Can Snakebitten Buffalo Bills Overcome Unlucky 2013 Preseason?
The NFL never said it would go easy on first-time head coach Doug Marrone and first-time GM Doug Whaley.
And since the calendars flipped to August, the new leaders of the Buffalo Bills organization certainly haven't had it easy.
Really though, through July, outside of the Jairus Byrd holdout, Marrone and Whaley didn't have a complaint in the world. They had their pick of the quarterback litter in April's draft even after they traded back to acquire an extra second-round selection.
They got their guy—EJ Manuel at No. 16 overall. Cost-effective free-agents were signed. Life was good.
Then, the string of misfortune began. Of all things, it was started by a slippery rubber mat. Yeah, a rubber mat. A week into training camp, the Bills quarterback competition between Manuel and veteran journeyman Kevin Kolb was humming along, bringing out the best in each signal-caller.
The prized rookie looked to have the lead, but the battle raged on. Between drills on August 3, as the quarterbacks switched fields, Kolb stumbled on a rubber mat that was wet from an overnight rain and injured his knee.
Seriously. This happened. Not joking.
#Bills QB Kevin Kolb tripped on way to main field. Trainers looked at left knee. Took off pads and headed into locker room.— Sal Capaccio (@SalSports) August 3, 2013
He missed a week of practice and the team's first preseason game, one in which Manuel went 16-for-21 with a touchdown.
To keep the quarterback competition "fair," Marrone started Kolb the following week at home against the Minnesota Vikings. He struggled. Playing the third quarter with the backups, EJ Manuel went 10-for-12 for 92 yards and a touchdown.
The quarterback battle appeared to be over. Though Marrone didn't officially name the rookie the starter, it was essentially a foregone conclusion.
Kolb's strange knee injury was an afterthought. Excitement in Western New York was at a fever pitch. The next morning, though, mini-disaster struck. Manuel woke up with swelling in his knee, and the Bills medical staff deemed he needed to undergo a minor procedure.
Marrone announced that Manuel was out for the remainder of the preseason and that another quarterback wouldn't be added. Kolb was made the starter for Week 3's exhibition game against the Redskins in Washington, and Jeff Tuel would be the backup.
Downer for Bills fans.
To make matters worse, against the Redskins on a first-quarter touchdown run, C.J. Spiller grabbed his right knee in what appeared to be writhing pain. Oh, no. Not Spiller. Buffalo couldn't afford to lose the electricity he brings to the offense.
In a momentary halt from Buffalo's bad luck, Spiller got up under his own power and carried the ball two more times. ESPN's Adam Schefter later reported the following:
Bills RB CJ Spiller took a spike on his knee. He has a cut. Nothing major. He's good to go.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 24, 2013
However, on a scramble a few plays before Spiller's run, Kolb took a helmet to the head and displayed concussion-like symptoms.
The hit knocked him out of the game, and Buffalo News writer Tim Graham, cited a source who provided a grave prognosis:
Source tells me Bills concerned Kevin Kolb's concussion may be career-ending and they're proceeding with that in mind.— Tim Graham (@ByTimGraham) August 25, 2013
In a mad scramble to simply have more than one active quarterback on the roster—at least two are needed for practice—Buffalo signed 2006 draft bust Matt Leinart and former Cleveland Browns practice squader Thaddeus Lewis.
Suddenly, less than two weeks away from Marrone's head-coaching debut and Whaley's first game as an NFL team's GM, against the New England Patriots nonetheless, Tuel, Leinart and Lewis were the only available quarterbacks on the roster.
With no other logical options, Marrone said the following to the media regarding plans for Week 1's showdown with the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady:
Doug Marrone says plan is for Jeff Tuel to start against Patriots on opening day.— Tim Graham (@ByTimGraham) August 26, 2013
As if the catastrophic developments that shook the quarterback position weren't bad enough, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, easily the finest man-to-man secondary member on the team, fractured his wrist in the 30-7 loss to the Redskins. FOX Sports' report Mike Garafolo was the first to report the timetable for his return:
Bills CB Stephon Gilmore to miss about eight weeks with a hand/wrist issue. Tough one there but hope is he only misses 5-6 games or so.— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) August 26, 2013
Crushing for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who was likely planning to use Gilmore as his "Darrelle Revis" to start the year.
The defensive backs behind him aren't necessarily inspiring for Bills fans: Leodis McKelvin, Crezdon Butler, Ron Brooks, Justin Rogers, Nickell Robey.
Marrone offered up the following about his team's recent string of bad luck:
Marrone on recent streak of "bad" news: "My first thought when I was younger was 'what did I do wrong in the past?'" #karma— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) August 26, 2013
Barring an unforeseen injury in the preseason finale against the Detroit Lions, things should only get better from here on out for the Bills. But the Manuel, Kolb and Gilmore news certainly put a damper on what was a growing sense of optimism in the Western New York region regarding the start of the Bills' season.
How They Can Survive
The majority of the Bills' success in 2013 will hinge on their running game, and most specifically, C.J. Spiller. Everyone knows that.
He averaged 3.58 yards per carry AFTER CONTACT last season (per PFF), and finished with a Madden-on-rookie-difficulty 6.8 yards per touch on 250 touches.
For perspective, Adrian Peterson averaged 5.95 yards per touch in 2012.
Spiller will be used traditionally, but should be a focal point in the screen game as well and has an underrated backup in Fred Jackson to spell him when necessary.
A big year from Spiller and Jackson should keep Buffalo in most games.
However, the importance of quarterback play cannot be overstated. The right quarterback, well, it changes everything. It makes everything easier. It relieves stress. It makes wide receivers better. It helps the defense. It's the ultimate equalizer and franchise stabilizer.
How many games will the Bills win in 2012?
When Manuel returns, if he shows poise, sound decision-making and accuracy, operating Nate Hackett's diverse-alignment-yet-simple-read offense while improvising when flushed out of the pocket, the Bills could overcome their unfortunate preseason and exceed expectations.
Mike Pettine has a proven track record as Rex Ryan's right-hand man and defensive coordinator with the New York Jets from 2008 to 2012. Due to the established system he's installed, Buffalo's defense has to be better than it was last season.
Remember, the Bills allowed the seventh-most yards per drive and the most touchdowns per drive in the NFL a year ago, according to Football Outsiders.
If the running game spearheads an efficient attack, EJ Manuel exhibits a strong command of the offense, the defense is stingier against the run and applies more pressure on opposing quarterback than it did in 2012, the snakebitten Buffalo Bills will survive their unlucky preseason.
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