2011 in a Nutshell: 6-10
I could have sworn that Buffalo had a better year than their 6-10 record suggest, they got off to a flying start going 3-0 including their first win over New England since the opening day of the 2003 season. At 5-2 after week 8 they were on top of the division and flying high before a run of injuries killed their season off. Defensive end Shawne Merriman was sent to IR after week 6 as was cornerback Terrence McGee. A week 9 loss to the Jets sent the team to 5-3 and three key players to IR, defensive tackle Kyle Williams, centre Eric Wood and kicker Ryan Lindell were all lost in that game and running back Fred Jackson went down with a fractured fibula two weeks later when he was among the league leaders in rushing yards while quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick spent the back end of the season battling broken ribs which sent his performances downhill. A seven game losing streak killed off any hope built up over the early part of the season and they fell to 5-9 before a week 16 beat down of the Broncos 40-14 and then a week 17 loss to New England closed out their season. While it did not go as well as fans had hoped, it at least gave the Bills hope for the future.
2012 Season Motto: Make the leap!
Every year free agency has one prized player who fans and the media think has the potential to turn around a franchise. This year that player was Mario Williams, the first overall pick in the 2006 draft and reached free agency after seeing through his rookie contract with the Texans. Unlike most top picks who reach free agency Williams is not considered a bust by any means and only reached free agency because the Texans had to choose between him and Arian Foster. He will now be trying to show Houston they should have kept him around by becoming a force in Buffalo as he gets to return to his natural position of a 4-3 end in coordinator Dave Wannstedt’s system. Joining him in Buffalo this year will be Mark Anderson, who is coming off a 12.5 sack season with the Patriots and is an excellent pass rushing specialist off the weak side. Those two additions make the Bills line a scary proposition for several offensive lines this year. With the tenth pick in the draft the Bills added to their secondary with South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore who will come in and compete for a starting job with players like Leodis McKelvin and Aaron Williams, both of whom he should be an upgrade over.
Offensively the team had two key free agents who were off contract at the end of 2011 and they were able to keep one of those pieces. Receiver Steve Johnson who, despite possibly being a functioning maniac at times, is actually a very productive receiver, was rewarded for his production with a 5 year contract. In the past two seasons, Johnson has posted 158 receptions, 2077 yards and 17 touchdowns, not bad for a seventh round pick and if he can just curb his excessive celebration penalties then the Bills will have a real keeper on their hands. In week 17 against the Patriots with nothing on the line, coach Chan Gailey decided to make a point to Johnson that he is not bigger than the team by benching him after a first quarter touchdown celebration which drew a penalty. It seems like that incident is now water under the bridge for the two of them and they will work together to build a solid unit for the future. As is always the case in the business that is the NFL, a sacrifice had to be made to keep one player on the team and left tackle Demetrius Bell was lured away by the Eagles who desperately needed a left tackle. In the second round of the draft they took Georgia guard Cordy Glenn who is a man mountain at 6’5” and 343lbs. Despite projecting as a guard, coach Gailey has said that he will be starting Glenn at left tackle on opening day, with his size and mobility that will be a good decision as he will be able to hold up on his own in the run game and only occasionally need help in the passing game which can be done with a tight end or running back.
Key Player for 2012: Ryan Fitzpatrick – QB
After bouncing around the league since 2006, Fitzpatrick finally seems to have found a home in Buffalo thanks to a coaching staff who believes in him and doesn’t hold his Harvard education against him. Since late September 2010 Fitzpatrick has been the Bills starting quarterback and has done a great job in the league, especially considering what was expected of him at the start of his career. 2011 saw him start 16 games for the first time in his career and he got off to a great start leading the Bills to that 5-2 record with the highlight coming in a win over New England where he threw for a career high 369 yards. At the midpoint of the season he was on course to lead the Bills to a playoff appearance before he got injured, just like every other Bills player that season. A smart quarterback with an NFL arm, one of Fitzpatrick’s underrated qualities is his ability to run and this year, health permitting, he will be a key figure as the Bills push for a return to the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
With their massive splash in free agency the Bills have made their defensive line the strength of their team as they move to a 4-3 scheme. Coming off the edge will be Williams and Anderson who will be a formidable pass rushing duo, Anderson will benefit from lines sliding over to Williams side like last season where quarterbacks moved away from Andre Carter into Anderson and he will take every sack he can get. Anderson is a bit weak against the run but that will be able to be covered up with the right scheme. In the middle will be last season’s third overall pick Marcell Dareus who recorded 5.5 sacks in his rookie year and he will be paired with Kyle Williams for a formidable tandem. The linebackers are a solid, complementary group of players, Nick Barnett could find himself being picked on in coverage and there are questions about the Mike spot but these guys just have to not screw up, something well within their capabilities. If the line can create a good pass rush then the secondary will look even better than they are as they will only have to cover for a few seconds at a time. Top corner Terrence McGee is currently battling an injury, putting his week 1 status in doubt but as they play the Jets, it’s not like they have a whole lot to worry about in pass defense.
First and foremost this Bills offense is run-oriented and teams will have to pick their poison. Fred Jackson is the starter and every-down back thanks to his perfect mix of power and speed. Last season he was on track for a career year and was showing no signs of slowing down before a fractured fibula derailed his campaign. In his absence last year C.J. Spiller filled in admirably seeing lead back duty for the final six games. He will serve as a change of pace back this season with his ability to break a long run every time he touches the ball and can even split out as a wide receiver. Third on the depth chart is former Dallas Cowboy Tashard Choice who won’t be challenging for a starting job but can fill in when needed to. When the Bills throw the ball they will have Steve Johnson as the primary option and an underrated set of pass catchers backing him up. David Nelson presents a big-bodied target which Fitzpatrick will love in the red zone and tight end Scott Chandler will emerge as a solid outlet. Either way this offense has the potential to put up some points when it wants to this year.
It’s a tough start to the season for the Bills, there are more games they will be expected to lose than win in the first 10 weeks including trips to San Francisco and Houston which will test their mettle. The Houston game is followed by a trip to New England which suddenly seems a lot more interesting as the Bills are looking like their closest challengers to the AFC East crown. After that trip to Foxborough in week 10 they get their lone primetime appearance against the Dolphins at home to start a potentially easy run home where it is entirely likely only one opponent will have a winning record which will bring them home with the wettest of sails and it may just be the boost they need.
Final: Will they be better or worse off than last year?
With the way they started last year I was shocked they went 6-10, they were a better team than their record showed and this year’s roster is better than last season so I like the Bills to have a winning record. As for the playoffs, well they are certainly in with a good chance of a wild card if they can keep their key players on the field.