Early this year, President Obama caused a national stir when he said that if he had a son, he’d have to think long and hard about letting him play football.
Obama didn’t say anything about allowing his daughters to watch an entire NFL draft. A true leader would discourage such behavior in children. Studies will one day show that prolonged exposure to the draft causes brain damage.
By Day Three of the Annual Selection Meeting, I get nostalgic for mowing the lawn. Rich Eisen begins to look like Satan to me. The draft is a necessary evil, I know. But it’s not the profound intellectual exercise it’s made out to be.
So what did I think of the Bills’ draft? Promising. I promise to revisit it later with a more informed opinion. A more immediate reaction? The new coach, Doug Marrone, wants his team to play fast and score a lot of points.
That shouldn’t come as any surprise. A draft generally tilts toward the specialty of a new head coach. Go back to every coach since Marv Levy retired:
Wade Phillips took over for Levy in 1998 and the Bills nabbed linebacker Sam Cowart with their first pick. Gregg Williams, another defensive guy, came aboard in 2001 and went for Nate Clements and Aaron Schobel with his first two picks.
Mike Mularkey, an offensive specialist, arrived in ’04. The Bills took Lee Evans with the 13th overall pick and moved up for J.P. Losman later in the first. Two years later, it was Dick Jauron, a conservative defensive coach. Their first five picks went to defense in Jauron’s first draft.
Chan Gailey succeeded Jauron in 2010, determined to fix a sputtering offense. His welcoming gift was a dynamic running back named C.J. Spiller.
It was no surprise, then, when the Bills went heavy with offense in Marrone’s first draft. Marrone doesn’t like being pigeonholed, but he’s an offensive guy by trade. His offenses were on the cutting edge at Syracuse. He played no-huddle last season. He likes to play fast and dictate to defenses.
“Even before Doug came in, during the season, we said we needed to find the young quarterback who could be the guy for the future,” said General Manager Buddy Nix. “We needed a big wide receiver, and we always try to add more speed. He [Marrone] is the CEO. He oversees all of it.”
Marrone can’t have been very impressed with some of the skill players he inherited. The incumbent quarterback was a former seventh-round pick with an erratic arm (Ryan Fitzpatrick). Two of the top three wideouts were marginal athletes (Donald Jones, David Nelson) who hadn’t been drafted.
So Nix and Co. went for athletic upgrades. They took EJ Manuel, a rookie QB with prodigious physical gifts. Manuel and Nathaniel Hackett, the Bills’ young offensive coordinator and QB coach, can learn the NFL ropes together.
The Bills wanted talented young receivers to evolve with them. They grabbed Robert Woods, a big, polished wideout, in the second round. In the third, they drafted Marquise Goodwin, a small, speedy wideout who was a long jumper for the U.S. Olympic team last summer.
In essence, they traded Nelson and Jones for Woods and Goodwin. Nelson and Jones were smart veterans. But the new guys bring a higher level of athletic skill to the wide receiver position, something the Bills desperately needed. If it works out, Stevie Johnson will be a happy man.
During the recent minicamp, Marrone had the Bills playing at a fast tempo. He yelled at the players for walking through drills. He wants speed. This draft is further evidence of that. Add Woods and Goodwin to a team with C.J. Spiller and T.J. Graham and you have a sprint relay.
Marrone said he favors a West Coast offense with an emphasis on vertical passing. He was determined to get players in the draft to execute that attack. “Yeah,” Marrone said. “I don’t think you can ever have enough playmakers, yes. Speed is hard to coach. My coach at Syracuse, coach [Dick] MacPherson always said ‘luck follows speed.’ ”
Speed can make you lucky, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. Graham was a disappointment as a rookie. But the Bills have upgraded their playmakers. The passing game could be more entertaining as a result.
It’s something to sell. This franchise needs to restore public faith in the product after a dreary, discouraging decade. Fans like it when you talk about playing fast. Every new basketball coach says he’s going to play more uptempo. If you’re going to lose, you might as well put on a show, right?
Marrone went to a quicker attack at Syracuse last season; the Orange scored 100 points more than in 2011. He’d love to see a similar scoring spike here. The Bills had their moments under Chan Gailey, but struggled to score in crucial moments and were often slow in getting plays executed.
They’ll need to score big if the defense doesn’t come around. Listening to Nix, you’d think he had a deep, talented defense on the verge of greatness. The D has been weak for Nix’s entire time here. Last year, it gave up the second-most points in team history and allowed 45 points four times.
Nix believes the defense is better than it showed last season. He’s also banking on Mike Pettine being a major upgrade over the old coordinator, Dave Wannstedt. Pettine will be more aggressive than his predecessor. He likes his unit to attack, same as Marrone with his offense.
Pettine will rely mostly on the same players who underachieved a year ago. Nix signed linebacker Manny Lawson in free agency. He drafted another linebacker, Kiko Alonso, in the third round, and added a couple of safeties, Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks. It looks as if they’re covering themselves in case negotiations with Jairus Byrd get really ugly.
“We think we’re pretty good on defense,” Nix said. “We’ve got pretty good people and enough depth in most spots. And what we’ve needed here, regardless of what you run, is more speed on offense and more playmakers.”
We’ll see. If Nix thought his defense was pretty good last year, I shudder to think about it getting bad. The Bills gave up an average of 35 points in their 10 losses last year. No wonder Marrone wanted more playmakers.