The good news – and, believe me, there wasn’t much of it to glean from this 31-point loss to the Jets Sunday – is that the Bills didn’t screw up their draft position. By finishing 4-12, their worst record in nine seasons, they’ll have the No. 3 overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft (that is, if there is one this April, given the stalled labor negotiations between the league’s billionaire owners and millionaire players). But let’s assume there will be one. That means the Bills should be able to find a player to immediately plug one of their many holes. (Emphasize the word “might” because we all know how poorly they’ve drafted the past decade under Tom Modrak, the primary reason they find themselves in the midst of an 11-year playoff drought, not easy to do in a league structured to help the weak teams become strong in a hurry.)
The really bad news – and there is so much to choose from – is that the Bills played so listlessly and carelessly on a day when so many of their jobs were on the line and on a day when the Jets rested most of their stars, and gave their JV and modified players a shot to shine.
Yes, I know, Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick didn’t play and that could have made a difference. Still, Brian Brohm was just awful, turning it over four times against a Jets defense that was resting shut-down cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Warren Cromartie, among others. Brohm looked like a guy who hadn’t played a real game in a year – which he hadn’t – but it also should be noted that the line in front of him had just as putrid a day as he had. They were a bunch of matadors and the pressure they allowed contributed to the Bills turning it over six times, giving them 13 in their last two games. New York cashed the miscues in for 17 points, one on an interception return for touchdown.
Perhaps even more disconcerting was the play of the Bills defense. Although the Jets top two running backs, LaDanian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene, sat out the game, New York still managed to gash Buffalo for 276 yards – marking the eighth time this season the Bills yielded more than 200 yards on the ground.
You try not to read too much into one game, but during the past two weeks against the measuring sticks of the AFC East – New England and the Jets – the Bills have been outscored by 31 points each game. And that certainly has put a damper on the progress Buffalo had shown after starting the season 0-8.
“It hurts, it does,’’ Bills coach Chan Gailey said after Sunday’s 38-7 debacle in the Jersey Swamplands. “It’s not the way you want to finish. You play two division opponents and you want to see if you made progress, and we did not make progress.
“When you look at it evaluation-wise at the end of the year, maybe we have farther to go than I thought we did.”
I think that’s an honest assessment. The Bills remain way behind Tom Brady and the Patriots, and you’d have to say the same thing about their distance from the Jets, who outscored them, 76-21, in two games this season. Buffalo’s only win in six division games was against Miami.
So, where do they begin? Well, unless they can get Andrew Luck, which probably isn’t going to happen because, if he comes out of Stanford early, he’s going No.1 overall to Carolina, and its new coach, whomever that might be. Given Buffalo’s horrible problems against the run, I’d probably opt for one of the huge, run-stuffing defensive linemen who will be available among the top 10 picks – immediate impact studs such as Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers, Alabama’s Marcell Dareus or Auburn’s Nick Fairley.
I’m not saying that Fitzpatrick is the long-term answer at QB, but he did play solidly much of the season, finishing with 3,000 yards, 23 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. Unless, Buddy Nix and Gailey are absolutely certain that Cam Newton or Ryan Mallett or Jake Locker is THE guy or unless they could package a deal to trade for the rights to draft Luck (how about the Bills first-round pick and Lee Evans?), they have to address this team’s extraordinary defensive deficiencies. Perhaps, they can trade down a few spots, pick up another draft pick and still select one of the defensive linemen they sorely need. The bottom line is they have to hit a home run with this selection. They must get a guy who can contribute and make an impact right away. And they can’t afford to draft positions where they already have strengths like they did last April when they took running back C.J. Spiller.
This is going to be a very interesting off-season for the Bills. They have a number of free-agent issues to address. I wouldn’t mind keeping safety Donte Whitner and linebacker Paul Posluszny, but I wouldn’t overpay for either. I also would cut my losses with first-round busts Aaron Maybin and John McCargo and I’d entertain trades for Evans, who clearly isn’t the receiver he once was but could still be a nice No. 2 for a contending team.
I trust the signing of Shawne Merriman to a two-year, $10-million contract the other day is an indication that the linebacker is ready to be the force he was in the beginning of his career and not the injury-prone guy San Diego released earlier this season and the Bills picked up – only to see him re-injure himself 25 minutes into his first practice and wind up on injured reserve. This is a big gamble by Nix, who wound up drafting Merriman five years ago. Let’s hope he knows something we don’t.
The offseason also could be muddled, given the uncertain collective bargaining agreement talks that might jeopardize parts or all of the 2011 season. The precarious situation might prompt teams to hold off signing free agents until things are settled.
The Bills will be cleaning out their lockers Monday morning. A goodly number of them will be doing so for the last time.
SCOTT’S REPORT CARD
COACHING: The effort was terrible and the mistakes numerous. The past two games the Bills appeared ill prepared and unmotivated. Grade: F
OFFENSE: A week after turning it over seven times, the Bills gave it away six times, and failed to produce any points. Fill-in quarterback Brian Brohm, making only his second NFL start, accounted for four of the giveaways and wide receiver Stevie Johnson coughed it up after making a nice reception deep inJets territory. The protection for Brohm was horrendous and there weren’t many holes for the backs as Fred Jackson failed to crack the 1,000-yards rushing barrier. Grade: F
DEFENSE: Despite playing their third-string running back Joe McKnight and many of their second-line offensive linemen, the Jets gained 276 yards, the eighth time the Bills yielded more than 200 yards. Things were so bad that ancient backup quarterback Mark Brunell threw his first TD pass in four years. Only highlight was Jairus Byrd’s interception return for the Bills only touchdown. Interestingly, it was the safety’s first pick of the year after tying for the NFL lead last season with 9. Opposing teams wound up averaging close to 27 points against Buffalo. Grade: F.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Brian Moorman averaged 49.3 yards on six punts and pinned on inside the 20. Return and coverage teams were average. Grade: C
OVERALL: Chan didn’t have the guys ready to play and that was disappointing, especially after last week’s abysmal performance against New England. Ending the season with back-to-back 31-point losses took luster off progress shown while winning four of their previous six. Grade: F