by Dave Staba (@DavidStaba) - posted 10:06 am, September 7, 2014
The Buffalo Bills open their 2014 season in Chicago today, and the vibe is uncomfortably similar to the 14 preceding playoff-free campaigns.
Maybe it’s the lifeless month of exhibition games in which E.J. Manuel, whose rookie year was interrupted and abbreviated by injuries, looked like, well, a rookie.
Maybe it’s the dread lingering in any discussion of the team’s future following the death of founder Ralph Wilson, resulting from the franchise’s recent history of failing to get much of anything right—this doesn’t help—combined with the economic realities of doing business in Western New York, that results in visions of the Bills playing in a different city with a new name and uniforms.
Maybe it’s the result of a spring and summer in which Jon Bon Jovi was a more common topic of discussion than C.J. Spiller or Mario Williams.
Or maybe the Bills, as ever, just are not very good.
That last, simplest explanation seems to be the consensus of the national football press. Before training camps opened, the Bills were viewed as one the teams poised to make the jump from mediocrity to contention this year.
The defense should build on last year’s showing.
Manuel should be better with a full training camp and a supporting cast bolstered by rookie receiver Sammy Watkins, so beloved by Buffalo management that they gladly gave up two first-round picks to land him.
And, at long last, it should finally be the Bills’ turn to catch a break.
Such optimism did not survive the summer. Or even much longer than it took news of Kiko Alonso’s season-ending knee injury to spread.
In his series of NFL preview articles, Bill Barnwell of Grantland grouped Buffalo in with “The Cellar Dwellers,” the eight teams he believes will vie for the right to the first pick in next April’s draft. Or, in the case of the Bills, the right to send that top choice to Cleveland.
“The Bills are somehow simultaneously rebuilding and hopeless, a franchise both in transition and going nowhere,” Barnwell concludes, after using two forms of the word “bizarre” to describe the front office’s decision-making in trading away a pick the team will desperately need if Manuel fails to prove himself the long-term answer at quarterback, as well as the failure to sign anyone to replace Alonso or departed safety Jairus Byrd.
This was a team left to rot as Wilson grew older, and you can see it in both the roster and the fanbase. I can barely tell the difference between a Bills tailgate and a 1970s Manchester coal-plant union protest. There is decay and unhappiness pretty much everywhere you look. That’s a high-quality put-down right there. But the staff at We Want Marangi is nothing but optimistic. Each season for the last 14, in various media outlets, we have managed to come up with some basis to predict, if half-heartedly, a change in fortunes for the Bills—new coach, new quarterback, another new coach, another new quarterback, the occasional incredibly expensive free agent, a big-name receiver whose best years came five years and three teams earlier.
Of course, such dismal predictions are often based on mistakes of the past like Dick Jauron and J.P. Losman and cruel—if well-earned—stereotypes about Buffalo. Or, in the case of Barnwell, exhaustive statistical analysis and film study.
None of the number-crunching and assumption-jumping that comprise preseason predictions matter much once the real games start, so the WWM editorial board decided against making any this year.
Instead, we took the Bruce Smith approach to training camp—thinking about football very occasionally while feigning injury in order to avoid excessive sweatiness until it matters. This phenomenon can now accurately be called the Kyle Orton approach.
For all the uncertainty surrounding the high-profile positions of quarterback, coach and owner, there are more positives about these Bills than previous editions which opened with much higher expectations among media types and fans.
Manuel’s rookie year wasn’t nearly as bad as some seem to recall, with a half-dozen decent-or-better performances, three stinkers and a truncated good night among his 10 starts.
He’ll have the support of a reinforced running game, with veterans Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon adding inside power to Spiller’s breakaway speed and Fred Jackson’s all-around intensity.
Watkins is the real thing—if low-resolution cell-phone training-camp videos are any indication. If he can keep his ribcage from getting pulverized, he gives Manuel the sort of disruptive receiving force Buffalo has lacked since Eric Moulds’ peak more than a decade ago. At least.
It is tough to imagine the defense somehow being better without Alonso and Byrd, but a full season from Stephon Gilmore should improve coverage in the secondary, an especially important asset while facing receivers like Chicago’s Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall.
And here’s something everyone should be able to get behind: Marrone belatedly came to the conclusion that Jeff Tuel has no business touching a football during an NFL game. That it took two full off- and preseasons and a pair of disastrous regular-season demonstrations to arrive at that conclusion does not exactly instill confidence in either Marrone or the team’s personnel department, but at least they got there eventually.
If Orton, signed barely a week before the opener, still likes to play football (no sure thing, after the way he relaxed his way out of Dallas), he provides a relatively viable option if gets hurt or regresses. Orton’s signing also suggests something of a humbling for Marrone, who apparently entered his first head-coaching job at the professional level believing his offensive system could work with even Tuel or Thaddeus Lewis at the controls.
The Bills quickly shot down the above-linked report that Marrone had to be separated from Bills CEO Russ Brandon during an argument over personnel issues last month, which means one of two things. Either there is serious dissension over the team’s direction at the worst possible time, or an anonymous someone in the organization really, really dislikes Marrone.
Through it all, the Bills have been aimlessly drifting along, soaking up the big television money afforded every NFL team and playing before mostly capacity crowds at home without any real incentive to win. And let’s face it. That has been true not just since Wilson passed, but since John Butler left town after the 2000 season. It is not a coincidence that that season was the first year of the league’s longest playoff drought.
Opening Day brings with it the chance to change all that, or at least create the perception that it is changing.
For all Manuel’s struggles, a big day against Chicago’s aging secondary and feeble pass rush, or even a competent showing, will ease doubts about Buffalo’s first pick in the 2013 draft. If that involves Watkins making a few of those spectacular plays in games that count against defenders wearing an opposing team’s uniform, Doug Whaley’s decisions regarding the ’14 and ’15 drafts start looking a lot better, too.
A win against the Bears also quiets the noise about Marrone’s future for a week or so.
And makes it much easier to feel good about a season that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the previous 14 before it has even begun.