The Buffalo Bills have once again provided their loyal and passionate fans with a shining example of why they are one of the most frustrating and bewildering franchises in the NFL. Let us turn back the clock all the way to Week 2 when the Bills were hosting Carolina. Carolina was a team projected to be a force in the NFC in 2013, but was coming off a tough loss at home to Seattle. The Bills were in their annual rebuilding phase, this time with a rookie QB and first year head coach and staff. The Bills pulled off an improbable win at home, scoring the go ahead touchdown with 0:02 left on the clock, a fade to the corner of the end zone caught by Stevie Johnson. The Panthers would go on to win 10 of their next 12 games, including an 8 game winning streak and a victory over New England, Miami, and the New York Jets.
Now, fast forward to Week 13. Buffalo is “hosting” Atlanta at the Rogers Center in Toronto. The Falcons are a wholly disappointing 2-9 while the Bills have stumbled along to a 4-7 record, thanks in large part to a rash of injuries at the QB position. The game is the first of a 3 game stretch against the bottom of the NFL and is a perfect chance for the Bills to get back in the playoff hunt. What happens is a back and forth game, a game the Bills have two chances to win, one at the end of regulation that was lost thanks to a fumble by Stevie Johnson and another in the first possession of overtime, lost to a fumble by Scott Chandler. The Falcons go on to win the game after that second fumble, kicking a chip shot field goal to end it. At this point, the 2-9 Falcons have lost to New England, Miami, and the New York Jets.
To recap, the Bills were the only team in the AFC East to beat a good, borderline great Carolina team (albeit at their lowest point this season) and the only team in the AFC East to lose to the bumbling, injury-ravaged Falcons in the same season.
Therein lies the baffling conundrum that is Buffalo Bills football. They’re a talented team, but not a complete one. And as a talented team, they are more than capable of going toe to toe with the best the NFL has to offer on any given week and they can beat any team they face. But when it comes to beating the teams they “should” beat, it’s as much a question as it is when they come up against a team that “should” beat them. They lack consistency, of that there is no question. The biggest thing they have to prove is making sure that they, as a team, can go into games where they are favored and not simply squeak out a win, like this did this weekend in Jacksonville, but beat opponents, dominate them, make the outcome a certainty, not a question.
As a young team, they face a number of obstacles on their path to becoming a winning franchise once more. The first, and most important, is their young quarterback, EJ Manuel. Can he become the franchise player that Buffalo has been missing since Jim Kelly retired? It remains to be seen, but the tools and the physical gifts are there. Perhaps another off season of practice, training camp, and experience will pay off in 2014. Or perhaps he will go the way of Trent Edwards, JP Losman, and Rob Johnson. Who knows?
The second question is the new staff and front office. Coach Doug Marrone has shown a lot of fire, coaching ability, and intelligence in his first year, but he’s also had his share of growing pains in making the transition from college to the NFL. His staff has left a lot to be desired on the offensive side of the ball, but the defense under Mike Pettine has really shone. In the front office, CEO Russ Brandon and General Manager Doug Whaley have shown a willingness to pay for talent, to keep people in Buffalo and bring in quality players from outside. The different mentality in Buffalo’s decision making has been overwhelmingly positive, even compared to a mere two years prior.
Another question is the return and production of skill position players like Stevie Johnson and CJ Spiller. Both are having disappointing seasons, but is it a lack of chemistry with the new QB and system or are they simply not playing as well? To my untrained eye, I see both problems. Spiller has regressed as a running back, reverting back to his home run or bust style of bouncing to the outside, but the play calling has not helped him and the O Line has not been up to its usual blocking standard. Johnson has also regressed, making mistakes and quitting on plays like he did early in his career. I think part of that is incompatibility with the system, he’s no longer the only receiving threat, so he’s not getting as many touches. He’s also clearly not on the same page with EJ Manuel, certainly not the way he was with Ryan Fitzpatrick. A major question this off season will be whether these two players return next year or if the organization decides to draft or sign new players that have skill sets better suited for the offensive style the coaches want to run.
Finally, the Bills need to revitalize not just the franchise, but also the fan base. In a city that has long prided itself on passionate sports support, the Bills have been seeing fewer and fewer sellouts and an increasing number of blackouts. They need to do a couple of things to reinvigorate this passionate group of fans and the first thing on the list is lowering the blackout threshold to 85%, like most of the league already has. Selling out is to difficult for a team whose fans are tired of losing and disappointment, not to mention going out in 10 degree weather for it. The second thing is something that they are apparently already working on, which is cancelling the Toronto deal. It’s nice to make extra money, but playing in Buffalo is hard for visiting teams, it’s cold, it’s winy, and it’s usually snowy. Why give that advantage away when you don’t have to? And the third thing, get a deal in place for a new stadium. Build a smaller stadium closer to the city instead of way out in Orchard Park, put in more luxury boxes, draw in more people to the better accommodations and, by the way, make it easier to sell out a 60,000 capacity stadium instead of the current 74,000 seat facility.
If the Bills can get set on this path, answer the questions on the field and make the changes off the field, then we might see a division banner, conference title, and maybe even that Lombardi Trophy that we have yearned for since before I was born.