By John Wawrow
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Buffalo Bills president Russ Brandon opened 2013 vowing to transform what he called the franchise's "tarnished" reputation.
On Monday, Brandon closed the year with the job still incomplete.
Though pleased with the direction the team has taken under first-year general manager Doug Whaley and first-year coach Doug Marrone, Brandon expressed disappointment with a 6-10 finish and the Bills extending the NFL's longest active playoff drought to 14 seasons.
"I have all the faith and belief in (Marrone) and (Whaley) to keep continuing to get this ship pointed in the right direction and see significant progress as we enter 2014," Brandon said. "What we don't feel good about is sitting here and talking to you at 6-10. And that needs to change."
Change was the operative word last offseason, when the Bills went through a near top-to-bottom overhaul. Buffalo purged much of its roster, and began a rebuilding plan that included drafting quarterback EJ Manuel with the 16th pick out of Florida State.
The transition has yet to start paying dividends. In closing the season with a 34-20 loss at New England on Sunday, Buffalo finished with six wins for a third consecutive year, ended fourth in the AFC East for a sixth consecutive year, and extended its string of losing seasons to nine dating to a 9-7 finish in 2004.
"With youth comes inconsistency," Whaley said. "So all those guys that contributed this year, we expect them to take a bigger step next year, play more consistent and be more productive."
And that includes Manuel, who struggled with his consistency, and had his development stunted by injuries to both knees since August.
Manuel missed the final two preseason games with a left knee injury. He missed four regular-season games after spraining his right knee in a 37-24 loss at Cleveland. And he then closed the year missing the final two games after tearing a ligament in his left knee.
Manuel finished with a 4-6 record, completed just 58.8 percent of his attempts (180 of 306 for 1,972 yards) and finished with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Marrone maintains confidence in Manuel, and has already informed the quarterback he'll be the team's starter entering next season.
Dismissing his critics, Manuel called his rookie season a learning process.
"Obviously, you're going to have ups and downs as a rookie," Manuel said. "I've had some good games, and there's a lot I can take and build from. I don't really know who's questioning things. But as far as me, I'm just continuing to get better."
Marrone announced he's already made one change to his staff by firing receivers coach Ike Hilliard because of "a difference in philosophy." Hilliard, who spent 12 seasons in the NFL playing receiver, was responsible for overseeing a young group that included rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin.
On the personnel front, Whaley intends to make an offer in a bid to re-sign three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd. And Whaley didn't rule out the possibility of using the franchise designation for a second consecutive year to retain the player's rights even if it risks the possibility of having the player miss the entire offseason as he did this past year.
Byrd is open to re-signing, and also braced for possibility of the Bills retaining his rights once again.
"I'm at peace with everything. I know what to expect," Byrd said. "I've gone through it once. And it'll be good. However it works, it'll be good."
Statistically, the Bills showed improvement on several fronts.
Their defense, though inconsistent in stopping the run, finished second in the NFL with a franchise-record 57 sacks. The defense ranked 10th in the NFL in yards allowed — the unit's best finish since placing second in 2004.
Byrd, defensive tackle Kyle Williams and defensive end Mario Williams all earned Pro Bowl selections this year.
The defense also featured linebacker Kiko Alonso, a second-round pick, who is regarded an NFL defensive rookie of the year candidate.
On offense, the Bills' running attack finished second in the NFL with 2,307 yards — the most since 1992.
Running back Fred Jackson was among numerous veterans who expressed confidence the team might finally be turning the corner.
"If you watched us play this year, you'll know that we're not the same team that we've been," Jackson said. "But there's no moral victories. We know that. We know that for us to be relevant, we have to win more football games."