Nick Barnett and George Wilson

The once-feared-then-scoffed-now-intriguing Buffalo Bills continue to garner national attention as we have now passed the three eighths pole of the NFL season. (I made that one up. No one says “3/8 pole”, but everyone and their mother used the phrase “quarter pole” recently … to my knowledge, there are *no poles*.)

What many want to know is, Can this last? Won’t this Bills team just fold like every other one we have known for the last couple decades???

And, since no one can know the future, I should stop right now. But, since that would be no fun (AND, since I do have a few nuggets of Bills info for you to chew on…)

Let’s have a quick look at this team, shall we?

Why The Bills ARE That Good

Chan Gailey
It starts at the top. It truly does. You’ll see in the paragraphs to follow that there are other pieces to the Bills puzzle coming together, but Chan Gailey has been the perfect choice for turning around the Buffalo Bills franchise. (See Buffalo News columnist, Jerry Sulivan’s article that elaborates on this topic.)

Gailey has instilled in his team a fire to prove that they are each as good, as talented as the “household names” in the NFL. He’s taken a group of undrafted free agents, or very late-round draft picks and they are producing like first round picks. It’s not that they don’t have talent, but they do have the attitude. They believe they are that good, that they can beat anyone in the league, and they play like it.

Gailey is also well-respected in the NFL as a great offensive minded coach. The Bills production this year backs that up. In just the second year in this system, career backup QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is among the leaders in several QB stat columns, undrafted free agent Fred Jackson was (before their bye) the 2nd leading rusher by just a few yards (and that doesn’t take into account all the yards—and points—he generates in the receiving column, and 7th-round pick Stevie Johnson is still making the plays that move the ball and put points on the scoreboard.

There should be tons of credit given to Chan Gailey for all the Bills have been doing this 2011 season.

Fred Jackson
I mentioned it before here (as well as above), but it bears repeating: as Fred Jackson goes, so go the Buffalo Bills. He might still be “under the radar”, as they say, but Jackson is the key to this Bills team, and their success.

He’s been at the top of the leading rushers list since week one, but it’s not just the stats that matter. Sure yards are nice, but Jackson (and his ability to see where the hole is as the play is developing, as well as his far-above-average ability to avoid/shed tackles) keeps the Bills offense on the field with first downs, and has been a big factor in the high-scoring, productive offense for these 2011 Bills, including as a receiver.

Checking the stats to confirm, Jackson is actually the #1 rusher as far as yards/game (which is important while still in the “byes” part of the schedule, with some players having played more games). Add to his 100.2 yds/game on the ground the 46.5 yds/game in the air, and clearly, Jackson has a big impact on the Bills. In fact, in those two games the Bills have lost (by a total of 6 points combined) Jackson was much less of a factor. Minus the 80-yard TD in the Giants game (which, was fantastic, if I do say so my Bills-fan-self…) Jackson had 98 total yards vs Cincy, and 88 versus the Giants. That’s an average of 93 yards/game, much less than his near 150 yards/game otherwise. (And they still only lost by three points …)

Add to all that his value as a leader on the offense, and for the whole team, and the Bills definitely have a “winner” in Fred Jackson.

A Few More Reasons
There really are quite a few, but just a couple quick highlights:

  • Fitz: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is set to cash in on his gutsy, risk-taking (and goal accomplishing) performance over the past year or so as the Bills starting QB. Rumor has it that even by this weekend’s game vs the Redskins, Fitz will finally be paid accordingly. There’s no doubt that his consistent performance on the field, as well as his leadership on and off the field are a huge part of the turnaround of this team’s play, as well as their overall attitude.
  • O-Line: A big part of Fitz’ success is the very underrated o-line in front of him. Before the Giants got to him for 3 sacks in one game, Fitz had only been sacked three total times in 5 games! His quick decision making should be credited for that, but the o-line deserves even more. They are giving him time in the passing game, and giving Jackson huge holes in the running game. They are all really young guys (AND, there have been several injuries already this year, forcing even younger backups into starting/important roles they weren’t expecting) and they have performed admirably individually, but even more admirably as a unit. Presuming the Giants game pressure was a combination of good play by them, cumulative effect of injuries, and even just a one-game aberration, the o-line should start to garner more of the credit they deserve as the season progresses.
  • Generating Takeaways: Much has been said about the Bills porous defense this season, and it all should be said. (See below, too.) But one thing that hasn’t been mentioned much is that their league-leading 16 takeaways are very much a result of their own effort (more than a lapse of concentration or error by the offense). Film study of their opponents, as well as keen on-field concentration and big-play ability and execution account for nearly all of the takeaways by this Bills defense. It’s not just (all) luck. You’ll take the good bounces, the deflections, etc. But when you watch the games you’ll see that nearly all of those “bounces” have been created by “smarts” and hard work.

Why The Bills are NOT That Good

While the defense should be praised (above), there is also plenty of room for chastisement. The Bills are second only to the surprisingly porous New England Patriots in 2011, allowing a staggering 420.5 yards/game. Ouch! You just can’t keep winning when you do that. (Tell that to the 5-1 Patriots, and 4-2 Bills… go figure!)

Something definitely has to be done (more than just continuing to generate takeaways) to slow down their opponents. Injuries can certainly be blamed for some of this, and the more-rare poor tackling. However, whatever scheme they have in place should be questioned by the coaching staff.

Bringing in Dave Wanndstedt has definitely improved the defense overall from last season and previous seasons, as has adding Marcell Dareus on the D-line. But as it is, this defense can not win a championship. At least, not without a Tom Brady-led offense to balance it!

Depth (and injuries)
Every NFL team faces injuries. Every season. The Bills have been simply decimated by them in the past several seasons. This season hasn’t been as bad early on, but look at the list of players already lost for the entire season: Jon Corto (special teams ace), Marcus Easley (prospective #2 wideout), Roscoe Parrish (multi-talented WR), and just yesterday, LB Shawne Merriman. Add to that the weekly injuries to several of the offensive linemen, top CB Terrence McGee, and Pro Bowl DL Kyle Williams, and the Bills have already had to do their share of unexpected substitutions.

The biggest problem is, being so young overall, they really don’t have the guys to plug in at those spots. The loss against the Giants was probably greatly impacted by the absence of both starting and backup LTs, as well as Williams not being in the middle to stop Giants’ RB Bradshaw from getting those 3 TDs that day.

The Bills’ main achilles heal may be their lack of depth. If indeed they have found the building blocks for the future (mentioned above in why they ARE that good) then subsequent drafts (and free agency) will hopefully begin to add to that pretty obvious lack of depth.

Overall: The Bills are Definitely Improved

Their record certainly shows it, but there is no denying that this Bills team is not last year’s—or last decade’s—Buffalo Bills. Whether they are vastly improved, and/or just how much they are improved will be seen as the season progresses. But with confident talented players doing what they do, with an it’s-never-over-till-it’s-over, winning attitude, and with Coach Gailey at the helm… 2011 should see the Bills very-long-awaited return to the playoffs.

They will have some stiff competition, to be sure. Unseating the Patriots as the division champs might prove impossible, so grabbing one of the two wildcard spots will be tough as they will have to fight off the Ravens, Raiders (whom they already defeated), and even perhaps the Bengals?! (By whom they were defeated!)

The season is still relatively young, so who knows what will happen. But as a long-time Bills fan, I am happy to say that, win or lose, playoffs or not… this team is NOT last decade’s Buffalo Bills!