It’s been a good few weeks for the Bills – the type of weeks the team and its fans have been yearning for all season.
After defeating the Rams 37-17 at home the Bills took the show on the road and traveled to Drew Bledsoe’s old stomping grounds to defeat the Seahawks 38-9. Suddenly the Bills had the confidence and momentum that allowed them to play up to their potential. The victories showcased solid performances in all three phases of the game – offense, defense and special teams.
With so much going right for the Bills, what’s a cantankerous curmudgeon like me to do if I can’t complain about the Bills in my weekly column? Surely I must have been beside myself in depression without something to rail against – while Bills fans celebrated I must have been steadfastly reading a copy of Final Exit and plotting my own demise.
It’s true that I did not write an article after last week’s defeat of the Rams, but it’s not because I had nothing to say or was incapable of writing something good about the Bills. Truth be told, my wife and I are expecting twins this week or next, so things have been a bit busy and will only get busier. For the moment my heart belongs to a football team from Buffalo, but that’s sure to change (don’t get me wrong – I’ll still be a Bills fan but family will rightly take priority).
I am prepared to say nice things about the Bills. I am prepared to give the team its due for putting points on the board, shutting down opponents, showcasing a top special teams squad, having good game plans and solid coaching, and even give credit to Tom Donahoe for his talent evaluation.
The Bills are a team that had its collective psyche enhanced over the past two weeks. Although capable of playing solid football and playing with just about anyone, the Bills always seem to lack confidence. If they start off slowly and don’t get the monkey off their back they play without confidence and their fear of losing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they start off well as they did against the Rams and Seahawks they play with confidence, living up to their potential and making their own breaks. Is it any wonder that the Bills got off to good starts over the past two games and went on to dominate both?
In the last two games the Bills have scored 75 points, two points shy of what they had scored in their first six games combined. 63 of those points have been the result of 9 touchdowns (and their respective PATs). By contrast the Bills only scored 8 touchdowns in their first 6 games ccombined. To say that the offense took a dramatic turn for the better is a tremendous understatement.
So why the huge jump in offensive production? For starters the offensive line has been solid, allowing only 2 sacks and paving the way for 267 yards rushing on 63 carries – a 4.2 yard average. The Bills stuck to the run and rode Willis McGahee – they did not abandon the run in desperation.
They say the key to winning football games is to run and stop the run. As noted above, the Bills were able to run the ball but the defense allowed them to stop the run. In the last two games the Bills have allowed only 90 yards on the ground – 35 against the Rams and 55 against the Seahawks. Against the Rams the story was turnovers – the Bills had one interception but scooped up a Rams fumble and picked off 3 Rams passes – the Bills seemed to get every bounce go their way.
The Bills special teams have been nothing short of spectacular. Against the Rams the Bills setup 17 points, including an 86-yard punt return for a score by Nate Clements. Against Seattle the unit executed the perfect onsides kick to start the second half (seriously – it was so beautifully executed they’ll put it in the textbook for how to do an onsides kick). Punt and kickoff coverage has been solid allowing the Bills to win the battle of field position.
Mike Mularkey has really come on as coach of the Buffalo Bills. Starting with the menu of pre-game cheeseburgers, he and his staff made solid coaching decisions against Seattle. The reverse to Lee Evans worked to perfection for a 15-yard gain. The onside kick to start the second half was a fantastic gamble – it caught everyone sleeping (did you see the look on Mike Holmgren’s face?). But the best play of the game had to be the fake QB sneak on 4th-and-1 when Bledsoe sold the fake, pitched back to McGahee and the running back took it 30 yards for the score There are only a finite number of perfect football moments and that was one of them.
In the past I have been critical of Tom Donahoe and the lack of results he’s obtained since taking the helm as Bills General Manager. I stand by what I said earlier in the season – you have to judge the man on results, not on whether any given move or series of move appears to be good. Moves that look good today might not look good down the road once the data is in – you need only look at the Bledsoe acquisition to realize this. When Bledsoe came to town the fan base was energized. The Bills signed a great character guy and a quarterback with good skills. They sold tickets like crazy in a small television market – the lifeblood of the organization and key to its survival. Bledsoe produced good numbers when he came to town – it really looked like a move of genius to bring him in. Fast forward to this season and look back at the terrible games he’s had, particularly on the road, and maybe it looks like New England got the better of the deal.
The recent performances of McGahee, Evans and solid game planning by Mike Mularkey have swung the pendulum back in Donahoe’s favor – the data is in, the moves look good and as a result Donahoe looks much better than he did in week 5. Don’t mistake my position as a flip-flop – it’s not – I’m simply judging the GM based on results and those have changed for the better.
As a Bills fan, I’ve really enjoyed the past two weeks of football (having McGahee on my fantasy football team is an extra bonus). There’s nothing I like more than making noise with a bunch of fellow Boston Bills Backers as we score touchdowns and end up on the pretty side of a blowout game. Being able to talk about a game with pride is great – it’s what we live for as Bills fans.
While there are plenty of things to be happy about in the recent Bills winning streak (is 2 games really a streak?), but I’m not ready to go overboard with joy (does that surprise anyone?). Bledsoe has continued to turn the ball over but the Bills have played well enough to overcome these mistakes. The team also continues to have problems with penalties – against St. Luis they had 15 for a whopping 123 yards but once again the team has been strong enough to overcome.
I’m not ready to let my recent joy tear me away from reality. The Bills are still below .500 for the season. Their upcoming games are all winnable, but to think the Bills will run the table and end up at 10-6 is unrealistic. Similarly unrealistic is talk of a playoff spot. Heck, even if the Bills do go 10-6 it won’t be enough to win the division and may not even garner a wild card birth. It would be exciting, but ultimately I don’t think this season ends the way fans hoped or even thought it would.
The Bills took too long to find their groove and play to their potential – they let too many winnable games slip away unnecessarily. Win the Jacksonville, Oakland and Jets games and we’d be 8-3 and in the thick of the hunt – we’re not and that makes the earlier losses all the more painful.
Another negative effect of the recent Bills success is that it potentially delays the schooling of J.P. Losman. Even in the recent victories Bledsoe has been less than spectacular – some say we won the Seattle game in spite of his poor play – and there is still a need to get the rookie some game experience prior to next year if they want him to be the guy under center and not sacrifice the 2005 season as part of the learning curve. If the Bills continue to do well, even in spite of Bledsoe, Losman may never see the field in any meaningful way this season. Missing the playoffs this year and having to wet nurse a “rookie” quarterback next season will be painful, particularly because it means the playoffs aren’t realistic in 2005 either.
If the Bills really feel that they could still make the playoffs this year and if they really feel that Bledsoe gives them the best opportunity to do that they will keep the current course. I don’t believe the playoff premise so I think the change needs to be made (and I own an authentic Bledsoe jersey, so the move will cost me money). I’d rather sacrifice a long shot at the 2004 playoffs for an enhanced shot at the 2005 playoffs.
I’m not here to rain on anyone’s parade. By all means, revel in the recent Bills successes – enjoy it! But don’t lose sight of reality. Don’t lose sight that success this season may not get us what we want and may actually hurt us next year. Don’t be unrealistic about the remainder of the season. Don’t be a Pollyanna – I hate Pollyannas!
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