Fashionable is Positive

With approximately five weeks remaining prior to the start of training camp, there is still some time to kill. So what better time for lighter look at Bills fandom.

I always get a good chuckle from Bills fans that bring the hammer down on other fans that do not like the players that they are supposed to like. Obviously fan opinions are as varied as peoples' tastes for anything go. Right or wrong, certain players command "more favorite status" than others.

Fan generated player status is not always proportional to performance however although fan favorites are usually the better performers on the team. Highly touted rookies often underproduce for years with strong fan support prior to being dropped from the program. One approach that has always perplexed me is the widely held notion in the NFL that if a "player is getting paid then he needs to play." As I see it, who cares if the better player is getting paid less. The overall goal of the team should be performance, not financial metrics such as return-on-salary or compensation. It is not unusual for teams to render themselves less competitive under such circumstances.

Obviously it makes sense to play the players earning the big bucks and presumably they are getting the big bucks either for current performance or past performance when it comes to free agent signings. Otherwise, players not performing commensurate with their salaries are merely reflective of player selection decisions that did not work out as intended.

Feedback sent in on my often provocative and controversial opinions and which are designed to get to the core issues generally follows a normal curve in terms of the type of response. Most is well articulated and congenial regardless of whether or not it is in agreement. Some of the more venomous responses on the lower end of that curve including the animus dropping of "F bombs" with absolutely no constructive comments otherwise nested within a foul tirade, I often try to have some fun with as I feel that many fans take football far too seriously.

Football fandom should be fun but when it begins to consume one's existence, perhaps some introspection and resulting balance in life is warranted. If that does not work, then perhaps counseling or psychiatric treatment is the ticket. Just as with anything else in life, unanimity in fan opinion is highly unlikely and would be boring even if it were attainable. Those handful of fans interpreting criticism to the Bills or to their favorite players as personal assaults on themselves or on their immediate family members need to go get some good professional help.

I do try to present information and insights in ways that are not splattered across a dozen (or more) different sites and publications with uncanny timeliness and expressing the exact same things only in different words and very often in ways which leave little room for challenge for one reason or another. I also attempt to look at realities of team issues and not at sidebar issues of players or circumstances that are unlikely to impact a single game let alone an entire season. E.g., talk of how well Sam Aiken is doing in camp this year. Does anyone truly believe that with the crux of the Bills attack being Henry/McGahee running the ball, and given the bottleneck of talent at the WR spot with Moulds, Evans, and Reed being the primary three with Shaw in line as well, that Aiken will make any impact at all this season. Reason suggests that such talk is pointless particularly given the Bills near utter lack of use of the 4th WR during the Bledsoe era.

Some of the feedback that I receive, albeit a minority portion, seems to attack my viewpoints and term me "negative." I take no issue with this in that those in my position necessarily need to be open to such criticism. In fact I enjoy it and thrive on it to an extent. But in defense, let us consider the trend of the team over the past few seasons.

Since the 2000 season, the Bills have an average mark of 6-10, an average scoring offense ranking of 22nd, an average yardage offense ranking of 15th, an average scoring defense ranking of 20th, and an average yardage defense ranking of 10th. Fans often tend to value yardage rankings above more telling and important scoring rankings. This also supports one of my primary points that far too much emphasis has been placed on yardage rankings vice the more important scoring rankings in recent seasons.

In spite of having dumped considerably greater resources into the offense in recent seasons, the trend in offensive rankings has been disturbing to say the least. The scoring offense ranking has trended generally from 20th in 2000 to 31st in 2003 with the yardage offense paralleling it falling from 9th in 2000 to 28th last season leaving off with the Bills among the bottom sixth in the league. The only bright spot over the past three seasons was a five game streak at the onset of 2002 versus grossly inferior competition for the most part.

The defense has trended in the opposite direction with a clear demarcation at about the game 6 mark of the 2002 season with solid performance since that point. The scoring defense overall has trended from 18th in 2000 and 29th in 2001 to 5th last season with the yardage defense moving from 21st in 2001 to 2nd last season. In fact, as mentioned in prior pieces, the scoring defense of the Bills played well enough over the last ten games of 2002 such that had it played that way all season it would have been good enough to earn a 7th overall ranking at season's end that season.

As well, over the past four seasons, the Bills have beaten seven teams with winning records with three of those victories having occurred during the 2000 season leaving only four such victories over the past three seasons, barely over one per season. These four victories for the Bills that have occurred over the past two seasons have all been accompanied by significant extenuating circumstances.

Many would argue that such statements are "negative" while my retort would be that they are simple facts. If they are negative, then certainly it is not this messenger's fault. It certainly does not aid in the cause of the team winning if all media members withhold such information and stick their heads in the sand like ostriches ignoring the realities of these circumstances. Yet, based on some of the feedback, one would be led to believe that it does.

Regardless, overall, are these circumstances positive! Only those in denial would insist that they were.

Regardless, the above mentioned characteristics of this indicate a team with issues, not a team that is on the brink of winning it all. The absence of either a clear pattern or trend overall in the "winning direction" also paint a picture. Given the above trends coupled with offseason changes, additions, and losses, the onus is on the team to prove that it has indeed improved, not on fans and media to give management and coaching the benefit of the doubt. Donahoe & Co.'s benefits-of-the-doubt are on their last legs given trends not matching talk or past planning. I say this in spite of the fact that one of the lone voices for patience with Mularkey and Clements as they learn the ropes is yours truly. Even that is deemed as negative by some.

What happens this season is anyone's guess. This season may very well boil down to a referendum on how much only coaching changes can alter the landscape for a team such as the Bills and more particularly a head coach and offensive coordinator both in their first attempt in such roles and with only limited experience otherwise.

Prior to the start of the 2002 season my predictions were for 11-5 or even 12-4 that season. While my positions on Bledsoe and Gilbride were well documented prior to the season and have not changed since, my assumption was that the stronger aspects of the team would overcome those aspects. Needless to say, my judgement was off there.

I also try to be objective seeing things as they are and not as I, or any fan, would wish them to be. Naturally my hopes and wishes for a 17-0 season are there as they are for every Bills fan. I have received responses by some fans stating that they would be happy if we won only two games all season as long as they were against the Dolphins, the Bills arch-nemesis as seen by many Bills fans. However, I would argue that 14-2 would be better with two losses against the Fins.

Notwithstanding, reality must temper dreams and the facts sing a different tune this season for those looking at reality. A very reasonable goal for the 2004 season would be .500 or 8-8 along with some much needed victories against some of the better teams on the schedule, teams that end up finishing out this season with 10 or more wins.

This season can be broken down into two groups of teams. First, the group containing teams that are approximately equal to or weaker than the Bills. The second group consists of teams that were all .500 or better last season and which figure to achieve that goal again this season with reasonable potential for all becoming playoff teams.

The first group consists of Jacksonville, the Raiders, the Jets, Cardinals, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh. The second group consists of New England, Miami, Baltimore, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Seattle.

Of the first group the Bills host five of eight teams. Of the second group the Bills host only three of the eight games leaving five of these critical games on the road. Last season the Bills went 2-6 on the road with those road victories being over the Jags and Giants, 5-11 and 4-12 respectively.

While many fans are hoping for playoffs, a more reasonable assessment of "improvement" for this upcoming Bills season would be a minimum of 8-8 with at least three victories among that second group of teams without significant mitigating circumstances. By "mitigating circumstances", one can assume that this means that the opponents are not ravaged with injuries to such an extent as to remove them from the status of being winning teams otherwise. E.g., suppose for instance that the Bills end up facing Seattle with Sean Alexander and Darrell Jackson out with injury. The expectation for a win clearly would go up since without those two players the Seahawks would likely not be a winning team otherwise.

Over the past two seasons the Bills have been 9-2 vs. teams that finished their season 6-10 or worse and 1-10 vs. teams that finished their seasons 10-6 or better with the only victory coming against the disarrayed Patriots in week one last season. This simply needs to change if the Bills are to be considered an improved team that is ready for or making a move for the playoffs next season. This does not even take into consideration Losman starting for the first time perhaps next season.

At some point quality-of-victory needs to be in on the equation. It is clearly something that has been missing lo these past four seasons.

Nevertheless, as the title of this piece suggests, fashionable is positive, while even very positive statements amongst segments of the Bills' fan base are deemed negative. Below are some of those contrasts and comparisons:

Fashionable and positive:

Drew Bledsoe is 19-31 over his past four seasons and 36-46 over the past six seasons and has led the Bills to no better offensive performance than Rob Johnson has for the most part. Yet, he remains a fan favorite with fans still possessing patience for substandard play, instead issuing a host of excuses in vain attempts to explain it all away.

Positive yet negative:

Desirous of seeing what Losman can do, not immediately, but perhaps midway through the season. Desiring to see Losman get worked in this season to get this train moving ahead so that Losman is ready a year earlier than he would be otherwise, especially given official team statements that Bledsoe is now currently only a "fill-in" QB until the rookie comes of age. Otherwise taking a "risk" with any other QB that can top leading the team to some of the worst offensive performance in the league in that position.

Fashionable and positive:

Looking forward to trading Travis Henry and letting McGahee be the RB of the Bills' future even before he has seen the field as a pro and even if he only sees spot duty this fall not fully testing how well his knee(s), which are 3-for-3 over the past three seasons played for injury, can hold up over an entire NFL season.

Positive yet negative:

Touting Travis Henry as one of the league's top rushers who has proven to play through extreme injuries, is just entering his prime, has carried an entire offense on his back for two seasons, and one which is all that any team in the league would need for a successful run through the playoffs including a Super Bowl win all other things being equal.

As a sidebar here, in Marshall Faulk's first five seasons, he averaged only 4.0 yards-per-carry on an average of 278 carries, 8 rushing TDs, and 10 overall TDs. In his first three seasons, Henry has averaged 1,174 yards rushing, 9 rushing TDs and 10 overall TDs. Over his second and third seasons, Henry has averaged almost 1,400 yards rushing, much of which was gained while playing on a broken leg, 11 1/2 TDs rushing, 12 1/2 TDs overall, and 4.3 yards-per-carry.

Henry is a better running back than anyone on the Patriots in their two recent Super Bowl wins. He is a better RB than what Tampa Bay had in their SB victory. He is a better RB than what Green Bay had when they won the SB in '96. Henry is all that is needed from the RB position. Yet, taking such a stance with McGahee on the roster is apparently "negative."

Fashionable and positive:

Believing that London Fletcher is some sort of premiere MLB.

Positive yet negative:

Realizing that Takeo Spikes is a much better linebacker whose potential in the middle should make Bills fans drool. Spikes skills in pass coverage easily exceed Fletcher's, which are problematic. I cannot leave Fletcher in the lurch however. Fletcher's skills are far better suited to say Posey's SLB position where he would, in my humble opinion, double Posey's production there. Posey plays too high and his overpursuit is easy for opposing QBs to maneuver around. Fletcher has an extremely quick initial burst and is much shorter allowing for greater effectiveness in small spaces and greater ability to adjust to quick evasive moves made by opponents in their offensive backfield. He also has good strength that can only also help in that way. Workarounds can be found for compensating in coverage there.

Somehow I suppose that outlook is negative. It also stands to reason that such statements on Spikes providing superior performance at the MLB spot should be an interesting proposition to fans whose interest is the success of the team over individual support for Fletcher. The key word here is optimization.

Fashionable and positive:

That Lawyer Milloy's acquisition was some sort of genius move.

Positive yet negative:

That Coy Wire had an incredible rookie season as safeties go, showed incredible promise as a strong safety, and I had high hopes for him starting at SS for a good many years. Coy Wire, in this messenger's opinion, has the potential to be another John Lynch caliber safety.

My past statements that Milloy was merely duplicating that same staffing need comes across as a dislike for Milloy when the fact of the matter is that my primary issue with that staffing selection is that it was inefficient in terms of overall staffing management. In my mind, as well as what common sense would dictate, you spend the most money on what ails you the most, not where you already have solid prospects. If one has a broken leg and a common house cold, one doesn't go see the family practitioner first to get cold remedies.

Needless to say, these are only a sampling of the differences between how this messenger views the team as well as its efforts to improve itself vice that of the direction and approach taken. As I see it, I do not care whether the Bills win a Super Bowl with 22 starting players, as well as special teams, that are completely unknown or with 22 pro bowlers. It is the team that wins, not a handful of select individuals, especially those clearly not at the top of their games or among the best in the league even at their positions.

There should be no "sacred cows" when it comes to player staffing and selection and plans need to be made to have all aspects of this team firing on all cylinders for at least a season or two at some point. This is apparently not in the cards however given the tenuous situation of the Bills lines starting with and particularly following this season. But win they must to keep longtime fans happy, especially in Buffalo where nothing short of a Super Bowl win is able to "scratch the itch" left from four straight losing Super Bowl appearances only a decade ago.


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