Ten Bills to Decide 2009, No. 5: C Geoff Hangartner

The Buffalo Bills went 0-6 in the AFC East during the 2008 season.  In an article I dredged up yesterday (and my sincerest apologies go out to the masses for bringing up such cruelty in consecutive articles), we highlighted Buffalo's ridiculously inconsistent ground game as one of several reasons that the Bills haven't beaten a division opponent since 2007.  In Buffalo's first four divisional games last season - all losses by a combined score of 87-46 - the Bills managed to rush for just 73 yards per game.

We have also discussed at length in this gruesomely dragged out off-season the fact that all three of the Bills' divisional opponents play the 3-4 defense; all three of those defenses are anchored by league-renowned nose tackles to boot (Jason Ferguson in Miami; Vince Wilfork in New England; and Kris Jenkins in New York).  The Bills' offensive line wasn't consistent at many positions in 2008; one position that gets that distinction is center, where the (now departed) combination of Melvin Fowler and Duke Preston - known as "Melduke Prestfowsuck" in these parts - was consistently dreadful.  For all of the positive that both of those players brought to the club, they were consistently overwhelmed at the point of attack, which hampered the offense on the whole.

Geoff Hangartner is, for now, the team's response to the center problem.  A part-time starter in Carolina, Hangartner has a reputation for intelligence and aggression, and most feel that he's ready to handle starting center duties full-time at this level.  He could not have chosen a more challenging new home than Orchard Park, New York.

Let's face it - no matter what Pats fans think, the Bills had one of the better running back tandems in the league in 2008 behind Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson.  The addition of veteran Dominic Rhodes further fortifies a position that is arguably the Bills' team strength.  Considering the ease of Buffalo's schedule outside the division last year, the fact that the Bills finished No. 14 in the NFL in both rushing (115.1 yards per game) and per-rush average (4.2 yards) is rather pedestrian.  That increases tenfold when taking the run-blocking brilliance of departed left tackle Jason Peters into consideration.

As previously mentioned, however, the Bills' biggest rushing issues came in-division, and that's where Hangartner's impact needs to be felt the most.  To put it lightly, the trio of Ferguson, Wilfork and Jenkins manhandled the Bills last season; to the Bills' credit, they did find a way to rush for 234 combined yards in late-season losses to the Jets and Pats, but by that point, the damage was done.

Think the center position isn't important in the AFC East? Think again.  The Dolphins were a successful rushing team in 2008 thanks to dynamic rushers and the Wildcat offense, yet wasted no time in replacing center Samson Satele with Jake Grove.  You can't win consistently in this division unless you're sound at the point of attack, something the division-champion Dolphins realized quickly.  Mercifully, the Bills caught up after several mediocre seasons from the position as well.

The Bills fancy themselves playoff contenders in 2009 after a productive and pleasing off-season.  It's win or go home for the decision-makers at One Bills Drive.  It's hard to state it more plainly: there won't be a lot of winning unless the Bills become more competitive in the division, and a lot of the potential success in those key matchups lies on the broad shoulders of the team's new center.  There's a lot to like about Geoff Hangartner, but very few of us have actually seen him play yet.  The expectations - handle Ferguson, Wilfork and Jenkins in your first year as a full-time starter - are enormous.  His team's competitive abilities in-division (in large part) hangs in the balance.

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