37.5% into the regular Bills season: What I see from the Long View of Bills Football History
To some, it is too early to say what kind of a team we have. To others, the evidence is clear: this team is playoff bound.
For me, I can say I have never seen a more impressive offense constructed out of thin air than the offense Head Coach Chan Gailey has put together in a little over 1.375 seasons as the strategic mind behind the Fitz throwing, Jackson dashing unit.
The Past Tense
Briefly to my history as an older aficionado of Bills football:
I have several powerful recollections from my youth as a Bills’ fan growing up. First, I remember going to War Memorial Stadium and sitting with my Dad and his buddies on the 35 yard line some 20 rows up. As the son of someone who had season tickets in those days, I got to go a few times a year with Dad, and loved the experience, especially the part where we would leave our house ten minutes before 1 and park and get to our seats before the opening kickoff. Those were the days.
I remember listening on the radio to the Bills playing the Chiefs to go to the first ever Super Bowl, and losing.
I remember watching Kemp scrambling some 30 and even 40 yards behind the line of scrimmage trying to escape the defensive pass rush and then either taking a huge loss or throwing a long pass back to the line of scrimmage.
I remember how sad many Bills fans were when we traded the Mad Bomber Daryl Lamonica to the Raiders and Al Davis, where he would go on to be a star for many years while Kemp fell apart with the Bills in a collectively shared collapse of championship football into the depths of desperation.
Kemp was a piece of work, especially when his game and the Bills in general, starting going down hill.
Of course, this collapse of Bills football led to selecting OJ Simpson, the most talented player to ever play for the Buffalo Bills, by far.
I remember watching OJ Simpson wearing number 36 in his first ever home game (preseason) with the Bills.I remember John Rauch explaining why he liked OJ Simpson as an offensive decoy. I remember Lou Saban taking over and using OJ Simpson as a featured running back getting as many touches as possible per game, and building a first rate offensive line to make it worth his while to do so. I remember OJ Simpson running for 82 yards for a TD against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
I remember playing hockey at the Amherst Recreation Center and seeing the Bills coming out of “our” locker rooms after their practice outside on the grass fields behind the rink. Those were the days.
I also remember 1973: OJ Simpson running for over 200 yards in the snow against the New England Patriots the game before he went to NY and broke 2000 yards for the season against the Jets. I remember being at Rich Stadium (now the Ralph) and hearing Reggie M. pulling for OJ and hitting middle linebacker Mike Curtis so hard he broke Curtis’ shoulder. I remember OJ, that same game running right, seeing nothing, cutting back to his left, and going all the way for some long TD run, which I saw him do live many many times. He was amazing. I remember Joe Ferguson managing a limited but often effective offense with OJ in the backfield.
I remember the great Bills teams of the 1990s, though by then I was out of town and seeing most of the games on TV, which was easy because we were almost always the featured game of the week for years on end.
I remember watching the first Super Bowl loss on a huge TV in Spanish from a foreign country, and wondering how we could have lost that game after crushing the Raiders 51-3 in one of the most lopsided AFC championship games of all time. I remember loving the guts of Thurman, the elusiveness and power of Reed, and the big play defense of Bennett, Talley, and Bruce Smith. The cocky Jim Kelly running the no huddle, at times to mind blowing perfection. I also remember seeing Kelly get knocked out on the last play of the Jaguars playoff game, his last play as a professional, having flown up to see the game live, and having the luck of being seated next to the Jacksonville Fox Sports team who told me beforehand they had already written the script for the Bills victory as a learning experience for their young team. How mistaken they were about their own team’s ability to beat the Bills on the road.
And it was my bad luck to see the only Bills playoff loss at home in Rich Stadium history.
All this is by way of saying: I have been there and done that. I love the Bills. I am a passionate fan, but I am not clueless when it comes to understanding what makes for a good football team, and what separates the good from the very good and the very good from the great.
My take is the current Bills are good, at times very good. They turned the corner last year at the Ravens’ game, a week after their Bye. They have been getting better ever since, even if that does not always translate into the game of the week they are actually playing. What we have seen so far this year is an offense developing its confidence, and a defense more like last year’s offense (inconsistent, with a huge range in playing levels from quarter to quarter).
What Gailey wants is consistency at a high level. The offense is making great progress being consistently productive. The defense is still very much a work in progress, but there is enough talent to be better than the current version, this is for sure.
I believe Chan Gailey will be coaching playoff games sooner than later, because he truly knows what he is doing, and I believe Nix and his staff do as well.
The Present Tense
Their two 3 pt. losses were decided inside 2 minutes to go. 2 of their 3 pt wins were decided inside 1 minute to go. The offense has been impressive in all but 1 game (Bengals). The offense is challenging all time Bills records. The defense has had its moments of turnover madness, but is struggling especially against the pass, as everyone knows, including their opponents who feast on weakness like every team in the NFl must to be successful.
There are many emerging stars on the bills, and at least 1 player who could be first team all conference (Jackson). To be great, you need great or at least excellent coaching on both sides of the ball. I expect the Bills defense to be better in the next 10 games, but not a lot better. Chan Gailey is a great, perhaps the Bills best ever offensive mind. It is enough to get them to the playoffs, but without a much better defense, not any further. We all know that.
It is not certain what is the state of the defensive coaching mind. Perhaps they lack talent, but many would have, and some still would say that about the Bills’ offense. To be fair, the Bills have already faced three excellent QBs in Vick, Brady, and Manning. They should be a little shell shocked after playing those three guys. But they got beat by the rookie Dalton in a poor 2nd half when the offense had an off day.
Kyle Williams has been below his usual all pro playing caliber, and it is now clear (it should have been previously) that he was playing injured, with a bad foot. Kyle Williams not being healthy may be like Freddie Jackson not being healthy for the offense: it really really hurts their performance as an overall unit.
Shawn Merriman is a worthy addition even though he is not 100 percent, and may never be so. Still doubtful he is the long term answer at ROLB, but few were thinking he would be.
Our cornerbacks remain a serious concern, but with #24 back in the lineup it would appear our best cornerback is indeed #24, if his first game back is any indication.
Fitz is great, but despite a solid start, is prone to throw his share of INTs. But you gotta love his intelligence as a QB. Gailey needs to help Fitz make his best and yes, safest throws in game decisive moments, not feed his most error prone tendencies (the long ball and the medium crossing route) in such moments.
The Bills maintain a refreshing modesty whether they win or lose in their off the field interviews. They seem like a nice bunch of guys, in all.
Leadership begins with the head coach, flows through the QB, and comes through most clearly over the course of a long 16 game season. But so far, so good.
The Bills offense has shown an ability to move the ball no matter the defense, no matter the time of the game, which is a sign of an offense that is not predictable, nor error prone. Gailey and Fitz remain a great team moving forward. The offensive line is much better than most anticipated, and they are helped by having Fitz and Action Jackson making them look even better. Stevie Johnson is the real deal, how good remains to be seen. David Nelson is also the real deal, and continues to impress with his catch anything you throw at me consistency.
CJ Spiller has been better than last year, and will become a more valuable version of Parrish as the season goes on as wideout, with a few reverses, screens and runs thrown in. I love him in this role, because it makes the Bills that much more flexible and therefore unpredictable and dangerous.
Dareus has been good, will get better, and if Williams comes back healthy will help improve the defense as it heads into the second half of the season. If Williams does not come back healthy, or regain his pro bowl caliber form, the best scenario for the Bills’ defense moving forward is better play from its defensive backfield with McGee healthy, and better play from its linebackers with Sheppard inserted into the lineup and gaining experience.
As we saw with Williams last season, a few stars playing at the top of their game can make a defense a whole lot better. The coaching staff has to find a way to make its best players maximize their impact on the field. This comes down to schemes and adjustments.
With our 2011 #3rd LSU Sheppard pick taking over starting inside linebacker duties from aging and slow veteran Andra Davis, the Bills add some speed and energy to complement a positive addition of free agent inside backer Barnett, which should esp. help pass coverage and blitz packages going forward.
The Future Tense
In light of the first 37.5% of the season’s evidence, my best case scenario is for the Bills to make the playoffs as a wild card. It could be 12-4/11-5 from here. I still see the Pats winning the division, so we need a wild card berth. 9-7, my pre-season prediction, is now my worst case scenario, and to do that we would most likely lose both games to the Jets, which I do not anticipate, but it is certainly possible. I think 10-6 (6-4 from here) is most likely, with the wild card coming down to a conference or division tiebreaker (Jets).
Whether the Bills make the Playoffs in Year 2 of the New Regime or not, I will give a sincere tip of the cap to Buddy Nix. He and his team of scouts deserve some credit too, for an excellent second act to the reclamation project of our beloved tackle football franchise.