Iím starting to get that feeling again. That same feeling I had which started week 3 of the 2003 season when the Bills went down in flames against Miami in front of a national television audience.
The slight gnawing at my gut that began in week 4 when the Bills were 2-1 transformed into a deathly pain when they reached week 13 at 4-7. I sincerely hope the gnawing doesnít culminate in a scene reminiscent of Alien like it did last year Ė that was painful (ever try and phone in sick for work because a small creature has eaten its way out of your digestive tract? It worked once but I donít think my boss will buy it two years in a row).
Bills fans know the feeling Iím talking about. The gnawing feeling that despite our high hopes, we are still very far away from where we want and need to be. The gnawing feeling that although a year has gone by and we have new (and supposedly improved) faces, we arenít any closer to greatness than we were before. The gnawing feeling that although the team wasnít hit hard with key personnel losses we somehow enter the season weaker than last year rather than stronger. The gnawing feeling that last seasonís offensive ineptitude wasnít the result of a number of contributing factors but rather a statement of the real abilities of the unit as a whole. The gnawing feeling that whatever hair has grown back into you head since last season will soon be torn out again watching a series of frustrating losses.
Perhaps Iím overly pessimistic Ė I believe optimists should be drowned in a half-full glass of water Ė but I am very fearful of what Iíve seen so far of the 2004 model-year Buffalo Bills. Break out the Maalox Ė this team looks to equal last seasonís 6-10 at best.
The Bills of 2004 strongly resemble the Bills of 2003. Given the unfulfilled promise of last yearís team, thatís not a good thing.
Through three preseason games, the Billsí offense appears to have picked up right where it left off. The starting unit has failed to score a touchdown in any of their time on the field. The longest run of the preseason has come from a quarterback. That same quarterback is also the second leading rusher despite playing only two games. The offensive line has not shown itself capable of solid pass blocking or run blocking. Penalties and turnovers have killed drives at key times. If any of this sounds familiar you were obviously a Bills fan last season.
Quarterback: Iíll admit that I am a guy who believes in Drew Bledsoe. I really feel that his abysmal 2003 season was more the result of the surrounding cast (injured receiver, porous offensive line, terrible offensive coordinator) than of a sudden drop-off in football skills. I am starting to believe that Bledsoe may not have an opportunity to succeed in Buffalo again. Men of my fatherís generation viewed success as the ability to drive a full-sized Cadillac whereas men my age measure success by driving a Dodge Viper. Bledsoe is a Cadillac in a game that now values the Viper Ė a man with no wheels who needs more time in the pocket than his offensive line can provide. Aside from Bledsoe, the Bills suffered two terrible injuries to his backups. J.P. Losman, the promising young prospect who could be at the helm in 2005 broke his leg along with the hopes and dreams of many fans. Surely the injury will negatively impact his development, but the severity has yet to be measured. Travis Brown, the number two quarterback went down with a knee injury that will sideline him for a couple of months at a minimum. Not much to be happy about at this position unless signing Shane Matthews to the squad makes you excited enough to buy a round of beers for the entire bar (if it does, send a cold one my way and then seek professional psychiatric help).
Offensive Line: Bills fans rejoiced when the team signed Jim McNally as the offensive line coach in the off season. The Buffalo-area native had been known as a guy who could make something out of nothing Ė turning no-name players into solid blocking units. It was as if the offensive line fairy had descended from the heavens, waved her magic wand and solved all our problems. Not so fast. The envisioned starting front 5 have spent almost no time working as a unit since camp started. Mike Williams arrived overweight and out of shape with serious emotional problems to boot. The man drafted #4 overall to play right tackle just a few seasons ago was relegated to a backup role. McNally believes he may ultimately be better suited to play guard than tackle. I donít know about you, but paying $39 million for a backup guard is like paying $5.89/gallon for regular grade gas Ė way overpaying for something suitable you could get for a fraction of the price. Case in point Ė Lawrence Smith, the unheralded and undrafted guard may be the starter for the season. Chris Villarrial has not proven to be any more affective than his predecessor and has been injured. Jonas Jennings has also been hurt, cutting into his time on the field. Center Trey Teague has been his usual self, very susceptible to being overpowered by big, physical defensive tackles. The team has practiced getting the ball out faster by using a 4 second clock, but if the line canít protect for 4 seconds reliably then the drill isnít doing much to help (the quarterback also has to make the throw when you do give him the 4 seconds). The patchwork offensive line is the biggest reason I see this team failing this year Ė they simply donít have the talent or discipline (drive killing penalties galore) to provide the needed foundation for success.
Receivers: Eric Moulds is finally healthy after suffering through the 2003 season with a groin injury. Whatís missing is his counterpart at the #2 receiver position. The team spent the 13th overall pick in the draft on receiver Lee Evans, a speedster many saw as the replacement to the sorely missed Peerless Price. As far as I can tell, Evansí top skill is his stealth ability Ė he runs so fast heís invisible. So invisible, in fact, that he doesnít show up to the quarterback nor does he show up in the box score. Through 3 preseason games, Evans has 1 catch for 0 yards (on the bright side he does have 1 carry for 12 yards giving him the best yards per carry on the team). Similarly invisible is Josh Reed, the young receiver entering his make-or-break third season. Through three games Reed has only 3 catches for 31 yards. By contrast, unheralded Bobby Shaw has put in a workman-like 5 catches for 62 yards. For all the talk about how deep the Bills are at the wide receiver position Iím not impressed so far.
Running Back: Even a position of solid depth has given the Bills headaches to date. Travis Henry looks to be able to make the 1300-yard mark for the third year in a row Ė a solid back with solid stats. Waiting in the wings is Willis McGahee, almost (not quite) recovered from a horrific knee injury 2 years ago. Although both backs are under contract, neither guy looks willing to truly be a team player and put his own stats aside for the good of the team (a harsh reality in todayís NFL where you have to play as much as possible to get paid as much as possible). Add in Drew Rosenhaus, McGaheeís agent and it quickly becomes evident that thereís not enough room for Henry, McGahee and Rosenhausí mouth in the locker room at the same time Ė itís getting a bit cramped and uncomfortable. What remains to be seen is how damaging the current situation will be to the team this season Ė could it be another Johnson-Flutie debacle all over again? One of these backs will have to be traded at the end of the year, but the necessity that one be removed from the team will no doubt cut into the playerís value (mark my words Ė Bills fans will be up in arms when one guy is traded for less than a first round pick).
On the defensive side of the ball the team remains fairly solid but I doubt whether solid play by this unit can overcome the shortcomings of their offensive counterparts. Turnovers have seemingly increased (despite a number of fumbles and interceptions, the Bills have a +2 turnover ratio through three games). Neither run defense (12th in the NFL) nor pass defense (22nd in the NFL) have been stellar, but the unit has the talent to play to their 2003 level (2nd in NFL in total defense). A return to this level with an increased number of takeaways could move the Bills defense to elite status in 2004.
On the downside, the right defensive end position has yet to prove solid. Neither Ryan Denney nor Chris Kelsay has made a solid push for the starting job. Through three games the Bills have only produced four sacks. Increasing the pressure on opposing quarterbacks is a must to create the big defensive plays that the Bills will need to stay competitive in many games.
Injuries could be key to the defense. Starting safety Lawyer Milloy has suffered a broken arm and his loss for any substantial amount of time could really hurt the secondary.
What Bills team could be complete without dismal special teams play? Just when you think that the offense will be the Achilles heel of the team this season, the special teams step up to make a claim for this dubious title. Blocked punts, missed field goals, bobbled snaps, muffed returns and out of bounds kickoffs are just a few of the surprises this unit has pulled from their bag of tricks. While I am of the opinion that their terrible performance in the latest preseason game against Detroit was an aberration rather than a sign of things to come, I do think poor special teams play will likely cost the team a game or two this season (not much of a stretch here Ė theyíve already cost 2 preseason losses in 3 games). I am not at all convinced that Rian Lindell is consistent enough nor has the needed range to merit the kicking duties for the team. Brian Moorman is a very solid punter but one has to wonder whether his hamstring injury could linger throughout the season (see also: Moulds, Eric, groin, 2003).
I really hope Iím wrong about the 2004 Bills. Nothing would make me happier than to prove my wife right that Iím turning into a cantankerous old man who only sees the bad in things (come to think of it, nothing would make my wife happier than knowing she was right). Itís possible that the Bills are truly using the preseason as a learning experience. Itís possible the Bills will pull it all together and play up to their potential this season. Itís possible the Bills go undefeated and win the Super Bowl in January so I can die happy. Itís possible an alien emerges from my midsection and scurries away to cause mayhem. There goes that gnawing feeling againÖoh, my aching stomachÖ