But anyway: what's the state of the NFL and what's the state of the Buffalo Bills?
Well, the Bills are a mess. Pure and simple. This season has the potential to be one of the biggest train wrecks in franchise history. They have a completely new offensive line, which (as of this writing) will be starting two rookies. They tried rolling out a new offensive scheme in the preseason, which performed so poorly in five preseason games that they fired their offensive coordinator just two days ago. Their quarterback is a once-promising young talent, a smart player with all the physical tools, who has been regressing since his debut two seasons ago. They are led by the same coaching staff that has piloted the team to a 7-9 finish three years in a row. They are managed by the same front office that has been stocking the team with lackluster talent for nearly a decade now. They are owned by the same pigheaded owner who seems to loathe being in the same room as someone strong-willed and intelligent, which is why his best general managers all get fired eventually.
I've come to see the worst day in Buffalo Bills history as the firing of Bill Polian, the guy who built the teams that went to the Super Bowl four years in a row. Polian went from the Bills to the Indianapolis Colts, a long-moribund franchise at the time. All Polian's done there is turn the Colts into a perennial powerhouse.
The list of things wrong with the Buffalo Bills is pretty long, but for me, that's where they start: in the front office. This team just does not have a good football operation in place. Head Coach Dick Jauron is generally the public face of the team's recent ineptitude, so his is the name that is vilified the most every time this team goes out and stumbles all over the place, but to me, it's terribly galling to see that despite picking in the upper half of the draft every year for a decade, the Bills have still failed to find top-flight talent in most cases. Three years ago, people were saying that the Bills were two or three drafts away from being good. Now, after those two or three drafts, guess what? They're still two or three drafts away from being good.
Why the hell is this?
Well, it's a double-headed monster of a problem. The Bills don't scout talent terribly well, and they don't make picks intelligently, either. One prime example is their recent obsession with drafting numerous defensive backs each and every year. The thought is, apparently, that in a league where there are so many good receivers, "you can't have too many defensive backs". Well, along the lines of that old canard stating that "Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting different results", the Bills get ripped apart by teams with good passing games each and every year, no matter how many talented DB's they have. Maybe they should try something else – like, say, addressing the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
They've made some half-hearted efforts at this over the years, but never enough. This year they finally realized that the offensive linemen at whom they threw large amounts of money three years ago weren't getting the job done, so they drafted two guards high in the draft (one in each of the first two rounds). While I was happy they finally made linemen a priority (the good teams are always drafting linemen and developing them), they should have been doing this three years ago, when they were actually rebuilding. Instead, they decided to do things like trade up to get John McCargo, a defensive lineman whose play on the field has been spotty enough that the Bills actually tried to trade him away last year. Or they picked safety Donte Whitner with the eighth overall pick, a choice everyone at the time thought to be a stretch – nobody had Whitner going before the middle-first round at the earliest, and nobody had McCargo going in the first round at all, so the Bills could have traded down in the first round and possibly added another second round pick, and still picked Whitner and McCargo if those were the guys they really wanted.
(Of course, they shouldn't have taken Whitner at all – they should have taken DT Haloti Ngata, who has become a rock in the middle of the line for the Baltimore Ravens. But at the time, the Bills were fascinated by the notion of a defensive line consisting of small but fast guys, where Ngata is a giant behemoth. That's why they passed on him and went with Whitner instead. But after two seasons of seeing their small-and-fast defensive line ripped apart by good running teams, the Bills had to trade last year for Marcus Stroud, a big guy for the middle of their line. Oops. And even if safety had been a logical place to go in that draft, Whitner has never in my mind justified his being taken that high. To my way of thinking, if you're taking a safety with the eighth overall pick, you'd better be getting Bob Sanders, or Ed Reed, or Troy Polamalu. Whitner isn't close to being mentioned in the same breath as those guys.)
Of course, the Bills didn't want to come out and admit three years ago that they needed to do some serious rebuilding by starting with the basic building blocks. There's another constant problem here: the belief, always prevalent in the team brass, that they're just a few good players away from contending.
The Bills' approach to rebuilding has never been to once-and-for-all address the team's fundamental needs and then build from there; instead, each season they look at one of two things and then draft according to those. They either (a) replace the biggest free agent who just left, or (b) address whatever the most glaring problem from the most recent 7-9 season might have been. That's why they do things like draft Marshawn Lynch in the first round right after dumping Willis McGahee, or pick Leodis McKelvin right after Nate Clements is sent packing. And this approach goes back to the Tom Donahoe era, when the team's management decided that they were sufficiently talented to use their first-round pick in 2003 as a "luxury" pick, taking a running back (McGahee) who was coming off a wicked injury and who thus would have to spend a year not playing. But that was the way Donahoe approached things: get the replacement for the next big free agent before they leave. (The McGahee pick made keeping Travis Henry irrelevant; a year later, the Lee Evans pick made Eric Moulds eventually "expendable". Smart? Well...not really. The Bills were never talented enough to be able to take such a luxurious approach to the draft.)
On the other hand, the Bills have tended to use the draft as their only real way of addressing major team problems. Last year's team had a horrible pass rush, so this year, they drafted Aaron Maybin, a collegiate pass-rush specialist. As a rookie, Maybin is unlikely to turn in amazing pass-rush numbers, but there it is. Last year's glaring problem was the lack of height in the receiving corps, so they drafted James Hardy and pronounced the receiving corps "rebuilt". Never mind that receivers notoriously take two to three years to develop into quality players, and that receivers who excel as rookies are rare.
And then, in a category by itself, we have the teams' long-to-the-point-of-Quixotic quest for Jim Kelly's successor as the next great Bills quarterback. Trent Edwards may be the most promising prospect the team has had since Kelly retired, but the Bills have misfired a whole bunch of times on finding the next QB, using three first-round draft picks on quarterbacks over the last ten years. They traded a first-rounder to Jacksonville to get Rob Johnson in 1998 (thus getting themselves out of a draft round that saw guys like Vonnie Holiday, Alan Faneca, Randy Moss, and Fred Taylor taken). They sent New England their 2003 first-rounder to get Drew Bledsoe (they got a pick back with another trade later on, getting Willis McGahee from a round that saw Troy Polamalu join the Steelers). They sent their 2005 first-rounder to Dallas so they could get JP Losman in 2004 (thus sparing themselves the opportunity of taking DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman, or Aaron Rogers). And if you want to, you can even go farther back to 1995, when they used a second-rounder on Todd Collins. (But then, Collins is still in the league.)
What does all this have to do with 2009? Simply, the Bills have been misfiring and/or grabbing at straws for ten years now, when it comes to picking talent. Now, they're not the Lions or the Rams of recent years, picking outright bad players, but they've either missed entirely or they've picked small guys who play hard but simply aren't playmakers in the NFL. The roster simply does not have the talent to compete with the best teams in the AFC. I think that's the ultimately frustrating thing about watching the Buffalo Bills this decade: the continual sense that they're not that far off. Not really. They have decent players who would be even better if they could just find some real stud playmakers. But they never do.
In this day and age in the NFL, a bad team can become a good team very quickly. The Miami Dolphins went from 1-15 in 2007 to 11-5 in 2008. The Baltimore Ravens seem to alternate good years with bad ones – 13-3 in 2006, 5-11 in 2007, 11-5 in 2008. The Packers were in the NFC title game two years ago, and after a rough year last year look ready to compete again. The Eagles had some rough years, but last year they rebounded to get to the NFC title game and this year they look really good. In a blog post today, Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan provides this stat:
Since the Bills last appeared in the NFL playoffs, there have been 57 instances of teams making the postseason after missing the previous season. That means more than half of the 108 playoff spots in a nine-year stretch were occupied by teams that had missed the season before.
Last year, seven of the 12 playoff teams were differerent from the year before. That included the Dolphins, who went from one win to 11; Atlanta, which improved by seven games; and Baltimore, which went up by six. So clearly, there's a lot of playoff turnover from year to year, and teams can bounce back from poor seasons in a hurry. In light of the evidence, it's even more amazing that the Bills haven't made it nine years in a row.
And you don't even have to stop at mere playoff appearances. On a hunch, I looked through the last ten Super Bowls, and I discovered something interesting. Here are the matchups of each of those games, winners listed first:
1999: Rams*, Titans*
2000: Ravens*, Giants*
2001: Patriots*, Rams
2002: Buccaneers, Raiders
2003: Patriots, Panthers*
2004: Patriots, Eagles
2005: Steelers*, Seahawks
2006: Colts, Bears*
2007: Giants, Patriots
2008: Steelers*, Cardinals*
What do the asterisks mean? They indicate the teams participating in each Super Bowl that had posted a record of 8-8 or worse just two years before that Super Bowl appearance. It just doesn't have to be this way, and yet in Buffalo, it is. Ugh!
For me, the most illustrative franchise of this simple fact -- it doesn't have to be this way -- during the Bills' current era of futility has been the New York Giants. Let's compare how it's gone for these two teams since 2000, when the Bills started to sink after being good or great all through the 1990s.
Bills: 8-8, fourth place.
Giants: 12-4, first place, NFC Champions.
Bills: 3-13, fifth place.
Giants: 7-9, third place.
2002 (first season with four-team divisions in the NFL)
Bills: 8-8, fourth place.
Giants: 10-6, second place.
Bills: 5-11, fourth place.
Giants: 4-12, fourth place.
Bills: 9-7, third place.
Giants: 6-10, third place.
Bills: 5-11, third place.
Giants: 11-5, first place.
Bills: 7-9, third place.
Giants: 8-8, third place.
Bills: 7-9, second place
Giants: 10-6, second place, playoff berth, Super Bowl champions
Bills: 7-9, last place
Giants: 12-4, first place
So, in the span of the last nine seasons, the Giants started off better than the Bills, then they got worse than the Bills, and then they quickly rebuilt to get better than the Bills again – so much better that they got a Super Bowl trophy in the process.
My ultimate point is this: in today's NFL, being bad for more than, say, two or three years is a sign of either awful luck or total mismanagement. And if your run of badness runs to more than five years, then I think luck can be ruled out as well. Nine years of being mediocre at best with occasional drops into outright badness? That is pure mismanagement.
Obviously, then, I don't hold out much hope for 2009. Trent Edwards looked smart and confident when he first arrived on the scene, but just two years later he is looking tentative, unconfident, and downright fearful. The Bills constantly say things like "We have to take what the defense gives us", which is a totally frustrating thing to hear from offensive players – you'd never hear anybody from the Patriots' offense saying anything like that – and insist that they're confident, which is surely why their leading receiver is almost always the running back catching the quick dump-off pass. The offense will likely be awful, which will lead to lots of playing time for a defense with a bad pass-rush (Maybin's potential notwithstanding) and a very thin linebacking corps. There is serious potential for this year's Bills squad to be awful.
Ahhh...but what about Terrell Owens? Well, what about him? Full disclosure: I've always liked T.O., and I'm glad he's here. But he's not a miracle worker. He can't make his quarterback confident. He can't make the young offensive line better. And he can't play defense. This is not a team that was sufficiently talented at the outset to be made better by T.O.'s arrival. And for all the negative press given to T.O.'s locker room antics over the years, I frankly look forward to the injection of some kind of passion into the Bills' locker room. For years the Bills have come out after bad losses acting like the guy at the office who just had a day where the printer ran out of toner every time he tried to print. To be quite honest, I will find it refreshing if somebody in the Bills' locker room explodes if they're sitting at 2-6 halfway through the season.
All right, so it's time for some actual predictions. For the record, I am predicting that the Bills will finish 6-10 and in last place in the AFC East. If this happens, look for a complete overhaul of the organization next offseason. My nightmare scenario, though, is that they are able to put together a sufficiently positive season to convince owner Ralph Wilson that they need "continuity" and thus keep this front office and coaching staff around another year. A 9-7 finish would probably do it; or maybe an 8-8 year if they have lots of injuries. Hell, I can even see a fourth consecutive 7-9 finish resulting in Jauron-and-friends sticking around. How? Well, if the Bills start out bad – say, 0-4 or 1-5 – and then win enough over the rest of the year to "claw their way back" to 7-9? Or maybe if they have a stronger December than usual? Especially if the young O-line plays better late in the year? I can totally envision a number of scenarios under which the current management team and coach staff is retained, and many of those scenarios do, in fact, involve the team being mediocre and out of the playoffs yet again. Such is life. The team needs new management and new coaching, and the only way I see those things coming to pass is if the team is unquestionably bad this year. Ugh, indeed.
And when that happens, what then? It's not like we'll ever see Ralph Wilson open up his wallet and bring in, say, Bill Cowher or Marty Schottenheimer. Yes, I've joined the "The Bills are doomed" club. Sue me.
So, onto the rest of the league. Here's how I see the divisions turning out this year (with the proviso that in the past, I have never been more than fifty-percent right about these):
East: New England
West: San Diego
Wildcards: Baltimore, Houston
North: Green Bay
South: New Orleans
Wildcards: NYGiants, Dallas
I'm almost certainly wrong here, of course. Every year somebody seemingly comes out of nowhere to win a division, which will probably happen again. But on paper, that's how I see the most likely result. And the Super Bowl?
Super Bowl XLIV:
Pittsburgh over Philadelphia
The Steelers' defense is still awesome, while their youngish offense is still improving; Ben Roethlisberger is just entering his prime, when he already has two Super Bowl wins under his belt. The AFC is always tough, but I think the Steelers' upside is better than most of the other AFC contenders. Tom Brady's health is going to be a concern in New England, I think; Indy's got a new coach and I think Peyton Manning's physical decline is about to begin. As for the Chargers, yeah, they have a great roster, but until Norv Turner is actually holding up the Lombardi Trophy as confetti swirls about his head, I won't believe he's a good playoff coach.
In the NFC, the Eagles look most balanced to me. I think Green Bay is up and coming, and the Saints can outscore most teams. I don't think Arizona is primed to repeat as NFC champs, but their division is pretty bad, so there they are.
Some final bullet points on my thoughts on the 2009 NFL season:
:: The Vikings will ultimately regret the Brett Favre maneuver, and it could very well be detrimental to the club for years to come.
:: The Browns will ultimately regret the hiring of Eric Mangini, who looks worse as a coach every year.
:: How many times do New England assistant coaches have to stumble badly as head coaches before everyone realizes that maybe they shouldn't hire New England assistant coaches to be their head coaches?
:: My nomination for NFL Moron of the Decade is Plaxico Burress.
:: It is my hope that every single NFL player devotes his efforts this year to honoring the single greatest exemplar of courage in the history of professional sport, Tedy Bruschi.
That's it. Let's kick it off!