Football is a three-part game; one-third offense, one-third defense, and one-third special teams. Through free agency and the draft, the Buffalo Bills will undoubtedly add talent to all three units in hopes of improving on the team's 7-9 finish in 2008.
Adding talent is good, but it is not enough. It's only one piece of a much larger, more complex puzzle. Lewis Carroll once said "Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle." The Buffalo Bills would be wise to ask themselves the same question. Who in the world are they? In 2008, the team lacked any sort of identity and it showed in their now infamous collapse. Success in 2009 will depend on Buffalo's ability to solve this puzzle and find out what kind of team they really are.
Successfully completing a complex puzzle requires strategy, forethought and a well executed plan. Many puzzle-solvers will take the overly large and complex puzzle and break it into smaller, more manageable pieces. For Buffalo, those "smaller pieces" can be thought of as their offensive, defensive, and special teams units. Not until each part of the puzzle is completed can the entire picture be seen. With that in mind, here's a look at the three units of the Buffalo Bills and different approaches the team should take to solve each part of the puzzle.
The offense: Discover your true self
"The value of identity, of course, is that so often with it comes purpose." - Richard R. Grant
Like most offenses that struggle, Buffalo's offense could use an influx of talent; but the need for offensive playmakers is not as great as the need for an offensive identity. A little over a month ago, I advocated for Buffalo to establish themselves as a power running/play-action offense in 2009. I reasoned that most pieces of the puzzle are already in place: they have two hard-nosed, work horse running backs (Marshawn Lynch's availability notwithstanding), the largest offensive line in the NFL led by a Pro Bowl left tackle, a lightning quick wide receiver that can take advantage of the play fake, and a quarterback that is smart enough to deliver. Of course, more talent is needed, but adding talent without having a clearly established identity is like trying to build a house with 10,000 men and a Sears Department Store; the work force and tools may be available, but without the blueprints, the talent is worthless and the lumber and nails remain just that, lumber and nails.
Transitioning to a power-running team requires more than just a shift in philosophy, it also requires additional talent. Buffalo needs a starting center to solidify the line, a tight end to exploit defenses underneath, and an experienced number two wide receiver to take the pressure off of Lee Evans. Sticking with the puzzle theme, not every piece is as important as others, but every piece has a role. Buffalo needs to fill out its roster with role players. A hard hitting fullback (I have one in mind), a number three scat-back (still advocating hard for Devin Moore) and a veteran backup quarterback are all role players that would allow Buffalo's offensive puzzle come together.
The defense: Will the defensive playmakers please stand up?
"Don't wait for extraordinary opportunities. Seize common occasions and make them great. Weak men wait for opportunities; strong men make them." - Orison Swett Marden
Unlike the offense in 2008, the identity of Perry Fewell's defensive unit was not on a milk carton somewhere. The team was a predominately Cover 2 defense that has been slowly shifting to a more traditional 4-3 scheme. Unlike the offense, where deciding to change philosophies is largely a shift in the coaching staff's mentality, changing a defense's identity requires a fundamental change in the types of players required. Marshawn Lynch can be a running back for any of the 32 NFL teams, but Ted Washington is not a good fit in every NFL defense. Acquiring the players necessary to change a defensive scheme is far too difficult to complete in one off-season. Under that premise, Buffalo's 2009 defensive identity will be quite similar to the 2008 version.
With an identity established, Buffalo needs to look to upgrade the personnel. Simply put, the defense lacks playmakers. As Brian articulated very elegantly earlier this week, adding playmakers at the safety, end and linebacker positions would go a long way to improving Buffalo's defense in 2009. Shifting Paul Posluszny to the outside and re-signing Jabari Greer would also help maximize the team's defensive talents. Bottom line: Buffalo needs to find guys who will make plays, not ones who will wait for plays to be made.
The special teams: Perpetual motion forward
"He who moves not forward, goes backward." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
In a word, Buffalo's special teams over the past several years have been "great." But to get complacent, is to start to deteriorate. To keep moving forward, Buffalo needs to do two things. First, they must make a vigilant effort to find roster spots for current standout special teams players. One such example of a player Buffalo doesn't want to lose is linebacker/special teams ace, Blake Costanzo. He may not add much to the defensive depth, but his special teams contributions have been invaluable. The same idea applies to recently re-signed wide receiver, Justin Jenkins. Second, Buffalo should always be watchful for external opportunities to improve the special team's unit. Bringing in guys like Kelley Washington for a visit is a good sign that Buffalo's front office understands this thought. It will be important that they don't forget it as the off-season progresses.
If the 2009 Buffalo Bills wish to end the organization's decade long playoff drought, they will have to have contributions from all three phases of the game. If the Bills establish an offensive identity and add the right personnel to the unit, acquire playmakers on defense, and maintain awareness of the importance of special teams, the large pieces of the puzzle will fall into place. At that time, and only at that time, the Buffalo Bills will be able to finish their puzzle and finally figure out who they are.