Sunday, January 01, 2006

Thank god that's over....

The Buffalo Bills' 2005 season ended a few hours ago, and not soon enough. This was an incredibly disappointing season which saw the Bills stagger, limp, lurch, and stumble to a 5-11 finish -- and while I predicted them to be better than 5-11, I didn't predict them to be much better. I figured they'd go 6-10.

But before I gripe about the Bills, I think I'll review the rest of the NFL first, now that the playoff picture is finally set. Here is how the divisions stacked up in the end, with my predicted winners in parentheses afterwards:

AFC East: New England Stupid Patriots (StuPats)
AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals (Bengals)
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts (Colts)
AFC West: Denver Broncos (Chargers)
AFC Wildcards: Jacksonville Jaguars, Pittsburgh Steelers (Jets, Steelers)

NFC East: New York Giants (Eagles)
NFC North: Chicago Bears (Vikings)
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Falcons)
NFC West: Seattle Seahawks (Cardinals)
NFC Wildcards: Carolina Panthers, Washington Redskins (Seahawks, Panthers)

In the AFC, four of the teams I picked to make the playoffs actually did make the playoffs. Yay, me! However, in the NFC, only two of the six teams I picked to make the playoffs actually made it in. Boo, me! In my defense, two more of the NFC teams I picked were actually in the playoff race until fairly late in the year (the Vikes and Falcons), while another (the Eagles) was hindered my lots of injuries and arguably the biggest off-field distraction in team sports this year (the T.O. saga); and one of the teams I missed in the AFC was also in the hunt (the Chargers) while the other (the Jets) were demolished by injuries. So, on the one hand, I did pretty well at predicting which teams would be competitive this year. Yay, me! On the other hand, I picked Arizona to win the AFC West, while they instead finished eight games out of their division lead. Boo, me!

I predicted the Colts to win the Super Bowl, defeating the Eagles. The Eagles didn't even post a winning record, unfortunately (and pending the offseason, I'm inclined to think of this as a one-year aberration); but the Colts are primed, as the AFC top seed and owners of the NFL's best record, to make the Super Bowl. If the Colts do win it all, I would expect the general spin in NFL-land to be that the team rallied around their grieving coach to give him the championship that has eluded him thus far in his exemplary head coaching career. A Colts title would also make me correct in picking the Super Bowl winner two years in a row, which would be nice. (Of course, the road is frought with peril: the AFC top seed has only made it to the Super Bowl three times since 1993, which was also the last year that both conferences sent their top seeds to the Super Bowl.)

Other random observations:

:: The first-round playoff game I'm really looking forward to watching is the Steelers at the Bengals. Cincinnati's defense is, well, not very good: they've given up by far the most points out of all the playoff teams (and only five teams in the AFC gave up more points this year), and heading into the playoffs on a two-game losing streak is never a good thing. I suspect that if Ben Roeythlissburguerre (I'm pretty sure I spelled that wrong) doesn't get hurt earlier in the year, the Steelers are hosting this game rather than the other way around.

:: It used to be that Johnny Unitas was the "poster child" for NFL quarterbacks who stuck around well after they should have retired, but watching this season unfold has me wondering if Brett Favre is about to take that title. I dearly loved watching Favre play when he was in his prime, and I wish he could have finished with more than just one Super Bowl title, but watching him this year was just painful. I keep contrasting his youthful exuberance (remember the way he tore off his helmet and ran all over the field after throwing his first touchdown pass in Super Bowl XXXI? has there ever been a better display of pure joy at playing football than that moment?) versus his on-field demeanor this year. Whenever I saw him, he seemed to just be heaving the ball all over the place, as if he'd just said, "Oh, f*** it."

:: I can't believe I'm about to type these words, but I might as well get it out there: a real case can be made for Tedy Bruschi as NFL MVP this year. Yeah, I know. I, too, tired very quickly of the fawning coverage he received in the NFL press when he came back from that stroke, but consider: the Stupid Patriots were 3-4 in games in which Bruschi did not play, giving up an average of 27.4 points in those games, while they were 7-2 in games in which Bruschi did play, giving up only 16.2 points per game. Sure, Bruschi's return coincided with the StuPats' easier portion of their schedule, but those are pretty compelling numbers.

:: Mike Tice has been shown the door in Minnesota. I'm not up on the various particulars of Tice's career, but from my vantage point, the Vikes seemed to underachieve a lot under Tice, who struck me as a guy who maybe wasn't quite ready for prime-time as an NFL head coach. Maybe now Ted Cotrell will get the head coaching opportunity he's been hankering for.

Well, I've postponed it long enough. Time to talk about the Bills.

Man, what a mess this franchise is. I hate being one of the chorus of negative fans in Buffalo -- and listening to the local radio stations, there's just some crazy thinking out there. People are calling into WGR and insisting that the Bills could win the Super Bowl next year if, after firing GM Tom Donahoe and head coach Mike Mularkey, they would make Kelly Holcomb the starting quarterback and installing Marv Levy and Jim Kelly as GM and head coach. Ummm...sure. Folks, if you want to hear pure delusion, tune in to your local sports talk radio shows and listen to the callers. You can just hear their bartenders in the background, shouting for them to pay their tabs before they can get another beer.

But still: I'm pretty well convinced that Tom Donahoe, at the very least, needs to go.

I've been thinking about Donahoe's tenure, and it's not as clear-cut as many around here think to pick out his various missteps. Many of his moves didn't pan out, but many of his moves made perfect sense at the time he made them. Gregg Williams was a hot coaching property in 2001. The Bills' QB situation was a disaster after 2001, and Drew Bledsoe, despite having lost his starting job with the StuPats, had at least come in off the bench in the AFC Championship Game the year before and thrown the deciding TD pass. Everybody thought that Mike Williams was a can't-miss offensive lineman. And Donahoe couldn't control injuries, either: maybe if JP Losman hadn't broken his leg in his rookie camp, he'd have had more reps and more active time learning the NFL game in 2004, thus easing his learning curve this year. Likewise, Donahoe recognized that Bills tight ends were consistently underperforming, so he drafted Kevin Everett from tight-end factory Miami, only to see Everett tear his ACL mere minutes into minicamp and miss his entire rookie season.

So when I call for Donahoe to go, it's from the stance that a lot less has gone wrong that was actually his fault than most fans seem to believe.

The major sins of Donahoe, for me, as his consistent failure to upgrade the Bills at the line of scrimmage. The offensive line and defensive lines have been downright bad for just about all of Donahoe's tenure (and longtime readers will know that this isn't a new thing for me to bitch about), and yet, Donahoe has made very few moves to substantially upgrade either line. As a result, the D-line has been very soft against the run and consistently bad at rushing the passer, while the O-line has been barely adequate at run-blocking and disastrous at pass-blocking. If one accepts the maxim that football games are won and lost by your big guys at the line of scrimmage, and I do accept this, then Donahoe's failure to address this continual area of underachievement on this team lies at the root of the Bills' five year run of poor play.

As I noted, many of Donahoe's moves made sense at the time, and had he not made those moves, someone else would have. Gregg Williams would have been a head coach somewhere in 2001; Mike Williams would have been drafted; someone would have dealt with the StuPats for Bledsoe. And it wasn't as if Donahoe was an untried executive when he got here; his Steelers of the 1990s were consistently competitive -- and that was with Kordell Stewart under center. Also, I fully realize that installing a new GM has its own pitfalls: will a new GM appoint an entirely new coaching staff, or hold over some of Mularkey's crew (assuming Mularkey himself is retained)? Either way, it's hard to see this team becoming competitive next year, either, given the infusion of talent that is needed right now.

Ultimately, the NFL is about winning. I'm not a fan who is willing to throw the entire team under the bus after every loss or even a losing season*, but Donahoe's been here five years, and his tenure has produced zero playoff appearances, one winning season, and three seasons of double-digit losses. And that's in an era when NFL franchises can attain respectibility (and lose it again) with amazing quickness: since 2001, 27 of the NFL's 32 teams have made the playoffs at least once. The five that have not? The Saints, Cardinals, Lions, Texans, and Buffalo Bills. Bills fans can delude themselves all they want about how this team is just a player or a coach or two from really being something, but look at that company: four of the NFL's most hapless franchises.

Sorry, Mr. Donahoe, but it's time for someone else to have a shot.

Other Bills notes:

:: If any professional athlete has posted a more lackluster "money season" -- i.e., a season after which they expect to sign their most lucrative deal -- than Nate Clements, I'd like to know who it is. He was relentlessly average this year. While I do not think the Bills should re-sign him, I wouldn't mind seeing them do what they did with Peerless Price a few years back -- put the "Franchise Player" tag on him when someone signs him, and force that team to cough up a draft pick or two for him.

:: I don't know what the Bills' draft position is for the coming year, but I read today that they do have four picks in the first three rounds. My preference is for a defensive lineman in the first round, followed by some combination of two offensive linemen and another DL guy. Frankly, if they ended up with eleven total picks and used them to take seven OL guys and four DL guys, I wouldn't complain at all.

:: Attention, all members of the Kelly Holcomb Fan Club: the Bills will not be playing the Bengals sixteen times in 2006. Holcomb looked no better than average today. True, JP Losman was 1-7 this year, but experienced veteran Holcomb was only 4-4. And anyone who thinks that enough of Losman has been seen to definitively stick him with the proverbial fork is also probably one of those people who thinks that Frank Reich is the next offensive coordinator of the Bills. I've said it before, and I'll say it again right now: Troy Aikman, Peyton Manning, and Jim Kelly all spent their first years in the NFL going 1-15, 3-13, and 4-12 respectively.

Well, so much for 2005. I'm sure the playoffs will be fun -- especially if Satan Tom Brady finally learns the sensation of exiting the field as the loser of a playoff game. Won't that be sweet!

* True story: I often listen to WGR on the way to work. Last week, Buffalo's NHL team, the Sabres, had a long winning streak snapped, and the topic on WGR the next morning was, "How should the Sabres be fixed?" I kid you not. Now that is negativity, folks.

No comments: