By Ed Kilgore
With five games left, the Bills season is essentially over, at least in terms of becoming relevant in the final push towards the playoffs. That is the perception after the Bills latest disheartening loss - 20-13 at Indy - and the perception is on target.
However, the final 5 games DO matter in many respects not related to what is quickly becoming just another underachieving season for the Buffalo Bills.
Barring a miracle, and by that I mean running the table to finish with a winning 9-7 record, my gut now tells me this will be it for Chan Gailey and his coaching staff, most notably defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. GM Buddy Nix is safe as long as he wants the job, although Doug Whaley is being groomed to take over sooner rather than later.
Ryan Fitzpatrick? Fitz, both deservedly and not, is the focal point of this disappointing season. Although his actual qb numbers are respectable, and even better than more notable names like the Colts Andrew Luck, it is becoming clear that for his solid intangible qualities, Fitz simply isn't the qb of the Bills future. Nor should he be.
Nix is on record as saying the Bills will address the qb position in next year's draft, but they will not be in position to grab a "sure fire" franchise guy. That means barring a trade or unexpected free agent gift signing, the Bills will slide into the 2013 season with Fitz the starter and the newby learning as quickly as he can.
Many fans are clamoring to see backups Tavaris Jackson and/or Tyler Thigpen in no particular order, with the reasoning "why not see what they can do? They couldn't be worse!"
Ah, yes they could be.
First of all, the reason the Bills brought in Vince Young, and eventually Jackson, was because they already knew Thigpen is barely adequate. Jackson was available for the same reason, but the Bills figured if anything happened to Fitz Jackson might give them a little better chance to win. The Bills have seen tons and tons of film on these guys and see them every day in practice, and Fitz is the best qb on the roster. Sorry, but that's true, and don't think for a millisecond Gailey wouldn't bench Fitz if he thought it would give his team a better chance to win. Gailey knows well his hourglass is about out of sand.
So why do these final five games matter?
Most importantly, we'll find out who the real players are, even though by this time we have a pretty good idea. Despite the qb and coaching situations, Nix has built a nucleus that can win with another good draft or two and continued development of players already on the roster.
Clearly the Bills need a right tackle, as Erik Pears is adequate and backup Chris Hairston is not even that. Hairston had a nightmare game against the Colts, which led to Fitz being under constant pressure. We all know about Fitz' accuracy problems, so that doesn't help at all.
The rest of the o-line though, is young and talented, assuming Cordy Glenn continues to progress at left tackle. Center Eric Wood and left guard Adam Levitre are among the better center/guard combos in the NFL.
The Bills look more than good at running back with C.J. Spiller moving into an elite status and Fred Jackson still looking like he can be a contributor when healthy.
Defensively, the front four, now that Mario Williams is healthy again, is becoming the dominant group the Bills hoped they would be from the start. Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams are excellent inside tackles, and young Kyle Moore is coming on rapidly. Mark Anderson has been hurt but can play, and Chris Kelsay gives the Bills quality depth.
Cornerbacks are set on one side with Stephon Gilmour, while Aaron Williams is learning but improving before an injury. Leodis McKelvin will no doubt be lost to free agency, but finding a more imposing strong safety is important. Jairus Byrd is as good as anybody at FS, but George Wilson is slipping.
The Bills need the most help defensively at the linebacker spot, and Nick Barnett seems safe but Kelvin Sheppard and Bryan Scott need to be replaced if possible. Rookie Nigel Bradham has looked good recently as he learns the system.
So Nix has done a more than commendable job by most standards in upgrading the draft and filling in a few spots via free agency.
Gailey though, while an improvement over everybody here since Wade Phillips, probably needs to go pending the final five games. In his defense, Gailey would have looked a LOT smarter with a better qb and right tackle, not to mention a true #1 wide receiver opposite Stevie Johnson. Nix will try to help in those areas, but a smart young up and comer might be the way to go here.
Forget the big name guys. Been there, done that: they aren't coming. That's not because they don't like Buffalo, it's because the Bills still don't have a franchise qb. The Bills could have had a choice of great coaches when they had Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith etc. on the roster.
Another thing about the remaining games. The Bills record has slowly improved under Gailey, and an improvement on 6-10 could help entice a better coach and maybe a free agent or two, since the trend would clearly be upward.
Making a coaching change right now would be a foolish move to appease unhappy fans and media. The smart thing is to let the season unfold, and then move forward. There is a solid nucleus here, as mentioned, and that's more than could be said a couple years ago.