Where Exactly Did It Go Wrong for the Buffalo Bills?

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Where Exactly Did It Go Wrong for the Buffalo Bills?
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills' season came to a merciful end for fans on Sunday in a meaningless win over the New York Jets.

How meaningless was it? It wasn't enough to help Chan Gailey keep his job as head coach.

Now, the Bills soldier on into the offseason, having already begun their search for the next head coach. In fact, the Bills have already conducted an interview with former Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt, and former Bears head coach Lovie Smith has already expressed interest in the job.

But before the Bills move forward, they must take a moment to look back on what led to their downfall. If they do not learn from their past mistakes, they are doomed to repeat them.

Where did the Bills' 2012 season go wrong? Let's take a look back at the season that was.

 

When It All Ended: vs. Rams, Week 14

Rams quarterback Sam Bradford led his offense to a 14-play, 84-yard touchdown drive trailing by five points with 4:55 left in the game. Considering the Rams ranked 19th in yards per drive and 27th in points per drive (via Football Outsiders), that's not very good.

The dagger came on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Bradford to wide receiver Brandon Gibson.

Gibson put a little shake on cornerback Ron Brooks at the beginning of the route, which allowed him to get right past the rookie corner.

From there, Bradford just lofted one high enough for Gibson to go up and make a play.

The worst part is, safety George Wilson had a chance to seal the game with an interception earlier on in the drive, but the pass bounced off his hands and to the turf.

The Bills hadn't officially been eliminated from playoff contention yet, but they were so far on the outside looking in that they would have needed a lot of things to break their way, including at least one playoff team losing all of its remaining games.

 

Injuries

The Bills were banged up from jump street. They lost wide receiver David Nelson to a season-ending injury and running back Fred Jackson for three weeks, both in Week 1. Jackson would be injured once again, ending his season early for a second consecutive year.

The two high-priced free agent defensive ends underachieved in their own right (we'll get to that later), but while Mark Anderson missed 10 weeks with a knee injury, Mario Williams played through his injury and saw little to no production in many of his early games as a result. Once the injury was healed, he played much better, logging seven sacks in the final nine games of the season after logging just 3.5 sacks in the first seven games.

The injury bug plagued the offensive line once again. Center Eric Wood and guard Kraig Urbik both missed time, while tackle Erik Pears and tackle Chad Rinehart went on injured reserve early on. The Bills were able to overcome it, though, with Ryan Fitzpatrick only being pressured 26.7 percent of the time (ranked fourth-lowest in the NFL) and the Bills still averaging over five yards per carry (fourth in the NFL).

Injuries to the offensive line may or may not have impacted Fitzpatrick's play, but one thing is for sure: After injury excuses were used for Fitzpatrick's poor play in 2011, there should be none of that in 2012 after the quarterback spent the full season at full health.

 

Underachieving Defense

It's no secret that the Bills spent a lot of resources on the defensive side of the ball, bringing in Williams and Anderson on big free-agent contracts while using first-round picks on defensive tackle Marcell Dareus in 2011 and cornerback Stephon Gilmore in 2012.

Add in defensive tackle Kyle Williams and safety Jairus Byrd and the Bills defense was poised for a big season in 2012.

That never happened, though, with players not living up to potential and coaches unable to fully maximize that potential.

With all that talent, the numbers here should astonish you:

  • The Bills defense ranked 26th in scoring.
  • The Bills gave up conversions on 44.02 percent of third downs, 31st in the NFL.
  • At the midway point in the season, the Bills were on pace to be the worst run defense in NFL history, and were yielding 5.95 YPA rushing.

Statistically, there's a lot of work to be done, but as mentioned above, there is talent on the defensive side of the ball. Gilmore is trending upward, and could be a staple for the secondary going forward, but the team's prospects at cornerback beyond Gilmore are grim. Byrd is a nice piece at safety, with his sideline-to-sideline range among the best in the league at his position, but he can't hold down the back end by himself.

Mario Williams battled a wrist injury, as mentioned above, but battled back and played better down the stretch. Kyle Williams was the best defensive lineman on the team and he played most of the season injured, too

Whoever is the next head coach of the Bills will have an awful lot of defensive talent to work with; surely, he can get more out of them than the previous regime did.

 

Underutilizing C.J. Spiller/The Coaching Mishaps of Chan Gailey

USA TODAY Sports

Gailey is a stand-up guy, and was until the very end of his tenure in Buffalo.

He just never seemed to get basic concepts of clock management and play-calling.

There were plenty of examples of his poor coaching over the course of the year, but one overarching theme of the 2012 season was the inability or unwillingness to utilize C.J. Spiller in a feature back role. All season long, Spiller was the Bills' biggest home-run threat on offense, scoring eight total touchdowns, which ranked tops on the team. 

In reaching 1,000 yards in only 119 carries, Spiller became the fourth-fastest running back in NFL history to accomplish that feat. If that's not the clearest indication that the Bills underused Spiller, I don't know what would serve better.

The bottom line remains the same: Gailey and the coaching staff as a whole were unable to take the necessary measures to ensure the talent on their team was utilized to their strengths and to their fullest potential. 

 

Searching for a "Quarterback of the Future"

USA TODAY Sports

Most general managers and head coaches play coy with regards to whom they have targeted in the NFL draft.

Not Buddy Nix. He made no bones about coming out months ago to say he's always wanted to leave the organization with a quarterback of the future.

That is to say, the guy he handed a six-year, $60 million extension in 2011 wasn't the quarterback of the future.

The logic is sound: At no point in Fitzpatrick's eight-year career has he shown the ability to be a franchise quarterback outside of the seven-week run at the beginning of 2011 that led to him getting the extension in the first place.

Since receiving that extension, Fitzpatrick has completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 6.6 YPA, 36 touchdowns, 33 interceptions and a 77.7 passer rating.

Even if the Bills find their head coach of the future in the next few days, they will need to find the quarterback of the future—or find a way to get better production out of the quarterback they already have—if they want to be a real contender in the pass-happy NFL.

 

Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.

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