Author's Note: Some of what I am stating here is based upon comments in The Sporting News 2011 Football Annual, and will reflect their printed opinion. I will make distinctions throughout this piece regarding their comments/opinions and my own.
Well, I've seen the first print predictions for the upcoming NFL season. They belong to The Sporting News, in the form of their 2011 NFL Football Annual. While it's not something I generally will purchase, I will admit to curiosity, so upon seeing in on a local magazine rack, I picked it up to take a look.
I'm not going to feign surprise that Sporting News gave the Bills a rather sour outlook. Indeed, I expected it. Truthfully, I expect most publications to look askance on the Bills prospects for 2011. Most preseason publications will not give any real benefit to teams with unproven or unrealized potential. They simply look at the year before, what, if any, visible viable solid improvements a team has made, factor in the degree of difficulty of the upcoming schedule, and make their comments and predictions based on that.
Fair enough. These publications are in business to sell their magazines, not to provide unrealistic scenarios to those who spend their money on these not-inexpensive publications. I didn't check the price on Sporting News' annual, but I'm going to guess it goes somewhere between six to nine dollars. By itself, maybe not so bad, but those of us who are more hardcore, or are involved in Fantasy Football, will usually buy anywhere from two to five of these magazines a summer. That adds up in a hurry, I can tell you from experience. So I get why the Bills got no props from Sporting News. Let's take a quick look at their issues with the Bills and see how they stack up.
In grading the individual position groups, Sporting News begins with the QB's and gives a C- grade. Ryan Fitzpatrick's intelligence and pluckiness are cited, however he gets credit for no real upside potential, as he is looked at as being exactly what he is: Good enough, but not to take you to a championship level. The backups are derided as being essentially useless, with Brohm's poor performance mentioned along with Levi Brown's utter lack of any experience.
I'm going to say that's a fair enough assessment for me. It is my view that Fitzpatrick looks so good to many Bills fans because we've forgotten what really excellent play at the QB position looks like. It has, after all been fifteen years since Jim Kelly left the position in the less than capable hands of Todd Collins, and it's been all downhill from there. Fitzpatrick is what he is, a capable, journeyman type QB who is serviceable, gutsy, and intelligent. But he isn't going to be confused with the elite at his position. Brohm, as I've said here before is not an NFL QB, plain and simple, and the fact is Levi Brown is a completely unknown quantity. The grade stands.
The next category was the RB's. I'm going to go on memory here, as I did not buy it, but the grade was between a B and a C. Fred Jackson is said to be underrated as a back, which I do agree with. His age, which is potentially a liability is mentioned. C.J. Spiller is cited as a disappointment in 2010. It is said he needs to step up. I couldn't agree more with those statements. If I were to judge him solely on 2010, I'd call him a bust. I'm not going to do that yet, but I need to see something from him this season for certain. Rookie Johnny White, who I believe will have a positive impact on the Bills running game is barely given a mention.
Personally, I like what our backs could bring to the table. Based upon a big "if," that being C.J. Spiller starting to play up to the expectations of a guy picked ninth overall, and Johnny White contributing the tough short yards and possibly being a guy used to move the chains and put a game away, I give the Bills backs a B grade.
Next up were the receivers, which included the TE position. Sporting News graded the receivers with a B-, and prominent mention was made of no contributions from the TE position. Okay, fine, I get that. It's a fact. It's also a fact that Chan Gailey's offense isn't predicated upon using the TE. Would it be nice to see a seam-stretching TE in Buffalo with a role based upon what that could do for the offense? Sure, of course it would. But we probably aren't going to see that, so why beat on the subject when it's not a part of the offensive structure?
Other than that Stevie Johnson, Lee Evans and Roscoe Parrish are given their due for their abilities and what they bring to the team, and Marcus Easley is prominently mentioned as a player to watch. I think a great deal of the Bills receivers, and will grade them with a tentative B. It's tentative based upon my expectation that Easley be a contributor in a somewhat equal fashion to Roscoe Parrish. If not, I'd drop it to a B-.
The offensive line was next, and Sporting News gave them no love in the form of a D-. They cited the interior as being fairly set, but look upon the tackles as huge trouble areas, stating that the Bills lack anything of certainty at either tackle spot. They even go so far as to say the tackles are a threat to the health of the QB.
Initially, I thought that assessment was overly harsh. But upon further review, I'm not able to vehemently disagree with it. The Bills listed tackles are Demetrius Bell, rookie Chris Hairston, Cordaro Howard, Erik Pears, and Ed Wang. Those are the players listed and although I realize some guys could be changing positions, if you go by those who are actually noted as tackles, they really haven't proven anything. I can't argue with it.
Stout play at the offensive tackle position is paramount to having any consistent success on offense whatsoever. Since I honestly can't say that we have been given any real reason to be able to reliably say we're going to get that from any of the tackles currently on our roster, I have to agree with the D- grade from Sporting News.
Next up was the defensive line. No love whatsoever form Sporting News here, as the Bills get a C grade. This, I don't feel like I agree with. I understand no one is going to confuse our defensive line with the better ones in the league, but I still see talent there.
Granted, it was due to a couple of injuries, so he was a replacement, but Kyle Williams was still a pro bowl player. Torrell Troup showed some flashes, as did Dwan Edwards before he was injured. Marcell Dareus is only going to make this group better, not only because he's potentially a great player, but because he can line up at any position on the line. That kind of versatility can be priceless in disrupting an opponent's offense.
A guy I was very unhappy with drafting has rapidly become one of great interest to me after some due diligence, and that is Michael Jasper. This is not a big, jiggly, fat guy like a Gilbert Brown of a Tony Siragusa. This is a genuine athlete. I've seen the footage, he can dunk a basketball from a flat-footed start. I'm impressed. Plus he has the right attitude that Bills fans just love. I admit I was initially wrong and I now have high hopes for him. Okay, fine, I know we probably aren't going to get anything from John McCargo. We should probably just cut him and move on. But I see better things for this group, and am willing to give them a B grade.
Then came the linebackers. Oh dear. Sporting News gives them a D-. I will readily admit that I don't much like this group, and can't work up any real high hopes for them. When the two biggest names on the roster are a probable has-been (Shawne Merriman) and a never-will-be (Aaron Maybin,) it's awfully hard to drum up any enthusiasm for them. I'm still going to try.
Maybe I'm being unfair to Paul Posluszny when I say Merriman & Maybin are the biggest names on the Bills linebacking unit. Poz has been productive, and is undeniably the leader of the unit. Unfortunately, it seems his game is too big for his body, as he has had a very difficult time staying healthy. To find the reason for this would be speculative, but to venture a logical guess, I might chalk it up to his possibly feeling as though he has to make every play, thus putting himself in more positions where injury becomes a greater risk. Or maybe it's hard luck or he's just fragile. I don't know the exact answer. My hope is that it would be the first reason and that if we add some more highly skilled guys around him, he'll be able to confine himself to his own responsibilities and stay healthier.
I do like some of the pieces around Poz, and hold out hope for their continued improvement, most notably Arthur Moats and Danny Batten. Chris Kelsay is what he is. If the Bills could improve upon him, it'd be nice, but he's serviceable. Ellison and Davis provide some quality experienced players, who are not going to be confused with pro bowl players, but can help younger players out, and have proven to be willing to do so.
Buffalo is definitely going to need contributions from the two rookies, Kelvin Sheppard and Chris White. Lack of an offseason program is sure to hinder them, however. Lastly, I cannot be convinced that we will ever get any contribution from Aaron Maybin. If you disagree with me, that's fine, but don't even try to change my mind. I've seen a complete and total Lack-a-wanna (to use a WNY pun) from him since day one. As far as Merriman goes my over under on games before he gets hurt is three. He will be unable to stay healthy and will end his career as a shadow of what he'd hinted at becoming.
It's not much, I know, but I'm trying. I'll up Sporting News by a little bit and give the Bills linebackers a grade of D. Sorry, it's the best I can muster.
Defensive Backs were next up and received a B-. Now, I happen to like our secondary troops quite a bit. It's my feeling that if we didn't allow opposing QB's to get all nice and comfy in their rocking chairs while picking out receivers, they'd look a great deal better than they do. Fact is, if you give an NFL QB five seconds to sit in the pocket, you could put Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha back there and they'd still get beat. Since the Bills secondary received little pass rush support from the front seven, I say it's no wonder people question them. They need help.
What I can't predict with the secondary is just who will be back. Whitner, Florence, and McGee could all be gone. That would probably be a fatal flaw, should that be allowed to happen. While I admit none are great, I'd like to see all three back, at least certainly Whitner and McGee. That would make things serviceable with McKelvin and Byrd as the starting four. I admit to being skeptical of both Aaron Williams and Da'Norris Searcy. You can speak to me of their potential all you want, I will still need to see to believe.
I'm going to stick with the B- grade given by Sporting News, in no small part due to the uncertainty of who will be left after free agency comes and goes. If all three potential free agents leave, the holes they leave behind could end up as being too much to fill capably for those left behind.
The Bills Special Teams were given either a B or a C grade by Sporting News. Since I can't directly recall exactly, I won't debate it a whole lot, but I will say that I feel our Special Teams do need work, but are mostly adequate to above average. I would give them an overall B- grade.
Now for the part most likely to cause pain to Bills fans. Based upon how they graded out the different units that make up the team, Sporting News predicts the Bills to once again bring up the rear of the AFC East with an identical 4-12 record as last season. What I'm going to do is try to do a schedule breakdown to see if I can find any reason for greater optimism.
Before I get into any debate of the schedule, current circumstances dictate that I take a broad view of the entire league, and try to determine teams that will be most impacted by the current lockout situation. Some teams will be heavily impacted, others won't appear to have been bothered by it at all. What factors could decide who falls on which side of this?
The most obvious factor will be teams going in with more "status quo" having an advantage. These teams wouldn't be undergoing any key player or coordinator changes, and have steady leadership. Then there would be the teams who will have some changes, but who will return mostly intact. Lastly, in a separate category, are last season's Super Bowl competitors, who both are largely intact, but may fall victim to the "Super Bowl Hangover" factor that has impacted teams playing in the game recently seemingly without exception.
So, who comes in with a potential advantage? I have to begin with New England. They could be least affected of any team, primarily due to the most status quo. Then there would be the Jets, whose fate could be largely defined by how much turnover they suffer at the WR spot. Baltimore will have some youth to get up to speed, but their veteran core should be of help in that area. Indianapolis replaces Tom Moore as Offensive Coordinator, and has some key free agents, but still has Peyton Manning, which is worth much in terms of continuity alone. San Diego replaces Ron Rivera at Defensive Coordinator, and has some questions about free agent wideouts, but is mostly the same.
The Giants will have some turnover, and a new defensive coordinator, but Tom Coughlin remains in charge, which should be a huge benefit. The same exact thing can be said of Philadelphia with Andy Reid. Atlanta and New Orleans are both very good teams who return the majority of their key players. Lastly there are Green Bay and Pittsburgh, the two Super Bowl teams. Both will return essentially the same teams, but will the post Super Bowl malady that I previously mentioned victimize them as it has those before them?
So, who comes in with a disadvantage? As I see it, mostly teams with new coaches or coordinators, new offensive or defensive schemes to learn, or new or rookie quarterbacks to break in. Also in my estimation other teams most likely to struggle will be those trying improve upon last or past seasons with young players involved.
The teams on this list would include Buffalo, Miami, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Denver, Washington, Dallas, Carolina, Detroit, Minnesota, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, and Arizona.
Then there are the teams who could go either way. They stepped up last season, but did so for the first time as they are presently constituted and it's difficult to say exactly how the loss of offseason workouts will affect them. On this list are Houston, Kansas City, Oakland, Tampa Bay, and Chicago.
That's a great deal to consider just to attempt to break down a schedule for possible degree of difficulty, but such is the result of a lockout that has all things NFL completely out of order. Having completed that, let's break down the Bills 2011 schedule.
By my estimation, the Bills have seven games against teams who should have an advantage due to continuity on their schedule. Those teams are New England and the Jets twice, Philadelphia, the Giants, and San Diego. I am going to make some Bills fans very angry here, but I do not see them winning any of those games. They'd be hard-pressed to beat any of those teams if there were no lockout, and the one team I think they might have a shot against, San Diego, they have to travel to the West Coast to play. We know what happens when the Bills travel west, and it usually isn't very pretty.
Buffalo also has seven games against teams who I am forecasting to struggle in 2011. There's Miami twice, Cincinnati, Washington, Dallas, Tennessee & Denver. These games are tough to call, not just because I see the Bills in a similar scenario to the opponents, but due to the fact that it's hard to say if teams will retain strengths of last year or if those will change.
I'm going to call for a split against Miami, a victory over Washington and Cincinnati. I predict a loss to Tennessee, mostly because of the Titans strength in the running game. Dallas is an away game, and the fact that they at least showed signs of life after Son-of Bum was dismissed in favor of Jason Garrett tips the scales to the Cowboys. Denver is a home game for the Bills, but it's a December game, which won't bother the Broncos any, and I have a strange feeling about them this season. I'm calling that a loss.
Lastly, there are two games against teams who could go either way this season in Kansas City and Oakland. Both teams showed improvement last year, but I can't say with any certainty if they can continue that momentum, or if the lockout will have a detrimental effect on them. I'm not going to win any friends here, but unless both teams have the wheels completely fall off, I'm going to predict losses for the Bills, especially in the opener against Kansas City, which will be held in the hostile confines of Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs enjoy one of the best home field advantages in the entire NFL.
So, after going through the Bills schedule, not only can I not come up with anything better than the Sporting News gave Buffalo, I'm going one worse with an early prediction of a 3-13 season. I'd like to be wrong. I hope I am wrong. but given what's already been lost in terms of coaching and teaching time for the Bills young roster, in facets of technique, schemes and timing, it's tough for me to envision improvement for the Bills in 2011.
Since I want to look at the glass as half full despite my current view, I'll opine that a season such as what I'm forecasting could at least give us a shot at Andrew Luck. I'm not saying that would make it more bearable, but at least there would be something to gain from it.
Now, I leave it to you, the readers. Is my logic fair or badly flawed? Did I badly overlook something, or was I thorough in my evaluations? Whatever you do, let me know, I'm interested in your opinions!