5 Pieces the Buffalo Bills Still Need to Become a True Contender

Aaron Lowinger@Aaron_LowingerContributor INovember 26, 2012

5 Pieces the Buffalo Bills Still Need to Become a True Contender

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    If only sucking for Luck was a viable option for the Buffalo Bills at this point, the Bills might be able to find themselves a year from now in a similar position to the Indianapolis Colts, who improved to 7-4 after dropping the Bills by a 20-13 score that all but ends the Bills' fledgling playoff hopes.

    It might not be a mathematical elimination, but who's really doing the math? If you've been watching this team all year, you know the pieces as assembled don't add up to a real team, a real contender. 

    So instead, Bills fans are faced with a very familiar football December that always includes watching other teams play meaningful football games, not watching blacked-out Bills home games and imagining a future where things just might be different because they just have to be at some point, right?

    A team has to sell its fans hope that the team can one day win a championship. Otherwise, even being a spectator is useless. If you know already your team has no chance, then what's the fun in being a fan? Like the Chicago Cubs, Bills games are fun to attend, but the Bills aren't in Chicago, and at some point, their lack of success on the field endangers their viability as a small market in an overblown and global league. 

    My father grew up in North Buffalo surrounded by rabid Yankee fans and decided at an early age to buck the trend and follow his favorite player, Willie Mays, and his New York Giants. When they moved to San Francisco, he kept following them. He would often relay to me the heartbreak of the 1962 World Series, where Willie McCovey's would-be Series-clinching base-hit disappeared into the well-placed glove of Bobby Richardson. He watched them get swept by the Oakland A's in 1989 and blow Game 6, and the Series, against the Angels in 2002. And through it all, he would painfully lament that he would never live to see one his favorite teams (Giants, Bills, Sabres) win a championship.

    The Giants have since struck twice after fielding an incredible team around unlikely superstars like Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Tim Lincecum, who seem to be perfectly coached by manager Bruce Bochy. 

    The silver lining for Bills fans is that the team is better off than it was before Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey came to Buffalo. They've groomed a core of good young players (Eric Wood, Jairus Byrd, C.J. Spiller, Stevie Johnson, Marcell Dareus, Andy Levitre, Cordy Glenn, Kraig Urbik, Stephon Gilmore, Scott Chandler) that can form the nucleus of the team to come for those who can imagine it.

    I admit; I have a lot of trouble doing exactly that. But when I see my dad rocking his Giants championship hoodie he ordered the night they won their second World Series in three years, I want to be along for the ride. 

A Coach, a Real NFL Coach

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    I'll give Chan Gailey this: After those dark days of incompetent and conservative offenses under Dick Jauron, the tidal wave of passing and solid game plans sated the dry deserts of Bills fandom. I like Chan Gailey and I see what he's trying to do, and I respect that. But it's not good enough.

    No, it's much worse than not good enough. Chan's record of 14-29, sadly, speaks for itself. And it's becoming more painful by the week to see his coaching on and off the field unravel. There was the unforgettable Brad Smith interception throw in Arizona, the inexplicable failure to attempt two-point conversions against Tennessee, a baffling ignorance of his most expensive player's injury—and the procedure he had during the bye to fix it—and there's been an ongoing lack of recognition that C.J. Spiller could be having one of the greatest rushing seasons in terms of yards per carry since Jim Brown. 

    Worst yet, that Bills have become awful on third down and in the red zone. In their last two games, they are 6-for-25 on third down. As a play-caller, Gailey looks like he's lost his inventive touch.  

    In today's game at Indianapolis, the Bills had the ball on the Colts' 34-yard line on fourth down and elected to punt instead of trying a would-be 51-yard field goal. 

    After the game, as reported by the Buffalo News' Tim Graham, Rian Lindell figuratively scratched his head while Chan Gailey did his best to channel Dick Jauron.

    "He might make it, and he might not," Gailey said. "We were playing pretty good defensively, and I thought if we backed them up down there and held them, it was better for us percentage-wise and we'd be able to get a touchdown out of it because of field position."

    Sorry, but this just strikes me as asinine, loser logic from a loser coach.

    As far as head coaching prospects, read this and tell me you're not interested in a guy like Jay Gruden for head coach. SB Nation writer Anthony Cosenza goes on to quote ESPN's John Clayton, saying the following:

    In reality, the credit should go to Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, who called an incredible game. For what he has done developing Dalton and a young receiving corps in Cincinnati, Congress should launch an investigation if Gruden doesn't get a head-coaching job next year. The guy is brilliant. Gruden's unit put up 478 yards and 38 points. Overall, the Bengals had seven plays of 22 yards or more Sunday. In the past two weeks, the Bengals have had five touchdowns of 40 yards or more. Dalton proved he was special last season in helping the Bengals make the playoffs as a wild-card team, but he wasn't known for having a particularly strong arm. This year, he's averaging 9.1 yards an attempt and 13.3 yards a completion.

    In Buffalo, we've been down the road before of looking for an established coach with a ring already on his finger, and the Bills' entreaties to Shanahan, Cowher and Gruden were summarily rejected. What the Bills need to find is the next Tomlin, the next Cowher, the next Harbaugh (pick one).

    In this case, why not make it the next Gruden?

A Quarterback, a Real NFL Quarterback

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    Just because we've changed slides doesn't mean I'm not going to let the coach thing go so easily. Check this out. Here's a simplified statistical run down, courtesy of Pro-Football Reference, on two quarterbacks we all know and love: 

    Quarterback A

    Year   Age  G  Rate
    2005    21  9  40.8
    2006    22 16  74.8
    2007    23  7  57.2
    2009    25 11  81.5
    2010    26 11  82.1
    2011    27 16  90.7
    2012    28  9 104.1

    Quarterback B

    Year     Age  G Rate
    1987      22  4  2.8
    1988      23  3 66.0
    1989      24  0     
    1990      25 14 68.9
    1991      26 15 81.5
    1992      27 12 72.9
    1993      28  8 59.5
    1995      30  2 76.7
    1996      31  4 92.4
    1997      32  9 79.8
    1998      33 12 80.1
    1999      34 16 86.5
    2000      35 16 92.4
    2001      36 16 95.5
    2002      37 16 97.3

    These quarterbacks came into the league in different eras and with different expectations. QB A was a No. 1 overall pick, widely considered a bust until he had a breakout year in 2011, which is conveniently highlighted in bold font. QB B was a fourth-round pick and journeyman backup who found a starting role later in his career and took off in the year in bold font. 

    What both these quarterbacks have in common in those bold years is coaching. In 2011, Jim Harbaugh found a way to get production out of Alex Smith, and in 1999, Jon Gruden spun gold out of Rich Gannon's hay. 

    It's a small sample size, I know, and is it a new postulate in the truth-seeking world of NFL talk? No, of course not. But good coaching breeds good quarterback play, and this is the crux of the reason why I, among many other Bills fans, was so excited when Chan Gailey seemed to had found a match in Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2011. 

    So based on the last slide, do I think Jay Gruden could save Ryan Fitzpatrick's career? Maybe. But I don't want to watch that scenario play out. The team needs a franchise quarterback.

    The only problem is finding one. The upcoming draft doesn't seem to have a surefire one or two QB studs, but there are sure to be some Ponders, Kaepernicks, and Daltons in the rough. There are some big NFL names that might be available in trade like Alex Smith, Tony Romo, Phillip Rivers and Michael Vick.

    I'd like to see the Bills go both routes. Draft a QB in the first or second round and bring in a veteran who can actually play, whether by trade or by free agency.

    The team's lack of depth at quarterback and its bungling of Vince Young and Tarvaris Jackson have been embarrassing. 

A Viable Deep Threat Receiver

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    It's funny how football works, or at least how it works for the Bills. For years, their best receiver was Lee Evans, a natural vertical burner stuck on a team with a one-dimensional quarterback in J.P. Losman, who, it seemed, was only capable of those deep throws, and another one-dimensional quarterback in Trent Edwards who could only dump the ball off in the short passing game. 

    A younger Lee Evans would be a fantastic complement to Stevie Johnson. Johnson, to me, is like a Wes Welker 2.0. A bigger, stronger and just a wee bit faster Welker who can open any old time he needs to, be creative on the field and catch just about anything thrown his way despite the fact his quarterback is setting him for a safety kill shot.

    Stevie Johnson provided the best moment for the Bills in this most recent game against the Colts, by the way, when he chased down an interception return and brilliantly stripped the ball and recovered the fumble in almost one motion. The kid (I'm only 32, but I like calling them kids) is a gamer. 

    I'm sure a better quarterback would make Donald Jones look better, but I'm not convinced of the quality of his hands or route-running, though he ran a brilliant route against the Colts that would have been a touchdown had Fitzpatrick not completely lost his touch on deep throws somewhere last summer. 

    I digress. Here's a quick list at some free-agent receivers who might fit the Bills: Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Greg Jennings.

A Linebacker or Three

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    The Bills could really use an upgrade over their thin starting linebacking corps comprised of Nick Barnett, Nigel Bradham and Kelvin Sheppard. Barnett's probably the best of the bunch, which is only saying a little. Bradham's a rookie and could get better. Sheppard's a second year player, and he could get better. Or they won't and we'll just keep hoping the next guy can. 

    If it were that easy to find franchise middle linebackers, then everyone would have one and the Jacksonville Jaguars wouldn't be paying Paul Posluszny a gazillion dollars to look pretty, which, of course, wasn't their plan, but they wanted to gamble because franchise middle linebackers aren't easy to come by. 

    The consensus franchise middle linebacker in this year's draft, and possible Heisman winner, Manti Te'o is shooting up the draft boards and could see a Von Miller-like pick in the top two or three. And in the suck category, the Bills still trail the Jaguars, Browns, Chiefs, Eagles and Panthers.

    There's not going to be a lot of surefire middle linebackers in the free-agency pool either, but solid players like the Bengals' Manny Lawson or the Vikings' Erin Henderson are intriguing. 

Odd and Ends

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    The thing that Bills fans need to feel really, really good about in these dark dark days is the fact that personnel-wise, the Bills really aren't that far off the mark. I could make an argument about why Buddy Nix should be shown the door (Torrell Troup, Alex Carrington, Kelvin Sheppard, no QB depth, etc.), but I have to give him the credit for assembling a fairly decent roster through free agency, the draft and the Scott Chandler-Kraig Urbik football limbo express.  

    With a real coach, they could be in the playoffs this year. With a real coach and a more consistent quarterback, they're a playoff team. The fact that the same could be said for about 10 other teams I'm going to ignore while I ride the positive vibes of my first thought. 

    There's a few more areas where I think the Bills could improve, or more to the point, players who I would not miss: George Wilson, Chris Hairston, Chris Kelsay, Justin Rogers and, if Rian Lindell really can't boot 50-plus yarders with the rest of the league, then him too.

    Aside from coach and quarterback, it's a pretty manageable offseason to-do list for Buddy.