What has to occur:
Lee Evans, as a rookie, has to make the kind of difference that top receivers in this league make. He has to show the type of speed necessary to consistently draw attention from opposing safeties as well as be able to outplay some of the top cornerbacks in the NFL.
The first assumption is that Bledsoe's accuracy and arm strength were not issues last season.
The second assumption is that Evans will play in a manner worthy of the respect that usually comes as even the best receivers in the league enter their second and more often even their third seasons as starters, and that this happens very early on in the season given that the well of patience for Bledsoe on the parts of fans and media is very shallow heading into the season.
The third assumption is a follow-on to the second, namely that Evans does end up commanding this type of respect and that this will in fact be enough to "spread out defenses" as it is supposed to on paper and as planned on the field.
The excuse du jour, or perhaps the excuse du saison for Bledsoe and the Bills, was that the problem was the lack of a speed receiver "like Price." My short answer to that is ‘what happened towards the end of 2002 while Price was still with the team?' Over the last ten games of 2002 the Bills offense scored fewer than 18 points per game, which was below average, and the same excuses being levied at the moment were not viable then. Bledsoe "had been clicking" essentially for the first string of six games or so minus a game or two in that stretch. He got solid protection from the offensive line regardless of how "complicated" Gilbride's schemes were. He had Riemersma, a receiving TE, and Centers, the most prolific receiving RB in the history of the NFL as well along with a healthy Eric Moulds. He also certainly did not face anywhere near the slate of defenses that await the Bills this season.
The "complication" of Gilbride's offense did not appear to be much of a factor early on in the season. Presumably the same scheme, playbook, etc. were utilized throughout the first six games as were utilized throughout the last ten games. So why the downturn? Common sense would insist that strength of schedule and lack of familiarity with the Bills new offense under Bledsoe were the primary factors in this scenario.
The fact that his worst performances, just as in years past, were against mostly playoff teams and all against teams with winning records never seems to have been factored in by anyone offering up these reasons. Yet, to date no one insisting that the scheme simplicities and the lack of a "speed receiver" are the core issues has offered up a viable explanation for those things in 2002! Why not?
This brings us to this season again then. Lee Evans is a rookie wide receiver. Rookie wide receivers rarely make an impact in the league. The most recent examples have been Anquan Boldin and less recently Randy Moss. Both of those receivers not only had Evans' speed, but were significantly larger as well. Moss also possesses skills that few receivers ever to have played possess with no indication at all that Evans possess anything of the like. The road to the NFL is littered with wide receivers, speed and other, who were drafted in round one with high hopes, yet who never delivered anything close to what they were "supposed to." The name Desmond Howard for some reason springs to mind when I think of Lee Evans, perhaps because both are Big Ten products.
Whether Evans will make the type of impact that is said to be the "fix for Drew" remains to be seen. However, until someone can effectively answer the prior question as to why Bledsoe struggled over the last ten games, or two-thirds of the season in 2002, and following early success indicative of no issues with offensive schemes, with Price still on the team, a far more seasoned receiver than Evans will be as a rookie, I would strongly suggest that perhaps Evans is the last in a long laundry list of excuses in blatant attempts to explain away the real core issues on Bledsoe-led teams and offenses. It does not help to throw in the fact that Eric Moulds will likely begin to see diminishing speed and impact henceforth given the stage of his career that he is in.
Even given the new strict enforcement of the contact rules for defensive backs on receivers, it will be incredible indeed if Evans can consistently beat some of the outstanding cornerbacks that the Bills will be facing this season and early on in particular. If he cannot, then certainly questions arise as to the degree of the impact that his presence on the field will make. Given that other than simple coaching, Evans is the only real initial difference between this season's offense and last, the impact he will end up making sure piques the curiosity.
Moreover, that Bledsoe was one of the least accurate passers last season is a fact, although it should not require statistics for any avid Bills fan who labored through watching all or even most of their games last season to realize that. Those watching Bills games should have noticed that even when given ample time with little or no pressure, many of Bledsoe's passes were horribly errant accuracy wise. If this inaccuracy continues, then much of Evans' speed will go for naught.
Logically, the difference in downfield position between a WR who runs with 4.5 second 40-speed (Reed) and one who runs with 4.3 second 40-speed, and after a half-second delay (conservative) at the line of scrimmage, is about two yards after five seconds or so. If the ball is underthrown by a several yards, even one or two, then this speed differential begins to mitigate itself to being inconsequential. Wide and over throws as have been characteristic of Bledsoe's play last season also feed into the equation.
Furthermore, since Bledsoe's primary issues include red zone struggles, and given that there is no deep game in the red zone, and given that it can reasonably be argued that a receiver like Josh Reed, a big, strong, possession type of receiver is more useful to most quarterbacks in such situations, and given that all of those components were on the team last season, how Evans' introduction alters things in this manner remains a mystery as well.
Certainly little will change in red zone situations given the inability to use Evans as a deep threat inside the twenty. So unless Evans provides the team with a half dozen long touchdowns that are the difference in wins, which will not happen, then the questions continue to abound. Scoring is and has been the issue, not simply moving the ball between the 20s which is why the Bills' yardage offenses over the past couple of seasons, particularly the 2002 season, outperformed their scoring offense significantly.
Lastly, Evans' usefulness, particularly early on, will necessarily be ultimately dependent upon his attendance in training camp which begins in only four days. His rapid development in camp will be paramount if he is to be a factor early on in the season. Yet, at present, Evans remains unsigned along with the majority of first round draftees. Every day absent from training camp will have a nearly exponential impact on Evans' ability to contribute early on. Wide receiver is among the positions which has associated with it a steeper learning curve by position. Every day held out equates to much more than a day's equivalency once the season starts.
The third leg of the tripod: Willis McGahee
The running ability of Willis McGahee will help open up the passing game and limit the ability of opposing defenses to focus on Drew and the passing game.
McGahee will be all that he was billed as being prior to his injury and what otherwise detracted from his being a top pick in the 2003 draft.
Talent wise, the Bills' offensive line will not be much better than it was last season if even better at all. It may be nominally better from a talent perspective, it could also be nominally worse. It stands to reason that Jim McNally, whom I consider to have been an outstanding hire, will improve the line and its play, yet to what extent remains to be seen.
Where the purported degree of this improvement needs to be challenged is in consideration of some of the defensive lines that the Bills will face this season. I have elaborated on this in recently past articles and will defer readers seeking clarification for that to those. Regardless of how well McNally has this collection of one superior lineman, a very good one, two mediocre ones, and an unknown one drawn from a pool of two suspect linemen last season and a 2002 demotee playing as a starting bunch, the question should still be how are they going to play vs. numerous lines with equal to or greater talent also equally well-coached on the other side of the ball and early in the season. Forget the notion that the Bills offensive line depth is paper thin and that the odds of getting through the entire season with few injuries on the line is remote.
One thing is known however, and that is that as long as Drew Bledsoe is the QB of the Bills, opponents will continue to attack the Bills' offense straight up the gut just as they have successfully now throughout the Bledsoe era in Buffalo. So the offensive line will be tested in spades and by some top tier defensive lines and individual line talent, again, also very well coached in most cases. Which line comes out on top remains to be seen in each case. I would have felt much more comfortable however with five known solid starters as well as some depth, not only for this season, but also moving forward into next season as well for reasons already stated.
As to McGahee's injury status, again, having documented this thoroughly in recently past pieces, suffice it to say that it remains to be seen whether or not he can make it through an entire season of play without injuring one of his knees for the first time since his junior season in high school. I suspect that he will, but nothing is guaranteed, especially in the NFL as fans well know. Certainly it is no given.
The main problem here is dichotomized. Travis Henry will be the featured and primary runner, presumably, to start the season. It stands to reason as well that McGahee will be worked in over time. The problem here is that, and considering the first two legs of the tripod above, the Bills do not have that kind of time to "get acclimated" this season given that they face some of last season's top defenses over the first half dozen games and defenses which have only improved since then for one reason or another. Both Tom Donahoe and the incoming coaching staff have stated openly that they expect to be competitive.
They face a slew of tenacious teams up front and disastrous results over the Bills' first six games could spell the end of several things least of which would not be any hope for the playoffs, the most likely of which would be the removal of Bledsoe by Coach Mularkey and due to his having to make an unavoidable decision based on fan unrest. Starting off miserably automatically raises serious issues for the young head coach and will face him to make some potentially career-shaping decisions so soon in his young career.
Here is where many are making a mistake. Willis McGahee will likely only make a big difference for the Bills this season if two things occur: First, that he almost immediately plays exactly as the player that many believed him to be prior to injuring his knee in his bowl game in January of 2003. Second, that he does not re-injure himself in any major way. For the record, I believe that Willis McGahee will be all that he was billed as being prior to his injuring himself. But as I suggest to readers, my hopes, as well as hopes of others will not make that a reality.
Even if that injury hurdle is overcome however, the only way that McGahee will make the type of game altering impact that many are expecting is if he is significantly better than Travis Henry is. This will be especially true if Evans takes longer to develop than immediately as well. It would also mean McGahee becoming one of the league's top running backs within the first half a season that he has played.
In the meantime, Bills' opponents will necessarily continue to pressure Bledsoe up the middle. In doing so, they will be checking another box as well inherently by clogging up necessary rushing lanes. If opponents are successful in this way, then the only possible difference that Willis McGahee can make is with corner speed or such incredible moves ala Barry Sanders that relegate offensive line play to a status of "nice to have but not necessary." Even then, unless that pressure up the middle eases, it will leave the Bills somewhat one-dimensional.
Travis Henry does not have that corner speed, so it is more than likely that McGahee will introduce that element to the Bills' offense one way or another. But again, this is no substitute for having an offense which is capable of running it "up the gut" which is what the Bills have stated that they are attempting to predicate their offense on this season.
This brings us full circle. The point of no return for the Bills has now passed. Decisions have been made. The immediate future has been carved out for the most part. The Bills remain a Bledsoe-centered team and have spent yet another offseason "building around Drew" and catering to his perceived lacks. This will continue to be the case until such a time as bears itself out that the toughest opponents cannot simply win games by pressuring Bledsoe into making critical errors at the most inopportune of times and with the most dire of consequences.
Ergo, simple improvements in overall statistics on the season will not be good enough to sustain a defense of Bledsoe which is what Mularkey will require in order to justify keeping him in there as the starter. Using 2002 as an example, Bledsoe's numbers were solid overall. However, in seven of the Bills' eight losses then Bledsoe had 18 turnovers. Those were seven of the toughest teams on the Bills' schedule and with Price, Riemersma, and Centers in the lineup as well as with solid offensive line play.
How well the other aspects of the game go will not matter if those types of performances are not seriously mitigated. It is difficult for any team to overcome nearly three turnovers per game from their QB, perhaps in addition to others by other players, regardless of how good the team is. How good the Bills' running game is likely will not matter in the end and overall if those characteristics of Bledsoe's play go unaltered.
As the Bills enter this season they will either achieve success in whatever form that it is to be measured or they will not. Success, by whichever definition is used, may buy some time, another season likely, for Tom Donahoe to assemble some players for what will surely be some very serious offensive and defensive line issues next season. Failure by the same definition will set the Bills back for two more seasons as they scramble to keep together whatever talent they do have while fighting perceptions, justifiable ones, regarding the competitiveness of the team, in addition to attempting to draw other free agent talent to the team.
Nevertheless, this is the path that team GM Tom Donahoe has opted to go down. Certainly he sits in the proverbial "hot seat" this season. If it ends up that his decisions have hatched success, then certainly the first one in line at the post-season buffet should be Tom Donahoe. If it ends up that his decisions have hatched greater turmoil, no improvement in the overall competitiveness of the team, or unthinkably even further regression in the team as a whole, then there should be immediate consequences as a result.
The fans have been patient. The media has been a willing accomplice for the most part in the approach taken by the team during the Donahoe era yielding the benefit of the doubt often and usually and again entering this season. In fact, yours truly has been one of Donahoe's biggest critics beginning last season, yet even here has the benefit of the doubt been yielded often. While I have not agreed with the GM's decisions and have outlined in detail why not, I cannot tell the future. I can only collectively analyze the "knowns" and trends common on the Bills and in the NFL and those which are on the table and then make an assessment as to how it will all fit together if at all given that many things cannot be accurately predicted.
What is clearly ascertainable however is that there has been absolutely no trend towards achieving the goals that GM Donahoe himself has clearly laid out since his arrival in Buffalo. This is the season during which that needs to change given opportunities to pass up a year of slack on the parts of fans and media in "retooling" the team for success in 2005 and beyond while opting instead to force a competitive team for this upcoming season and at the expense of future seasons in the event of failure this season. The point of no return has clearly been passed however. Decisions made are decisions that will have to be lived with and appropriately dealt with pending their outcomes.