The Point of No Return - Part I

Since the end of last season my articles have laid out exactly why this past offseason would be so crucial not only to the current year Bills but also to the mid-term future of the Bills. The Bills came to a fork in the road and had a clear-cut choice to be made. This past offseason was one that will shape the Bills for the next several seasons to be sure one way or another. With opening day fast approaching and only seven weeks from the date of this piece, fans will soon know which way.

Following last season, three things screamed out problematic both during as well as following the season. The first was the offensive line, the second was quarterback play, and the third was the defensive line, more specifically the inability of the line to generate a substantial pass rush thereby pressuring teams and allowing the back seven to generate turnovers. We will focus on the offensive issues however for purposes of this analysis given that this is where the team has opted to almost exclusively focus its offseason efforts for improving the team as well as considering that overall the defense played very well last season as well as through most of 2002.

Tom Donahoe's tripod for success has as its three legs: Drew Bledsoe, Lee Evans, and Willis McGahee. Whether or not the fourth year Bills' GM realizes it or not, his tenure will likely come down to how well the three, particularly as a tandem in the Bledsoe-Evans case, end up contributing to the improvement of the team.

The first leg of the tripod: Drew Bledsoe

What has to occur:

Drew Bledsoe, in order for this situation to come out "successful" must do two things. First, he must play to a level that would put him among the top half QBs in the league. Secondly, he must demonstrate an ability to play competitively against the better teams on the schedule. Simply putting up Pro-Bowl aggregate numbers while lighting up teams which will end up finishing the season with losing records and which have dreadful defenses while playing equally abysmally vs. the teams which end up making the playoffs and those with winning records will not make the cut here.

The Assumptions:

The assumptions here are that the issue(s) have been the offensive scheming, blocking, receiving talent, and other aspects of the game and not something else within Bledsoe himself, something such as his mental preparation and processing abilities while under pressure. Some players are endowed with physical stature and abilities, some with mental aspects that allow them to excel, some with both, and then there is everything in-between in terms of combinations of the two and highly dependent upon which position is in question. Obviously quarterbacking in the NFL requires much more of the mental aspects than other positions do.

Lawrence Philips was built like a bull moose and had all the physical aspects of the game that anyone could hope for, yet the mental component to his game rivaled that of a styrofoam cup. Quarterback Ryan Leaf had all the physical attributes that one could ask for in a QB, yet, upon taking the field he was running on an 8 megahertz processor in a league where gigahertz processors set the standard.

The Problem(s):

The Bills have done several things that have nearly single-handedly generated this entire "point of no return" scenario. First, and contrary to the belief of many, they have designed the team around Drew Bledsoe once again for this upcoming season contrary to statements otherwise. Both the offseason via free agency as well as the draft shout this out from the rooftops.

The Bills could easily have ditched Bledsoe and the now $8.75 million minimum price tag (read cap hit) associated with his retention and begun to address the lines and turned to anyone of several QB options which would have almost assuredly improved the viability of the short passing game and thereby the overall performance of the team generally speaking. Yet, throughout the offseason all that fans have been treated to is "what Bledsoe is missing", the theme regarding the correction of the offense. The choice has been made however and clearly it can be added.

For approximately eight seasons now I have closely followed Drew Bledsoe's play after his having received many accolades early on in the first few seasons of his career all revolving around the mantra of having been "the youngest QB to…" Throughout this time since then there has been one consistent theme regarding Bledsoe-led teams that has stuck out to me like the proverbial sore thumb. This has been that regardless of how poorly he has played, the predominant share of the blame for his play has always gone to other aspects of the team in a style of denial that it cannot possibly be his own play which is, and always has been, the first and foremost issue.

This continues on now in Buffalo. The simplified schemes, playbook, etc. will likely improve the situation to an extent. What extent that is remains to be seen. However, where Tom Donahoe and the coaches have incorrectly assessed this situation is in a more in-depth analysis of the very things that they are attempting to correct. Their assumptions that Gilbride's offense was "too complicated" are not off, but what they have failed to fully understand is that Bledsoe has had the same set of weaknesses throughout his career and not always in such complicated systems and offenses in New England.

As well, how does one explain the early success of the 2002 season and then only vs. poor defenses by and large? The logic that has been used is inconsistent at best and leaves the question unanswered from "the experts" as well as from many media members supporting the notion that all will be well this season with simplified offensive parameters.

Herein lies the larger issue. Sure, the Bills will bring to the table a simplified offense. But with a simplified offense also comes the ability for defenses to counter that offense more easily in their counter scheming. It also leaves a greater portion of the success of the team left up to a mano-a-mano face-off on the line of scrimmage as well as in individual skill position matchups. I am not so sure that the Bills offensive line is fully ready to engage opposing defensive lines the caliber of which litter the Bills' schedule this season on such a basis, McNally's outstanding coaching notwithstanding.

The entirety of the success of the 2004 Bills will also depend highly on a tactical balance between passing and running regardless of the fact that the main thrust of the offense is purportedly going to be a physical, pounding running game designed to wear down opposing defenses. If Bills' opponents can take away the passing portion of that offense by capitalizing on untimely miscues and turnovers in addition to overall poor play, then the Bills will be little better off this season than they were last season regardless of to what degree the running game has improved.

Where the analysis of "how to fix Bledsoe" breaks down is in notions that it is strictly, or even primarily, the "complexity" of the offensive scheme that has hindered Bledsoe. Bledsoe has not had a great short game throughout his career. The contrast between Bledsoe and Brady cannot be any more glaring given that the entirety of the New England passing game today is almost entirely predicated on short passes almost exclusively coupled with the fact that they have won two Super Bowls using such a method and without the solid rushing game that they now have with Corey Dillon or that Bledsoe had with Curtis Martin.

Under Bledsoe's guidance virtually the exact same offense, often much better talent wise, was ineffective. The only time that it excelled was when it had one of the league's top running backs, the best coaching ever to grace the NFL, a very good offensive line, very good receivers, very good defense and special teams, and one of the best tight ends ever to have played the game. And yet, the weakness of that offense was still Drew Bledsoe who played horribly throughout the playoffs in each and every playoff game that the Patriots ever played in with the team carrying him.

Drew Bledsoe's issue is that he simply does not check down and process through all of his options quickly once his primary receiver is unavailable, and it is very unusual for him to go to his third and/or fourth or beyond if his first two options are not open. He does this with difficulty. This is evident given that over the past two seasons, the Bills' fourth receivers have been virtually inactive reception wise. The tight ends have gotten few balls thrown their way percentage wise as well.

Here is why little will alter itself this season regarding Drew Bledsoe and the passing game; regardless of how simple the schemes, playbook, system are, Bledsoe must still go through that on-field mental check down when his primary and often even his secondary receivers are not available. There are also other processing mental aspects that go into the game such as an overall cognizance of the surrounding action and timing issues. That is and has been where Bledsoe breaks down and where opponents capitalize on key turnovers via pressure and sacks. This is also where he over-focuses on his primary two receivers resulting in telecasting his passes giving opposing defensive backs the edge.

It is where he gets rattled and where opposing defenses and top defenders, of which the Bills face no shortage of this season, capitalize on Bledsoe's confusion and lack of speed in game-situation processing of what is in front of him. This is also why Bledsoe has struggled to the extent that he has in the red zone where things get much more crowded and where the most successful quarterbacks think and react lightning quick. Obviously the deep game is taken away where speed differentials are negligible, where a strong (deep) arm is next to useless, and where defenses tighten up overall thereby taking Bledsoe almost entirely out of his element. This represents problems for Bledsoe regardless of which system he is playing in. It always has presented problems for him in this way.

New simplified plays, schemes, systems, etc. may correct this partially. Where this issue will rear its head however is in the same place that it has consistently reared its head throughout Bledsoe's career, namely when the Bills play the tougher teams with the better defenses. It follows then that this is where fans and media seeking to ascertain whether or not Bledsoe has improved should begin to look. If he continues to struggle against the Patriots, Dolphins, Ravens, Raiders, and even teams such as Seattle on the road, the Rams at home, Jacksonville at the home opener, and perhaps even one or two others, then the answer will be a resounding no.

He must limit his turnovers vs. those teams regardless of his production numbers overall. This is what has absolutely killed the Bills lo these past two seasons. Will his performance increase? Absolutely. It would be almost impossible for it not to. Eleven touchdowns can be improved upon sheerly by accident. But fans should keep an eye on his performance overall and versus the teams that the Bills play that end up making the playoffs to be sure.

The Bills are seeking to become playoff competitive. Having a quarterback incapable of doing that ultimately restricts this development. This also underlies the entire premise of the "point of no return" scenario since it suggests that Bledsoe will never be a playoff caliber quarterback and therefore was the wrong choice and correspondingly tied up critical funds which could otherwise have been used to affect improvements not to mention time lost and team image in the likely event of yet another failed experiment in this regard. If he exhibits similar TD/INT ratios that he has versus winning teams that he has, then the Bills will continue to be in trouble.

A quick review has his TD/INT ratio at 16-to-23, or about 2-to-3, vs. 18 winning teams during his tenure with the Bills and a TD/turnover ratio vs. the same 18 winning teams at 16-to-32 or 1-to-2. Of those 18 games, in only five of them did he have more touchdowns than turnovers going 2-3 in those games with both wins over Miami in 2002.

Even during the first six games of the 2002 season when it was said that he was "on fire" his TD/INT numbers vs. teams that finished the season with winning records was 5-to-5, certainly far from impressive. In two of those three games it was 3-to-5. All three games were losses with two of those games having been lost as direct results of Bledsoe's turnovers, once being largely responsible for sending the game to overtime and the other generating giveaways down the stretch in an otherwise very winnable game. This simply cannot continue if the Bills' goals are to be met.

Those teams will continue to capitalize by being able to play the Bills' receivers tightly thereby forcing Bledsoe to often have to go to his third and fourth options thereby significantly increasing the chances for taking advantage of Bledsoe's inability to react quickly regarding his reads beyond his primary and secondary targets. No degree of coaching in the world can overcome that as it is something that Bledsoe needs to overcome within his own ability to process these things quickly, much more quickly than in the past, and effectively without making all of the errors that he has traditionally made in these games, season in and season out. Yet, he has had some of the best coach him and after a dozen seasons of virtually starting throughout, the same issues plague his career. Simple coaching is not the answer here. This is also why I have facetiously asserted that the answer is a neurologist, not a coach.

The more strategic issue in Bledsoe's retention has to do with the Bills' approach this past offseason. I will use my "wishful thinking" draft scenario as the analogy. Had I been the GM of the Bills, I would have selected Vernon Carey in round one and Jake Grove in round two all other things being equal. Both players were available with the selections that the Bills had in those rounds. This would have set the team up for better protection for ANY quarterback, not simply Bledsoe, and would not have simply addressed issues related to a single quarterback much as went on in New England until another QB took over and did just fine with the tools on the table.

This will be especially critical and will be far more dire at the end of the 2004 season heading into the 2005 offseason and as both of the Bills' current lines face disintegration due to free agency departures, aging players, and with few reliable players having been acquired in recent offseasons to backfill the departures leaving not only starting spots as glaring question marks, but depth spots as well. My past articles have dealt with this more extensively.

The current cadre of wide receivers, prior to the Bills having drafted Lee Evans, was fine for any quarterback possessive of a solid short passing game and the accompanying skills, especially in light of the fact that the Bills possess what should be two of the top rushers in the league. This was also the case in New England for those with short memories and those who have never considered this at all. The same was said in New England, that the offensive line was not very good and that Drew had no deep threat wide receivers, big-play wide receivers if you will.

Yet, as soon as Tom Brady took over control of the team it was interesting that with the same cast of wide receivers and an equal offensive line coupled with a lesser running game even, Brady managed to lead the Patriots to two Super Bowl wins in three seasons largely due to a vastly improved and more efficient offense. Most importantly, the propensity of the Patriots to give up key turnovers versus their toughest opponents with regularity all but vanished.

Drafting Evans, while perhaps paying huge dividends down the road, had its cost. So did trading away next season's first rounder for what could have been a solid center for a decade coupled with the loss of a fifth rounder not to forget another "Bledsoe fix" pick in consuming a fourth round selection in order to acquire a receiving tight end. That cost was the opportunity cost of not having drafted far more critical linemen on both sides of the ball but particularly the offensive side where not only depth looms large, but also essential starting talent in a situation which will likely only worsen heading into the 2005 season.

If Evans fails to "fix Bledsoe", then his drafting, while perhaps nice, will not have ended up having been the most efficient move for the team by any measure given the Bills' much larger and more looming line issues. Afterall, what good is a premier WR if the quarterback rarely has time to set up and throw the ball to take advantage of deep routes which take more than two or three seconds to develop.

To add insult to injury, the Bills could have killed the two proverbial birds with a single stone and freed up $8 million dollars by releasing Bledsoe outright but opted not to which feeds right into this "point of no return" scenario. This kind of money would have gone a long way into fixing the Bills' lines. Instead, they restructured Bledsoe's contract increasing the minimal amount of cap space tied up by an additional 750K to $8.75 million and shoving approximately half of that into next season.

At present, the cap savings for this season have yet to be realized in some sort of dividend that will help the team this season rendering this decision unnecessary and unhelpful to date. This indeed raises questions as to the reasoning behind such a restructuring when the Bills could have easily adopted a far more favorable "wait and see" attitude and addressed the issue only after seeing some results from the veteran signal caller over the first 6 or 7 games before deciding whether or not to commit further resources, both cap and time resources, to a perennially problematic signal caller.

Next season when the Bills need for line fixes on both sides of the ball reaches a crescendo, $4-plus million will have gone a long way towards addressing that need and will essentially wipe out any salary cap increase league-wide. Teams have proven over and over again that a wealth and abundance of skill position talent is no substitute for not having solid lines. Yet, the contrary does not hold. Teams featuring solid lines often make the most mediocre skill position players look outstanding.

Part II follows later this week.


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