Bills Appear Content with Soft Intangible Changes

The Bills have been relatively silent this offseason during free agency in preparation for this upcoming 2004 season. Antoine Winfield who was just entering his prime years was replaced with Troy Vincent who has exited his. Vincent is still a better cover cornerback than Winfield easily while Winfield is perhaps the league's best cornerback in defending the run and packing the most wallop pound for pound of any player in the league.

Fan favorite LG Ruben Brown was also promptly replaced by an equally or even more stalwart RG Chris Villarrial who is a year younger and perhaps under-heralded given that he has been tucked away on a Bears team having provided few highlights during his tenure there. For all intents and purposes however, Vincent comparably replaces Winfield on defense while the issues on the offense are temporarily shifted from the right side of the offensive line to the left side. What was a weakness in the Teague-Tucker/Pucillo portion of the offensive line now shifts to the left side with the same combination of possible talent to fill in that was available last season and deemed inadequate.

How much will Jim McNally's coaching be able to address that issue with young and inexperienced talent remains to be seen. Of the current options for LG however in Pucillo, Sobieski, Sullivan, or Tucker, only Sullivan has a full season of starting experience or more than 16 games of experience as a starter overall. He played only sparingly last season however and was deemed the worst of the pack in spite of the fans' recollections from the season prior.

No other new players thus far have been added to the ranks of the Bills. Bills' losses other than Winfield and Brown include backup TE Dave Moore, special teams player and backup RB Sammy Morris, and blocking FB Sam Gash. Losing Moore and Morris should prove to be of no consequence. However losing Gash, with clear designs by the Bills for featuring the run this season as the primary component of the offense, may prove to have a cost associated with it. To date no experienced replacement has been signed.

There are still four weeks of free agency remaining prior to the NFL draft although few if any impact players remain available, particularly not in positions where the Bills ail the most. June 1st cap casualties also loom unknown and may or may not throw several additional capable players into the pool of availability for the upcoming season. If so, then no doubt the Bills will be one of many teams vying for the services of those players.

The single biggest changes to the team to date and the changes that fans are pinning their hopes on if for no other reason than not having a choice, are those associated with the coaching staff. It will be difficult if not impossible for Mike Mularkey as new head coach, Tom Clements as the new offensive coordinator, Jim McNally as the new offensive line coach, Sam Wyche the new quarterbacks coach, and the rest of the new staff of assistants, mostly on the offensive side of the ball, to be any worse than Kevin Gilbride and his ragtag group of relatively inexperienced assistants were.

The new coaching staff seems to be walking a fine line however between unjustifiable overconfidence and sheer arrogance of sorts. It remains to be seen whether this will benefit the team or not. Confidence is key however it is possible to overstep the bounds of that confidence.

More modest goals for this team resulting in an overachievement would need no explanation. Yet another prematurely pumped up season resulting in a fifth season of extreme disappointment for Bills fans will not go over so well in Buffalo. In fact, at this point, given the precarious situation that exists between the team on one side and fans and media on the other, given such high standards set for success this season, if the incoming staff has miscalculated their ability to do as they say, then the Bills could very well return to a state of the team that they and their fans have not known for two decades.

Many younger fans do not remember the days of 25,000 fans in the stands and a half-empty lower bowl. However, at some point a "boy who cried wolf" scenario will arise with fans adopting the unofficial Missouri slogan of "show me" prior to buying season tickets again. Exactly how this season will go is anyone's guess and only speculative at this point. Matchups with all the opponents on paper can be calculated, but an almost infinite number of factors from injuries to weather to attitudes and many other factors can alter a season for any team. It should stand to reason that a new coaching staff would seek to cut itself as much slack as it possibly can. Yet, in Buffalo the opposite seems to be occurring.

No one is predicting a return trip to the playoffs, however it is extremely clear that very high hopes have been set forth for the play of players at the problem areas of the team over the past few seasons, and being done so almost entirely as a result of only coaching changes. Few available free agents if any remain to help in those areas. Immediate help from the draft can likely and then only possibly be expected from top picks one of which is now rumored and expected to be a quarterback for the future.

A young and relatively inexperienced coaching staff has already saddled itself with a huge mountain to climb. Given the circumstances by which that goal has been disseminated coupled with the current state of the team including upcoming free agents beyond this season along with the precarious marketing and PR situation as mentioned, this season will be very interesting indeed.

Mike Mularkey has made it unequivocally clear that he does not think that Bledsoe has any issues that he and his staff cannot correct and in short enough order such that there are no significant issues with Bledsoe's play starting from week one. These are extremely confident statements considering that Bledsoe has possessed the same issues throughout his career including his time in college and has been led by coaches such as Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, two of the best coaches to ever coach in the NFL along with outstanding assistants under those two men as well.

Sam Wyche has added regarding Bledsoe, "He's unusually good, and I've been around some unusually good ones with Boomer and Montana," Wyche said. "But he's right there with them. He has not lost anything with his arm strength. He has not lost any of his accuracy. But the most impressive part for me right now two days into it is his recognition and his decision-making. He recognizes the defense. Eight snaps out of 10, he's throwing it to the right guy. And one of those other two, if it's not there he's laying it off to the right guy."

What has caused Coach Wyche to come to such conclusions is beyond many a fan. As well, this is presently occurring on a practice field that does not come anywhere close to representing a game situation. A simple glance at Bledsoe's career statistics season by season should raise an eyebrow as to what Wyche considers to be "unusually good." If Bledsoe wants to be as good as Montana then a good start would be figuring out how to throw an effective timing pattern, the likes of which Montana and Rice hooked up on with regular frequency.

As well, how many fans consider for even a brief second that Esiason is in the same category as Montana? This writer does not. In fact, whether Esiason was in fact all that marvelous is also questionable. One thing is for sure however, and that is that Esiason certainly was far more mobile than Bledsoe, so a simple comparison there should necessarily include that in any considerations of comparing the performances between the two QBs.

Regardless, that's all fine and dandy, but here is now the standard that Wyche has set for himself with Coach Mularkey as an accomplice and Tom Donahoe as overseer: Given that in their estimations Drew is perfectly capable of playing to a level of or near Joe Montana and Boomer Esiason, if they meet their goals they will be hailed as a geniuses. If not however, they have set themselves up for failure and deserved criticism given the way that they opted to go about promoting this situation.

The bar has indeed been raised to the highest level that it could possibly have been raised to regarding the performance of this offense. Would it not have been wiser for the coaches to perhaps have suggested, and not insisted and all but guaranteed, that Drew can cut the mustard with new coaching, under new circumstances, and in a different system?

Here is the problem that the sages Mularkey and Wyche now have before them. If they are able to deliver what will have to be near perfection then they will be hailed as veritable football gods. This is unlikely in any coach's first season on the job and they are no different from any other coaches in this sense in similar circumstances including some of the greats.

However, if not, this will now necessarily mean one of two things. First, that they are not very good at evaluating talent before them. That is not what this team needs at this juncture of Bills history. They have had all the game films and time to assess Bledsoe's play, not only for this past season but for over a decade, that they could have wanted. Therefore a failure would not be good for the first time coaching tandem along with Clements.

The second thing that such a failure could easily be taken as is that they were incapable as coaches to be able to get a quarterback that has now been touted by them to be nearly as good as Montana and Esiason were, to at least play at a level capable of being placed in the same category as that of the two former greats if not matching their past performances outright. Regardless, the problem will be exasperated even further if Bledsoe plays inadequately again. Given their statements, at an absolute minimum for performance, Drew will now have to clearly outperform his last six seasons either in sum total or unarguably outperform his best single season during that stretch of time.

The rub here is that fans will not be nearly as patient as the coaches will given their assurances now. Mularkey and Wyche had better be down on their knees hoping that of the Bills opening games that Arizona and Jacksonville are on the schedule in September. If the Bills open with New England as one of the first three games again along with two or three other decent defensive teams amongst the first four or five games on the schedule with two of three road games, while the coaches may be patient, the odds of fans being anymore than marginally patient are somewhat less than Buffalo going through a winter without snow. Two games of back-to-back below average performances or one or two bad games and the fans will be on Bledsoe and the coaches like white on a golf ball and in no uncertain terms.

It is a tall order indeed and an incredibly high bar that the confidence-laden incoming coaching staff has set. Given that the biggest improvements in talent on the team, particularly the offense, will be gained by yet another season of experience and knowledge gained by the younger players, Mularkey & Co. will likely have to meet their goals primarily on their past experience in their roles. Since they are rookies it certainly raises some significant questions as to whether they have done all that they can to set themselves up for success this coming season.

As a fan, along with the rest of Bills fandom, I certainly hope that they do that. I hope that Bledsoe plays as he never has before. I hope the Bills make the playoffs, win the AFC, then go on to win their first Super Bowl.

I also hope that for just once in his life Bledsoe can play like Joe Montana. Montana had nearly an entire yard greater in yards-per-attempt over his career than Bledsoe has and for all intents and purposes a career 2-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio. He certainly did not have the knack that Bledsoe has for choking in big games, quite the opposite in fact. Boomer Esiason, while closer to Drew in career stats, also has nearly a full yard greater in yards-per-attempt over his career and had much better mobility in the pocket. Joe Montana ended up throwing a touchdown for every 148.5 yards with Boomer throwing one for every 153.5 yards passing in an era where officiating did not assist the passing game nearly as much. Bledsoe has thrown a touchdown for every 183.5 yards. Both QBs also had playoff performance records nearly inversely proportional to that of Bledsoe?s.

It may have been much wiser for Mularkey & Co. to have merely supported Bledsoe by stating that he is the starting quarterback in Buffalo until such a time as he loses the job. A little heat under Bledsoe's derrière certainly would not have hurt either. He has not had that in eleven seasons to date and perhaps that is the missing ingredient in this mix to "revive him." But alas, no such heat will exist due to efforts by the Bills to have come up completely empty in attempting to find a backup capable of giving the fans hope of solid play this season in the "unlikely" event that Bledsoe does not play well. Kordell Stewart will not provide that nor will Doug Johnson nor will any rookie.

In the meantime, this has put the Bills in a situation that almost requires them to use a draft pick in the first three rounds to secure a quarterback. This in and of itself is fine, however the Bills still have immediate needs that need to be filled and those simply will not likely be filled via draft picks made in round four and below. So consuming a draft pick to draft a quarterback that will not help the team this season in the first three rounds, very likely round two now, takes other options for immediate team fixes off of the table.

It remains to be seen what the Bills front office has in mind both prior to the draft and following it up until and in light of June 1st cuts. However, until now, the only real improvements will seemingly come from a head coach with no experience at the position coupled with an offensive coordinator in the same circumstance. Both of them are supporting notions that the key to their offense in spite of historical data suggesting otherwise, has no significant issues and whatever "minor" issues do exist can easily be overcome over the next five months while entering the season "in stride."

They certainly have not allowed themselves much wiggle room to say the least. The question of the day as well is "how much can a rookie head coach and rookie offensive coordinator improve a team ?" Barring further major improvements these are the sole improvements to the team for the most part. While the loss Gilbride and Williams will be of the 'addition by subtraction' variety, their replacements will have to first prove that they can do better.

While that is not a tall order, the new coaches have set for themselves almost as high a standard as they could possibly have set. Moreover, they keep reminding fans in a very cavalier manner of those goal(s). Since they will likely be graded against their own assurances to the fans, it will be interesting indeed to see whether they can in fact meet their own standards. If so, then this upcoming season will have been an incredible success story. If not however, the risks run the other way and the results will cut in a completely opposite manner.

Bills fans would be patient. However, when such brazen statements and such incredibly high goals continually flow out of One Bills Drive and then are continually and haughtily reinforced, it does not create a situation where those making such statements are taking advantage of the fans' patience. Rather it does the opposite. It raises fans' expectations to the stated goals, goals that are laid out in a manner suggestive that if they are not met, then something is drastically wrong. It may serve a short term goal of season ticket sales via preseason hype, the single activity of managing that Tom Donahoe seems to be able to do the best, but at what cost to the longer term welfare of the team.

Given the situation as it now stands and unlikely to be reversed barring some enormous change in approach or direction, the new regime certainly will not be able to play off anything less than a complete meeting of their goals onto a fan base with unreasonable expectations fostered by that same regime. The only place to search for answers in the event of not meeting those goals at that point will be in the mirror.

E-mail: mweiler.billsreport@cox.net

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