Buffalo Bills: Top 5 Reasons Why Team Will and Won't Improve Under Chan Gailey
In his first year at the helm of the Buffalo Bills, Chan Gailey led the Buffalo Bills to a 4-12 record. The team started off the year 0-5, which saw the Bills lose to New England by eight points and to Miami by five points. During that time period, Gailey decided to release Trent Edwards and turn the offense over to Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The Bills then entered their bye week and the team regrouped. They came out of the bye and lost the next three games, all of them by a field goal. Included in that stretch were two overtime losses to teams that wound up being in the playoffs; Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs.
The Bills then finished the second half with a 4-4 record, as they beat Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Miami. The Bills dropped another overtime game by three points to another playoff team, Super Bowl finalist Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Bills made progress during the year and could have finished higher than 4-12 with a few good bounces of the ball. So, here we are on the verge of the 2011 season starting. How will the Bills do? We look at five reasons why they will improve under Chan Gailey and five reasons why they won't.
Reason # 1 for Bills to Improve
The Bills are one of only nine teams in the NFL that brought back its head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator from the 2010 season. That is a very important factor for every NFL team.
With shorter practice sessions, less time in pads, no two-a-days, no mini-camps, no OTAs, the teams that had the least amount of changes and starting over from scratch should jump out to have a better product on the field in the beginning of the 2011 season.
For teams that had significantly little personnel turnover with regards to the players (the Green Bay Packers come to mind here), they will benefit even more. While the Bills did not change any of their coordinators, they did add an assistant head coach to the team, Dave Wannstedt. I view the Wannstedt hire as a positive development for the team and for the defense.
Reason # 2 for Bills to Improve
As a team, the Bills are feeling more comfortable in the second year of Chan Gailey's offense and George Edward's defense. The first year saw plenty of turmoil with players playing out of position, trying to learn what their responsibilities were, and learning how to play in a new scheme.
The first half of the 2010 season could be described as trial and error, mostly error. If there was any player that looked more like a fish out of water, it was Bills veteran defensive end Chris Kelsay. He just looked like he didn't have a clue as the first half of the season wore on. The second half saw Kelsay making plays again, and the Bills experimented with some 4-3 looks, that seemed to help Kelsay come around.
Now in 2011, even with the shorter training camp, you can hear from the various player press conferences that they feel better about what their role is and that they are more comfortable in the schemes that are being run by the team. That level of comfort should result in improved performances by both the offense and the defense in 2011.
Reason # 3 for Bills to Improve
The Bills run defense and pass rush have both improved since the 2010 season. This has a domino effect on the team in total, and on the rest of the defense specifically.
With the improved defensive line, sighting the addition of first-round draft pick Marcell Dareus, and with the ever-improving play of Pro Bowl nose tackle Kyle Williams, the Bills have significantly improved their point of attack on the defensive line. Alex Carrington and Torell Troup are both looking to improve from their rookie seasons of 2010, and veterans Dwan Edwards and Spencer Johnson are playing inspired football.
The veterans that the Bills added to their linebacking corps are also of significance. From Shawne Merriman, Nick Barnett and Kirk Morrison the Bills have very strong quality depth across their linebacking corps. Danny Batten is healthy along with other second year linebackers in Arthur Moats and Antonio Coleman. Then you add in the energy and skills of Kelvin Sheppard and Chris White and you have a talented, athletic group.
The Bills defensive line is capable of bottling up the offensive line, which allows for the linebackers to play clean (very little interference for them to make a play on the ball, or on the quarterback). This is an important transformation for the Bills team. The less time the defense spends on the field, the more time the offense is on there to score. The sooner the Bills can force a punt, the better the field offense for the offense to start each drive. The front seven has to stay solid for the Bills to become a winning team.
Reason # 4 for Bills to Improve
The Bills have been slowly but surely been adding depth to the football team in key areas. The biggest additions in 2011 have been the linebackers, which we just detailed, but another key addition is the additions at quarterback.
For Ryan Fitzpatrick to play his game, he prefers to be physical by delivering a big hit to a defender that tries to tackle him at the end of his scrambles. He likes to throw his body around to block for a broken play that leads the ball carrier back across the field. That is Fitzpatrick. He is a gunslinger and he is not afraid of contact. For him to continue to play that way, the Bills needed a solid backup to be ready just in case Fitz ever got hurt.
Tyler Thigpen fits the description to a "T". He knows Chan Gailey's offense since he played for him in Kansas City. They have a history together, and Thigpen has exhibited in the preseason games that he is very capable of running the offense. That is something that Trent Edwards, Brian Brohm and Levi Brown had trouble doing.
Then we come to Brad Smith. Smith is an intangible wild card that Gailey did not have on the roster last year. From coming up with creative plays on third and short, or fourth and short, Smith can cause nightmares for the defense. We saw him easily pick up a first down out of a fake punt formation. Playing as a receiver, taking the ball on a reverse, or running the Wildcat offense, Smith makes the Bills offense more dynamic and less predictable. The Bills should be more efficient in the red zone as a result.
Reason # 5 for Bills to Improve
The perception around the league of the Bills organization is starting to improve. In years prior, it is doubtful that the team would have landed players like Brad Smith, Nick Barnett and/or Kirk Morrison to sign as a free agent. I believe that things started to change when the Bills claimed Shawne Merriman off of waivers in 2010.
Since then Merriman has been doing his best to help recruit some talent to come in Buffalo. The NFL players pay attention to things like that, and Morrison sighted that Merriman had been working on recruiting him to come to Buffalo.
Another factor is the offensive mind of Chan Gailey. That was one of the appealing reasons that convinced Brad Smith to sign on the dotted line. Gailey was able to verbalize how he envisioned using Smith, and that was all Smith had to hear. It didn't matter that he was going to still play against his old team, the New York Jets twice a year, he wanted to be part of Chan Gailey's vision.
It is because of the reasons that we sighted that the Bills team in 2011 will perform better than the 2010 version. It may not yet be a playoff team, but the Bills will continue to make strides towards turning the organization around and becoming a winning team again.
Reason # 1 for Decline
Buddy Nix, Buffalo Bills general manager, has been very stubborn about not bringing in any outside talent to improve the offensive line. Yes, there was the attempted run at Tyson Clabo of the Atlanta Falcons, but the perception now is that Clabo used the Bills interest in him to drive up the salary offer he got from Atlanta.
Nix has insisted all along that the Bills like who they have on the offensive line. The problem with that is you talk to Chan Gailey after certain games (the preseason game against the Denver Broncos is a prime example) and he was almost fuming over the offensive line play. To complicate matters, Gailey decided to split the playing time at left tackle between Demetrius Bell and Andy Levitre. Gailey also split snaps at left guard between Andy Levitre and Chad Rinehart.
While you might agree with Gailey that having competition at camp to determine who the starters will be is a good thing, you also have to know that each new wrinkle means that the offensive line has less time to gel together as a cohesive unit. Now we approach the Detroit Lions in the final preseason game, and a new entrant, rookie Chris Hairston is scheduled to play half the game at left tackle.
It if fine to say one thing and back that up with your actions. It is something else when you keep doing things that are contrary to what you preach. The offensive line is a mess and will continue to be one until the Bills invest some high draft picks or lots of money to Pro Bowl caliber talent.
Reason # 2 for Decline
The Buffalo Bills had a great situation at wide receiver. They had Lee Evans to stretch the field, and Steve Johnson to exploit the weaknesses in the opposing secondary, that often gave multiple coverage to Evans. That duo allowed Steve Johnson to blossom in 2010, when he finally got the chance to prove what he could do.
With the development of Johnson, other Bills rookie receivers had the chance to develop and earn some valuable game action as well. The trio of David Nelson, Donald Jones and Naaman Roosevelt were able to embrace their opportunity and make positive contributions to the Bills in 2010.
But now in 2011, the Bills suddenly felt the need to get something of value for Lee Evans. It is not that Evans can't play, as he promptly caught a long touchdown pass once he arrived in Baltimore. The reason for the potential decline this year, is that secondaries will now be focused on stopping Steve Johnson and forcing the other largely unproven Bills receivers to step up and take advantage of holes in the secondary.
To the extent that either Donald Jones or Marcus Easley are able to become the "Steve Johnson of 2010" is a mystery. Nobody knows what they will do or how they will handle the pressure. But trading away Lee Evans, who still had something left in the tank, seems to not be the smartest move the team has made.
Reason # 3 for Decline
The 2011 NFL draft class was supposed to be deep in defensive linemen that were more than capable of helping teams that were needing to boost their pass rush. The Buffalo Bills were one of those teams, as they finished 27th in the NFL in sacks, by registering only 27 sacks for the 2010 season.
While the Bills did invest a draft pick on the defensive line that may ultimately make the pass rush better in Marcell Dareus, the Bills did not draft anyone that was thought to be a pass rushing specialist. Maybe that is a good thing, because the last time we did that, we came away with Aaron Maybin.
Buddy Nix sighted the absence of pass rushing draft picks with a simple reply: "We didn't think any of them were better than Shawne Merriman". Bottom line the Bills are putting a tremendous amount of faith in Merriman.
If Shawne Merriman goes down, it is not the end of the world. Between Danny Batten, Alex Carrington and Arthur Moats, there are some youngsters that are ready to step up. But, for a team that was so sure of the importance of Merriman, were the Bills misguided in their judgement to think that the veteran linebacker could last an entire season without suffering a major injury? Time will tell, but this is hardly a lock.
Reason # 4 for Decline
There is no getting around the fact that the Bills will have a rough road as far as the 2011 schedule goes. They have the second most difficult schedule out of all 32 teams. How is that possible? Well, for starters they are playing both the New York Jets and the New England Patriots twice each, so as members of the AFC East, they will always have a difficult schedule ranking as long as those two teams continue to play at a higher level than the vast majority of the league.
Not only that, but the Bills run defense will be truly tested right out of the gate. The first two games of the year are against Kansas City and Oakland, which are the two best running attacks in the NFL from 2010. In fact, out of the top six running attacks from 2010, the Bills face five of them this year, (the others are the New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants).
Based on the final 2010 NFL rankings, the Bills will be facing 10 opponents out of their 16 games where the opposing defense finished in the top half of the league. So, if Fitzpatrick can pull off another 3,000 yard season, or any back or receiver tops 1,000 yards, it is because they earned it against stiff competition.
As the running game usually means going up against a tough, physical offensive line, that is when you are likely to see some injuries starting to pile up. So, the Bills have to hope they escape those first two weeks with their defense still intact and injury free.
Reason # 5 for Decline
It is great that the Bills were able to sign Kyle Williams to an extension. Other players that will need to be sewn up for longer terms are Fred Jackson, Steve Johnson and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Taking care of your own and keeping them in house, is what smaller market teams typically have to do to stay competitive.
But that is not the final reason for the team to possibly go backwards in the second year under Chan Gailey. That reason has to do with Bills owner Ralph Wilson. Some of you may remember when the Bills had gone through another of their losing seasons, when Wilson promised Bills fans that his number one priority was to acquire a franchise quarterback. If I am not mistaken, I believe he said that he promised it would happen. Oh really?
When the Bills had the chance to land Tyson Clabo they were not able to step up to the plate with enough of an offer to convince him to come play. He was already on a team with the best win-loss record in the NFC, so why he should he leave that situation unless he was bowled over by a contract offer.
There is a mandate in the new CBA that teams will be required to spend up to a certain minimal floor amount, and the Bills were looking like they still had plenty of cap space to work with. Of course, trading away Lee Evans, releasing Aaron Maybin and not matching the crazy offer that Jacksonville made to Paul Posluszny are ways of keeping the payroll more reasonable.
It is wise that the Bills are building their team through the draft. But as finite as the level of talent is between playoff caliber teams and teams that are sitting home watching the games in later January is not that far apart. When adding a special talented player or two could potentially lift the team into becoming serious contenders, it is sad that the team is forced to try low-ball bids and watch them go rebuffed. There is very little that Chan Gailey can do about that. All he can do is work with what he has been given.