There’s little room for error in the AFC East, and the Buffalo Bills have been living in that gray area for the better part of the last decade.
Never one of the league’s worst teams—and certainly not one of its best—the Bills have recorded fewer than six wins just twice since 2002, though winning campaigns haven’t exactly come easily. Since 1999, Buffalo has recorded just one season above the .500 mark, going 9-7 in 2004.
Organizational continuity has allowed Buffalo to avoid massive failure in recent seasons, but coming off consecutive 6-10 campaigns, it was time to shake things up.
The changes started in December with the firing of head coach Chan Gailey, who compiled just 16 wins in three seasons at the helm of the Bills. To replace him, general manager Buddy Nix hired former Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone.
Nix headed most of the Bills’ offseason agenda (including the draft), but in May, the 73-year-old decided to step down. As quoted in an Associated Press report (via ESPN), Nix admitted it was just his time to move on:
I think at some point, you've got to step aside and let young guys that are qualified have their shot. I never put a timetable on it. I always felt like I'd know when it was the right time. And I think it's the right time.
Nix brought in some quality talent in his four years in Buffalo, but his legacy will likely be defined by his final offseason at the reins. From this point forward, Doug Whaley will be tasked with making the most of Nix’s offseason decisions.
Whaley, formerly the Pro Personnel Coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was named Buffalo’s general manager following Nix’s resignation. He spent the last three years in various front-office roles in Buffalo, but he still cites his experience in Pittsburgh as the standard for what he hopes to do going forward, as quoted by Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com:
“They don't accept losing. They set the standard of winning and competing for championships. And I think if we instill that here, we'll be in the right direction.”
Whaley has the benefit of having a full season ahead of him before being responsible for a full offseason of personnel decisions, so that should give the 40-year-old a little extra breathing room as he transitions to the new role.
That said, most of Buffalo’s offseason can be credited to Nix—for better or worse. He certainly made plenty of moves to examine.
In February, Nix chose to release veteran linebacker Nick Barnett and safety George Wilson, as well as longtime cornerback Terrence McGee and starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
While Barnett and Wilson were critical components to Buffalo’s defense, Fitzpatrick’s release was arguably the biggest of those moves. The 30-year-old signal-caller had some measurable success in his four years with the team (11,654 yards, 80 touchdowns), but Fitzpatrick was far too prone to turning over the football (80 turnovers) and wasn’t the quarterback the Bills needed to continue running their offense.
To replace Fitzpatrick, Nix signed another embattled signal-caller in Kevin Kolb, fresh off a disappointing stint in Arizona in which he played just 15 games in two years with the Cardinals.
With the selection of Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel in the 2013 NFL draft, Kolb’s future role with the Bills is still very much up in the air—though he doesn’t seem to think he’ll just be a placeholder at the position, as quoted by Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com:
Me personally I’m not even concerned with it. I haven’t even thought about it really and that’s the honest truth because I have so much to address personally as a player coming into a new system. I know EJ probably does as well being a rookie. That’s kind of the way I would feel most guys are approaching it right now. Here we’re both getting reps and we’re all working at it. I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage against EJ, but it’s an advantage for me personally to be able to lean back on those type of things and those type of situations. You don’t have stay up at night worrying about things that I did when I was a young player.
Kolb spent his first four seasons as a backup with the Philadelphia Eagles, and, after stepping in for Michael Vick in 2010 with a few impressive performances, his value skyrocketed to the point of inking a hefty new contract with the Cardinals.
In signing with the Bills, Kolb is earning just $1 million in guaranteed money—a sum typically reserved for a quarterback destined for a future as a backup.
Time will tell if Kolb manages to earn the starting role ahead of Manuel this season, but there’s little chance he proves to be the future of the franchise at the quarterback position. Still, his signing gives the Bills another option at the position should Manuel not meet expectations in his formative years with the team.
Buffalo made several additional moves this offseason, and we’ll explore many of those in the following slideshow, as well as the team’s 2013 NFL draft class and some positions to keep an eye on as the season draws near. Read on.