The year is 2005. The Buffalo Bills are coming off a 9-7 season, a near-miss of the '04 playoffs and confidence is sky-high at One Bills Drive. The team has decided to go with a youth movement, releasing veteran QB Drew Bledsoe and handing the reigns of this potential playoff team to the young and talented J.P. Losman. The team has a sound running game, a great one-two punch at wide receiver in Eric Moulds and Lee Evans and a dominant defense led by exciting veterans such as Takeo Spikes and Lawyer Milloy.
Not only that, but head coach Mike Mularkey is a hot name in Buffalo. The rookie coach put together a great offense in '04 and has a talented team with "playoffs" written all over them.
That team went 5-11. Mularkey resigned, GM Tom Donahoe was fired and the team was once again placed in rebuilding mode. How quickly things can change in a year.
Fast forward to 2007. The Buffalo Bills are coming off a surprising 7-9 season in which they were in playoff contention until Week 16. They have built a very nice young core on the offensive side of the ball; this group has more potential than any Bills offense in recent memory. The defense is young but talented. It probably won't be this year, but the playoffs are in this team's future.
Not only that, but head coach Dick Jauron is a hot name in Buffalo. He's assembled a very young and very intelligent coaching staff that are entirely on the same page with the front office and each other. He has a fantastic relationship with Marv Levy, a Buffalo legend who is putting together a good young team. He's built consensus, the team has direction and this team, again, has "playoffs" written all over them.
Can Jauron Build on Year One Success?
There are striking similarities between the 2005 Bills that were a huge disappointment and this year's version of the Bills. There are differences, to be sure - the '05 team was much more veteran-laden than this team, and the front office was still questionable despite Buffalo's success in 2004. Yet playoff hopes still reigned supreme despite those question marks.
Jauron experienced more success in '06 than most Bills fans thought he'd have. This is a guy that was not a popular hire when he was brought in in January of '06, and only recently have fans taken to his laid-back, player-friendly approach. Success breeds confidence, and there's a lot of it surrounding Jauron and his team right now.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that there aren't more question marks surrounding this team as compared to the '05 situation. The front office is no longer the issue (something to be thankful for), but the playing talent in Buffalo is a lot less experienced at the NFL level. Success in 2007 depends on the teaching abilities and adaptation skills of Jauron - and by extension, his coaching staff.
Avoiding the Sophomore Slump
In order to put this team in position to explode when they should (which in my opinion is the 2008 season, the third year under Jauron), our coach needs to do one thing and one thing only: avoid the sophomore slump, by any means necessary. It is unrealistic to think that an NFL team this young (average age of projected starters: 25.7 years) can achieve playoff level performance this early in the rebuilding process. I expect a similar record as last year, with 8-8 being an ideal spot in my mind.
The key to avoiding that sophomore slump? Maintaining confidence. This Bills team is so young that there are going to be growing pains and periods of frustration for the younger players. Jauron needs to do two things to maintain that confidence: get his players to believe in themselves, and get his players to believe in his schemes. If the team can stay confident and hungry through a tough early-season schedule that promises to bring a little tribulation, we could see this team really pour it on in the second half of the season.
This Bills team is not a playoff team. Not yet. But they can be in 2008, and whether they get there or not depends on Dick Jauron and his ability to build confidence in his youngsters based on last season's success. This is still a trial period for our head coach - he's looked promising thus far in Bills blue and red. But he needs to avoid the Mularkey curse and keep this team headed in an upward direction. I think he can do it. Do you?