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Bills are due: How Buffalo can surprise

blog by Nick Mendola  • 

Say, how’d you like to be extra fired up about the first day of Bills rookie training camp?

Ah, a new season’s first day, when we evaluate our beloved and embattled Buffalo Bills in the hopes of uncovering the surprise route beyond respectability. If THIS happens and THAT follows and then Tom Brady puts his throwing hand into a blender set on liquify… maybe Buffalo splits the season series with the Pats and earns itself a wild card berth.

But hold on a minute: this is a Bills team in a weird division of question marks, like New England losing a tight end to injury and another to murder charges, the Jets curious at quarterback and Miami, Miami, maybe being the class of the bunch?

This is a Bills team that came within a TJ Graham brain zap of splitting their six division games last year. Yes, your 2012 Bills were awful as usual thanks to sub-par quarterback play, brain-burning play-calling and a linebacking unit that showed you didn’t have to be invisible to be absent… and they won six games.

For years, we’ve watched playoff games and wondered if all that matters is a quarterback and a defense that can tackle. If wide receivers really are a dime-a-dozen and your dime package isn’t on the field for dozens of plays, well, as we begin training camp and hope springs forth, let’s ask…

Can the Buffalo Bills be this year’s surprise team?

It’s wild, but perhaps not as crazy as you think. What has to go right? What can’t go wrong? Why do we do this to ourselves? The answers to two of those questions are below…

WHAT HAS TO GO RIGHT

1) EJ Manuel has to be a guy, if not THE guy.

With all due respect to Kevin Kolb, your team isn’t the surprise darling story of the league if you’re rolling out a veteran quarterback who has yet to play in more than 9 games in a season and yet to throw double-digit touchdowns in a season.

No, if you want your team to be good, you need a guy. Make no mistake about it, I’m not calling it certain, but EJ Manuel can be that guy. The proliferation of adequate rookie quarterbacks in the NFL can be traced directly to the merging of college football offensive style into the pro game and new head coach Doug Marrone’s system doesn’t appear too unfamiliar to EJ Manuel.

Ryan Fitzpatrick had a Total QB rating (QBR) that ranked 27th in the NFL last season. Rookie or not, Manuel has a legitimate chance to do better than that. Fitz was also 24th in yards-per-attempt and threw the 8th-most interceptions in the league. Could the quarterbacking be worse this season? Of course, but it sure would be a challenge.

2) Jairus Byrd has to sign his franchise-tender.

Make no mistake about it, safety isn’t the world’s most important position. Yet for the Bills secondary to take advantage of what should be a respectable pass rush, they need Byrd.

Forget your position on whether Byrd deserves a long-term contract or safeties are guys who get big green. Byrd is a solid contributor who, paired with promising 2012 first-round corner Stephon Gilmore, could make those 1-2 plays that turn a loss into a win. Of course, all of that’s moot if…

3) The Bills don’t have the worst linebackers in the history of football.

I don’t know if Buffalo has ever seen linebacking as poor as the Bills had in 2012 under Dave Wannstedt. The Bills allowed a remarkable 145.8 yards per game on the ground, largely attributable to poor linebacking play.

How bad is 145.8 yards per game? A running back averaging that figure over 16 games would break Eric Dickerson’s single season rushing record by 227 yards.

Will additions Kiko Alonso, Manny Lawson and Jerry Hughes factor in here? That’s a big question but the new names coupled with a new scheme from a coordinator (Mike Pettine) who hasn’t been associated with a defense outside the NFL’s Top 8 since 2003 is more promising than, oh, I don’t know, the worst ever.

WHAT CANNOT BE WRONG

1) The world can’t be wrong about receivers

If there’s one non-kicking positions considered more replaceable than running back, it’s wide receiver. That’s terrific, because the Bills don’t have much experience beyond Stevie Johnson.

So follow the logic: if it’s all about the quarterback and Manuel is “a guy,” then life is okay with hot prospect Robert Woods and a couple of track stars beyond No. 13. In fact, I can envision one of those late 1980s Costaco Brothers posters that says “Stevie and The Other Guys” with the WR corps dressed as a Huey Lewis and the News-style band, gathered around a pool table with EJ Manuel tending bar. Get after it, marketing wizards.

2) Mario Williams’ health and mindset

The Bills were an above .500 team when Mario Williams registered a sack in 2012 and, perhaps even more significant, allowed just 16.8 points per game in those contests.

Consider they allowed 35.2 points per game when he didn’t tackle a quarterback behind the line of scrimmage on a passing play and you get a more complete picture. When on, Mario Williams is one of the most dynamic athletes in the National Football League. The Bills need him on more this year.

That’s easier said than done. Maybe his wrist was a major issue to start 2012 and maybe it wasn’t right again the rest of the season. Maybe he checked out mentally when the season was cooked. But if Mario Williams is a star, the Bills defensive prospects are much, much brighter.

3) New head coach Doug Marrone has to understand post-Aikman play calling.

Chan Gailey was a nice-enough guy who probably was an adequate if not better practice coach, but in-game my goodness did he cost this team a bundle of points. His hesitance to consider a 50-yard field goal as a legitimate option was enough to cost the Bills at least a game in 2012. His carry-splitting between CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson was mind-numbing and likely cost the Bills more than games.

CONCLUSION

It’s not as simple as a single one of these factors adding in a win. All six of these things working out don’t magically move the Bills from 6-10 to 12-4 (though they could). But take the big ones: if Manuel’s okay, the linebackers are better, Williams is a Pro Bowler and Nathaniel Hackett doesn’t use a Magic 8-Ball to call plays, can you find four more wins?

Jeremy White (pictured, left) talks Bills football nearly every morning from 6 to 10 a.m. on WGR Sports Radio 550 in Buffalo. While he wouldn’t predict the team would be a surprise, he also said there is some logic to support it.

“When the defense was one of the worst in the league and the quarterback, well, the secret was out, they still won 6 games,” said White.

“We’ve been waiting for a long, long time for a quarterback. If EJ Manuel is remotely good, that could win, what, two more games. If the defense isn’t the worst in the league, that could win two more games. Are those the same two games or are those four games? All of the sudden that’s 9-10 wins. Anything’s possible. We’re due for something.”

Would these factors have allowed the Bills to allow one less or score two more points against the Titans last year? Could their three field goal drives against Houston been closer to TD drives? Could they have scored more than 15 points against the Rams at home?

Of course they could have. While no one’s predicting it, considering these factors this late July morning might just put you in a better frame of mind for 2013. Plus, it’s football and White says anything can happen.

“It’s like that scene in ‘The Simpsons’ where Krusty the Clown lost all his money betting on the Washington Generals and said, ‘I thought they were due!’ That’s the Bills right now,” White said. “They’ve gotta be due. They were probably due the year Tom Brady got hurt and they started 4-0 but still lost the division.”

Cheers, Bills fans.

(Photos courtesy of the Buffalo Bills’ Facebook page—see all the photos here. Jeremy White photo courtesy of his Twitter account).

TAGGED: buffalo bills, ej manuel, jeremy white, mario williams, nfl, nick mendola, training camp

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