2011 Buffalo Bills: Rebuilding Mode Overview
When Buffalo Bills General Manager Buddy Nix was hired to rebuild the Buffalo Bills in 2010, he made a statement that Bills fans would need to exhibit some patience, because the rebuilding effort would take about three years to complete.
The goal of Nix and his hand-picked head coach Chan Gailey was fairly straight forward. The mantra was to do whatever was in the best interests of the Buffalo Bills to insure long term success. Recognizing that Rome wasn't built in a day, the "three year patience test" may be tough for Bills fans to take, since it has been eleven years and counting since we have seen a playoff appearance.
The AFC East undoubtedly boasts two of the top teams in the NFL in the New York Jets and the New England Patriots, so for the Bills to have any real crack at becoming a playoff caliber team, they will have to raise the level of their talent base to match that of their AFC East rivals.
It is one thing to bring in better talent, it is another to change the culture of the organization from that of a last place team to that of a winning organization. Chan Gailey has his hands full in that regard but he will be determined to do whatever he has to in order to make the team think they can win whenever they take the field.
How Well Did Nix and Gailey Perform in Year One?
2010 was a season of ups and downs. Chan Gailey hired a new defensive coordinator in George Edwards and they ultimately decided the Bills needed to switch over to a 3-4 defensive scheme, regardless if they had the proper personnel for the transition or not.
Aaron Shobel, the Bills second-all-time leader in career sacks, had been on the fence about retiring, and wasn't able to commit one way or the other. Maybe the move to a new defense scheme ultimately contributed to his decision not to return to the team.
The Bills brain trust decided to bring back their three holdover quarterbacks in Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Brohm to fight it out in training camp to determine who should be the starter.
Trent Edwards won the competition, but was so awful in the first two regular season games that Gailey and Nix decided to give him his outright release from the team. Ryan Fitzpatrick took over and raised the level of the offense to become an exciting unit as he hit on passes all over the field.
However, the Bills were learning on the job. They were engrossed in learning a brand new offense and a brand new defense. There were growing pains and coming out of the gate with an 0-5 record, the Bills were quickly labeled as the laughing stock of the league. Then came their bye week and Reggie Torbor called for a players-only team meeting to air out all of the problems.
The Bills ignored the ridicule and went to work. Blowout losses started to change to close games and the Bills were taking playoff caliber teams like the Steelers and the Ravens in to overtime games, but still lost. The Bills had turned a corner. An 0-8 first half of the season led to a 4-4 second half finish. This is more like baby steps, but you have to start somewhere.
Lots of Personnel Moves in Year One
When you are undertaking a complete rebuilding project like Buddy Nix did, you can expect a high degree of turnover in the process of determining what is working and what is not.
In his first off-season, Nix did not go hog wild in bringing in all kinds of free agent talent. He opted to rebuild the Bills through the college draft. Where he needed to bring in other players to fill in holes, he dipped in to the free agent market and signed tackle Cornell Green, middle linebacker Andra Davis and linebacker Reggie Torbor.
Starting right tackle Brad Butler surprised the team by announcing his retirement from the NFL to pursue political aspirations. The team opted to not bring back Terrell Owens for a second year.
Nix knew there were plenty of holes on the team, so when the draft rolled around, they decided to go for the most dynamic player they could find. Someone that could dramatically impact games due to his sheer speed and ability to generate big plays. Nix was so sure of his pick that the Bills rushed their selection up to Roger Goodell within the first minute of being on the clock.
That player turned out to be C.J. Spiller. In just under 100 touches on offense in his rookie season, Spiller had only two plays that went for more than 20 yards. We realize that the jury is still out on Spiller, but he will need to produce to justify Buddy Nix's first draft pick as not being remembered as a giant stretch.
The rest of the draft class was defensive linemen Torell Troup and Alex Carrington, wide receiver Marcus Easley, linebackers Arthur Moats and Danny Batten, linemen Ed Wang and Kyle Calloway and quarterback Levi Brown.
Talented Players After the Draft was Completed
The performance of Buddy Nix's first draft class was truly hampered by major injuries. Marcus Easley and Danny Batten never made it out of summer camp, as both were lost for the season and went on I.R. list. Ed Wang had a thumb injury and never figured in to the mix for his rookie season.
Levi Brown was waived and then brought back after the team released Trent Edwards. Kyle Calloway was mysteriously waived and not even signed to the practice squad. For someone that was thought to be a promising tackle prospect, the Calloway disappearing act still remains a mystery, in that there has never been an adequate explanation as to why or how he fell short of the Bills' expectations.
But after the draft ended, the Bills scouting department started going to work and the team signed a number of undrafted free agents that became very useful players. The impact was felt predominately at the wide receiver position, thanks to contributions from David Nelson, Donald Jones and Naaman Roosevelt. Other contributors were offensive lineman Cordaro Howard and linebacker Antonio Coleman.
If you include the draft class and the undrafted rookies as a collective group, Nix and company did a strong job of bringing in some new talent to the team. There are still a number of question marks, and if people like Batten, Wang and Easley can become legitimate NFL players, that will only help the overall rebuilding effort realize a quicker transformation.
A productive C.J. Spiller would help speed up the recovery as well.
Major Roster Changes
During the first season as General Manager, Buddy Nix engineered one trade, when he sent Marshawn Lynch to Seattle for multiple draft picks. Lynch helped Seattle win their first playoff game with his now infamous run against the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.The Bills three-headed-monster running back committee of Lynch, Spiller and Fred Jackson was now just a duo.
Outside of that one move, Nix wasn't able to find any takers for any other Bills veteran players.
To the extent that Nix tried to find a trade partner for Trent Edwards is unknown. But after the loss to Green Bay, the release of Edwards was very swift. There were many other players released during the season, as well as a number of summer camp casualties.
The more well known names ranged from James Hardy, Kawika Mitchell, Derek Schouman, Derek Fine, Kirk Chambers and Chris Ellis.
The Bills also lost a potential running back in Joique Bell when the Eagles signed him off of the Bills practice squad.
The Bills were hampered by a major rash of injuries in 2009, and the dark cloud that hung over the team continued in 2010, as the team suffered a large number of season ending injuries to starters once again.
When Will the Long Injury List Stop?
It is one thing to have inferior talent. It is something else to keep losing starters during the season to injuries and bring in players that don't know your system or your playbook, or have much practical NFL playing experience. That was the reality for the Bills again in 2010.
The following players all hit the I.R. list in 2010: Kawika Mitchell, Roscoe Parrish, Lee Evans, Andra Davis, Dwan Edwards, Keith Ellison, Cordaro Howard, Cornell Green, Shawne Merriman, Reggie Torbor and Kraig Ubrik.
One positive development for the Bills organization in 2010 was the hiring of Doug Whaley, out of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Whaley was hired to be the Bills Director of Pro Personnel, and is the Assistant General Manager to Buddy Nix.
During the course of the year, Whaley helped to identify the following players that the Bills brought in as free agents: Kraig Urbik, Eric Pears, Chad Rinehart, Akin Ayodele, Mansfield Wrotto, Scott Chandler and Kellen Heard. These moves is a reflection on the quality work that Whaley orchestrated and his addition to the team is part of what was needed to overhaul the talent base.
Buddy Nix's Second Gamble: Waiver Claim on Shawne Merriman
If we will agree that the drafting of C.J. Spiller was Buddy Nix's first move that could be classified as a gamble, then the waiver claim he put in on Shawne Merriman would have to be considered his second gamble on the job.
Coming off of two lackluster and injury-riddled years, Merriman was thought to be damaged goods, but Nix decided to roll the dice anyway and see what Merriman had left in the tank.
Bills team doctors have apparently found out the source of Shawne's problems, which is something that had somehow escaped the Chargers' team doctors. This might be the first time that I can recall that a player decided to sign with the Bills due to the work of the team doctors. So a tip of the hat goes to the Bills trainers and doctors for being able to figure out how to allow Merriman to become healthy again.
Signing him to a new two year deal, the Bills are showing faith in all parties involved. Merriman looks to salvage his career and the Bills hope that Merriman can vault their 27th ranking in team sacks. If he does come back to being healthy and shows some flashes of his All-Pro years, his presence will help the secondary out and ultimately result in more hurried passes and a rise in secondary unit interception totals.
If he gets hurt in summer camp, or he just can't return to the level of play when he was in his prime, the thinking is that the Bills didn't give up that much. If Aaron Maybin is released and blossoms elsewhere, the whole gamble could backfire. For now, I am in favor of the move and hope the Bills doctors are correct.
Enter the CBA Nightmare and the Potential Lock Out
Remember in the home opener when the Bills and Dolphins came out on to the field before the opening kickoff and raised their arms collectively to signify the strength of the players union to being committed to their cause? The NFL squashed that public display after the first week, and things have continued to be less than stellar between the two parties ever since.
March 3rd represents the end of the old CBA pact and it is widely believed that the owners will institute a formal lock out of the players from entering team facilities. It also means that the Bills are unable to conduct any business with free agents, ranging from their own to the rest of the league after March 3rd. If there were specific positions or players that Nix and company wanted to address prior to the draft, that ability looks to be severely compromised due to the lack of a working agreement in place.
This development will no doubt serve to be a major speed bump in the year two rebuilding efforts. The Bills have a number of their own free agents that they have to decide what they are going to bring back. The list includes unrestricted free agents: Donte Whitner, Paul Posluszny, George Wilson, Drayton Florence, Akin Ayodele, Keith Ellison, Ashton Youboty, Mansfield Wrotto and John McCargo. Restricted free agents are: Brian Brohm, Scott Chandler and Quinton Ganther.
The Bills decided to sign restricted free agent Jon Corto to a contract extension. Until the new CBA is finished, Buddy Nix is in a tough spot. His hands are tied, so all he can do is wait for some sort of resolution and continue to prepare for the draft. Without knowing what the salary cap figure will be in the new CBA, they can't really bring in veteran free agents like Shaun Rogers and sign him to a big deal.
The Bills Finally Caught a Break
The Buffalo Bills were asked to coach the South team in the Senior Bowl this past January, and to my way of thinking, this was the first major break that the team received in quite some time. The reason that they caught a break was that the right to coach the North and South team should have gone to the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, since they had the two worst records in the NFL.
However, both Carolina and Denver had quickly fired their head coaches after the season, so without any formal staffs identified to coach the senior players, the league moved on to the next lowest teams, which turned out to be the Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals.
By being allowed to gain up close and personal knowledge of the 100 plus players that were involved in the Senior Bowl practices and the game, the Bills scouting department has a tremendous amount of information that they have identified on all of these key senior players. Because of that, the Bills can attend the scouting combines in Indianapolis next week and focus their attention on the underclassmen that were not part of the all-star games, while the rest of the NFL is trying to play catch up.
When everything is said and done, the Bills should have as much insight as any other NFL team on the upcoming draft class. When you consider the addition of Pittsburgh Panthers head coach Dave Wannstedt to the team, they may ultimately prove to have the best handle on the draft of any team in the NFL.
Dave Wannstedt Brings Another Valuable Voice to Fixing the Defense
Chan Gailey was more than happy to create a role for his old friend Dave Wannstedt, when he was forced to resign his head coaching position with the Pittsburgh Panthers. The former head coach of the Miami Dolphins, Wannstedt had previously employed Gailey as his offensive coordinator.
Now the two are reunited, and Bills fans can only hope that Wannstedt can create a defense reminiscent of the one he had when he was the Defensive Coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys team that beat the Bills in two Super Bowls (Super Bowl XXVII and XXVIII).
It also helps that there are a decent number of NFL prospects that Wannstedt coached that are draft worthy. He coached defensive linemen Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus, wide receiver Jon Baldwin, offensive lineman Jason Pinkston and safety Dominic DeCicco. If any of these players wind up being drafted by the Bills, you know that Wannstedt had a hand in the selection.
The hiring of Wannstedt as Assistant Head Coach also provides Head Coach Chan Gailey with a valuable set of eyes and ears and a trusted friend that he can turn to during the season. It would also be not a stretch to think that Wannstedt will help the overall defense become better at stopping the run since he will have direct oversight of the middle linebackers. You would also imagine that he will help the team to make the necessary in-game as well as halftime adjustments throughout the season.
If Wannstedt's hire helps to take a percentage of duties off of Chan Gailey's plate, or helps to relieve some of Gailey's stress to focus on other areas that requires his attention, it will be a major plus for the team.
Preparing for The 2011 Season
The Bills have begun work already on the 2011 season. The team has recently waived three players from the 2010 roster, the biggest move being the release of starting defensive end Marcus Stroud. The other two players that were sent packing were linebackers Pierre Woods and Mike Balogun. Balogun has since been picked up by the Dallas Cowboys.
We already mentioned that Jon Corto has been signed to a new extension, as well as the Shawne Merriman deal.
Now, the scouting department will descend this week to Indianapolis to begin the cattle call that is more commonly referred to as the NFL Scouting Combines. The Bills have completed their list of players that they intend to interview. They will conduct the tough Q & A sessions and see how the players come out of the experience. They will especially be scrutinizing the mental capacities of people like Cam Newton, as they determine if he is worthy of a top-five overall draft choice or not.
By holding the third overall pick in the draft, the Bills can either go ahead and make the selection based on the best available athlete, or at filling one of their main areas of need, which right now would have to include defensive line, linebacker, safety, offensive line, quarterback and tight end (not necessarily in that specific order). The Bills can either make the pick or trade down. We will cover all of that in more detail as we get closer to April 28th.
How Good of a Job Has Buddy Nix Done so Far?
So there you have it Bills fans. You have been brought up to speed and we have finished our overview of the first 13-14 months on the job of Buddy Nix. What kind of a job do you think he has done?
Without the CBA in place, it will be paramount for the Bills to really come up with an outstanding draft class. As bad as the 2010 season was, not just in the record, but in the overall ranking of the defensive unit, the Bills team still has a long way to go in their rebuilding effort.
Let's hope that years from now we can look back at the draft class of 2011 and talk about how this class was a major stepping stone in helping to turn around the fortunes of the Buffalo Bills organization. We can only hope that we can look at this as a shining moment in the teams' history.
In your opinion, do you think the Bills are on the right track to having a winning record in 2013? We should be in to an 18 game regular season by then, so the team will need to come up with at least 10 wins in 2013 to have realized their aspirations.
Feel free to leave any comments or observations you wish to share.