Where Can the Buffalo Bills Improve Most in 2013?

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Where Can the Buffalo Bills Improve Most in 2013?
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All the wagons have left as the Buffalo Bills remain the only team yet to qualify for the NFL playoffs since 2000.

Everyone’s waiting, Buffalo. After that gut-punch loss to the Titans via the “Music City Miracle” in the 1999 season, Buffalo has been unable to exercise its playoff demons with even an appearance, let alone a win.

The Bills’ last playoff win came against the Miami Dolphins in the 1995 AFC Wild Card. Only Cincinnati (1990), Detroit (1991), Kansas City (1993) and Cleveland (1994) have a longer active drought without a playoff win.

As is often the case, you need a head coach and a quarterback. Just ask the Oakland Raiders why they continue to lose.

Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly retired after the 1996 season, which was quickly followed by the retirement of Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy a year later to close the curtain on that successful era. The Bills are now into their sixth era, still searching for that winning formula.

There was Wade Phillips (1998-00), who made the mistake of trusting Rob Johnson over Doug Flutie. Then there was Gregg Williams (2001-03), who gave up a bounty for Drew Bledsoe without any results. Mike Mularkey (2004-05) picked the runt of the litter in the 2004 draft when he was stuck with J.P. Losman.

Dick Jauron (2006-09) always overstayed his welcome, branching Trent “Captain Checkdown” Edwards with the beginning of the Ryan Fitzpatrick era. Chan Gailey always got just enough offense out of Fitzpatrick to keep the team competitive, but a 16-32 record made him an easy fire after the season. Fitzpatrick packed his bags for Tennessee.

At what point does that fan captured on NFL Films with his “B-U-F-F-A-L-O, put it all together and you got a buffalo!” slogan get a shot to run this team?

Now the Bills are led by offensive-minded Doug Marrone, who coached under Herm Edwards (2002-05 Jets) and Sean Payton (2006-08 Saints) before taking the head job at Syracuse (2009-12) where he had a 25-25 record.

He tied a quarterback to his hip, which is always a good idea, but no one expected Florida State’s EJ Manuel would be the first one off the board in the 2013 draft at No. 16.

I guess we did circle the wagons after all. Here we are again with Buffalo entering another season with a coach and quarterback looking to prove themselves.

 

EJ Manuel: Start or Sit Him?

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Unless Kevin Kolb has a trick up his sleeve, the big storyline in Buffalo this season will be wondering when EJ Manuel makes his first start as the latest savior of the franchise.

Does he make it in Week 1 or do you just sit him until the season is lost? He was only the 16th pick, which actually is a red flag. Quarterbacks are always at a premium in the NFL and when it takes 16 picks for a team to bite on one in the draft, that has often meant doom about that player.

It’s still hard to believe Manuel’s draft journey. For months it was West Virginia’s Geno Smith expected to be the first quarterback drafted. Manuel did gain respect over time, but there was also the thought Marrone would take his Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib, who fell to the Giants in the fourth round.

At Florida State, Manuel did go 16-3 when he threw for more than 200 yards, including a 6-0 record in his six biggest passing days.

He had a 3.12 interception percentage, which was eerily similar to Christian Ponder, his predecessor, who had a 3.11 rate. That number is a bit high for a top prospect. Ponder did not start in Week 1 as a rookie, but he did get 10 starts and was actually coddled more in year two in Minnesota. Buffalo has a support structure in place for Manuel.

If Manuel does play, the Bills may want to limit his throws with the excellent C.J. Spiller in the backfield. Spiller had 1,703 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns, but the potential for a big play is always there. Despite playing on a 6-10 team, Spiller actually was No. 2 among all running backs (including Adrian Peterson) in Win Probability Added according to Advanced NFL Stats. He led the league in Expected Points Added.

This offense also has a No. 1 receiver in Stevie Johnson, so there is a good talent base for Marrone to develop Manuel with.

Recent history certainly points to us seeing Manuel as a starter in 2013.

Since 2008, 15 quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round. All but Tim Tebow and Jake Locker started at least half the games in their rookie season. Ten players started at least 14 games and 10 started in Week 1.

Going back a little further, both 2007 picks JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn mostly sat as rookies. Both were major busts.

Of the 27 quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2004, only eight started fewer than five games. Of those eight, so far only Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers turned into good players.

The rookie expectations have turned into a Week 1 start and often some success. The rookie wages have made it affordable to sit a player if he’s not ready, which may be the case with Manuel.

However, can the Bills sell their fans on Kolb, a proven commodity of mediocrity? This is a fanbase dying to win again. Settling with Kolb may be a cheap way of getting a 2-1 start, but in the long term, he has never shown you can trust him to lead a team to a winning record.

So what would Buffalo get with Manuel?

He’s athletic and has talent to throw downfield and make things happen on the ground. There’s never been a better time to have such a player in the NFL with offenses getting creative with the read option and pistol.

However, let’s not pretend Manuel is as gifted a runner or vertical passer as Cam Newton was. He’s not nearly as technically sound as Andrew Luck. He’s not as dynamic of a runner or polished as a passer as Robert Griffin III.

Even Russell Wilson was considerably better coming out of college, but he fell to the third round because he was short.

Similar to Wilson, Buffalo’s best option is to just let this one play out in training camp and the preseason. Start Kolb in the first preseason game, then maybe you go with Manuel in the second. Let both guys get some time with starters in the game.

If Manuel is playing well the way Wilson did last year for Seattle, then maybe you just make the call after the third preseason game or so to name him the Week 1 starter.

It’s not going to “ruin him” to start him this year. If that hasn’t always been a myth, then it’s just simply not the reality of the game today. Young quarterbacks have expectations now.

This is a Buffalo team that needs some kind of shot in the arm. You can only take so much of watching Kolb get sacked or be called for intentional grounding. My gut tells me we’ll see Manuel as a starter in 2013.

 

R.I.P. Defense

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What do you call something that was good in theory, cost a lot of money to make and was just plain garbage?

You could say the film adaptation of R.I.P.D., which is the latest summer film to bomb. You also could say the 2012 Buffalo Bills defense, which was the easiest defense to score a touchdown against last year.

Dave Wannstedt’s promotion to defensive coordinator and attempt at a 4-3 look lasted one season before being fired for an effort that fell way below expectations. Kyle Williams has been considered a good defensive tackle. Drafting Marcell Dareus with the No. 3 pick in 2011 was supposed to help him out.

Signing up defensive end Mario Williams from Houston to the richest contract in NFL history for a defensive player ($50 million guaranteed) was supposed to establish this defensive line as one of the league’s best. It was meant to carry this defense, which had some flaws in other areas.

Instead, the Bills allowed one more point (435 total) than they did in 2011. That’s good for the second-worst scoring defense in franchise history. Only the 1984 Bills (454 points) did worse.

The 2012 Bills became the eighth team (first since 1986 Jets) to allow at least 45 points in four or more games. Considering that list includes two teams in their expansion season, one in its second season and another in their last year before disbanding, that’s terrible company.

The 48-28 loss to the Jets in Week 1 was bad for many reasons but at least the defense can cite a punt return and interception return for touchdowns making up 14 of those points. Still, any time you make Mark Sanchez look so good, something went wrong.

This defense authored some truly horrible performances. Seattle dropped 50 points with the only saving grace being an Earl Thomas pick-six factoring into that round number.

The Bills became the first defense in NFL history to allow over 300 yards passing and over 300 yards rushing in the same game when the 49ers did it in a 45-3 rout. The NFL’s played 93 seasons, so that one’s pretty damning.

A week before, the Patriots stormed back to outscore Buffalo with a 45-7 run on their way to a 52-28 win. It’s hard to believe that game was actually tied in the fourth quarter before three quick touchdowns from the Patriots, who Buffalo has failed to keep under 31 points in the last six meetings (1-5).

Yes, we know it’s hard to beat the Patriots, but it’s a big deal when you play in the same division as them and hold just a 2-22 record since 2001. The only two wins came when Tom Brady threw four interceptions in 2003 and 2011.

Good luck getting those splash plays out of this defense. Last year they only came up with 12 interceptions, nine fumbles and 36 sacks.

Sure, Williams put up his 10.5 sacks, but he wasn’t his usual self. He was the 17th-ranked player at his position from Pro Football Focus last year. You don’t pay this much money to get the 17th-best player. Specifically, his pass-rushing grade (-1.7) was not up to snuff, which is the major reason why any team would spend such money.

Just a day ago, the Bills released defensive end Mark Anderson, who signed a four-year deal for $21 million one year ago. He’s had an odd career, posting good sack numbers on Super Bowl losers. He had 10 sacks for the 2011 Patriots and 12 sacks as a rookie for the 2006 Bears. Otherwise he’s had 14.5 sacks in 67 games, unable to shine as a starter. He had one sack in Buffalo after injuries cut his season short to six appearances.

All that money and resources and the defense was 23rd in adjusted sack rate according to Football Outsiders Almanac 2013.

Beyond the sacks, the run defense was terrible again. It was easy to laugh at NFL Network’s Heath Evans, who last preseason praised the Bills by saying they have “always been good at stopping the run.”

Oh really? It’s only been seven (now eight) years of failure in that department:

Buffalo allowed 4.96 yards per carry last season. That’s the worst average in franchise history and the 13th worst in the NFL since 1970.

Mike Pettine comes over from the Jets as the new defensive coordinator. With his background in the Rex Ryan defense, that means Pettine will want to show a 3-4 defense but move guys around in several different formations. This usually isn’t a defense that gets pressure without creative blitzes, but Williams is supposed to be the kind of player that you can count on in getting that pressure on his own.

Pettine has been used to coaching New York defenses that were stronger in the linebackers and secondary. Now he gets his shot with a defense led by the line and some inexperience at linebacker that must gel quickly. None of Buffalo’s projected starting linebackers have ever played together in the NFL, with three players (Jerry Hughes, Manny Lawson and Kiko Alonso) making their team debut in 2013.

There’s no Darrelle Revis here for Pettine, but second-year cornerback Stephon Gilmore should be better this year.

It would be nearly impossible for this defense to get any worse in 2013, so expect an improvement. It just may not be enough to get the team over the top. Last season, the Bills were 0-9 when allowing at least 20 points. That means they were 6-1 when allowing less than 20 points. Of course it helps to play the Jaguars, Chiefs, Cardinals, Rams, Browns, Dolphins and Jets.

If that ratio of games can flip around, then you see how Buffalo has a chance at winning eight or nine games. However, this defense has a trio of top 10 picks (Williams, Dareus and Gilmore) who must get to playing at that level for this defense to really work.

 

Departures and Arrivals: The 2013 Starters

Credit to Ourlads in help with the creation of this chart of potential 2013 starters:

It’s bad to not know who your starting quarterback is in July, but we do know it won’t be Ryan Fitzpatrick again. C.J. Spiller is the stud in the backfield and will continue to be backed up by Fred Jackson and Tashard Choice. That’s good depth.

Not as deep is the tight end position. Scott Chandler enters his fourth season with the Bills and has been solid. He’s scored six touchdowns in each of the last two seasons, but it’s not like the Bills ask him to be Jimmy Graham.

Stevie Johnson remains the primary weapon and has turned into one of the best seventh-round receivers in NFL history. He’s exceeded 1,000 yards in three straight seasons and offers a tough matchup for even the league’s best cornerbacks.

The other wide receivers offer plenty of talent and promise but almost no proven NFL experience.

Donald Jones was second in receiving among Buffalo’s wide receivers but he left in free agency. Brad Smith is more of an option guy than a real receiver. T.J. Graham was last year’s third-round pick. He had 322 yards and some growing pains. Dorin Dickerson only has nine career receptions.

Now the Bills have drafted the talented Robert Woods (USC) in the second round and perhaps a steal with Marquise Goodwin (Texas) in the third round. With a very open competition at the position, these rookies should see their share of snaps this season. As always, you must temper expectations with a rookie wide receiver, but Graham should have served as that reminder last year.

The offensive line returns five familiar faces, but these were not all starters from last year. Guard Andy Levitre, who was one of the best players on the team, left for the Titans. Right tackle Erik Pears only started seven games last season. Guard Colin Brown has just 12 career appearances with two starts.

The versatile Doug Legursky comes over from Pittsburgh to provide depth along the interior. Grabbing Kraig Urbik from Pittsburgh has worked well for Buffalo.

Cordy Glenn was a second round pick in 2012. He will look to get better as a franchise left tackle after a solid rookie debut. Most of this offensive line can afford to show more in 2013.

On defense, we have already talked about the high expectations for the trio of Williams, Dareus and Williams. Whether it’s a 3-4 or 4-3 look, they must produce more. Jerry Hughes was acquired in a trade from Indianapolis where he was a major disappointment for not producing. Buffalo traded linebacker Kelvin Shepherd to get him. Defensive tackle Alan Branch was also picked up in free agency. He’s started for Seattle the last two years so that’s more depth.

At linebacker, Nigel Bradham is a young piece in place after 11 starts in his rookie season last year. This year’s second-round pick was Oregon linebacker Kiko Alonso. In theory he’s a good athlete that should have a lot of tackles to easily clean up with the defensive line doing its job. Manny Lawson has played in the 3-4 and 4-3 with the 49ers and Bengals and should replace veteran Nick Barnett.

Leodis McKelvin (3.8) was Buffalo’s highest-graded cornerback at Pro Football Focus last season but he only played 354 snaps. Stephon Gilmore (-4.3) did not grade so kindly, but as the No. 10 pick in the draft, he deserves a rookie pass for an increasingly tough position to play. With a better defense in front of him, expect better metrics from him in his sophomore season. The Bills also still have a young Aaron Williams, who started 10 games last year. He’s been moved to safety.

Safety George Wilson went to Tennessee. This means Da’Norris Searcy (three starts in 2011) must step up or the job could go to Nevada rookie Duke Williams, who was taken in the fourth round.

Jairus Byrd exploded onto the scene as a rookie in 2009 when he had nine interceptions and made the Pro Bowl. He’s had exactly nine picks in the three seasons since, but the Bills made him their franchise player this offseason. The deadline has already passed on a long-term deal being possible, so the Bills may be getting their final season out of Byrd (at best). That situation has not been handled too smoothly.

There’s some pretty strong talent at each level of the defense here, but the studs have to play up to their potential to bring this unit out of the gutter.

 

Conclusion: No Playoffs Again (Maybe Next Year)

The demise of the New England Patriots has been greatly exaggerated. Still, if the AFC East was ever truly up for grabs, this should be one of those seasons. With that big Week 1 game at home against New England, that could be a chance to get off to a great start with Carolina and at the Jets to follow on the schedule. It’s hardly a schedule that looks daunting.

Starting Kevin Kolb, who actually pulled out a win in Foxboro last season with Arizona could be the best shot this team has at a good start. Jim Kelly gives Kolb the nod so far, but Kelly’s not on Marrone’s staff.

Whether it’s Kolb or Manuel, there is enough talent on this team and winnable games on the schedule to improve beyond last year’s 6-10 finish.

Though, because it is Kolb or Manuel, it is hard to see this team improving the defense enough in one year to the point where the quarterback does not become a problem when trying to outscore the opponent.

The Bills should be able to score a decent number of points, but you worry about the mistakes and negative plays that can sink them in any given game. It’s the same type of bone-head plays that often killed some late rallies when Fitzpatrick was the quarterback.

It’s hard to put a good stamp on a team with a rookie head coach and question mark at “QB1” on the depth chart. There are too many teams in the AFC with proven commodities at those positions in better shape for the playoffs.

However, the AFC is a few years away from some serious changing of the guard when the likes of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger (his body’s older than his birth certificate) retire.

Putting your chips on “NO PLAYOFFS” for the Bills has worked out fine the last 13 years, but at some point their luck will change.

It just doesn’t appear to be in 2013.

 

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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