Rebuilding the Bills Requires Patience

As Herman Edwards famously once told the New York City area media a couple of years ago when he was Head Coach of the N.Y. Jets, "You play the games to win!" And, indeed, any honest team in any sport, at any level, that is worth its salt goes into every season and every game fully intending to win.

That is the only reason for any group of athletes to make the sacrifices, put in the effort and tolerate the exhaustion and pain that are an integral part of playing a competitive sport, especially on the professional level. You have to play to win or it becomes very difficult to even put on the uniform. It's just that some teams are better equipped mentally, physically and/or psychologically to do what it takes to be successful enough, as a team, to win a championship.

By the same token, with all of the money that is now involved in professional sports, no owner of any team in any sport wants any individual associated with that franchise to use the dreaded "R" word: Rebuilding. It doesn't matter how bad a team's record is or how dreadful the team performs in its games, ownership is so frightened that use of the "R" word by anyone within the organization will scare away the paying customers that they will use the most twisted logic and any means of euphemistically manipulating the language possible to avoid admitting the need to rebuild, let alone that management intends to embark on the process of rebuilding the team. As a result, fans constantly hear owners, team management, coaches and players saying things like, "We are playing to win!", "We want to win now!", etc. They say those things because they have to in order to play the games or because they are afraid that if they say anything else their disheartened fans will abandon them or because they need to say them in order to convince themselves that the rebuilding process that team must undergo will not be as long and as painful as it potentially could turn out to be.

But, the fans of a team do not need to buy into all of this and, indeed, for their own sanity, should try to be more realistic about their favorite team's chances of success than the franchise's ownership, management, coaches and players can afford to be. Now, that does not mean that the fans should abandon their team when it is going through the rebuilding process or jump on and off of the team's bandwagon depending on the team's fortunes—that's not what a true fan does. The true fan will stick by the team through thick and thin, even when, realistically, the team's roster and coaching staff is being turned over and it has little chance of being very competitive for a couple of seasons, hoping that the rebuilding process will begin to yield enough tangible results to herald the beginning of a much brighter future for the team. Fans of a team who watch the games and follow the team and know the game can tell if their team has a realistic chance of winning a championship or not or if it needs to be torn down and rebuilt or is in the process of rebuilding and should be smart enough to know the difference, regardless of what anyone associated with the franchise is saying to the media. And, they should know that, when a team needs to be torn down and rebuilt, that process will take time and patience will be required before they will be able to see any positive results in the win-loss column.

When Marv Levy took over as General Manger of the Buffalo Bills in January of this year, both he and Bills' owner Ralph Wilson proclaimed to the assembled media that the Bills intend to "win now". And, new Bills' Head Coach Dick Jauron has been frequently quoted talking about how the team is trying to win. Well, of course: what else would anyone expect them to say? But, anyone who followed the team and watched the Bills play last season should know that the Bills were a team that needed more than a coaching change or a new GM: they were a team that needed a heart—and possibly a brain--transplant.

The Buffalo Bills team that entered training camp last preseason with such high hopes and expectations imploded, but the seeds of that implosion were evident even before last season:

Going back to his Pro Bowl heyday, Reuben Brown could be counted on to take one critical drive killing penalty just about every game. Brown could also be counted on to dismiss that critical mistake as just one very human error in an otherwise Pro Bowl level performance on his part. Unfortunately, Brown became the mentor of a group of young offensive linemen who were supposed to be the core of a solid unit that the Bills could depend on for years. Unfortunately, Mike Williams, J.Jennings, M.Sullivan and T.Teague followed Brown's lead in lacking the discipline to avoid taking drive-killing penalties without ever compensating for that (if such mistakes can ever be "compensated" for or truly overcome) with Pro Bowl level play. The lack of discipline and taking of stupid and costly penalties by the offensive line became almost a trade-mark of the entire Bills team. No amount of stressing the importance of avoiding penalties by the coaches seemed to have an impact on the play of the team.

The team's inability to win games on the road, except for a brief stretch at the end of the 2004 season when they played inferior competition, was downright embarrassing. Despite the presence of more than a few seasoned veterans who had played for teams that had been successful in the past and had won their share of road games, the Bills seemed to approach road games like a bunch of scared kids from a small town playing in a big-city stadium for the first time. No matter how well they had played at home, the team seemed to be intimidated by having to take their game on the road. While some of that can be blamed on the coaches, some of that responsibility also must fall on the shoulders of the high-priced veterans whom the team was counting on to teach the younger players how to win.

Whether it was due to a lack of leadership or mental toughness, failure of the Bills to master winning on the road was matched by their remarkable ability to collapse in critical situations and, then, avoid taking personal responsibility for their mistakes. Whether it be T.Henry slipping on 4th and 1 with the game on the line in Oakland or D.Bledsoe writing off a critical interception or sack, or the defense claiming that they were on the field too long as an excuse for giving up a late game-winning drive to the opposition or saying that they were in the right defense, but one player missed an assignment on a big game-changing play, etc. There was always an excuse for failure in the clutch, while players and coaches who were all too ready to accept credit for making a big play never seemed to step up and accept the blame for their failures—starting with the much-publicized veteran quarterback and their vaunted, veteran laden defense.

Yes, then GM Tom Donahoe and the Mike Mularkey-led Bills' coaching staff bear a great deal of the responsibility for the Bills' failure as a team last season, but the seeds of that failure were also present in the players in the Bills' locker room. And, those seeds came to full and most ugly flower last season as a substantial number of the players refused to buy into the plans of management and the coaching staff in favor of pursuing their own, sometimes personal, agendas.

While Donahoe and Mularkey have been widely and perhaps deservedly blamed for handing the Bills' starting QB job to JP Losman before he was ready and without having him compete with the better prepared veteran Kelly Holcomb for the starting job, the fact is that the NY Giants, after starting the season with a winning record, did the same thing with Eli Manning the previous season and, after struggling through the second half of that season, made the playoffs last year. And, both the Pittsburgh Steelers, in 2004, and the Chicago Bears, in 2005, were forced, early in the season, to hand their starting QB jobs to even less prepared rookie QBs by injuries and, in both cases, the teams made it to the playoffs following essentially the same formula that Donahoe and Mularkey had laid out for the Bills to follow in 2005. The difference is that the players on those teams didn't or were not allowed to give up on their young, inexperienced QBs the way that the Bills players gave up on JP Losman, even though they struggled just as much, if not more, than Losman at times. It can be easily argued that, if the rest of the Bills players were as good as they said—and obviously thought--that they were and had played as hard as they could up to those capabilities, the Bills would have at least been competitive and would not have had the disastrous season that they had last year.

While Eric Moulds publicly undermined Losman and management's program for the team and took the heat he deserved for doing that, he was by no means alone. Recent remarks by London Fletcher indicate that a substantial number of Bills players felt that Holcomb was the better player in training camp and should have been the starter. That was obvious, however, early in the season at Tampa Bay: Eric Moulds was not on the field when the Bills defense quit and allowed the Bucs to march 70 yards for a TD after Losman made a rookie mistake trying to avoid the pass rush in the end zone and stepped out of bounds for a safety and the Bills special teams made a great play to force Tampa Bay to go the long field on the ensuing free kick. Nor was Moulds on the field when the defense repeatedly gave up scores at the end of the second quarter or on their opponents' last possession of the game in game after game. Eric Moulds bears responsibility—a lot of responsibility---for his own actions that contributed to the debacle that was the Bills 2005 season, but Moulds was certainly not the only player in the Bills' locker room who played a role in the team's collapse.

Ostensibly, the players who objected to Losman being handed the starting QB job did so because he did not earn the job and they felt that they had a better chance of making the playoffs with Holcomb starting at QB than Losman. While it is true that JP Losman was not ready to be the team's starting QB, he, nevertheless, did win his first game as a starter and there is no telling how many games he might have won or how much he might have improved if he had not been undermined by his teammates and had been given their full support and effort, the way that E. Manning, K. Orton and B. Roethlisberger got the support of their teammates. There is no question that Losman is more physically gifted than Holcomb and that, at the beginning of last season, Losman had more long-term potential than Holcomb. But, the stated goal of Moulds and those in the Bills locker room who supported him was for Buffalo to make the playoffs last season and, as Fletcher pointed out, a substantial number of them felt that Holcomb was a better QB at that point. Obviously, their goal was to make the playoffs. Not to win a championship in a year or two, but to make the playoffs in 2005. And, so, they put their agenda above that of the team, even if it meant that neither goal would be achieved. And, ultimately, some of them just plain quit when it became obvious that they were not going to be able to achieve that goal.

No doubt there will be many players who were on that Bills team who will—and some who justifiably could---be infuriated at being characterized as being "quitters, but when a team fails to positively respond and its defense immediately goes out and gives up scores on three occasions after being addressed at halftime by two of its most prominent defensive leaders (Takeo Spikes, twice, and London Fletcher), then the players on that team have to be held accountable for not responding to even the entreaties of their own "leaders". The fault for that can not be placed solely on coaches! When only four players, L. Fletcher, C. Villarial, C. Kelsay and A. Crowell, repeatedly make public statements about the need for the players to take personal responsibility for their own play and there is no substantial support for them other than from one or two other players, that is a reflection on the players themselves, as individuals, not the coaches!

The sad reality is that the team that Marv Levy took over in January was in need of far more than a quarterback or an offensive line or a couple of defensive linemen. It was in need of far more than a new coach and an infusion of fresh young talent. And, there was a reason why Levy said, from the outset, that his first priority in overhauling the team would be the defense. The 2005 version of the Buffalo Bills may well have had the physical talent and ability to make the playoffs, but it did not have the leadership, discipline or character to do so and the lack of those qualities was most evident in the performance of the defense.

It takes far more than just talent to win a championship: it has been said that the difference in physical talent and ability between the most and least talented teams in the NFL is less than 5 %. And, Marv Levy knows this. It was not just talent that allowed his Bills teams to bounce back after devastating losses in the Super Bowl to make it back to the big game again. Those teams weren't made up of players whose goal was to just make the playoffs—those teams had winning a Super Bowl title as their goal no matter how badly their dreams had been crushed.

When Marv talks about "character", that's what he is talking about. Unfortunately, the Bills squad that he inherited, as a team, did not have that kind of character. No matter how much Levy and Wilson and Jauron talk about wanting to win now, they are intelligent enough and have been around the game long enough to know that it is going to take time to assemble a Bills team that will have the kind of character, as well as talent, necessary to win a championship and make going to the Super Bowl an realistic annual goal.

Buffalo Bills fans are going to have to understand that, realistically, it is going to take more than one season, likely more than two, for Levy to build a team that has the character and talent required to compete for and win a championship. It has been said that very often the reason that a professional sports team fires its coach or GM is because it is easier to fire the coach or GM than it is to fire the entire team. But, to a certain extent, that's what Levy and Jauron are going to have to do: they are going to have to identify the players who have what it takes and those who don't, then they are going to have to get rid of those who don't as quickly as possible and replace them with new players who have the talent and character to get the job done. With the salary cap and contract constraints, etc., it won't be easy to do that and it will take time. And, it will take even more time to meld the new and old players into a cohesive and united team that has the talent to win consistently in the NFL.

Bills fans who are distraught over how long it has been since the team last made the playoffs or who are so impatient for a winner that they will want to crucify Levy and tar-and-feather Jauron if they don't produce a winning team this year or next are going to have to come to the realization that making the playoffs isn't the goal—winning a Super Bowl is! Levy is going to have to be given time to assemble all of the pieces necessary to accomplish that goal and he may not go about doing it the way that some think he should or may pass up opportunities to make the playoffs in the short-run to build a championship contender in the long-run. As the old saying goes, "There are lots of ways to skin a cat", and the way that Levy chooses to rebuild the Bills may not be the way that others would do it or show immediate results. But, it is the end result that counts.

It is very hard to say what kind of team the Bills will put on the field this season, with Coach Jauron bringing in a new offense and a new defense and Levy providing him with a host of new players, many of whom have shown little or nothing on the pro level. A fair portion of the roster is likely to be made up of new players and a lot of the new players will be young and inexperienced. Generally, that means that there will be a certain lack of cohesion and a lot of mistakes made as inexperienced players learn their lessons the hard way and teammates who are unfamiliar with each other and new to the system miss assignments, etc. And, that is likely to mean that there will be far more losses on the Bills' record this season than win. But, given time, the infusion of new talent and a new attitude on the defensive side of the ball should begin to show as the season progresses, even if the improvement does not produce immediate results on the scoreboard. But, that's what happens when a team is rebuilding…it's what rebuilding is all about.

After seeing the changes that Levy has already made to the Bills' roster and the general tone of the new regime at One Bills Drive, it was rather surprising to see that so many of the Bills' veteran players chose to skip Coach Jauron's second mini-camp. But, after last season, perhaps it is not entirely unexpected that some in the Bills locker room might feel that they could show such disrespect to their new coach and GM. Yes, the OTAs are voluntary for the veterans, but, with the coaching staff trying to install a new offense and a totally different defense, the Bills and their fans might well expect that the team's "core veterans" and many of the team "leaders" would go out of their way to make their presence known and not skip what is just the second of the OTAs. While the fact that they did not do so cannot, by contract, be held against them, it is certainly not a positive sign of their willingness to make sacrifices for the team or buy into what the new GM and head coach have in mind. No doubt this has been noticed and it is likely that there will be more familiar faces leaving Buffalo before and after this season. Unfortunately, this will probably result in the rebuilding of the Bills taking longer than it might otherwise take, but, in order to win a championship in the NFL, everyone on the team—from the players to the coaches to the GM and the owner---has to be on the same page and willing to work together towards the same goal. And, anyone who can't understand and do that isn't someone that you can build a championship team around, let alone be a leader of a championship squad—a squad that won't quit when things don't go their way, but will fight to the last second of every game regardless of the score or the odds.

Still, the absence of these players is further evidence of the fact that no matter what Levy, Wilson and Jauron may say about wanting to win now, Levy is going to have to substantially turn over the Bills' roster and change the attitude in the team's locker room before the Bills have a squad that has the character to do what is necessary to win a championship. It is a rebuilding process that has begun, but that is by no means complete and is going to take time. Bills fans will have to be patient and give Levy the time that he needs to do that if they want the Bills to become a team capable of winning a championship and not one that just produces the occasional winning or playoff season. That may mean putting up with some ugly losses over the next couple of seasons, but that will be a lot better than watching a team of players who will quit when the chips are down or if they don't get their way like the 2005 Bills did.

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