Bills Reaping Fruit of Negligence in Rebuilding OL

Ahhh, it's September in Buffalo, a time when the call to Bills fans usually sets the tone for a relatively optimistic football season in the NFL. Yet, there appear to be few reasons as to exactly why Bills' fans should hope for an improvement in their record over last season let alone their first winning season in five years. The Donahoe method seems to be falling a wee bit short these days in Buffalo on several counts as this season has quickly turned into a referendum on that very approach.

The good GM's sophomoric approach to recently past offseasons appears to be generating more problems and issues than it has solved. The wildly talked about drafting of Willis McGahee in 2003 seems to have come around full circle and created the predictable management issue that it appears to be generating and reasonably so. The decision to draft McGahee will also likely rear its head soon in tactical management issues for rookie head coach Mike Mularkey.

The offensive line is on the verge of becoming both a disaster and an embarrassment. All of a sudden the speed of Lee Evans, this season's top draft star and Donahoe's biggest solution to improving an offense that was dead last over the last 14 games last season, appears to be almost completely inconsequential. Certainly Evans' absence in terms of production of any sort is perhaps the most perplexing and curious non-development of the preseason.

The approach taken by Donahoe is unmistakably driven by selling tickets with team successes on the field very clearly having taken a back seat to season ticket and luxury box sales. The logical and easily believed counter argument against that approach is that putting a winning product on the field will result in all the ticket sales that one could want, especially in Buffalo where even a whiff of winning brings the fans to the Ralph in droves witness this season. At some point this approach will quickly turn into a "boy who cried wolf" scenario however. My money says that this occurs beginning next season.

Where the current approach will end up backfiring is if there is not a significant improvement in the play of the team this season, which as of now seems not only unlikely, but highly unlikely. In fact, when questions exist as to whether or not this current Bills' offense is even poised to outperform last season's woeful offense, the situation is not good to say the least.

But let's talk about the line. What is the arsenal from which the current line is being patched together?

On the roster and sure to make the team are:

Mike Williams, T: drafted in the 1st round, 4th overall selection in 2002, entering his 3rd season. Jonas Jennings, T: drafted in the 3rd round in 2001, entering his 4th season. Trey Teague, C: drafted in the 7th round in 1998, acquired in 2002, entering his 7th season. Chris Villarrial, G: drafted in the 5th round in 1996, acquired this season, 9th season. Marcus Price, T: drafted in the 6th round in 1995, acquired in 2002, 6th season.

After that it appears to be a hodgepodge of a grab bag containing young, inexperienced, issue-laden, and rookie players competing for the starting LG position as well as for a host of backup spots. There is not one other player on the roster at this point that is assured of a roster spot other than perhaps Ben Sobieski who is the only other player capable of playing center should Teague become an injury statistic. There is also not a single player capable of stepping in for Teague to provide anything even approaching solid center play in a smooth transition. This is not to suggest that Teague himself is anything better than average.

At present, not only rumors, but hopes abound among media and fans for rookie undrafted free agent Lawrence Smith to step up and perhaps provide solid line play. What does it say when expectations are that perhaps an undrafted second year free agent castoff without a single start under his belt is the solution, or at least one of them?

Meanwhile, implied in standout coach Jim McNally's statements is a theme of frustration not only with the current circumstances, but at the completely unrealistic load of expectations that have been heaped upon him as if he is some sort of miracle worker that he has understandably stated that he is not. I.e., read between the lines Bills fans. The expectations that he has been burdened with are indeed ridiculous. Then again, he took the job. Welcome home coach!

Let us take a look at the current situation however. It would be fortunate indeed if any of those linemen not mentioned in the above list of five were to amount to anything qualifying as "a solution" for the OL this season. At present Marques Sullivan's play has also been far less than what it was in 2002 providing even less hope.

Which brings us to the list of five above. Everyone is familiar with the Mike Williams situation. Jonas Jennings, Chris Villarrial, and Marcus Price have all been burdened with minor injury and/or personal problem issues this season so far. Chris Villarrial comes off a season with half a dozen nagging injuries keeping him out of three games last season and leaving him less than 100% in numerous others. This leaves Trey Teague, the underperforming center, as the only reliable foundation of this entire starting offensive line.

A net plus up of two offensive linemen was necessary this season in order for this team to hit the field poised to improve to the extent promised by Donahoe and incoming head coach Mularkey. The net change was zero in a swap of health stalwart Ruben Brown for nagging injury returnee Chris Villarrial.

How did the Bills evolve to this point?

Certainly I have been raving about exactly what is occurring since prior to the 2003 draft even let alone this year's. I am sure that common sense was also present in the team room somewhere with its hand raised yet never to be called upon.

But Tom Donahoe had a different vision for the team. His vision apparently includes becoming a clearinghouse for skill position players for other teams as they pass through Buffalo collecting signing bonuses often never to be earned. His vision apparently includes five and six deep wide receivers, three and four deep tight ends, three deep running backs, without any regard for the holes on the field that need to be generated for those same running backs to run through or for the protection that any quarterback, but especially Bledsoe, needs in order to succeed in the NFL.

I cannot explain it because quite frankly I do not understand it, the approach that is.

Ruben Brown left Buffalo after all but stomping on his own pride and integrity in order to put his tirades of last season, which quite frankly should have fallen into the "it's about time" category, in the past and to reconcile himself to the good graces of team management and to the good will of the fans. Here, here Ruben! Much success to you in Chicago!

He did everything but beg to remain on. He even stated that he would essentially take an incredible pay cut. But no! Apparently Donahoe had a plan. Many fans are curious to see what it is. Meanwhile, Brown will start yet another season at LG, a position that the Bills are currently scrambling to find a viable starter for. All over what? Personal politics? Odd indeed!

Meanwhile, the Bills replace Brown, who had missed only one game over the past four seasons and that for non-injury reasons last season over a Greg Williams hissy fit after Brown showed some heart per above, with Villarrial, who had a relatively clean injury history throughout his first seven seasons, although last season having had six or seven nagging injuries keeping him off the field in three contests and less than 100% in others. He seems to have picked up right where he left off. Meanwhile, again, over in Chicago, Brown appears to be headed for his 10th season of starting as a reliable solid contributing offensive guard.

There are always the Bills drafts however. This is where surely, Donahoe has stocked up on what he surely knew would be line needs as the team went forward. This season Donahoe's solution was tackle Dylan McFarland in round 7. Boy howdy! Last season it was Ben Sobieski, who is not showing up on the Bills radar as any sort of monster steal in round five last year, as the only solution in last season's draft. Whoowhee! Move over Jonas Jennings!

Donahoe did draft big Mike Williams in round one in 2002, but his only other solution for the offensive line over the past three drafts other than McFarland and Sobieski mentioned above, was Mike Pucillo also in that 2002 draft in round seven. If McFarland and Sobieski never amount to more than what Pucillo apparently is headed for, then yes fans, it can possibly be worse than last season. As I stated for months prior to the draft and throughout the free agency period, this team barring major signings to its offensive line was only two injuries away from absolute disaster. Disaster is currently standing on the front door mat with its finger on the doorbell!

Now please do not count me in among those criticizing Donahoe for the Mike Williams selection. I believed it to have been solid as well. Nothing is certain in drafted players other than you will never find a solid lineman by drafting a wide receiver, or a running back, tight end, or any other position than line. But that is where Donahoe's approach becomes muddied. While the best teams in the league offensively, especially Super Bowl participants, have predicated their offensive success on solid offensive lines, the Bills have all but effectively neglected this most critical team unit. Meanwhile, the Bills possess more marquee skill position players than both of last season's Super Bowl participants combined.

The current situation for the Bills certainly makes one wonder what the thought process was at One Bills Drive over the past four seasons. Relying on linemen aging into typically their far more injury prone 30s, fifth, sixth, and seventh round draftees along with undrafted free agents does not appear to be much of a plan. Nor has it borne out to be one.

Meanwhile, the McGahee-Henry scenario continues to build steam. As if it is a tremendous reach to realize, again, assuming McGahee's health over a full season, that neither McGahee nor Henry will be happy playing second fiddle to the other.

One could suggest that perhaps the "winner" this season may be the player who plays the least. Years ago I was at a Rochester Americans hockey game when the announcer stated over the public address system that "each member of the winning team would receive a case of [brand name withheld] beer." A gentleman in front of me did not miss a beat in leaping up as soon as the announcement was finished to exclaim that "each member of the losing team would receive two cases."

Perhaps such is the case with Henry and McGahee this season. If the first three preseason games are any indication, then perhaps the "winner" will be the player who is not subjected to what now appears to be a completely unreasonable situation. Needless to say, barring absolutely drastic improvement in the offensive line over the next nine days prior to the season opener, there is no reason to believe that either running back would not take a pounding typical of the variety that shortens the careers of running backs. We can also be quite certain that this is not what Willis McGahee needs on his road to becoming 100% again. Either way, with Bledsoe in there, it is not looking pretty at this point.

It would be almost impossible for the offense to not play better than the last 14 games of the 2003 season whereby the offense averaged only 11.0 points-per-game. But at this point, how much better remains a mystery and in fact, if the preseason has revealed anything, it may very well be that they can play worse than they did last season. Certainly teams, albeit very few of them, have performed worse offensively than last season's Bills. It has been done in the NFL however and not so infrequently. To fans it is inconceivable for it to regress however, but at the same time performance in preseason does not offer any burgeoning hopes.

There is no doubt about it, this team is in enormous trouble heading into the season with Jacksonville, @Oakland, New England, @the Jets, Miami, then @Baltimore to start the season off against. Jacksonville's defense is on fire in the preseason and has shown that it will be a top shelf unit if they continue to play well. This is not what the Bills need to begin their season.

If there is going to be an improvement in this offense from where it left off last season, then it is going to take the next best thing to an old fashioned miracle for it to occur. If it does not improve by leaps and bounds, last season's 6-10 mark may not even be achievable if the team starts off 1-5 or so. Fans seem to forget that over the last 14 games last season the Bills were only 4-10.

I was going to wait until just prior to the season opener, but it may as well be said now. Regardless of how the line plays, Drew Bledsoe will not last beyond the fourth or fifth game of the season with the support of the fans. He may not even make it past the Oakland game. The fans cannot control the decision making of the coaches, but if I had to speculate, my prognostication here would be that Bledsoe gets booed right out of Ralph Wilson Stadium during the first New England game.

The heralded "four second clock" that the coaches have instituted was a semi-valiant attempt at "fixing Drew," but the realities of QB play in the NFL are that QBs cannot be programmed. Good NFL quarterbacks are not preprogrammed to hammer out a string of actions to perfectly predicted circumstances. Quite the opposite is true in fact. They must be able to react to the defensive tactics of opponents very often resulting in very unpredictable circumstances to which they must process their alternatives with unwavering haste. This is where this approach will fall way short and where Bledsoe's utility as a starter in today's NFL is easily predictable. .

Sadly, with the recent injuries to Losman and Brown, this would leave the team in a major predicament, again, begging the question why the Bills did not sign a veteran QB for near veteran minimum at least through the preseason. What new head coach Mike Mularkey does at that point, or whatever subsequent point this or similar occurs, remains to be seen. The chances of Bledsoe making it through this season without getting yanked or knocked into the club level are so incredibly remote under the current circumstances that it is demoralizing to Bills fans. Then again, it will likely hardly get any worse with a QB other than Bledsoe in there.

If Bledsoe is not knocked into the next millennium and taken off the field in a gurney then it will be his performance that is his undoing. Behind this line the odds of his succeeding are very close to zero. I will not even venture so far as to say slim. They are virtually nonexistent. I'll keep my Outlook Express on standby…


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