Sports on Earth's NFL writers will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most important problems facing every franchise and proposing solutions for each. Our series kicked off with the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings. Today it's the Buffalo Bills.
The Bills have an exciting nucleus of young players, some cap space to work with, and only one high-priority in-house free agent to settle up with. But they are also a team on a decade-long treadmill of losing seasons, and they just lost their most promising young coordinator to Jimmy Haslam's Truckstop Empire and Flying Circus. Building on last year's defensive success will be tricky when the architect of that success is now taking orders from (insert name of Browns general manager here), and if EJ Manuel's season of injuries grows into EJ Manuel's ill-fated career of injuries, the Bills could find themselves back at square one again in a year or two. Staying the course under such circumstances can be tricky, but head coach Doug Marrone is an innovator, the youngsters have real potential, and undoing a decade of damage takes more than one year behind a gimpy rookie quarterback.
Problem: The Bills lost defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to the Browns.
Solution: The flexible (flexible?) Jim Schwartz
Great news, Bills fans! Jim Schwartz plans to install an attacking defense! How novel! Every other defensive coordinator in the NFL executes a passive, unresponsive, submissive defensive, so the Bills are guaranteed to have a leg up.
Seriously, I plan to market T-shirts that say "We will install an attacking defense" that defensive coordinators can wear to their introductory press conferences. (Offensive coordinators will have their choice of "We will be balanced, but unpredictable," and "We will establish the run.") But Schwartz did hint that he had no plan to completely scrap Pettine's Rex Ryan-flavored hybrid 4-3 system in favor of his Lions-style conservative-blitzing 4-3. "I don't know if you can put it in a box like that, we've never put a label on it," Schwartz said of his system in January. "Whatever anybody wants to tag the system as far as a name, it won't be us."
Schwartz is the fifth Bills defensive coordinator of the last six seasons, and the Bills have ping-ponged between 3-4 and 4-3 fronts with just about every new hire. The 3-4 and 4-3 labels are oversimplifications nowadays, but Bills coordinators tend to use extreme versions of each tactical school. George Edwards' traditional 3-4, with blitzing outside linebackers, gave way to Dave Wannstedt's 1990s-style 4-3, which begot Pettine's kitchen sink scheme, which begets Schwartz, another 4-3 traditionalist.
As a result of all the back-and-forth change, the Bills defense had a hard time developing any year-to-year continuity or traction. Sometimes, there were disasters: The 2010 run defense collapsed as defenders blew basic assignments while trying to adjust from Dick Jauron (the kind of guy who buys a new stereo and sets all the graphic equalizer sliders smack in the middle) to the more free-wheeling Edwards. Last season, the transition was outstanding, partly because Pettine has a front for every personnel group and a personnel group for every front. Another schematic change in Buffalo, just as everyone looked comfortable in his role, is just another darn thing that could go wrong.
"As much as you want to be multi-dimensional with personnel groups, this league comes down to one-on-one, and I think we have some guys that can do that," Schwartz also said, suggesting that he is not ready to start dropping three linemen into coverage while blitzing his secondary anytime soon. Defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus are as good as the players Schwartz left behind in Detroit; they can be the driving force behind any successful defense. What Schwartz does with Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes is more critical. Both need space to operate, and lining them up as Wide-9 defensive ends on snap after snap is a bad idea. (If you want to make Schwartz' head explode, bring up the Wide-9 in a press conference and make it clear you only have a rudimentary understanding of what you are talking about.) Schwartz knows this, and he knows he inherited a defense that is not really broken. He should not try to fix it.
Problem: Inexperience and injury concerns at quarterback.
Solution: Teach EJ how to Dougie.
EJ Manuel threw just 33 passes in the preseason, missed much of training camp, then was sidelined twice during the season with knee injuries (one to each). He had surgery to clean out some ligaments from his left knee in late January and plans to be a full offseason participant.
Manuel now wears the "injury prone" tag, inappropriately. If the Robert Griffin saga taught us anything, it's that there's a reason quarterbacks like Tom Brady insist on participating as fully as is reasonable in training camp and preseason, instead of spending August surrounded by pillows on a golf course. Those reps are important to the quarterback's timing, mechanics and health. Manuel's timing never clicked last year, and out-of-tune mechanics can lead to lingering injuries. Manuel also had a habit of putting himself in harm's way when scrambling, a problem that will be partially solved when he gains experience.
There's a "draft a contingency plan" movement in Buffalo right now, and it is exactly incorrect. Instead of bringing in a challenger to split reps, the Bills must give Manuel as many reps as possible, from minicamp through the preseason. We only saw the fractions of Doug Marrone's offense that Manuel and his backups (Jeff Tuel, Thad Lewis, Matt Flynn, Todd Collins, Joe Dufek, Ethel from Human Resources) were comfortable with. What we saw was intriguing: an offensive pace second only to Chip Kelly's, a wide variety of formations and concepts. It's not the kind of system that can be executed well with no experience and little training. (Then again, there are few systems like that.) Manuel showed enough promise, under the circumstances, to be given a full season at the reins.
Problem: The need for more speed, and a tight end.
Solution: Eric Ebron.
Scott Chandler is a free agent, and while he could be a dangerous receiver over the middle at times, the Bills can do better. Marrone is assembling one of the fastest offenses in the NFL, with C.J. Spiller and Marquise Goodwin among the fastest players in the league at their positions. Steve Johnson, Fred Jackson, Robert Woods, and Manuel are not exactly slowpokes, either.
Ebron can make the Bills even faster. He's a 6-foot-4 glider who races down the seam, can smoothly break into post and corner routes and can haul in the over-the-shoulder catch. As a blocker, Ebron is a big wide receiver, but Marrone is not trying to pound the football between the hashmarks. Ebron will help keep the defense on its heels. Line up Ebron in the slot with Johnson, Woods and Goodwin, threaten the read-option with Manuel, and hand off to Spiller or Jackson 20 times per game. There's 100 rushing yards right there, and when the defense cheats to stop the run, whammo.
Problem: Nine years without a winning season.
Solution: Don't dwell on those nine years without a winning season.
The Bills have not made the playoffs since 1999. There is essentially no one on the roster with any playoff experience. There are fringe veterans like Jim Leonhard (a free agent likely to depart) and Kevin Kolb (a backup who didn't play when his Philadelphia teams made it to the playoffs, and who may yet get cut), but there is no core player who can point to genuine postseason experience. In fact, there are few players on the roster who have experienced anything more successful than a Bills-style 7-9 season, the kind that begins with some promising victories but ends with 49-21 losses to the Patriots.
That's right, the Bills have a dreaded "culture of losing" problem! The "locker room culture" issue can often be written off as magical sportswriter thinking, but the Bills have a young team with no players who can act as role models for the process of sustaining success (conditioning, preparation, expectation management, lifestyle management, whatever) through an entire season and into the playoffs. Marrone only has a little bit of experience from his days as a Saints assistant. And if Schwartz had any great ideas about keeping a team focused, motivated, and resilient through 16 games, he would not be in Buffalo right now.
The temptation here is to scream "grab guys with rings!" The Bills can certainly do that. They have some cap space ($19 million or so; they are still munching on Ryan Fitzpatrick dead money, which limits their cash flow), and the Seahawks, Ravens and Giants each have several former champions on their free agent lists that they cannot afford to keep. So why shouldn't the Bills sign Justin Tuck and Corey Graham, assign them to the locker room lecture circuit, and enjoy their on-field talents as a bonus?
Well, what happens at your office when an outside consultant is brought in, at considerable expense, to tell you how to do your job better? Does your heart burst from your chest with newfound inspiration, or do you half-listen with a mix of suspicion and resentment? Granted, you are a model employee and go-getter, so you take the advice seriously. What about the rest of the gang in the break room? Also, did you ever wonder why the Speaker for Success is not succeeding at some other field? Do you think young players may wonder why the Win at All Costs message is coming from someone who chose to come to Buffalo?
The Bills must change their losing culture organically. That means no high-priced motivational-speaker veterans, no "keep chopping wood" demonstrations with real hatchet props in the locker room and no team-building bowling trips. Actually, the bowling trips are fine, but they won't accomplish much. Marrone and his staff must emphasize that this is not year nine or 14 of futility, but year two of Marrone's tenure, year 1.5 of Manuel's career, the start of a new era, and so on. The Bills are young enough to be a blank slate, and flooding the roster with veterans is likely to send the wrong message while clogging the depth charts with rental players.
That extra cap space should not be spent on Super Bowl consultants, Jairus Byrd and any other in-house free agents Marrone and Schwartz prioritize. (Leonhard, perhaps.) The Bills also need a punter -- that's not the kind of thing to spend a whole segment talking about -- and can splurge on a Zoltan Mesko-type to prevent special teams from becoming a problem. Come to think of it, Mesko spent a few years in New England; maybe he knows a thing or two about winning...