Buddy Nix went on his weekly WGR radio show last Friday, the day after his 73rd birthday, and assured Bills fans that his team is making progress.
“I really do think we're better,” the general manager said. “In fact, I know we're better. The sad thing is, the record don't show it.”
Yeah, that darn record thing. When you're trying to spin mediocrity into gold, those small, inconvenient details get in the way. But after 12 years of this, you can't blame the Bills for trying to sell progress, however flimsy.
The Bills are 5-7. They were 5-7 at this stage a year ago. This makes 12 straight years without a winning record after 12 games. Even Nix must understand how fans might fail to see it as a significant step forward.
Their five wins have come against teams with an aggregate record of 19-41. All five are currently last in their divisions (Miami on tiebreakers). It's too bad they don't play the Eagles, Lions and Panthers. They could run the table on the league's bottom-feeders!
OK, they've won two out of three. The defense has played better. Still, none of the five quarterbacks the Bills have beaten (Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden, John Skelton, Ryan Tannehill, Chad Henne) is ranked above 30th in quarterback rating. Henne hasn't played enough to be ranked.
In fact, if you toss in their last two wins of 2011, against teams led by Tim Tebow and the forgettable John Beck, the Bills haven't won a game against a quarterback ranked above 28th in well over a year.
So you'll forgive me if I'm not bowled over by their recent run of exemplary defense. Yes, Mario Williams has finally made an impact. He's piling up sacks and playing on the level of Aaron Schobel in one of his good years.
But you know what would be nice? If they actually did it against a good team, or at least a team that's not in last place. I'm not asking for the '74 Steelers, but how about proving something against a team that's truly on the rise, a hungry foe that's looking to get into the playoff hunt?
Like, say, the Rams.
You want to talk progress? St. Louis has been bad for nearly a decade. They haven't had a winning record since 2003, a year longer than the Bills. They might have been the worst team in the NFL a year ago. They went 2-14 and scored 193 points the entire season.
They decided to get creative about it. First they hired Jeff Fisher, a proven head coach who had built the Oilers/Titans into a perennial contender at a young age. A month later, they brought in Les Snead, a young general manager who had been working in personnel for the Falcons.
Snead and Fisher went to work rebuilding the Rams roster. Snead traded the second pick of the draft to Washington, which took Robert Griffin III. In return, the Rams got the Redskins' first- and second-round picks (Nos. 6 and 39 overall), plus the 'Skins' first in 2013 and 2014.
The Rams then wheeled the No. 6 overall pick for the Cowboys' first- and second-rounders (Nos. 14 and 45 overall). At 14th overall, they drafted LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers, who had the best game of his rookie season last week in an overtime win over the 49ers.
Oh, and Snead used the 39th overall pick he got from Washington on cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who has scored three defensive touchdowns for the Rams during their current two-game winning streak.
Snead, 41, took wide receiver Chris Givens with the first pick of the fourth round – well after the Bills moved up to get T.J. Graham. Givens has 33 catches for a 16.9 average, third-best in the NFC. Last week, he had 11 catches against the Niners.
In the sixth round, the Rams took kicker Greg Zuerlein, who has kicked seven field goals of 50 yards or more this season, including a 60-yarder.
Evidently, Fisher has more confidence in a rookie than Chan Gailey has in Rian Lindell.
One more: Snead took running back Daryl Richardson with the next-to-last pick of the draft. Richardson has 457 yards rushing and a 5.4 average per carry – third in the league among running backs with at least 80 carries, behind C.J. Spiller and Adrian Peterson.
Snead worked for 13 years as Atlanta's personnel man. He engineered the Falcons' draft-day trade for Julio Jones. He's the type of rising star that I wanted the Bills to consider a few years ago – before Ralph Wilson anointed Nix because he didn't know those other guys.
Fisher, who took over the Oilers at age 36, has a career record of 152-133, counting playoffs. He's 20th in career wins, two behind Marv Levy. He built the Oilers/Titans into a winner and stayed 16 years. As I said four years ago, Fisher has a “time-tested football vision,” something the Bills have been lacking for over a decade.
The Rams probably aren't ready to contend yet. But they're a dangerous underdog today, a surging young team looking to get to .500 and remain no worse than one game back of the final playoff spot in the NFC in the loss column.
In Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft in 2010, the Rams have a franchise quarterback who is finding his way. Bradford had a big game in a win over Griffin and the Redskins. In two games against the mighty Niners defense, he completed 67 percent of his passes and didn't throw an interception.
So the Rams have a rising quarterback, a top running back in Steven Jackson, and a seasoned coach in Fisher. I've seen a lot of average teams come to Orchard Park late in a season and play as if they'd rather be elsewhere.
That's not likely to happen with Fisher – who was the opposing head coach the last time the Bills appeared in a playoff game – in charge.
“To me, it's a great challenge,” Fisher said via conference call. “It's a test of will. The weather's not going to be ideal. You find out a lot about yourselves. Good teams at this time of the year have to run the football and stop the run in order to be successful. They have to do that outside in the inclement weather, after the leaves have changed. They're down and wet. You want me to keep going? Yeah, we're looking forward to this one.”
If the Rams win a third straight game and get to .500, the playoff talk will heat up. People will wonder if the rebuilding is ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, it will be a troubling sign if the Bills can't beat the Rams at home in a year in which they were expected to be contenders.
It wouldn't qualify as a signature win, but beating the Rams would at least be an encouraging sign in a disappointing season. Still, look at the franchises. The Rams have the proven coach, the hot young GM, the franchise quarterback, a stable of hot rookies.
They also have an owner, Stan Kroenke, who was recently profiled in Sports Illustrated as “the most powerful owner in sports.”
You tell me which team is making true progress.