People ask me everywhere I go this time of year: How do you think the Bills will do this season? They ask it with this imploring look in their eyes, hoping that I’ll validate their wild, optimistic imaginings.
They tell me this year’s team will shock the skeptics and make a run at .500 or better. Bills fans always want to assume the best. They need to believe that the franchise is on the right path, that new equals better and this is the year when the Bills make the jump from a losing record to the NFL playoffs.
I’m really not such a pessimist. I picked them for 10 wins last season. Yeah, I fell for the Mario Williams hype, too. I picked them for 10 wins in 2008. In ’05, when J.P. Losman took over as quarterback, I said they should be 8-8.
Actually, I pick high more often than not, which is understandable when a team misses the playoffs 13 years in a row — the longest active streak in the league. Now and then, even a hardened skeptic wants to see progress, if only because it beats the same sad story.
There are promising signs. Ralph Wilson handing over control to Russ Brandon was an overdue step. Doug Whaley replacing Buddy Nix as GM was a sound move. Doug Marrone, a young, energetic first-time head coach, is a welcome departure from Chan Gailey.
Fans always embrace what’s fresh and hasn’t had time to disappoint them. People are justifiably excited about the rookie quarterback, EJ Manuel. The new coordinators are setting an aggressive tone, dragging the Bills onto the cutting edge of today’s NFL.
They seem to be heading in the right direction. But people should understand how far away they are — and I felt that way before the injuries to Manuel, Kevin Kolb and cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
Youth is wonderful. But as anyone who has children can attest, leading the young can be a challenge. There will be gratifying steps along the way, but a lot of maddening stumbles, too.
People need to be patient with this team. Yes, the Colts, Redskins and Seahawks rode rookie quarterbacks to the playoffs last season. In 2011, five teams that had won six or fewer games in 2010 made it to the postseason. It happens every year in the NFL.
The Bills aren’t good or deep enough to make that kind of run. They’re rebuilding; they don’t fit the profile of an NFL team on the verge of a breakthrough. They’ve cut loose veterans and are allowing unproven kids to learn on the fly.
The goal shouldn’t be to hang around .500 into December (Dick Jauron was great at that), but to build a roster capable of winning the Super Bowl.
You do that by stacking good drafts, building a roster packed with value players, and filling in with veteran free agents.
The Ravens won the Super Bowl with 10 starters who were drafted in the second or third rounds. The runner-up Niners had 13 starters who were drafted after the first round or not at all.
If you want a blueprint, look at the Bengals, who made the playoffs the last two years after consistently strong drafting. They have three players age 26 and under who have made two Pro Bowls: Receiver A.J. Green, tight end Jermaine Gresham and defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
Gresham and Atkins were drafted in 2010, along with defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Green came a year later, along with guard Clint Boling and quarterback Andy Dalton. The entire defensive front four was drafted in the second round or later.
Granted, the Bengals haven’t won a playoff game in 22 years, and Dalton is being labeled as a guy who can’t win the big one. But they’re a Super Bowl contender, a team to envy. The Bills have parallels to Cincy, but too many question marks. It starts with Manuel, the rookie QB. Manuel was a revelation in training camp. He earned the starting job — and I suspect he’ll start the opener, not Jeff Tuel. But he needs time.
Manuel isn’t as polished as the guys in last year’s rookie QB class. Manuel will learn by his mistakes.
He has to show that rare ability to make quick reads and precise throws against NFL pressure. If he’s not the real deal, the rebuilding will begin anew four years from now.
Rookie wideout Robert Woods is supposed to be ready to play now. We’ll see. The learning curve can be difficult for receivers. Fans need to be patient with Woods and Marquise Goodwin, while hoping that second-year man T.J. Graham justifies the decision to move up and draft him in 2012.
C.J. Spiller could have a monster year as the featured back. But teams will be focusing on Spiller and daring the Bills to beat them with the deep pass. Manuel has the arm. The wideouts have speed. Still, teams will attack him, and I’m not sure this offensive line will hold over the long-term.
Last season, the Bills didn’t use Spiller enough. Come December, we might be wondering if they’re relying on him too much. Spiller is in great shape, but when a player gets 300 touches at 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, you have to worry about injuries.
Defensively, they have lots to prove. The loss at Washington suggested they still have major issues, starting with the run. Kiko Alonso looks like a find at linebacker, but he’s still a rookie. They’re suspect on the outside. That means you, Mario Williams.
It’s a big year for defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who needs to play like a No. 3 overall pick. Dareus was the Bills’ highest draft pick since Bruce Smith when they took him in 2011. At the time, I said the choice could determine the fate of the team for years to come. Of the top seven overall picks in ’11, Dareus is the only one who hasn’t made the Pro Bowl.
The Bills would be thrilled if Dareus performed like Atkins, whom the Bengals took in the fourth round. If Dareus and Alonso become stars, the Bills will boast an elite player at each level of the D — tackle, linebacker, cornerback — from the last three drafts.
Gilmore is out for eight weeks after breaking his wrist. He might be the defender the Bills can least do without. They’re thin in the secondary. The other corners are weak. Other than Byrd, newly franchised and embittered, they don’t have a D-back who could start on most NFL teams.
Better things are on the horizon. Still, don’t expect too much too soon. Allow room for surprise. Manuel could be one of those QBs who gets it right away. Mario Williams might turn into Bruce Smith. Kyle Williams, compromised by heel surgeries, might rediscover his Pro Bowl form.
But it’s not likely. I see comparisons to 2001: A new GM, a new, tough-talking head coach; a switch to the West Coast offense; a roster depleted by attrition and going with a lot of kids.
So expect growing pains. The Bills might actually start Tuel at quarterback in the opener. Gilmore might miss half the season. It wasn’t a good team to begin with, and things get bleaker by the day.
People hate to hear this, but a year of suffering wouldn’t be so bad. It would give the Bills another high draft pick. Youth is great, but they need quality youth, and more of it. Enjoy them for what they are, a young team hoping to be average.
I’ve been wrong before. But more often that not, it’s by giving them too much credit. That ’01 team went 3-13. That sounds about right this time.