Good Old-Fashioned Execution

As the start of the 2004 NFL season approaches the Bills will be fielding a team that looks almost identical to last season's squads which Bills fans do not need to be reminded did not exactly terrorize the league. The Bills lost more experienced veterans than they acquired except in the area of the coaching staff where they seem to have assembled a quasi-"Who's Who" staff of assistants largely through the acquisitions of Jim McNally and Sam Wyche.

On offense the starting lineup will look almost identical other than the rookie Lee Evans starting in place of Josh Reed and Bobby Shaw opposite Eric Moulds. The only other changes to the initial starting lineup will be Chris Villarrial starting at RG opposite Ruben Brown's LG spot with one of the Bills' young and relatively inexperienced linemen stepping up into Brown's old spot. It would also stand to reason that McNally's changes will be positive ones.

On defense, The Bills' front seven will look essentially the same likely with Chris Kelsay starting full-time at the infamous left defensive end position after seeing only spot duty there last season, a spot that seems loathe to be filled with any player capable of excelling there. Troy Vincent takes over in Antoine Winfield's CB spot as the only new face on the Bills defensive unit. Coy Wire presumably will be starting at the FS spot next to Milloy who will likely stay at SS.

These are not a lot of changes for a team from one season to another; particularly given the Bills lackluster performance of last season with an absolutely pitiful last 14 games. Couple that with the fact that of each of those changes, the incoming player is either inexperienced or aging out of his prime, it perhaps offers less hope than one would realize.

Nevertheless, hopes abound. I for one have absolutely no trouble believing that Troy Vincent will provide far better pass coverage than Winfield ever did or will this year even on the Vikings. I also believe that Coy Wire will always be an impact player regardless of what he is asked to do or what role he is asked to play. As to the rest, it must be said that my hopes are simply that, hopes.

The Bills, as well as their fans, seem to be pinning their hopes on the ability of Jim McNally to whip this dicey line into well-above average shape and in short order. For that will be what Bledsoe and the running game will need in order to succeed with the "short order" aspect of it being critical this season. The entire league realizes what happens when Bledsoe does not have ample time. There is not even a shred of uncertainty any longer as to how to attack a Bledsoe-led offense.

No matter how it is sliced, it should be safe to assume that as the line goes, so will go the offense this season for as long as Bledsoe is in there at quarterback. This obviously does not only apply to the Bills, but to all NFL teams, perhaps less so given that most teams if not all teams, possess more mobile QBs than Bledsoe, yet it is applicable nonetheless. Solid line play and execution in the trenches is the foundation of all great football teams and of Super Bowl winners to be sure.

This brings us back to the topic of this piece, namely "execution." There has been a plethora of talk about with new and simplified offensive schemes, play-calling, and blocking schemes, the Bills should be right back on track to be competitive.

Nevertheless, I remain more than a little concerned as to whether or not those things will be enough to propel the Bills forward into a state of playoff-caliber football. Obviously anything new that the team brings to the table, particularly following such a woeful season, offers renewed hope for success. This is especially true when considering the complete and utter lack of creativity, common sense, and overall coaching wisdom, or lack thereof, that went into the Gilbride offense.

It would be seemingly impossible for the offense not to improve significantly if simply by accident considering the dreadful performance of the offense and its 11 point-per-game average during those last 14 games. This was greater than three points-per-game below what league last Arizona did over the entire season as a team.

Average on the season for "points for" last season in the NFL was over 19 points-per-game, over 8 points-per-game beyond where the Bills were over those last 14 games, offensively albeit. A one touchdown-per-game improvement over that 11 points per game with the talent that the Bills possess should therefore not be hailed as some sort of ingenious improvement.

Much of the talk however seems to almost ignore that there will be a team lining up across from the Bills each week and that each of those teams has a coach as well that will be seeking to take advantage of the holes and weaknesses of the Bills. Even less is the talk is of exactly which teams those are.

Yes, the Bills will be unveiling a more simplified offensive scheme. Yes, they will have outstanding offensive line coaching. Surely the new and improved Bills will have some weaknesses as well, particularly with Bledsoe running the offense where pressure up the middle can break things down in a NY second.

It also remains to be seen how quickly, efficiently, and effectively Mike Mularkey makes those adjustments when required. Bills fans should make no mistake however. Just as when Rob Johnson comes in and opposing teams immediately go into their full blitz packages, so will it be for the Bills this season with pressure up the middle until Bledsoe and the offense prove that such pressure is ineffective or that they can control it regardless of what type of blocking scheme they happen to be using at the time.

The Bills will be facing some very formidable line matchups early on in the season, from game one in fact. How well and to what degree Bills' offensive linemen outperform opposing linemen remains to be seen. Common sense should clearly spell out that blocking scheme will not make a big difference if the execution aspect is not there. When comparing some of the talent matchups below, there is cause for concern for a team that has largely neglected its offensive line recently.

Jim McNally has a reputation for getting mediocre linemen to step up to play solid ball. But while Trey Teague and Mike Williams can be put into the mediocre category, Tucker, Pucillo, and perhaps even Sullivan, the three linemen vying for the open LG spot are arguably not even mediocre. Last season both Tucker and Pucillo played well below average ball making them a cut below mediocre. All three have yet to prove that they are even long for this league in anything other than a backup role. All three are currently reported to be on equal ground in the competition for the spot.

Can McNally get them to play to a higher level? Likely. But will it be enough, coupled with simple scheme changes to transform them into linemen capable of handling the likes of the defenders and defenses which they will be facing and listed below remains to be seen.

Some questions for Bills fans to ponder between now and the start of the season are:

1. How will the interior offensive line of Villarrial, Teague, and Sullivan (or Pucillo or Tucker in Sullivan's stead) fare execution-wise vs. some of the top tier DT tandems and overall defensive lines that the Bills will face this season?

2. How will even light injuries along the line, particularly given the uncertainty as to their fifth starter being chosen from three inexperienced young players, affect the Bills offense?

3. How will the aging tandem of Adams and Williams fare execution-wise vs. some of the top offensive lines and power running backs that they did not see much of at all last season?

4. Are simple changes in blocking scheme, play simplicity, overall play-calling, or other intangible changes enough to overcome what will likely be frequent line talent mismatches for our offense?

5. Can simple coaching differences really change a 12-year veteran quarterback into shedding mental aspects of the game that are issues and which have been characteristic of his play throughout his career, even predating the NFL? Relatedly, why does no one seem to take issue with a 12-year vet QB receiving criticisms typically reserved for inexperienced quarterbacks and young or rookie quarterbacks? Yet, few seem to find that to be odd.

6. Lee Evans averaged 3.5 catches and half a touchdown in four games vs. the top five teams in the Big Ten with the Badgers going 1-3 in those games. He added 4 catches for 51 yards and a touchdown in his bowl game vs. Auburn, another loss. How will Evans fare initially vs. some of the best cornerbacking tandems and overall pass defenses in the league? Buchanon/Woodson in Oakland, McAllister/Baxter in Baltimore, Law/Poole in N.E., and Surtain/Madison in Miami? This must be considered in conjunction with notions that Evans hits the field as the primary offensive player improvement that is supposed to open things up for Bledsoe and the offense.

7. Evans is relying on Eric Moulds who is coming off injury and will be 31 this season to consistently draw double coverage. At 31, an age at which WRs typically and often begin to show signs of slowing down, will Moulds still draw that consistent double coverage?

8. Suppose that Evans does not light up the NFL and "stretch the field" against some of its best pass defenses as some fans are expecting. Given that this is, other than simple coaching changes, supposed to be the primary difference between last season and this one, how will the offense play if this new weapon proves to be less effective than thought and not nearly the equalizer that many seem to think it will be and taking longer to develop than expected?

9. If the answers to any of those questions turn out to fall into the "unfavorable" category, then how will that impact the Bills' season? Both from a current season perspective as well as glancing down the road into future seasons?

The greatest concerns are on the offensive line where the expectations for an interior line consisting of Sullivan, Teague, Villarrial trio will presumably only perform to an average level, perhaps only slightly better overall in some games, particularly given the array of talented offensive squads that litter the Bills' schedule this season. The Bills' schedule surely features a much tougher slate of offensive powerhouses than it did last season and all three divisional teams will have improved offensively as well.

Considering the first string of six games, games which will be key in shaping and determining the overall strategy for the remainder of the season no doubt, the Bills offensive line will be up against:

Week 1: Jacksonville, where Marcus Stroud and John Henderson are quietly making a bid to be among the best DT tandems in the league on a defense which finished second vs. the run last season.

Week 2: Oakland, where Ted Washington, who should still be very fresh on the season, Warren Sapp, and John Parrella will be clogging the rushing lanes and pressuring Bledsoe.

Week 4: New England, where Bill Belichick is surely likely to out-coach and out-adjust a young Mike Mularkey and Tom Clements as well as where Keith Traylor and Vince Wilfork step in for Ted Washington and promise to keep a fresh player in the middle throughout games. This is also not to mention an abundance of talent all-around on defense on the league's returning number one scoring defense. The Pats finished fourth vs. the run last season. Throw in the return of Roosevelt Colvin along with a wealth of talent at ILB and the question enlarges itself.

Week 5: Somewhat of a break vs. the Jets although a divisional game nonetheless and one against which the Bills averaged only 10 offensive points, 225 net yards, and fewer than 100 rushing yards per game vs. a defense which was ranked 28th vs. the run last season allowing an average of over 140 rushing yards per game.

Week 6: A tenacious Dolphin attack which out-executed the Bills' line last season and held them to only 3 offensive points scored and fewer than 300 total net yards in two games and which finished fifth in the league vs. the run last season.

Week 7: A very young and underrated Kelly Greg and Marques Douglas on a Ray Lewis led Raven defense with close to a shutdown secondary that led the league in sacks last season, ranked second vs. the run, was second in takeaways, and allowed only six rushing touchdowns. Not good for a team that is in trouble when it has to rely on Drew Bledsoe to dig deep.

To summarize, those are four teams that finished among the top six last season in rushing defense coupled with a revamped Oakland unit which may do the same this season. These matchups also make no mention of the complex defensive schemes that will be launched at the Bills new offensive scheme. Nor does it take into account the other players on those teams, linebackers blitzing up the middle as the panacea used to stop Bledsoe led teams, other stunts or defensive looks that may confuse a quarterback who seems easily confused by such looks.

Again, the question is asked, is the simple fix for such a quarterback reduced to a simple coaching issue and a simpler overall offense? Methinks perhaps having pumped greater resources into offensive line talent would have been wise.

Nevertheless, these six games will define the Bills' season early on, may very well bring an early demonstration of the fans' and media's wrath and impatience with certain aspects of the team should things not go well. If things go just peachy, then all will be well. Somehow, it stands to reason that any sane bettin' man would not lay a lot of bucks on things going swimmingly so early on and against such teams as the Bills face early. If the Bills can pull out three wins of those first six games, then it will have been more than could have been asked of them given the circumstances and will indeed be a good thing.

Alas, the Bills' scheduling woes do not end there. There is a brief respite with two straight must-win home games following those first six featuring Arizona and the Jets at the Ralph in that order. Not winning both of those games would likely be the first blatant sign of another issue-laden season. "Schedule hell" then resumes with a road game in New England that can be chalked up as a loss right now, followed by a home game vs. the Rams (a great turf team), then difficult road games vs. Seattle out west and Miami to wrap up that four game stretch consisting of three road games.

The schedule somewhat returns to a state of normalcy following that with Cleveland at the Ralph, Cincinnati then San Francisco out west on the road respectively, closing with a home game vs. the Steelers. The season likely will have been determined by the initial twelve games however. If the Bills are an even 6-6 after those dozen games, then it will be good news indeed. If they are not, then it will not be good for either the current season or for the immediate future of the Bills as it will likely mean a fifth straight non-winning season. Another losing season would be the third in the last four seasons and would be a PR nightmare for Donahoe and a realization of his worst fears.

As well, the early success, or lack of it, may also shape the strategy as to how the Bills play out the rest of the season. I have suggested for months that the patience of Bills' fans for poor play by Bledsoe will not exceed a sixth straight quarter of sub-par play, even given the caliber of the competition. Should the fans revolt early on, pressure will be on Mike Mularkey and Tom Clements to make the obvious switch to Brown or even Losman depending upon at which juncture during the season the aforementioned string of poor play occurs. Fans at home will make that perfectly clear.

On the other shoulder will be Tom Donahoe talking sternly into Mularkey's other ear "strongly suggesting" that he should ride the Bledsoe bus a little longer given that Bledsoe's play is one of three key player-pieces which need to fall into place in order for Donahoe to avoid the same fate which more than likely awaits Bledsoe and which befell Greg Williams, Kevin Gilbride, Rob Johnson, Wade Phillips, Joe Pendry among others. Lack of confidence will reach a crescendo under those circumstances.

The other two player-pieces are Lee Evans and Willis McGahee, a rookie wide receiver and a "red shirt" running back with questions looming as to his viability as a healthy starter capable of returning to the form which made him a former projected top five draft selection.

I personally still wonder what could have been had the Bills drafted Vernon Carey and Jake Grove in rounds one and two in this past draft. It surely would have helped solidify the line for the future, particularly now in light of Jennings' likely departure. While I like Losman as much as any QB in this past draft, perhaps more, next season's draft is rumored to be loaded with QB talent. As well, rookie WRs rarely make the type of impact that the Bills say Evans will make, particularly against the teams just mentioned. That is the proverbial water under the bridge however.

Running or passing, the Bills have a very tough string of six games to open the season with nary a break until their playoff chances could already be fully decided. In one way or another, and at varying times, the Bills will have to rely on both components of their game, offensive and defensive, to ensure a competitive team. Whether simple coaching changes, a simplified playbook, and a fresh set of schemes will be enough to make 80% of the difference remains to be seen. It should certainly make a difference however. Whether or not these simple changes take place to the degree necessary and immediately as they will need to be remains to be seen.


Buffalo Football Report Top Stories