It’s gut check time, Buffalo Bills fans. The preseason is over and now we march on to the regular season. The final roster cuts come in on Saturday as the Bills get to the final 53 and from there it’s looking forward to the matchup against New England. So far this preseason the injuries and questions around the team have created enough paranoia to put some of the Bills Mafia into mental wards. Now let’s reflect back on the preseason and look forward to the regular season.
The good- Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel looked really good and probably won the starting job after the first preseason game. He will surely be the starter once he is declared fully healthy and hope to discard the stigma of being over-drafted. He looked like a natural fit into new head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s offense. The offense will certainly help out running back CJ Spiller get a Pro Bowl spot as it is primarily dedicated to getting him the ball.
The bad- The cornerbacks looked shaky outside of second year man Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore in this new defense is taking a Darrelle Revis type role and has shown a lot in regards to technique development that could propel him into a top ten corner in the NFL. The problem is that the players behind him have either been hurt or inconsistent. Leodis McKelvin, who was resigned to be the second corner, has been injured much of the preseason and camp and will now be forced into the number ones role for the immediate future. Ron Brooks created a fumble, but also gave up a touchdown and Crezdon Butler has looked solid in game, but lost in camp. The question for the outside is worrisome, but could be schemed around especially with Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd back in the mix, and the nice transition Aaron Williams has made from corner to safety.
The ugly- Injuries have taken the top two players out for some period of time. Manuel may not play in week one and cornerback Stephon Gilmore is out for at least the first five games of the year. Manuel’s knee and Kevin Kolb’s concussion have left the Bills scrambling for quarterback help and they have gone off by signing castoff Matt Leinart and promoting the undrafted Jeff Tuel to starter. Manuel may make it back for week one, which is good. Though the key mindset for fans is that losing a battle (game) to win a war (season) is not a bad thing. Manuel’s health is paramount in turning this franchise around; risking him against the Patriots may not be such a good thing.
However, Gilmore’s injury is more of a concern as now defensive coordinator Mike Pettine needs to change his blitz calling. He won’t be able to call as many blitzes and not bring guys from different areas now that his shut down corner is gone. If McKelvin actually starts playing to his first round ability then the Bills defense doesn’t need to change much. If it becomes clear that he can’t hold down the fort and needs help, then it could be a rough start to the season.
Bright spot- Outside of keeping the starters in the game for too long in the third preseason game, new head coach Doug Marrone and staff have shown an attitude, which is a good thing. After the indifference along the sidelines from Chan Gailey and Dick Jauron, Marrone shows fire and smarts. We didn’t see much adjustment from him on offense, and the defense became more vanilla as the preseason wore on, but there was still a sense of attack from the team and units. He showed a willingness to play guys out, push them through and make them compete. It backfired on him a bit, but he’s a rookie head coach that will know better next year. In the meantime he looks like a coach willing to take on Bill Belichick and not be intimidated. Coaches with bravado are typically the ones that win the most.
I like the direction the Bills are going. Do I like the idea of suffering through another 6-10 season? No, but I don’t mind seeing improvement on offense and defense knowing it’s close to being the turnaround needed for sustaining success. Showing tenacity and aggression that good teams carry. A positive swagger carried by the players knowing they are either one play, or player, away from turning around a disappointing franchise.
Marrone learned from Sean Payton in New Orleans that once your quarterback situation is settled, then all it takes are the right breaks and you’re in the playoffs one year, and hoisting the Lombardi trophy the next.