Bills Offseason: Fixing the Offense

The offense was the primary concern and sticking point of the play of the Bills this past season. The Bills will need to make much wiser decisions and use of their resources this year than they did last year in both their free agency acquisitions as well as in the draft. While Donahoe signed some high profile players last season, players such as Milloy, while solid, took scarce resources away from other need areas.

These need areas were far more pressing and due to neglect still exist leftover from last offseason.

A holistic approach to fixing what is and was wrong with the Bills is what will need to be conducted here, not a marketing exercise designed to one-up divisional opponents and inject a short-lived emotional euphoria into the fanbase. Nor will overpaying storied vets who are on the downsides of their careers large contracts optimize the efforts of the Bills braintrust to build this team both now and for the future.

As well, the Bills cannot afford to take the "best available" approach in the draft so loved by Donahoe. They must address positions where either partial or entire voids of talent exist thereby "selecting to needs" and selecting the best players on the board in those spots. There are simply too many glaring holes and underachieving areas that need to be addressed making "taking the best available" approach a luxury if the Bills are to be truly competitive this season.

Yet, this has not been the approach taken in recent offseasons with the Bills opting instead to seemingly tailor their methodology towards a more marketing oriented approach in apparent efforts to enthuse fans thereby prompting ticket and merchandise sales. While upgrades are capable of being made at all positions on most teams the Bills included, the Bills will need to focus on where they will get the biggest bang for the buck this season thereby shedding the approach and shortcomings of past offseasons. .

Wide Receiver (6 out of 10 rating):

At wide receiver, the Bills are set here for a while in spite of any media or fan statements to the contrary. The rating here would have been higher had Moulds not been injured for much of the season and had Shaw not started and logged the playing time that he had. This rating will almost assuredly rise to 8 or 9 with a completely healthy Eric Moulds. The Bills have a well above average set of wide receivers. Reed is better than most think he is and his development has been retarded by incompetency at the quarterback position and at offensive coordinating.

Bills receivers did drop some balls this season but overlooked was the fact that Bledsoe simply did not put the ball where it needed to be very often. In fact, the biggest culprit of well-thrown dropped balls was the "Pittsburgh ties" acquisition Bobby Shaw who through six seasons in the NFL now has posted nominal numbers at best. Nevertheless, the receivers took the heat on numerous of those "dropped balls", particularly Reed who did have the dropsies early in the season but rebounded nicely.

But as many if not more of those could have been attributable to Bledsoe's inaccurate throws, very often underthrows, enabling beaten defenders to re-engage in defending the pass. The Moulds, Reed, Shaw trio should be fine for the immediate future to be sure and Coleman and Aiken should be more than adequate at the number 4 & 5 spots. Acquiring additional receivers would entail releasing one of the above. The first four are quite adequate and releasing Aiken would be yet another of Donahoe's shooting himself in the foot by releasing a prior year draftee or hampering his development due to his decisions.

The short answer to critics suggesting that the Bills miss Price, Riemersma, and Centers are to direct them to Drew's play over the last ten games of the '02 season. There, he played just as poorly as he did in '03 yet with an offensive line that had allowed him to post decent numbers at the front end of the season and one that had even improved as the season went on. Yet, there was no corresponding increase in the level of play by Bledsoe paralleling theirs nor even solid average play. In fact, Bledsoe's play grew increasingly worse as the '02 season progressed. Price, Riemersma, and Centers were also present yet Drew played poorly.

Therefore, to suggest that the Bills and Bledsoe are missing Price, JR, or Centers is baseless. There is a need for a receiver, but it is clearly not pressing and it is for depth only at this point, particularly given the purported direction of the team regarding Henry and McGahee being the focal point of the offense. So a draft pick earlier than the fifth round for a wide receiver would be overlooking other more pressing needs.

Restricted free agent Justin McCareins may be worth making an offer to given the Titans' dire cap situation, but the Bills likely could not make a high enough offer to guarantee the Titans not matching or from preempting the efforts of other teams to offer more. A receiver of his caliber would easily warrant releasing Aiken or Shaw. The Bills however can easily make due with the given cast and perform well with decent performance from the quarterback position, especially if they are to feature their running game with a Henry/McGahee tandem. Using scarce cap resources or high draft picks here is a luxury given the Bills' situation.

Tight End (8 out of 10):

The rating here is a difficult one since Gilbride's offense coupled with Bledsoe's reads and throw selection simply did not feature the tight ends often. When it did, Campbell and Moore both responded favorably. At tight end, Campbell, who has emerged as a very capable although not-as-used-as-he-should-be TE, has earned his extension and figures to easily be the Bills starting TE over the next several seasons and for the three year duration of his new contract. Coach Mularkey appears to believe this as well and his expertise in tight ends should make optimal use of Campbell and Moore, two seemingly "Mularkey type" players.

Campbell runs excellent routes, catches extremely well, and can block. He is well above average already and his play surprised me as one of the biggest critics of his signing last offseason. Money or high draft picks spent on a TE here also falls into the luxury category. As well, fans screaming for Winslow must consider that the stated approach of the team this coming season will require a better blocking TE than Winslow's play would bring to the table.

Moore, another very well rounded TE, is very good depth capable of starting in the event of injury to Campbell and remains economically viable. Neufeld is fine as a third and would round out the chemistry element at this position if retained. So while some fans are screaming for Winslow, it is nice to think about the possibilities for Winslow on this team, but all things considered, the tight end position is solid in Buffalo. If it is Donahoe's plan to draft Winslow, then he should not have offered Campbell the contract he did. Again, consider that the strength of the Bills' offensive unit this season is purportedly what will be their dual-pronged rushing attack. So why the need for a "Winslow."

Offensive Line (5 out of 10):

The offensive line is the biggest and most immediate need area on offense along with quarterback. This season's offense will go as improvements to the play of the offensive line go. The rating here is bolstered by the play of Jennings, Williams, and Brown and diminished by the play of Teague and the RG Pucillo/Tucker tandem. While the line was made to look worse than it was due to Bledsoe's poor play, sketchy audiblizing, loitering in the pocket, and indecisiveness, significant issues still exist on the line.

Teague's play warrants his release at his salary and cap cost if a rookie or free agent top center can be had, but releasing him is not viable from a cap perspective, ironically. Originally and ridiculously signed to be the starting left tackle, Teague was moved to center in one of Donahoe's efforts to save face from the ridiculous assertion that he would ever be an effective starting LT on Bledsoe's blind side. As such, the Bills have ended up with a highly overpriced, underachieving center with little starting experience in yet another of Donahoe's moves resulting in "less for more." Moving Teague to guard should be strongly considered and urged.

Losses should be cut here from a starting player perspective and Sobieski looked at as a replacement starter at center or guard. Jennings, Williams, and Price are solid at the tackles in spite of criticisms levied this past season and Williams figures to improve significantly under better coaching and with a decent RG next to him. The lion's share of the offensive line issues stemmed from poor play by Teague and first time second-year starter Mike Pucillo who improved as the season went on and has showed some promise for next season. A second season for Pucillo might result in significantly improved play from him resulting in acceptable play at that position. Tucker's recent signing keeps him on the team as well with existing reports and rumors that the organization is looking at him to start where he provided only poor to fair play this past season.

The Bills still need some viable help at the interior line. This will be even more the case if Reuben Brown is released for cap reasons. Brown, while grossly overcompensated, still provides solid play on the line along with a much needed element of chemistry. Last offseason the same exact needs were there yet Donahoe only picked up inexperienced Tucker and drafted an injury risk Sobieski, a non-starter at Iowa, in the fifth round.

Apparently the strategy there has altered itself little given Tucker's recent re-signing to a more-than-minimal contract. Marques Sullivan, whom most fans and media thought played well in ‘02 was benched in favor of the second year 7th rounder Pucillo. That was it for offensive line fixes. A center and guard as starters are sorely needed. It is difficult to fully assess the play of the tackles until the interior line does not have such glaring interior weaknesses.

The Bills should look to acquire a lineman such as G Bobbie Williams from the Eagles, C Chris Bober from the Giants, or G/C Damien Woody and then still look to draft one in the first three rounds in the draft. These are quite capable and experienced linemen would who upgrade the current line, are young, and will likely fall under the radar media wise with the exception of Woody who is also coming off injury and who may command a lesser contract than he would have had he not been injured this past season. He is plenty young enough to recover from such an injury however.

It is players such as Bober and Williams who would presumably end up performing to levels greater than their contracts and be good value acquisitions whereby the Bills would not be paying for a "brand name." McNally's familiarity with them due to his time in New York and in the NFCE is an asset. Convincing Donahoe to sign value acquisition players without a brand name might be the stumbling block and showstopper in any such acquisition however since such moves are not particularly useful in marketing efforts designed to generate fan euphoria. This is exactly the manor in which the Bills must conduct their offseason if they are to put a competitive product on the field this fall however.

Running Back (8 out of 10):

A solid line could easily bump this rating to 9.5 or 10 but that will not happen without some talent acquisitions on the line. The current roster does not possess the players to put that line together particularly if Brown is gone. Otherwise the Bills are also fine at running back and a pick among the first five rounds there would earn Donahoe a one-way ticket out of Buffalo if the fans have their way. McGahee the Bills have chosen to live with, and live with him they will. There is absolutely no need for a RB, either as a backup or starter. The Bills have all that they need for this upcoming season already on their roster.

Henry and McGahee will be the league's top RB tandem easily if McGahee turns out anything at all according to the expectations of both many fans as well as Donahoe himself. The goal for McGahee should be finishing the season without a knee injury for the first time since his junior year in high school. Should McGahee not meet those expectations, Donahoe's list of successes in staffing the team over the past couple of seasons will not have been particularly stellar to say the least. It will also have highly devalued last season's draft rating significantly in hindsight, which will have been expected given the enormous gamble on McGahee. Henry is just at the onset of his prime and has already posted two outstanding seasons.

Sam Gash should also be re-signed as well since the rushing game next year will require an experienced blocking fullback. Apparently the Bills will not move to re-sign him. The Bills will need a viable fullback however and taking a "run first" approach without one would be ill advised. Gash has weathered himself none due to near complete non-use this past season. The upside to that is that his career was extended by a season albeit unintentionally. As well, he would be an inexpensive but plug-n-play ready option. Resigning Gash also eliminates the need for the Bills to acquire a fullback elsewhere and preserves a large element of chemistry.

Quarterback (2 out of 10):

Many fans, and apparently the incoming coaches as well, simply do not want to admit it, but Bledsoe is washed up as a premier starter in this league. He is well on his way to a career as a journeyman starter/backup for the remainder of his career. He is incapable of consistently solid play against the top-half teams in the league on a regular basis and always has been under any circumstances. The Bills can realize this now or they can find out later on this season while incurring large cap hits and enormous risks with both the current and future health of the team at stake. The opportunity to release Bledsoe virtually "string-free" at this point in time is almost a gift horse. Not doing so ties Mularkey's initial success as well as Donahoe's tenure as a GM to this single move directly.

Instead, the team is reportedly the front runner for signing Henson. Should the Bills enter the season with Bledsoe, Van Pelt, and Henson as the team's three quarterbacks, then the health and outcome of the entire season will hinge upon Donahoe's and Mularkey's insistences that they can fix what ails Bledsoe. If not, no viable ‘plan-B' will be on the table with Van Pelt no more able to provide the solid play needed than a failed Bledsoe and with Henson in no way ready to step onto the field as a first time start given his almost complete devoid of experience as a starting QB since his high school days.

The Bills along with incoming coach Mularkey and new offensive coordinator Tom Clements are taking an enormous gamble from numerous perspectives by putting their faith in Bledsoe. Miscalculations and misjudgments on their parts can very well result in far reaching damages to their own credibility after having made such smug and insistent statements regarding their abilities to correct his poor play. The other results can be serious public relations issues if the Bills do not improve on their current record, severe questioning of Donahoe's competencies as a GM if his offseason moves resemble last season's in conjunction, and most importantly, a reflection of the votes of "no confidence" at the box office that would likely result in following seasons, particularly as the core of key players ages and/or becomes free agents on a team that "is going nowhere."

Regardless, the Bills' need a quarterback immediately to fill in for Bledsoe should he be kept on to start the season. If the Bills plan on being competitive this season as they have stated they will be, then that will require a quarterback capable of starting this upcoming season, not next season or the season after it. As a result, the Bills then have two options here. They can waste energy, time, and surrounding talent only to figure out next season that Bledsoe will not be the player that they thought they were getting when Donahoe traded a first rounder to acquire him. The exercise there figures to be extensive and time intensive with all the possible permutations of talent "around Drew." The results of the season would also be at stake.

The second option is to realize this now after a review of his time in Buffalo which should spell out to all but those who will never be convinced, that Drew is highly overrated, has relied on his collegiate accolades for far too long, is inadequate at the position for the Bills, and needs an ever-elusive pro bowl squad around him to simply be average or slightly better than that. Given that the Bills can save $6 million by releasing him, this should be a no-brainer. Not doing so should appropriately put both Donahoe and Mularkey on the proverbial hotseat. A judgement failure here would simply add insult to injury. If the Bills insist on retaining Drew, then releasing him outright midseason without restructuring his current contract and before the November deadline requiring further cap hits arrives, should be a strong consideration.

Alex Van Pelt is a nice guy and has served the Bills patiently, quietly, and humbly during his tenure. However, he provides no hope for fans if he needs to replace Bledsoe and has by-and-large performed poorly when he has stepped in. Unless the Bills are running a "nice guy" jobs program, these things will need to be considered. The Bills absolutely need to cut their losses and make room for at least two new quarterbacks, one rookie and a veteran as well. This can only be done by releasing either one or perhaps even both Bledsoe and Van Pelt. The Bills are not going to find their "QB of the future" with the two top slots occupied by the current incumbents.

The team should consider trading Drew to a team needing a quarterback and one that is in a position to take a risk on such a move. It would be unlikely that he would garner much more than a 3rd round selection if even that. A third rounder in such a deep draft however may net a very good player, possibly even a quarterback in backfill. But waiting another season, notwithstanding what the offensive line will be like, will only reduce Bledsoe's value further. Reworking his contract is risky as well as it would likely still tie the team to a significant cap hit even if released following this season. Perhaps a portion of the discussions with Houston involve trading Bledsoe for Henson. Such a trade would be unlikely since Bledsoe would be immediately brought on as a backup in Houston, but one can always wish and hope.

If the Bills insist on keeping Bledsoe around, then hopefully someone at One Bills Drive will have the sense to get Drew to rework his current contract so as to cost no more than $1 million to release him at season's end after what would be an inevitable encore to his past two seasons. Again, the other option here would be as mentioned above in retaining him at his current contract, then releasing him midseason before the "bonus date" arrives if he does not meet the expectations placed on the performance of the position. If that were to be the case, the Bills would likely be out of contention and playing poorly, so finishing up the season with only two QBs would not be an issue. Nor would Bledsoe's release be the biggest issue confronting the team under such circumstances. To tie up further cap space on Drew beyond this season with pending cap hits should he be released is senseless and reprehensible management of the team.

In a seller's market for QBs, reasonable options for free agent quarterback acquisitions are trading for A.J. Feely, a restricted free agent in Philly, and unrestricted free agent Billy Volek. Free agent pickings are slim this offseason prior to cap cuts and barring trades leaving no great options other than Manning who will almost certainly be retained by the Colts and likely would not come to Buffalo if given other options anyway. This would not be an option for the Bills regardless given their cap situation coupled with the plethora of other key needs.

Feeley will be in his third year, is 6'3"/225, and will be 27 this upcoming season. He is reportedly headed to Miami in a deal that would not have been wise for the Bills to have made. Volek will be 28 years old, 6'2"/214, and showed poise against a tough Buffalo defense in relief of McNair and played as well in that single game as Bledsoe has in any game during his stint in Buffalo.

Volek played better in that single game than Feeley had in any game that he had played in. Both have good mechanics and are better prospects for "being worked with" than Bledsoe. Neither may be a long-term solution, but neither could possibly play as poorly as Drew has over the past 26 games. (21 TDs, 35 turnovers) On the flip side, either could be the long-term solution as well.

There should be absolutely no doubt that just about any quarterback would have at least equaled Bledsoe's play this past season under the same circumstances while most would have been significantly better. Bledsoe contributed little all season long. If the Bills are honest with themselves and if Donahoe can admit a mistake, then they will begin to prepare for the post-Bledsoe era. If not, the results will be identical either way except that they will have made one fewer accommodations for "plan B" and tied up cap money that could have been used for other more important fixes otherwise and elsewhere on the team.

It is long past due for fans, media, and Bills coaches and front office personnel alike to quit trying to fit a square peg into a round hole by trying to "revive Bledsoe's career." Bledsoe is a liability that needs to be "worked around" vice an asset to the team that other players can feed off of for success. They should have seen this coming and not paid a huge price to bring him here in the first place. But now that it has happened, and quite predictably so, it is time to return to sanity and quit living in visions of grandeur that will never materialize.

Donahoe tried to hedge his positions nicely by putting the disposition of Bledsoe and Gilbride off onto the new head coach and Mularkey has played the role well. However, Bledsoe starting next season will only propel this situation from bad to worse. That is not something that the Bills need right now given their recent history with quarterbacks. As well, should the Bills retain Bledsoe and Bledsoe continue to do what he does, then Mularkey's competencies and judgements will understandably also be questioned given his verbal support of Bledsoe and his play. This is the last thing that the Bills need given their track record of the past half-decade.

At the time of Bledsoe's signing, the upside to the deal was that there was no cap hit should the Bills decide to release him should he not improve his play over the four seasons prior in New England and revive it. Not only has his play not improved, but it has regressed even further leaving fans questioning even his "strengths" such as his "heart" and leadership.

In hindsight, his acquisition was an extremely poor and costly one. Nevertheless, that time has ended and his retention nullifies that benefit should the Bills retain him further. He has played poorly in six seasons now. Four of those seasons were on a team very similar to that which Tom Brady has taken to two Super Bowl wins. The other two, fans in Buffalo are sadly familiar with.

His presence on the roster at the beginning of this season necessarily puts additional risks on the table. To add risks which were not present at his initial acquisition is not wise given his recent performance history. Yet, this may very well come down to Donahoe's personal welfare and credibility vice the good of the team. Ironically, the person most instrumental in making that decision is the one confronted with this conflict of interests.

So in review, the Bills should focus their offensive draft efforts in the first four rounds on only potential guards/centers, or tackles such as Andrews if available, and a quarterback along with defensive line help. If a decent reasonably priced value wide receiver option rears its head in free agency, then the Bills should look at that too. The Bills should also seek a free agent quarterback to play if necessary for a fraction of what Bledsoe would cost.

The Bills are set at the tackle position(s), at running back, at tight end, and at wide receiver for starters. The offensive line first, followed by a quarterback who plays better than the ones currently on the team which have provided no more than 3rd-string play all season are the team's primary needs. Let's hope that the right moves are made in these areas. If so, then the Bills may contend for a playoff spot as a wild card in Mularkey's first season. If not, then fans will be able to expect little more than what last season produced overall.

Comments: mweiler.billsreport@cox.net

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