The Buffalo Bills – and their fans – know disappointment.
A probable run of 14 straight seasons without a playoff appearance will do that to a team and its faithful followers.
The hurt is different each year, but Buffalo’s overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday especially stings for the veterans in the locker room, who to a man have said the team’s talent level is the highest it’s been in years.
“The talent level, the ability to kind of feed off one another offensively and defensively … we’re a tight-knit group,” tight end Scott Chandler said. “I think that’s part of why it hurts so bad, is we know that we have that ability to not just win, but to really dominate games. It’s frustrating to not do it.”
The Bills did not have a player selected to the Pro Bowl last season, although running back C.J. Spiller, safety Jairus Byrd and defensive tackle Kyle Williams were later added to the AFC roster as replacements for injured players.
This year, defensive end Mario Williams and linebacker Kiko Alonso are among the leading vote-getters at their respective positions, according to NFL.com.
Williams and Alonso, though, aren’t the only players who are garnering Pro Bowl consideration. Kyle Williams and fellow defensive tackle Marcell Dareus are strong candidates, while a case could also be made for receiver Marcus Easley as a gunner on special teams.
Buffalo’s record through 12 games in 2012 was 5-7, so 4-8 this season would seem to indicate progress has been scant. But improvement can be seen in the most rudimentary statistics in football. Buffalo is scoring more and allowing fewer points than a season ago, and gaining almost identical yardage while allowing slightly less.
The roster is younger and, in many cases, better. Alonso, with a team-high 125 tackles and four interceptions, has been an upgrade over Nick Barnett as the every-down linebacker. Jerry Hughes, who was acquired from the Colts in exchange for Kelvin Sheppard, has eight sacks as a complement to Mario Williams. He’s only 25. Last year’s No. 2 pass rusher was supposed to be Mark Anderson, but he played only five games and finished with one sack before being cut on the eve of training camp this season.
Under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, Buffalo’s sack total of 43 through 12 games leads the NFL and comes a year after the Bills had just 36 for the entire season.
Aaron Williams, 23, has 76 tackles and three interceptions in his first year as a starting safety after being converted from cornerback. George Wilson, the player Williams replaced, is 32, with Tennessee and has not had an interception in the past two years.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys. These coaches will be here. We’re going to have a lot of retention to next year,” center Eric Wood said. “Moving forward, creating a winning mentality around here is the key, and I’m confident we’re moving in that direction.”
There have also been improvements in statistics coach Doug Marrone homes in on. Buffalo’s turnover ratio of minus-13 ranked 28th in the NFL last year. Buffalo is plus-2 this year in turnovers, tied for 13th in the NFL. Buffalo’s third-down defense allowed conversions 44 percent of the time in 2012, which was second worst in the league. That number has improved to 38.8 percent this year, up to 16th in the NFL.
For a team with a new general manager, coaching staff and a rookie starting quarterback, those are substantial signs of progress. But they’re not enough to numb the pain of Marrone.
“My expectations are extremely high and I’m very disappointed in myself, where we are, and it starts with me. I’ve got to find a way to get it better, because I really believe that if I come across as the head coach and don’t have those expectations, then we’ll fall short of our goals at the end,” he said. “I want to make sure that we’re accountable, starting with myself in keeping those things extremely high and keep fighting for that. We can do that. That’s where I’m struggling. We have players here that are capable of winning games, we have coaches here that are capable of winning games and we’re not getting that done.”
They’ve been tantalizingly close, though. Buffalo has lost four games by seven points or less, including two in overtime. It makes for plenty of “what if” conversations.
“The way I handle things, it gives me high levels of anxiety because it hurts me that we collectively … can’t get it over the top,” Marrone said. “That’s my goal now. We still have time left to do that. It will be very interesting and challenging for all of us, of how we go about this week’s preparation and this week’s practice to get on that type of roll. That’s what I’m going to be focusing on with this team.”
It’s possible that an 8-8 record could make the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC, but that would require the Bills to win four straight games – they haven’t won two straight since Weeks Two and Three in 2012 – and get a ton of help in front of them.
“We’re not out of it yet. We’ve got a lot of work to get done and need a lot of help from some other teams, but guys are going to keep plugging away,” running back Fred Jackson said. “We’ve got to get over this one – easier said than done – and continue to go to work.”
Although the final nail hasn’t been pounded into the season’s coffin yet, it’s much more likely its final quarter will be a valuable evaluation tool for the coaching staff.
One area in which the team has suffered a statistical drop is the passing game. The Bills averaged 204.3 yards per game in 2012, but that number has fallen to 198.1 through 12 games. How rookie quarterback EJ Manuel finishes the final four games will be important no matter the team’s record.
“We are one of the youngest teams in the NFL but we can’t use that as an excuse. We are all professionals here and played a lot of games now,” running back C.J. Spiller said. “The future is bright in this organization. We have a great quarterback that’s leading the charge, great receivers, an offensive line jelling well. There’s something special that’s building, now we just have to go out there and win.”
The Bills announced they’ve signed offensive tackle Jamaal Johnson-Webb to the practice squad. To make room for Johnson-Webb, the team released offensive lineman Manase Foketi from the practice squad.
Johnson-Webb is a 6-foot-3, 306-pounder who played in college at Alabama A&M. He entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Arizona Cardinals this season, before being released prior to the start of the regular season. He has spent time on the practice squad for both Minnesota and Chicago.
Johnson-Webb made 45 starts for Alabama A&M, beginning his career as a guard before moving to tackle prior to his sophomore season.