Buffalo Bills: Comprehensive Bye Week Evaluation, Season and Franchise Outlook
The Buffalo Bills have been great for 12 years.
Great at leaving a horribly sour taste in the mouths of their fans, that is.
The latest unappealing taste arrived via a 35-34 defeat at the hands of the Tennessee Titans at home before the bye week.
Buffalo has disappointed in nearly every imaginable way, as the last dozen years of futility have been marred with heartbreaking losses, humiliating blowouts and everything in between.
Now, the 3-4 Bills and their fans have a week off to painstakingly contemplate what has occurred with their perpetually discouraging franchise and where exactly to go from here.
Hopefully, this evaluation will help to sort out some thoughts.
Ryan Fitzpatrick takes a lot of heat as the Bills far-from-franchise quarterback. He deserves some of it, but not all.
I've watched and re-watched all his throws this season. Maybe you have too.
His shortcomings are extremely noticeable. His arm strength is inadequate and is what gets him into trouble more than anything else.
When he's pressured, or feels pressure mounting, Fitzpatrick has the somewhat typical quarterback tendency to panic and make bad decisions.
While more naturally talented signal-callers can occasionally get away with throwing off their back foot or when their upper and lower half aren't in sync—the Bills quarterback cannot.
However, when he's provided a clean pocket, he can be rather accurate on short-to-intermediate passes and usually throws the ball to the correct receiver at the correct time.
As is the case with every quarterback, there are instances in which he's fooled and tosses an incompletion or interception when pressure is non-existent.
Unfortunately, for him, most of downfield throws have come when pass-rushers have either been bearing down on him or have been in the process of hitting him, so his accuracy has severely faltered on those big play attempts.
Having said that, Fitzpatrick's downfield accuracy is undeniably substandard.
It's clear that Chan Gailey's quick passing system suits Fitzpatrick's game and does a relatively good job hiding his noticeable deficiencies.
The running backs are the key pieces to the offensive attack, but I probably didn't need to tell you that. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson complement each other well, and it'll be Gailey's toughest task to balance the amount of touches each talented runner receives during the second half of the season.
The Bills are only one of four teams that have totaled over 1,000 yards rushing thus far and have done so at an impressive 5.3 yards-per-carry clip.
When Cordy Glenn and Kraig Urbik return from injury, the underrated offensive line should come together nicely. Even with practice squad players in the starting lineup during the last few weeks, Buffalo's offensive front has performed admirably.
Outside of the stellar running game, it has allowed only eight sacks, the second-fewest in the league.
At receiver, I have to admit a total whiff on my end.
Prior to the start of the season, I adamantly described Stevie Johnson as simply a good No. 2 wideout. He's exceeded my expectations in nearly every phase of the game in 2012. No, he's not the biggest, fastest or most talented, but his unorthodox ability to frequently get open is absolutely invaluable.
With more consistency at the quarterback position, he's at Top 15. Now, he'd be lucky to crack the Top 20.
After him, there's some talent, but a group of rather uninspiring pass-catchers. Donald Jones can be productive in Gailey's system, but isn't a real threat. Neither is Brad Smith.
I think the Bills really miss the chain-moving presence of 6'5'' David Nelson.
T.J. Graham has been utilized sparingly and that in large part may be due to Gailey's lack of confidence in Fitzpatrick accurately delivering the ball down the field. He really should be used on more bubble screens, though.
The Bills offense is averaging the 29th-most yards per drive, not necessarily an encouraging statistic, but they're 17th in points per drive and ninth in touchdowns per drive.
No, this isn't an elite unit—not even close—but when the running backs are prominently featured, and Fitzpatrick is given time to throw the football, it is good enough in today's mediocrity-filled AFC.
The defense, to me, is the unit that deserves most of the blame for the Bills woes at the bye week. Many were expecting an average-to-sufficient offensive attack, and that's really what it's been.
But the masses thought Buffalo's defense would carry them to the postseason.
Not only has it been massively underwhelming, it's been historically bad.
I won't throw a bunch of stats at you—just one.
No team has allowed more touchdowns per drive than the Bills. Teams have reached the end zone on 33 percent of their drives against Buffalo this season.
There has been much talk regarding who's to blame for the stunningly horrific play, and, as is usually the case, there isn't one person who deserves it all.
Defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt's 4-3 system is dated and rather vanilla. Blitzes are rare, and defensive line stunts are even more uncommon. In other words, it's not confusing for a five-or-six man offensive line to block the Bills talented quartet.
The safeties, George Wilson and Jairus Byrd, are solid, especially the latter.
Stephon Gilmore is blossoming into a fine cover corner, but the other defensive backs, most namely Aaron Williams and Justin Rogers, are major liabilities.
Williams has the physical tools, but his ball skills are Leodis McKelvin-esque.
Rogers is simply overmatched by speedy slot guys and hasn't shown a knack to find the football in the air, either.
Simple as that.
When Ron Brooks returns, which could be against the Texans in Week 9, he'll be an instant upgrade over Rogers in the slot, although, in all likelihood, he'll make rookie mistakes to start.
In my estimation, the linebacking corps is where we find the most glaring talent drop off and is the main reason why Wannstedt's defense has failed miserably, especially against the run.
Nick Barnett is active, but he's not an impact guy who's capable of shedding blocks and plugging running lanes. Kelvin Sheppard is athletic, but really seems to struggle with awareness and taking the correct angles on run fits. Nigel Bradham, too, is athletically gifted, but he has demonstrated a difficulty in deciphering running plays and recognizing where he needs to be at the second level.
These three often get engulfed by lead blockers or simply over-pursue, giving running backs massive lanes through which to run.
It's a real problem, one that must be fixed immediately.
Can it be fixed?
I'm not sure.
There's no doubting that Mario Williams has disappointed. He, for the most part, has been a non-factor and is rarely getting double teamed. Maybe his contract means he deserves more ridicule when Buffalo falters on defense, but I'm not ready to crucify him yet.
All 11 guys on that side of the football can play much better.
Aggression has lacked whenever the Bills defense has faced a respectable starting quarterback in 2012, and that has to change, too.
(Bryan Scott and Kyle Williams have been the clear-cut defensive MVP's through seven games.)
I'll be quick here.
Minus the Jeremy Kerley punt return touchdown in Week 1 and an occasional shanked punt that happens to just about every punter not named Andy Lee or Shane Lechler, the special teams has been spectacular.
McKelvin seems to be a touchdown waiting to happen on nearly every kick return, and Smith went to the house basically untouched against the Titans.
The special teams are the one aspect of this Bills team that is looking up at this point.
Next Game (Week 9 vs. Houston Texans)
After seeing what Chris Johnson did to the Bills defense in Week 7 on the road, it's scary to think what Arian Foster may do at home in Week 9.
The Texans are precisely the type of team the Bills wish they were, a club with a punishing running game and an even more punishing defense.
You'll probably read enough previews leading into this one, so a position-by-position breakdown seems unnecessary, but it's plain to see—this may be the most difficult matchup Buffalo faces all year.
A win would be of the absolute miraculous variety.
However, getting starters back from injury (possibly Mark Anderson, Urbik, Brooks and Glenn) should help.
New Stadium Proposal
Via The Buffalo News, the new stadium proposal has been the hottest topic among Bills fans looking and thinking long-term.
While an abundance of financial, structural and engineering "experts" have magically popped up on Twitter giving reasons for and against the new stadium, let's just take it for what it's worth right now.
It's a proposal in it's infancy stages that has a long way to go before any committee gives the OK or shuts down the idea.
From my understanding—and I'm far from an insider or expert in his area—a new stadium would almost assure that the Bills stay in Buffalo.
A new lease agreement on Ralph Wilson Jr. Stadium shouldn't be seen as a negative, but for an ownership group that would presumably have to buy the franchise for around $1 billion, a moving penalty upwards of $50 million included in the new lease wouldn't stop a move from taking place.
As I've always said, the only sure-fire way for the Bills to stay in Buffalo right now is for Ralph Wilson Jr. to sell the team to a Buffalo-based ownership before he passes so the team cannot go up for auction.
After the game with the Texans, the Bills travel to New England to take on the Patriots. Sure, the Pats secondary is far from stellar, but remember what Tom Brady did to Buffalo in the second half of Week 3.
I'm not here to make predictions, but winning in Foxboro is never easy, and unless there's a drastic shift in defensive philosophy and simple production from the defensive line, linebackers and cornerbacks, it'll be a second-straight week that the cards will be seriously stacked against the Bills.
It'll be hard to find any optimism if the team is 3-6, but after a date with Tom Brady, the schedule, in essence, only consists of what I like to call "coin flips."
How many wins will the Bills finish with at the end of the season?
These are games that Buffalo has a reasonable chance to win, but certainly isn't guaranteed anything.
A slate against the Miami Dolphins (twice), New York Jets, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts doesn't include any outing against an elite team or legitimate Super Bowl contender, and, fortunately for Buffalo, five of seven of those games are at home (Seattle in Toronto).
If I've learned anything about today's NFL, it's that there's widespread mediocrity and parity, so you never know what could happen.
Bills fans can cling to that thought this weekend and for the remainder of the 2012 season.
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