Bills 2004 Forecast: Keys to the Bills' Season

Last season the Bills' issues stemmed almost entirely from their sad and depleted offense. A combination of injuries as well as offensive line issues led an anemic Bills attack. The Bills struggled to move the ball let alone punch it into opponents' end zones. At present, the Bills have several similar and a few new issues that they need to iron out prior to the season home opener in only six days.

The defense played well although not exactly vs. a schedule that featured many well-balanced offenses, top rushing teams, or even top running backs. The single well-balanced offensive team that the Bills faced last season was Kansas City and the result there is a painfully remembered 38-5 trouncing with poor play on both sides of the ball. The defense was good enough however to have provided double digit wins had the offense not performed worse than it did under Rob Johnson.

After viewing some of the assessments of the Bills heading into the season, oft stated is that the key to the Bills making the playoffs or to the overall success of the season otherwise, is the play of Bledsoe. This situation is not quite that simple however. Last season the primary excuse for Bledsoe was the weak offensive line. Once again, that same line, not Bledsoe, will be the spot to look for improvement.

If and when that line proves to be above average, then and only then will Bledsoe's play become an issue. For if the line is playing poorly, Bledsoe has zero chance of playing well with few skills to allow him to overcome anything less than very solid play by the offensive line.

Defensively, the Bills defenses have performed much better in yardage defense than in scoring defense in their four recent non-winning seasons. The reasons for this open up an interesting analysis. However, suffice it to say that the play of the offense and special teams in those recent seasons has not exactly forced opponents to drive 80 yards to put up points.

In '00 the Bills' scoring defense lagged its yardage defense by 15 ranking points. In '01 it was 8, in '02 it was 12, and last year it was only 3, again, having faced only six teams ranked among the top half scoring offenses however. Thus my rantings that it is scoring defense that needs to be looked at and not yardage defense. Again, to continue to attempt to hammer home a notion, it is points that win games, not yards. A team can drive all day long between the 20s, but failure to penetrate the endzone will always result in losses. Correspondingly, Bledsoe has built a career out of yardage hallmarks while possessing relatively few accolades regarding scoring or winning.

OL Health and Viability:

This offensive line is the single biggest key to the Bills' season. It and it alone will determine the effectiveness of the offense and therefore the entire team. While the rankings of last season's defense will slip simply due to the tougher slate of offensive opponents this season, the defense will prove to be average at worst and more than viable for supporting a team making a playoff bid. A rankings drop across the board of 10 spots would still leave the Bills' defense in the average category.

The offensive line is a different matter altogether. Jim McNally has already implicitly expressed concerns as to the viability of this line. Obviously Big Mike will get the initial nod, but having shown up to camp 30+ pounds overweight while already possessing mobility issues and more recently having an injury to his ankle, the play of the RT slot indeed remains precarious. Team reports are now optimistic regarding the monster tackle. Whether this is simply cheerleading lipservice or not remains to be seen.

Retaining Ruben Brown all of a sudden does not appear to have been an unwise move. Nevertheless, this train moves on in his absence.

Fans and media should make no mistake however. If this line does not gel early or if it suffers injuries pretty much at all, then the chances of getting the kind of play out of it to allow Bledsoe to be useful begin to diminish to zero. This is no longer any big secret that Bledsoe needs far better than an average offensive line simply to be effective and more good than harm.

As well, this line is supposed to be paving the way for a power running game, which is what the offensive success of the 2004 season is fully predicated upon. A power running game is supposed to take the heat off of Bledsoe and thereby set up the passing game.

At this point however, there is no indication that this is a line capable of leading the way for such a running game. Perhaps the offense has been playing possum. Who knows. But what is known is that the Bills face last season's 2nd ranked rushing defense at the Ralph in week one, then face last season's 4th, 5th, and 6th ranked rushing defenses in three of the next four games in weeks two through seven.

The other two teams wedged in between those games are both on the road and feature teams with vastly improved defenses. The Raiders have beefed up their defensive line with the additions of Ted Washington, which figures to be fresh in week 2 at home in Oakland, and Warren Sapp along with injury returnee John Parrella. The Jets have instituted a new defensive scheme that has played relatively well this preseason.

This is simply not a good set of circumstances and recipe for success for a line such as the Bills' current line. Week one's matchup featuring stud defensive tackle John Henderson lining up over inexperienced Lawrence Smith should be interesting to say the least.

Bledsoe:

All throughout Bledsoe's tenure on the Bills, the approach has been altering the team "to help Bledsoe." Some preseason pieces even use that or similar wording. It will be refreshing indeed when the Bills finally have a QB that helps the team instead of having one that needs help from the team. It appears at times as if the team's goal is to get Bledsoe back to the Pro Bowl instead of merely winning games.

Certainly in his most recent Pro Bowl season, 2002, he contributed little to the team beating the best teams on the Bills' schedule producing 18 turnovers in 7 of those 8 losses. For that he got rewarded with a Pro Bowl? Talk about the cart being before the horse. Nevertheless, this is the hand that the team's management has dealt themselves with full foreknowledge of anything that anyone else knows.

Whether the attempts of the coaching staff to program Bledsoe into making the appropriate decisions via the use of the "four second buzzer" will be effective or not remains to be seen. As I have stated over and over again, it is impossible to pre-program a quarterback into playing well which is the new approach of the current coaching staff.

Good QBs react quickly to defensive stunts, blitzes, and schemes on their own, not according to some preprogrammed approach. Forcing Bledsoe to throw the ball before four seconds has the same propensity for helping as it does for hurting the team. This is particularly true for Bledsoe who if he focuses on "getting rid of the ball always within four seconds," may very well throw some bumbling interceptions due to his inability to first grasp the situation in the area to which he throws the ball. Certainly his play throughout his career supports this notion. This approach is not a fully thought out approach, rather simply another shot-in-the-dark by a coaching staff attempting to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

Nevertheless, Bledsoe's progress will need to be instant and more than nominal if he is to have continued support and confidence from the fans. Fans at the Ralph will not put up with Bledsoe if he continues to struggle and cost the team games. There is no honeymoon period here.

There also will not be a lot of tolerance or patience for inconsistency. Tom Donahoe and the new incoming coaching staff have been talking up a storm about their abilities to whip Bledsoe into something other than the quarterback that he's been now for five seasons and they have been quite bold in doing so. So failure here will make more than one indictment of failings should it not come to pass as planned.

RB Effectiveness:

It is now safe to say that the starting running back job belongs to Travis Henry. It is also safe to say that unless things have altered themselves drastically since the end of preseason, the running backs may be in for a shock.

This entire Bills team's offense as well as the primary basis for an improvement over last season hinges on the ability of the team to generate what head coach Mike Mularkey has stated will be a power running game. This just in, but there has been absolutely no evidence of this power running game throughout the entire preseason. RBs Henry and McGahee have averaged barely over three yards-per-carry throughout the preseason, and they face far tougher teams against the run than they faced in the preseason, with the exception of the Titans, to start the season.

Even in three preseason games other than against the Titans top ranked rushing defense, Henry and McGahee have also averaged barely over three yards per carry including McGahee's 2.2 yards-per-carry performance vs. a poor Detroit defense.

The offensive line has simply not opened the types of holes and powered forward in any way indicative that it has either improved of is capable of providing the blocking necessary for a power running game. What the Bills OL brings to the table in week one vs. the Jags remains to be seen.

DL Run Stopping Ability:

The euphoria of the Bills' defensive rankings last season has drowned out the reality of the situation. I have written several pieces going into far greater detail on this than this summary will. But suffice it to say that the Bills had trouble when facing better rushing teams and better running backs last season.

The fact of the matter is that they simply did not play many of them to understate matters. The Bills faced only the 8th ranked Jags and the 9th ranked Eagles as last season's top 10 rushing teams and both teams ran the ball effectively in those games. As to individual rushers they only faced 6th ranked Fred Taylor, 9th ranked Priest Holmes, and 10th ranked Ricky Williams as the only top 10 rushers faced. Those three backs rushed for 418 yards in four games averaging 4.2 yards-per-carry. Taylor and Holmes averaged 5.3 yards-per-carry. The Jags and Dolphins had no passing games to divert heat from the Bills' D focusing on Taylor and Williams in three of the four contests.

How the Bills' rushing defense stands up to Lewis and the Ravens, Taylor, Jones and the Jags with an improved passing game, New England with and attack led by Brady now supported by Dillon, with Pennington and the Jets' well-rounded game remains to be seen. Throw in the Rams', Seahawks', Bengals', and Steeler attacks later in the season as well as a road game in New England, and it is a curious thing indeed.

Meanwhile, both Sam Adams, long past his Pro Bowl caliber of play, and Pat Williams have not gotten any younger on the wrong side of 30. Fans will assess blame to Gray and coaching for what is really the result of scheduling. The Bills' defense is good, it is just not as good as its rankings last season.

Coaching:

In the absence of an infusion of talented players, the Bills approach this season has been largely to rely almost exclusively on coaching changes to propel them forward indicative that they believe the talent is in place on all units of this Bills team to succeed otherwise. Offensively, the Bills swapped out health stalwart Ruben Brown for last season injury puppy Chris Villarrial who played last season through a litany of minor injuries questioning his long term viability from a health perspective. Otherwise, there were no practical changes. Jim McNally has been relied upon to turn a sub-par collection of line talent into a well above average unit in ridiculously short order. The results will be made clear this Sunday.

Typically first year head coaches are given the benefit of a season to work themselves in and implement their changes. Not this head coach and his first time offensive coordinator. No siree! They come in promising to hit the ground running and fully in stride. Recent statements just following the preseason and prior to what will be a brutal contest have toned that down somewhat, but it is a day late and a dollar short. The high hopes for the Bills this season by both Mularkey and Donahoe have set the tone and defined their own benchmarks for success for the 2004 season.

The staff came in talking about how Drew Bledsoe was in the same company as Joe Montana and Boomer Esiason with arrogant insinuations that it has simply been Bledsoe's coaches over the years that have been his problem. Read that Parcells, Belichick and their staffs of assistants didn't know how to properly coach Bledsoe.

They came in promising a power running game fully aware of the status of last season's offensive line issues and the well below average collection of talent from which to choose in rebuilding that line. Meanwhile, last season's 5th rounder Ben Sobieski, the highest drafted lineman over the past three drafts other than Mike Williams was recently released in the final roster cut. He may be put on the practice squad, but what does it say when you have such talent deficits on the line and then you release the second highest drafted lineman over the past three seasons. Of the nine offensive linemen retained by the Bills, five of them are former 7th rounders and undrafted free agents.

They came in insisting that what Bledsoe and the offense lacked last season was a "speed receiver", such as Lee Evans, and that his presence along with their superlative coaching is all that would be required to put this train back on the tracks. They made no significant move, and absolutely no net move, towards fixing an offensive line that looked pathetic last season and only paved the way for power defensive surges, not power running games by any stretch.

While Tom Donahoe's derrière is certainly on the hot seat this season, Mularkey & Co.'s didn't have to be. Fans would have understood had the head coach made statements regarding the lack of necessity for a winning season. However the newly installed coach instead has decided to follow Donahoe's lead and predict good things including a revamped Bledsoe, a turned around offense, and a power running game, not to mention a winning season.

Bold statements by Tom Donahoe insisting that anything short of a winning season is neither acceptable nor excusable and insistences of support for those statements by the freshman Mularkey which have been backed up by Sam Wyche, Tom Clements, and Drew Bledsoe himself, has certainly not generated a win-win scenario for the new staff. In fact, the standard has been set by them to about as lofty a standard as could be set for this team given the circumstances. Goals are good, but they need to be tempered in reality and achievable lest those involved in the process become frustrated.

Bottom Line:

Due to a vastly unimproved offensive line, a lack of talented players for the offensive line, a first time head coach and offensive coordinator, obsolete QB Drew Bledsoe, an aging interior defensive line, a sketchy free safety, a much tougher schedule featuring balanced offenses such as the Bills did not see last season, as well as several other lesser factors, this team will be fortunate indeed to improve at all over last season's 6-10 mark and may very well end up being a game or two worse. If all goes perfectly, then perhaps a 7-win season may be in the cards. More than likely things will not go perfectly threatening a season even worse than last season led by yet another woeful offensive performance.

First things first however. The Bills must first avoid embarrassing themselves in the home opener in order to avoid the avalanche of criticism currently being propped up by several buckling wooden props. If they can do this vs. what figures to be a tough Jag D and versatile burgeoning offense powered by a Taylor/Jones led rushing attack that the Bills failed to halt last season, then it will indeed be a good start for Mularkey and the Bills. If not however, with Oakland on the road the following week then New England at home, the hopes of Bills fans will drop faster than the light globe at midnight in Times Square on New Year's Eve.

A better goal for early in this season would be to not get swept and embarrassed over the first six games. Fans should expect this season to get chalked up to a learning experience for the new staff however. If the Bills emerge from those first six games at 3-3, then Mularkey will have done a fine job indeed!

For a list of my season's predictions, visit www.billsbuzz.com.

Comments: mweiler.billsreport@cox.net


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