In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. So far we've featured the Falcons, Cardinals and Ravens.
Are you feeling optimistic about the Bills? That must mean it is May, the team is coming off yet another encouraging draft and free-agency period and the future is full of potential …
Whoops, it is June. Marcell Dareus is making news like a 300-pound Lindsey Lohan, Jon Bon Jovi is threatening to do something worse than play his New Jersey album in its entirety and "hopeful season" in Western New York is shorter than ever these days. Still, there is enough young talent and new coaching ideas to generate a little enthusiasm, at least among those who have not figured out that the Bills' biggest problem is that they are always relying on young talent and new coaching ideas.
Biggest Offseason Move: Shifting from the Steve Johnson era to the Sammy Watkins era
Even at his best, Steve Johnson was an off-brand, down-market version of the superstar diva wide receiver, a Dez Bryant or Terrell Owens made from non-warranty parts. He ate up terrible coverage and responded well to what passes for the spotlight in Buffalo (he gave Darrelle Revis headaches), but his concentration clouded up in ordinary, meaningless games, which unfortunately make up three-fourths of a typical Bills season.
Last year, Johnson proved to be the worst go-to receiver a team with a rookie quarterback and several novice backups could ask for. Johnson batted two catchable EJ Manuel passes into the air so they could become interceptions, and he reacted to any pass that was not perfectly thrown (Manuel tends to throw behind receivers) as if he were tossed glowing charcoal. But Johnson's experience and pure talent made him a passing-game focal point, so he was targeted 101 times, catching just 52 passes and grading out a the second-worst receiver in the NFL with over 100 targets, according to Football Outsiders (poor Cecil Shorts edged him out).
Rookie Sammy Watkins, the best receiver prospect in the best receiver class since 1996, replaces Johnson. Watkins is a great "bad-ball" receiver, having caught passes from Tajh Boyd, who sprays his short throws. Watkins made a college career of reaching back, up or down for passes Johnson would set up for a volleyball spike, then turning them into productive gains.
Watkins also breaks tackles better than any wide receiver prospect in years, making him a natural choice for wide receiver screens. Coach Doug Marrone would like wideout screens to play a greater role in his no-huddle offense, but his wide receivers managed just 10 yards on nine screens last season. Johnson did his part by dropping one screen and getting dumped for a loss on two others. Watkins will have a similar impact to Cordarrelle Patterson, the Vikings' tackle-breaking rookie receiver who generated several big plays all by himself last season.
For all of his gifts, Watkins remains a rookie, so Manuel and Marrone will rely heavily on Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, a pair of second-year receivers with natural possession (Woods) and burner (Goodwin) chops, plus veteran newcomer Mike Williams from the Buccaneers, tight ends Scott Chandler and Tony Moeaki, and others. The Bills now have the deepest young receiving corps in the conference, and with Johnson gone, the youngsters won't be standing around waiting for someone else to make plays.
So maybe this is not the "Sammy Watkins" era, but the Manuel or Marrone era. Call it what you like: It should be different. And better.
Biggest Gamble: Changing defensive philosophies (again)
You can almost picture the conversation in Bills headquarters when new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz met Marcell Dareus for the first time.
SCHWARTZ: Marcell, I need you to play the Ndamukong Suh role in my system.
DAREUS: Right away coach! Let me grab my racing helmet and go completely insane!
OK, that probably did not happen. And the Bills had no choice about changing coordinators: The Browns made Mike Pettine an offer he could not refuse, unless perhaps he looked at the Browns head coaching history. Schwartz had trouble keeping the doors of Detroit's Arkham Asylum locked, and his late-game strategizing (let's call a fake field goal with our rookie holder against the Steelers on the road in the rain!) left something to be desired. But his defensive front sevens were always legitimately frightening, and he inherits one of the best front sevens in the NFL: Dareus, Kyle Williams, Mario Williams, Kiko Alonso and others.
Here's the problem: The Bills have spent half a decade shifting from 3-4 to 4-3 defenses, with every stop in between, and each shift sets the team back to square one. When George Edwards replaced Perry Fewell in 2010, he shifted from 4-3 to 3-4. The defense dropped from 16th in the NFL to 28th, allowing a whopping 2,714 rushing yards as defenders blew assignment after assignment. Dave Wannstedt took over an implemented an old-fashioned 4-3, which would have been a sound strategy if the team had not spent two seasons stockpiling 3-4 system fits. Pettine brought Rex Ryan-scented multiplicity and creativity in 2013, and the defense took a big leap forward, just in time for Schwartz to show up with another old-fashioned 4-3.
Schwartz promises to be more multiple than he was in Detroit, but all coordinators say that before doing exactly what they have always done (it comes right after promising that the defense will be more "aggressive and attacking"). The Bills rushed three defenders on seven percent of passing plays last year, five defenders (a small blitz) on 26 percent and six or more (big blitz) against seven percent of pass plays. That's a truly multiple defense, and opponents never knew what was coming. The Lions rushed three defenders just four times all year (Hail Mary situations), five defenders just 13 percent of the time and six or more six percent of the time. That left Schwartz's Lions rushing just their front four 80 percent of the time, the exact opposite of multiple and unpredictable.
Schwartz is a well-regarded defensive coach; so are Fewell, Edwards, Wannstedt and Pettine. The Bills need continuity more than they need another cook in the kitchen. It would be a shame for the team to give back all of its 2013 defensive gains, though it would be nothing we have not seen before.
Biggest Question: Jon Bon Jovi? Seriously?
Could everyone's favorite Patriots wannabes be purchased by everyone's favorite Bruce Springsteen wannabe? Is Bon Jovi serious about moving the Bills to Toronto, and if so, what is next: Geddy Lee buying a team and moving it to Seaside Heights?
It is hard to tell just how serious the "Bon Jovi Bills" bid is, but here is what is certain: Mary Wilson will soon sell the Bills. According to reports, everyone who has expressed interest in the Bills wants to move them out of Buffalo. A new stadium might change a potential owner's mind, but if Buffalo were the type of city that could afford a new stadium to attract a football team, then it would not need to build a new stadium to attract a football team.
Ownership changes sometimes go smoothly. Other times … the Jaguars and Browns are each in year three of just trying to chart a course forward, the Rams have not had a winning season in the Stan Kroenke era and the transfer of power to Al Davis' children was not particularly smooth in Oakland (coach Hue Jackson, you may recall, used the transition to get weird and Shakespearean). Lots of stuff goes on behind the scenes during an ownership transfer, and that's before you stir a likely franchise move into the mix.
New capital and new ideas will ultimately help the Bills, and as loyal as Western New York fans have been, a change of scenery could do a world of good in the long term. But in the short term, new ownership will bring transition and reconstruction to a franchise that has experienced nothing but that in the last decade.
At least the Bon Jovi rumors have prompted Western New York bars to boycott his music. Some good can come of just about anything.
Doug Marrone will give Chip Kelly an up-tempo run for his money. The Bills were the second fastest offensive team in the NFL last season, according to Football Outsiders, behind the Eagles but ahead of the Patriots and Broncos. The Eagles used a no-huddle offense 68 percent of the time, the Bills just 31 percent, but Marrone was coping with a rookie quarterback (who missed much of training camp) and two backups off the waiver wire, so he could not unveil his full system. Mix high-speed tactics with some of the NFL's most exciting skill-position talent, and the Bills have the potential to put up some eye-popping offensive numbers.