In finishing the 2008 season 7-9, the Buffalo Bills made incremental strides offensively - but 'incremental' cannot be stressed enough. Despite a hot start to the season, Buffalo's offense, led by coordinator Turk Schonert and second-year QB Trent Edwards, finished No. 23 in points per game and No. 25 in the NFL overall. You're not going to win many games in the NFL with inconsistent quarterback play and low offensive production; if Buffalo's off-season moves convey anything, it's that the team understands that basic principle.
Like it or not, Buffalo's on-field fate - as well as the fate of the Bills' on-the-bubble coaching staff and front office - is tied directly to Edwards, the former third-round pick entering his third NFL season and second as the full-time starter at quarterback. Understanding that fact, Buffalo's biggest off-season moves have centered around giving Edwards as much help as possible to accelerate his maturity - we hope - into, at the very least, an above-average quarterback and leader. Four key moves illustrate the level to which Buffalo has attempted to fix their offense; the Bills get an 'A' for effort, but the ultimate grade will reflect how the additions help Edwards guiide the team to wins.
No. 1 - T.O. is a Bill
By far the biggest move the team made to help Edwards was the March 7 signing of high-profile, high-controversy WR Terrell Owens. Like the guy or not, Owens has been one of the most statistically productive wideouts in NFL history - and as we pointed out after the signing, T.O. helps his quarterbacks improve their production. No other single move helps Edwards more on the field than T.O. doing his thing in the passing game - even if he's doing his thing on the sidelines and in the locker room as well. If Owens' trend of helping his quarterbacks improve continues, from that angle, he's well worth the one-year investment.
No. 2 - Revamping the O-Line
Even featuring one of the league's biggest and most talented offensive lines last year, Edwards' growth was hindered by incredibly inconsistent play from the overrated unit, particularly up the middle. As we discussed yesterday, the Bills have radically altered their offensive front; they will essentially feature five new starters in 2009. The team is far stronger up the middle, where free agent center acquisition Geoff Hangartner will be flanked by rookie guards Andy Levitre and Eric Wood. Tackle remains a question mark after the trade of OT Jason Peters to Philadelphia, but the team should get consistent play from their new set of bookend tackles, Langston Walker and converted guard Brad Butler. On the whole - and again, on paper - the Bills should have a gritter, more well-rounded offensive front. This line becoming a cohesive whole is equally important to Edwards' capability of building a quick rapport with T.O.
No. 3 - Adding secondary targets
Owens is the big name, clearly, and will help the likes of Lee Evans and Josh Reed realize their full potential as receivers. We think. But one man can only do so much just by his mere presence; therefore, the Bills made two more intelligent, lower-profile moves to further increase their abundance of options at the skill positions. The first was the signing of RB Dominic Rhodes. With Marshawn Lynch suspended for the first three games of the regular season, Buffalo was facing serious RB depth issues behind Lynch's understudy, Fred Jackson. With Rhodes on board, Buffalo not only has a very viable option while Lynch is out, but they've got some of the most enviable RB depth in the entire league when Lynch returns to action.
The team further diversified its offensive talent when it drafted Southern Miss TE Shawn Nelson in the fourth round of this past weekend's draft. Though he'll have a bit of a transition to make entering the NFL from Southern Miss, Nelson is quite easily the most athletic, speedy and sure-handed target at tight end the Bills have had since Keith McKeller. If the Bills can find a way to use him as an offensive specialist next year - and yeah, that's a big if - it's just one more high-talent target at Edwards' disposal in the passing game.
No. 4 - Improving the war room
The Bills unceremoniously bid adieu to official first-round bust QB J.P. Losman this off-season. Having lost his job to Edwards during the 2007 season, Losman was a bit of a grumpy gus last season; his unhappiness with his situation clearly affected his weekly preparations, and it certainly didn't help having a backup quarterback with that type of attitude in the film room next to Edwards. With Losman out of the picture, the Bills signed Ryan Fitzpatrick to back up Edwards. Granted, there won't be a negligible difference in Edwards' on-field play simply because Fitzpatrick isn't J.P. Losman, but every little bit helps when you're as desperate for a legitimate franchise quarterback as we are. As long as Fitzpatrick doesn't see the field, he'll be nothing but a good signing for this team, because he will help Edwards behind the scenes.
As mentioned at the top, Buffalo gets an 'A' for effort in trying to improve the offense around their young quarterback. There's not much more they can do besides try at this point in the year, but in order to make it work, Edwards needs to get better. That's the bottom line. It's a quarterback's league, and adding talent can only do so much in improving and leveling off quarterback play. Turk Schonert has a major role to play as well. On paper, these moves are solid. But none of that matters unless Edwards steps up his game (and Schonert makes strides as a play-caller, for that matter). Excuses are running short in Buffalo.