Did you know that sound waves travel faster through solid objects than they do through the air? The sound waves create vibrations in the object and it is possible to actually feel sound before hearing it or seeing whatever is making the sound. The settlers of the Great Plains in the 1800’s often reported that they could feel the deep rumble of an impending stampede of wild buffalo several minutes before seeing or hearing them. And much like those settlers, I haven’t seen anything compelling, nor have I heard anything convincing, but I can feel, deep down in my bones, that there’s a stampede of thundering hooves coming from Western New York, and it’s coming soon.
Yes, I’m talking about the Buffalo Bills, the often hapless, much maligned team from that other side of New York. Now operating under the shadow of impending doom in the form of new ownership, this team has been quietly assembling one of the more overall talented rosters in the AFC. Despite the losses of Kiko Alonso to injury and Jairus Byrd to free agency, the defense is loaded with talent, particularly at defensive line and corner back. The offense is stacked with talent at the skill positions, with running back being particularly well stocked and a wide receiver corps nearly as deep. Second year head coach Doug Marrone and general manager Doug Whaley have actually done a fairly good job acquiring, retaining, and training the personnel that currently make up the roster. The Bills have everything they need to make a run at the division crown and end the longest playoff drought in the NFL. But it all hinges on three things falling into place for them in 2014: whether new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz can successfully his 4-3 defense with the personnel on hand, whether the newest additions to the team’s offensive line can come together as a cohesive unit, and, most importantly, whether second year quarterback EJ Manuel can “take the next step” on the field.
In 2013, the Bills put their first passable defense on the field in the last 4 years. While they weren’t as great as many Bills fans believed (by virtue of comparing them to previous Bills defense that were downright awful), they were still a very solid group, particularly against the pass. The run defense was another story entirely. Jim Schwartz’s defensive style should help that problem, as will the addition of linebackers Keith Rivers and Brandon Spikes. The base 4-3 will allow both Pro Bowl defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus to be on the field in the middle of the line to stuff any runners up the middle, with double-digit sack pass rushers on either end in Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams. With the run stuffing Spikes behind them, I predict the Bills run defense will make a large jump this year, from their perennial bottom 5 to approximately 15th 18th in the league. That’s still not a great defense, but it’s a huge improvement and will get opposing offense off the field more quickly, which helps both the offense and defense.
The offensive line was once a great strength of this team under the previous regime. A few key losses to injury and free agency led to one of the more appalling performances by any offensive line in 2013. While the Bills weren’t quite down to the level of the Miami Dolphins, they were not successful in either protecting their rookie quarterback or blocking for their star running back, CJ Spiller. While I attribute some of that to play calling, the fact is that they had one of the worst left guards to see the field last year in Colin Brown and the right side of the line was entirely miserable. To remedy this, the Bills signed Chris Williams to shore up the left guard position, then drafted 3 promising OL candidates in the 2014 draft. At least one of those draftees will start this year, but that makes two new members on what needs to be the most coordinated unit on the field. If they can get their act together in training camp and the preseason, then I predict that we will see the real CJ Spiller once more and the rest of the league will not be happy with that, not one bit.
But stout defenses and strong running games do not win you a championship, or even a division crown if your division happens to include the New England Patriots. Teams need a solid quarterback under center, and last year, EJ Manuel was decidedly not solid. Thrice injured and woefully inconsistent, the best thing that could be said about him is that at least he didn’t throw 20+ INTs. EJ Manuel has to improve on both his decision making and his accuracy if the Bills want to make the post season this year. The good news is that he has all the tools he needs to make that jump from mediocre rookie to solid NFL starter. Physically, if he’s healthy, then he has everything you could ask for in a QB. He has all the weapons he could ask for, wide receivers, running backs who can catch out of the backfield, and a giant safety blanket at tight end. He even has the double first round pick of Sammy Watkins, who has actually looked like he might live up to the billing thus far in training camp. In short, everything the Bills want to accomplish rides squarely on his young shoulders, but they’ve also given him everything he needs to succeed. Fortunately for Bills fans, I think he’ll seize the opportunity and run with it, all the way to a wildcard spot and a 10 win season.