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Bills must get back to basics in 2009

Edwards, Bills turnover happy in '08 (Associated Press)

After starting the 2008 NFL regular season on a 5-1 tear, the Buffalo Bills subsequently lost 8 of their next 10 to finish 7-9 for a third consecutive season.  The collapse nearly led to the dismissal of head coach Dick Jauron, and now that he's been retained for a fourth season despite the team's struggles, Buffalo's fan base has rarely been lower on their organization.

Believe me when I say that I don't expect this article to go over well in an ornery fan base.  So if you feel the need to rip me as a homer, label me the eternal optimist or simply complain some more, feel free.  It won't change one simple fact:

The Bills disappointed in finishing 7-9 in 2008 because they didn't play Dick Jauron football.

(That sound you hear?  It's either heads exploding or folks shifting in their chairs, readying their tirades at their fingertips.)  Allow me to expand, if you will...

"Dick Jauron Football"
First, allow me to speak philosophically: when things are going good for a football team, a certain person's characteristics are generally lauded.  When things are going poorly for a football team, those same characteristics are generally despised.  That's just how it goes.

Right now, "Dick Jauron football" is generally associated with a favorite cliche, "playing not to lose".  Yet in 2006, when the Bills were surprisingly competitive with a roster devoid of talent and J.P. Losman at quarterback, Jauron's style was often described as "smart" because it "kept the Bills in games".

Jauron's philosophy is hardly ground-breaking: win with defense; protect the football; run first, pass second (or, in the current climate, "play not to lose"); make enough plays to win.  Say what you want about that philosophy, but it's pretty straightforward, and Jauron is certainly not the only NFL head coach to employ said philosophy.  The philosophy allowed the Bills to overachieve to 7-9 records in '06 and '07.  The Bills got away from that philosophy this year, and in finishing 7-9 again, they underachieved.  (Or, if you will, they regressed.  Same difference.)

Overachieving versus Underachieving
There's little doubt that considering the ease of their schedule, the Tom Brady injury in New England and the hot start, the Bills should have finished at least 2-3 games better than 7-9 this season.  Why didn't they?  Simple: they couldn't protect the football or force turnovers.

In 2006, Jauron's first season in Buffalo, the Bills ended the year with a -5 turnover differential (forced 24 turnovers, committed 29).  Buffalo's opponents were a whopping 147-109 record-wise that season; the .574 winning percentage meant that Buffalo played the most difficult schedule in the league that season.  All things considered, -5 isn't terrible, and the 7-9 record that year was a surprise.  The Bills were not great in one-touchdown games that season, either, finishing 3-6 in games decided by 8 points or less.

2007 was better.  The Bills ended the season +9 in turnover differential, forcing 30 turnovers and committing just 21 themselves.  The Bills improved in one-touchdown games, going 4-4 in those contests.  Their schedule?  Middle of the pack, but still pretty tough; Buffalo's opponents had a .516 winning percentage in '07.  The positive turnover differential was substantial enough that it allowed the Bills to win more games than they should have, considering their offense - which scored 20 touchdowns all season - was terrible.  In other words, they overachieved.

Things changed dramatically this past season.  Turnover differential plummeted to -8 (a paltry 22 forced to 30 committed), and even though the Bills were still .500 (3-3) in one-score games, the turnover differential killed them in others, particularly in division games (-11 differential).  With a first-year starter in Trent Edwards, a dip in turnover differential is hardly surprising, but the 17-turnover turnaround from '07 to '08 is, in my view, the chief reason the Bills underachieved in 2008.  The worst part?  Buffalo's terrible turnover margin came against the league's second easiest schedule (opponents had a .453 winning percentage).

What needs to change in '09
How can the Bills get back on the winning track in 2009?  Clearly, that can't be answered with one response.  Edwards is going to need to make substantial improvement.  The defense has got to find a way to pressure opposing quarterbacks and make more plays.  And, yes, Jauron needs to do a better job managing the flow of the game on Sundays.  This isn't an acquittal of his coaching errors, which are well-documented.  He needs to improve, too, and I'm confident he'd be the first person to admit it.

I am a firm believer that far too much responsibility for Buffalo's slide is being laid at Jauron's feet.  Again, he's very obviously not blameless, but if I'm blaming anyone, I'm blaming the players' inability to adhere to Jauron's strictest principle: protect the ball.  Minus-eleven in turnovers against your three most hated rivals is disgusting, and it wasn't Jauron turning the ball over.  The most Buffalo lost any of those games by was 13 points in the season finale; those scores are closer and the games far more winnable if the Bills simply protect the ball.  It obviously wouldn't hurt to force a turnover here and there, either.

2009 must be a "get back to basics" year for Buffalo.  Let's be honest - the team overachieved in reaching 7-9 its first two seasons under Jauron.  (I'm still flabbergasted we could finish that well with Losman at the helm.)  They very much underachieved this year; there's very little doubt to that as well.  Buffalo has a tough schedule in 2009, playing the league's best division (NFC South) and the AFC's two best divisions (ours and the AFC South).  It won't be brutal, however, if the Bills play Dick Jauron football.

Protect the ball and force turnovers, folks.  The Bills didn't do enough of either in 2008, and those two facts are the chief reasons we're talking about the off-season on January 2.  Again.