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NFL Team Report - Buffalo Bills - INSIDE SLANT
Almost one year earlier to the day the Buffalo Bills' season came to an end, Russ Brandon was given full autonomy and power by owner Ralph Wilson to run the beleaguered franchise. And on New Years' Day 2013, Brandon said what everyone already knew - what had transpired in the previous 13 years, when the Bills failed to make the postseason, was unacceptable.
Brandon proceeded to hire Doug Marrone as the team's new coach, he elevated Doug Whaley to general manager after Buddy Nix retired, and he oversaw a roster turnover that weeded out 40 players who were on the payroll at the end of 2012. Change was the buzzword on One Bills Drive, and there were expectations that this team would finally find a way to get back to the postseason or, at the very least, compete for a berth right to the end.
And then the Bills went 6-10 for the third straight year, finished last in the AFC East for the sixth year in a row, and ended with a sub-.500 record for the 12th time in 14 playoff-less years.
"Obviously it's been a season of missed opportunities for us," Brandon said at the Bills' end of the season press conference. "We are obviously disappointed in the outcome of our season. We fell short of our stated goal which was to make the playoffs, but everything in this organization's focus is to get to the second season next year. I am pleased with the direction of the franchise and the leadership of coach Marrone and Doug Whaley."
Much of the talk on locker clean-out day centered on how this team made strides during the year, and certainly from 2012, and that while the record was the same, this 6-10 had a different, more positive vibe.
"I definitely think there are things going in the right direction," said running back Fred Jackson. "We've had a lot of change internally, some things that we wanted to get turned around, but we didn't get to our goal. Obviously a lot of people are disappointed in that, we're disappointed in it. But there were times in my time playing here that we were fortunate to get to 6-10. This year, being 6-10 was definitely disappointing. All the games that we had an opportunity to win and we didn't, you look at those and say, 'If we wouldn't have gotten this, or one play here or one play there, that's a win for us.' If you followed us this year, you know there are five or six plays that changed the outcome of our season."
Defensive tackle Kyle Williams, who is a captain like Jackson, said of the comparisons to 2012, "Well, I think that depends on how you want to look at it. I think especially from the outside looking in, it doesn't seem different, but I think if you take a close look at it, the way that we've played has been a little bit different."
The Bills made notable improvements on defense as they allowed three points less per game, finished second in the NFL with 57 sacks and 23 interceptions, and led the league in the most negative yardage plays. All three levels of the defense were bolstered by new players including defensive end Jerry Hughes (10 sacks), linebackers Manny Lawson and Kiko Alonso (169 tackles), and defensive back Nickell Robey (who was excellent at nickel cornerback). Also, players such as linemen Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, and defensive backs Aaron Williams and Leodis McKelvin all performed above their 2012 level.
The pass defense was outstanding, but the run defense is where the Bills need to be better as they allowed far too many big plays to leak out.
"We (Marrone and Mike Pettine, the defensive coordinator) had discussions already about looking into that and what we need to do better," said Marrone. "Obviously we're all disappointed at times, but again, those are the challenges to get yourself in the playoffs. It's finding a way to be consistent. And it's not just consistent from one game to all of the sudden you skip a couple in game three. Consistency for 16 games is the key to becoming a very good football team."
On offense, consistency was a major issue. With rookie quarterback EJ Manuel in and out of the lineup due to three knee injuries, and his replacements - journeyman Thad Lewis who had one career NFL start before making five in 2013, and overmatched rookie Jeff Tuel - lacking top-end talent, the Bills struggled to move the ball in the air.
The running game was solid and finished second in the league with 2,307 yards, but the Bills were not a dangerous passing team. Their quarterbacks completed only 57.3 percent of their passes to rank 28th, right where they ranked in passing yards per game (193.9).
Manuel played in only 10 games, throwing 11 touchdown passes and nine interceptions, and his development will be the key to the Bills offense in 2014. He believes he's ready to take the next step once he's had a full offseason with the team.
"I think in this league you always have to keep an edge, knowing that someone is always coming for your job," he said. "After the season we had, I don't think I can just sit here and be comfortable. Changes happen all the time. I know for me personally, I'll always continue to work hard and make sure I'm ready to go. I do know I'm the leader and the quarterback right now of this team. With that being said, I'm going to continue to work hard."
As for his injuries, he said, "I think a lot of my injuries have just been (un)fortunate occurrences in a football game. You're in a tough sport and I know I'm a tough guy and if I could've gotten back out there I would have, no question about it. That's all I can say about the injuries. They're behind me now, I can get healthy, and just come back ready to go."
NFL Team Report - Buffalo Bills - NOTES, QUOTES
--Coach Doug Marrone acknowledged that the Bills' special teams weren't good enough, though he stopped short of firing coach Danny Crossland, who has been a long-time coaching acquaintance and a hire that raised some eyebrows. The Bills finished 29th in kickoff return average (20.4 per return) and set franchise lows for fewest returns (23) and yards (469), though much of that was due to so many touchbacks. They were 29th in punt return average (6.2), were 30th in net punting (38.0 yards), and 25th in opponent punt return average (10.6 yards). Marrone said one of the main problems was the lack of a veteran group of players to anchor those units, something that the Bills will build as they go along.
"One thing we have to do is establish a core," Marrone said. "Marcus Easley (NFL-leading 21 special teams tackles) stepped up big and he'd be a core-type player. The goal is to get six of those type of players on three to four special teams for you; now you have the ability to perform at a high level."
--Pro Bowl free safety Jairus Byrd will once again be an unrestricted free agent, and the Bills would love to re-sign him. However, just like last year, the price will be high, and the team may find itself in another fight with Byrd's agent, Eugene Parker.
"We've had a conversation, myself and Russ (Brandon), sat and talked to Jairus, and we're going to make an offer to the guy and we're going to try to keep him," Whaley said. "We're going to try to the best of our abilities, because we're in the business of collecting good players, and he's a good player."
If all else fails, the Bills could use the franchise tag for the second year in a row, but the price has gone up from $6.9 million to $8.29 million for one year.
"That's always an option," said Whaley. "We're not going to back ourselves in a corner and eliminate any possibility of trying to retain a good player."
--Team CEO Russ Brandon said the organization will continue to evaluate the Bills in Toronto Series, and it's not out of the question that the Bills will try to get out of the five-year deal that was just signed in 2013, though that doesn't seem likely. The games at Rogers Centre have been a financial windfall for the team, but attendance has dipped every year, and Buffalo is 1-5 in the games north of the border as it clearly loses a true home game.
"Nothing's changed since the last time I spoke on it," Brandon said. "We're going to have a thorough organizational meeting on anything and everything that touches the football operation. We're going to do everything in our power - as I told coach Marrone when we hired him and Doug Whaley - that we will provide every resource available to assist and empower them in their roles."
NFL Team Report - Buffalo Bills - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--The Bills announced that punter Brian Moorman signed a contract extension with the team.
Moorman rejoined the Bills in October 2013 after the team cut Shawn Powell. In the Bills' season finale at the New England Patriots, Moorman appeared in his 190th game with the team. He is fifth on the Bills' all-time list in games played and most by a punter. He holds franchise records in punts inside the 20-yard line (259) and total punts (923), and ranks second with an average of 43.7 gross yards per punt.
In 2005 and '06, Moorman was selected to the Pro Bowl with the Bills. He is fourth among active punters with 281 punts inside the 20-yard line since the 2001 season.
FS Jairus Byrd
TE Scott Chandler
K Dan Carpenter
DL Alex Carrington
S Jim Leonhard
LB Arthur Moats
TE Mike Caussin
OL Thomas Welch
WR Chris Hogan (exclusive rights)
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - EJ Manuel. Backups - Thad Lewis, Jeff Tuel, Kevin Kolb (IR).
Much was expected from Manuel as the team's first-round draft choice, but his rookie season could only be viewed as incomplete. Thanks to three knee injuries he started only 10 games, finishing nine, and he lost valuable first-year playing time. There were occasional impressive flashes, but on the whole, he was inconsistent and there are big questions heading into 2014, even though COACH Doug Marrone has already said he's the starter moving forward. In a year when the average passer rating in the NFL was 86.0, Manuel's was 77.7. He completed just 58.8 percent of his passes and threw only 11 of the NFL's record 804 touchdown passes. Lewis started five games and won two, but he's limited in what he can do, though he did show more willingness than Manuel to throw the ball downfield. Tuel is not an NFL-quality backup and could be a practice-squad candidate in 2014. Kolb missed the year with a concussion and his future is undecided.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters - C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson. Backups - FB Frank Summers, Ronnie Wingo, FB Evan Rodriquez.
Together as a 1-2 punch, Spiller and Jackson gave the Bills a combined 1,823 yards rushing and 11 TDs, and the Bills finished second in the league with 2,307 rushing yards, seventh-most in team history. That total was impressive given that opposing defenses were looking for the run. However, there were times when the Bills couldn't run when they needed to. Spiller tied for sixth in the NFL with 30 carries stopped for zero or negative yardage, and he scored only two TDs. Summers was a solid blocker, but touched the ball only 19 times. Wingo and Rodriquez were non-factors.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Scott Chandler. Backups - Lee Smith, Tony Moeaki, Chris Gragg, Mike Caussin (IR).
Chandler led the team in receptions (53) and receiving yards (655), though he scored only two TDs. He provided a generally reliable safety blanket for the inexperienced QBs, but he is not a big-play player. Smith is primarily a blocker (five catches), and Gragg was not able to get on the field on offense and had only five catches, though the team believes he can become more productive in 2014. Moeaki is interesting, a late-season pickup who did not play, but could be a key man next year if Chandler leaves via free agency, assuming he can regain the form he showed as a 2010 rookie with the Chiefs.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Stevie Johnson, Robert Woods. Backups - Marquise Goodwin, T.J. Graham, Marcus Easley, Chris Hogan, Kevin Elliott (IR).
Johnson had the most disappointing of the four seasons he has been a regular starter. He missed four games and caught only 52 passes with three TDs. Woods was advertised as the most NFL-ready wideout in the 2013 draft, and he looked polished in catching 40 balls for 587 yards, but it seems as if he's strictly a possession-type receiver. Goodwin has world-class speed and caught three TDs of at least 40 yards, but wound up with only 17 receptions as he battled injuries and wasn't given the snaps he probably deserved. T.J. Graham found himself starting much of the year due to injuries, and with 23 catches, was a huge disappointment. He doesn't seem to have the toughness that's needed. Easley and Hogan were strictly special teams players who played offense only in dire situations.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Cordy Glenn, LG Doug Legursky, C Eric Wood, RG Kraig Urbik, RT Erik Pears. Backups - G/T Thomas Welch, G Mark Asper, G J.J. Unga, G Antoine McClain, T Chris Hairston.
Glenn locked down the blind side and had a fine second year, and Wood was the anchor in the middle of the line and made line calls for three different starting QBs who had almost no NFL experience. Urbik is a solid and unspectacular player who does his job, but never wows you. Pears and Legursky are weak links and the Bills need to upgrade in some way, though Legursky was certainly better than Colin Brown who began the year as the starter before being cut. Hairston missed the season but is expected to return and could battle for Pears' spot. Unga, McClain and Asper were all in-season acquisitions, but none saw more than a few plays. They will have a chance to compete in training camp. This line paved the way for the second-best rushing attack in the league, and many of the 48 sacks allowed could be pinned on the QBs.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DRE Mario Williams, DLE Alan Branch, DT Kyle Williams, DT Marcell Dareus. Backups - DE Jerry Hughes, DT Stefan Charles, DT Corbin Bryant, DE Alex Carrington (IR).
The Bills finished second in the league with 57 sacks, and 43 came from the front line including 13 by Mario Williams, 10.5 by Kyle Williams, and 10 by Hughes. It was the first time since 1995 that the Bills had three players with double-digit sacks. Mario Williams had only two sacks in the last eight games and often disappeared in games, yet still made the Pro Bowl. Kyle Williams also made the Pro Bowl, and he rarely disappeared. Dareus had the best of his three seasons since being the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2011 as he led the group with 71 tackles and had 7.5 sacks, but immaturity and inconsistency remain issues. Branch became a starter when Carrington was lost for the year in Week 3 and played well enough to earn a three-year contract extension. Hughes was a first-round bust in Indy who came to the Bills in an offseason trade and thrived in Mike Pettine's defense. Charles showed promise as a late-season pick-up.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - MLB Kiko Alonso, SLB Manny Lawson, WLB Arthur Moats. Backups - WLB Nigel Bradham, Ty Powell.
Alonso was a magnificent find as a second-round draft pick. He played all 1,089 snaps on defense and finished third in the NFL with 169 tackles, plus added four interceptions, two fumble recoveries and two sacks. Lawson came via free agency and also enjoyed a productive year both against the run and the pass, plus provided veteran leadership in a very young meeting room. The WLB position was shared by Moats and Bradham, neither of whom distinguished themselves and aren't starter-worthy. Ideally, the Bills would love to move Alonso outside and find a true MLB this offseason.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Stephon Gilmore, CB Leodis McKelvin, FS Jairus Byrd, SS Aaron Williams. Backups - CB Nickell Robey, SS Da'Norris Searcy, FS Duke Williams, CB Ron Brooks, FS Jim Leonhard, Jonathan Meeks, CB Brandon Smith.
Gilmore and Byrd both missed the first five games with injuries, and the Bills struggled in the back end much of that time. Even Geno Smith of the Jets threw for 331 yards against them. Byrd's return helped immediately, and Gilmore finally got his legs under him later in the year and looked like the player who was one of the NFL's best rookies in 2012. McKelvin signed a new contract with Buffalo and enjoyed his best year as a pro. Aaron Williams also had a terrific bounce-back year after moving to strong safety following two mostly-disappointing years as a cornerback who struggled in man coverage. Searcy held down Byrd's spot in his absence, and Leonhard was a late preseason free-agent signee who provided quality depth, especially after Aaron Williams got hurt and missed the last two games. Robey was a revelation as the nickel corner and was one of the best undrafted free-agent signees in the NFL. Brooks was hampered by injuries, and contributed little as a sub-package player.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Dan Carpenter, P Brian Moorman, LS Garrison Sanborn, KOR Goodwin, PR McKelvin, K Dustin Hopkins (IR).
Hopkins suffered a groin injury the week of the opener and eventually spent the whole year on injured reserve. Carpenter was signed as a free agent after being cut by three teams in the summer, and produced an outstanding season as he set a team record with four 50-yard field goals, tied the team season mark of 33 successful field goals, and his 131 points were the third-most in team history, second-most by a kicker. Moorman rejoined the team after an absence of one calendar year and was mostly average, though he could return in 2014. Sanborn is a nearly flawless snapper, as is Moorman as a holder. There were no issues all year. Goodwin was muted as a return man because of all the touchbacks Buffalo endured. The Bills set franchise lows for kickoff returns (23) and yards (469). Likewise, McKelvin, one of the best punt returners in the league, had very few chances and averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt.