2004 Final Grades

Part II:

Defensive Line: A- Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the front-4 was schemes requiring the constant shifting of players and alignments using most of the defensive line personnel including backups, often at times even the linebackers, and in just about every conceivable configuration. Also, correspondingly, was the degree of success that this had vs. poor teams vice the seeming lack of success that it had vs. the better offensive teams. The reasons for this can be debated, however it is something that will need to change given next season's more difficult schedule if the Bills desire to be competitive in '05.

LDE Chris Kelsay improved but also bore out that he was only an average or perhaps slightly above average DE this season. Next season will spell out exactly where he is. RDE Aaron Schobel proved that he is what he is, namely a pass rushing specialist. His run defending skills are average tops. He is a solid player and should be viable at RDE throughout his tenure.

Overall, the defensive linemen on the Bills pushed their sack total from 20.5 last season to 27 this season. Aaron Schobel's production fell from 11.5 to 8, The defensive line also saw its interceptions improve from 2 to 3 with one each by Sam Adams, Pat Williams, and Chris Kelsay. The Bills finished ranked 7th in the league in rushing defense and 2nd overall in yardage D and 8th in scoring D. .

Linebacker: A- Much like other players throughout the defense, yet perhaps more noticeably within the linebacking corps, few of them showed up in the biggest of games.

Overall, the linebackers as a unit on the Bills saw their sack totals recede by 2 from 9.5 to 7.5. The only LBs that logged sacks were Fletcher 3.5, Spikes 3, and Posey 1. Interceptions generated by the linebackers also skyrocketed from Spikes' solo 2 last season to 7 this season with 5 by Spikes and one apiece by Posey and Stamer.

Defensive Back: B+ Chalk another one up for management in signing yet another well past prime player with a past littered with accolades and recognition at 33 not having his contract match his contributions and one that lost most of what was his best remaining year to injury. Troy Vincent didn't come cheaply either. If he does not make it through the next two campaigns uninjured, then this will also rank up there with Commander Tom stinker contracts.

Nevertheless, this year's group of DBs logged 14 interceptions more than doubling last season's paltry total. The Bills moneymen in the secondary only came up with 3 combined however. One for Vincent and two for Milloy. Terrence McGee had 3 while Clements shone with 6. Baker and Reese also added one apiece.

Overall, the defensive backs on the Bills pushed their sack total from 7 last season to 10.5 this season. Milloy logged 4, McGee 2, Thomas, Vincent, Wire, and Greer all logged one apiece with Clements logging 5.

Defense: A- Perhaps the biggest noticeable improvement from last season to this one was an improvement of +26 from –16 to +10 in turnover ratio largely due to 21 additional takeaways generated by the special teams and defense with little assistance in reduction of turnovers. Again however, and this cannot be dismissed, the Bills played only two of the league's top-10 scoring teams in three games vs. New England and Cincinnati with Cincinnati minus their starting QB. The Patriots ranked 4th in scoring offense and the Bengals ranked 10th. Neither team had any difficulty moving the ball vs. the Bills.

On the flip side, of the Bills' 16 games, 11 were vs. teams ranked 17th or worse in scoring offense leaving only five games vs. teams among the best 16 teams in scoring O. It would be naïve to think that this did not impact the Bills rankings and record. Meanwhile, the Patriots (4th) and Steelers (11th) averaged 30 points-per-game vs. the Bills and Cincinnati (10th) moved the ball much better vs. a solid Bills defense than the Bills did vs. a weak Cincy D. The Bengals were largely only shutdown by their own mistakes by Jon Kitna, starting for the first time in relief of Carson Palmer. The Bengal RBs, led by Rudi Johnson, averaged 5.4 yards-per-carry. The Bills allowed an average of 152 rushing yards in those three games.

So it is. The rankings are high, but if fans are looking for encouragement in the Bills' abilities to stop the better offenses in the league, few opportunities were provided, with those that were resulting in "less than encouraging" results. If this season's final rankings hold out, then next season the Bills will face five of the league's top-10 scoring offenses in 6 games, another five in 6 more games ranked from 13th to 18th, and only three teams in 4 games vs. offenses ranked 20th or worse. Two of those last four games will be against Miami who figures to improve if for no other reason than there is nowhere else to go. The Dolphins held the Bills in games to the bitter end in both games this season as it was.

As well, in spite of an easy slate of offensive opponents clearly skewed towards the dregs of the NFL, the Bills still allowed 5 more points on the season than they did last season.

To some readers and media, those facts do not mean a thing. We will apparently find out next season whether they have any legs or not!

Special Teams: A

Returns were vastly improved, kick coverages slipped some in the rankings from last season to this one. They put up five return TDs on the season however, 3 from KR Terrence McGee and 1 each from PRs Nate Clements and Jonathon Smith. The special teams also added a blocked punt return for a TD all done by one-man-show Jason Peters. Of those six touchdowns, four were in games that the Bills won.

The introduction of Bobby April boosted the return games from 31st to 5th in punt returns by nearly five yards per carry and from 12th to 2nd in kickoff returns and nearly three yards per carry. Both kicking games regressed however in both yardage as well as net returns. Punt coverages regressed from 4th to 13th in net yards and from 37.1 net to 36.5 net. The Bills slipped by 3 in inside-the-20 punts and fell from 21st to 30th in the rankings there. The Bills also regressed from 30th to 31st in kickoff coverage ranking in spite of improving their return average allowed by 1.3 yards. Needless to say, ranking near the bottom overall, the coverage games should be an area of emphasis this offseason. Some of this also has to do with Lindell's weak boot. The contributions in special teams scoring make up for much of this on the season however.

The vastly improved return game made possible by the emergence of Terrence McGee as a kickoff returner and Nate Clements and Jonathon Smith as punt returners paved the way for five return TDs. (McGee 3, Clements 1, Smith 1)

Coaching: N/A

All in all it was an OK season for incoming rookie Coach Mike Mularkey and company. The mistakes that they made were primarily prior to the season in preparation for the season vice what went on during it. Were they perfect? No, clearly not. Did they do some good things? Absolutely. Did they make some errors? Of course.

If there is one criticism, it would be that as foretold me by Steeler fans, Mularkey prefers many trick and misdirectional plays. The criticism is simple. These plays seemed to work fine against poor teams but usually failed, often miserably, versus better teams. Just a general observation to take into advisement for next season. As well, at times these plays seemed to be used when they clearly were not necessary causing puzzlement at why they were used in those circumstances. Thirdly, and something that seems to elude the Commander Tom "corporate cultured" Bills is that these are no substitute for simply being able to out-execute opponents at the point-of-attack, namely the trenches! But in spite of the fact that this young coaching staff did not "help themselves" heading into the seasons due to issued laden assessments of their quarterback and offensive line realities, they will get a mulligan.

As stated in the past it is next to impossible to determine how good the coaching is until late into a second season and often even into the third season. These coaches, just as any others would, will make some changes in their approach during the offseason. A better determination will begin to be made midway through next season. Everyone thought that Williams and Gilbride were marvelous following the 2002 season. I have better feelings and hunches than I did with them then, but it is still far too early to tell. The one thing that was pointed out in preseason pieces as to ‘what to watch' was the degree to which Mularkey would "appear to step out from underneath Commander Tom's influence", which he did not do. There is such a farcical adherence to Humpty being "ordained" from the top that it is exactly that now, farcical. As formerly stated, this will largely determine the extent to which he is successful, perhaps even forging another ‘Cowher v. Donahoe' type of tension. Who can tell. If necessary however, would Coach Mularkey have the gumption to grab that bull by the horns? But this denial that Humpty is anything other than a waste of the fans' and team's time is absurd. There should be absolutely no question that he should be released and the $2.2 million freed up. Yet, indications are to the contrary! Go figure…

Overall: C

Improvements in special teams made 90% of the difference in this team this season coupled with a schedule featuring nearly half as many teams finishing the season with 10 or more wins than last season. Having played the weak and feeble NFC West featuring Arizona coupled with the league's worst team in San Francisco along with Cleveland and Miami (twice), two teams having finished the season with interim coaches and rounding out the dreg contingent to the bottom three in the league certainly played its share in providing five wins in pushing the Bills to 9-7.

The improvements of the special teams and superlative defensive play, even if only vs. the lesser teams on the Bills schedule paved the way for the additional points scored from last season to this one. The distance that the offense had to drive on TD producing drives was reduced a drastic 16.5 yards-per-drive on average by the special teams and defense. The distance that the offense had to drive on FG producing drives was reduced a nearly impressive 9.7 yards-per-drive on average by the special teams and defense.

Last season, the Bills scored only 4 touchdowns and 3 field goals on drives having begun in opponents' territory with the closest drives having originated at the opponent's 26-yard line for a touchdown and 20-yard line for a field goal. This season, the Bills scored 14 touchdowns and 10 field goals having begun in opponents' territory with 6 of the TD drives and one field goal drive having originated inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

This represents 91 additional points set up by the defense or special teams allowing the offense to "improve" or "excel." Toss in that an additional 4 touchdowns, 8 vice 4 last season, were set up by the D and special teams with drives having begun within 10-yards of or at midfield, for an additional 28 points pushing the impact of special teams and D to well over 100-points on the season. Factor in the 71-points that the defense and special teams scored directly, up 44 from last season's 27 point combined D/STs contribution, and it is easy to see how the defense and/or special teams accounted for 161 points on the season and explaining the 152-point improvement in the overall scoring of the team.

The average starting field position for the Bills this season was the best in the league by over 2-yards greater than the team ranked 2nd. This fact alone should be astonishing! It becomes even more remarkable when one considers that defensively, the Bills ranked 19th in field position allowed to opponents. The Bills also had the greatest "net" starting-drive differential, meaning simply offensive average-starting-field-position minus defensive average-starting-field-position.

To illustrate further, the average starting field position for the Bills was their own 36.3. Only the Ravens are above 33.0 at 33.19. The other 30 teams in the league ranged from 32.73 to the 26.17-yard line, a disparity of 6.56. In six of the Bills' 9 wins, it ranged from their own 42 to 49. Two of the other three wins were vs. Miami. Contrasted with last season, the Bills ranked 25th and had an average starting-field-position of their own 30.23-yard line, a difference of over 6-yards per drive. When one considers that there were approximately 185 drives on the season, this translates to over 1,100 yards on the season and to approximately 70 yards-per-game on average!

Further, the Bills ranked 25th in yards-per-drive to pair up with their overall first ranking in starting-field-position. They were ahead of only Baltimore, Arizona, San Francisco, Washington, Cleveland, Miami, and Chicago. Oh, just by-the-way, teams representing five, or a-third, of their games and over half of their wins.

This also supports the arguments that have been made all season that it has been the defense and special teams, which have set up the offense "T-Ball" style. When coupled with the ease of schedule that the Bills faced, indeed this should raise concerns about this team going forward.

Management: F

Management gets an F this season for one simple reason; they simply could not let go of an enormous mistake that will now cost this team for years to come. And yet, there has been no resolute decision not to repeat it again next season although the reasons for not doing so are significantly less than they were at the onset of this season. The team's biggest free agency signings also made no big splash this season for one reason or another.

Chris Villarrial at RG was nothing special and average with average at best pass blocking skills. At 32 next season, Villarrial is already year-to-year in terms of serviceability. Troy Vincent was out for approximately half the season and will only age further increasing the odds of future injuries. He is year-to-year but has a contract that all but guarantees that he will be with the team for at least two more seasons. Health appears to be the biggest concern regarding Vincent at this point. If he does not make it through the next two seasons virtually injury free, then his signing will have been a waste of resources.

The decision not to release Humpty prior to the season in exchange for freeing up on balance nearly $13 million which could have purchased an outstanding offensive line either last offseason or this one, is now becoming a cap and optimization reality. For what?

Ridiculous notions that "the teams best chances of winning were when Humpty was at the helm" are so absurd that those truly having believed that had better hope that their names never pop up on any lists that get distributed to door-to-door vacuum cleaner and insurance salesmen and the like. What was this team thinking! What is it thinking! This may have been a worthwhile choice for a QB that had performed to an average level last season, yet even then, one would have to consider strongly exactly what $8 million freed and nearly $5 million more annually for at least two more seasons could have done, not only for this season, but for several seasons to come as well! But Humpty was anything but average.

Yet, the Bills can still save $2.2 million in salary cap by releasing Humpty! It's a drop in the bucket compared to last season's bonanza for the taking, but it's more than enough to sign a quality player in a major need area. There will be much more analysis on exactly the damage that this ridiculous decision has now cost the Bills going forward in ensuing weeks. The only ones seemingly convinced any longer that Humpty is capable of playing well by-and-large appear to be Commander Tom and Coach Mularkey.

As a related side note, was it simple coincidence that on the best ball thrown to Evans on the season, a beautifully launched deep ball by Shane Matthews thrown perfectly in stride for a change, that Matthews was promptly pulled in favor of the "not ready" JP Losman on the following drive? It may have been, but it certainly raises an eyebrow for a team whose goal it seems to have been "fixing Humpty" vice getting this team to move forward as a team!

Comments: mweiler.billsreport@cox.net


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