(Sports Network) - It seemed like the Bills were onto something when they opened the 2011 season with five wins in their first seven contests.
They weren't. Buffalo lost eight out of nine to finish at 6-10.
But at least there were glimpses. Last season didn't even have that.
The Bills finished 6-10 again in 2012. But this time there was no 5-2 start. Just consistent inconsistency from start to finish.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, now a member of the Tennessee Titans, wore the underachiever label like a badge of honor during his four-year stint with Buffalo. Last season was more of the same (24 TD, 16 INT, 83.3 QB rating).
Running back C.J. Spiller (career-best 1,244 rushing yards) gave the Bills some nice production in 2012 but only because Fred Jackson couldn't stay healthy (missed six games due to injury). Hot-headed wideout Stevie Johnson (third-straight 1,000-yard season) and hulking tight end Scott Chandler (six TD receptions) showed flashes of brilliance but not on a regular basis.
Defensively, Buffalo was hit or miss last season. Though solid against the pass (tenth-fewest yards allowed), the run defense was pitiful (second-most yards allowed). The Bills finished 22nd in the league in total yards allowed, a slight improvement from a year earlier when they were 26th.
All in all, it was another frustrating season for a franchise that has dealt with plenty of that over the last decade. The 2012 campaign marked Buffalo's eighth consecutive losing season.
After the season, Buffalo cleaned house by canning head coach Chan Gailey along with offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins and defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. Doug Marrone, who had spent his previous four years at nearby Syracuse University, was chosen to replace Gailey.
Marrone's first order of business was to draft a franchise quarterback. He landed on Florida States E.J. Manuel with the 16th pick. Now Manuel is competing with veteran Kevin Kolb for the starting quarterback position.
This year is all about making progress. If Buffalo can get back to .500, the 2013 season will have been a success. If not, it could be another busy offseason for GM Doug Whaley and company.
2012 RECORD: 6-10 (tied 3rd, AFC East)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 1999, lost to Tennessee in AFC Wild Card
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Doug Marrone (first season with Bills)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Nathaniel Hackett (first season with Bills)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Pettine (first season with Bills)
KEY ADDITIONS: ILB Kiko Alonso (2nd round, Oregon), K Dustin Hopkins (6th round, Florida State), RE Jerry Hughes (from Colts), QB Kevin Kolb (from Cardinals), LB Manny Lawson (from Bengals), QB E.J. Manuel (1st Round, Florida State), WR Robert Woods (2nd round, USC)
KEY DEPARTURES: LB Nick Barnett (to Redskins), QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (to Titans), G Andy Levitre (to Titans), LB Kelvin Sheppard (to Colts), S George Wilson (to Titans)
QB: The Ryan Fitzpatrick Era is over in Buffalo. But that doesn't necessarily mean happier times are ahead.
Even if he's only a rental, veteran Kevin Kolb's inclusion on this team is a bit puzzling. In six seasons, he's never played more than nine games or thrown double-digit touchdowns. Plus, his completion percentage hasn't been above 60 percent since 2010.
Which leads us to E.J. Manuel, who looked like a shoo-in to be the team's Week 1 starter before suffering a knee surgery in his second preseason game. Taking him at No. 16 overall may have been a reach (especially with Ryan Nassib, Geno Smith and Matt Barkley still available) but Manuel does have upside. The 23- year-old looked phenomenal throwing the football in Buffalo's first two preseason games (26-for-33, 199 yards in wins over Indianapolis and Minnesota) and he also has the athleticism to improvise if a play breaks down. At 6- foot-4 and almost 240 pounds, he's the ideal size for an NFL signal caller.
Still, even if Manuel is healthy enough to play in Week 1, it's unreasonable to expect him to be a Pro Bowler right out of the gate. Don't let Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton fool you. Rookies are supposed to struggle.
Thankfully for the Bills, whichever quarterback they end up choosing won't have to do very much. It's no secret that this is a run-first offense.
RB: Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett says the Bills are going to give the ball to C.J. Spiller until he "throws up. We probably could have done without the visual but it's obvious what Hackett is trying to say: the Bills are going to run the ball early and often this season.
Fortunately for Hackett, the Bills have the personnel to make that happen. The lightning quick Spiller looks like a star in the making (6.0 ypc last season) and Buffalo also boasts one of the better backups in the league in veteran Fred Jackson (albeit one of the most injury-prone).
Some fear exists that the Bills' shameless "run-first, worry about everything else later" approach may become predictable. But with a rookie quarterback (or a washed up veteran) under center and only one proven receiver, what other choice do the Bills have?
WR: Seventy eight: that's how many receptions Donald Jones, T.J. Graham, Ruvell Martin and David Nelson combined for last season. Stevie Johnson had more than that all by himself (79).
So let's not pin all of this team's misfortunes on quarterback play. The receiving corps' lack of depth recently has been downright embarrassing.
Stevie Johnson is still Stevie Johnson and having second-round pick Robert Woods (846 yards, 11 TD at USC last season) on the roster will definitely help. But that's not going to be enough to make up for Buffalo's staggering lack of talent at this position.
TE: Chandler isn't a Pro Bowler yet but he's getting there. In 15 games last season, he hauled in 571 receiving yards, easily a career-high. More importantly, he scored six touchdowns for the second consecutive year.
At 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds, Chandler is almost impossible to contain in the red zone. That massive frame also helps when it comes to blocking.
The question is whether or not Chandler, a fairly slow runner to begin with, will be able to create separation from defenders after tearing his ACL at the end of last season. Also, the Bills might use him a little differently now that run-obsessed Hackett is calling the shots on offense.
Buffalo's other two tight ends, Dorin Dickerson and Lee Smith, are barely worth mentioning. Neither player made more than nine catches last season. That doesn't bode well for the Bills, especially if Chandler's knee is less than 100 percent.
OL: Well, they do have size. The smallest player Buffalo features up front is center Eric Wood and he's still 6-foot-4 and over 300 pounds.
Given the circumstances (a lousy quarterback and receivers who had trouble getting open), the Bills' front line did an admirable job last season. They only let up 30 sacks and the holes they created led to one of the highest per carry averages in the league (5.0 ypc).
With that said, there are still plenty of question marks, including Colin Brown who has only started two games in his four-year career. Brown, who appears to have beaten out Doug Legursky for the starting left guard spot, is being asked to replace Andy Levitre, arguably the team's top lineman from a season ago (signed with Tennessee). And of course, this whole unit is new to Hackett's offense.
The raw potential is there but in Year One of the Doug Marrone Era, not everything is going to go smoothly. This group is a work in progress.
DL: The Bills are switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4, which begs the question, what in the world are they going to do with Mario Williams?
Traditionally categorized as a defensive end, Williams is now a man without a true position.
Who knows, maybe Williams (46 tackles, 10.5 sacks last season) will see some looks as a giant outside linebacker this season. In Mike Pettine's new blitz- heavy scheme, anything is possible.
Aside from Williams, the Bills still have Marcell Dareus, a dominant run stopper who at age 23 is just getting started. Kyle Williams won't ever be a threat for double-digit sacks (he had five last season) but he's still important to the D line's success.
For what it's worth, the Bills finished 18th out of 32 teams in sacks last season (36 in 16 games).
LB: Buffalo's offseason overhaul wasn't limited to just the coaching staff. The Bills' current linebacking corps looks nothing like the one that took the field in 2012.
Buffalo's two biggest losses were leading tacklers Nick Barnett and Kelvin Sheppard. The Bills cut Barnett (112 tackles last season) in February after he failed his physical while Sheppard was traded to Indianapolis just days after the draft.
What's left is a young, mostly unproven unit featuring rookie Kiko Alonso (53 tackles and four interceptions for Oregon last season), second-year man Nigel Bradham (57 tackles) and 25-year-old Jerry Hughes, who came over as part of the Sheppard trade.
Barnett and Sheppard will be difficult to replace but at least the Bills kept veteran Bryan Scott, who produced two forced fumbles and four interceptions last season. Hughes, though raw, might be the team's best pass-rushing linebacker (four sacks in 2012).
The Bills also signed 6-foot-5 Manny Lawson, a former NC State standout with seven years of NFL experience. Unfortunately, Lawson's speed has eroded in recent seasons (he used to run a 4.4 40) and it's beginning to affect his productivity. His 39 tackles last season were his fewest since 2007.
Buffalo has strengths. This just isn't one of them.
DB: The Bills cut safety George Wilson (104 tackles in 2012) to save money but other than that, Buffalo's secondary from last season remains mostly in tact.
Stephon Gilmore was given a chance to play right away last season and he ended up being one of the best rookies in the league at his position (61 tackles, three forced fumbles, one interception). Another youngster, 23-year-old cornerback/safety hybrid Aaron Williams also showed potential last season (32 tackles in 11 games). With Wilson gone, he should get a chance to start this year.
Leodis McKelvin is a rock solid player on special teams but it remains to be seen whether or not he can be a difference maker on defense. He should be eager to prove himself after signing a four-year, $20 million extension in the offseason.
Of course, Jairus Byrd remains the focal point, though probably not for long. The two-time Pro Bowler has been hesitant to sign a long-term deal with Buffalo and the implication is that he's ready to skip town after the season.
It's not the strongest unit in the league but at least the Bills are heading in the right direction.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Let's start with the good. Leodis McKelvin was the best punt returner in football last season. He averaged 18.7 yards per return while bringing two punts all the way back for touchdowns. He also fared well on kickoffs, averaging 28.3 yards on 18 attempts.
Aside from McKelvin, the rest of the special teams unit is pretty ordinary.
The Bills are starting over from scratch in the kicking game. Fourteen-year vet Rian Lindell was given his walking papers on Monday (the Buccaneers quickly scooped him up) leaving Florida State rookie Dustin Hopkins as the team's primary kicker. Hopkins was an All-American in college but playing in Tallahassee isn't quite the same as kicking the ball on a snow-covered field in Orchard Park.
Rookie punter Shawn Powell averaged 44 yards per punt last season, ninth-worst in the NFL. At least he only had two touchbacks.
So again, it's a mixed bag. Seems to be the theme with this team, doesn't it?
COACH: Marrone has never been an NFL head coach but he does have seven years of NFL coaching experience. Four of those came as the Jets' offensive line coach (2002-05) with three more as the Saints offensive coordinator (2006-08).
Most recently, Marrone led the Syracuse Orange, his alma mater, to two bowl wins in four seasons. He finished his tenure at Syracuse with a .500 record (25-25).
The rookie head coach has made his presence felt right away, but not always for the right reasons. Most were stunned when he took E.J. Manuel over Geno Smith in the draft and his 30-carry a game plan for C.J. Spiller seems downright reckless. To make matters worse, Marrone's heated exchange with the Buffalo media less than a week into training camp raised questions about his composure.
Only time will tell if Marrone is the right man for this job.
THE SKINNY: Spiller is a monster and Byrd and Johnson are decent pieces but this doesn't have the look of a team headed for playoff glory.
The good news is that Buffalo plays in the AFC East. That probably means two easy wins against the Jets and a chance for two more against the Dolphins. If they catch a few breaks along the way, the Bills could sneak into the Wild Card picture at 8-8 but 7-9 is probably the more likely scenario.
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