People say I worry too much and call me a pessimist. I’ll admit that I sometimes jar myself out of a sound sleep to agonize over whether I’ve left the porch light on or left the cap off the toothpaste. I'm pessimistic enough to believe that the Bills winning the Super Bowl would be a sign from the Almighty that it is OK to die (hey - what could top that? I’d die happy), and I don't see myself checking out anytime soon. Like some other Bills fans, failure to get the ultimate prize can be worn like a badge of honor - there is some sort of perverse positive to our misery (ask a Red Sox or Cubs fan about this). Despite all of this I don’t see myself as some sort of real-life Chicken Little claiming the sky is about to fall.
What started out as a fantastic blowout win in week one of the season had me feeling unbeatable. Another easy win over the Jaguars did little to diminish my spirits, although I did start to develop a general malaise about the team. As I suspected (remember, I’m a worrier and a pessimist), Miami exploited our flaws and whipped us handily. Sunday’s loss at home to the struggling Eagles has me concerned. Very concerned. Panicked. THE SKY IS FALLING!!!!
I think I have good reason to be worried if not downright panicked. The more I have seen of this team, the more concerned I have become. A quarter of the way through the season I think there are more questions than answers about the 2003 Bills. My numerical identifier for the team is purposeful - there may not be a 2003-2004 Bills team.
The most obvious issue in the team’s current slide is the complete lack of offense. If this team needs a nickname for its offensive unit I submit, “The Milk Carton Offense” with the catchy tag line, “Have You Seen Me?” After Rian Lindell kicked a 27-yard field goal against the Jaguars with 5:11 left to go in Week 2 the offense did not score a point for seven quarters. For those of you not very good at math, that’s nearly two full games.
There are some staggering and sickening numbers surrounding the time Drew Bledsoe and company went M.I.A. During that time the Bills had 20 offensive possessions. Only 6 of these drives went longer than 3 plays. Only half went for positive yardage. In the 112+ minutes that passed between offensive scores, the Bills held the ball for only 41:32 - their opponents possessed the ball almost twice as long. In a truly just world, Buffalo’s offense would be forced to hand over half of their last two game checks to their defensive counterparts. The Bills were 7 for 24 on third down conversions over the span. The offense was flagged 8 times for 49 yards. Clearly, the light was on but nobody was home.
Blame for the offensive debacle must be distributed to everyone on the field, but obviously some units shoulder more of the blame. Heading up the house of horrors is the offensive line. This group had failed to open many running lanes in the Bills’ week 1 and week 2 victories, but their pass protection had been decent. This came crashing down like a house of cards against Miami. Faced with numerous blitzes and pressure up the middle, the line failed to give Bledsoe adequate time to make good passes. Even against a Philadelphia unit missing three starters in the secondary, the passing game went nowhere because Bledsoe frequently had someone in his face quickly. Couple that with the inability to run the ball and you have an offense that is going nowhere in a hurry.
Some may say that the lack of a running game is being unfairly blamed on the offensive line. Travis Henry did not play in week 4, and in all of the games so far it appears that the Bills coaching staff has abandoned the run in favor of the pass. While these certainly factor into the equation, it does not completely explain away why the Bills rank 31st in the NFL in rushing at a pathetic 53 yards per game. The longest run of the season for a running back is 11 yards for Henry. Watch a game and you’ll see an offensive line getting beat in the trenches - you can actually see opposing defensive linemen push the unit backwards on most plays. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I think back to Henry’s quote about going over 2000 yards this season. With 12 games left to go he’ll need another 1878 yards or 156.5 yards a game to reach that mark. I don’t think O.J. is too worried about his team record as he hunts for the “real killers” on golf courses throughout California.
The much-heralded new Bills defense has also slowed considerably since the first two weeks. Encountering quality opposition in Miami and Philadelphia, the unit has looked mediocre. Against Miami they didn’t give up the big play, but they allowed Ricky Williams to slowly grind them into the ground. Simply put, if you can’t get off the field you can do no better than to slow down your opponent. This was repeated against the Eagles - the Bills continually allowed Donovan McNabb and company to convert third downs. The pass rush was anemic and the defensive line was learning a bad habit from their brothers on the offensive line; they were being dominated on the line of scrimmage. The defense did a decent job keeping the Eagles from making the big play, but they folded at a critical time. When the offense finally awakened from its coma in the fourth quarter and scored two touchdowns to put the Bills within a field goal of a tie, the containment on Brian Westbrook broke down and he ran 62 yards for a score - that was the back-breaker. Overall, this unit has lost some of the hunger they showed in weeks 1 and 2.
During the scoring drought I spoke about above, the Bills defensive unit was particularly undisciplined when it came to penalties. If flags were white you’d have thought the Bills were in an early season blizzard the way these overgrown “snowflakes” fell out of the sky. The defense was flagged 13 times for 89 yards, including numerous infractions that gave new life to opponent’s drives.
Penalties, penalties, penalties. In four games the boys in blue have been penalized 37 times for 342 yards, a mark only 3 other teams have reached. That’s an average of more than 9 penalties for north of 85 yards per game. Mind you, this figure only includes penalties that were accepted - if the penalty is decline by the opposition it doesn’t reflect in the stats. While it is almost impossible to play penalty-free football, the lack of discipline is simply appalling. Players commit penalties, but blame for much of this must fall on the coaching staff. Gregg Williams and company may scream about needing to cut down on penalties, but so far he has been unable to get the situation under control. Perhaps the lack of two-a-day practices in training camp was warranted by the physical conditioning of the players, but it now seems that from a mental discipline perspective these guys should still be back in Pittsford.
The Philadelphia game is a wonderful illustration of the shortcomings being displayed by the coaching staff. The game started out with the Bills being flagged for having 12 men on the field - how does the coaching staff ever allow that to happen, let alone on the very first play of the game?
The inability of the offense to generate a running game early lead quickly to Kevin Gilbride’s going back to the same old pass-happy offense. Now I know that the burden of running the ball effectively fell upon Joe Burns rather than Henry and nobody had really envisioned that the second year back would ever have to carry such a load, but with the recent history of ineffectual running games does it really matter? Walter Payton in his prime would probably not have fared much better.
The fact is that the running game was abandoned quickly as it was in other games and the offense became one-dimensional. Not only one dimensional, but static. The coaching staff showed an inability to change the game plan even when the one they had in place was failing miserably. With almost constant blitzes and pressure up the middle, where were the screen passes? Where were the quick outs?
The offensive coaching on the part of the Bills is exactly where it was last year - heavily favoring the pass and more resistant to change than an Amish farmer. The coaches and players can drone on all they want about “needing to execute better” and “go out and make plays”, but these excuses are getting old. If the Bills continue their downward spiral they’ll certainly be more talk of execution, but this kind will focus more on firing squads and electric chairs. Aren’t these the same guys who kept promising a power running game and a ball control offense? If you buy in to everything they say I’ve got some prime oceanfront property to sell you in Nevada. Some of the blame has to go to the coaches and they need to start feeling the heat.
So the next game is against the Bengals, a team that might as well be called the Cincinnati Eyore’s. Their mascot could be the morose A.A. Milne character constantly the victim of bad things. This team has not had a single winning season in the past dozen years and the Bills get to face them on home turf without their best player, Corey Dillon. Honestly, have you ever been so afraid of such a team? In any given year almost every single member of Bills Nation would have seen such a game as an easy win - a blowout - take the Bills minus the points and the over from your local bookie. I would wager relatively few Bills fans see the game the same way now - who amongst you hasn’t even thought of the possibility of a Bills loss in this contest?
Despite the doom and gloom and doubt, it isn’t quite yet time to hit the panic button. The Bills are still 1-1 in the AFC East and are still at the top of the standings. The Bengals aren’t of the same caliber as the Dolphins and the Eagles, both of whom were predicted to make the playoffs - nobody expects to see the Bengals in the post-season. Henry will be back at some point, maybe even this Sunday. The Bills may start to feel the heat and come out as if their backs are up against the wall.
If the Bills lose on Sunday then I’ll go into full-blown Chicken Little mode (please Lord, for my wife’s sake, don’t let that happen - she has to live with me). It’ll be goodbye regular season, hello 2004 NFL Draft. I wonder if Pro Football Weekly will suspend my subscription and rush deliver their 2004 Draft Guide to me overnight…
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