Bills Mid-Season Report Card

Heading out of last season and into this one, the rallying cry was that any old village idiot could coach this team to better with the talent that it had. The implications of such statements are that any coaching tandem unable to do better is no better than those just fired following last season. Again, not my statement, but rather the rallying cry of the fan base, much of the media covering the Bills, as well as implicitly stated via the decisions of Commander Tom.

So how have the new coaches in their taking the Bills by storm and laying out promises of winnings seasons and playoff competitiveness fared thus far through half a season?

The single biggest phrase describing these Bills to date thus far is "deja vu." The recent suggestions that this team is really much better than its record is more of the "house of cards" variety than of the real deal variety. As much as I'd like to hoot and holler over the status of the Bills, the fact is that they remain unimproved over last season other than in the special teams category where all of a sudden the kickoff return games have sprung to life over last season.

Before progressing on in the analysis, it is first essential that the team's strategy from last season to this one be reviewed.

There was no big immediate problem with the Bills' defense last season. It certainly was not the root cause of last season's woes to be sure. The offense was a different matter however and the team did everything to correct the issues surrounding the offense and came out of the gates this season promising a winning season and playoff competitiveness. So it is against this backdrop that things need to be viewed.

Last season's offense was pathetic. The mantra was that "anyone could by default have this offense playing at a better tempo than Williams/Gilbride" could. Coaches Mularkey and Clements were brought on to handle that task. Former head coach Sam Wyche was brought on to lead the team to "piece Humpty back together again." Jim McNally was brought on to presumably take a second-tier collection of offensive line talent and get first-tier performance from it with guarantees from Commander Tom and Coach Mularkey that the talent was all in place.

The team opted not to release Humpty outright thereby putting the $8 million savings into the offensive line, but rather chose to up the minimal cap hit to retain him and spread it out into future seasons. Lee Evans was drafted with the 13th overall selection in the draft as one of "the missing ingredients" to Humpty's piecing back together. Seeing no immediate issues with the QB play, Commander Tom and Coach Mularkey drafted JP Losman "for the future" after trading away next season's first round selection in order to obtain the ability to do so. Presumably they dismissed notions, based on their beliefs, that such a draft selection would be a high one in the first round.

Defensive tackle Tim Anderson was drafted in the third round on defense. Tim Euhus was drafted in round four as a receiving tight end to assist in piecing Humpty together again.

This season's team is a manifestation of those things.

Midseason Grades:

General:

Offense: F

Given that just about everything was done this past offseason to address the state of last season's woeful offense, the results are disappointing. Once again this team has proven that it is only capable of beating the bottom feeders or otherwise decent teams with mitigating circumstances surrounding the contest.

Last season through eight games:

The Bills had compiled a 4-4 record.
They had won one road game.
They had beaten New England (14-2) in a game where New England was "down/flat" because of the ‘Milloy incident.'
They had played four home games and four road games.
The offense had generated 127 points.
The offense had generated 85 points through the first three quarters of play.
The offense had 9 rushing TDs and 6 passing TDs.
The offense had 8 QB interceptions and 11 total QB turnovers.
The offense had 4 team fumbles otherwise.
The offense had allowed 23 sacks.
The offense had produced 2,264 total net yards.
The offense had a 56.5% red zone efficiency and a 66.7% goal-to-go efficiency.
The offense had scored an average of 15.9 points-per-game.

This season through eight games:

The Bills have compiled a 3-5 record.
They have won no road games.
They have beaten the Jets (6-2) in a game where the Jets were "down/flat" because of coming off of a Monday night win.
They have played five home games and three road games.
The offense has generated 114 points.
The offense has generated 63 points through the first three quarters of play.
The offense has 3 rushing TDs and 9 passing TDs.
The offense has 7 QB interceptions and 10 total QB turnovers.
The offense has 1 team fumble otherwise.
The offense has allowed 24 sacks.
The offense has produced 2,235 total net yards.
The offense has a 40.0% red zone efficiency and a 40.0% goal-to-go efficiency.
The offense has scored an average of 14.3 points-per-game.

There is frankly little analysis to be done here that does not fall within the trivial category. The Bills are on just about all fronts worse than they were than they were last season through the first half of both seasons contrasted side-by-side. Based on some of the recent e-mail that I have received however, it is clear that a good chunk of the fan base "gives points for style." As I see it, it is the offense's impact on scoring that matters, not how yards are achieved or how the running back is perceived. Until such a time as some group of raters get together following games to judge who played better and award a win based on some alternate criteria, points and the ability to move the ball in the interests of generating points are the only measure for determining offensive viability.

The Bills are very poor in this area. Of the Bills twelve touchdown generating drives this season, over half have begun at the opponent's 37-yard line or closer in. Another three have begun within 12-yards of midfield on the Bills side of the field leaving only three which were generated with starting field positions within their own 37-yard line. This is not good and no amount of whitewash will make this fence look respectable. It is that simple.

To date this team has failed to improve the offense and succeeded only in allowing it to degrade further. It clearly is not a "power running team" given the lopsided results in the rushing department and an increased emphasis on the passing game for yielding touchdowns although not being effective otherwise.

‘Nuff said. There are other ways to analyze this but no ways in which to "shine up this old pair of shoes." For those looking for a silver lining, in spite of resulting in a less effective offense, the percentage of passing plays over the first eight games from last season to this has dropped dramatically from 59% to 50%, a good indication in its own right. The problem is that scoring has gone the other way with the rushing game only having been able to generate 3 rushing TDs to date and then two of the three vs. the Cards' 26th ranked rushing D and once set up by the special teams inside the Cards' red zone.

Defense: A

The defense, and much to my pleasant surprise, has moved in the opposite direction.

Through 8 games this season:

Sack generation is up from 13 to 19.
Fumble recoveries are equal at 3.
Interceptions are down from 7 to 5.
Total takeaways are down from 10 to 8.
Yards allowed are down slightly, ~ 10 yards-per-game overall with the sharpest point of note there being ~ 15 yards-per-game less allowed rushing although a slight increase in passing yards allowed which is understandable and logical given a tighter rush defense.

It is in that last area where I personally have been the most pleasantly surprised. The caveat to all of this is perhaps the fact that other than the Pats and Jets the other five Bills' opponents are ranked 18th/32nd, 21st/29th, 23rd/20th, 29th/17th, and 32nd/28th in scoring offense/yardage offense respectively and not exactly rendering them offensive juggernauts. This is only mentioned given that the schedule tightens up a bit. Last season vs. balanced and better offenses, few of which the Bills played, they poorly defensively speaking.

Either way, the primary reason for the limited success that the offense has had can be directly correlated to the defense (and special teams) setting them up. Ergo, the defense deserves credit for that.

Special Teams: B

Effectively, the special teams have scored two touchdowns on the season and have set up numerous offensive scoring drives. Five punt returns have set up 31 points on drives originating well into opponents' territory. Another two have set up TD drives with drives originating at midfield. On the whole however, the team's rankings in special teams could use a little push overall.

Kicking: C+ Lindell has been perfect from within 40 this season, but has once again proved to be more of a liability and unreliable from beyond 40. The Bills average yardage on kickoffs rank 28th in the league as well. The Bills rank 1st however in return yardage allowed speaking volumes of Bobby April's efforts given the Bills' weak coverage units last season.

Punting: B The Bills rank 14th in punting average, 31st in inside-the-20 percentage, 30th in touchback percentage, 17th in net average, and 20th in average return. So ironically, the punting game's net impact could certainly stand some improvement. Moorman provides incredible intangible play however, has an enormously long boot, and comes up big in key situations not infrequently such as vs. New England in game one after botching a punt snap and then returning the run 39-yards to set up part-II of a drive upon which the Bills scored their only touchdown on the very next play. His long boot also inflates the averages however making them appear better than they are due to several long punts.

Returning: A- The Bills rank 15th in punt returns. They rank 4th in kickoff returns thanks to the emergence of Terrence McGee and lead the league with two touchdown returns on kickoffs! As already stated as well, the return games in addition to scoring have set up 52 of the offense's points! Regardless of how it is sliced, it is an overall significant improvement from last season to this one. Nice work Terrence!! Coach April!!

Positional Grades:

QB: D The lack of fatal errors is what prevents this grade from being an F. Production, true production out of the QB spot under Humpty is pathetic. There is no zing, zeal, zest, or verve in this QB. The leadership provided is tantamount to a limp handshake! The scoring production is worse in Buffalo during the Humpty-era than it was during the RJ-era. Just a little tidbit for fans to consider.

What the Bills currently have in Humpty Dumpty is a warm body at the quarterback position at best. If called upon to step up if the rushing game is not cutting the mustard the odds are much greater that the result will end disastrously vice well. The coaching staff has done a marvelous job of mitigating Humpty Dumpty's negative impact, but the cost has been at the hands of production. In other words, Humpty Dumpty is not a reliable QB.

Not in a single game this season has Humpty been pivotal in leading the team to a win. In fact, the recurrent theme of the Bills offense this season has been to what extent the defense and special teams have set them up for points week in and week out. Humpty does absolutely nothing that most other fair to mediocre quarterbacks in the league couldn't do. Any game without mistakes in this regard is practically hailed as a milestone game in its own right. This will continue to bear itself out throughout the second half of the season.

Yet, what separates the best QBs from the others is the ability to take over a game and provide the leadership to move the offense downfield and put the ball in the endzone. Humpty clearly does not have this quality. The coaching staff, at the "encouragement" of Commander Tom's wanting assessment(s) have bitten off far more than they can chew. This will manifest itself in the second half should Humpty remain the starter. All that needs to be said has been said in the weeks and months prior to this piece. No more time/energy will be expended in this one.

In summing up however, suffice it to say that the goal of the offense in football games is not error-reduction, it is putting points on the board. The Bills have failed to do so at a rate that is greater than that of last season to be sure.

RB: C What the Bills have brewing in the running back arena is the onset of yet another Humpty type of situation. The fans and much of the media on varying levels, and led understandably by a Commander Tom desperate for some successes for his legacy, have already predetermined that Willis McGahee is superior to Travis Henry.

Forget the fact that Henry played at the beginning of the season under far less favorable circumstances and with a barrage of "newness" with this team as well as in games in which he often split time with McGahee who performed no better. In fact, if it were Henry that had played vs. Miami (31st in rush D) and Arizona (26th in rush D) and had racked up bookoo yards and scored twice and been heralded as "better than McGahee", the same crowd now kowtowing McGahee would be screaming bloody murder at the apples-to-oranges comparison.

The hoopla is over the yardage that McGahee has put up forgetting that in two of the three contests that he put it up the teams played had horrendous rushing defenses and that two of his three touchdowns also came vs. one of those two teams.

To date McGahee has put up three 100-yard rushing games, once vs. 31st rushing D ranked Miami and twice on the merits of having received 30+ carries. In his two 30+ carry games vs. Arizona and the Jets, McGahee averaged only 3.5 yards per carry. If fans want a true comparison to Travis Henry who is now just entering his prime and has not fumbled once on the season (nor has McGahee), then a direct comparison of Travis' past 30+ carry games is in order.

Twice in '03:

31 for 167, 5.4 ypc, Long 27, 2 TDs v. Washington last season in a win.
32 for 169, 5.3 ypc, Long 16, 1 TD v; the Jets last season in a win.

Thrice in '02:

31 for 149, 4.8 ypc, Long 14, 3 TDs in a win v. the Jets
35 for 151, 4.3 ypc, Long 13, 1 TD in a win v. Miami
30 for 80, 2.7 ypc, Long 10, 0 TD in a win v. Cincy

Average in games of 30+ carries:

32 for 143, 4.5 ypc, 1.4 TDs, 5-0.

The team, its fans, and now much of a willing media should be very cautious as to what it asks for. It may very well get it. While the hopes for Willis are significantly higher, absolutely nothing has developed to date indicative that McGahee is even as good as what Henry has provided over the past two seasons on very similar teams. These hopes are still hopes! Nothing more.

Will McGahee improve? Almost certainly. There is a risk that he may not however. In order for him to have been worth the selection in 2003, he needs to without question exceed what Henry provides. He has not done that to date. But at present he has already been given the accolades without having proven, other than vs. scrub teams for the most part, in a "down" Jets team at home in the other, any basis for such accolades. I am hopeful that he will develop. But the Bills have already been burned deeply by putting the cart before the horse in this regard with Humpty. Are the lessons so difficult to learn and history so soon forgotten?

WR: B The grade here is largely dependent upon the play of Humpty and the overall offensive scheming as well.

Lee Evans after posting his first significant game this past week vs. the Jets has 16 catches for 321 yards and two touchdowns on the season. He has made a difference in one game this season, this past Jets game. Other than that all the promises by the staff and management that this was the primary "missing ingredient" to "putting Humpty together again" have only fallen short. Evans showed some encouraging signs in this last game however that he may have first receiver potential, which is a nice development going forward. It was only one game however. His improvement should be watched going forward.

Eric Moulds is on pace for a solid 90-1,200-8 season. He is 164 yards shy of last season's total yardage on the season in a season during which he was hampered by injuries. His TD total of four exceeds last season's total output by three already.

No other wide receivers have made a significant impact.

TE: B The group of tight ends combined have 15 catches for 182 yards and three TDs mostly by starter Mark Campbell who is among the better all-around TEs in the league. Tim Euhus, also brought on in spite of other larger more glaring needs, to assist in "putting Humpty together again" has done little to that affect. Primarily a receiving TE he has only four catches for 41 yards on the season and a meaningless TD in a late 4th-quarter special teams generated piling-on rout of Arizona who hadn't won a road game in 16 tries prior to coming to Buffalo in a windy rainstorm. His impact has otherwise been negligible. Ryan Neufeld is primarily a blocking TE and is solid there. Blocking by this group has been above average on the whole.

OL: D Again, a tough grade because the talent simply is not there in spite of insistences by Commander Tom this past offseason, scratching, clawing, and flailing to grab a hold of any part of anything that floats before his ship sinks deep into the abyss!

So I suppose for the talent it has it is not performing all that poorly. It simply lacks talent. It is never a good sign when on plays requiring mobility on the line a 53rd man unused defensive bubble player is brought on to play guard. This is also fine up front initially, but over the long run will only serve to telecast the offense's plays to opponents. Not sure the staff has thought that far in advance given past recent history. But no matter how you slice it, it says nothing positive for the play of the line. Guards incapable of pulling cannot be expected to rate higher than average and Smith is not even that representing more of a revolving door.

In spite of trading away production for error-reduction in the play at the quarterback spot, this offensive line has still allowed one more sack to this point in time over last season and the offensive efficiency indicators have fallen substantially and almost categorically. Yards per carry are also down. So either the line needs to be tagged or McGahee does or both. But exuberant fans and media cannot give both a pass.

Mike Williams continues to struggle and now has neck issues. Trey Teague has a suspicious injury that has held him out. Chris Villarrial provides average play at right guard. Jonas Jennings still makes some key errors at times but is still the team's best lineman when healthy, which has again not so unpredictably become an issue. Lawrence Smith is simply not good and we can now state that it is known why he was on the Ravens' practice squad and not on their starting roster. Tucker has perhaps been better at center than Teague was which really is not saying much with neither providing much beyond average play, often less. Marcus Price has filled in nicely but proven why he is a backup however. Dylan McFarland has been a non-factor. Mike Pucillo has also been a non-factor.

The assessments of the team on both this line and Humpty were gravely off and remain the issues of the offense.

DL: B The defensive line has played well holding average rushing production by opponents to under 100 yards-per-game. A primary factor in my grade however is the lack of offensively talented teams that the Bills have faced. At the onset of the season it appeared that the slate of offensive teams would be formidable this season. Then Miami's Ricky Williams went on a stoner's dream vacation. Jamal Lewis was serving out game one of a two-game suspension. By and large this defense has gone largely untested except in games vs. the Jets twice and New England once. This line also allowed Sammy Morris to look like Priest Holmes for a half in the Miami game and Emmitt Smith look like the Emmitt of a decade ago with no help from an Arizona passing game to boot. So there are consistency issues regarding the line.

In those three games they were able to generate only three sacks, put little pressure on Brady and Pennington in other than this last post-MNF game vs. the Jets who were clearly flat. Even then, they were only able to amass a single sack. They did hold Curtis Martin in check twice and Dillon once however never allowing any of the three, teams or players, to exceed the 100-yard rushing mark.

They did allow an average of 354 total net yards in those three games and were unable to generate enough of a pass rush, still the line's weakness, to prevent those three teams from averaging 270 passing yards-per-game. The other teams on the schedule are not good offensively. The truer test for this defensive line is yet to come beginning this week vs. the Pats on the road, then hosting the aerial offensive circus of the Rams at home, and then the Hawks again on the road for the next three contests. This will provide a better indicator as to how good this defensive line is and whether it is playoff capable in facing these three playoff caliber offenses.

Non-starter Ron Edwards and pass rushing standout Aaron Schobel own half of the team's 19 sacks combined. Pat Williams is the only other defensive lineman with any sacks at 1.5. Edwards has 4, Schobel 5.5.

LB: B The further back the Bills get from the line on D the worse the play gets. The linebackers as a group are about as effective as the line however. It is the passing department in which the team's greatest defensive woes come to the forefront.

London Fletcher has 2.5 sacks and has been quite the madman this season. He still possesses pass coverage inadequacies, but more due to size/height limitations than anything else. He is perhaps the defense's biggest hustler and when used properly is a force. Takeo Spikes in spite of not playing up to the contract that he's gotten, is a solid and consistent provider defensively nonetheless. He has a single sack and single INT returned for a TD and is one of the top performers on the defense overall and second in tackles only behind Fletcher. Posey is out of place in this defense. He often overpursues leaving holes and gaps for opposing players to make plays. He has a single interception but zero sacks way off pace of last season's 5.5. He is a prime candidate for replacement following this season or even during it. Let's see what some of our young LBs can do in this season, which is now over effectively.

DB: D+ The only reason why this unit has not stunk up the joint is due to the offensive anemia in the passing department of five of eight opponents. Over the next three weeks this defense will be challenged with facing three of the most offensively balanced opponents that they will face on the season and all possessive of more than solid passing games. The results will be interesting. If the Bills can hang here, then this grade will have been underrated.

To date however, this secondary has generated only three interceptions on pace for six on the season. This is not good plainly stated. Clements, Reese, and Milloy all have one. Milloy got his last week vs. the Jets which was solid. But Clements and Reese both logged theirs vs. the hapless Jag passing game in week one, not a particularly monumental achievement. The Bills secondary was dry for INTs in the six games in between.

Prioleau and Reese have provide little in the way of solid play. Wire has also not provided much in that way either leaving glaring concerns at the safety position and given the development of Terrence McGee, has raised questions as to why the process of moving Vincent to strong safety has not been accelerated. McGee, while providing stellar kickoff returns, still needs work as a cornerback, but this is the season to give him that playing time for improvement. Clements provides solid play at the other CB spot although does lapse at times.

Either way, this unit is ironically yet clearly the weakness of the defense to date. That weakness will likely be highlighted and exploited over the second half of the season.

Coaching: F How else can this be rated? The offense is off of last season's pace in spite of having had one more home game and a slew of opponents vs. which there is no mitigating reason as to why the offense should be struggling so. Defensive-minded head coach Greg Williams was replaced with offensive-minded coach Mike Mularkey whose Steelers are now among the top offensive producers on the season while the Bills have actually, and believe it or not, regressed offensively.

Defensively it is fine and was preexisting and the same as last year with nary a change there. It is where the primary changes have taken place in the insistences that these were the real problems over talent or player issues. By the way, nice job Jerry and congrats on your extension!!

Given that everything was done to prevent this and propel the offense forward as the defense was not the primary issue at all last season, this is not a good sign. At the onset of the season my writings forewarned of not being so cocky and suggesting that a winning season was all but guaranteed and that this team would be playoff capable. Those were Commander Tom's goals but did not have to be Mike Mularkey and Tom Clements. They readily gulped down the koolaid that ‘Ol Whitey brought in by the barrel full.

Sam Wyche added insult to injury by suggesting that he would have Humpty Dumpty playing like Montana and Esiason. Oh if it were it true! The truth is the exact opposite. Montana never played this way. I won't even bother to elaborate. Regardless, Wyche indirectly slapped every coach to have ever coached Humpty right in the face. Presumably he now sees that his assessments were glaringly off.

Another area where the coaching staff's assessments were off is the offensive line. This line is not good yet the assessment is that they were. Well, there are two options. First, the assessments of the coaches were off; or their ability to correct the situation was off. It may also be a combination of both. Either way, this does not spell s-u-c-c-e-s-s. It spells f-a-i-l-u-r-e!

This staff has had many things stacked in their favor early on, circumstances that will reverse themselves over the second half. Only three of the eight remaining games are on the road. While the slate of opponents in the first half featured numerous teams with bad offenses and/or defenses, the slate of second-half opponents becomes more difficult and is primarily on the road.

Meanwhile, in a season that to anyone operating within the realm of reason is over, and one which would be much better served giving young up-and-coming talent some playing time, the coaching staff (and management) are still clinging to absurd notions of "mathematical possibilities" for making the playoffs in this ridiculous house-of-cards charade. Yet, at present, given the circumstances, this team can consider itself highly fortunate if it can simply grab a hold of last season's 6-10 final tally.

This staff came in and immediately began poo-pooing the past staff indirectly. Yet, they have provided even less and they hail from the side of the ball where the major issues lie. This is not exactly a ringing endorsement of Commander Tom's second head coaching selection at present. Coaching as well as assessments to the team's talent have been gravely off. This staff, while it should have taken advantage of a mulligan for their first season, came in ranting and waving Commander Tom's flag about how all that was required was to rid ourselves of the Williams/Gilbride simpleton tandem that couldn't move a ball forward down a hill.

Well, it seems that this tandem cannot do it either if the numbers are to be believed! What else needs to be said. They will have an opportunity to redeem themselves in the second half, but reason, common sense, and conventional wisdom suggest strongly that hope there is ill-founded. Then again, reason, common sense, and wisdom have never seemed to have been the primary driving forces during the Commander Tom era!

Second Half:

The first half of this season has brought the Bills halfway to where they finished last season. The primary difference being that five of their eight home games have already been played with their only three wins having come at home. Frankly, it is my belief that had both the Miami and Arizona games been on the road that the Bills would have lost both games given the way that they played as well as the circumstances surrounding both games. Either way it is no stretch to realize that both of those games would have been much closer on the road. Again, vs. two of the worst teams, arguably the worst in one case, in the league.

Nevertheless, with the Bills only proven inability to win now over the last two seasons worth of games now being on the road, it stands to reason that more than three more wins henceforth and over the second half of the season is not likely. Throw in the fact that the schedule toughens up significantly and there is even less reason to expect a return to last season's 6-10 and almost none to expect anything better which would require at least .500 ball the rest of the way.

Comments: mweiler.billsreport@cox.net


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