Bills Fans Must Be Patient during "Rebuilding II"

The signing of Mike Mularkey ushers in a new era for the Bills in Buffalo. The future look of the team is shaping up quickly. The five year contract locks Mularkey in to a relatively long-term commitment.Fan reaction to the announcement and the associated assistant coach hirings and other related events have prompted the expected mixed results.

Some fans are enthused by the move, most remain tentative, and some "less than ecstatic" at the recent announcements. But one thing is painfully clear and that will be that Bills fans will need to be patient.

This may seem like common sense, but Bills fans hungry for a competitive team and more importantly a team capable of competing in the playoffs may not be so patient. It has been five seasons ('99) since the Bills have made a playoff appearance and it has been nine seasons ('95) since the Bills have won a playoff game. A miss this season would push a playoff win back to a full decade. Tom Donahoe promised to have a playoff caliber team on the field this past season.

While no formal announcement has been made as to a "follow-on rebuilding," it is painfully clear at this point to anyone who is honest that this is the path that the Bills via Donahoe's decision are following. It stands to reason that no such announcement will be made given Donahoe's tenuous status as GM. The decision however has put Mularkey in somewhat of a tight spot.

Mularkey may very well turn out to be a spectacular coach and Clements a spectacular offensive coordinator. Should that happen, the process will likely take at least a season or two to develop at minimum. Fans expecting a return to the playoffs or even a winning record this upcoming season may be disappointed. It would be easy to talk about a potential playoff appearance this upcoming season, but common sense and reason would suggest a more gradual progression.

Mularkey has made some good decisions in the retention of Jerry Gray as defensive coordinator as well as with the hiring of experienced offensive line coach Jim McNally. The fact still remains however, that to shore up the Bills offensive unit which was the worst in the league over the last 14 weeks of the regular season by a long shot, the task falls to a head coach and an offensive coordinator both in their first seasons in those capacities. While it is easy to hope that all of the Bills' woes will be corrected this offseason, it is far more likely that the process will take more time than many fans are expecting.

The retention of Jerry Gray as the defensive coordinator will have an enormous impact in that it will transition a very much needed element of chemistry into this coming season. If the Bills do happen to put a competitive team on the field this fall, it likely will have been a direct result of Mularkey's decision to retain Gray and on the resulting strength of the defense. At least half of the team, the half that finished out the season as the 2nd ranked yardage defense and the 5th ranked scoring defense, will return largely intact. That same defensive unit had begun to improve very significantly after the onset of the '02 season as well and played to a top-10 level over the last ten games of the '02 season. So it stands to reason that the defense will be solid again next season as well, particularly once some key acquisitions are made on the defensive line.

Looking ahead, the keys to the success of this season's team will be three things:

First is what the Bills do to fix the lines. Both the defensive and offensive lines have issues. While the defense was strong, the fact remains that it can be vastly improved by adequately addressing the DL needs there. The back seven should look about the same with the possible exception of losing Antoine Winfield. Winfield would likely be replaced however, by a very "Winfield like" Terrence McGee, one of last season's fourth round draft picks and top draft performers. McGee appears to be nearly as hard hitting as Winfield but has shown flashes of superior coverage abilities.

The offensive line clearly needs addressing as well. The team can rely on presumptions that McNally can turn young inexperienced players such as Mike Pucillo and overrated offensive line fixtures Reuben Brown and Trey Teague into a solid line, or it can take steps to address the needs by acquiring better talent at the guard and center positions. GM Tom Donahoe will need to deviate from his approach of the last two seasons in order to accomplish this however.

Over the past two seasons, Donahoe's drafts and free agency acquisitions for the offensive line have produced only one reliable offensive lineman in Mike Williams. Mike Pucillo has improved but has not exactly shown flashes of stardom to say the least. Reuben Brown may not be with the team, which would further heighten the priority of signings for the line. His loss would also disrupt crucial chemistry.

While many fans are down on Brown and realize that he does not play up to his perennial Pro Bowl status, the fact remains that in spite of being overpaid relative to his contributions, he is a solid starting lineman who after his notorious "one-a-game" crucial penalties, is adequate at the position. He is also very experienced. Losing him without appropriately addressing the interior offensive line issues could spell disaster for the offense this season.

Second, the Bills will have to fix the poor play at the quarterback position. Apparently Mularkey is following Donahoe's lead and will hitch the initial success of the Bills to Bledsoe once again. Mularkey had better have a very viable and strong plan B waiting in the wings should this initial attempt at "reviving Drew's play/career" fail. Fans will have little patience and any hesitancy on Mularkey's part to take corrective action whatsoever should Drew come out of the gates in a "less than stellar" manor, could very quickly swing confidence out of Mularkey's camp.

Nevertheless, Mularkey should already be working with Donahoe to determine what type of quarterback(s) are available in free-agency and in the draft that would integrate well into his offensive strategy. It would however be unwise for him to put all of his proverbial eggs in one basket. He should design the offense with a degree of flexibility at the quarterback position in the event that Bledsoe's apologists are wrong and that in fact Drew's play does not improve to the necessary degree.

Should this occur, Mularkey can earn points with the fans by adjusting on the fly during the season to correct the situation to an extent that the offensive production would improve and the team would move forward in terms of putting competitive product on the field. It would also help improve the chemistry for the following season to helpfully allow the Bills to "hit the ground running" in '05. I will have a breakdown of Bledsoe's play during his two seasons in Buffalo over the next several weeks.

Third, the offense will essentially have to be scrapped and reworked from scratch. There was little that worked in Gilbride's approach. Bledsoe had by far the worst second half of any quarterback in the league and was at the bottom of quarterbacks on the season as well. The offense over the last 14 games of the season also netted only a pathetic 11.0 points-per-game and was punchless. Mularkey is obviously no stranger to offensive organization, however he is faced with an entirely different roster of talent than he had in Pittsburgh.

Some criticisms of Mularkey suggest that he has some of the same shortcomings that Gilbride had and clearly both hail from similar backgrounds in that respect. It is unlikely that such an offense that the Bills possessed this past season will be converted to a top-10 offense in a single season. Given the strength of the Bills' defense however, an average offense with its strength being a strong rushing game may be all that is needed to put a competitive product on the field this season. Should McGahee develop as anticipated, the Bills running back tandem will rival the best in the league.

Things are fine now as many fans are simply awaiting the solidification of the rest of the coaching staff. The respite will be short-lived however as the coaching staff, front office, and scouting personnel will need to begin to prepare for the draft, which is only three months away now. Decisions will need to be made as to how Mularkey and Clements will tailor their offense this season and the corresponding needs determined.

Mike Mularkey is in a very precarious situation however. Many fans are not likely prepared for another two to three years of rebuilding the Bills and seem to be of the mindset that the Bills can be competitive for the playoffs this upcoming season. To expect that from a rookie head coach and from a rookie offensive coordinator would be naïve. I have no idea when such a coaching tandem was last successful to the extent of turning a sub-.500 team around to make the playoffs the following season, however I cannot imagine that it has been a frequent occurrence.

It is also not fair to Mularkey. Mularkey did the proper thing for his career, namely accepting a promotion to the next logical position. Should things not go well, the finger should not be pointed at Mularkey initially, but at Donahoe. In fact, the future of Donahoe's tenure in Buffalo will directly hinge upon this hiring and quite possibly on the status of McGahee and the final outcome of Bledsoe's time in Buffalo as they unfold this season.

But like it or not, Mularkey has a five year contract and will likely serve out the entire contract. But it will take him time to develop in this role. The impatience of the fans can only serve to hinder team efforts. Following the last number of seasons, the Bills are suffering from a lack of continuity and chemistry. Mularkey may do nothing else but provide that chemistry during the next five seasons, so whether he proves to be an effective head coach or not, presumably and at minimum, the Bills will have some stability on the coaching staff and within the organization through 2008.

The temperament of fans feeling somewhat betrayed by Tom Donahoe's cavalier statements and personnel moves during his tenure may be all that stands between Mularkey and Donahoe if things do not progress according to their approval and liking. It would behoove Mularkey to attempt to get on the good side of the fans in Buffalo. They are intelligent fans who understand football and will either stand by those whom they deem have earned their respect through thick and thin, or they will let you know exactly where you stand should you "step out of line" as Donahoe did recently.

Tom Donahoe's role in putting the appropriate and effective talent in Mularkey's hands cannot be understated this season. A lackluster draft last season with enormous questionmarks surrounding the crown jewel of last season's draft, Willis McGahee, have left Mularkey with little "up and coming" talent to work with. McGahee's health status and onfield performance may very well be the pivotal factor in the degree to which the team improves offensively.

So the moves that the Bills make this offseason in terms of starters produced may very well set the tone for the performance of the team this season. Bledsoe and Gilbride provided the Bills Media Guide with some marketing substance, but that combination has not reaped rewards or success on the field. Neither have most of Donahoe's player acquisitions over the past two seasons.

As well, aging linemen such as Reuben Brown, whether or not he will be with the team, Pat Williams and Sam Adams, all relatively pivotal elements of the current team, are at the ages and stages of their careers where downturns in performance can be expected at some imminent point. Brown and Williams will both be 32 next season and Adams will be 31. What this means is that on top of the team's most pressing needs, it will also have to be in the back of Mularkey and Donahoe's minds that their replacements and heirs-apparent will need to begin to be considered as well.

Mularkey & Co. have the benefit of an excellent year free-agency wise in terms of which players are up for free agency. The only players that would alter the landscape in Buffalo with their losses would be Sam Gash (UFA) and Antoine Winfield (UFA). RFAs Ron Edwards and Marques Sullivan should be considered for retention due to the inadequacies in talent on both lines and the need for depth there. However, their status as RFAs puts the Bills in the driver's seat.

My advice to Mularkey is to run this team in the manor that he believes will move it forward and not to listen to Donahoe's suggestions given many of the dubious decisions that he has made. What this team lacked on offense this past offseason was a tactical perspective in running the team. Mularkey has experience in that area in spite of the fact that many fans question the similarities of his approach to that of Gilbride's. In fact I question that very thing. Throw in the fact that this will be Mularkey's debut as a head coach and that he has selected former fellow Steeler coach Tom Clements to serve in his debut as the team's offensive coordinator, the road to success could be a little bit longer than the map reads. .


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