Remember the Music City Miracle in the 1999 AFC wild card playoff round? Frank Wycheck’s cross-field lateral to Kevin Dyson, who took the ball and ran 75 yards for a kickoff return TD on the final play of the game to allow the Tennessee Titans to score a “miracle” 22-16 win over the Buffalo Bills?
Well, as much as they remember that play in Nashville, they’ve tried hard to forget it in Buffalo. That’s because the Bills have yet to return to the postseason since, the longest current playoff drought in the NFL.
Perhaps “Music City Nightmare” might be more appropriate in referencing that unforgettable play in Buffalo’s mind.
We can’t say the Bills aren’t trying to turn things around and get back to the postseason, as GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey endured a very active offseason which saw Buffalo emerge as a major player in the free-agent sweepstakes. Moreover, if analysts are to be believed, the Bills might have fared better than any in the April NFL Draft.
Thus, enthusiasm is hardly in short supply on the Niagara frontier. Whether that turns into disappointment again in December remains to be seen.
Las Vegas wagering outlets have reportedly been taking more 'over' action on the Bills’ season win total which has floated between 7-7½ wins, depending upon the sports book. As noted on the DonBest.com NFL odds page, future spreads on early-season games, such as the opener at the Jets, have also moved in Buffalo’s direction over the summer. Originally posted as a 6-point favorite, most outlets now have the Jets laying 3½ or 4 points in the 2012 regular-season kickoff on September 9.
Last season was a tale of two campaigns for Buffalo, which rushed from the gate to a 5-2 start with a collection of thrilling wins (including the first over Bill Belichick’s Patriots since 2003), and only a pair of losses, each of those by a mere three points.
But just when our favorite local TV celeb, Maria Gennaro, and other Buffalonians were making playoff plans for the first time in a dozen years, the roof caved in...completely so. The Bills lost eight of their last nine games and in the process allowed a whopping 5,938 yards and 434 points, each the most ever permitted in franchise history.
Considering some of the bad teams in Buffalo’s past, including those coached by Harvey Johnson, Jim Ringo, Hank Bullough, and Mike Mularkey, that defensive low-water mark is ignominious indeed.
As for Gailey, suspicions that he might not be up to the task are a favorite topic on Bills chat rooms and blogs. Although we think Gailey has always received a bit of a bad rap, as his two years as head coach in Dallas are often confused with Dave Campo’s subsequent regime, which fared far worse, in an era in which Jerry Jones was hitting eject buttons on his coaches as George Steinbrenner once did with the Yankees. Gailey also didn’t do too badly at subsequent stop Georgia Tech, enjoying modest success before the Yellow Jackets began to regress late in his Atlanta tenure.
But last season’s developments are a red flag for Gailey’s critics, who suspect that the introverted mentor lacks the fire to ignite a team when the going gets tough, as it certainly did a year ago when injuries decimated the roster and the team collapsed in the second half of the season.
Obviously, defensive upgrades were the first order of business in the offseason. Veteran coach Dave Wannstedt, who has always fared better in an assistant’s role than a head coaching one in his career, was promoted from LB coach to defensive coordinator after last year’s coordinator George Edwards had to walk the plank after last season’s stop unit meltdown.
But it was on the personnel side where the Bills made their biggest moves in the offseason. Beyond Peyton Manning, Houston DE Mario Williams might have been the top prize of this year’s free-agent class, and the Bills lured him to orchard Park with a high-priced, multi-year deal. Ex-Patriots DE Mark Anderson also enlisted, and the two bring an immediate upgrade to what was an anemic pass rush that generated only 29 sacks last term; Williams and Anderson have 88½ career sacks between them in their young careers.
The Bills also went for “D” at the top of the draft when tabbing South Carolina CB Stephon Gilmore with the tenth pick in the first round. Gilmore, rated alongside LSU’s Morris Claiborne as the top available corner in the draft, is expected to step right into the starting role on the right side, opposite Aaron Williams.
Buffalo added more intriguing defensive pieces later in the draft, selecting mobile Florida State LB Nigel Bradham and LSU CB Ron Brooks (considered a huge sleeper by many) each in the fourth round, while adding TCU LB Tank “Mr. Intangible” Carder in the fifth round. All could make contributions this fall.
The upside looks considerable for the platoon, especially with the DL appearing as if it could be overwhelming with the new additions at the end spots and the potential at defensive tackle. First of all, however, Wannstedt has to make sure DT Kyle Williams is back to 100 percent after foot surgery curtailed his 2011 participation. Then, second-year DT Marcell Dareus, the No. 3 pick in the entire 2011 draft, has to continue his maturation process after playing only in fits and spurts last fall.
Still, let’s not forget how this stop unit disappeared a year ago. All of the newcomers, plus holdovers such as Dareus, Shawne Merriman and Nick Barnett, have to mesh, while a rejuggled secondary now featuring a rookie at the corner must upgrade.
Whatever improvements the Bills make on defense might not matter, however, if the offense misfires as it did in the last half of 2011. Injuries, especially along the OL, didn’t help down the stretch last fall, but QB Ryan Fitzpatrick’s effectiveness waned so considerably in the latter stages that Buffalo backers are no longer confident they have finally found their QB.
Fitzpatrick’s numbers during the second half of the season confirmed the meltdown, with 17 picks over those last nine games after the quick start. By the time the smoke cleared, Fitzpatrick had tossed an NFL-worst 23 interceptions in 2011.
More disturbing to the blue-collar Bills backers is that Fitzpatrick’s performances began to head south almost immediately after signing a huge contract extension. Several AFC East sources considered that big-money deal to be ridiculously premature, given that Fitzpatrick had delivered big numbers in only a handful of games.
Still, the ex-Harvard man enters 2012 as “the man” at QB. Ex-Titan and Eagle Vince Young has been added as an alternative, with journeyman Tyler Thigpen also still in the picture should Fitzpatrick continue his downward spiral.
But during the first half of 2011, the Bills were percolating, and their final stats which include drastic leaps in yards gained (from 25th to 14th) and scoring (from 28th to 14th) suggests there is real potential within the strike force and that longtime offensive mastermind Gailey has an idea what to do on the attack end.
There are some weapons in the Buffalo arsenal. Keeping RBs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller healthy might prove a challenge, but each gained better than five yards per carry in 2011. Re-signing WR Stevie Johnson, who caught a team-best 76 passes last season, was crucial. The Bills were so enamored of NC State rookie wideout T.J. Graham that they traded up to nab him in the third round.
Still, it was no coincidence that the offense commenced its downturn last fall when the OL began to have injury problems. In particular, key C Scott Wood, without whom the Bills struggled in 2011 and whose full recovery from serious ACL surgery is not guaranteed. It is hoped that second-round pick Cordy Glenn from Georgia will at the least provide improved depth, while at the most emerging as a solid and dependable starter for years to come.
Of course, the Bills’ pointspread efforts mirrored their straight-up pattern from a year ago, with the first half of the season positive, and the second half negative. Buffalo dropped seven of its last nine vs. the number after covering five of its first seven. Despite the late fade, Gailey still managed spread covers in six of 10 as an underdog.
Still, if the Bills can stay healthy on offense and get Fitzpatrick back in gear, pointspread dynamics in the fall could be similar to the first half of last season. With ample firepower, Buffalo could again provide interesting value once more in the underdog role.
Conversely, the Bills were a very unreliable favorite last season, dropping five of six spread decisions as chalk. Buffalo is also just 2-7 as a favorite since 2010.
Defensive shortcomings resulted in a 10-6 'over' mark, but the first reaction regarding totals in 2012 is that any stop unit upgrades might change that dynamic. If Williams, Anderson and Gilmore indeed help the “D” as much as some might expect, Buffalo might not be involved in as many shootouts as it was a year ago.
As mentioned earlier, the Bills’ season-win total has been seeing some buy action on the 'over' as the total has risen from seven to 7½ at some Las Vegas sports books. Apparently the majority of customers have chosen to overlook Buffalo’s (and Fitzpatrick’s) late-season fade from a year ago; we’re not sure we would do the same.
Summary: Because of the quick start last season and apparent significant upgrades made by the defense in the offseason, we are hardly about to write off the Bills as a potential factor this fall. But Fitzpatrick’s credentials as a playoff-worthy QB are still rather dubious, and for all of the defensive upgrades the Bills might have made, they won’t matter if Fitzpatrick struggles as he did the last half of 2012. And while the AFC East might not look quite as menacing with the Jets fading back to the pack and Miami in rebuild mode, note that Buffalo has also won just two of 12 division games the past two years.
We’ll watch the Bills closely, but we’re also not about to get carried away. At least not yet.
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