Editor’s Note: Almost immediately following its official inception during the first week of August, the #BillsMafia movement has had followers naming/renaming their Twitter handles using the term “Bills Mafia.” One of the first to do so was @BillsMafiaDon, the self-appointed “Don” of the movement. An active, vocal member of the #BillsMafia community, @BillsMafiaDon has been offered the opportunity to blog here at BillsMafia.com in a special weekly column.
Guess who’s back Bills Mafia? Do you care? I hope so. I know it’s been a while since you all have heard from me, but sometimes life gets in the way of the pleasures we enjoy. While I love reaching out to you all, and expressing my feelings for you to read, I have been dealing with quite a bit on the home front that has prevented me from doing what I love to do most, and that is to write. I’m sure I am a bit rusty, but I will give it my best. So much has happened since the last time I wrote one of these for the website, so I’m hoping to at least touch on some of those events that have taken place.
Firstly, I have yet to be able to express my disappointment from this past season. We were all on quite a high, were we not? Things were looking great for us, and the confidence level amongst the Bills Mafia was something like I have never experienced before. By now, many of us have gotten used to the way our fanbase has been expected to act. In the past decade or so, we have all become accustomed to the negativity, the jokes, and the outrage, but Bills Mafia has brought a new element to the table, and this element of confidence is here to stay. Unfortunately however, confidence will only get you so far, and just as they did in 2008, our Bills had an epic collapse to close out the 2011 season. The elements to this years collapse have been talked about over and over again, so I will not go into too much detail, but rather share a few of my personal feelings regarding the positives and negatives from this past season.
Year 2 of the Nix-Gailey regime was better than the first, but that isn’t saying much after a year in which your team is drafting in the top 5. At the start of the year, we looked to be a very productive offense, as Ryan Fitzpatrick and crew were putting up points in bunches, and for the first time in a long time, I actually had confidence that we were going to score when our offense hit the field. For the younger fans who may not remember, during this playoff drought we have been experiencing the past 12 years, there have been times where our offense was a lock to go 3 and out, regardless of the players on the field, or the opponent. If there is one thing I have learned this past season, it’s this: Chan Gailey’s offense works. That is, when his team is healthy.
Under the tutelage of Chan Gailey, our offense made great strides in the 2011 season. In just one year, our total offensive ranking jumped from 25th to 14th. The emergence of the passing game has certainly helped this ascension, but let’s not forget about the ground game, as it appears we may be going into the 2012 season with one of the best backfield tandems in the game. Fred Jackson, before his season was ended prematurely due to injury, was putting up MVP like numbers, and despite missing 6 games, was still 12th in the league in yards after catch! Even more encouraging, was what we saw out of CJ Spiller in his absence. Having two solid backs of this caliber can be problematic to a degree, but if you ask me, it’s a great problem to have.
Another area of improvement has been on the offensive line. Ryan Fitzpatrick finished the 2011 season as one of the least sacked, hurried, and hit QBs in the league. While this can be attributed to the fact that Chan Gailey’s system is designed to get the ball out of the QB’s hands quickly, it’s definitely a positive sign that our OL is starting to solidify. Despite the fact that our starting center was hurt, and arguably our best offensive lineman playing out of position for a good portion of the year (Levitre), the Bills still did a great job of piecing together a solid front, although some issues persisted once Eric Wood hit IR. For our OL, things seem to be looking up, but as I will address in the next section, depth was an issue for this unit (and others).
I think it’s pretty obvious what the negatives to this team are, but if you ask me, the greatest issue we have is a lack of depth (aside from pass rush). This was proven to be the case in 2011 as injuries piled up in bunches once again for our Buffalo Bills. I address this issue first because I feel it’s the underlying issue to many of the problems we faced in the 2011 season. While injuries are never an excuse as to why the mission could not be accomplished, they certainly are a REASON why we declined as much as we did last year. The list of our injured guys last year is a who’s-who of the Bills Mafia, most notably Kyle Williams, Eric Wood, and Fred Jackson. That being said, the front office will need to do a better job of having the depth needed to overcome the injuries should they take place.
The other negative aspect of this team I want to address before I move on to my free agency preview is our pass rush. Surprised? I thought so. I don’t really have to say too much about this issue, because we are all aware of just how bad our pass rush is. To put things into perspective, about a third of the sacks we accumulated in 2011 occurred in 1 game, as we totaled 10 sacks against the Washington Redskins. In the other 15 games last season, the Bills only totaled 19 sacks, which is less than Jared Allen and Demarcus Ware had INDIVIDUALLY.
Enough about the past though, let’s look ahead to the 2012 offseason, shall we?
Free Agency 2012
Free agency is just around the corner, and unlike previous years, it’s already off to a pretty solid start for our Buffalo Bills. For once we have made an effort to retain our own, as Steve Johnson and Scott Chandler, two very important pieces to this offense, will return to the Buffalo Bills for the 2012 season and beyond. Also, news of Kirk Morrison re-signing with the team broke earlier today, marking another solid move by the suits at One Bills Drive. One thing we can’t overlook when it comes to these signings, is that for once, it seems that players are buying into what the staff is preaching, and players finally WANT to be in Buffalo. That in itself, is a great feeling.
While some of you out there may hold the opinion that Steve is a bit overrated, I would have to respectfully disagree. Steve Johnson is a key element to the rebuilding of this franchise, and his chemistry with Fitz cannot be understated. The returns of Steve Johnson (first Buffalo Bill EVER to have back to back 1,000 yard seasons) and Scott Chandler (who tied a Buffalo Bills season record for TDs by a TE) have set the tone for the 2012 Buffalo Bills offseason, specifically on the offensive side of the ball. Not only are these signings good for the team (as well as the Morrison signing), but they’re great for the fan base. A restoration of confidence is never a bad thing, regardless of what the cynics may say about our organization’s desire to get better (or lack there of).
If you ask me, the 2012 free agency period will be a bit different for the Bills. I say this because I have learned that for the most part, Buddy Nix has been a man of his word, and he has promised on a few occasions that the Bills will be aggressive throughout free agency. I’m going to briefly go position by position in the areas of need/desire that we could possibly address this free agency period.
WR – Retaining Steve was huge, but we definitely are not done addressing this position. Now, it’s time to find him a running mate. While I do believe in the guys we have at the WR position for the most part, we still lack depth. With guys like Donald Jones and David Nelson in the mix, the Bills could be a formidable passing attack if they add another threat on the outside to compliment #13. I don’t want people to get me wrong, and assume that I don’t have faith in the guys we have, because I do, but we have to look at things in proper perspective, especially after we saw what happened to our offense once guys started to get banged up. There is no question how much of a passing league the NFL is becoming (or has become), and if you look at some of the more successful teams in the NFL, one thing they all have in common is their ability to move the ball through the air. Most of these teams also have solid receiving tandems, most notably the two Super Bowl teams, and their tandems of Hakeem Nicks/Victor Cruz and Rob Gronkowski/Wes Welker.
With all that being said, I don’t think the Bills will be players in the Vincent Jackson sweepstakes. As much as I wish it would happen, I believe that Jackson’s financial demands will be too much for the Bills to meet, even given the fact that we have a boatload of cap room to work with. Just because we have the room however, does not mean that we will use it all, and spending all the way to the ceiling is not something that would be wise for our front office. One thing we certainly do not want to do, is handcuff our finances for the future. Adding Vincent Jackson would tie up over 20-million in monies at just one position per year.
More realistic free agency options in my opinion would be guys in the second tier, such as Mario Manningham, Early Doucet, Robert Meachem, and others. I don’t expect a guy like Colston or Jackson to join the Bills Mafia, but that doesn’t mean I’m not hoping for a miracle, and it certainly doesn’t mean I won’t be partaking in the recruitment of VJ. If the Bills are unable to adequately address WR during free agency, it will certainly be a position addressed come April’s draft. I will address the receivers in this years draft in due time, when I provide you with my pre-draft analysis in mid-April.
OL – As I said before, one of the biggest problems we had this year was the lack of depth on the offensive line. With Demetrius Bell’s status in the air, the Bills will try to add depth to the interior of our line, as well as the tackle positions. I am not ruling out the possibility of us drafting a tackle at #10 this year, but I still believe it’s unlikely to occur. If you ask me, the Bills will try to re-sign Bell, and if they can’t get a reasonable deal done, they will find their tackle solution between rounds 2-5, or will get a solid veteran in free agency.
LB- With a switch back to the 4-3, the Bills resigned Kirk Morrison to a two year deal, teaming him up with Nick Barnett and Kelvin Sheppard. It appears that Buffalo has a tentative starting LB corp of Morrison (Sam), Sheppard (Mike), and Barnett (Will). The Bills now seem to have a pretty solid starting LB unit, and they have decent backups to provide depth. That being said, I still believe the Bills will address this position, but most likely in the draft, and not in free agency.
DE- This one is huge guys, and there is one HUGE name out there that could help us out tremendously. We all know who that man is: Super Mario. While I’m not one to have unrealistic expectations, I do think making a run at Williams is quite possible. With our need for great improvement when it comes to our pass rush, Williams would instantly make our front a force to be reckoned with. Could you imagine Super Mario along the line with Dareus and Kyle? That being said though… Please Bills Mafia, let’s not come to expect this. It’s one thing to desire, but it’s another to expect, and expectation of a move like this is a prime way for the negativity to emerge once again, fueled by disappointment. DE is a position that will be addressed, there’s no doubt about that. In fact, I wouldn’t doubt that we add 3 DEs between now and the start of camp.
CB- When it comes to our secondary, there is no question that it could use some work, but it’s not as bad as some people may think. The restructuring of McGee’s contract has provided the Bills with some much needed options. McGee’s new deal will free up money for Buffalo, but McGee will be able to earn his money if he stays healthy and produces. Aside from McGee, the Bills have some promise with Aaron Williams, Justin Rogers, and Drayton Florence in the mix. When it comes to McKelvin, I have seen many suggest that the Bills may get rid of Leodis. I do not see this happening, simply due to the fact that if they did decide to cut him, the team wouldn’t be saving all that much money in cap space. The only way I see #21 depart is by trade. In the end though, I believe he will remain on this roster simply for the fact that McKelvin can be extremely dangerous in the return game, and with the appearance that Roscoe will not be back in 2012, a return man of McKelvin’s caliber will be much needed, although Rogers finished the 2011 season strong in this aspect.
If you ask me, one reason our secondary was thrown all over last year was due to our inadequate pass rush. A pass rush and coverage ability go hand in hand. If you have a formidable pass rush, you’re going to force the quarterback into making quick decisions, and ultimately on occasion, some critical mistakes. The same goes for our secondary though, as great coverage can lead to sacks. I see the Bills addressing corner in free agency, and if they don’t, they will address the position come late April.
Before free agency kicks off, I just want to provide the Bills Mafia with a few words of wisdom. Whether you choose to accept my words is up to you. Firstly, I want to start off by saying that we should trust what this front office is going to do this offseason. While we may not always be the flashiest team when it comes to making a splash in free agency, rest assured that Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey have a plan for our Buffalo Bills. It may be hard to see through the fog, but we are improving in many aspects, but we still have a long way to go. Patience is a virtue, and we need to trust that these guys know what they are doing. For once, I believe we have a GM/HC tandem that is out for the best interest of the fans, and the organization as a whole.
Don’t get discouraged if the guy you want isn’t the guy we get. There are reasons to every move that is being made, and one sign that we are on the right track is the simple fact that guys who have worked in this system, with this staff, have a great desire to return. The chemistry in our locker room right now is something I have not seen in quite some time, and it’s a very good thing to see all of these players embrace the system, embrace the staff, and most of all, embrace #BillsMafia.
I will leave you with one more idea, and you can choose to agree, or disagree: You have the right to your own opinion. All I want to say is, the dog with the loudest bark does not always have the most vicious of bites. If you take a look at many of the successful teams around the league, there aren’t very many of them who are signing the biggest names on the market. The Eagles broke the bank to assemble an All-Star team in 2011, and that did not get them any farther than the team they fielded the previous year. The Miami Dolphins went on a spending spree when they brought in Brandon Marshall and Karlos Dansby, yet they aren’t in any better position than we are at the moment (assuming they don’t land Peyton Manning). The key to improvement isn’t always about finding the biggest names in free agency, but rather, about finding the right guys for your system, and drafting successfully in the process. Like Steve said, we have guys turning that corner. Now it’s time to complete the turn, and cruise our way back to the playoffs.
Sean Corleone aka @BillsMafiaDon
PS: STAY OUT OF THE AFC EAST PEYTON!!!!!