You don't need me to tell you that the 2009 version of the Buffalo Bills could hardly be labeled a juggernaut offensively. In finishing 6-10, the Bills scored just 258 points on the season, an average of around 16 per game. That's not going to win you a lot of ball games. Only five NFL teams scored fewer points than Buffalo last season - Cleveland, Oakland, Detroit, Tampa Bay and St. Louis - and those teams finished a combined 16-64.
It's not rocket science. You have to score points to win football games, and the Bills haven't scored enough points for a full decade.
We know what Buffalo's biggest issues are offensively. The team has lacked a franchise quarterback since Jim Kelly retired, and the offensive line has been ravaged by injuries, youth and an overall lack of top-end talent. Clearly, the offense isn't going to make major strides until the Bills can muster passing grades in both areas. One often-overlooked area where the Bills have lacked for quite some time, however, is the tight end position. Buffalo still has yet to hire a head coach; when that happens, however, it is imperative that the new coach find a coordinator that is capable of getting the ball to the tight end.
The tight end position is one of the more difficult to play in the NFL. You need to run like a receiver, make tough catches, and block like an offensive tackle to play this spot every down at this level. In recent seasons, however, the tight end has regained prominence in NFL offenses - and in 2009, the position became vital to several explosive offenses around the league.
Consider this: Buffalo's leading receiver last season was Terrell Owens (55 catches, 829 yards, 5 TD). Now, granted, Buffalo couldn't pass the ball to save their lives on most days. But it's telling that Owens - one of the league's most decorated receivers and very much a positive factor for the Bills this year - was out-stripped in the receiving department by 12 tight ends league-wide.
I'll repeat that. 12 NFL tight ends caught more passes than Terrell Owens in 2009. The receiving numbers for some of these guys are ridiculous. The list is below - and we've added two more names to the end of the list, making it 14 NFL tight ends with at least 50 receptions in '09.
Dallas Clark (IND): 100 receptions, 1,106 yards, 10 TD
Jason Witten (DAL): 94 catches, 1,030 yards, 2 TD
Tony Gonzalez (ATL): 83 catches, 867 yards, 6 TD
Antonio Gates (SD): 79 catches, 1,157 yards, 8 TD
Vernon Davis (SF): 78 catches, 965 yards, 13 TD
Kellen Winslow (TB): 77 catches, 884 yards, 5 TD
Brent Celek (PHI): 76 catches, 971 yards, 8 TD
Heath Miller (PIT): 76 catches, 789 yards, 6 TD
Zach Miller (OAK): 66 catches, 805 yards, 3 TD
Greg Olsen (CHI): 60 catches, 612 yards, 8 TD
Visanthe Shiancoe (MIN): 56 catches, 566 yards, 11 TD
Jermichael Finley (GB): 55 catches, 676 yards, 5 TD
Todd Heap (BAL): 53 catches, 593 yards, 6 TD
John Carlson (SEA): 51 catches, 574 yards, 7 TD
That list contains players from potent offenses and terrible offenses. It contains players who are central figures to their respective teams' aerial attacks, and guys that are more secondary options to talented receiving corps. The bottom line is this: they all produced because they're all good players, and their teams recognized the need to get the ball in their hands.
Owens is a free agent. So is slot receiver Josh Reed, who has received a ton of looks on third down over the past few seasons. No one's really sure if Lee Evans will ever replicate his highly productive 2006 campaign. And yes, the quarterback position and the offensive line remain critical needs - that hasn't changed since you started reading this post, unfortunately.
One of Buffalo's chief problems over the past decade has been sustaining drives; that's been particularly true the last couple of seasons. The Bills need a player to play the role that Witten does in Dallas; dude caught 94 passes this year, but only got into the end zone twice. Yes, the Bills need guys to get into the end zone, but you have to move the ball to get there in the first place. They need to start finding those opportunities in the middle of the field.
Fact: no Bills tight end has caught 50 passes since Jay Riemersma pulled in 53 for a 2001 Bills team that went 3-13. Since then, Mark Campbell (34 catches, 2003) and Robert Royal of all people (33 catches, 2006) have come closest to that mark. Last season, Buffalo's leading receiver at the tight end position was rookie Shawn Nelson, who hauled in just 17 receptions. That's the Bills' lowest output at that spot since 2004, when Campbell hauled in the same number of passes.
I'd like to think that Nelson - a tremendous athlete capable of making big plays, but also with some durability issues - can be that type of player in Buffalo. He's certainly got the talent to become the type of player that can pump out 50-catch seasons on a regular basis. But it'll take a quarterback, and a line, and a coordinator that finally realizes just how important a big, physical receiver that can exploit the middle of the field is to a team that plays its football in the city of Buffalo.