For general manager Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey, 2010 was a case of seeing is believing.
When the dust settled on Buffalo's 11th consecutive season of missing the NFL playoffs, the team's new leadership duo saw that Trent Edwards wasn't a suitable quarterback, Marshawn Lynch made the backfield crowded and unproductive, and playing a 3-4 defense with 4-3 personnel was just begging to fail.
Longtime observers could've told Nix and Gailey all of the above but sometimes people just need to find out for themselves. The above factors fueled the Bills' 0-8 start and doomed the season.
The good news is that Nix and Gailey begin their second offseason with a much better understanding of the rebuilding project they bit off a year ago. With the No. 3 pick in the draft and critical free-agent decisions at a minimum, they are also much better positioned to improve the roster and put their stamp on next year's team.
"We do have a long way to go. I don't think that that's something I can try to make look better," said Gailey, whose team lost its final two games against division rivals New England and New York by a combined 72-10 with 13 turnovers and no offensive touchdowns. "However, at the same time, I'm not sure we're as far away as it seems like we are. I think we're probably closer than our record shows, but I don't know how close that is."
Clearly had Buffalo won its last two games or even just looked decent, Gailey would feel better about his team's 4-4 second-half record. The Bills' wins were against fellow non-playoff teams Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Miami. But it also lost an overtime game against Pittsburgh, in addition to two previous OT losses to Baltimore and Kansas City. All of those clubs made the post-season party.
Still, the old-school Gailey isn't one to sugarcoat. His team played a total of nine games against playoff teams and went 0-9 while being outscored 273-140.
Some other bitter pills to swallow:
--Buffalo's passing game improved from 27th to 24th in league rankings and from 30th to 25th in total yards under the direction of Ryan Fitzpatrick, who took over for Edwards in Week 3. But rushing the ball fell from ninth to 18th, not what a team that spent its first-round pick on a running back (C.J. Spiller) wants to see happen.
--Defensively, the Bills tailed off in every major statistical category, including going from 16th in points allowed (20.4 per game) to 28th (26.6). Their 245 total points allowed was the second most in the team's 51-year history. They even managed to get worse against the run, falling from 30th to 32nd at a whopping 169.6 yards per game. That was also the second worst average ever.
--As for the intangibles, special teams were not as sharp and Buffalo wound up a minus-17 in turnover margin, worst in the NFL and worst by a Bills team in 13 years.
So why should there be any hope Buffalo can compete in the AFC East against the Patriots and Jets?
"Up until two years ago, the Jets weren't in that conversation," an optimistic Gailey said. "You have to put pieces together. We played well in games. We didn't do it consistently. If you're going to be that kind of team you have to do it on a consistent basis in game one through game 16, and we didn't. So, the biggest hurdle for us is to get from not winning those close games to winning those close games. Then, when you win those close games you gain confidence to go play better in the big games. I believe our football team is a lot closer than maybe other people give us credit for to getting there."
Some things do bode well for 2011.
After throwing for a career-high 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns, Fitzpatrick has established himself as the No. 1 starter, to the point where Buffalo is likely to address defense with its first pick in the April college draft.
The team's receiving corps has never been deeper with the emergence of Stevie Johnson (1,073 yards, 10 touchdowns) and rookie free agents David Nelson, Donald Jones and Naaman Roosevelt. Veterans Lee Evans and Roscoe Parrish, meanwhile, are expected to make full recoveries from season-ending injuries.
On defense, there's a building block to build around in nose tackle Kyle Williams, who made the Pro Bowl. And the team could probably weather the departures of free agents Donte Whitner and Drayton Florence in the secondary and be fine.
"I think we played a lot of great football this year," said running back Fred Jackson, who was just 73 yards shy of his second consecutive 1,000-yard season despite not starting the first four games.
"With the three overtime losses and even the six-point losses here and there, I think there's a lot that we can take from this year. I think there's a lot of people in this locker room that feel this way and feel like we're going in the right direction."
Seeing would be believing.
AFC East: Bills Still Have A Long Way To Go
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