Yeah, you could say they're in a bit of a drought. The last time the Bills made the NFL playoffs, Bill Clinton was still the president. Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Andre Reed were on the team. So was Doug Flutie. John Butler was the general manager.
Their last playoff game, the famous Music City Miracle, took place in Adelphia Stadium. When's the last time you heard that word? Adelphia. John Rigas was still the Sabres' owner, still an honest man. It almost seems like a curse now.
I was standing in the press box when the Bills kicked the ball off that day. I had walked over to Larry Felser to pitch a column on Rob Johnson's game-winning drive. As I recall, we were directly above the home team's 25-yard line, where Frank Wycheck tossed the overhand "lateral" to Kevin Dyson.
The Bills have gone 12 straight seasons without appearing in another playoff game. That after a run of 10 playoff berths in 12 years. It's the longest drought in the NFL. The Lions made it last year, passing the torch of futility on to the Bills. The Texans, who weren't even around in 2000, made their first playoff appearance last season.
It's not easy to avoid the postseason a dozen years in a row. This is the NFL, the paragon of parity.
Six teams in each conference get in. You have free agency, high draft picks, crossovers against the NFC West every four years. They practically hold the door open for you. It takes a special sort of bumbling to miss 12 times in a row. But the less said about the front office, the better.
So will this be the year the Bills achieve the monumental task of finishing sixth-best out of 16 AFC teams? Summoning the mountain of football knowledge that I've accumulated over more than two decades of covering the Bills, I have a definitive answer: Maybe.
This team has a chance. Hey, who thought the 49ers, Lions and Bengals would make it last season?
Steady Fitz is needed
Talent-wise, this is the best Bills team since the ‘99 team. You could argue for the 2004 edition, which had a solid defense and Drew Bledsoe. But that defense failed in the big moments. Bledsoe was shot. His stats that year would be considered sub-par for Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The current squad, if healthy (a big if, I'll concede) has one crucial element of a contender: a strong pass rush. It's been years since the Bills got consistent pressure from their front four. Invariably, they had to send extra men, exposing their secondary in coverage.
The additions of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, along with a healthy Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus at the tackles, makes this potentially the best pass rushing defensive line in the league.
People are down on Fitzpatrick, which is understandable. Fitz had a brutal second half and a spotty preseason. But they forget how effective he can be when he's fully healthy and has all his weapons – most notably, Fred Jackson and Eric Wood. He threw 32 touchdown passes over a 16-game stretch of 2010-11. He doesn't need to be great. If Fitzpatrick can put up average numbers for an NFL starter and cut down on turnovers, the Bills can have a winning year.
There are reasons to fret, of course. The Bills lack a reliable No. 2 receiver who can stretch the field, which has been a concern for ages. Opposing defenses will send extra rushers at Fitzpatrick, daring him to beat them deep. Teams caught up to Gailey's spread attack late last season. Watching the Steelers in the exhibition, it appears the book has gotten around.
Fitzpatrick was the least-sacked QB in the league a year ago. But sacks don't always reflect pressure. The offensive line played beyond expectations, but it's thin. They're relying on a rookie, Cordy Glenn, to fill the critical position of left tackle.
Defensively, they need to stop the run, despite an ordinary linebacking corps. Nick Barnett is a gamer and leader, but he's the only 'backer who could start on a good NFL defense. The cornerbacks are either young or, in Terrence McGee's case, compromised by injury. They'll be vulnerable, in the middle of the field, especially against tight ends.
But a good pass rush makes any secondary better. If the Bills can be steady against the run and force long down-and-distance situations, it will be hell for opposing quarterbacks. If the D linemen are healthy, they'll get sacks and, most important, pressure, which leads to risky throws and turnovers.
It's not as if they have a parade of Hall of Fame quarterbacks on the schedule. They get Tom Brady twice, of course. But in the remaining 14 games, the Bills are scheduled to face only two quarterbacks who finished in the top 20 of the NFL in passer rating last season: Alex Smith and Matt Schaub.
There are five rookie quarterbacks slated to start against the Bills. Throw in two unproven second-year guys in Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker. Suddenly, Mark Sanchez looks like one of the better QBs on the schedule. So if the defense doesn't make huge strides, critics will contend that the Bills severely overpaid for Mario Williams.
>Offense lacks balance
This season could be like 1988, when they played a lot of close, low-scoring defensive battles decided by field goals. In that case, coaching will be a big factor. It's time to hold Chan Gailey and his new defensive coordinator, Dave Wannstedt, to a higher standard. No more gushing about Gailey holding his guys together in a lost season.
Gailey is a good guy and strong offensive mind. But he has to rise to the moment in those crucial times that separate playoff teams from .500 squads. He needs to be more flexible with his team's offensive identity. Only one AFC team, the Titans, passed on a higher percentage of its plays than the Bills last season.
According to a stat in Sports Illustrated, the Bills ran more than twice as many four-wide receiver sets as any other team in the league. What, is Gailey that far ahead of the rest of the coaches? Does he use more wideouts because he has so many average ones? Or was he so worried about protection, he wanted to give Fitz more options?
The Bills averaged 4.9 yards a carry last season, fifth in the NFL. You don't have to be Bear Bryant to suspect they ought to run more. Gailey came out throwing in the preseason. Maybe he was leaving a false trail of bread crumbs. It could be he's holding back an inventive package of new schemes to maximize the talents of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
It's year three. The heat is on Gailey to help this team meet elevated expectations. Same for the GM, Buddy Nix. For all their folksy charm, they're 10-22. They need to win. Nix talks a good game, but his drafts have not created enough depth in his roster. He drafted Dareus and wrote a big check to Mario Williams. Any fan in the street could have done the same.
With Ralph Wilson ailing and less involved, there's no real sense that Gailey and Nix are on the hot seat. But if this team proves to be a big tease, the pressure will intensify. Fans are worried about both the coming season and the Bills' long-term future in Buffalo. They don't need to obsess over another team that was unworthy of a high standard.
But the talent is there, and the schedule is kind. If they stay healthy, and if Fitzpatrick is at least average, and if the coaching measures up, they actually have a decent chance to end the drought.
I can't believe I said it, but they should finish 10-6.