So, it's that time of year again, when the air is crisp and the kids return to school and stadiums throughout the United States resound with lusty cries of "Go, TEAM!" and "C'mon, ref, what're ya, blind?!" and "Why oh WHY would you THROW on third-and-one?!"
Yup, the return of football season, which means it's time for my annual prognostications on the impending NFL year, which will be, as always, both verbose and wrong.
:: So it came to pass that in the year 2004, a new and untested head coach took the reins of the NFL's proudest franchise, the Buffalo Bills. Mike Mularkey comes here by way of the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was offensive coordinator, and he brings a slew of offensive coaching talent that is probably the single best reason for any Bills fan to be optimistic about the 2004 campaign. After three years of watching Gregg Williams either mismanage himself, or more often, watch someone else mismanage the team's offense, it's hoped that this new staff will be able to do things like, oh, actually establish the running game that's been the staple of many a pregame Bills press conference but never a staple of an actual Bills game.
And yet, for all that, I'm not particularly optimistic that the 2004 campaign will be much different from the Bills' 2003 season, which was a 6-10 melange of good defense hampered by bad offense and horrible coaching. The Bills could make a run at the playoffs, and maybe even win 10 or 11 games, but a lot of stuff has to break in their favor for that to happen, and I just don't see it all happening that way.
Here's a partial rundown on what the Bills need to happen if they're to have a good season:
1. Their offensive line, which saw no significant addition of talent (Ruben Brown left, replaced by some guy named Chris Villarial) and has rarely been more than adequate in recent years (and frequently abyssmal), has to suddenly start pass-blocking well enough to keep Drew Bledsoe from getting sacked constantly.
2. Drew Bledsoe, in turn, needs to find his football heart again, play like a competitor, stop looking like he's just awoken from a coma, and most of all, stop making terrible decisions with the ball.
3. The defensive line, which in the offseason saw no addition of talent, needs to generate more pressure than it has in recent years, which will help in the turnover department.
4. The running back situation here, in which proven starter Travis Henry is apparently splitting duty with former first-round pick Willis McGahee in a textbook case of "This town ain't big enough for the two of us", needs to never become a major distraction.
5. The defensive backs, now led by newcomer Troy Vincent, actually need to start intercepting the ball, a performance area in which they have been pretty woeful over the last several years.
6. The receivers need to show more ability to get open, something at which they were not particularly good last year. Granted, Eric Moulds was never at a hundred percent due to groin injuries and somehow people expected Josh Reed to become the second coming of Andre Reed in just his second year, so I think we might be a bit more optimistic on this category.
7. Somebody from the tight-ends group needs to step up and become a productive tight end. The Bills have not been impressive at tight end since Pete Metzelaars retired. (Incidentally, Drew Bledsoe's best years in the NFL -- his first five or six years with the StuPats -- coincide with the fact that those are the years he had one of the NFL's best tight ends, Ben Coates, as a safety valve.)
And there's more, but those are the biggies. I think that all of those things have to break the Bills' way for the team to be good this year, and I think that's too much to ask.
Finally, a note about general manager Tom Donahoe, who has been receiving more and more criticism from fans and media here with each consecutive non-playoff season. I've generally been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, since I could see the logic behind a lot of the moves he has made, even the ones that haven't panned out well. It's easy to say "Geez, we coulda drafted Bryant McKinnie insteada Mike Williams", but a lot of people would have made the exact same pick Donahoe did. And while it's easy to criticize the selection of Gregg Williams as head coach in 2001 now, the fact is that back then, he was one of the highest-regarded defensive coordinators in the game. Somebody was going to make Williams a head coach; that somebody was the Bills. That it didn't work out isn't totally Donahoe's fault.
But I'm noticing something odd with Donahoe's general approach. When the Bills were rebuilding after the salary cap purge in 2001, it made sense to me that they drafted "for the future" -- in other words, they brought in solid athletes who would need a lot of seasoning. And it made a bit of sense, although I was understandably puzzled, for Donahoe to gamble on Willis McGahee, since if he turns out to be a great player and you had a shot at him, you don't want to have a bunch of "coulda beens" on your plate. But here the Bills are, three years into Donahoe's administration, and still, this year the Bills drafted for the future. Lee Evans? Sure, everybody thinks he'll be a fine receiver, but nobody thinks he's going to be as good right now as Peerless Price was when he left (and that was when Price himself was in his fourth year), to say nothing of being a Randy Moss or Marvin Harrison. J.P. Losman? Yep, the Bills have their QB of the future (even though he's injured now). But again, there's a guy who won't be ready to play for real until next year (rare is the QB who can step right into the NFL from the college game without some sidelines duty first), and then it'll probably be a few years until he's seasoned enough to make his own run.
What it comes down to with Donahoe is this: even when he was with the Steelers, he always seems to be thinking to two seasons from now. That's great if you're rebuilding, but if you're just a handful of players away from being a real contender, as his Steelers often were, that's when you don't want to be thinking two seasons down the road. Donahoe, it seems, always makes moves that seem to improve his teams' long-range prospects, but that's frustrating when you need to improve this year's team. This is a subtle point, but it's one that I'll wager the GM in New England understands.
So, after all that, what's my prediction for the Bills? I think that a smarter offensive coaching staff is good enough for one or two extra wins, by themselves. So I'll pencil the Bills in for an 8-8 season. No playoffs, but maybe hope for 2005. As far as placement in the division, I think they could be anywhere from second to fourth, depending on just how big of a mess the Dolphins are. As for the Jets, well, they're the Jets and sometimes they catch enough breaks to be third and other times they don't and wind up fourth. We'll see.
:: The rest of the league? Here's my rundown of how I expect the divisions to play out. I should note that I haven't done my usual homework of studying the NFL rosters, so I'm not entirely sure who has gone where. But based on my feeling from last year or what little I know of the offseason, this is how I expect things to end up.
AFC East: New England Stupid Patriots
AFC North: Cincinnati
AFC South: Tennessee
AFC West: Denver
AFC wildcards: Indianapolis, Baltimore
NFC East: Philadelphia
NFC North: Minnesota
NFC South: Carolina
NFC West: Seattle
NFC wildcards: Dallas, Washington
I don't really have a good reason for picking Washington to make the playoffs, except that I always liked Mark Brunell and that Gibbs guy who is said to be something of a decent coach. But there are my predictions for the divisions; having laid them out, I expect at least five of them to be wrong.
:: And now the part I've been dreading writing, because there's no way around it. Who do I think will win the Super Bowl? Given that neither of the teams I have picked to win the Super Bowl have even made it to the big game in the two previous years I've outlined predictions on Byzantium's Shores, maybe just the act of writing this will doom these guys. But probably not. Anyway, here it is:
The New England Stupid Patriots will defeat the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.
There, I said it. Ugh. Ugh, ugh, ugh.