Monday, November 17, 2003

Look, a string! Let's play it out!

Yep, folks, you can stick a fork in the Buffalo Bills. They are done. Sure, they have the proverbial "mathematical chance" at making the playoffs still, but somehow I suspect that the 2003 Bills aren't about to become football's equivalent of the 1969 Mets. They're 4-6, they lost yesterday to an injury-ridden second-year expansion team, their offense has not scored a touchdown in four weeks, et cetera. They might have won yesterday had their placekicker made the two field goals that he missed, but even then, as I've noted a number of times before a team whose offense can't find the end zone isn't going to win much unless their defense is one of the best ever, which this one ain't.

Oh, and they might have lost running back Travis Henry for the season. He cracked his fibula in the second quarter, and then played on that leg in the second half. This guy's got heart, so it's too bad that he's probably going to be traded the second the Bills decide that Willis McGahee is ready to take the reins as the fulltime starter.

I always find it a strange feeling when the Bills are eliminated (officially or figuratively). There's disappointment: a lot of it this year, because I can safely say that nobody thought that a performance this bad was in the offing back in September. But there's also relief in that even if they lose every remaining game, it's now pretty much meaningless, so I go back to being a football fan instead of a Bills fan. That means I can pay more attention to what's going on elsewhere in the league. Whoopee! (Or, alternatively, I can just flip to ABC and watch figure skating in the vain hope that someone can knock off Evgeny Pleshenko....)

What to say about yesterday's game, then? Not much, really, that I haven't said before. The Bills ran the ball well, but not when they needed to; the O-line couldn't give Drew Bledsoe enough protection to keep him upright until the receivers could break their routes; a fine defensive effort was squandered; the coaches are in this perpetual fog (they actually had to call a timeout after a third-down because they hadn't yet decided whether or not to kick the field goal). Yada yada yada. I do, though, have a theory as to what on earth is wrong with Drew Bledsoe.

Everybody in Buffalo is down on Bledsoe, mainly because he's so immobile that he either gets sacked or he throws a horrible pass in desperation in the face of pressure. The refrain goes that in today's NFL, quarterbacks with that little mobility are toast. I'm not sure I agree with that. Look at some recent Super Bowl quarterback heroes: Kurt Warner, Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson -- not exactly the names that leap to mind when one thinks of "mobile quarterbacks". And the two poster-children for mobile quarterbacks, guys who really run, have missed significant amounts of time the last two seasons to injuries sustained by running: Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick. But Bledsoe has most definitely been a lot less effective this year than he was last year, with his current performance matching a similar decline in Bledsoe's 1999 and 2000 seasons. (In 2001 he was injured early in the year, which gave rise to The Devil Incarnate Tom Brady taking over in New England.) What, I wondered, was so different about the guy up to 1998 and last year?

So I thought back to when I used to see Bledsoe twice a year when the Patriots played the Bills, in the mid and late 1990s, and what I remember of Bledsoe back then is that he used to constantly kill the Bills -- and the Bills' defense was great back then -- not by completing lots of deep passes to his receivers, although there certainly was some of that. No, the big spark plug was his tight end, Ben Coates, who at the time was one of the very best tight ends in the NFL. But Coates's production fell off substantially in 1999 -- I'm not sure if he played hurt that year, or what -- and then he was gone. But interestingly, Bledsoe's statistical fall-off tracks precisely with Coates's, and continued when Coates was gone.

Flash forward to 2002, when Bledsoe joined the Bills. Suddenly the guy could do no wrong again, for most of the season. A lot of it was that Eric Moulds and Peerless Price were better receivers than he ever had in New England, but you would think that even with losing Price for this year Bledsoe wouldn't totally fall apart. So what else was different? Well, it wasn't just Price who left. The Bills also ditched running back Larry Centers, who was almost never used to run the ball but whose receiving skills are such that he has more than 800 career receptions and may end up in the Hall of Fame. Last year, Centers played the same role that Coates used to play for Bledsoe: the safety-valve guy who could grab the short passes when the pressure was coming too hard for Bledsoe to wait for his receivers to get open. Centers had 43 catches last year, more than Jay Riemersma (who was the actual tight end last year) and thus far more than the Bills' current two tight ends combined. This suggests to me that if the Bills want to improve their offense next year, they need to do two things (aside from firing coordinator Kevin Gilbride, who is almost certainly guaranteed to be gone):

1. Improve the offensive line for protection purposes. Bledsoe is a rhythm quarterback, but the current line never lets him get into a rhythm.

2. Upgrade the tight ends or "backfield receiver" to give Bledsoe a credible threat underneath, which will help him get out of jams.

Well, anyway, there it is. As I noted, the Bills aren't officially out of it yet, but they might as well be. They would have to win every remaining game to have a shot at the division, and given their current woes, I don't see them beating Indianapolis or Tennessee at home or the Patriots on the road. So I'm thinking about next year, mildly embarrassed that my expectations for their 2003 season were so far off the mark. But I'm not remotely alone in that regard.

:: Note to Vikings fans: The 2002 Oakland Raiders suffered a four game losing streak at one point in the season. And then they went to the Super Bowl. (In which they got blown out. Don't look too far into history for lessons, I guess.)

:: Remember, I'm on hiatus next week, so I won't be posting about the Bills' inevitable loss to Indianapolis. But I expect that fans at Ralph Wilson Stadium will get to see some touchdowns being scored. (By the wrong team, of course, but still....)

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