Bills face uphill climb

Only Buffalo, Detroit and Houston haven't made the playoffs this decade. The Bills have a laundry list of issues to address this off-season....

It was a year of missed opportunity.

The Bills were handed the NFL's second-easiest schedule in 2008, when their opponents finished with a combined record of 116-140. They played only four eventual playoff teams. Archrival New England was without MVP quarterback Tom Brady, lost for the final 15 games with a knee injury.

And what did the Bills do? They managed to fumble away this rare alignment of the stars, tumbling after a 5-1 start to finish 7-9 for a third consecutive season under coach Dick Jauron.

The team's playoff drought is now at a franchise-record nine seasons. Only the Bills, Lions and Texans haven't made the playoffs this decade.

"We were an underachieving football team," strong safety Donte Whitner said. "That's what we are."

Rather than opt for what would've been his fifth head coach and his fifth general manager since 2000, owner Ralph Wilson has elected to keep the status quo at least for one more season.

Jauron has a three-year contract extension but a short leash. He has chosen not to make any staff changes, but the pressure is clearly on offensive coordinator Turk Schonert in 2009. His unit did not produce a touchdown in three late-season losses.

Meanwhile, inexperienced chief operating officer Russ Brandon will continue to oversee the front office, but veteran personnel man Tom Modrak has quietly been given more power, it's believed.

Buffalo managed to sell 53,000 season tickets last season but will be hard-pressed to get that many renewals given the team's stale product and the economy. Fan chat rooms have exploded with anger directed at Wilson and his underlings for what many consider a breach of trust, fueled by what they feel is incompetent management and coaching.

It means there's work to do both from a talent and public relations standpoint.

The Bills did show improved play in many key areas.

On offense, Buffalo scored 10 more touchdowns, ranked a respectable 14th running the ball, and improved its third-down-conversion success from 30th in the NFL (33.3 percent) to 17th (39.9 percent).

On defense, the club ranked 14th in both yards allowed and points allowed, a big jump from their 31st and 18th rankings of a year ago. Third-down defense leapt from 29th to ninth, and Buffalo was once again one of the NFL's top five defenses in the red zone.

As for special teams, the Bills ranked in the top 10 of all major kicking and coverage categories for a remarkable fifth consecutive season.

Still, Buffalo was unable to parlay any statistical gains it made into enough victories to earn a postseason berth. Most shockingly, it finished 3-5 at home and 0-6 against the AFC East, losing major ground to the Jets and Dolphins, two teams it swept in 2007.

What needs fixing is very obvious. The question remains: Will the Bills do what's necessary?

Offensively, the team hasn't been built well enough to compete in the rugged AFC East. The Bills were 1-8 against teams that play a 3-4 defense, which is every opponent in their division. Finding a quality center to take on beastly nose tackles Jason Ferguson of the Dolphins, Kris Jenkins of the Jets and Vince Wilfork of the Patriots six Sundays a year has become a top priority.

So is upgrading the passing game and giving third-year quarterback Trent Edwards the weapons he needs in order for him to reach his potential.

Last offseason, the Bills needed a veteran No. 2 wide receiver to complement Lee Evans and an impact tight end to stretch the field. They chose to do nothing. This offseason, those same needs exist. So what will they do?

Among No. 1 receivers, Evans ranked 21st in catches with 63 and 17th in yards with 1,017. Opponents merely doubled him, not fearing any other threat, although Josh Reed had his best season working from the slot. Finding a proven No. 2 is even more critical this offseason with James Hardy, who caught just nine passes as a rookie, coming off major ACL surgery.

Edwards showed great strides early when the competition wasn't as stiff, and he wound up completing 65.5 percent of his throws with a passer rating of 85.4. But he and Schonert have their work cut out solving 3-4 looks. Edwards threw eight of his 10 interceptions against those teams.

Defensively, Buffalo can't be considered a true top-15 unit. It combined for 46 sacks and takeaways -- the 29th-ranked total in the NFL. Consider that Pittsburgh had 80 such plays.

Missing defensive end Aaron Schobel for 11 games with a foot injury, Buffalo could not put consistent pressure on the quarterback, resulting in just 24 sacks and 10 interceptions, eight fewer than a year ago.

Adding playmakers -- whether it's another end or an outside linebacker -- is a clear objective. The Bills face a much more difficult schedule, and without more takeaways and better field position, Edwards and the offense will continue to struggle.

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