BUFFALO, NY – In 2006, the Buffalo Bills finished with a 7-9 record under then first-year coach Dick Jauron.
In 2007, the Bills struggled to an 0-3 start but rallied to become a late-season factor in the playoff chase again finishing 7-9.
In 2008, the Bills raised some early playoff hopes by sprinting out of the gates to start 4-0—only again to finish...you guessed it, 7-9.
Seven and nine.
To say the bar has been set for Jauron—after three straight 7-9 seasons at the helm and nine years for the franchise without a post-season appearance—just might be an understatement.
But this franchise which has endured such a turbulent offseason—the passing of Jack Kemp, its quarterback during the 1964-65 AFL Championship era; the off-field legal issues of Marshawn Lynch, Donte Whitner, Ko Simpson, and Corey McIntyre; the fan uneasiness of having another regular season game taken from Ralph Wilson Stadium and placed in Toronto’s Rogers Centre and the general uncertainty of the team’s long-term viability in western New York—faces more questions than just its win-loss record.
As the Bills open their first of 11 scheduled OTAs beginning Monday—with the Terrell Owens reality show and three-ring circus now in tow—the goals are clear for Jauron and his staff. Merely breaking the 7-9 ceiling won’t be enough to stick in Buffalo.
It won’t be easy.
The Bills will likely be without Lynch, their leading rusher (1,036 yards, 8 TDs) who is suspended for the first three games of the season—though it is still pending appeal. Lynch was arrested in March in Culver City, California on a felony charge of possession of a concealed weapon.
It was his second off-field incident which earned his suspension by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
They’ll open their season on a Monday night in Foxboro against the New England Patriots—Tom Brady’s first game back since his knee injury—in front of a national television audience. In fact, the Bills schedule ranks as one of the most difficult, with an opponents’ winning percentage of .512 from last season.
And then there’s Owens.
The Bills’ made TO their big offseason splash, signing a one-year, $6.5 million deal after his release from the Dallas Cowboys.
Owens will turn 36 this year. He is among the NFL's career leaders in catches, yards and touchdowns.
He's coming off his ninth career 1,000-yard season in which he caught 69 passes for 1,052 yards and 10 touchdowns for Dallas, though those 69 catches represent his lowest total since 2005—his final year with the Eagles in which he played just seven games.
But the larger question surrounding TO, whose act has wound its way through (and out of) larger markets like San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas is how it will play in provincial, blue-collar Buffalo?
How will his relationship with Trent Edwards, regarded by most as talented but still a work-in-progress, develop?
And (well, when?) will Owens complain about his number of touches per game? Or simply, how long until TO goes “TO” in Buffalo?
Outwardly anyway, the Bills see Owens’ main contribution as being opposite veteran Lee Evans, who also signed a big money deal before last season, who despite his numbers (63 receptions, 1017 yards, 3TD, and 16.1 avg.) was often locked down in coverage.
"He's going to create, or need, a lot of attention by the defense," Edwards said. "That's going to take a lot of pressure off of Lee, a lot of pressure off of our other backs and tight ends."
The Bills have plenty of other question marks on offense—one which ranked 23rd in the National Football League in scoring, 25th in total yards and 25th overall.
Who will start in Lynch’s place?
For now, the answer lies with last season’s backup, Fred Jackson (571 yards, 3TDs, 4.4 yds avg.) and 30 year-old veteran free agent Dominic Rhodes.
And then there’s the offensive line. The Bills will more than likely open the season with new starters—two of them rookies—at every position on the line, after trading away starting left tackle Jason Peters to Philadelphia.
Langston Walker takes over for Peters there; flip-flopping from right tackle though he played on the left side in Peters’ place in the first and second games of ’08.
So far, 2009 draft picks Eric Moore and Andy Levitre are projected as the starting guards while last year’s starting right guard, Brad Butler, moves to right tackle. Free agent Geoff Hangartner will open at center.
On the other side of the ball, the Bills spent five of their eight 2009 draft selections, including first-round pick Aaron Maybin from Penn State on defense. The Bills picked Maybin looking to jolt a pass rush ranked 28th in the NFL with just 24 sacks.
Maybin brings an incredibly fast first-step—drawing comparisons to Indianapolis Colts DE Dwight Freeney—but is still growing at age 21 (6-4, 250 pounds). His impact will be measured on how he in turn impacts veteran pass rushers Aaron Schoebel (four sacks) and Chris Kelsay (two sacks).
“As far as turning team around, I watched a lot of the games just as a fan and having a teammate (former Penn State linebacker Paul Pozluszny) play here,” Maybin said. “The pieces are here. I just want to contribute what I can to help and win football games. The pieces of the puzzle are here.”
The Bills spent their other four defense draft picks in the secondary—including cornerback Jairus Byrd of Oregon State—projected at free safety, allowing Whitner to move back to his natural position of strong safety.
Even though Ashton Youboty is listed on the depth chart as starting right corner, look for Leodis McKelvin to challenge after the free-agency loss of Jabari Greer, even though questions still linger about the state of starting left corner Terrance McGee’s left knee.
Youboty, who dressed for five games last year, is also feeling the heat from another second-year DB, Reggie Corner, and might be—figuratively at least—on his last legs with the Bills.
OTAs begin Monday and will run through Wednesday.