The Bills' future remains in this man's hands
It's stranger than fiction.
With the Buffalo Bills in solid position to pull off an improbable upset over the New England Patriots, another chapter in their long saga of losing was written when rookie wide receiver T.J. Graham failed to come underneath cornerback Devin McCourty on a would-be game-clinching touchdown pass.
The result was a gift interception to McCourty in the end zone and further proved why Graham was a shaky pick in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft.
It's too early to write the 2012 season off entirely. The Bills' upcoming schedule is soft enough that it's possible to see them finish with a 6-1 record, which may be enough to clinch a playoff spot.
But possible doesn't mean probable, so it's not too early to look ahead to 2013. With Thanksgiving around the corner and the Bills at 3-6, the ugly ghost of lost seasons past begins to loom over the team. Meaningless football lies just around the corner—as it seemingly always does for the Bills this time of the year.
So here's a look at the team's best chances of improving their lot for next season.
WVU's Geno Smith could go No. 1 overall
Against a remaining schedule that includes the Jaguars, Rams, Colts, Jets and Dolphins, it's hard to imagine the Bills won't rack up a few wins—that and Kansas City seems to have the lock on the No. 1 overall pick at this point anyway.
Let's assume the Bills will land somewhere in their customary draft slot (No. 9-No.11) in 2013 with the full intent of drafting a quarterback.
Buddy Nix has gone on Buffalo radio twice in recent weeks to declare that (1) the Bills still need a franchise quarterback and that (2) the team is better now personnel-wise than it was in 2010, and may be more open to trading up. He's also said he isn't convinced they need to pick a QB in the first round, as other teams have done OK in later rounds (assuming he means Andy Dalton and Russell Wilson).
So the questions are which QB the Bills will target and how will they get him? The two most recent examples of teams trading up to get their franchise guy are a tale of two opposites: Washington Redskins and RGIII and the New York Jets and Mark Sanchez.
But the Bills can't afford to be fearful of the next Sanchez, they have to make their move here, and the Washington blueprint may be available to them. There's a good chance that Carolina and Cleveland will draft ahead of the Bills inside the top five. It's safe to assume neither of them will target a quarterback and could be prime candidates for a trade.
A college quarterback's stock can fluctuate a lot between fall and spring, but right now the top names in the conversation are WVU's Geno Smith, Arkansas' Tyler Wilson and USC's Matt Barkley.
Watching the Bills this season I have often received the impression that the Bills only have one linebacker: Nick Barnett.
There's two reasons for this perception: One is that Barnett plays in almost all defensive formations while Kelvin Sheppard and Nigel Bradham and Arthur Moats sub out for nickel and dime packages. The other is that Sheppard is usually found adjacent to the play under a sea of offensive lineman.
I don't blame the Bills for giving the once-promising Sheppard an honest go at the job, but they'd be foolish to think he's the team's future at the position.
You know how football media types and announcers go on and on about "football IQ" and "reading the play" and all that jazz? Well, what they mean is that some players can feel the game and react appropriately without really thinking too much. Sheppard reacts, he just doesn't end up in the right place.
He reminds me of C.J. Spiller in Spiller's rookie year when he kept trying to run in like he did in college. It took time for Spiller to learn how to read and follow his blocks, to exhibit more patience.
Maybe Sheppard can learn and find his way too; he's very young, after all. But if the Bills want to get into the playoffs in 2013, they should look long and hard at bringing an experience middle linebacker onto the team.
Aside from quarterback, the Bills' positional needs have to be some order like this: LB, WR, CB and TE.
Here's my list of untouchables on the Bills roster, their young players who can be the core building blocks of a winning franchise: C.J. Spiller, Stevie Johnson, Eric Wood, Andy Levitre, Scott Chandler, Stephon Gilmore, Jairus Byrd, Kyle Williams, Nick Barnett.
I'll give "on-the-bubble" status to Cordy Glenn, Kraig Urbik and Marcell Dareus.
Of these names, Byrd's and Levitre's both pop out because they're playing in the final year of their respective rookie contracts, and both have the potential to be All-Pro caliber players at their respective positions for years to come.
There's no question, both have to be a part of the team's future if there is to be a future. Let's hope the underwhelming return from the $127 million invested in Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, along with the big contract given last year to Ryan Fitzpatrick, don't have the Bills crying poor when it comes to keeping their best homegrown talent.
It's pretty clear at this point that there will be some turnover in the Bills' coaching staff this offseason.
Whether or not this will include Chan Gailey is anyone's guess, though my guess is that there's a "good ol' boys" thing going on between himself, Nix and Ralph Wilson and that Wilson will give him another year, maybe even more.
Gailey's street cred as an offensive play-caller is rather solid. His in game decision-making is more conservative that I'd like to see, and his leadership qualities are very questionable.
Look no further than the team's current handling of the C.J. Spiller-Fred Jackson situation for a good example of Gailey's leadership style. It's obvious that Spiller is exceptional and deserves to be the unquestioned No. 1 guy. Yet the Bills continually defer to Jackson for whatever reason.
The prime candidate for the chopping block remains defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. His defense has underperformed given the talent and potential on that side of the ball, and he appears about as original as white bread and about as inspiring as the manager of a family diner.
The Bills players on defense deserve better. They deserve a coach whose had some success since the league started popping out 5,000-plus yard passers. Maybe the Bills could hire someone who doesn't get canvassed by the AARP.
How much more mediocre mileage in the league are these ex-Jimmy Johnson staffers Wannstedt and Norv Turner going to get, anyway?
What Bills fans dream of: Wilson just giving the team to Jim Kelly
This move is the one that has the least likely chance of happening—somewhere on a scale between the Bills making the playoffs in 2012 and pigs flying. But there's no doubt that the Bills Hall of Fame owner Ralph C. Wilson is a detriment to his team.
Let's take a step back and assume that his age is not a factor in his decision-making and also assume that his hiring of Buddy Nix in 2010 was a credible and savvy football move. What we still have is an owner who may very well be in failing health and a team without a viable future.
As much as it pains me, a lifelong Buffalonian and Bills' fan, to consider the cold reality of the NFL Megabuck Universe, one needs to be honest with oneself. Buffalo is a shrinking market with an outdated stadium for a league that would love to see two teams in Los Angeles, as well as possibly in Toronto and London.
This is why the owner situation is of paramount importance to any question of the Bills future. As it stands now, unless there's a real plan by some secret billionaire Bills fan (cough: Terry Pegula, Jeremy Jacobs, Tom Golisano, Jeffery Gundlach), it's easy to conclude that Bills don't really have a future.
You don't need to understand philosophy to understand that something with no future has only a tenuous present. There may be benefits to dating the girl you would never really be with, but the charade can only go on for so long until it all unravels.