The Buffalo Bills are 3-7, coming off their worst loss of the season, and dreams of ending the team's 14-year playoff drought are all but shot. As such, fan focus is shifting from a micro view - wherein game-specific details are scrutinized, and the forward thinkers typically only look at the 2013 schedule - to a macro view. We've spent the early portions of this week discussing the future prospects of EJ Manuel and the current coaching staff, broad-scale issues like the struggles of Stephon Gilmore and the playing time of C.J. Spiller, and, yes, the 2014 NFL Draft.
We're still trying to revive the weekly mailbag feature here - please, by all means, send us questions, either via email or via Twitter - and with that shifting focus came an onslaught of new questions from readers to mull and discuss this week. Let's get right to it, shall we?
On a scale of 1-10, how concerned should we be about Manuel after that horrible game in Pittsburgh?
In my opinion, the best way to approach this topic is to not discount any factors at play. Manuel hadn't played in a month. He had a fairly massive brace on his knee. It was, reportedly, very windy at Heinz Field. The receiver with which Manuel has had the best rapport this season, Robert Woods, was out with an ankle injury. These are not excuses to be trotted out in defense of Manuel; they are facts (which, yes, have been trotted out in defense of Manuel).
Another fact: Manuel was really bad in Pittsburgh. The rookie essentially ran the gamut when it came to quarterbacking issues. He was caught in a weird spot, where he was simultaneously moving too quickly technically and not playing with much sense of urgency (i.e. trying to make NFL-caliber throws against a complicated defense). He was, in short, very robotic - and really, I don't think it's particularly surprising that a raw rookie quarterback would resort to that mindset after a month off. The circumstances of this game served to highlight most of Manuel's laundry list of flaws, while suppressing his ability to show off what he is currently good at (yes, he's good at some things). It's important to keep that in mind.
As for the scale portion of the question: I'd say keep it where it's been (for me, it's probably around a 6/10), or don't move it an awful lot. We've talked before about the 2013 season as a whole being an evaluation period for Manuel, and he's already been put at a disadvantage by the two knee injuries. My approach is to avoid making snap judgments about the guy (or to confirm my preconceived notions, which a lot of fans are currently doing) until the body of work is as large as it's going to be for a number of months.
Many thanks to Jim H for sending in this question. For the record, we had similar questions about several struggling players - chiefly Gilmore, but also Spiller and another popular whipping boy, T.J. Graham - and my approach isn't any different for those players. Especially Gilmore, who has obviously missed long stretches of the season as well.
You have not been overly critical of Nathaniel Hackett this season. Did that Pittsburgh game change your opinion on him at all?
It did not. That was a situation on Sunday where the quarterback play was bad enough that it's nearly impossible to have learned anything about the coaching staff.
I know that I have been slightly outspoken against the vitriol directed toward Hackett - just as many in the media are, as well as several reputable posters here and elsewhere. It's not that Hackett (and by extension, Doug Marrone) didn't earn some of that; the critics that talk specifically about situational football, i.e. the red zone or run calls on first downs, make the most coherent points about Hackett's play-calling. My problem is when those arguments morph into broad, sweeping generalizations about the man's ability to call an offense. We know where he needs to improve; we also know that he's coaxed long stretches of competence out of an offense with the greenest imaginable quarterbacks and young skill talent.
Essentially, my answer will be the same for a lot of these types of questions: I'll be waiting to pass any sort of judgment until the entire 16-game schedule has been played. Thanks for the question, Eric!
What do you believe are the Bills' three biggest needs out of a long list heading into the offseason?
Fine. I'll hop in on the needs discussion, with the following caveats: this is all subject to change, not just with six games remaining, but with a lot of review to go through once the season concludes. Nor are the three that come to mind first, listed below, in order of priority.
Buffalo really needs a veteran quarterback. Forget about having a guy that could come in and win games, which is obviously important; I'm talking about a battle-tested guy who has seen a lot. Buffalo doesn't have a quarterbacks coach - that's on Hackett's job title - and between a rookie play-caller and three essentially rookie quarterbacks, there's a conspicuous lack of a guy in Manuel's ear between drives. Having that guy will help Manuel's development process.
I imagine that Marrone and line coach Pat Morris wish they had a more athletic group up front, as well. Kraig Urbik is pretty average athletically, though he's had a pretty solid season. Cordy Glenn is a top-notch athlete, as is Eric Wood. Doug Legursky and Erik Pears leave a lot to be desired in that department. Buffalo's blocking schemes - particularly in the running game - are fairly basic, and I believe limited by what the linemen can and can't do. I'd like to see starting-caliber players added that can move up to the second level with more ease.
It's hard to undersell how important an addition that Kiko Alonso has been, particularly in Mike Pettine's defense. One weakness of that attack thus far has been the team's inability to find a consistent running mate inside with him. Manny Lawson has seen a lot of time as a true linebacker, particularly in nickel and dime packages. Arthur Moats has played more than anyone expected him to, but still not an awful lot, and Nigel Bradham has been a disappointment. If the Bills could add an athletic linebacker with better instincts than Moats and Bradham - one that could play outside on occasion and blitz - it would only add to what the Bills can do schematically, and it would also make them bigger in certain situations and faster in others.
Surely, the community here will have plenty to add to these topics; I'll hop around in the comments sections when I have time to keep the conversations rolling, as I, like the rest of you, am feeling a bit reflective this week. Thanks for the question, Rachel!