They say that writers should write what people want to read in order to be popular. Based on the e-mails I received on my prediction of the Bills season a few weeks ago, Iím a mighty unpopular guy who doesnít write what you want to read.
Fortunately, Iím not trying to be a popular guy. Many call me negative, but I call Ďem like I see Ďem. The Pollyanna population that told me I was crazy for writing my last article may be fewer in number this Monday, but there are still those poor deluded souls who truly believe the Bills are a 10-6 or better team.
Go ahead and write me all the negative e-mail you want about what you are about to read, but deep down you know thereís good reason to doubt the future success of the 2004 Buffalo Bills. Remember Ė Iím just the messenger.
Thank goodness for Sirius satellite radio. After installing a system in my car a week ago I really put it to the test as I took the 8 hour drive to Orchard Park for the home opener. As all able-bodied Muslims make the hajj to Mecca, so to should all able-bodied Bills Fans trek to the Ralph for a game and so I made my annual pilgrimage.
The ride down on Saturday was great. For a few hundred miles I listened to the Tennessee Titans dismantle the Miami Dolphins in a hurricane-hurried Saturday game. The signal was uninterrupted and the radio even scrolled the score and quarter of play (really cool if youíre a gadget guy like me).
Fast forward to Mondayís drive home and Iíll once again sing the praises to Sirius. Two comedy channels can keep you laughing through a crushing defeat and ward off any thoughts you might have about harming yourself or others.
Sundayís opener against Jacksonville might best be summed up as a microcosm of the 2003 season. The offense started out scoring points early but later did little to put points on the board. The defense played well but in the end they cracked at a critical time and couldnít secure the win. Special teams may have ultimately cost the team the win. In all, I didnít see much to show me that the 2004 Bills are any different than the 2003 Bills.
Before the Pollyanna Society sends me more hate mail, I will say that I am very pleasantly surprised by the turnovers the defense created. Two interceptions setup both Bills scores and Izell Reese broke a 43 game streak without an interception by a Buffalo safety. The Bills did a good job of putting pressure on the quarterback and creating the turnovers the team sorely lacked last year. If the Bills can continue to create turnovers against more seasoned quarterbacks the defense can be better than last yearís unit.
There is also good news on the offense. The offensive line played fairly well and Drew Bledsoe was sacked only once. Bledsoe, last yearís whipping boy for the teamís shortcomings, played adequately if unspectacularly. There is plenty of blame go around for the Jacksonville loss, but nobody can pin this loss on the quarterback.
On special teams, punter Brian Moorman had an 80-yard punt and averaged better than 44 yards per boot. If youíre in the market for a new Bills jersey this year Moormanís could be a great choice Ė heís on his way to being the team MVP.
Now back to my famous negativity. Plenty went wrong on Sunday, and Iím not the only person who saw it.
Offensively the Bills looked flat against the Jaguars. They had numerous sustained drives, but points did not go up on the board. Three trips inside the red zone produced only 10 points. A fumble killed a scoring opportunity, as did a holding call that pushed the Bills out of field goal range. Another scoring opportunity was wasted when Rian Lindell missed a 42-yard attempt.
When the ball was moving the offense never seemed to be in command. Rarely were first downs made without having to convert from a third down situation. The only times the Bills scored were setup by turnovers and good field position, not fruitful offensive drives.
The longest offensive play of the game went for 27 yards on a short pass to a wide-open Mark Campbell (he fumbled it but Lee Evans recovered). The single pass reception by Campbell made him the second most productive receiver of the day. Travis Henry and Willis McGahee had 3.2 and 3.4 yard per carry averages respectively and Henry had the long run of the day with a 14-yard scamper.
The Bills did not attempt a pass over 12 yards. With a healthy Eric Moulds and a speed demon rookie in Lee Evans the Bills never felt comfortable enough to even attempt to go long. Whether the receivers failed to get a step on the defensive backs, the offensive line failed to give enough time in the pocket to Bledsoe or a combination of the two, failing to stretch the defense by challenging with the long pass hurt the Bills. Blame this on the coaching staff Ė you have to work some of these plays into your offensive game plan if you have speedy receivers Ė if you donít then spending a first round pick on a speedy receiver was a waste.
For a team that touted a commitment to the run, the Bills opted to pass in short yardage situations a number of times. When the Bills abandoned the run with third-and-goal at the 1-yard line I thought Kevin Gilbride was still the offensive coordinator. The result was a sack and a six-yard loss. Pollyannas were happy that the Bills managed to put 3 points on the board on that drive Ė I sat in stunned silence in the stands wondering how the Bills offense could fail to get the touchdown on a drive that started at the Jacksonville 3-yard line. Any way you slice it, thatís ugly. If you canít punch it in in that situation youíve got some serious problems Ė are we returning to a situation where the offense canít seem to score a touchdown?
Some may argue that special teams lost the game for the Bills and that argument may have some merit. Lindell missed a 42-yard field goal wide left. The snap was perfect, the hold was perfect and there was little wind to factor into the kick Ė he just simply missed it. For a guy who makes top-5 kicker money ($1.4M in 2003), Lindell simply canít miss like that. I donít want to think about how ugly the kicking situation could be once the cold and wind pick up later in the season in Orchard Park. I donít think Lindell is good enough to be the Billsí kicker and heís certainly not worth top-5 money.
Defensively the Bills choked. Thereís really no other way to say it Ė they did their best Peyton Manning vs. the Patriots impersonation. For most of the game they played well but completely let down when they were most needed.
With just over two minutes left and 80 yards to go, the Bills allowed the Jaguars to march down the field. Three times the Bills allowed Jacksonville to convert 4th downs, the last of which was the game-winning score. The big play was a 45-yard pass to Jimmy Smith. Nate Clements had excellent coverage on the 4th and 16 play and got two hands on the ball. Instead of knocking the ball to the ground to kill the drive and win the game, Clements went for the interception and was out-muscled by Smith for the ball. The play was a terrible rookie mistake, especially by a player who isnít a rookie. The defensive backs have to have more situational awareness than to make such stupid plays.
Simply put, a veteran defense ranked #2 last season canít regress into mediocrity via penalties and mental mistakes. This is the strength of the team Ė they must execute or the Bills will be executed.
While this was a devastating loss and a tremendously bad start to the Mike Mularkey era in Buffalo, it doesnít mean that the season is lost. It does mean that the Bills are still a work in progress. It means that many of last yearís issues are unresolved, regardless of how optimistic and enthused we are supposed to be about the year. It means that my prediction of a 6-10 season is closer to reality than it was prior to week 1. It means Iíll continue to tear my hair out on Sundays and write negative articles on Mondays. It means Iíll continue to get hate mail from the Pollyannas.
Go ahead and write me your e-mails but understand that itís a win-win situation for me. Either Iím right about being negative or Iím wrong and the Bills really are a successful team. Iíll root for the latter but Iíll settle for the former.