It’s over – it’s finally over – hallelujah! The nightmare that was the Buffalo Bills 2003 season came to an end on Saturday and mercifully, the Bills were the first NFL team put out of their misery.
I could write about how badly the Bills ran for the bus in their payback 31-0 drubbing at the hands of the New England Patriots. I could fire a bunch of horrific stats at you for the game, talk about this being yet an even lower low point to a terrible season, or rage against the typical lack of plays being made and bad play calls.
Alternatively, I could tell you just how bad this season was, how frustrating the losses were, how inept the offense was. I’m not going to do that. I don’t want to write it and you don’t want to read it.
We know the problems; we know the causes; let’s talk about how the Bills will move forward and solve them rather than discussing past performance (or lack thereof) ad nausea.
Let’s start at the top and work our way down. Owner Ralph Wilson isn’t going anywhere unless (God forbid) his health fails him (he is in his 80’s). If Ralph Wilson were to suddenly pass all bets would be off regarding the future of the team personnel and more importantly, the future of the entire franchise. Given that he is fairly hearty for a man of his years (he travels to away games and still plays tennis), it is doubtful that his health would seriously fail.
While much of the blame for this terrible season can be placed squarely at the feet of General Manager Tom Donahoe, I expect to see him retain his post next season. Ralph Wilson has not indicated that he is in any way unhappy with the Bills front office and he has traditionally let the football personnel run the football operations of the club. The Bills 5 year plan certainly stumbled badly this year, but it is doubtful that a GM change would be made – that would put them solidly back at square one. I believe Wilson has faith in Donahoe’s abilities as a General Manager and would be stunned if he were to go looking for a replacement in the off season.
The coaching situation looks equally as clear-cut. While the fates of Gregg Williams and Kevin Gilbride may not have been truly sealed until the final stanza of the Bills collapse late in the season, it is a forgone conclusion that neither coach will be brought back next season. To the dismay of many vengeful Bills fans, the coaches will not be fired – they will simply be informed that their expiring contracts will expire without being renewed. Other coaches may return next season, but they will serve at the decision of the new head coach.
The big question then becomes who will be the new head coach for the Bills? The is no clear favorite at this point and the list of potential candidates is still uncertain as other teams have not made their coaching decisions. It seems certain that the Bills will select a new coach who has had previous NFL head coaching experience. After being stung by Gregg Williams I believe Donahoe will shy away from giving another man his first NFL head coach position.
The list of candidates is pared down if previous experience becomes a requirement. Tom Coughlin and Jim Fassel will certainly be available, as will Dennis Green, Dan Reeves and Ray Rhodes. Dick LeBeau could be bumped up from his assistant status and Jim Haslett in New Orleans may be available if he can get out of his current Saints contract. A coach with a proven ability to lead a team to success who may just need a change of scenery in order to regain that success will be what the Bills are looking for – many of the aforementioned coaches can fit into that category. Coughlin and Haslett have ties to the WNY area, but nobody on this list jumps out as a shoo-in for the Bills vacancy.
Factors in who will be interested in the position will be control and salary. A head coach under Donahoe will be just that – a head coach. Donahoe will not give up any of his responsibilities to a new head coach. The Bills have traditionally not paid big money for a coach, so the willingness of Ralph Wilson to open his checkbook may determine who is on the sidelines in 2004. The success of coaches like Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick have shown that sometimes big money spent on the coach can pay solid dividends, so the Bills may be willing to spend the money necessary to land a top candidate.
Certainly the new coach will have a tremendous impact on how the Bills proceed in the off season, but as noted, this part of the crystal ball is hard to read. Ultimately Tom Donahoe is likely to make the important player personnel decisions – who will stay, who will go, and who will be brought in through the draft and free agency. To borrow an analogy from Bill Parcells, the coach will cook the meal but the front office will likely buy the ingredients.
Regardless of the head coach, some of the player personnel decisions seem clear.
Drew Bledsoe will be the Bills quarterback in 2004, regardless of the fans and pundits who claim has lost his ability. Ralph Wilson supports Drew Bledsoe, and when the guy writing the checks supports you you’re probably not on your way out of the starting lineup. Aside from owner support, a number of other factors point to Bledsoe’s return – shared blame for a poor 2003 performance and lack of a viable alternative chief among them.
Fans and the media are understandably frustrated and angry with Bledsoe for his performance this season. Bledsoe rarely looked sharp this season, particularly away from home. He failed to lead any late comeback drives to win winnable games; in fact, he failed to lead a touchdown drive in more than half the games this season. He was a turnover machine, throwing 11 interceptions and losing 10 fumbles. He was sacked 49 times, many because he took a play out of the Rob Johnson playbook and held onto the ball too long. On the surface, it appears that Bledsoe is no longer a guy who should be starting in the NFL – his stats aren’t even mediocre.
Call me a Bledsoe apologist if you must, but I don’t believe the Bills signal caller shoulders all the blame for his horrific season. Surely Bledsoe is culpable in his own downfall and the downfall of the team, but you have to look at other factors when distributing blame.
The offensive line was inconsistent at best this season and plenty of times defenders came through the line virtually untouched. If you don’t have any time to throw you’re going to have a bad season.
The loss of Peerless Price deprived the Bills of a desperately needed downfield threat, particularly when Eric Moulds was slowed by a groin injury since week 5. Josh Reed failed to step up when given the opportunity and in the second half of the season none of the receivers did much of anything to get separation from the defense – even if Bledsoe had some time to throw he often had nobody to throw to.
The lack of a downfield threat or even any open receivers allowed team after team to blitz the Bills without mercy, increasing the sacks and turnovers generated by challenging a questionable offensive line. It also seemed to shell-shock Bledsoe – his timing was off as he got hit on almost every play. He threw the ball away too early or held onto it too long trying to guess how much time he had before he was flattened.
Even if you disagree with me about the reasons for Bledose’s performance and assign all the blame to the guy from Washington State, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a viable alternative at quarterback for the Bills next season.
The Bills have two quarterbacks on their roster and neither seems ready to take the reins in 2004. Alex Van Pelt is not the Bills quarterback of the future and it is questionable whether he will be retained next season as a backup. Travis Brown is not ready to step into a starting role if you have ambitions to go to the playoffs now.
The Bills will almost certainly draft a quarterback in March but it is unlikely they will get a solid blue chip prospect at their draft position. Blue chip or not, a rookie quarterback is not what the Bills need to complete the final piece of the playoff puzzle. If the Bills decide to abandon their plan and rebuild now they might go with a new young quarterback under center in 2004, but it is extremely unlikely that they will go into a rebuilding mode now.
The Bills could go after an experienced free agent quarterback, but few are available. Billy Volek of Tennessee may be available, but he is an unproven commodity. Volek looked like a Hall of Fame passer against the Bills but has little experience beyond that promising outing. The Bills will be wary to bring in a new starting quarterback based on a single stellar performance – does anyone remember a guy by the name of Rob Johnson? Other veterans like Kurt Warner might be available, but the Bills aren’t likely to be willing to pay the Rams their asking price for the former NFL MVP.
The Bills will renegotiate Bledsoe’s contract to more friendly terms and retain him as their signal caller. Bledsoe may not be happy to redo the terms of his contract, but his performance this year leaves him few options – who else will be willing to step up and sign him for big money if the Bills let him walk? Some have mentioned trading Bledose, but the Bills would have to have him under contract to trade him and a trade would probably involve some sort of cap hit for the Bills. In any event, the Bills wouldn’t get much for Bledsoe after this season.
Look for the Bills to take a quarterback within the first four rounds of the draft to compete against Brown as the potential quarterback of the future.
If Bledsoe is to be more effective in 2004 he’ll need a better offensive line to protect him. When you have a pocket passer with almost no mobility you have to protect him. The Bills do not have this line – they need to go get it.
Ruben Brown will not return as a Bill – he abandoned the team late in the season and his name carried him to the Pro Bowl. He’ll count about $4 million against the cap whether he plays for the Bills or not, so look for the Bills to trade him and get something for him to take some of the sting out of the hit. The Bills will need to shore up the line with veteran free agents and/or draft picks.
Wide receiver will also be a priority in the off season. The Bills need someone to spread the field and step in if Moulds is injured again. It is possible that Josh Reed will emerge in his third season like Moulds did, but the Bills would do well not to rely on this.
Perhaps the biggest need the Bills have is for a dominating defensive end. The Bills defensive line failed to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks and this lead to a surprising lack of takeaways for a defense ranked so highly. The Bills were good in a number of statistical categories but failed to make the big plays to win games. They also need to come up with critical third down stops, something they failed to do well in 2003. Simply put, the Bills were a better defense on paper than they were on the field and it all starts up front. Aaron Schobel had a solid year and led the Bills with 11.5 sacks, but he needs a Bruce Smith to compliment his Phil Hansen level of play. Look for the Bills to try and find a defensive end as a top priority this off season.
Depth in the secondary will also be a need. Antoine Winfield is scheduled to become a free agent and his asking price may be too much for the Bills to pay. If he leaves the Bills will need to find a second starting cornerback – not an easy task.
The Bills will be a different team in 2004 than they were in 2003 and this may be their last shot at the playoffs before they must rebuild. There will be new faces, but the overall plan will not be abandoned – win now, not later. For the sake of an aging owner and a beleaguered Bills Nation, I hope that becomes a reality.