Bills Head To Camp With Many Questions

When it comes to the Buffalo Bills, only one thing at this stage looks accurate. This is one of the most mystifying teams in the National Football League. The definitive optimist can say that with a new head coach (Dick Jauron), general manager (Marv Levy) and a slew of young, largely unpolished free agent signings, that at long last Buffalo is building a squad that will contend for years to come.

The decisive pessimist can easily conclude this is a franchise that simply signed a bunch of bargain basement players who were little more than cast offs on other teams, and that owner Ralph Wilson at 87-years old appears more eager to line his pockets than a winner on the field.

What isn't up for deliberation is the Bills last participated in a playoff game in 1999 under then-head coach Wade Phillips. Since then, it's been six seasons of mediocrity at its finest, with only one winning (9-7 in 2004) season to show for it. Judging by the caliber of free agents and draft picks brought in, improbable to change anytime soon.

At 80-years old, the former Hall of Fame coach Levy is getting his first crack at running a NFL team. While nobody of sane mind can say he's not one of the most beloved sports figures in Buffalo history as well as one of the most intelligent, his decisions since taking over duties have left many fans scratching their heads.

Levy entered the job knowing a large turnover on the roster would be required, and he's done that to the tune of 13 new free agents. The predicament is with the exception of defensive tackle Larry Tripplett, how much each player will help Buffalo turn its losing ways around remains unidentified. Did Levy, strapped to Wilson's ever-tightening wallet, attack quantity over quality? Does Levy know more than 31 other GM's knew about these players?

One thing is undisputable; the Bills have become radically younger. Gone are big-name, robust-priced players like Sam Adams, Lawyer Milloy and Eric Moulds.

Yes, Moulds is 33-years old. It's also renowned that he wasn't a fan of quarterback J.P. Losman being handed the starting job last year. He hinted freely that Kelly Holcomb should've been the starter. He was also unwilling to take a pay cut from his $10.8-million cap hit for the coming season. Lastly, after 10 seasons as the Bills go-to receiver he badly wanted out of Buffalo, as evidenced by his agreeing to be traded to the even worse record-wise Houston Texans. Still, replacing his 169 catches for 1859 yards and nine touchdowns over the last two years even on the deterioration of his career is no effortless task.

Buffalo inked a trio of receivers to try and fill the void and each has more questions that answers. Andre Davis is a speed burner but can't stay healthy. He's missed exactly 16 of his last 32 games over the past two years and is on this third team in three seasons. Peerless Price once caught 94 passes for 1252 yards for Buffalo in 2002. He left the following year and was a major flop; averaging only 59.5 catches for Atlanta as their number one guy in 2003-04 and only six passes in seven games with Dallas last year before being cut. Levy felt confident enough in Price to give him a $2.5-million signing bonus.

Josh Reed came highly touted to the Bills as a Tom Donahoe second round draft pick in 2002. But after four years he by no means established himself as a dependable receiver, with only 48 catches and 602 in his last two seasons. Between this threesome and last year's second rounder Roscoe Parrish, all 15 catches and 148 yards of him, someone better step their game up in a considerable way, or new number one Lee Evans is going to be on the receiving end of more double teams than you'll witness in any Jenna Jamison movie.

For all the positive things former general manager Donahoe brought to the table, perhaps the biggest reason the Bills never made it into the post season was his lack of addressing the offensive line. Fourth overall pick in 2002 Mike Williams was a colossal bust (who's since been cut) and since Donahoe always went with skill players before beef on the line. The result was a unit who couldn't protect the quarterback with any regularity and the offense was never able to steadily sustain drives.

Gone from that unit of a year ago is aging center Trey Teague and Donahoe free agent flop Bennie Anderson. In their place are two younger players who should easily be upgrades but like the majority of acquisitions come with reservations. Melvin Fowler started nine games at center with Minnesota last year in place of injured Matt Birk and played admirably. But he was a letdown previously in Cleveland and whether he's full-time starting material remains to be seen. Tutan Reyes started all 16 games at right guard for Carolina (he'll play the left side for Buffalo) but was considered the weakest link on that line and the Panthers were said to be promoting Evan Mathis to his spot regardless this year. While he can't help but be a change for the better over Anderson, how much of an upgrade he'll be is difficult to ascertain.

The rest of the starting offensive line from last year is back and needs to perform extensively better. Jason Peters showed a lot of promise starting the last eight games at right tackle but the former undrafted tight end still has a lot to understand. Mike Gandy won't kill you at left tackle but he'll never be mistaken for an All-Pro. Chris Villarrial is 33-years old but often looked double his age last season with injuries and incompatible play. Interestingly, Levy signed Aaron Gibson, a former first rounder with Chicago seven years ago who literally ate his way out of the league by last season.

After finishing second in the league in total defense in both 2003 and '04, the Bills plunged to 29th overall last year, due largely in part to a defensive line that couldn't stop the run. With a new defensive coordinator in former Bears secondary coach Perry Fewell and a conversion to a cover two scheme, the defense looks to get a lot more athletic. That may be why the Bills parted ways with the hefty Adams (or it may have to do with his $4-million cap figure). Triplett figures to be an asset on the line but he was the only free agent of consequence who can be counted on to fix a unit 25th in stopping in the run and dead last in red zone defense. Levy made a pitch to further the line after trying to sign Chicago restricted free agent Isreal Idonjie, but the offer was swiftly matched by the Bears. In a move many feel showed Levy had no real "Plan B", day's later defensive end Ryan Denney was resigned. Denney has only 68 tackles and 10.5 career sacks in four full seasons.

Even the choice of Jauron as head coach didn't come without a little disagreement and a lot of second guessing. Many felt former Bills player and New Orleans head coach Jim Haslett would've been a perfect fit, but he was never interviewed. Mike Sherman was but didn't get the job despite having a winning record in five of his six seasons as the Packers coach. Instead the chore of turning the Bills around falls on the lap of Jauron, who had a winning season (13-3 in 2001) in exactly one of his five years as the Chicago Bears coach.

If the saying is true that a team will only go as far as the quarterback takes you, then the Bills could be in severe trouble. Losman was handed the job from Drew Bledsoe prior to last year, played poorly early on, was benched, came back and played good at times before for all intents and purposes, thrown under the bus by former head coach Mike Mularkey and a slew of veteran teammates. Kelly Holcomb took his place, was effective throwing short passes but a lack of mobility and arm strength showed why he's been little more than a career backup during his eight seasons in the league.

Levy's remedy for the quarterback situation? Craig Nall, who's thrown for all of 33 passes during his four seasons buried on the Green Bay bench. This position is still up for grabs going into training camp and the reality is the quarterback who plays the least poorly will win the job. While Losman is a former first rounder and the favorite among the fans to win the job, the truth is if he can't outperform a career clip board carrier and a guy barely anybody has heard of, he doesn't deserve to be under center.

If the league, fans and media weren't already second guessing Levy and the Bills by the time the free agent bonanza concluded, they unquestionably were after the draft. Buffalo held the eighth pick in the draft and everyone expected them to further improve on either side of the line. Instead, in the words of Chris Berman, Buffalo threw a curve ball (I'll add wicked) and took safety Donte Whitner.

While Whitner comes highly regarded around the league the overwhelming consensus is Buffalo could've easily traded down anywhere from 3-8 spots and still got their man. Not only did the Bills not trade down, they eventually traded up back into the first round and took what many also considered a reach in defensive tackle John McCargo. In Levy's defense, after McCargo there wasn't another tackle taken in the draft for 32 spots and the Bills badly needed more help there. Nonetheless, most projected McCargo as a second or third rounder and one has to speculate if McCargo was the beneficiary in college of playing next to Mario Williams.

The draft was unmistakably pointed towards building a better defense as the next three picks of Ashton Youboty, Ko Simpson and Kyle Williams could become solid additions. Even though many can relate to Levy's desire to field a much quicker defense, you can't help but question if passing on a lineman like Broderik Bunkley or Haloti Ngata was a terrible blunder. Although most didn't expect the Bills to take a quarterback in round one anyway, passing on Matt Leinart or Jay Cutler could prove to be costly down the road. Through no fault of their own, Whitner and McCargo have a lot of pressure to be great.

So for Levy it genuinely at this point is a two-fold question. Is he really that radiant to have plucked all these youngsters through free agency that may be raw but have a lot of upside to become key contributors? Did his draft selections make this defense a unit that will soon be on par to Chicago, Tampa Bay or Indianapolis and their flourishing cover two? Or is Levy a man who quite simply has seen the game pass him by or even worse, was he a man that approached free agency and the draft with a Plan A but no B?

Just because a team was rotten on the field and made a slew of changes means you can take for granted they are accurately rebuilding for the future. Many think this is a two-season process to make Buffalo contenders. I loathe being the bearer of bad news but there will be a plethora of problems to take care of next off season as well. Nate Clements only signed his franchise player tender on the promise he won't be given the label next year. Say goodbye to him at season's end. Willis McGahee doesn't endure himself to Bills fans as it is and having Drew Rosenhaus as his agent doesn't help. If he puts up the numbers you can count on a renegotiation war going into his last year of his contract next season. London Fletcher and Mark Kelsay are among the current starters who will become free agents. In other words, it never gets any easier.

By know means are the Bills automatically doomed. It's only June. Every year a few teams come out of nowhere and go from cellar dwellers to playoff bound. Conceivably, the Bills could be that team in 2006, but there are a ton of ifs involved. IF a quarterback can step up during camp, take over the starting role and play well… IF McGahee develops a determined attitude that will carry him for 16 games.. IF Price, Davis or Reed can provide a suitable partner for Evans… IF the offensive line is drastically better than last year, especially the interior.. IF McCargo and Tripplett can rush the passer and not get dominated against the run.. IF Takeo Spikes can come close to what he was before the Achilles heel injury… IF Clements plays hard knowing he's gone after the season's over… IF Whitner can step in as a rookie and make people forget about Milloy. Lastly and most importantly, IF Jauron's staff can have this team much better equipped to play and handle game decisions a lot more advance than Mularkey and his staff did.

IF these things happen, then you could be looking at this year's Cinderella team. If not, then it looks like the clock will be stuck at midnight for yet another season, a season that could be long. Very long.

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