Last year, the very first post I wrote here was entitled “The 2010 Buffalo Bills Aren’t Going to Be as Horrible as the Media Believes”. Buffalo rewarded that faint praise by starting the season 0-8, and in fact, on the surface, being every bit as horrible as the media believed. They started out the season with 352 total yards with Trent Edwards at quarterback, which would have been a solid effort, except it was spread over the first two games.
After that start they finally dumped Edwards, and went to Ryan Fitzpatrick. No one should confuse him with a star quarterback, but he is a serviceable starter and much better than anything else in Buffalo. Fitzpatrick finished with 6.8 yards per attempt, a 23 to 15 td to int ratio, and managed to take a sack on only 5.2% of his dropbacks, despite playing behind hardly the most stable line. In the 3 games started by other quarterbacks, the Bills went 0-3 and were outscored by 87-24, and those quarterbacks were a dreadful 4.8 yards per attempt, threw an interception 7.7% of the time, and took a sack on 11% of their dropbacks. With Fitzpatrick, the team went 4-9 with an average margin 0f -6, including 3 overtime losses against playoff teams (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Kansas City).
Though the passing game, eventually improved over the previous year, the team regressed because the pass defense with a new 3-4 scheme fell apart, the run defense continued to be dreadful, and the turnover margin swung against the Bills, so that they finished last in the league in that category.
Fitzpatrick is back as the starter, and the team brought in Tyler Thigpen as the backup, and added Brad Smith as an option as a wildcat quarterback/jack of all trades. While Thigpen is wildly erratic, he’s mobile and an upgrade over the dreadful play offered by the other quarterbacks in 2010 if something happens to Fitzpatrick. The team did trade Lee Evans a week ago, so the only established receiver is Steve Johnson, who had a bit of a break out last year. I expect the passing offense to be more what it was under Fitzpatrick, not above league average, but better than the composite numbers from the last two years.
On defense, they added Marcell Dareus at DT with the third overall pick, a need pick, and he will play an end position in the base 3-4 next to nose tackle Kyle Williams, and will slide inside in passing downs with a four man front. The team is swimming up stream and hoping 3 veterans stay healthy and can shore up the linebacker positions in 2011. On the outside, Shawne Merriman is ready to go after coming to the team in the middle of last season, but not contributing anything while still recovering from the knee that has caused his career to drop off. On the inside, Andra Davis and Nick Barnett both missed 10+ games last year. I’m skeptical, but if this group stays healthy, they can upgrade the production.
The one strength was the running game on offense last year, where Fred Jackson continues to fly under the radar. Rookie C.J. Spiller was a disappointment in 2010, but the hope has to be that he takes a step forward in pass protection and becomes a bigger part of the offense. He may be the second best receiving option on the team behind Johnson, and may be used in a variety of roles in 2011. The offensive line, though, is still an issue, and much of the running success was driven by the backs.
While I don’t think the team appears to have a coherent long term plan, and is trying to piece it together with veteran spare parts, I do think they are bound for a bounce back in 2011. The schedule was the hardest in the league, and they had the lowest turnover differential.
I looked at the other teams that were last in turnover margin since 1990. Those 21 teams (there was one tie) averaged 4.6 wins. The following season, they bounced all the way to 7.9 wins on average, and 6 of the 21 made the playoffs. Since part of that turnover problem is gone (-7 in games not started by Fitzpatrick) and part of it is because the defense forced so few, something that regresses, I expect improvement.
They are not sexy, and I don’t like their long term focus, but in 2011, again, the Bills won’t be quite as bad as the media thinks. 6 to 7 wins, and watching someone else take Andrew Luck, seems about right to me.
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[photo via Getty]