In golf there is an saying that the reason the space on a scorecard is so small is that it is there for a score not a story. A year ago I picked the Bills to finish the year at 6-10 and that is exactly where they ended up. To be honest, I did not see 3-0, 5-2 and then a fall from grace faster than Sarah Palin in the Republican party. But it doesn't really matter. As Bill Parcells so famously said "you are what your record says you are" and the Bills were a losing team again last season. But I saw enough in 2011, combined with some moves this off season, combined with a very favorable schedule to make me think they can be improved where it counts this year.
Offense: Ryan Fitzpatrick is a good NFL quarterback than can win games in the league. Nowhere in that statement did I say I see him surrounded by confetti holding up a Lombardi Trophy. I do believe in this day and age of the NFL you need a star quarterback to win it all. But I think he has the ability, with enough help around him, to win more than he loses. The help around him has me concerned. I believe Fred Jackson is as good of an all around back as we have in the NFL. He won't put up the gaudy numbers of a LeSean Mc Coy or Arian Foster ,but he does so many things well that he deserves high praise. Steve Johnson has the ability to be a mid-tier number one receiver in the league. Again, he's Stevie, not Calvin, but Johnson will put up 4 digit receiving yards again and get you 10 touchdowns. The interior of the offensive line is solid, but the tackles have me concerned. On the plus side, Fitzpatrick's strength is getting the ball out of his hands quickly and that helps mitigate the shortcomings up front
Defense: I think this front four, across the board, has a chance to be the best group the Bills franchise has ever put on the field. As excited as I am about the addition of Mario Williams (and Mark Anderson) the strength of this group is inside with Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus. I think this is the year that both of them go to the Pro Bowl. It is also the one position where I think this team has starting caliber depth. The linebackers are a solid, if not spectacular bunch. Nick Barnett did everything the team asked him in 2011 and I think he will continue to make plays. I believe Arthur Moats has a chance to be a very good player on the outside, while Kelvin Sheppard is a beast on run plays. Having a guy like Bryan Scott as a nickle LB is key against the passing offenses the Bills will see this season. But beyond that group the linebackers are unproved or unreliable.The secondary has a lot of promise, led by the top draft pick Stefon Gilmore. I like Aaron Williams potential, but at times he seems more like the rookie than number 27. The starters at safety, Byrd and Wilson are good, but depth is a very large concern.
Special teams: To be honest the Bills have been very good at kicker and punter for most of the last decade and still haven't made the playoffs. The addition of a kickoff specialist is a roster spot risk,
but if John Potter keeps sailing them out of the endzone it's worth it for the defense and it makes it easier to go to the kitchen after the Bills score in the game. The return game remains spotty, but a key will be avoiding big mistakes, especially in the put game, that have hurt the team in the past two seasons.
Coaching: I like Chan Gailey a lot as both an offensive strategists and a leader of the franchise. That being said, he has had two sears marred by brutal losing streaks. The 8 game hole to start 2010 could be excused because of the new staff, but last year's debacle after mid season was troubling. The injuries were the biggest factor, but it's the coaches job to right the ship and that can not happen again. I really like the addition of Dave Wannstedt as the defensive coordinator, especially when making in game adjustments. Plus Giff Smith (DLine) is a guy who will some day be running his own defense or his own team and is a real plus for this group.
Prediction: 9-7 Optimism has me looking at the team's health to start the year, the apparent dysfunction with the Jets and a relatively easy schedule to allow the Bills to win more than they lose. Realism has me looking at a Bills team that lacks quality depth and big game experience trying to show they can hold up over 16 games. I like them to go 3-3 in the AFC East and get six wins the rest of the way (without a substantial upset). That would be beating Cleveland, Arizona, Tennessee, Indy, Jacksonville and either Seattle or Kansas City to get to 9. Will they beat all those team's ? Probably not. But they might actually pull off an upset along the way also. I'd love to hear your predictions.
Email me at MCatalana@13wham.com