Thankfully, that jungle-thick beard Ryan Fitzpatrick sported is now history. Too bad the doubts about the affable quarterback and his Buffalo Bills couldn’t be as easily removed as those whiskers were.
Yes, Fitz was one of the more pleasant surprises this season, tossing 23 touchdown passes in 13 starts. And, yes, he was able to do what his shaky predecessor, Trent “Captain Checkdown” Edwards, wasn’t able to – namely overcome the deficiencies of a suspect offensive line and get the ball out to his playmakers, especially Stevie Johnson, who had a career year with 10 scoring receptions.
But when you examine the numbers more closely, you realize that even with the occasional excitement Fitz provided, the Bills offense wasn’t very good. Buffalo failed to score more than 17 points in any of its final six games and ranked 28th in the NFL in scoring with nearly two fewer touchdowns per game than the league-leading New England Patriots. Clearly, having so many different offensive line combinations didn’t help, but there were occasions, too, when Fitz was his own worst enemy, turning the ball over 20 times (15 interceptions, 5 fumbles) as the Bills finished second in the league in giveaways.
General Manager Buddy Nix told us on draft day that running back C.J. Spiller would be the playmaker the Bills were lacking. And the running back still might become the home run hitter he was at Clemson, but his rookie year proved that he has much to learn in the much faster-paced pro game. He did have a 95-yard kickoff return and caught a pass for 41 yards, but, as evidenced by his paltry 3.8-yards-per-carry, he bounces too many plays outside and does too much dancing into and not enough bursting through the hole.
Defensively, of course, things were even more dire as the Bills finished last in the league in rushing defense, allowing 4.8 yards per carry and giving up more than 200 yards eight times. They also ranked 27th in sacks with 27, which explains why they had problems forcing turnovers.
So, in retrospect, it’s no mystery why the Bills went 4-12 to finish with a sub-.500 record for an eighth straight season. It’s no mystery why they missed the playoffs an 11th straight season, tying them with the Detroit Lions for the league’s longest such streak. And it’s no mystery why season tickets sales dropped 20 percent from the previous season.
There are so many holes to plug on this football team that it’s difficult to know where to begin. I believe the most glaring need is a run-stuffing, space-eating nose tackle. There is such an animal worthy of the Bills No. 3 pick and his name is Nick Fairley out of Auburn. Unfortunately, Thursday’s announcement by quarterback Andrew Luck that he’s going to return to Stanford may have cost the Bills a shot at Fairley, because with Luck unavailable Carolina might spend the No. 1 overall pick on the big tackle. Should the Panthers take him, I could see the Bills trading down a few spots and looking at Marcell Dareus, a defensive tackle from Alabama.
That’s not to say the Bills don’t still need to find their quarterback of the future. And a few sources within the organization have told me that some of the team’s scouts are really high on Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. The Heisman Trophy winner clearly is a dominant college player and a lot of NFL personnel people say they like the kid’s mechanics. Clearly, the drafting of Newton would generate quite a bit of excitement for a franchise in dire need of some star power. And with Fitz here, he would have time to learn the intricacies of becoming an NFL quarterback.
But the Bills cannot afford to whiff on a pick this high, so they better be right if this is the direction they choose or else the misery of the past 11 seasons is sure to continue. There’s also the chance they could pick up a QB in the second or third rounds, but that player probably would be a long-shot. Buffalo will have five selections among the first 117 picks, as a result of the fourth-rounder they picked up in the Marshawn Lynch deal with Seattle.
The free agent market also is going to be interesting, given the precariousness of the upcoming labor negotiations. This uncertainty could have a chilling effect on signings because owners might become reluctant to add to the payroll until they know for certain there will indeed be a 2011 season.
By allowing players such as Donte Whitner, Drayton Florence and, possibly, Paul Posluszny to bolt, the Bills will have even more holes to plug. But they’ll also have more money at their disposal to throw at free agents who can help them.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bills make a concerted effort to trade wide receiver Lee Evans. Buffalo’s young, promising corps of receivers and Evans’ declining production in recent years have made him expendable. He might even become part of a package deal on draft day.
The Bills 2011 schedule is set with home games against their three divisional rivals and the Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins. Besides the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins, they hit the road to play the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Giants, San Diego Chargers, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.
Unless the players they keep make quantum improvements and the players they add make enormous contributions, I think another playoff-less season awaits.