Sunday, December 28, 2003

Well, at least they were better than the Redskins.

Thank God that's over. I've been actively rooting for the Bills since their 1986 season -- when Jim Kelly came to town, and when I finally got tired of being the kid in high school who knew nothing about football -- and I have to say, they have not had a season this disappointing in all the time I've followed them. Not even their 1994 (7-9), 1997 (6-10) or 2001 (3-13) years came close to this, because as I've made clear over the year, this was the year I thought they'd compete again. Instead they stumbled, they stumbled often, and they looked terrible in stumbling.

Head coach Gregg Williams is pretty much guaranteed to be sent packing. He won't be officially "fired", since his contract is now up; he just won't be brought back. Very likely offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride will be gone as well. I am hoping that the defensive and special teams coaches remain, since those units performed fairly well this year. But a new regime will take the field next year. Williams had three years to turn the Bills around, and in today's NFL, three years is more than enough time to remake a team. He couldn't get it done, posting an overall record of 17-29 and leaving a team with too many obvious holes to be filled. Those holes, as I see them, are as follows:

:: Offensive line. This was supposed to be a strength this year, but their key young players who were supposed to blossom either failed to do so or spent significant time being hurt. Longtime fixture Ruben Brown, whom nobody thinks deserved to be elected to this year's Pro Bowl even though he was, missed yesterday's game due to unexplained "personal reasons", just days after Brett Favre played for the Packers a day after his father's death. The line still gave up too many sacks, and the running game never really became consistent. Of course, a lot of that is due to the playcalling, in which the coaches refused to ever even try to establish a rhythm. But the line did not perform as it should have, and I'd be very surprised if next year's O-line featured the same players as this year's.

:: Defensive line. This unit was pretty good, but they still didn't generate enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Bills still need a defensive lineman, maybe an end, who can get sacks on a consistent basis. Plus, pressure would help in creating turnovers, which the Bills were terrible at doing this year.

:: Secondary. As noted above, the Bills need to make more turnovers. They have good tacklers in the secondary (not that you saw much of that yesterday against the Patriots, whose receivers looked like a bunch of Jerry Rice clones in that game), but they haven't had a real threat to intercept a lot of passes since the days of Henry Jones and Kurt Schulz as the safeties. Cornerback Antoine Winfield is a free agent, and I don't expect him to be back. But if the Bills can get someone who can actually pick off the ball once in a while, I'm fine with seeing Winfield go.

:: Receivers. I'm not nearly as interested in hand-wringing over Peerless Price's departure as many others are. I think Josh Reed developed pretty well this year, but you'd never know it to hear Bills fans and Buffalo sportswriters tell the tale. (Reed had 58 catches this year, while Price had 64 for Atlanta.) Bobby Shaw was a decent number three man as well. The receiving corps suffered by Eric Moulds's inability to really recover from a groin pull midway through the season, and where they really suffered was in something that was completely ignored by nearly everyone who has criticized Drew Bledsoe's performance: the lack of a strong tight end or receiving back. In Bledsoe's best years with the Patriots, he always had Ben Coates as a "safety valve" guy to haul in short passes and collect yardage after the catch. I remember watching Bledsoe shred the Bills' fine mid-1990s defense by using Coates to brilliant effect, and last year, he had Larry Centers and Jay Riemersma to fill that role. This year, he had nobody. I think that was a big factor in Bledsoe's ineffectiveness this year.

:: Quarterback. OK, here we go on Bledsoe. I've been very reluctant to give up on this guy, really, but now I'm of mixed mind. If they can ditch him and bring in a promising youngster, this might well be the time to do it, since there will be a new offensive system being installed next year anyway. I don't question Bledsoe's ability, but I have at last begun to question his heart, because he showed no fire, no anger, no leadership as the team started to gyrate this year. Jim Kelly would have circled the wagons; Bledsoe seemed all too often to be circling the drain.

Bledsoe never got in the face of his young offensive linemen when they gave up a sack, something Jim Kelly never hesitated to do. (In 1989, Kelly publicly castigated Howard Ballard for missing a block on a play that led to Kelly getting injured and missing three games; a lot of people in Buffalo got mad at Kelly and called him a jerk for doing that. But Ballard suddenly stepped it up and he became the stalwart of the right side of Buffalo's Super Bowl-run offensive line.) Just last week, Bledsoe said that Kevin Gilbride's offensive system is the best in which he's ever played, which is a bit of an odd statement to make in a year when the Bills are actually setting franchise records for offensive futility. Last year Bledsoe played with fire here; he looked like a guy who really wanted to win. This year he all-too-often looked like a guy desperate to just not look terrible -- which, as any football fan knows, is precisely the way to end up looking terrible.

So, if the new coaching regime decides that Bledsoe's time is over, so be it. But if they stick with Bledsoe, I hope they're strong-willed enough to commit to running the ball and designing game plans around what Bledsoe's strengths actually are as opposed to what they think it would be nice if his strengths were. And I'll be a lot less willing to defend the guy.

More football thoughts tomorrow, now that I'm relegated to "normal fan" status. It's the one nice thing about having one's team eliminated.

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