It was one of the best story lines of last season. The Buffalo Bills rolled into a 5-2 start and positioned themselves for a playoff push. It was a streak that was highlighted by Ryan Fitzpatrick and company overcoming an 18-point deficit to beat the New England Patriots in Week 3 on their way to 3-0, and capped by a 23-0 shutout of the Washington Redskins in Toronto in Week 8.
Going into that game, the Bills defense led the NFL in takeaways with 16. Their offense led in red-zone efficiency at 76 percent. Fitzpatrick looked sharp with 14 touchdowns to seven interceptions. In a momentarily-competitive AFC East, the Bills stood tied with the Patriots for first place.
But then came Week 9 when they couldn't muster more than 11 points against a team that had been chauffeuring quarterbacks to the end zone all season long. The New York Jets pummeled the Bills to a tune of 27-11, and if not for a meaningless touchdown with three minutes remaining, the scoreboard would tell the story of what actually happened on the field.
That marked the beginning of a downward spiral in which they would drop seven straight, finishing the season by losing eight of their last nine games. Once again, for the fourth time in a row, the Bills landed in last place. And once again, for the 12th straight season, they would be held out of the playoffs, which is the current longest standing drought in the NFL.
It's hard to say what led to their demise. Some blame injuries. Though if Fitzpatrick was playing hurt, you couldn't see it on the game films. Not with the way he was running into contact and using his whole body to throw. But he certainly didn't look like the same quarterback that started the season by rolling into Kansas City and punishing the Chiefs 40-7, the best game of his career (four touchdowns to zero interceptions).
Some might say they were over performing. Whatever it was, one of the best story lines of 2011 eventually crumbled into another embarrassing year. Now, with training camps right around the corner, what better time to fire up the hype machine and make some predictions about the 2012 edition of the Buffalo Bills.
Going into the 11th week of the 2011 season, Fred Jackson was the second leading rusher in the NFL (first in yards from scrimmage).
He accumulated 917 yards on the ground, averaging 5.6 per carry, plus another 392 receiving. In eight of nine games he had carries of at least 20 yards or more and six games of 100-plus yards. Then, in a blowout lost to the Dolphins, Jackson broke a bone in his lower leg and his season was over.
Enter C.J. Spiller.
In Jackson's absence, Spiller averaged 105.5 yards per game and five touchdowns (rushing and receiving). Even before Jackson went down, head coach Chan Gailey frequently featured both backs on the field in various formations and Spiller had opportunities to display his quick feet and good hands.
Unfortunately, since being selected in the first round of the 2010 draft, Spiller has been somewhat of an afterthought in a Bills' offense that is routinely mediocre. That all changed in the final weeks of 2011. Spiller proved that he's more than capable of being the feature back. As is Jackson.
The combination of the two—both with excellent hands and big play ability—will prove to be matchup nightmares for other teams in 2012.
With the 6', 245 pound Corey McIntyre leading the way at fullback, and a 6'7", 260 pound tight end in Scott Chandler providing blocks, this team will be run-focused and run-successful, even in a spread offense.
Once upon a time, if a team was great at running the ball and great at stopping the run, they were considered to be a dual threat and picked to win their respective division.
As pass-happy as the modern game has become, that old moniker may no longer apply.
Regardless, the Bills have made some offseason moves that have their front seven looking like one of the best in the league.
Signing Mario Williams is just the beginning.
Add his former teammate Mark Anderson, who is coming off a 10-sack season with the Patriots, and you have one of the best defensive end tandems in the NFL.
Back them up with Chris Kelsay and three-time Pro Bowler Shawne Merriman and you have veteran depth that will give Tom Brady, among others, a reason for concern.
Behind them is the veteran linebacker Nick Barnett, who recorded 130 tackles and three interceptions last year.
But in order for him to continue to be productive he will need help from Kirk Morrison and second-year pro Kelvin Sheppard.
There's no question that linebackers and defensive backs represent one of the biggest challenges facing the Bills' defense in 2012. This group needs to improve if they are going to reach the lofty expectations of an exhausted fan base.
But the X-factor is the No. 3 overall pick of the 2011 draft, Marcell Dareus. His rookie season wasn't bad. Nor was it great.
Dareus needs to fill gaps and realize his potential in the upcoming season. Being surrounded by proven veterans and a hungry group of second-year guys will influence that dramatically.
Especially if defensive tackle Kyle Williams recovers from the injury that ended his season last October.
If he's even so much as 85 percent, not only will the Bills have the one of the best defensive end duos, they'll have one of the best interior linemen duos. Dareus could be in line for a breakout season, while the Bills work their way up as the best run defense in the league.
Considering that, as a team, the Bills finished last season with only 29 sacks and tied for third worst, it's somewhat blasphemous to think that two guys will eclipse that number in 2012 by themselves.
But that is the reality that AFC East fans need to be aware of. The addition of Williams and Anderson, who have a combined 88.5 sacks over their careers, isn't just filling an obvious need, it's revolutionizing a bottom dwelling defense.
Anderson has struggled to live up to the hype that was fashioned by his 2006 rookie season, when he set a new Chicago Bears' record for most sacks by a rookie (previously held by Brian Urlacher).
He ultimately ended up being cut by the Bears when he failed to produce and it wasn't until last season that Anderson started showing up in highlight reels again. He was one of the few bright spots of a Patriots' defense that was less than stellar.
Williams has been a dominant pass rusher since being drafted first overall in 2006 by the Texans and the Bills paid big money to land him.
In fact, the money was so big that it made him the highest paid defensive player in the history of the NFL.
Consequently, that's where the expectation bar has been set, somewhere around the highest in the league. We need not mention that Williams is coming off of a season-ending injury that required surgery.
The good news is that it wasn't the type of injury that slows players down. It was merely a flesh wound, a muscle tear, something that Williams will recover from 100 percent.
Returning to his natural stance of a 4-3 defensive end will be great for Williams.
Especially after gaining some experience as an outside linebacker in Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme last year in Houston.
Now that he's had a taste of it, his vision will be different. His approach and awareness will be improved. He'll be better at reading the quarterback and reading where the play is going.
Williams is in for the best year of his career. Bless the teams that leave him lined up one-on-one with their left tackle. It'll be a long day for the quarterback.
There's no question that Stevie Johnson is the best wide receiver on this team.
He has the speed and route-running abilities that separate him from his teammates and cornerbacks, evidenced by back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons (the only Bills receiver to ever do so).
But this is the year of David Nelson.
Mike Clay of Rotoworld points out that the Bills ran three-plus wider receiver sets more than any other team in the NFL at 77 percent. He continues:
Often going without even a single tight end, Buffalo had four wide receivers on the field a league-high 32 percent of the time. The next closest was Chicago at 16 percent.
This is important for two reasons:
First, Nelson is the third wide receiver on the depth chart. There is no evidence to suggest that Gailey intends to move away from a spread formation in 2012. That means, if history repeats itself, Nelson will be on the field for nearly 77 percent of the snaps. He was second in receptions last year, with 61 to Johnson's 76, despite not registering as the No. 2 receiver.
Second, it's been reported that Donald Jones has been seeing some time in the slot. Is that an indication of a player learning different parts of the field or an indication of Jones losing his starting role to Nelson?
Time will tell of course. I expect that Jones will be the starter come Week 1. But Nelson will be far more productive and more reliable in the red zone. Not only does he have great vision and hands, he's also 6'5", 215 pounds. Look at the measurements of the receivers that have been dominant over the last decade:
Andre Johnson: 6'3", 226 pounds
Larry Fitzgerald: 6'3", 218 pounds
Calvin Johnson: 6'5", 236 pounds
Randy Moss: 6'4", 210 pounds
Reggie Wayne: 6'0", 198 pounds
And then look at some of the receivers that have been drafted in the first round over the last three years:
Justin Blackmon (2012, 5th overall): 6'1", 202 pounds
Michael Floyd (2012, 13th overall): 6'3", 220 pounds
A.J. Green (2011, 4th overall): 6'4", 207 pounds
Julio Jones (2011, 6th overall): 6'3", 220 pounds
Demaryius Thomas (2010, 22nd overall): 6'3", 235 pounds
Dez Bryant (2010, 24th overall): 6'2", 218 pounds
There's a trend here and Nelson fits the profile.
Like everyone else on the Bills roster, he had an up-and-down season in 2011.
Regardless, he has the skill, he has the hands, and he certainly has the build. In the modern era of pass-first offenses, size matters. Nelson will see his fair share of targets (fantasy players take note, he won't be drafted, nor will he be on waivers long).
Do you know what I love about the tight end position?
It may be, aside from the quarterback, the most challenging position in football.
Not only do you need size and agility to play tight end, you need to be fearless while knowing that the strongest and most agile defenders are lining up against you (such as Patrick Willis, DeMarcus Ware and Ray Lewis).
You need to be able to block.
You need to be able to make catches in traffic.
You need to have the hands of a wide receiver, and the strength of a linebacker.
Do you know what I love about Scott Chandler?
He does all of those things exceptionally well.
Although his statistical production was inconsistent in 2011 (there seems to be a theme here), his dedication and contribution to the production of players around him makes him the most overlooked tight end in football.
While Fred Jackson was breaking runs of 20 and 30 yards, it was Chandler that was laying out defensive linemen. While Steve Johnson was on his way to his second 1,000-yard season, it was Chandler creating the pocket for the quarterback.
We all saw what Rob Gronkowski did last year and that's not lost on me. He is, without a doubt, an absolute beast and a force that the Bills' defense will have to reckon with.
But Chandler is a 6'7", 260 pound red zone threat that will dominate on every level in 2012. Sure, it's possible he loses snaps to four-wide sets that feature running backs, but he won't be splitting time with another tight end (Aaron Hernandez). And he will most certainly be a factor inside the 10 (fantasy players, another note, Chandler won't be drafted but he might finish as a top-five TE).
The Bills are serious.
What I really want to say is that the Bills win the AFC East, host a pair of playoff games, and go on to lose to the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl.
That's the prediction I want to make because there's a part of me that actually believes it. But then there's the realist in me, the part of me that knows that there's a big difference between a bold prediction and a downright absurd prediction. Crowning the Bills AFC Champions before training camps even open would be an absurd prediction.
However, it's not absurd to think that the Bills can win 11 games, and that's figuring a sweep by the Patriots and a split with the Jets.
Even with them losing to the 49ers and the Texans, I'll give them wins against the rest of the NFC West and the rest of the AFC South. I'll give them a sweep of the Dolphins, and wins against the Browns and the Chiefs.
Now you have an 11-5 Bills team that loses the division by one game. That's assuming that the Patriots' will solve some of their secondary problems and improve their defense. That's assuming that Tom Brady, who turns 35 in August, doesn't miss a beat and turns in another 30-plus touchdown season. That's assuming that the Bills can get healthy and their defense on paper translates to execution on the field.
It's also assuming that they won't self-implode like they did last season.
Their offense shows a lot of promise. Fitzpatrick needs to find the consistency it takes to weather the tough games that 2012 has in store. The defense needs to come up with plays for when the offense falls short. That's an obvious blanket statement that could be applied towards every team.
You could take even further and say that every team has the potential to reach the playoffs; what separates the Bills is that they have proven their potential. They proved it for six games last season. Now they just need to stay healthy not let the close ones get away.
The Bills roster looks as unbalanced as any in the NFL. In fact, up until they signed Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, their roster looked like it was made up of replacement players, like the NFLPA was on strike.
Offensively, the Bills don't have single skill position starter that was drafted higher than the seventh round. Three of their four starting wide receivers are undrafted free agents. Going down the list:
Ryan Fitzpatrick: seventh round
Steve Johnson: seventh round
Donald Jones: undrafted
David Nelson: undrafted
Naaman Roosevelt: undrafted
Scott Chandler: undrafted
Fred Jackson: undrafted
That's not an offense that is built to win.
That's a pickup game at USC. And it's led by a Harvard graduate at quarterback, the only Harvard quarterback to ever be drafted. A quarterback that scored a 1580 on the SAT (at the time, 1600 was the highest possible score).
If and when Fitzpatrick leads the Bills to the playoffs, his head coach will deserve to win Coach of the Year.
It's amazing to watch Gailey's offense in motion.
Literally. The way he designs plays that feature wide receivers moving around the field while running backs move from the backfield to the slot. They way he utilizes Brad Smith as a quarterback, a wide receiver, a running back, and a punt returner.
The fact that he knows Fitzpatrick is more than just a pocket quarterback. He knows he can take off when the play breaks down. He knows that from when he was the offensive coordinator of a rookie quarterback known as Slash, that took his team to the playoffs.
He also knows that he has Vince Young on the roster.
As strange as it sounds, Gailey's system is the type that Young would thrive in. It's a mystery as to why Gailey doesn't run more option plays given the ground threats he has at his disposal.
Surely the offensive line, young and injured, are a big part of his reasoning. But imagine designing plays like Chris Johnson, except with C.J. Spiller. It's worthy of consideration. Of course, if Young ends up starting at any point during the 2012 season, something has gone horribly wrong.
Gailey's record as a head coach is far from good at 28-36.
He's never won a playoff game despite two appearances with the Dallas Cowboys.
At the age of 60, his window of opportunity is undoubtedly closing. But he has developed a good relationship with GM Buddy Nix and has once again joined forces with Dave Wannstedt. Except this time, Gailey is calling the shots.
With Wannstedt in control of a defense that could very well lead the league in sacks, and Gailey armed with multiple running threats, unheard of receiving threats, and a manageable schedule, this could be the year that the Bills pull themselves out of the league-leading playoff drought. That, in and of itself, would be enough to award Gailey Coach of the Year.