New Offensive System Should Help Johnson
Personnel remains fairly stable but system is totally new.
by Steve Saslow
July 23, 2001
The Bills have undergone a tremendous amount of change this offseason from a new president to a new coaching staff to many new faces on the defensive side of the ball. The offense however has remained fairly stable with the Bills returning up to 8 starters. The system however is totally new, as the Bills have switched to the West Coast Offense to better take advantage of the skills of the now undisputed number one quarterback, Rob Johnson.
The coaching staff and President Tom Donahoe were all in agreement to keep Johnson over Doug Flutie. Johnson is younger and full of talent waiting to be fulfilled. The West Coast Offense is a perfect fit for his size, mobility, and strong arm. He will have four or five reads and everything is done on a timing basis so he can get rid of the ball quickly and cut down on sacks. To run this offense the size difference between the two is an issue. The new coaching staff is known as teachers and the disciplined style by Williams should help Johnson develop also. One thing is for sure, this is a do or die season for Johnson since if he struggles he will either be a lameduck QB next year or cut in a salary cap move. If he flourishes he will most likely get a brand new longterm deal after the season.
Johnson will have many options to throw to. In this offense the running backs need to be able to catch the football, enter Larry Centers. He was the lone significant free agent signee by the Bills this off season and he is the career receiving leader among backs. He is suppose to be a perfect fit for this offense and should at least equal his 81 receptions from last season in Washington.
While Centers is definitely the fullback who will emerge as the starting running back is anyone's guess. The Bills jettisoned Antowain Smith and Jonathan Linton leaving the fight for the job a three man race between Sammy Morris, Shawn Bryson and rookie second round pick Travis Henry. Everyone inside the organization is saying the competition will make all three backs better and Williams hopes he can decide between the three of them. That brings up the scary scenario of a second season of running back by committee in Buffalo. If that does happen the West Coast Offense lends itself to using different backs and it may not be the nightmare it was a year ago. My bet is that there will be an undisputed number one back it will be Henry. They drafted him with the offense in mind, and he is the new regime's guy, not a holdover. The only thing holding him back is he had very little receiving experience at the University of Tennessee. Morris has impressed the coaches with his receiving ability but injuries are a question with him. Bryson has shown he has tremendous speed and may develop as the third down running back and he also may spell Centers at Fullback.
The best news of the offseason, as far as the offense goes, was the re-signing of Eric Moulds to a six year deal. He will be the number one target on offense again for the Bills. His partner on the other side will once again be Peerless Price. He struggled early last year but really came on strong towards the end of the season. We are betting that will carry over to this year and this will be Price's breakout season. He is at a similar juncture in his career that Moulds was when he blossomed. Jeremy McDaniel once again makes a viable number three receiver but his stats may drop since the West Coast Offense doesn't use three wideouts that much. It is a base offense with a tight end and two running backs. Rounding out the depth at wide receiver are a few young talented, yet unproven, players in Kwame Cavil, Avion Black and rookie seventh round pick Reggie Germany.
The one player that may benefit the most from the new offense, aside from Johnson, is Jay Riemersma. The tight end is another vital cog in the system and Riemersma may be heading for a pro bowl season if he can remain healthy. His backups are likely to remain Bobby Collins and Sheldon Jackson. Both players struggled last year. Jackson played out of position much of the year and Collins has shown promise but slid backwards last year. The teachers on the coaching staff need to work with him. Draft pick Dan O'Leary may steal one of these jobs if he can prove to be an accurate long snapper.
The much maligned offensive line has undergone the most changes this off season but it does return 3 of 5 starters and a fourth is a returning starter. Williams just shuffled the deck a bit. Mr. Versatility, Jerry Ostroski moves again, he will now be back at his most comfortable position at right guard. Bill Conaty will become the starter at Center. He is an unproven free agent signee three years ago who has had little playing experience but has looked good in the mini-camps. Ostroski will be better at right guard but how well Conaty plays in the middle and how good he makes the calls will go a long way in finding out improved this line will be. Robert Hicks tries to resurrect his career and will most likely be the starting right tackle. He will receive heavy competition from free agent signee Kris Farris. Both Hicks and Farris are former third round picks. Hicks lost confidence last year as he struggled mightily as a starter early in the year. Farris has missed two years with a foot injury. If he can return to form, he may be a steal. The left side of the line is the longest running duo in the league as it is solidly handled by John Fina and Ruben Brown. Both players struggled last year and need to return to form for this offense to be successful.
The offensive preview is very optimistic because this unit has a chance to be much improved with one stable system instead of the confusion that reigned last year. Johnson should also be improved because he doesn't have to look over his shoulder. Of course, if he does get injured for any length of time the club is in deep trouble. Alex Van Pelt is the consummate backup who can fill in admirably for a game or two but over the long haul he would struggle. So like anything else in football, if the players stay healthy and learn the nuances of the West Coast Offense this unit can be much improved.
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