By Scott Pitoniak
It's gotten old.
Eleven years old to be exact.
And this season it will become 12 years old - a dirty dozen if you will - because that's how long it will have been since the Buffalo Bills last made the playoffs.
Think about it, Bills fans, (or maybe it's better that you don't), but the last time your team was in the playoffs Bill Clinton was in the White House, Rob Johnson, for some strange reason I still don't understand, was under center instead of Doug Flutie, and the curse of the Music City Miracle was unfolding in Nashville.
I'd love to tell you that the irrigation system will kick on full force this autumn and the post-season drought will end because it's gotten old for those of us who cover the team, too. It would be nice to chronicle a winning club in Buffalo again - something we haven't been able to do since 2004 - and feel the excitement at the Ralph once more.
I do believe the Bills will be better than last year, but a two- or three-win improvement to 6-10 or 7-9 isn't going to prompt long-suffering fans to start dancing in the streets.
My reasons for another pessimistic prognostication are many.
For starters, I'm quite concerned about the Bills offensive line (not as concerned, of course, as quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and Buffalo's running backs should be.) Pro Football Weekly rates this unit the worst in the NFL. It's not only bad; it's in a state of flux.
Here we are about to open the regular season Sunday in Kansas City, and Coach Chan Gailey admits that he's still not sold on Demetreus Bell as his left tackle. Andy Levitre, who graded out as the Bills most consistent lineman last season, was criticized for his inconsistency at left guard early in camp. Then, the next thing we knew, he was auditioning for the starting job at left tackle, the crucial position that protects the QB's blind side. Eric Wood appears solid at center and could be a mainstay there for years to come, but the right side of the line boasts retreads Kraig Urbik (guard) and Erik Pears (tackle). Good thing Fitz is fairly mobile because he's going to be throwing on the run a lot this fall.
Another reason for the gloomy outlook - and this is something the Bills have no control over - is the schedule. It's ranked the second most difficult in the NFL. (Nice reward, huh, for finishing 4-12?) In addition to its six games against tough AFC East foes, the Bills have to play an out-of-division schedule featuring the Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. Making matters worse, they have a seven-week stretch in the middle of that schedule where they'll play just once in Orchard Park. One of those weeks is a designated home-away-from-home game in Toronto against the Washington Redskins. So far Canada's largest city hasn't provided the Bills much of a home-field advantage, as evidenced by Buffalo's 0-2 mark north of the border.
The gap between the Bills and divisional rivals New England and the Jets was enormous last season, with the Patriots outscoring them, 72-33. Their two meetins vs. New York were even worse as they were outscored, 76-21. Barring a spate of injuries to key performers, I don't see that chasm closing significantly this fall.
I do see some improvement, though, on defense, where the Bills yielded an NFL-worst, eight 200-yard rushing performances and mustered just 27 sacks, the fourth lowest total in the league. I believe first-round draft pick, Marcell Dareus, will team with Pro Bowl veteran nose tackle Kyle Williams, to make Buffalo stouter against the run. And I like the addition of free agent linebacker Nick Barnett.
For the Bills, though, to take a huge step on defense, they're going to need Shawne Merriman to be at least three quarters of the pass rusher he was before a series of leg injuries began stymieing him four years ago. "Lights Out" need not be an every-down presence, but he has to play enough where he can put some heat on the passer and force some turnovers. Buffalo managed just 23 takeaways last season, down from 41 the season before - another big reason they finished 4-12.
I like Fitzpatrick a lot as a leader and calculated risk-taker. The ream really seems to respond to him and believe in him. But he'll need to cut down on some of the foolish throws and improve his accuracy for the Bills offense to really gel. And this might be asking a lot of a quarterback who surely will be running for his life on occasion behind this porous line.
Look for Steady Freddie Jackson to have another solid year, with close to 1,000 yards rushing and another 250 to 300 yards receiving. I expect C.J. Spiller to be much more relaxed and productive in his second season as a pro. Last year, the All-American running back from Clemson had a long run of 20 yards, two yards less than Fitz's longest scamper. I believe Spiller will break off a few long TD runs this fall.
I wasn't a proponent of getting rid of veteran Lee Evans. Yes, his numbers were down last season, but they didn't truly measure his value to the Bills receiving corps. Evans took a great deal of coverage away from Stevie Johnson, enabling him to put up some monster receiving stats (82 receptions, 1,073 yards, 10 scores). It's going to be interesting to see how Stevie Wonder responds to being THE guy who's constantly doubled. I believe Marcus Easley, Donald Jones and David Nelson have potential, but I'm wondering if maybe Evans will wind up being sorely missed.
I'm intrigued by the addition of free agent Brad Smith. Gailey was the brains behind the multi-faceted use of quarterback/receiver/running back Kordell Stewart during his days as the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator. Smith certainly fits the mold of Slash, and I believe he's going to be used quite a bit by the creative Gailey.
I do like the way the Bills play hard for their second-year coach. After last season's 0-8 start, they easily could have packed it in and stumbled home to a 1-15 or even 0-16 finish. But they showed some spunk and regrouped.
So, the good news is that Buffalo will improve slightly this season.
The bad news is the same old story will repeat itself as the Bills miss the playoffs for a 12th consecutive season.
Award-winning columnist and author Scott Pitoniak has followed the Bills since the mid-1960s and covered them since 1985, writing five books about the team along the way. His 14th book overall, Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story, will be published by Triumph Books in late October and will be available both in print and digital editions. You can read more by Scott at www.scottpitoniak.com .