2004 Was A Wild Ride
What a year 2004 was for the Buffalo Bills. A heartbreaking opening day loss led to an 0-4 start. After winning three of five in the middle of the year the team went on an exhilarating six game winning streak bringing them one game from an improbable playoff berth. It ended on a down note with a loss to Pittsburgh who was playing mostly backups. Looking back at the roller coaster ride the team did finish 9-7, three games better than 2003. We broke down every game with position by position grades. Now for the fifth year in a row we do our position by position final exam grades as well as individual player grades for key players at each position. We also will take a look ahead at one might happen with next season's roster:
Quarterbacks: Drew Bledsoe, Shane Matthews, J.P. Losman
Bledsoe got off to another slow start this year, fans and media were calling for his hide. He then was a catalyst in the six game winning streak that helped stop the cries for the Rookie Losman to take him over. Bledsoe's stats showed tremendous improvement from 2003. He threw 20 touchdown passes to just 16 interceptions. He finished with a QB rating of 76.6. Bledsoe managed the games well but only took the team on his back for one victory, against Miami. He did not throw for 300 yards at all this year. Losman missed half the season with a broken leg and then just saw some garbage time action in four games. He finished 3 for 5 for 32 yards and an interception. Matthews saw a decent amount of time against San Francisco and threw a touchdown pass.
Running Backs: Willis McGahee, Travis Henry, Shaud Williams, Joe Burns, Damion Shelton
Final Overall Grade B: Did what they were asked to do for the most part. That was not to lose games.
Bledsoe B: Had a rebound year but season ending loss raised more questions. Will enter next year as the starting QB.
Losman Incomplete: Will be the number two QB next year and be ready to take over if Bledsoe falters.
Matthews B: Came on at end of training camp and was a steadying hand and tutor for Losman. Will probably retire but would be welcomed back if he wanted to.
McGahee took over for Henry when he was banged up early in the year and started against Miami. He ran for 100 yards. The next week he was back on the bench against Baltimore but came on as a spark in the second half and never saw the bench again. In a nearly miraculous story. McGahee came back from his devastating knee injury and started 11 games, rushing for over 100 yards seven times, all victories and leading the Bills to a 9-2 record in his starts. He finished with 1128 yards and 13 touchdowns. Henry ended up with just 326 yards and no scores. Williams showed some skills as an undrafted free agent when pressed into action late in the year when Henry got hurt again. He gained 93 yards against San Francisco and finished with 167 yards on the season. Shelton was a devastating lead blocker all year and never carried the ball. He did catch 17 passes for 114 yards. Burns went from backup running back to backup fullback but didn't do too much an either role. He only had 21 touches all year.
Receivers: Eric Moulds, Lee Evans, Josh Reed, Sam Aiken, Jonathan Smith, Mark Campbell, Tim Euhus, Ryan Neufeld, Rod Trafford
Final Overall Grade B+: McGahee was a real feel good story while Henry was a real trooper.
McGahee A: Was the spark to the turnaround this season. Unquestionably the number one guy.
Henry D-: Injuries hurt him but he didn't produce on the field. Will be playing elsewhere next year unless the Bills don't get a high enough pick for him.
Williams B: May have a future in Buffalo as the number two back.
Shelton A: Best pure fullback in league this year.
Burns D-: His only use next year would be as a special teams player.
Moulds had a nice comeback from an injury riddled 2003 season. His role changed as he was used as a possession receiver, running mostly short patterns to convert first downs. He wasn't entirely happy in his role but realized it was successful. He finished with 88 receptions for 1,043 yards and five touchdowns. His play underneath opened it up for the rookie Evans who had a fantastic freshman campaign. Evans caught nine touchdown passes, a Bills rookie record. He caught 48 balls for 843 yards and a whopping 17.6 yard average. He caught a lot of long passes of 50 yards or more. Reed missed some time because of injury but was very ineffective even when he played. He finished with just 16 catches for 153 yards. Aiken saw a little bit more playing time and caught 11 passes for 148 yards. Smith was activated from the practice squad late in the year and saw limited time at receiver catching three balls. The tight end position was in flux all year as the top two members of the group both had season ending knee surgery late in the year. Campbell led the group with 17 receptions and five touchdowns. Euhus developed nicely as a rookie and was getting more playing time before getting hurt. He caught 11 passes, two for touchdowns. Neufeld became the starter the last couple of games and caught six balls but was solid in blocking as was Campbell. Trafford was signed the final couple of weeks and caught three balls.
Trafford C: Injuries put him on the team. He will get an invite to camp but won't likely be on the team next year.
Offensive Line: Mike Williams, Chris Villarial, Trey Teague, Jonas Jennings, Marcus Price, Ross Tucker, Lawrence Smith, Mike Pucillo, Dylan McFarland
Final Overall Grade B: Moulds and Evans make for a potent duo.
Moulds B+: Dropped a few balls but was the anchor of the offense. The Bills will ask him to restructure his deal this offseason.
Evans A: The team's rookie of the year. He could be a star in the making.
Reed F: Time to say goodbye to this second round bust.
Aiken D: Still can't get more playing time, might not be back next year although the team says they are high on him.
Smith Incomplete: He's a playmaker and may develop into an interesting option at wide receiver.
Campbell B: Solid blocker and receiver. Will start again next year.
Euhus B: Will battle Campbell for the starting job, developed very fast.
Neufeld B: Interesting role player who will be back.
The unit was the most improved on the team from the beginning of the season to the end. Jim McNally really did a nice job. They only gave up 38 sacks on the season but most of them were during the first nine weeks. They really buckled down and gave Bledsoe time to throw, even against blitzes that killed them last year. They also opened up enough holes in the running game to get McGahee 1000 yards.
Defensive Line: Aaron Schobel, Chris Kelsay, Ryan Denney, Pat Williams, Sam Adams, Ron Edwards, Justin Bannan, Tim Anderson
Final Overall Grade B: An A down the stretch and a D early in the season.
Williams B+: Really had a good year after a turmoil filled training camp. He is a force against the run and his pass blocking has improved immensely. Will likely make the move to left tackle next year if Jennings doesn't return.
Villarial B: He was a solid free agent signing and played tough, solid football.
Teague B: I'm in the minority, but I think Teague is a very good center who calls a good game. He'll be back in the middle next year.
Jennings A: Had a great season in his contract year. Did a good job against some of the best pass rushers in the league especially Jason Taylor who he shutdown twice. The Bills want him back, but it looks like he'll be too expensive to keep.
Tucker A: Very versatile as he played guard and center this year and did a great job at both positions. Why wasn't he starting at the beginning of the year? They won't make that mistake next year.
Smith C: Was the surprise starter at left guard when the season started. Did a nice job blocking for the run but struggled in pass protection. Was a little too green to be a starter and ended up on the bench. He did see some spot time at tackle down the stretch as well as guard. He is border line to be back next year.
Pucillo F: Was supposed to be the starter heading into training camp and barely played all year. He won't be back.
Price B: He was the super sub again. He filled in at times at both tackle positions and the play never dropped off. He's a free agent that the Bills would like to have back for depth.
McFarland Incomplete: Rookie barely played. The team will look for more development out of him over the offseason.
The defensive line was the anchor of a great defense that forced 39 turnovers and gave up the least amount of rushing touchdowns in team history. Williams had an interception return for a score while Schobel led the unit with 8 sacks and 100 tackles along with 3 fumble recoveries. Adams was turned loose as a pass rusher and had five sacks. Kelsay eventually won the left end spot and had 4½ sacks while Denney pinched in with 3.
Linebackers: London Fletcher, Takeo Spikes, Jeff Posey, Josh Stamer, Mario Haggan, Angelo Crowell
Final Overall Grade B+: The development at left end made this unit better than last year.
Schobel B: His sacks were down but he made big plays other ways with pressures, tackles, and fumble recoveries. He's the team's elite pass rusher.
Kelsay B: Made great strides this year and looks to be a good complement to Schobel. Enters next year as the unquestioned starter.
Williams B+: Just a pillar in the middle. He wants to come back and the club wants him back, expect him back.
Adams A: After an early season run-in with the coaching staff he was turned lose and had a dominating year.
Denney C: Showed some improvement over his first two years but Kelsay is clearly better. Will be back and does provide decent depth at this time.
Edwards C: He had one great game but didn't do that much consistently. Finished with four sacks. Will be back as depth or as a starter if Williams goes.
Bannan D: He showed more promise as an offensive guard than defensive tackle. Just doesn't make the plays. He has a decision to make, does he want to move to offense full time?
Anderson Incomplete: The third round pick barely saw the field with the talent in front of him. He needs to develop faster this offseason.
Another great year for this unit. Fletcher and Spikes make an amazing combination. Fletcher led the team in tackles again with 192 while Spikes made the big plays. He had two interception returns for touchdowns and had five in all, both had three sacks. Posey once again did his job quietly but successfully. He wasn't asked to rush the passer much and managed just one sack and 93 tackles.
Secondary: Nate Clements, Terrence McGee, Troy Vincent, Lawyer Milloy, Jabari Greer, Kevin Thomas, Rashad Baker, Coy Wire, Pierson Prioleau, Izell Reese
Final Overall Grade A: The best unit on the team.
Fletcher A: Just a tackle machine. He always makes the play.
Spikes A+: He can rush the passer, drop back in coverage, make the tackle and he does it all very well.
Posey C: He plays consistently but is not a big play maker.
Stamer B: Didn't play much but when he did he produced. He had an interception.
Crowell Incomplete: Barely played except in mop up time.
Haggan Incomplete: See Crowell above.
This unit was in flux also throughout the year. Vincent started at cornerback while Wire started at Safety because Milloy was injured. When the two were healthy, Wire was way down the depth chart while Vincent moved to safety to make room for McGee who really developed. Clements had six interceptions as he came out of Antoine Winfield's shadow with a great year. Younger talent like Baker, Greer, McGee, and Thomas pushed out Prioleau, Reese, and Wire.
Thomas B-: Played the nickel much of the year and did a solid unassuming job.
Final Overall Grade A: Besides the second Miami game, really did a good job in pass coverage.
McGee C: He's a playmaker who underwent growing pains but got better as the year went on. He will return as a starter next year and will get to hone his skills in the offseason.
Clements A+: Talk about a playmaker, six interceptions and he developed into the lockdown corner they needed him to be.
Milloy B: His return from a broken forearm was when the team started to turn it around. That is not a coincidence.
Vincent B He moved to free safety much earlier than expected but did it for the team and performed well. He should be much improved with a full offseason to learn the position.
Baker C: The undrafted free agent showed he has good instincts. He will be brought back to continue his development.
Greer C: Split the nickel with Thomas part of the year but showed he is still a bit young. Likely to be brought back to continue his development.
Prioleau D: Way down on the depth chart will likely not be back.
Wire D: Got demoted for a second year in a row when he was replaced by Baker after he didn't perform while Milloy was hurt. He is likely gone unless they keep him for his special teams skills.
Reese C-: Lost his starting job to an undrafted free agent. He's not a playmaker and he will not be back.
Special Teams: Rian Lindell, Brian Moorman, Terrence McGee, Nate Clements, Jonathan Smith, Jon Dorenbos, Bradford Banta
Lindell had the second best field goal percentage in team history this year but he only attempted three outside the 40. Moorman had a great year kicking in tough weather. He even made some big plays for the offense early in the year when they were struggling as he ran and threw for a first down. McGee made the Pro Bowl by scoring three touchdowns and breaking the team kickoff return record while leading the AFC. Clements returned a punt for a score as did Smith for a whopping five returns. The coverage teams did a great job covering punts and kicks led by Wire, Stamer, Burns, Crowell, and Haggan.
Final Overall Grade A+: Bobby April did a phenomenal job with this unit.
Lindell C: Stats were solid but he missed two big kicks in the opener and the finale. The coaches didn't seem to have much confidence in the long kicks. They may look for a better option in free agency.
Moorman A+: He is the best punter in the game even though the stats aren't there. How many punters are playmakers?
Return Game A+: What a turnaround, may have been the best return team in club history. 5 touchdowns tied for an NFL record.
Coverage Teams A+: They just suffocated their opponents.
Dorenbos A+: Didn't have a truly bad snap all year.
Banta A+: Signed when Dorenbos was hurt and came through.
Coaching: Mike Mularkey, Tom Clements, Jerry Gray, Bobby April
Mike Mularkey took over as head coach and brought in some good coaches and kept some good coaches. As a rookie head coach it was impressive to see him keep the team together despite the 0-4 start and lead them to their first winning record in five years. Gray came out of Gregg Williams and Dick LeBeau's shadow and had the league's second ranked defense once again but the takeaways more than doubled from last year. Clements did some innovative things with the offense and got the best out of Bledsoe. OL coach Jim McNally did an incredible job with the line. April just made the special teams the best one in the league.
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Final Overall Grade A: Not bad for the first year, what do they do for an encore?
Mularkey A: He never wavered and the team bought in to what he was preaching.
Clements B: Shows great creativity to help the offense put points on the board.
Gray A+: The Bills may lose him to a head coaching job somewhere. He is that good.
April A+: The best special teams coach in the league.