Return to Relevance – The 2013 Bills

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Updated: August 22, 2013
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Definition of RELEVANCE:
1 – a : relation to the matter at hand
b : practical and especially social applicability : pertinence

If you are a first time reader of the Return to Relevance series, I’ll bring you up to speed faster than Aaron Maybin can be run out of a training camp; relevancy in the NFL is defined as postseason play. By that logic, the Buffalo Bills have not fielded a relevant squad since 1999. The purpose of this column is to compare the 1999 and 2012 squads unit-by-unit, apply reasonable projections to the 2013 roster and determine just how far we have left ahead of us in our effort to return to relevancy.

Over the course of the summer, we’ve examined eight separate units on the team, and I truly thank anyone who has read even one of these columns. We’ve parsed through a lot of personnel and numbers that brought us to one conclusion about the personnel off the field – 1999 General Manager John Butler and his staff did an amazing job not only identifying talent, but forecasting when it was time to acquire and slowly groom replacements. Beyond a keen ability to find the right players, Butler and company had a vision of what a successful organization looked like.

Vision is something that has been utterly absent during the Bills’ 13-year playoff drought. The entire franchise has meandered from one failed philosophy to the next in search of a tangible identity. This year, there is hope among even the most pessimistic fans that change has finally come to One Bills Drive, whose offseason overhaul was so drastic that the organization now features the youngest front office trio in the league. With the season opener less than three weeks away, we’ll find out soon enough if the sun will shine once again on the Queen City, but we do know for certain what the last relevant squad in Bills history looked like, so let’s add up everything we’ve found over the last eight weeks and see if the 2013 Bills are ready for a return to relevance.

Offensive Line:
On paper, while the 1999 offensive line looks to be several tiers above the 2013 incarnation, the numbers tell a different story. Football Outsiders ranked the 2012 Bills 8th and 10th in run and pass blocking, respectively. The battle for the starting left guard position has failed to deliver the high-level competition most were hoping for during training camp, and you can take it to the bank that a Ruben Brown-esque talent isn’t lining up next to Cordy Glenn this year. With Chris Hairston’s health showing little signs of improvement, I’m less bullish on the 2013 offensive line than I was when this series began, but the success this unit enjoyed in 2012 can’t be overshadowed. With head coach Doug Marrone, an offensive lineman by trade, literally getting his hands dirty taking snaps at center during camp, you can bet the Bills coaching staff will squeeze every bit of production possible out of this group. The 1999 crew was known for consistency and continuity while being anchored by a Pro Bowler in Brown. If this year’s line can stay healthy and Eric Wood can approach Brown’s caliber of play, I think we shouldn’t see more than a slight downtick in the offensive line’s performance from 1999 to 2013.

Defensive Line:
The defensive line was the strongest unit on the 1999 team, featuring current, budding and future stars from top to bottom. As Phil Hansen and Bruce Smith were wrapping up their remarkable runs in Buffalo, players like Ted Washington, Marcellus Wiley and Pat Williams were beginning to make their marks on the league. To see such elite talent not only on the field but waiting in the wings as back ups in ’99 and top-tier starters moving forward is staggering. The 2012 team was constructed to rely on their defensive line to dominate games as well, but the unit could not come close to answering the call. The much-maligned Mario Williams, who will be standing up off the line in 2013, registered the most sacks by a Buffalo Bill since 2006 in addition to the 8th most quarterback hurries in the league. Kyle Williams also maintained his elite level of play and has looked like a holy terror through training camp and the preseason to date. Marcell Dareus, beset by family tragedy, was simply not up to the task, however. The team’s highest draft selection since 1985, Dareus took a small step backward after a promising rookie season. Kyle Williams was recently quoted in a gushing piece written by Robert Mays at Grantland as saying in reference to defensive linemen, “Your second or third year — hopefully just your second year — is to prove yourself and solidify your spot, and after that, things tend to slow down. That’s when you make your hay.” I couldn’t help but think of Dareus when reading those comments. If you’re looking for the Buffalo Bill with the most to prove and the most at stake, look no further than Dareus. Alex Carrington looks posied to take the leap we touched on in July, but the overall success of this unit will hinge on Dareus’ maturation. The 2013 defensive line will not live up to the standard set by the ’99 squad, but they don’t need to in order to provide the boost the team will need to return to relevance. Under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s tutelage, this unit should look a lot more like the area of strength fans excepted to see in 2012.

Linebackers:
The individuals in the 1999 linebacking corps gelled at the right time, with second year player Sam Cowart blossoming into a star. Sam Rogers put together the most statisically-complete season of his career, but his sack total lagged and helped contribute to a defense ranked merely 22nd overall in sacks. Still, three of the team’s top four tacklers were found in this unit, serving as the reliable second line of defense an elite unit relies on. The 2013 crew will be asked to provide much more fireworks, with Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes providing the majority of the pass rush alongside Jamie Blatnick, perhaps the most pleasant surprise of training camp. The big unknown will be in the middle, with rookie Kiko Alonso assuming a leadership role and the unproven Nigel Bradham being asked to put out his joint long enough to stuff the run on a weekly basis. Bradham’s potential suspension (no decision had been rendered when this column was written) makes his role even harder to quantify and Arthur Moats is really the only viable back up who could be asked to play that many snaps. It would seem the ’99 and ’13 linebackers offer two completely different skill sets. This year’s crew should be far more effective rushing the passer, but don’t expect such young and untested middle-men to provide the kind of consistency and reliability that the unit hung its hat on in 1999.

Tight Ends
This is the most interesting parallel between 1999 and 2013, because the Bills really haven’t had a pass catching threat to rival Jay Riemersma until Scott Chandler has emerged. Chandler was truly Buffalo’s number two receiver in 2012 and has posted a career-high six touchdown catches in back-to-back seasons, which is no small feat when considering the team ranked 25th in passing yards in 2012. It’s looking increasingly likely that only one of Chris Gragg and Dorin Dickerson will make the team alongside Chandler and blocking tight end Lee Smith. Marrone and Hackett enjoyed working a secondary tight end into the passing game, but Chandler will be the main man in 2013. He is rounding into the steady, reliable target Riemersma was during his six year tenure with the team. He will need to develop a rapport with this year’s quarterback like the one he had with Ryan Fitzpatrick to keep his work volume in place, but the real challenge is whether or not he can maintain his nose for the end zone. With more weapons around him, his touchdowns may decrease, but I think he will stretch the field and move the chains the way you could set your watch by when Riemersma was in town.

Running Backs
As Thurman Thomas watched the clock run out on his career from the sidelines in 1999, his replacements’ performance vascilated wildly. Antowain Smith looked ready to carry the torch entering the season, but injuries and poor play turned him into a wild card from week-to-week. Jonathan Linton led the team in carries, and while neither player set the world on fire, they combined to form a top ten rushing attack. In 2012, the Bills’ backfield housed the best player on the team. CJ Spiller was more than ready to carry the load, even though Chan Gailey wouldn’t allow him to. With veteran support from the likes of Fred Jackson and Tashard Choice, the Bills running backs are poised to push the entire offense toward relevance.

Wide Recievers
The 1999 unit was about as well-rounded of a group as you could ask for. You had your star in Eric Moulds, nearly breaking 1,000 yards receiving, complimented by a should-be Hall of Famer putting up solid number two receiver statistics in Andre Reed. Kevin Williams and Peerless Price, whose careers were moving in completely opposite directions, put up nearly identical statistics, sopping up the free territory provided by their counterparts. For as good as Stevie Johnson was in 2012 (and 2010 and 2011, for that matter), he lacked the supporting cast that Moulds enjoyed. The Bills completely overhauled the receiving corps in 2013, focusing on the speed and potential that youth can bring. While rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin have shown flashes of brilliance all summer, second year receiver TJ Graham has shown no signs of improving upon his inconsequential freshman campaign. The sky is the limit for the 2013 receiving corps, but to expect the top-to-bottom production offered by the 1999 crew would be a reach.

Defensive Backs
During this series, I mentioned that the 1999 Bills earned the highest compliment a defense could ask for; they were boring. The defensive backs were a hallmark of this badge of honor, accumlating the third fewest interceptions in the league while giving up the fewest passing yards. All four starters were drafted by the team and spent at least seven seasons in Buffalo, yielding only 12 passing touchdowns in their ‘99 campaign. The 2012 defensive backs, on the other hand, were a constant source of entertainment for opposing fans. While rookie corner Stephon Gilmore often manned the right side of the field, the Bills pass defense ranked 26th against number one receivers and 29th against number threes. The 2013 squad has shown little signs of hope through the summer, which should have all of us flapping our wings in thanks to Jairus Byrd for re-joining the fold. The Byrd Man’s return may spell the end for overmatched safety Da’Norris Searcy, as converted corner Aaron Williams has shown promise in camp and preseason play. Anchors like Byrd and Gilmore are great building blocks, but with the turnstiles filling out the corner slots in Pettine’s nickle and dime packages, Bills fans will look back on 1999 as a golden age of defensive backs.

Quarterback
Comparing the 1999 quarterbacks to those of any other season is a fool’s errand from a quantitative standpoint. Doug Flutie was able to produce victories that defied all logic while posting mediocre numbers at best. While he led the league in rushing yards among quarterbacks, little else impresses in his statistical profile. We must view the ’99 signal callers from a plural perspective of course, due to the imfamous benching of Flutie for Rob Johnson in the wildcard playoff contest, a game in which Johnson would complete 45 percent of his passes and banish the franchise from the postseason henceforth. Little can be said definitively about the man under center in 2013, as we aren’t quite sure who that will be in Week 1 and beyond. After seemingly losing out to his rookie counterpart in the race for the starting job, Kevin Kolb has been given new life through EJ Manuel’s knee injury. Kolb has been riddled with injuries throughout his career, due to factors beyond his control, like poor offensive lines and malicious athletic mats gunning for his knees. The fact remains, however, that Kolb is a sixth year player with a career yards-per-attempt figure lower than the afforementioned Rob Johnson. EJ Manuel will take the reins as soon as he is healthy enough to do so. He’s flashed his big arm in training camp and read through his progressions quickly in preseason play. Marrone and Hackett will install their playbook as slowly as Manuel needs them to and he will not be asked, or even permitted, to swing for the fences this year. Flutie had a knack for winning that Manuel will have to prove he can replicate, but he has more than enough talent to outperform his predecessor.

The State of the Union
The 1999 and 2013 Bills’ teams are constructed in similar fashions. Both count their defensive front seven as the strength of their team. Both rely on dynamic talent in the backfield to power the offense. Both have the benefit of large, athletic pass-catching tight ends to command attention downfield, and solid offensive line play to hold the unit together.

While I’m willing to say that this year’s squad can count on better play from their running backs, its too much to ask that the defensive lineman outpace the 1999 unit, chock full of Hall-and-Wall of Famers. The two linebacking corps could not be more different in identity, but their mastery of their repsective duties looks like a push. While the ’99 offensive line gets the nod over ’13, the presence of a blocking tight end and an H-back pushes the 2013 tight ends over the edge. EJ Manuel looks capable of leading the offense, but his health and lack of experience leave too many unanswered questions to pass judgment.

My concerns are downfield on both sides of the ball. I’ve been flapping my arms and chirping at strangers since Jairus Byrd signed his franchise tender to the point that I may be committed. He and Stephon Gilmore are terrific building blocks for the secondary, and Aaron Williams looks the part at safety. There simply just isn’t enough depth to fill out the defensive backfieldthough , especially given Mike Pettine’s propensity for nickel and dime coverage. That unit will certainly struggle relative to the 1999 squad.

Wide receiver is another position full of uncertainty. I expressed my concerns about TJ Graham early in the Return to Relevance series, and those concerns have grown to full-blown doubt during his unimpressive and hobbled training camp effort. Asking Robert Woods and Marquie Goodwin to become premier threats right out of the gate is unfair, and you need look no further than the 1999 troika of Reed/Moulds/Price to see how important it is to bring young receivers along slowly with veteran leadership. The need for that sagely presence will likely require Brad Smith to be retained, costing young talents like Chris Hogan, Da’Rick Rogers and Brandon Kauffman a coveted roster spot. There is so much speed and talent in this unit that they can absolutely prove me wrong during the season and I wouldn’t be the slightest bit shocked if they did, but the 1999 corps was so well-constructed that you can’t argue that the team is better off entering 2013.

13 years is a long time to wait for meaningful January football. The 2013 Buffalo Bills are so close to ending this drought that I can almost taste it. They are loaded with potential and led by innovative minds from the front office to the sideline that makes perennial postseason contention no longer a pipe dream. Yet, I just don’t think they’re quite there yet. They don’t have the depth and veteran leadership to fall back on like they did in 1999. For the 2013 Buffalo Bills to return to relevance, everything must go right. It can happen. I just wouldn’t bet on it.

You know what the odd thing is, though? My expectations are lower than they have been in recent years…and yet, I’m completely fine with that. The 1999 Buffalo Bills acheived relevance by constructing the roster with a vision. They attacked the league with a plan and an identity. For the first time in 13 years, I think the Bills have the architects to rebuild a broken franchise. If it doesn’t happen overnight, I’ll be happy to watch the transformation develop.