Tonight, the Buffalo Bills take center stage. And in Foxboro, MA, no less.
But the other team may be just as—or possibly more—intriguing.
The Case for Pessimism
The line from Las Vegas has the Patriots as heavy favorites (11 points at the time of this writing), and most fans and sports pundits would agree. Nearly every prognostication I have seen or heard has the Bills being made to look silly in front of the global audience.
And that very well could be.
Did you see their preseason? The starting offense produced only three points in 15 possessions. Three! They had nine punts and five turnovers in the other 14 possessions. That is worse than pathetic. And it got the offensive coordinator fired only 10 days before the Monday Night Football opener.
And the frustration and confusion wasn't only on the field on game days.
The acquisition of Terrell Owens lit a fire under Bills fans, who were glad for the offseason excitement. Add a pretty decent draft—highlighted by first round pick Aaron Maybin—and there was a lot to look forward to.
However, the fans only saw the $6 Million Dollar Man (Terrell Owens) for two plays this preseason before losing him to a toe injury. He barely even practiced anymore. Aaron Maybin missed all of training camp due to contract disputes.
Top that off with the firing of offensive coordinator, Turk Schonert, and days later the release of starting LT Langston Walker (who replaced last year's starter, Jason Peters who was traded to Philadelphia in the offseason), and you have a big ol' confusing mess. At least from the fans' vantage point.
Aside from the punting game, everything seems a bit off as Brian Moorman may still be the best player on the team (He really is amazing).
So, in accordance with their unbelievable offensive futility on the field, their record was a mere 1-4. We all know that wins and losses really don't mean anything in the preseason (Detroit being the prime example last year, going undefeated in the preseason and then un-victorious in the regular season), but the fact that the starting units basically lost every game to the other team's starters—and looked silly in the process—has many Bills faithful ready to call it a season.
And we haven't even started!
And why not?
After a dismal warm-up season, with almost nothing to look back on and say, "Well, maybe [insert something positive here] we'll be exciting this year," Bills fans look forward to tonight's matchup against the arch-rival New England Patriots with only fear and trepidation.
Eleven straight losses at their hands, the return of a health Tom Brady—who has more TD passes against the Bills than against any other opponent—and this abysmal preseason...
Only spells disaster.
The Case for Optimism
Or does it?
This is where a thinking person must step in and consider the alternative. Often in the NFL, things are not quite so clear cut.
What if firing the OC really does help the Bills offense?
Terrell Owens said a few days of practice later that he noticed a decided difference in how the Bills offense was throwing the ball downfield. Fred Jackson reported a seven or eight second decrease in the time it took to get the next play off in the No-Huddle offense. Those are intriguing comments.
What if Terrell Owens' toe injury was (certainly legit, but) mostly just to keep him fresh for the regular season. For the two plays he was on the field, he had two receptions for first downs.
What if Trent Edwards throws the ball downfield, as Owens suggests they are doing more. If Owens, Lee Evans, and Roscoe Parrish all stretch the field (which they are more than capable of doing), that opens up the underneath for possession receivers Josh Reed, rookie TE Shawn Nelson, and the running backs, Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch.
What if rookie Aaron Maybin really is that good? He had two sacks, a forced fumble and a few more pressures in only two games after no training camp and very little offseason work. The argument against says that was just preseason, and against the other team's backups; but he sure did look impressive making those plays.
What we know is that preseason is often a very bad way to judge a team. The coaches all have different agendas for their games. Jauron seems particularly bent on evaluating younger talent both in practice and in the games. This makes for very boring (and troubling) preseasons, but perhaps accomplishes his objective.
We also know that all of these guys (save perhaps Trent Edwards) have produced in the past, and are capable of producing again.
Biggest Remaining Questions
The offensive line is now starting three rookies (Rather, two rookies and one who is essentially a rookie, Demetrius Bell, the new starting LT, is a second year, seventh round draft pick. He has never played a regular season down in the NFL). The other two spots are filled by one new free agent (C Geoff Hangartner) playing a position he did not play last year; and one player from last year's line (Brad Butler) who moved from RG to RT (A position he last played in college).
Obviously, that is the biggest question.
The Bills feel they have improved their talent level on the offensive line. And the work ethic. Last year, nearly the entire line's work ethic was questioned. Apparently, the Bills coaches felt it was indeed lacking as 4/5 of them are now gone. But will that upgrade be sufficient to protect Edwards long enough to make the plays he needs to make?
The other big question for Bills fans is the coaching staff.
Dick Jauron has had only one winning season in his entire coaching career. Some say he did an amazing job in 2007 with a ridiculous amount of injuries to overcome—and that may be so—but the fact remains that in three seasons in Buffalo, he has only produced 7-9 seasons.
And following an unexpected contract extension for the head coach, the remaining staff was left intact—until Schonert's recent firing—despite three straight losing seasons.
If the line can come together early, and if Jauron and his team can overcome his apparent inadequacies...
You just never know.
So Who Are the 2009 Buffalo Bills, Anyway?
Tonight we will get our first glimpse.
They've made their moves. They have their players in place (except for Lynch). They have game planned for this opponent, which they kept saying they did not do in the preseason. They are playing their nemesis, whom they must all, to a man, long to defeat.
Will they be the "same old" Bills, whose offensive ineptitude puts too much pressure on the young defense, which ultimately leads to their defeat?
Or will they be invigorated by the new offensive play-caller; by the addition of one of the league's most prolific receivers ever; and by the blank slate of a new season?
We'll know after the clash in Foxboro tonight.
Let the games begin!