By Ch2 Sports Director
Despite the fact the Bills have now lost 5 straight games and at 5-7 are all but certainly out of the playoff picture, watching their 23-17 home loss to the Tennessee Titans, a team they were actually a slight favorite to beat, didn't dissuade me from feeling the Bills are actually making progress.
They just don't have enough good players.
Well DUH, you say, now tell me something I didn't know already.
For one thing, it is obvious to me that Chan Gailey is finally a good hire at a key position in the Bills organization. While I'm not totally sold on an assistant coach or two, like defensive coordinator George Edwards, for example, I think Gailey has done a lot with a little and continues to do so even after an abnormal rash of injuries to key players with little depth behind them.
Speaking of good players, the Bills have no choice but to sign wide receiver Stevie Johnson to a new contract, and preferably before the season ends and he hits the open market. As his post touchdown celebrations and a couple costly drops have sullied his reputation in some ways, I don't think it changes my view that he is the only Bills receiver on the roster who actually concerns an opposing defensive coordinator. He may not be the speedy deep threat the Bills really need, and they may have to over pay him, the fact of the matter is he can't be replaced at anything other than a very high draft pick.
Those high picks can be better spent, and even if the Bills could latch on to a legitimate game breaking receiver, having Johnson on the opposite side would make both of them better. He may be a bit immature at times, but his teammates like him a lot and respect his work ethic. The way he simply handed the ball to the official after his 4th quarter td catch, and then almost sheepishly shook a teammate's hand, was enough to convince me he is trying to make up for past mistakes.
Keeping Fred Jackson around is also a must, and Jackson made a wise move by stating he felt gm Buddy Nix was a good man who "will honor his word" about a new contract extension, despite the fact Jackson is now on IR with a fractured leg. The injury is nothing like a torn ACL or concussion issue; it will simply take time to heal and he'll be ready to go again.
One plus about losing Jackson is that we're learning that C.J. Spiller isn't a first round "bust" at all, as many had begun to suspect. Spiller isn't Jackson, but he is learning how to be a more effective runner in the NFL, and along with his 35 yard td run (ok, there was that fumble thing) he had another 40 yarder to the end zone that was negated by a penalty. The Bills can have a very solid 1-2 punch with Jackson and Spiller, and their success can only help Ryan Fitzpatrick.
No sense rehashing here about Fitz; he's not Drew Brees or Tom Brady or certainly Aaron Rodgers, but if the Bills had any kind of defense they could be a tough team to beat. Fitz was sacked only once and didn't throw any int's and did throw a td pass, not to mention he was just a dozen yards short of a 300 yard game. There are LOTS of qb's in the league who aren't playing at his level right now.
So it's the 'd' that is the real culprit in this suddenly boring season that started with such promise. When the defense was forcing turnovers, the offense was taking advantage of the extra possessions. When this 'd' doesn't force turnovers, which was the case against the Titans, the Bills are quite beatable. The good news is, they held Matt Hasselbeck to only 140 yards and no touchdowns through the air, but the bad news, and its always bad news in recent Bills history, they couldn't stop the run.
Granted, Chris Johnson is special, and is just now rounding back into form after his contract pout, but he racked up 153 yards on 23 carries, including a 48 yard touchdown. The Bills did a better job on him after the half, but the damage was done.
Gailey said during training camp the Bills #1 priority this season was to stop the run, and while #1 pick Marcell Dareus is a step in the right direction, especially when he can play defensive end instead of nose tackle in place of Kyle Williams, the Bills need more presence up front.
I've always been convinced you can build an offensive line with free agents and mid-round draft picks if you do it right, and the Bills o-line is probably the most positive surprise of this season. But you can't build a good defensive line that way unless you're terribly lucky. The true studs usually come off the draft board pretty quickly, and that's where I think the Bills need to focus their draft efforts. Linebackers are also needed, and they too, usually have to come through the draft in terms of impact players at least.
The Bills have a nice secondary when George Wilson and Terrence McGee are healthy, and while they could use more talent, they are good enough to pile up some int's with a semblance of pressure up front on enemy qb's.
Summing up, with four games left¸ the Bills are still playing hard and they're doing some good things. That isn't enough for many frustrated Bills fans, and I get that, but wishing for an overnight miracle isn't going to happen.
Many of the pieces, and most importantly the coach and the quarterback, are in place if the players around them get better, and that's especially true for the front 7 on defense. That should be the focus, and if that can happen, the other parts will start looking a lot better sooner than you might think.