MIAMI – As if singing a chorus, we have heard for weeks a harmonized sentiment from Buffalo Bills CEO Russ Brandon, General Manager Buddy Nix, head coach Chan Gailey and their players: We’re just a few critical plays away from flipping our record.
The Bills are 5-9 entering today’s game against the Miami Dolphins in Sun Life Stadium. The butterfly effect of a play here or a personnel decision there could have made a colossal impact.
Rather than log an NFL-worst 13th straight season without the playoffs, one can justify the Bills would’ve ended their drought with a favorable bounce or better foresight.
Gailey readily references being a handful of plays away from an inverted record, but he refused to revisit any particular moments this week.
“I’m not going to talk about them,” Gailey said. “There always are ones that stick in your craw, but it’s just crying over spilt milk.”
That’s where we come in. The Buffalo News and a panel of NFL experts compiled the Bills’ top 10 “What if?” questions for 2012. Some critical decisions and moments are worth reflection when any one of them – or a combination of just a few – could have transformed another miserable season into a playoff campaign.
The list was assembled with help from Buffalo News senior columnist Jerry Sullivan and our three Bills reporters: Mark Gaughan, Jay Skurski and me.
The rundown was ranked conceptually and examined by Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer, former New England Patriots and New York Jets offensive lineman Damien Woody, retired Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans defensive tackle Seth Payne and former Jets and Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards.
» 1. What if Chan Gailey made C.J. Spiller the feature back out of training camp?
Nobody in 78 years rushed for 1,000 yards on fewer carries than Spiller. His 6.5 yards per attempt rank second in the NFL. His seven touchdowns easily lead the team.
Fred Jackson, meanwhile, struggled through injuries and fumbling problems before his season came to an end two weeks ago. Jackson averaged 3.8 yards a carry and lost a career-high four fumbles.
“I don’t know whether to criticize Gailey for not using Spiller more or praise him for his restraint,” said Payne, who recently moved from Olean. “Sometimes coordinators adhere to their schemes too tightly, but they also know their personnel’s limitations better than we do as outsiders.
“I put this as No. 1 just because it would have been nice to know whether it could work.”
» 2. What if T.J. Graham ran the correct route and the Bills beat the New England Patriots in Foxborough?
Graham accepted responsibility for running the wrong route in the dying moments of a Week 10 game the Bills lost by six points.
Patriots safety Devin McCourty intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick in the end zone, denying the Bills a potentially season-changing victory. Instead of 4-5 and a heap of confidence, the Bills slumped to 3-6.
“I don’t think any one event would have made enough of a difference to get them to the playoffs,” Sullivan said. “But a win in New England would have been a significant victory, the high mark of Chan’s career. It would have given him two wins in two years over Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and kept hope alive later in the year.
“It might have been worth two wins overall and saved Chan’s job – assuming it needs saving. It would have done wonders for Fitz, too.”
» 3. What if the Bills drafted a quarterback last April?
Dilfer rated the inability to win in Foxborough as his top “What if?” because he weighted “in-game issues higher than personal decisions,” he said. But Dilfer called the Bills’ inability to draft a franchise quarterback their biggest mistake.
“I don’t think Fitz is the long-term answer, but he was definitely the best option this year,” Dilfer said. “I think the biggest issue was not drafting a quarterback for long-term growth of the organization. Last year’s class will go down as one of best ever.”
Fitzpatrick has been pedestrian this year and looked even more substandard when third-round draft choice Russell Wilson played like a superstar (three rushing touchdowns, one passing) to propel the Seattle Seahawks past the Bills last week in Toronto.
» 4. What if the Bills stopped the Tennessee Titans on fourth-and-long to secure a Week Seven victory?
The Bills led the Titans by six points with 68 seconds to play. The Titans faced an improbable fourth-and-9 from the Bills’ 15-yard line. Alas, backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck found Nate Washington in the end zone for the winning touchdown.
The Bills went into their bye week a demoralized 3-4 instead of 4-3 with back-to-back victories. They had beaten the Arizona Cardinals in an overtime thriller the Sunday before.
» 5. What if David Nelson didn’t suffer a season-ending knee injury on opening day?
Nelson, the Bills’ lanky slot receiver, often was a security blanket for Fitzpatrick last year. Nelson was second on the club with 61 receptions and 658 yards. His touchdown catch with 14 seconds on the clock beat the Oakland Raiders in Week Two.
A full season with Nelson would’ve allowed the Bills’ offense to be more diverse. The Bills planned on moving top receiver Stevie Johnson around to capitalize on matchups. The inability to use Nelson as an outside receiver and Graham’s slow development prevented Gailey from getting as creative as he would’ve liked.
» 6. What if Mario Williams had wrist surgery sooner?
The biggest storyline in the first half of the 2012 season was how hurt Williams’ left wrist really was. Williams complained about it. The Bills didn’t think it was bad enough to put him on daily injury reports. The NFL fined the Bills for being deceitful. Williams had surgery during the bye.
Whether the surgery was needed – some in the organization believe it had a placebo effect on his psyche more than anything else – the difference in Williams’ production since the procedure has been obvious.
In seven games before surgery, Williams had 16 tackles and 3.5 sacks. In seven games after surgery, he has 25 tackles and seven sacks.
» 7. What if George Wilson made an interception on either of two passes thrown at him before the St. Louis Rams scored the winning touchdown?
The Bills still were mathematically alive for the playoffs and desperately needed to string together some victories when they hosted the Rams in Week 14.
The Bills were up, 12-7, at the two-minute warning. The Rams had a third-and-1 at the Bills’ 37-yard line. Wilson jumped a slant route, but couldn’t catch Sam Bradford’s throw. Three plays later, Wilson made another great read and could’ve picked off Bradford, but didn’t.
Three plays after that, Bradford connected with Brandon Gibson in the end zone to yank away another Bills victory. The Bills slipped to 5-8.
“You see? That’s the difference in this league,” Edwards said. “That’s the difference between 6-10 and 10-6.
“It’s about making that play, but it’s more than just saying it. You need guys with the confidence to go out and make that tackle or kick or catch, and you can’t coach that.”
» 8. What if Mark Anderson made a noticeable impact?
Anderson, the second of the Bills’ prized free-agent acquisitions, hurt his knee in Week Five and required two surgeries. The injury caused him to miss the past nine games.
Before the injury, however, Anderson didn’t do much, as he has 12 tackles, one sack and no forced fumbles or recoveries. He tied for the Patriots’ lead with 10 sacks last year.
» 9. What if Gailey let Rian Lindell try field goals from 50 to 55 yards?
Gailey’s philosophy to punt rather than try long field goals impacted at least three games. The Bills squeezed out a victory over the Cardinals even though Gailey passed on a 53-yard attempt in overtime.
But the Bills lost the other two times, when points could have changed the course of the game. Gailey punted rather than try a 52-yarder indoors in the second quarter against the Indianapolis Colts. In a three-point loss to the Rams, Gailey punted rather than try a 52-yarder early in the fourth quarter.
» 10. What if Gailey allowed Vince Young or Tarvaris Jackson to compete with Fitzpatrick?
Fitzpatrick hasn’t been pushed since Buffalo dumped Trent Edwards in 2010.
Buffalo traded a seventh-round draft choice to Seattle for Jackson and cut Young after the third preseason game. Jackson has been deactivated for every game this year.
“The quarterback is OK,” Edwards said of Fitzpatrick. “He’s a facilitator. But he’s not the guy. The running game allows him to be better.
“But when you have to lean on him and you can’t run it? Oh, boy. Oh, boy. It’s hard.”