June 1st Cupboards Bare

Following June 1st, the last in key date regarding player releases and moves prior to camp cuts, the news is "no news." Only a handful of players have been released and none in the areas which can significantly upgrade the Bills prior to this season. It would indeed appear that the team that the Bills have on paper now is the team from which the starting roster will be sculpted. Indeed, the finished product will not look all that drastically different than last season's team on paper.

The Bills have more offensive skill position talent on paper than any team in the league arguably. On defense, the Bills secondary is well above average and more than solid at each of the four starting positions assuming that Coy Wire steps up to the task at free safety which is a reasonable expectation for Wire who's shown nothing but positives since his having been drafted.

Where the Bills have their greatest issues is on both lines. Ironically, conventional wisdom suggesting that two solid lines are the key to NFL success runs entirely counter to the Donahoe approach suggesting that skill position talent can overcome a lack of talent and execution on the lines. It will make for an interesting season to be sure.

While other players remain to be cut as June 1st is merely a "not earlier than" date, presumably there will be precious little talent of the variety that the Bills need, remaining to be released post June 1st.

While many fans see a team that is a merchandiser's dream, some see a team that was 6-10 last year with many of its positives having come as a result of circumstances and less so due to talent or execution. Count me in among the latter group.

A reader prompted me to write this piece citing the aggregate accolades of the team last season in debate. However, much as Drew Bledsoe set 10 team records during the 2002 season on the merits of "passing inordinately," in a season which the main rant by fans following it was that the team passed far too much for its own good, so too last season had its set of circumstances that fans are loath to consider for fear that it may reveal more about this team than they care to realize.

For example, many fans see a team that was ranked 2nd in yardage defense, 5th in scoring defense, 2nd in passing defense, and 8th in rushing defense and do not care to look further. I see a team that had the luxury of playing the NFC East conference coupled with few decent offensive teams on the season as a whole and defensive rankings reflecting that. The best-balanced offensive unit with the best rushing game that the Bills faced was Kansas City resulting in a 38-5 embarrassment for the Bills both offensively as well as defensively.

The Bills six wins came vs. a New England team in week one that any one of 30 other teams in the league likely could have beaten in week one prior to the Patriots subsequently winning 17 of their next 18 and their last 15 straight en route to a second Super Bowl win in three seasons. After that the Bills beat no team better than 8-8, four teams 6-10 or worse, and not a single team with any set of talent considered to have been anything better than average overall, usually much worse.

Jacksonville had major defensive issues early on coupled with a rookie quarterback playing his second game with a one-dimensional attack as a result. The Jets were also offensively challenged without decent receivers. The Giants had their offensive line shredded due to injuries early on and were in disarray elsewhere. The Skins were equally horrid even without injuries. Cincinnati was a team with a new coach and some first year burgeoning talent also just finding its way.

Four of those last five teams finished ranked 22nd or below in scoring offense on the season. None of the five finished with winning records. Neither the Patriots nor the Bengals were much better than average offensively either. As well, the more telling game with the Patriots last season was the second game in which both teams were in "steady-state" mode and one in which the Bills allowed 31 points while scoring none.

In those six games the Bills scored 156 points and allowed 53 points for an average of 26 points-for and 9 points-against. In the other ten games, the Bills scored 87 points and allowed 226 points for an average of fewer than 9 points-for and nearly 23 points-against. Had the statistics of those ten games, again, not against particularly impressive offensive or defensive opponents overall, defined the Bills' season, the results would have been a dead last ranking in scoring offense by over five points-per-game and a 23rd ranking in scoring defense.

So why do I bring this up? Oh Weiler, "there you go again!" (to respectfully quote the late great one, Ronald Reagan) "Nothing but negatives, no positives! Can't you just shut up and "don't worry, be happy!" Sure! I can stick my fingers in my ears and put blinders on. But my opinions will not alter this season one bit. What will alter it, or have altered it are changes to what ailed us the most.

Nevertheless, this analysis should raise some questions. Questions such as "how good was the Bills' D really?" "How good was the rushing D really?" It should be quite clear that the reason the Bills' D was ranked so highly last season was largely due to a handful of inept offensive teams playing either simply very poor or just average in games that the Bills happened to step up in.

It is that 23 points allowed in two-thirds of the season that should be of greater concern and not how well the D performed against the Giants, Cowboys, Jets, Skins, Jags, and Texans. The teams that the Bills faced last season were otherwise not particularly marvelous offensively other than the Chiefs. The only other two teams ranked amongst the league's top 10 in scoring offense that the Bills played were the Titans and Colts, two teams which were "rushingly challenged" last season with George on his last legs and with James struggling due to injuries. Regardless, the Bills allowed an average of about 28 points in those three games and lost all three.

The Bills played none of the teams possessing a top 5 rusher and only three teams with running backs among the league's top 10 by season's end. Fred Taylor ranked 6th on a team with no passing game led by a rookie QB, Priest Holmes ranked 9th on a team which put the Bills to open shame, and Ricky Williams ranked 10th on Miami with no real passing game and which beat the Bills twice on an average score of 19-5.

So why do I bring this up? Here's why; Because here is how the season will unfold for the Bills defensively this season: The Bills will finish closer to the middle of the stack this season in terms of defensive rankings. They may improve slightly on their "10 game" stats as mentioned above, but even that is not a given considering there have been effectively no changes to an otherwise aging defense and one that does not have the luxury of facing several teams with no offense this season barring key injuries to Bills' opponents. The Bills face a slew of teams with very good running backs as well.

Of the teams finishing 20th in or below in scoring offense last season, other than divisional opponents, the Bills face Jacksonville, Cleveland, Oakland, and Arizona. The Arizona game is as close to a gimme win as exists on this season's schedule. However, the Browns now have a QB capable of providing what they have been missing and that alone should propel them out of the bottom 12 offensively.

Oakland has also arguably improved offensively and has a tremendous defense to compliment its experienced and deep offense. Injuries also will likely not be a large factor in week 2 for the Raiders. Jacksonville has one of the league's most promising young up-and-coming QBs in his second season to balance out and improve a Fred Taylor led rushing game.

Defensively, Sam Adams and Pat Williams are aging and will begin to see reduced effectiveness. That much is only common sense. Aaron Schobel is the man, however, as we have all learned over the past few seasons, he cannot carry the play of the DL alone even with Pat Williams' assistance. Teams simply play right (our left) and avoid the Schobel/Williams wall or double-team Schobel. Sam Adams, while arguably solid, is clearly not the player he was only 3 or 4 seasons earlier and doesn't figure to improve at 31. We have seen what Ryan Denney can do and if Kelsay is anything better than average this year then the Bills should consider it a stroke of fortune.

The way this will shake out is that Jerry Gray will unjustifiably take all the heat as fans and media will run screaming that it was the departure of Dick LeBeau that will have been the reason for the downturn in statistical status of the Bills defense, the truth notwithstanding. They will of course completely be ignoring the play of the defense over the last ten games of 2002 during which the defense played superbly and against some very good offensive teams providing top-10 play throughout the last two-thirds of the season on a team with Dick LeBeau nowhere to be found.

This will also occur in spite of the analysis provided above demonstrating clearly that versus even modest offensive talent the Bills last season did not truly fare so well, certainly not nearly as well as fans and media would like to think, once the season is dissected a little bit. Perhaps the truth of the matter is in fact that LeBeau's contributions were actually negative. Who knows, who cares.

Offensively, the Bills may be marginally better, but fans should expect no more than that. The biggest woes of the offense last season were pass blocking, coaching, and QB play. The Bills did little other than simple coaching to rectify those things. While the coaching changes were big, immediate improvements should not be expected from game one onward.

Improvements will take time particularly given the raw status of Mike Mularkey and Tom Clements. Mistakes, regardless of how big or how small are bound to be made as the new coaches find their way. Fans and media need to be patient here yet the groundwork for such patience has not been laid from the front office nor even from the new coaches themselves.

In a season purported to be headed towards a power running game, the only additions via the draft amongst the first six rounds were a backup QB, wide receiver, and receiving tight end. No help for the running game or pass blocking there.

Chris Villarrial was signed as a run blocker and should provide some help there. However, at 31 Villarrial certainly cannot be expected to improve over his best seasons in Chicago and will provide little if any upgrade in pass blocking otherwise. As well, hopefully Villarrial's injuries last season were not a harbinger of things to come for a player exiting his prime. A seasoned Ruben Brown was released for cap reasons leaving the role for a relatively inexperienced Marques Sullivan to step up into.

The wealth of talent in the skill positions on offense will not offset the paper-thin depth and questionable quality of the starting offensive line. Expect Sam Aiken, Bobby Shaw, and Clarence Coleman to do nothing this season. Receivers beyond the third spot depth wise have done virtually nothing on Bledsoe-led Bills teams of late. Moulds and Evans will clearly be the starters with Josh Reed being the third slot receiver when needed.

The Bills have stated often enough that they plan on using plenty of two RB and two TE sets. Using either one of those sets will necessarily entail room for only two WRs at any given time. Translation: this wealth of skill position talent, especially at QB and WR is moot since only so many men can be on the field at one time.

Trey Teague still represents a liability when the Bills play teams with solid interior pass rushers of which they face many this season. Sullivan at LG is also a question mark. Villarrial, brought on to provide solid run blocking should provide that, but given his lack of accolades in pass blocking also remains a question mark as to what he will bring to the table there. The trio could very well be problematic in pass blocking vs. teams possessive of better pass rushing defensive lines. The Bills play eight games versus six of last season's top eight sacking teams.

All in all, the interior of the Bills line is anything but strong. It may be average or somewhat above, however expectations beyond that would be naïve, particularly as pass blocking goes. As well, depth capable of stepping in to allow Bledsoe to "be all that he can be" is non-existent raising further questions given the likelihood and expectation of line injuries which are common to most NFL teams.

The primary problem that needs to be overcome this season is the same as it has been throughout the past two seasons under Bledsoe's direction. Teams now know that the best way to pressure Bledsoe is with pressure up the middle, coincidentally exactly where the Bills are still the weakest on the line. As fate would have it, these teams then get a two-fer in that such pressure up the middle also results in the running lanes between the tackles getting clogged. Teams in the absence of a solid passing game cannot survive on runs strictly around the ends and tackles.

The onus will clearly be on Bledsoe this season and almost Bledsoe exclusively to shake that stigma early on and lead this offense to a degree of effectiveness in the face of what will be continued pressure up the middle from defenses until Bledsoe, Clements, and the rest of the offense can figure out how to solve that problem. A lack of figuring this out early on will result in the same-old, same-old.

Whether Jim McNally, Sam Wyche, Tom Clements, and Mike Mularkey can do this immediately and effectively remains to be seen. They will have to do this nearly immediately because fans do not have the patience for Bledsoe to take half a season or longer to come to grips with the new offense. Bledsoe is a 12-year veteran and much is expected. If he only contributes to the level of an inexperienced rookie, then the Bills would be better suited to put an inexperienced rookie (Losman) in the game in the interests of being competitive for the 2005 season.

Their first test will be against a very viable Oakland defense in week two on the road following what will likely have been a thorough and emotional victory over a Jacksonville team with a weak defense in the home opener. Bledsoe struggled against this same Oakland D at the Ralph in 2002 handing the game to the Raiders twice in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter in a game which otherwise was very competitive throughout three and a half quarters. That same Raider D is improved over then with its key younger players having added experience.

I will stand up for Jerry Gray early on this season. There is no question that the Bills D will not be near the across-the-board top 10 rankings on defense that they were last season, primarily due to the absence of the NFC East and the presence of the NFC West on the schedule in its place. However, Jerry Gray has done a solid job with the defense thus far overall and has had little help this season in terms of depth additions for an aging defensive line and extremely questionable play at what has become a perennial problem at LDE.

Once again, the Bills apparently are headed into this season with virtually no upgrades from a pragmatic perspective insofar as the lines are concerned. Coaching will only go so far in terms of improving the Bills. First year mistakes and learning curves for Mike Mularkey and Tom Clements can also be expected to offset any immediate improvements in coaching at least to a degree.

The quality and caliber of experience in the assistant coaching positions offensively will clearly be key. However, coaching can only overcome so much in terms of a lack of talent or experience particularly on the offensive line. As well, the credibility of assistants such as Sam Wyche placing Bledsoe in the same category as Joe Montana should also raise eyebrows.

Even then, such improvements will take time. Fans expecting the line to step out onto the field for game one in a seasoned state will likely be disappointed. The rub is that Bledsoe will need to perform immediately whether or not the line is at its best. If Bledsoe plays well it will matter not what Evans can do or how well Willis McGahee plays.

As to Willis McGahee, while I can be counted among those expecting the most excitement from him this season over any other change or improvement, it still remains to be seen how good he actually is however, and whether he can shake the injury bug which has characterized his collegiate and high school career over the past three seasons played.

Whether or not this occurs remains to be seen, but the bar has been set at a relatively high level as Henry is just entering his prime and has essentially proven himself to be a 1,500 yard rusher capable of carrying an offense on his back and playing in the absence of a solid passing game as well as through very serious injuries. McGahee will need to exceed Henry's effectiveness unquestionably in all areas if he is to be of such value to the Bills that it makes the kind of difference which will translate to wins. Otherwise Henry can fill the role nicely and there will be little improvement in wins due to the running game otherwise.

As to Evans being opposite Eric Moulds, the possibilities there are two-edged. Sure, Evans provides the type of speed that makes a difference, at least as heralded coming out of the draft. However, with such speed, Bledsoe, or any QB, will need to put the ball on the mark and at precisely the proper time or that speed advantage will be rendered inconsequential.

Fans expecting the passing game to excel this season simply due to Evans' speed are perhaps failing to consider Bledsoe's inaccuracy last season, often with well more than ample time to rid himself of the ball. While Evans' presence on the team has potential to cure what ails Bledsoe, it also has an equal chance of only highlighting Drew's errant throws. Which of the two occurs remains to be seen.

Either way, Bills fans hoping for further improvements to the team will likely be disappointed barring yet another of Donahoe's last minute moves designed to provide an emotional boost with or without much practical value in terms of onfield performance. What fans see is likely what fans will get this season. Whether that will be enough to propel this team to 8-8 or better remains to be seen. However, if .500 is not achieved this season, the Bills need to begin introspecting as to why not.

This will be year four of Donahoe's rebuilding in a plan, which included being competitive after two seasons, and some significant improvement and progress absolutely needs to rear its head. The Bills not only need to be .500 in demonstration of such improvement, but they must also shake their inability to beat playoff caliber teams, teams not characterized by key injuries when the Bills play them, and teams above .500.

A lack of improvement in those areas should be construed as failure for a team that has taken an approach giving it the status of arguably possessing the greatest offensive skill position talent in the league coupled with one of the best secondaries in the league as well and in light of nearly complete and utter neglect of its lines which are facing a loss of its two best defensive linemen, its top backup defensive lineman, its single best offensive lineman, and best backup offensive lineman due to free agency next offseason.

Comments: mweiler.billsreport@cox.net

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