AFC East Report: Week 17

The weekly AFC East Report breaks down the AFC East Division. Each week, analysts who are avid fans of each of the respective AFCE teams, will present an objective analysis of their team and summarize important developments and key updates on each team. A weekly read of this column will keep you posted on all the important developments within the division.

End of Regular Season

New England: BYE Week
NY Jets @ San Diego, 8 p.m. Saturday

New York Jets:

The loss to the Rams showed 2 offenses at opposite ends of the spectrum, the Rams with their big play, turnover producing aerial attack, and the Jets with their low risk, low result squad. Neither is the model for success, and the Rams only served to emphasize the obvious, but I only care about the Jets who had repeatedly stalled drives against one of the "have not" defenses in the NFL. Thanks to Pittsburgh for helping the Jets into the playoffs but this team is a balloon leaking helium. I am not a believer they can win one playoff road game, much less 3, since they're probably worse than they were at the beginning of the season. So I'll briefly cover offense/defense and outlook, and spend a little time on offseason moves.

Two comments worthy of being highlighted above all others:1) Congratulations to Curtis Martin on being the oldest player to win the rushing title, with nearly 1700 yards at age 31. 2) This might be farewell to Wayne Chrebet. He suffered a concussion and should seriously consider retirement, for his own sake. If this is his last game as a Jet let me salute him on behalf of all Jets fans. Thank you, to a true football player.

Offense

Much like Pennington's 3 years as a Jet, the passing attack this season has regressed rather than getting stronger...almost to the point of laughing stock. On the game tying drive, which came mostly from Martin's hard work, Chad almost threw interceptions on consecutive plays inside the Ram 10-yard line. The entire second half you had to hold your breath on every drop back fearing a sack or a pick. And despite what looked like the entire Rams team at the line of scrimmage, no receiver could get open to make a big play. The offensive line was supposed to dominate, but Fabini and company were repeatedly abused for 6 sacks, not to mention at least 2 more that Pennington narrowly escaped. Forget touchdowns, they had problems picking up first downs when push came to shove (3 times just inside the Ram 40 and once before half at their goal line). Martin and the run blocking were excellent but insufficient.

Defense

Except for the fact they caused 3 turnovers, this performance reminded me of the Indianapolis loss that probably cost Ted Cotrell his job. Bulger was 9 for 12 for 222 and 2 TDs, in the first half. We know the secondary is weak and they lived up to their reputation, but this also goes on the D-Line which barely generated pressure. Ellis had 3 sacks, and no one else even layed a finger on Bulger, despite practice squad players on the Rams O-Line. In the offseason the Jets should practice blitzing, they seemed to be sending guys with no one getting through to the QB, this has happened a lot in the past. While David Barrett has played well down the stretch, this game showed he is overmatched against top talent.

Outlook

Here's what bodes badly for the Jets at San Diego next week. They are deflated and playing mediocre football heading into a road game against a very hot team. I'm not convinced the Chargers are better personnel-wise, but I expect them to beat the Jets. The lack of confidence is glaring to me in Pennington and in the way the Jets lost the pass rush battles on both sides of the line against inferior Rams units. In order to beat San Diego I believe they must be able to rush Brees and McGraw must play a great game against Gates. Oh one more thing, Pennington/Hackett have to get their collective act together. It feels like a lot of "ifs" to me, and on the slim chance they do win, they face a stiffer test at Pittsburgh.

Offseason:

Things will start with Paul Hackett's firing. The problem will be replacing him, and this is THE key offseason move Bradway/Edwards must make. If the new guy isn't good don't expect much better results, but much like new D/C Donnie Henderson I think the right guy can make them dangerous. Jim Fassel should be available and is great with QB's, the one downside is you don't want Edwards looking over his shoulder.

Resigning free agents will start with input from the new O/C because the Jets have to make hard choices between McKenzie, Jordan, and Becht on offense and Ferguson on defense. They don't have money for everyone and Becht should be gone, but they do have a lot of cap room so let's assume they can bring back 2 or 3. Assuming Abraham is franchised I think the next order of priority is securing the right tackle position. McKenzie is asking a king's ransom and if the Jets feel they can replace him with someone solid (eg Ryan Diem) for less I would go that route and then try to resign Ferguson and Jordan. If there is no replacement, then they must pay up for McKenzie to stabilize the line since they have no back ups. One other twist to consider is the Jets targeting a high quality tight end in free agency and trying to replace whichever departures (Jordan/Ferguson/McKenzie) they suffer. The first scenario is my favorite, but the Jets have given indications of pursuing McKenzie and Ferguson, and letting Jordan go so we'll assume that one going into the draft.

In that scenario, I believe the top of the Jets draft should go like this: Round 1 - cornerback. Round 2 - running back, or safety. Round 3 - safety, or running back. I believe CB is the greatest priority for two reasons: first, outside the Round 1 it's difficult to find very high quality talent (less true with RB, TE, S), and second, because that's where the late round talent is in this draft. More than one of the following should be available when the Jets pick: Justin Miller, Adam Jones, Marlin Jackson, Carlos Rogers, Corey Webster. In the latter part of the 2nd round the Jets should go with whichever position RB/S gives them higher value. With a strong CB in the lineup and the ability to play more press coverage you'll see more incompletions and more sacks, and offenses won't have a safety outlet when the running game isn't working. A back up RB is needed in case Martin at age 32 can't shoulder the whole load, because it's a scary scenario to envision that offense without him, and a safety is needed so they can give Tongue his walking papers.

It wasn't a good ending to the regular season, but remember where they were a year ago and how far they've come. If they can get a good offensive coordinator who knows how to rejuvenate Pennington and better pass coverage I think they can be an 11-5/12-4 team next year against what will be a tougher schedule.

Analyst: Nick Romano; merq13@aol.com

New England Patriots:

The New England Patriots get a well deserved week off, after finishing the season with an identical 14-2 record of a year ago and their 31-4 record over the last 35 games is the 3rd best in the history of the NFL, trailing only the 72-73 Dolphins (31-2) and the 85-86 Bears (32-4) If they can win their next three games, the Patriots will become only the 2nd team ever to win three super bowls in a four year span. Here's a look at the final regular season grades for all things Patriots;

Quarterback (A-)

Tom Brady had his best year statistically, finishing with a career high 28 TD's, 3692 yards and a 92.6 QB rating. Brady also continued his improvement throwing the deep ball completing 52 passes of 20+ yards and 10 of 40+ (both also career highs) He has now started 62 straight games and is 54-14 in his career, (.794) which is an NFL record for quarterbacks with at least 20 starts. Brady has also improved his pocket presence this year, showing a Joe Montana, Dan Marino like ability to maneuver in the pocket, buying additional time to navigate through his progressions and locate the open receiver.

Rohan Davey has not proven that he is capable of stepping in and winning at the NFL level, while the savvy veteran, Jim Miller remains a question mark due to health concerns. I expect the Patriots to sign a veteran QB in the off season. At this point in time, if Brady ever goes down, so do the Patriots chances of continued success.

Running Back (A)

When the Patriots traded a 2nd round draft pick to land Dillon, they made one of the best trades in the history of New England sports. He set a franchise and career high with 1635 rushing yards and despite missing the Pittsburgh game, still finished 3rd in the NFL in rushing. Dillon runs with an attitude and is the bruising, smash-mouth back Belichick has craved since his arrival in Foxboro 5 years ago.

Kevin Faulk and Patrick Pass have good hands and are decent 3rd down backs but the Patriots still need a legitimate #2 back, in the event Dillon ever has to miss significant time. Rookie 4th rounder Cedrick Cobbs has potential, but didn't see the field much in 2004, as he was indoctrinating himself to the blitz pickups/route running and blocking schemes of a complicated NFL offense.

Wide Receiver (B+)

David Givens produced career highs in both catches and yards and proved he is a legitimate #2 receiver and a great downfield blocker in the running game. Deep threat David Patten caught a career high 7 touchdowns and Deion Branch, after missing 7 games with a knee injury, returned to form, back in the slot, where he is one of the more dangerous receivers in the league. Rookie P.K. Sam was lost to injured reserve and 2nd year man Bethel Johnson did little to justify his 2nd round selection in the draft two years ago, catching only 10 passes the entire year. Troy Brown has likely seen the last of his days as a regular receiver. Brown spent the entire 2nd half of the season on defense, playing cornerback and hasn't attended an offensive team meeting in months. It can be argued however, that the Pats still do not possess a true #1 receiver.

Tight End (C+)

In the NFL's not so hidden agenda to create more scoring, they put more emphasis on the 5-yard contact rule and as a result, tight ends everywhere had career years. Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten and Eric Johnson amongst others proved to be the beneficiaries of this new emphasis. We now know why Scott Pioli and Bill Belichick spent a 1st round pick on TE Ben Watson, only to lose him to a season ending injury in week 2.

While Daniel Graham, Christian Fauria and Jed Weaver did combine for 54 catches and 9 TD's, the Patriots were unable to exploit opposing defenses the way they could have, had Watson been healthy and contributing all year long. Graham, the only player of the three guaranteed to be on the roster in 2005, was arguably the best blocking TE in the NFL in 2004 and made significant strides in his third year.

Offensive Line (B-)

LT Matt Light never seemed to recover from his off-season appendectomy and was beaten countless times for sacks against some of the quicker DE's, forcing Graham to stay in on many pass routes to help block or chip the DE's. Light has started to make name for himself as a run blocking tackle and signed a multi-year extension during the season insuring he will be with the Patriots for years, either as a LT or (best case scenario) as a RT, if a top flight LT was ever brought in via the draft or Free Agency. LG Joe Andruzzi combined with Light to form an excellent run blocking tandem and fans often saw Corey Dillon running left, directly behind Light and Andruzzi when critical yards were needed.

Dan Koppen was a steal as a 5th round pick in 2003 and already has 30 starts under his belt. Koppen is a cerebral player who makes few mistakes and takes excellent angles in both the run and pass blocking (space) schemes the Patriots utilize. RG Steven Neal, a former NCAA wrestling champion, who never played a down of college football, continues to make strides and takes full advantage of his quick feet and fast hands and must be considered a pleasant surprise at this point in his career.

RT is where the Patriots need the most help. Neither Brandon Gorin, nor Tom Ashworth are the long-term answer and many pundits expect the Patriots to utilize a high draft pick (perhaps 2nd or 3rd round) on a tackle in April. For all the supposed offensive line problems, we must remember this; This Patriots team scored more points (437) than all but three teams (Indy, KC, San Diego) in the NFL and did help Corey Dillon to over 1600 rushing yards so they must be doing something right.

Defensive Line (B)

The Patriots got solid production out of Richard Seymour, who made his third Pro Bowl in his first four years in the league and 2nd year man Ty Warren, who started all 16 games at left end. Rookie Vince Wilfork was a force in the middle and unlike Ted Washington (whom he and Keith Traylor were brought in to replace) can play both the run and the pass well, showing surprising athleticism for a 330+ pounder. The Patriots only allowed 3 backs to gain 100 yards this year and their 3-4, two-gap front line played an instrumental role in their run defense.

3rd year man Jarvis Green and NT Traylor made contributions but were rarely difference makers in 2004. Rookie DE Marquise Hill and 2nd year man Ethan Kelley barely saw the field and Rodney Bailey was lost for the season during training camp. I do not expect any significant transactions on the D-Line in 2005 as there are other areas of need for the Pats.

Linebackers (A)

This is where the Patriots are unrivaled in the NFL, going 9 deep. Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Ted Johnson, Roman Phifer and Roosvelt Colvin saw most of the snaps with help coming from Tully Banta-Cain, Larry Izzo and Don Davis. Bruschi had another outstanding season finishing with 123 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 interceptions and 6 passes deflected. Like a clutch hitter in baseball, Bruschi routinely made the biggest plays when the Patriots needed him most and will retire a Patriot, after signing a new deal before the season started. McGinest led the team with 9.5 sacks and now has 71 for his career and like Bruschi, made play after play when games were on the line.

Mike Vrabel applied consistent pressure to the quarterback throughout the season and even caught two TD's on offense. Legend has it Vrabel has not made a mental mistake on the field in two years, spanning more than 1000 plays. Ted Johnson is a throw back MLB standing 6'4" and weighing in at 253 pounds. He is a true run stuffing MLB and played in every game for the first time since 1997. Colvin had his moments, (5 sacks) but is still not 100% since his return from career threatening hip surgery last year.

Secondary (B+)

The Patriots got beat for too many long passes this season. But when one considers they were using a linebacker (Don Davis) wide receiver (Troy Brown) and two street Free Agents (Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland) for most of the season, it's rather remarkable they played as cohesively as they did. Credit has to go to defensive backs coach Eric Mangini, who along with Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson, kept the motley crew on the same page, when facing the potent passing offenses of the Rams, Chiefs, ‘et al'.

Harrison had another remarkable season and remains one of the NFL's best safeties. 2nd year man Eugene Wilson played Free Safety and Corner and excelled in both roles in 2004. Troy Brown was 2nd on the team with 3 interceptions, despite never having played cornerback at Marshall or in the NFL over the past 14+ seasons. Undrafted Free Agent Randall Gay proved he belongs in the NFL, and could land a role with the team next year as a nickel back.

Special Teams (B)

Adam Vinitieri was nearly perfect, connecting on 79 of 81 kicks and led the entire league with 141 points. Already the best clutch kicker in NFL history, Vinitieri is also one of the most consistent. Josh Miller was a significant upgrade over Ken Walter, averaging 42 yards per kick. For the first time under Bill Belichick, the kickoff and punt teams were poor. The Patriots were never able to create field position in the return game this year, which might help explain why Bethel Johnson, was inserted as a punt returner against the 49ers. Johnson was the fastest player at the 2003 NFL Scouting Combine and led the league in kick returns as a rookie, but until this past Sunday, was never used on punts.

Coaching (A+)

In Bill we trust. Every week the Patriots seemed to be better prepared than their opponent. They boast four legitimate head coaches in Belichick, Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel and Dante Scarnecchia. With Weis already headed to Notre Dame and Crennel interviewing with Cleveland, this is undoubtedly the last hurrah for this great coaching staff. The Pats 54-16 record over the past four years is #1 in the NFL and their ability to communicate the game plan to the players and put them in positions where they can succeed is second to none.

Some teams run their own system and don't deviate from it. The Patriots instead search for mismatches and force you to beat them in a pragmatic fashion. They excel at taking away the one thing a team does well. Because they are smarter, more disciplined and more versatile then their opponents, the Patriots simply assume that eventually, you will make a mistake reading the disguised coverage, or blitz scheme and when that happens, they capitalize and turn it into points.

Scott Pioli is one of the best talent evaluators in the NFL. There is no better coaching staff in the NFL and no better head coach than Bill Belichick. With Belichicks track record (5 Super Bowls, 4 rings- and counting) he has assured his place in the Hall of Fame.

Prognosti- WHO?

Next week we'll break down the Divisional Playoffs, where it appears the Indianapolis Colts will once again have to go through New England, if they want to get to the Super Bowl. For the record, I was 140-116 (55%) against the spread this NFL season, which essentially means I would broken even, had I been Pete Rose. That's why it doesn't pay to gamble, I finished in the 93rd percentile (of 200,000+ entrants) and still would not have made any money with a bookie.

Sure glad that simply watching the games proves to be enough excitement for me.

natalysis@yahoo.com

Analyst: Craig Natale; natalysis@yahoo.com

Miami Dolphins:

Dolphins Fall to Ravens 30-23 and Finish 4-12

"Turn of the lights the party is over...they say that all good things must end!" Dandy Don where were you when we needed you 17 weeks ago? The Miami Dolphins pulled the plug on their abysmal 2004 campaign with a 30-23 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. This has finally signaled the end of the Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt, Jim Bates era. Nine years after the retirement of legendary coach Don Shula, the organization has sunk to depths of futility of where it was when he arrived in 1970. With a new high profile head coach and a major house cleaning on the way, this off-season should bring wholesale changes across the board. Nick Saban's regime should instill a tougher attitude and a disciplined philosophy to a team that has been wallowing in mediocrity and negativity since the Clinton administration.

In the finale against Baltimore, QB Sage Rosenfels took center stage and started for the oft-injured A.J. Feeley. Rosenfels got started on the first play of the game by hitting WR Chris Chambers on a 76-yard TD strike. Rosenfels went 16-38 for 264 yards and showed some poise and promise at times. However, his three sacks and three interceptions were his ultimate undoing. One of the three interceptions was returned for a touchdown...yes, an all too common occurrence (a team record eight) this season for Dolphin QBs. Another ended a scoring threat while another led to a Raven TD. Offensively, the Dolphins were consistently inconsistent as they have been all season. Miami's 23 points all came off big plays...the bomb to Chambers...a 35 yard breakaway run by RB Sammy Morris and 95 yard KO return by (team rookie of the year) Wes "don't call me Lawrence" Welker. Miami's first KO return for a TD since 1989! The other two came on a questionable safety after Raven RB Jamal Lewis fumbled backward into the end zone after his forward progress was seemingly stopped. Needless to say, it was much more of the same for Dolphins no matter who was coaching or who was playing. The offensive line play was adequate at best despite Morris' ringing up 89 yards on the ground. A true mark of their lackluster play was the fact that no Dolphin gained over 100 yards this season.

Several Dolphin offensive players certainly deserve a purple heart for their dedication to duty this season and should be safe in their foxhole when Saban blows the roster up this off-season. Kudos go to WRs Chris Chambers and Marty Booker and TE Randy Michael...after that...well, check the waiver wire in a few months and you'll understand! Even inconsistent specialists, PK Olindo Mare (highly overpaid) and P Matt Turk (highly inconsistent) could be getting their kicks elsewhere in 2005.

Defensively, the Dolphins allowed yet another rusher to surpass 100 yards (Lewis 167 on 34 carries) this season. As expected, Pro Bowl DE Jason Taylor, MLB Zach Thomas and DBs Sam Madison, Patrick Surtain, Arturo Freeman and Sammy Knight all deserve a standing O for their efforts and leadership during the season. In fairness, the Dolphins defense hung tough all season despite the offense giving up points off INT returns, turnovers and leaving them in horrible field positions far too many times. Season ending injuries to DTs Tim Bowens and Larry Chester and OLB Junior Seau, coupled the unnecessary trade of DE Adawale Ogunleye certainly did not help things either. Back-up D-linemen David Bowens, Jeff Zgonina and Jay Williams played well and helped fill the void.

With a team record 12 losses, the 2004 season is finally over. Despite playing better the last seven games of the season under interim head coach Jim Bates, the Dolphins are a bad football team. Nick Saban stands to earn every cent of his $ 4.5 million a year salary and there will be no quick turnarounds in Miami. Subtle rumors in South Florida have GM Rick Spielman possibly sticking (because he knows the personnel) around and President Eddie Jones talked out of his March retirement. That is not good news, especially with a limited number of 2005 draft picks thanks to Spielman's keen personnel moves and Wanny's horrible and un-Jimmy Johnson-like draft maneuvers. On the other hand, Miami still retains the rights to RB Ricky Williams and WR David Boston. Can you say...good riddance?" Hmm...house cleaning...spring cleaning...call it what you will, but as John Kerry said, "Hope is on the way." Dolphin fans everywhere can only hope Nick Saban has better results than the presidential runner-up. Only time will tell!

Analyst: Chris Dellapietra

Buffalo Bills:

The Bills suffered a drastic embarrassment to close out the season on Sunday losing not to the Steelers in all of their glory. Oh no! That would have been too easy to explain away. No, these Bills led by the master of media and marketing Commander Tom, found their way to losing to the Steelers 2nd and 3rd strings with a few 4th stringers sprinkled in there for good measure and to add to the quality of Bill Cowher's sleep that evening.

The Bills did all this at home, with the 12th-man at a fevered pitch and after selling 30,000 "I BILLIEVE" T-shirts, with all the momentum that a team could ask for. As well, for the Bills this represented a playoff game whereas for the Steelers, obviously now, their primary concern was simply getting back to Pittsburgh for their bye week in tact. Then at the onset of the 2nd quarter when the Steelers began to reserve their starters and clear their benches, it should have signaled the beginning of a first class Bills rout if the hype of the past six weeks of the 8th-grade bully pulverizing incoming 6th-graders was to have had any legs.

The results speak for themselves. The Bills put up only 10 offensive points prior to the last drive where a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th team defense in prevent mode allowed another seven to make it appear much closer than it actually was. And if Tommy Maddox had not played it can be argued that the Bills defensive TD would not have occurred reducing their total point output even further.

This game was a referendum on "Tommy Ball" vs. conventional NFL wisdom. The results came back and this just in, but NFL conventional wisdom began to expose the good emperor's "new clothes." Just as has been pointed out here, things and approaches left unchanged, soon the emperor will more resemble Lady Godiva in the middle of her ride than he will a winning GM. Why?

The one thing that the Steelers did on Sunday was to leave most of their starting offensive line in the game until the end. The Steelers' defensive line, which has seen action in a rotational-platooning type of system throughout the year also played much of the game. So it was stellar line play here with names of skill position players that until Sunday, many NFL fans did not even realize were playing pro football.

On the flip side was "Tommy Ball." Commander Tom's best friend appears to be the major media. The rallying cry: ‘If it looks good in print, then it's a good move." The approach here is one whereby if undertaken with kids vice with Bills fans, then Commander Tom would be convincing 8-year olds, "you don't want this green ugly dollar bill, no, you want this brand new shiny nickel." Then the child would take the nickel and the report to their parents would be what shrewd businessmen these children would grow up to become and the parents would walk away proudly. Sadly, many fans in Buffalo seem to prefer the shiny nickels these days! Well, if history repeats itself then Bills fans will have a pocket full of nickels by the time next season starts. Meanwhile, how many dollar bills will blow into one window at One Bills Drive, flutter around for a while, and then blow right out another open window.

What fans saw on Sunday was the Steelers top lines with sure-to-be hall-of-famers [sarcasm, for the message board weenies] such as Willie Parker, Brian St. Pierre, and Tommy Maddox, a poor man's Humpty Dumpty. Also a wiser man's Humpty Dumpty.

Fans and media, will, and have, raved that had the Bills beaten the Raiders and Jags early in the season, two teams that they could not muster greater than 10 points against, then these Bills would have been 11-5 and in the playoffs. And what would that have boiled down to? Another win over yet another horrid team and another mediocre team neither of which could score more points than it had allowed on the season. Boy Howdy! And then what, on to Indianapolis, for what, a thorough thrashing at the hands of the Colts' juggernaut offense an offense the likes of which the Bills, this season, last season, or any season during the Commander Tom era have not come close to having proven an ability to slow down let alone stop.

It can also quickly be pointed out that had the Dolphins beaten the Bills, the same Dolphins that were in both games with the Bills right up until the final minutes, then the Bills would be 7-9 too. Would Ricky Williams, who has torn the Bills a new one over past seasons, have made a difference? Methinks so.

And what about if Carson Palmer had played for the Bengals? The Bengals finished at 10th in scoring offense making them the only team among the top 10 in scoring this season on the Bills' schedule other than the Patriots. They did not do it with Jon Kitna at the helm however. Surely the Bills would not have capitalized to the extent that they did off of Kitna's mistakes and early inability to move the ball and likely lost to a team that had much better success moving the ball vs. a much higher ranked defense than the Bills did had Carson Palmer played.

So another 6-10 season was also just as likely leaving the schedule as the basis for the improvement over last season. To consider that the Bills had fewer injuries to their starters than any other team in the league does not help perceptions either for those viewing things objectively. But again, this is just more of the management by perceptions approach that has been undertaken at OBD in recent seasons.

As well, the three worst teams in the entire NFL this season were unarguably Cleveland, Miami, and San Francisco. These three teams were four of the nine, approximately half, of the wins for the Bills. In neither of the past two seasons have the bills had four games vs. the three worst teams in the league, two with interim coaches in three of those four games.

But wait, there's more! In attempting to highlight the extent to which the special teams and defense pushed along the offense, the portion of the team where all the money and efforts to correct it went last offseason, the average starting field position on drives resulting in touchdowns from last season to this one improved by an astonishing 16.5 yards-per-drive. This had absolutely nothing to do with the offense and was only the case vs. terrible offensive teams. The average starting field position of touchdown producing drives this season was in opponents' territory. Correspondingly, the improvement in average starting field position on drives having resulted in field goals also improved by a most substantial 9.7 yards-per-drive.

The lack of good teams on the Bills schedule this season is pronounced over last season and 2002 and is the primary factor for the Bills "bettering" themselves by three games. There will be more on this glaringly obvious analysis over the next couple of weeks.

Either way, what this game vs. the Steelers was, was very good lines with next-to-nobody at the skill positions vs. top, and primarily formerly accomplished marquee names, along with other big names at the skill positions, yet with average or below average lines. It is pretty clear which won out on Sunday. This will be a problem for the Bills going forward until such a time as they understand this most simple concept. At the same time however, much of their starting line talent comes up for free agency either this offseason or next offseason with the rest of the viable part of it aging beyond usefulness.

In essence, this game hammers home the notion in spades as to whether or not this Bills team is playoff caliber. To consider that the answer is ‘yes' is pretty much laughable. Sadly! But if the Bills cannot beat a playoff team's second and third strings given all of the favorable circumstances encompassing them and in a game which is essentially a playoff game for them in their own rite, then no argument that this team is playoff-ready can honestly be made.

Meanwhile, on a team that has bent over backwards to "fix Humpty", often at the hindrance of the further development of this team and unarguably at incredible opportunity costs which would have been capable of a small rebuilding in their own rite, the results could not possibly be any less impressive. Yet, the rumors and statements are now indicative that Humpty will return next season. And why should he not? If the Bills could not see the logic and soundness in freeing up $8 million clean on top of avoiding nearly another $5 million in salary this season coupled with either future similar salaries or cap hits, prior to this season, then why will they admit this mistake now when the "costs of correcting it" about equal the costs of leaving it as is. This team truly has become the Bledsoe Bills. At times it appears reasonable to question whether or not the goal is winning or to resurrect an utterly ineffective QB with more issues than a scorned woman.

So how has Humpty Dumpty fared this season? Have "all the king's horses and all the king's men been able to put Humpty together again?"

Humpty finished this season:

25th in QB Rating
26th in sacks (which will be hailed as outstanding by many simply because it is not 32nd)
22nd in interception percentage
26th in yards-per-attempt
26th in completion percentage

The way to catch certain monkeys in the wild is to put a box with peanuts in it out. On that box is a hole large enough for the monkey to put his hand into, yet, once the peanuts are grabbed, the hole is too small for the monkey to retract his hand with the fistful of peanuts. Of course the monkey can retract his hand by dropping the peanuts but does not do so. Captors then walk up to the monkey which refuses to let go even to the detriment of going into perpetual captivity.

So it is with Humpty and the Bills. The Bills not only have refused to let go of a mistake that is one of the primary factors dooming them and with this past offseason have even intensified the negative ramifications and tremendously increased the opportunity costs of this enormous error. But once again, the Bills are incapable of winning a Super Bowl with Humpty at the helm! Ergo, any QB that does not have this limitation would "be better." There are plenty and few would cost as much as Humpty does or would. Again however, the team is now in this for a certain amount and that time of being able to get out without significant backside cost has now passed.

When one considers the offensive skill position players around him this quickly becomes inexcusable. Yet, perhaps the primary reason why Humpty should not be retained, yet which does note even appear to be a factor, is that vs. teams with winning records this season, Humpty has nearly a 1-to-3 TD-to-Turnover ratio and worse than a 1-to-2 TD/INT ratio.

Many fans and media will, and have, dismissed this game as some sort of anomaly. But the anomaly is the schedule which over the past six weeks prior to this game did not feature a single team that finished the season scoring more points than it had allowed with exception to Cincinnati who only scored two more points on the season than they had allowed due to a 38-10 thrashing of a vacant Eagles teams in a game which would have been more competitive with the Eagle cheerleaders starting. Other than that, the Bills also beat the Jets, Arizona, and Miami.

They have not beaten a single above-average team on the season. Not one. They have lost to several average or below average teams however. Some may argue that the Jets are above average, however in hindsight, the Jets had a similar cushy schedule which was primarily responsible for their 6-1 start before losing to the Bills in the first loss of a 4-5 finish. As well, these Bills were only capable of beating the Jets with the Jets being short on rest and prep coming off of their big Monday Night win over Miami.

The bottom line this season schedule wise is simple. The Bills beat only teams that they should have beaten, did not beat a few teams that they also should have beaten, yet could not beat a single team that was better than they are other than perhaps the Jets and then only with the aforementioned significant mitigating circumstance.

This Steelers game provided an enormous window for anyone with an ounce of objectivity to peer inside as to the exact reasons why! "It's the lines stupid!" Yet, that has been anything but the philosophy in Buffalo lo these past four seasons. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Put together any ragtag collection of linemen with absolutely no expectations coming into the NFL and then hire a coach to fix them. Heck, if it works for Humpty, then why can't it work for the line! Oh, wait, ….it didn't work for Humpty! Scratch that…

The legacy of the Commander Tom-Humpty Dumpty era is now clear and it is a standard of mediocrity wearing an Armani suit. It is flash and sizzle on paper, but on the field when push comes to shove, literally, these Bills are out-strategized, out-muscled, out-hustled, and out-executed. They routinely win games vs. teams against which other far worse teams have done similar, but vs. any team with 10+ wins at the end of the season these Bills cannot even seem to prove competitiveness let alone put together any wins other than being aided by extremely favorable mitigating circumstances yet even then often not.

At the end of every season during the Commander Tom era, promises that "the Bills are a step away…" or that "there are some things to build on…" and other similar prescripted types of statements made for the media ala Commander Tom seem to maintain just enough fan interest to provide the front office and coaching staff the benefit of the doubt and are the mantras that are launched while further attempts to actually correct things more closely resemble a repackaging of everything that's wrong under the apparent hope that "one of these days we'll find the lucky configuration." Meanwhile, the true issues are ignored, glossed over, or outright denied and in at least one high profile case actually aggravated. As well, the function of the number of wins for these Bills is now clear. There is a very direct correlation to the strength-of-schedule and the number of wins with quality wins a mere pipe dream for fans. This does not suggest that this team has improved. It only suggests that the road for this season was paved vice lain with gravel that it was last season.

Either way, this lack of fulfillment of promises made by Commander Tom given the approach of clinging to everything that should be let go of certainly should not justify stated approval by owner Ralph Wilson. Once again, the Bills have failed to meet their goals of the Commander Tom era rebuilding. Had the team undertaken to build and act for next season and the future instead of doing their best to win this season at the expense of next season and the future, then the cutting of some slack would have been warranted.

However, Commander Tom's first round of moves will begin to come around for free agency or age out of the picture altogether beginning with this offseason and there appears to be no true measure of improvement on the horizon with the downsides even challenging the upsides for which will have the greater impact beginning as early as next season. The circumstances that allowed the Bills to win 9 of their 16 games this season are unusual to say the least and not particularly common or oft repeated. Yet, they could not use them to achieve their goals. How much less are their odds when they play on the proverbial "level playing field." It indeed heightens concern for next season as well. Needless to say, the soap opera of an offseason at One Bills Drive should be entertaining if nothing else.

There is plenty of good analysis on this season and it will be forthcoming. For those truly concerned about exactly why this train is spinning its wheels, and those possessive of the objectivity and courage to take an honest look, these analyses will reveal much. For everyone else, well, keep that piggy bank handy for all of those shiny nickels.

Analyst: Mark Weiler; mweiler.billsreport@cox.net


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