The "R" Word

Things appear to be a bit tentative in Buffalo these days. If you ask varying groups of fans on one hand for the upcoming season the Bills are expected to compete. Some are expecting all things to click perfectly. Others are more wisely aware that in all likelihood, everything will not go exactly as planned and foretold by a seemingly overconfident coaching staff and GM. Many factors can alter a season for better or worse.

It is partly understandable that the front office wants to hype the team for the upcoming season. Afterall, no one wants to see less than a full boat for each home game. The fans are unarguably an integral part of home field performance, particularly in Buffalo. As was pointed out in my last piece however, there are certainly issues associated with over-hyping the team.

Again, it is fully understandable that Tom Donahoe is trying to gamble on hyping a season while coming close to fulfilling the expectations that the team sets forth. It is in Donahoe's interests to have McGahee turn out to have been worth wasting a season on not using a first round draft pick elsewhere last season. He also needs Bledsoe to play as well as he did in the '96 and '97 seasons and/or not have play characterized primarily by sacks and turnovers. He also needs Kelsay or Denney to step up and provide the level of play at the LDE position that has eluded the Bills for several seasons now and which has been the single biggest weakness on an otherwise solid defense without major issue and an issue which affects the entire defense.

Incoming rookie head coach Mike Mularkey and incoming rookie offensive coordinator Tom Clements are in a different boat however. They do not need all of that to happen. All they need is a solid season as rookie coaches with even a slight improvement, at least in the level of play if not in terms of wins-losses, over last season.

Tom Donahoe's credibility may be at risk because upon his arrival in Buffalo at the onset of the 2001 season he promised to have a competitive team on the field capable of reaching a Super Bowl within three seasons. While many of the shortcomings of the team during that stretch have been coaching related, it was Donahoe who selected those coaches given that it was he who hired Williams who showed Donahoe what his selections for assistants were prior to actually hiring them and was on board with them.

Donahoe corrected the cap malady plaguing the Bills fairly quickly but has not built a winner as promised on the heels of doing that. In fact the word that best describes the Bills from other than a salary cap situation is "regression." Numerous top players on the current Bills team will be coming up for free agency over the next couple of seasons. This current team will undoubtedly not look nearly the same in '06 as it does now. Therefore it is important to get the team moving in the right direction but quick. Final results for this season in terms of wins-losses mean less than momentum generated for this team heading into the'05 season.

The one word that has not been uttered at One Bills Drive is that dreaded "R" word! It is not a "four letter word" but it may as well be. "Rebuilding." Someone has to say it so it may as well be you-know-who. This may not be a full-fledged rebuilding, but it is a rebuilding nonetheless. It is hopefully just a one-year hiccup in Donahoe's overall rebuilding program. There should have been no shame in the Bills front office admitting that. To expect the Bills to make the playoffs this season given the circumstances at present, would be naïve. While no one has stated that this will happen, other irrationally strong statements have been made regarding player performance expectations.

Regardless, it matters not what I say in this matter. What matters is what the front office and coaches say. Thus far they are not admitting even a hint of rebuilding or anything resembling it. They do so at their own risk. Donahoe likely understands that risk and realizes the need for himself to accept it. However Mularkey and Clements are doing themselves a tremendous disservice, especially given some of their strong statements regarding the play of significant individual players and their expectations for this upcoming seasons in the team's biggest single position problem areas.

The problem, which is more a problem for the incoming coaches than for anyone else at present, is that if the team came clean and admitted yet another season of a fix and a minor rebuilding, then the coaches would be served much better in their inaugural seasons. Donahoe is also risking much by fostering an environment where the team is being touted as highly as it is for this coming season. The coaches are needlessly risking more.

The coaches have made some very strong statements regarding players at the biggest problem areas of the team thus far. This will put the onus on them for anteing up what they say they will. The standard that they have set and continue to set will be the standard against which they are measured. Why they would want to set the bar as high as possible and higher than necessary is entirely beyond explanation. Yet, that is exactly what they have done and continue to do.

As a contrast, after having spoken with some Redskin fans and having paid attention to the local media in the D.C. area, the expectations in Washington are not as high. Well, Gibbs has been out of coaching for over a decade you may say. True, however he is also a hall of fame coach with Super Bowl wins who has plenty of experience, past or present, to assist him, give him credibility, and foster respect from the players. He has also brought in some very good assistants. The point is that in contrast, in spite of perhaps having a greater reason for hope, Redskin fans and media realize that to expect too much in Gibbs' first season again is not wise. The circumstances of the two teams otherwise are not all that much different.

Bills' coaches have made some extremely strong statements indicating that the talent that the Bills have at the two weakest individual player positions are not only adequate, but far more than that. Wyche promises to make Bledsoe play at a level that will be compared to Montana and Esiason. Ryan Denney and Chris Kelsay also get the coaches' top endorsements for finally providing a pass rush from the perennially issue-laden left defensive end position. Is it not possible that the coaches are correct? Sure it is. More likely the latter than the prior. But that is not the point here.

The point is that this is not an approach without risk, unnecessary risks. In fact quite the opposite. Mularkey, Clements, and Wyche are directly putting their initial credibility right on the line with this approach. If they succeed, their credibility will be boosted. If not, it will suffer. Speaking for myself, I would prefer not to enter the '05 season with coaches who must necessarily overcome inaugural seasons whereby their credibility has taken a significant hit. Just like any corporate culture the overtones originate from the top with Donahoe. However, Mularkey & Co. could at least hedge their positions a little bit. One would consider it difficult to believe that their statements regarding individual player performances were made with Donahoe holding a gun to their heads.

First time head coaches rarely achieve the type of success that is characteristic of some of the statements of Mularkey and his assistants. With the exception of Wyche, all the head coaches mentioned below in analysis have made it to and won more than one Super Bowl with Vermeil having won one. Certainly to have specific players meet the expectations set forth by some of the assistants in comparison to other players who are hailed as the best in history will be unlikely. This begs the question, ‘why hype it up like that then?' What purpose does it serve?

Bills Parcells debuted in the NFL with 19 years of experience and his team regressed in his first season as a head coach. Belichick entered his first head-coaching job with 16 years of experience and his team improved from 3-13 to an almost unavoidable 6-10 in his first season. Joe Gibbs took in his first gig with 17 years of experience and lofted his team from 6-10 to 8-8. Dick Vermeil kept his team at 4-10 after taking over the reins with 11 years of experience. Sam Wyche in Cincy in his first season took his Bengals from 7-9 to 8-8. Mularkey enters this season with 11 seasons of experience.

Given that, to expect more than .500 or 8-8 is this season is completely unwise. Again however, it is more these predictions of the superlative performances of the players mentioned that should be of concern. There is a direct link there between the individual performances of certain players and the perceptions of this new group of coaches following this season.

So what's your point Weiler?

The point is that there are too many questionmarks on this team to expect perfection and all of the team's biggest questionmarks to work out optimally this season. Yet that is essentially what the coaches have promised without doubt. Certainly they have made no provision, barring draft selections, for any alternatives in those areas to date thus tacitly backing their beliefs in their statements.

When one considers the fact that there is an entirely new coaching staff on offense and from the top, there should be no question that this is a team in a rebuilding mode. Again, not a full bore rebuilding, but a retooling nonetheless. So why not treat it as such.

To expect more from a first time head coach with only 11 years of experience does not seem to make much sense. Why it is such a taboo to simply take an official position that "it may take a season for the new coaching staff to ‘put it all together' " is perplexing.

The organization by not stating that openly are fiddling with more than their own careers and standing in their respective roles. They are putting at risk the entire welfare of the organization. Falling short in their goals after setting such lofty standards could actually be worse for the Bills as an organization than openly admitting a full-scale rebuilding yet outperforming the related expectations.

The adage says that "pride goes before a fall." There certainly is no shortage of pride at One Bills Drive these days. Hopefully this team will be able to back all of their exceedingly strong statements up. All Bills fans hope so. But hopes do not generate the bottom line. If those hopes are realized, they will be hailed as great coaching hires. If not however, it could send this team off on the wrong foot just as it enters a very pivotal time period.

Over the next couple of seasons, there will necessarily be a need for the team to be in a position to be desirable for current Bills vets due for free agency to re-sign here in Buffalo as well as to be attractive enough to free agents from other teams that will be required to make the Bills competitive. Failures by the incoming coaching staff to meet their own stated goals will not aid in accomplishing that. The degree to which they do not will determine the reality of the situation.


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