There is little doubt that the 2011 season proved to be one of the most frustrating in recent living memory for the Bills and their fans (and that’s saying something.) The situation was not helped by an unexpected 5-2 start that had The Queen City daring to dream again. Unfortunately, it transpired that it was too good to be true as a seven-game losing streak dashed any hope of a magical season.
Fear not, however, Buffalo fans, the drought is nearly over.
The Bills, owners of the longest current streak without an appearance in the NFL postseason, are about to end the suffering for their loyal supporters. That’s right, in the bold prediction to end all bold predictions, the Buffalo Bills will finally end the so-called "Flutie curse" and make the playoffs next season for the first time since 1999.
Fred Jackson was having a standout season that saw him at one point leading the league in rushing. There were even calls in some quarters for him to be considered for MVP of the league.
Unfortunately, Jackson’s campaign was cut short when he suffered a season-ending fractured fibula against the Miami Dolphins. However, with nearly 1,400 yards through 11 games, he has surely done enough to earn a new contract. The team would be foolish to disregard the positive influence Jackson has on the rest of the squad.
Ironically, Jackson’s injury was probably the best thing that could have happened for C.J. Spiller. After a frustrating beginning to his professional career, Spiller was finally given the chance to start regularly and he responded with nearly 400 rushing yards over the final six games, which would have translated to a 1,000-yard campaign over the course of a full season.
The NFL running back position has evolved to the point where teams prefer a running-back-by-committee approach. However, rather than being Western New York's version of 'thunder and lightning', the Bills are set to prove that lightning does indeed strike twice. It is hard to argue that with a fully fit Jackson and Spiller, both of who averaged more than five yards every time they carried the rock, Buffalo has one of the best running back tandems in the NFL.
Detractors will point to Fitzpatrick’s league-leading 23 interceptions as evidence that he is not the guy to lead the Bills to the promised land. However, the majority of these came during the second half of last season (14) when the team as a whole was in a collective funk that saw them go 1-7. It didn’t help that the collapse coincided with injuries that led to an ever-changing cast of receivers for the Harvard graduate to deal with.
Although he never offered it as an excuse, the rib injury Fitzpatrick sustained in the win over Washington also affected his play. At the time, the team stood at 5-2, but the injury obviously had an impact as his play suffered during the following three games.
Despite his age, Fitzpatrick has little of the wear and tear normally associated with a 29-year-old quarterback. He has shown good durability since taking over from Trent Edwards in Week 3 of the 2010 season, starting 29 of 30 games.
Fitzpatrick has also displayed the ability to lead his team from behind, the prime examples being the early season victories against the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots. He has grown as a leader and it helps that his teammates respect him (even Stevie Johnson.)
Overall, the progress that Fitzpatrick has made is encouraging, with his completion percentage, yards and touchdown passes increasing over the course of his three seasons with the Bills. The continuity of having the same system for a third straight season will help and all evidence points to Fitzpatrick again improving his play. If he can cut down on his interceptions, the sky’s the limit.
The Buffalo Bills allowed only 23 sacks, fewest in the NFL this season (and the third-fewest in team history behind 16 in 1981 and 20 in 1980). On top of this, opponents only hit the quarterback 69 times, good-enough for 10th-lowest in the league. While some would argue that this is partly down to Chan Gailey’s system and Ryan Fitzpatrick getting rid of the ball quickly, these statistics still give reason for hope.
If that doesn’t convince you of the merits of an offensive line considered by experts as average at best, they also ranked fourth in the league in rushing average per attempt with 4.9 yards a carry. And while it can be open to interpretation, the Bills had only 32 runs for negative yardage, sixth best in the league.
One final factor that will help a unit that was dismissed heading into the 2011 season is continuity. Erik Pears and Andy Levitre led the way with 16 starts at right tackle and left guard respectively. However, the loss of their best lineman, center Eric Wood, to injury was a blow, and matters were not helped either by the upheaval at the vital left tackle spot. If Wood and Demetrius Bell can return to full fitness in 2012, the offensive line should be even better.
Not surprisingly, this area will require a little more convincing. The defense is coming off two of the worst statistical seasons in team history. In 2011, the team finished 30th in points conceded and 26th in terms of yardage allowed. The concern is this represented a step back from the 2010 campaign when they were ranked 28th and 24th, respectively, in the same categories.
Given these dire statistics things can only get better, with encouragement coming from the fact that in today’s NFL you don’t need to have a dominant defense to succeed as long as your offense is clicking. For proof of this, look no further than the two teams who secured home-field advantage for this season’s playoffs. While the Green Bay Packers finished dead last in passing yards allowed and overall, the New England Patriots finished 31st in these very same categories.
However, both teams managed to finish middle of the pack for actual points conceded, and this is where new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt will need to improve fortunes. Whatever his shortcomings might have been as an NFL head coach, there is little doubt of his pedigree on the defensive side. In his last NFL stop at the Miami Dolphins, the defense averaged out as the sixth-best in the league over five-and-a-half seasons.
One move that should assist any improvement is the likely change from a 3-4 to a 4-3, which should help showcase further the monster talents of 2011 third-overall pick Marcell Dareus and help the defense put more pressure on the opposing quarterback.
This would in turn help the secondary, led by Jairus Byrd, return to their opportunistic ways of 2009, when they finished second in the NFL with 28 interceptions. There were signs of this during the first half of last season, but the loss of turnovers coincided with the nightmare 1-7 finish to the campaign.
Finally, as any team needs to enjoy some good fortune during a winning campaign, let’s throw out another outrageous prediction: Shawne Merriman will fight back from his injury troubles of the previous four seasons, in part aided by the fact he will be playing for a new contract. After showing promise during the 2011 preseason, he again succumbed to a setback with an Achilles tendon. If the former San Diego Charger can return to anywhere near his form of 2005-07, the Bills will reap the benefits.
The last and most important reason the Buffalo Bills will make the playoffs in 2012 is because, quite simply, they have to. The future of the franchise is still up in the air as Ralph Wilson has given no indication as to what he will do with the team.
Adding to the sense of urgency in the situation, 2012 also marks the final year of the Bills current lease with Ralph Wilson Stadium. As a condition to any renewal of the stadium lease, both the Bills and the league have demanded significant and expensive renovations to Ralph Wilson Stadium. The extensive face lift is expected to cost tens of millions in taxpayer dollars
Bills CEO Russ Brandon claims that the upgrades are necessary to keep the stadium competitive with the NFL’s newer facilities and will help ensure the team’s long-term future in Western New York.
The 2012 season will also mark the final season of the controversial five-year deal the Bills signed with Toronto to play eight games at the stadium formerly known as the SkyDome. While Toronto has expressed an interest in extending the series, they are not prepared to pay $78 million again for the privilege. This averages out at $9.75 million per game at the SkyDome, roughly double what the Bills take in Orchard Park.
While Bills fans are worried about Toronto eventually stealing their franchise away from them altogether, the dilemma is that at this stage a new "Bills Series in Toronto" agreement is vital for the continued survival of the team in Buffalo.
Overall, while making the playoffs does not guarantee the future of the team in Western New York, it certainly won’t hurt. Hopefully, the fact that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is originally from Western New York will also help secure the future of the franchise in Buffalo.