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Examining Trent Edwards' steady decline in Buffalo

In case you missed it, here's the short, up-to-date version of the latest on the Buffalo Bills' quarterback "situation" (or lack thereof): Trent Edwards has returned to full practice during the Bills' bye week, and barring an unforeseen setback in his recovery from a Week 6 concussion, he is expected to start in Week 10 against the Tennessee Titans. Ryan Fitzpatrick, who guided the Bills to three abysmal offensive performances and, curiously, a 2-1 record in essentially three full games as the starter, will return to backup duties.

Edwards will very likely, therefore, resume a Bills career that has reached new lows after the team lost four of his first five starts this season. This is a pivotal season for Edwards, not just because of the circumstances with the team, but because it's his third season in the NFL. That's typically when you know what you have in a player.  Last I checked, that third season is not yet over for Edwards.

There's very little counter-argument that can be made against this one, singular fact: Edwards has stunk in 2009. His statistical output is at an all-time low, the team has less confidence in him than ever, and most importantly, he's not guiding the Bills to wins. As is the case in the vast majority of football situations, one man can't be fully blamed for a specific issue. But given the way Edwards has gotten to this point, and the events likely to occur should the Bills' season continue the way it has, the odds against Edwards reviving his career in Buffalo are monumentally long.

Was continuity really continuity?
Buffalo's had a lot of bad quarterbacks suit up for them in recent years, and considering the way he's played this season, Edwards has kind of a "best of the worst" feel about him. Considering the fact that the one constant in all of the quarterback shuffling the Bills have done is the Bills themselves, a legitimate argument can be made that Edwards' lack of progress has a great deal to do with his circumstances.

Edwards entered the league in 2007 as a third-round draft pick and saw live game action much sooner than he probably should have when he took over for an injured J.P. Losman in a Week 3 loss to New England.  Edwards had a promising - yet highly unspectacular - rookie season under the tutelage of Steve Fairchild, then the offensive coordinator.  That's when things began to go downhill.

Fairchild left after the '07 season to coach at Colorado State, but given the poor performance of the offense in his two-year run as coordinator under Dick Jauron, he wasn't likely to be back, anyway. Turk Schonert, quarterbacks coach under Fairchild, was Jauron's choice to replace Fairchild, and the move was made to preserve continuity for the Bills' young starting quarterback. It didn't happen in exactly the same fashion this past September, but when Schonert was relieved of his duties just days prior to the Bills' season opener, Alex Van Pelt once again represented an effort for continuity.

Continuity, however, was not completely achieved. It never can be - just ask Baltimore, whose defense is working through a pretty drastic adjustment period as they transition from Rex Ryan to Greg Mattison in the coordinator role. Mattison worked under Ryan, and so he could preserve his terminology, but no matter how much effort is put into continuity, you're going to run into different ways to call games or approach game plans simply because the person is different.  Turk Schonert called games and approached the work week differently than Fairchild did. Alex Van Pelt, too, is different from Schonert. Add in the brief, forced, and ultimately failed no-huddle experiment, and despite the efforts to keep Edwards as comfortable as possible in this offense, continuity was clearly not achieved. Edwards has had three coordinators in three years. That fact alone is the chief reason behind his lack of development on the field.

(On a side note, most of you have labeled me as a "Jauron supporter," and that's not untrue. I like the man, and think the vitriol surrounding him is largely unfounded. One thing I will always say about Jauron, however, is that the man simply can't choose an offensive coordinator to save his life. He's had a lot of bad luck there, and particularly in Buffalo, where he's had three coordinators in four years. No matter which way you slice it, and no matter the intentions behind those changes, those were conscious choices that Jauron made, and they have had a detrimental effect on Edwards' development.)

The steady decrease in quality pass protection
Buffalo had one of the best pass-blocking units in the NFL in 2007. That was the year that Jason Peters established himself as an elite tackle in the game (a fact that is now probably much more debatable). Edwards played roughly 9 full games as a rookie, and despite his overwhelming lack of experience, he was sacked just 12 times.

The pass protection wasn't awful in 2008, either, though it certainly declined. Last season, Edwards played roughly 12 full games around injuries (concussion, groin), and in those games, he was sacked 23 times. For those of you doing the math, that's a half-sack more per game. Not great, but still acceptable.

Then came 2009, and the now-infamous complete overhaul of the offensive line. Despite the individual talent that some of the Bills' current linemen possess, it's painfully clear that they're one of the worst units in the league - if not the worst. Edwards has played a hair over five full games this season, and he's been sacked an alarming 19 times. He's also spent much more time running than usual; he set a career high with 117 rushing yards in 2008, but already has 102 this season. That stat, too, is partially indicative of line play.

I've gone on record as saying that good quarterback play is more important than good line play, but really, that argument is just splitting hairs, and it's tough to have one without the other. Not only has Edwards had a lack of continuity in offensive philosophy, but the Bills' offensive line has also seen a slow and dramatic decline in pass blocking during his three years on the job. Both of those issues, it should be noted, are directly related to some good and bad (obviously mostly bad) coaching decisions. No one should deny that the line needed to be fixed last off-season, but that "fix" isn't working this year, and it's been to Edwards' detriment on the field.

The perfect storm behind Edwards' decline
Coaching quarterbacks is a tricky business, particularly when they're young. Much of the approach taken in coaching up a quarterback has to do with developing mechanics, honing the ability to read an NFL defense, and designing an offense that emphasizes said quarterback's strengths.

Edwards, at the outset of his career, looked like the perfect game manager, with potential to grow beyond that once he gained some confidence and won some ball games. So that's how Buffalo coached him up. Limit your mistakes. Take what the defense gives you. Take shots carefully and in a calculated fashion. Score points and be aggressive when it's warranted, of course, but at least to start your career, keep us in games first and foremost.

For a time, it worked. Even as a rookie, but particularly early in his second season, Edwards put together some clutch performances and won some games. He made big throws in critical situations and, in many cases, put his team in position to win games. He was young and his play was extremely inconsistent, but when you see flashes of clutch play, there is good cause for excitement when talking about your young quarterback.

That's when things stopped clicking for Edwards. There are lots of factors at play - those mentioned, along with stiffer competition and Edwards' own inability to continue to develop - but it is what it is. He's now more inconsistent than ever, and again, the chief reason behind that inconsistency is the inconsistency in philosophy. As Edwards gained experience, he was supposed to mature beyond 'game manager' to 'game winner.' As Edwards dealt with mounting expectations, the offensive philosophies changed around him and his line play deteriorated. Through it all, he was urged to push through it and keep working. It appears that Trent did so by using his original coaching philosophy - game manager - as a crutch. Trent looks like he's playing to control what he can control, and the perfect storm of circumstances have exacerbated those tendencies to the point that Edwards is now one of the most gun-shy quarterbacks in the league. Again, part of that is his own fault - better players push through awkward circumstances and emerge as stars - but clearly, the circumstances didn't help, and aren't currently helping.

What happens from here?
As mentioned at the top, Edwards will resume his starting role after the bye week, and barring another injury or further decline in his play, the idea is for him to close out the season in that role. There is a chance that Edwards will improve over these next eight games, just as there is a chance that the O-Line will gel and Alex Van Pelt will emerge as a better play-caller. If anyone is expecting any or all of those to occur, they're in the distinct minority.

Edwards will also likely be here in 2010, given his small salary and his being a stand-up, intelligent individual who is still in possession of some serious talent. He might not be anything more than a backup, but he'll probably be in Buffalo. If the Bills can't find a way to shock the world and make the playoffs (or go on some crazy end-of-year winning streak), however, it's very likely that he'll be entering his fourth season with a new coaching staff - one that didn't draft him, by the way - and new offensive philosophies and linemen. Why would growth be expected under a new regime if the same problems exist?

A lot has to happen if Edwards is to revive his career in Buffalo. He and the teammates/coaches around him need to improve if he's going to be a productive player over the second half of the season. He'll need to be borderline excellent - again, with similar gains from his teammates and coaches - if he's going to save his coach's job. Only the latter will earn him real continuity entering 2010, and as it stands now, real continuity may not be ideal in every sense of the phrase for Edwards.

I'll never say "never" when it comes to a player potentially emerging as a consistently good football player, and I certainly won't say it in regards to Edwards, who is that rare (probably) failed quarterback experiment in Buffalo who is actually endearing as a person. He's a smart kid that works hard and genuinely wants to be excellent at his profession. Given the way his career has unfolded and the direction the Bills are likely to head after this season, however, it seems like a virtual certainty that if Edwards ever reaches his full potential as an NFL quarterback, it probably won't be as a Buffalo Bill.