams, Da’Norris Searcy and Duke Williams in the mix.
Placekicker Rian Lindell had his sights set this season on becoming the Bills’ all-time career scoring leader, as he needed just 32 points to pass Stevie Christie (1,011). Unfortunately, it doesn't look like that will happen, as the Bills cut the 13-year veteran during training camp. Lindell's release means the kicking job belongs to sixth-round pick Dustin Hopkins, who became the NCAA’s career points leader during his career at Florida State. Last year, Shawn Powell replaced all-time Bills punter Brian Moorman and established a team record for punting average by a rookie at 44.0 per attempt. McKelvin and Brad Smith are the top return specialists. McKelvin, who was retained for a four-year, $20-million deal, led the NFL in punt return average at 18.7 yards with two returns for scores.
Final Analysis: 4th in AFC East
After 13 seasons without playing in the postseason, it’s hard for even the most fervent fan to be optimistic that another coaching change will mean anything. Marrone does represent a fresh face and the promise of young ideas. The addition of Manuel as a potential franchise quarterback does make the team more interesting to follow. Pettine, a well-respected coordinator, will make the defense better. But in a rugged AFC East dominated by New England and with a schedule much more difficult than in 2012, it will take more than one offseason to undo all the mistakes of the last decade in Buffalo.
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Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)
NY Jets (8/15)
San Diego (8/20)
NY Giants (8/30)
St. Louis (8/23)
Green Bay (8/29)
New Orleans (8/26)
San Francisco (9/3)
Tampa Bay (8/15)