One of the most frequent declarations that I hear and read in my various discourses on the Buffalo Bills reads, paraphrased, as follows: "The Patriots are still the Patriots, and the Dolphins and Jets have added so many good pieces... the Bills are so far behind the whole division now."
Every time I hear that declaration, I cringe. Not because it's not true - Buffalo is clearly the shakiest-looking franchise in the AFC East - but because the rationale behind the truth is incorrect.
Don't be fooled by paper champions, people. Yes, the Pats, Dolphins and Jets all made solid, big-name moves this off-season. But for all the negativity surrounding the Bills, and the lack of comparative glamor that Buffalo's free agent and draft moves had, the Bills didn't do too badly this off-season themselves.
These moves won't matter - for any team except the Patriots - if these teams don't get better quarterback play. The Jets and Dolphins look better on paper because they have young potential franchise signal-callers in Mark Sanchez and Chad Henne, respectively. Neither lit the world on fire in 2009, and unless their play is significantly better in 2010, those teams won't crawl much higher than the near-.500 records they posted a year ago.
AFC East's flashy off-seasons
There really have been some spectacular individual talents added to this division over the past few months.
New England, coming off a 10-6 season, spent the bulk of their time fortifying their spotty-at-best defense. Two defensive linemen, Damione Lewis and Gerard Warren, are now in the fold. Further defensive fortifications came via rookies CB Devin McCourty, OLB Jermaine Cunningham and ILB Brandon Spikes. The team also made over its tight end group, signing veteran Alge Crumpler and drafting Arizona's Rob Gronkowski and Florida's Aaron Hernandez. Finally, receiver Torry Holt was added as a third receiving threat.
New York, coming off a 9-7 season that peaked at the correct time, leading to an AFC Championship Game appearance, has been the busiest team this off-season. Veterans added include RB LaDainian Tomlinson (who looks to be more of a complement to Shonn Greene at this stage in his career), WR Santonio Holmes, OLB Jason Taylor, CB Antonio Cromartie and S Brodney Pool. Cromartie teams with Darrelle Revis to give the Jets one of the best corner tandems in the league, and Holmes will be a solid deep threat on the outside. Rookies CB Kyle Wilson (a nickel candidate), OG Vladimir Ducasse (who will replace the released Alan Faneca at left guard) and perhaps even FB John Conner look to be immediate contributors.
Miami has made bold moves as well, signing ILB Karlos Dansby and trading for star wideout Brandon Marshall, who immediately becomes Miami's best offensive player. OG Richie Incognito, who last played in Buffalo, adds solid depth to a very good offensive line, as well. Rookies DE Jared Odrick (a rotational player to start), OLB Koa Misi (rotational), OG John Jerry (who could be a surprise starter) and ILB A.J. Edds all could be instant contributors, as well.
Buffalo, as you well know, signed three key free agents - OT Cornell Green (who will start at right tackle), DE Dwan Edwards (who will start at end in the team's new 3-4) and ILB Andra Davis (again, a likely starter). Rookies RB C.J. Spiller, NT Torell Troup and DE Alex Carrington will see immediate playing time, and lower-round picks such as ILB Arthur Moats, OLB Danny Batten and OG Kyle Calloway are virtually certain to get significant experience as well.
AFC East is still pretty closely contended
Buffalo has by far had the toughest go of it in this division over the past two seasons, putting up a 2-10 record in divisional games since the start of the 2008 season. Of those ten losses, however, seven were by 10 points or fewer. Just last season, in a division that featured the dominant (at least when it comes to playing Buffalo) Patriots and the conference runners-up Jets, Buffalo was 2-4 in the division, and three of those four losses were by 10 or fewer points.
Buffalo may have slipped a bit on paper, but the difference won't be as dramatic unless Brady's play begins to decline (and I'm seriously doubting that's ever going to happen), or if the Jets and Dolphins can't get more out of Sanchez and Henne, respectively.
Chad Henne: He had a quietly efficient 2009 season, one in which he was thrust into the starting lineup much earlier than anticipated. Henne completed 60.8% of his passes, threw 12 TD and 14 INT, and the Dolphins were 7-6 in games that he started, which included a 7-3 record prior to Miami's late-season collapse. Henne was the prototypical game manager last season, playing smart football, limiting his mistakes and simply giving his team the chance to win. Miami needs more from him in 2010. Much more.
Bigger plays are needed - Henne's 6.4 yards per attempt isn't going to cut it, even at a high efficiency. That's where Marshall comes into play. Marshall's average yards per reception has dipped every year he's played, but he's such an explosive long-ball threat that Miami is certain to pick up larger chunks of yardage through the air, assuming Marshall's good health. More touchdowns are needed, too - NFL teams with 12-TD quarterbacks will forever be stuck in the middle of the pack - and again, Marshall should help there.
Key stat: Miami was 3-5 in games last season in which Henne made even one mistake (interception). In games in which he was perfect in that department, the Dolphins were 4-1. Henne can't deal with that kind of pressure again, which is why the Marshall addition was so critical. But Henne has to get him the ball, and as we've seen here in Buffalo, adding a star wideout isn't a sure-fire precursor to better quarterback play.
Mark Sanchez: I thought he was pretty terrible during last year's regular season, completing just 53.8% of his passes and tossing 20 INT to just 12 TD. As terrible as he was at times during the regular season, he was equally brilliant in the post-season, completing 60.3% of his passes, throwing four scores to just two picks, and commanding the Jets' offense in their deep post-season run.
Consistency, therefore, is the big issue with Sanchez. His decision-making got better in the post-season, and it needs to stay at that level. His accuracy is still something of an issue; he needs to be a more efficient passer. Sanchez doesn't lack for weapons, so getting more from a scoring standpoint is a must as well.
Key stat: New York was 4-5 in games last season in which Sanchez made even one mistake (interception). In games in which he was perfect in that department, the Jets were 5-2. Again, that's a lot of pressure on a quarterback, and unless Sanchez becomes a more vital element in New York's scoring offense, the Jets won't take the great strides forward everyone is expecting.
We won't even discuss Tom Brady, because the dude is still one of the best in the business, and that's not changing any time soon.
So yes. Buffalo is a definitive fourth in this division. They've been a definitive fourth in the division for two years, and their quarterback situation will keep them there, even while Miami's and New York's aren't yet where those teams would like them to be. It would not shock me, either, if one or both of the Jets and Dolphins became dominant teams in 2010. But if it happens, it won't be because of the players those teams added this off-season - it'll be because Sanchez and Henne have emerged as top-notch signal-callers. Both players absolutely have the potential to do that.