Gridiron Trends: The Virtue of Patience

<p> The Buffalo Bills have had a most trying season, for their players, their owner and their fans. With all that could have gone wrong, the team isn't really as far away from success as many pundits had thought.</p> <p>Joe Levit, our fantasy football guru takes a look at these Buffalo Bills as the New England Patriots get ready to play them in Foxboro this Sunday.</p>

PHOTO: Buffalo Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe, right, looks to pass to Bills' Mark Cambell (84), while under pressure from New England Patriots' Mike Vrabel, center, in the first half Sunday, Oct. 3, 2004, in Orchard Park, N.Y. The Patriots won, 31-17. (AP Photo/David Duprey)

The Virtue of Patience
By Joe Levit
, Patriots Insider

Before the start of the season I wrote a fantasy football article titled "Fantasy Remedies" for Tuff Stuff's 2004 Fantasy Football Guide. In it, I created the question for each team that I believed owners most wanted the answer to, so they could make the necessary moves during their drafts. The question and answer regarding the Bills was:

Q: Will the Trio of J.P. Losman, Willis McGahee and Lee Evans revolutionize the Bills offense?

A: Not yet. The youngsters are the future, but you should expect a year of increased production from Drew Bledsoe, Travis Henry and Eric Moulds, with Evans stretching his legs and opposing defenses.

My rationale was that Bledsoe would be a decent fantasy and starting quarterback, and that Losman would need time to learn the offense and the nuances of the professional game, McGahee would push Henry to his best year and Moulds would continue his weird every-even-year success, and benefit from the speed that Evans brings to the equation. I was right about Moulds, who has 616 yards and four touchdowns after eight games.

The reality though is that McGahee is making the offense better in a way that Travis Henry never could. GM Tom Donahoe took McGahee with the 23rd pick in the 2003 draft, and insisted that Travis Henry's job was not in any jeopardy. But, anybody should realize that a team doesn't waste a number-one pick on a guy they don't plan to build around.

Everybody respects Henry for the pain he fought through last season when he tore cartilage in his rib cage and also played through a hairline fracture of his fibula, but McGahee has come back from some pain of his own, as anybody who saw him hyperextend his knee on a tackle by Ohio State defender Will Allen in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State remembers. McGahee is a bigger back, and just seems to have a knack for making the big play, with nice changes of direction and fine speed and power.

Let's take a look at the stat lines for the key Bills' starters so far in 2004, and see if we can determine what to expect of them the rest of this season.

Week 1
Against Jacksonville, Travis Henry gets 23 carries, but gains only 75 yards and does not score. McGahee runs for 31 yards on nine carries, and cannot find the end zone himself. We find as the season goes on that Jacksonville has a good run defense. Eric Moulds starts out hot with eight catches for 75 yards, but both Bledsoe and Lee Evans struggle.

Week 2
In consecutive weeks, the Bills lose a game by the score of 13-10, this time to the Raiders. Moulds scores again, but gains only 41 yards on two catches. Evans has one big gain, a 65-yard catch. Bledsoe misses 200 yards and has an interception to go with his touchdown to Moulds. Henry carries the load, but gains only 67 yards on 21 carries. McGahee is given only two carries, and he loses three yards.

Week 3
Bills on the bye

Week 4
Buffalo had extra time to prepare for the New England Patriots, and this game was not only a division rivalry game for the Bills, but what amounts to a Super Bowl-in-season. They were embarrassed to end the 2003 season on the wrong end of a 35-0 loss to the Patriots, and were looking for revenge. The Patriots are a great team this year, to be sure, but the Bills got the wrong guy involved against New England. McGahee gained no yards on no carries, and while Travis Henry, Eric Moulds and even Lee Evans had big days out of pride, the Bills lost the game handily, 31-17.

Week 5
This is the week that McGahee began to make a difference on the team. Bledsoe had two scores, both Moulds and Evans were involved - Evans with a score, and while Henry had more carries, he gained fewer yards than McGahee, who had 5.3 yards per carry compared to Henry's 2.8 yards per carry. The Bills almost beat the Jets in this game, losing 16-14.

Week 6
The Bills taste victory for the first time this season in a 20-13 win over the depressed Dolphins. McGahee starts for the injured Henry and gets 26 carries, which he turns into 111 yards rushing. While Evans gains only 32 yards, Moulds has 99 yards and Bledsoe tops 200 yards passing. Most importantly, the Bills are out of the losing column.

Week 7
In week 7 the Bills travel to Baltimore, and get beaten by a team with a great defense and some desperation of its own. Buffalo loses 20-6, but Bledsoe again goes over 200 yards with McGahee in the lineup, and Moulds again nearly reaches 100, finishing with 96 yards receiving. McGahee gains 58 hard-fought yards on 16 carries.

Week8
Against Arizona, a game team this year despite some deficiencies, the Bills post their second win, an impressive 38-14 victory. McGahee runs 30 times for 102 yards and two touchdowns, the first of his career. Bledsoe has a poor day passing but throws for two scores, and Moulds gets a touchdown. The team is beginning to move as McGahee does. Mike Mularky had announced that McGahee was the new starting running back, and he played like it in this win at home.

Week 9
Last weekend was the Bills' best performance to date this year. They beat a good Jets team 22-17, the kind of win players really feel proud about. McGahee topped 100 yards again and both Moulds and Evans were involved in the win, as both had at least five catches, and Evans scored.

So, what are we to take from this? In the season's two games before the bye, the team lost two close games, and in each Travis Henry failed to get above 75 yards or score. In the team's three wins, McGahee has run for 100 yards every time, and he is beginning to score with regularity. That ground threat must be defended, and it is opening up the entire offense. Bledsoe may give way to Losman at some point later this season, but one thing is clear: The Bills will be a much better team the rest of this year, and will give the Patriots a run for their money this Sunday, even in Gillette Stadium.

The Bills have lost a number of close games this year. They almost beat the Jets in Week 5, losing by two points, and with the aforementioned 3-point defeats at the beginning of the season, it could be argued that had McGahee been grinding up yards from the beginning, the Bills might currently be 6-2 this year rather than 3-5. It now looks likely that Henry will be traded in the offseason and that McGahee will be a productive back for the Bills for years to come. The risk and patience in the 2003 draft has paid off.

 

Joe Levit, based in Boston, writes fantasy football columns for SI.com, thehuddle.com, and fantasysportsjunkies.com. He has published articles in Grogan's, Fantasy Index, Fantasy Sports and Fantasy Football Pro Forecast magazines. He is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers of America, and a devoted Detroit Lions fan who can be reached in the Insiders forums.

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