Patience is a virtue that the Buffalo Bills know all too well.
It’s been 18 long years since the Bills last won the AFC East and 14 seasons since their most recent playoff appearance — the Music City Miracle, err Misery, depending on who you were rooting for. In fact, the Bills haven’t finished a season with a winning record since 2004 (9-7) and haven’t won a playoff game since 1995. That sort of losing is something maybe only Cleveland fans can understand.
The Bills were hopeful entering 2013. They re-worked their entire organizational structure, starting from the top down, replacing general manager Buddy Nix with a young, driven mind in Doug Whaley. Chan Gailey was sent packing after a third straight losing season, replaced by the offensive innovation of new head coach Doug Marrone and aggressive defensive mentality of coordinator Mike Pettine.
The organizational overhaul seemed to be a major step in the right direction, but the team’s forward progress seemed to stall — sound familiar Bills fans? — during the offseason. They signed outside linebacker Manny Lawson to bolster the pass rush but didn’t do much else in free agency, letting guard Andy Levitre and safety George Wilson walk without putting up the slightest fight. Then, on draft weekend, Marrone and Whaley bet the house on quarterback E.J. Manuel in the first round, which many viewed as a big reach for a player with plenty of questions and deficiencies to point to. The rest of their class was solid, finding value in guys like linebacker Kiko Alonso (second round) and wide receivers Robert Woods (second) and Marquise Goodwin (third). But value in the draft wouldn’t be enough to return the Bills to the glory days of Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas.
Entering the preseason, the Bills were viewed as a potential .500 football team with definite upside going forward, but that was only if everything went according to plan. Now that everything has gone to hell in a handwarmer, things in Buffalo seem even worse off than — and it might seem impossible — the New York Jets, right now.
Manuel was the first to fall, undergoing minor knee surgery that will keep him out for a few weeks. Then came backup quarterback Kevin Kolb, who suffered a serious concussion during the Bills’ preseason game over the weekend and is facing the possibility of a lost season altogether. So, with his top two options sidelined and neither Matt Leinart — Gasp! — nor Thaddeus Lewis fit to take meaningful snaps, Marrone plans to start undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel against the defending AFC East champion Patriots in Week 1. But it gets worse.
With the offense now solely revolving around the health and production of running back C.J. Spiller, at least for the first few weeks, the Bills were hoping to rely on their defense to step up. But then, in typical Bills misfortune, lightning struck twice, as 2012 first-round pick and No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore was diagnosed with a fractured wrist, which carries a 6-8 week recovery timeline. So, not only will Buffalo feature a one-dimensional offense to start the season but now their secondary is second rate, too.
Gilmore was the Bills’ best cornerback, and by a wide margin, leaving them with Leodis McKelvin and a hodge podge of mediocrity to patrol the outside in his stead. Over the top of the secondary isn’t any better either, as Aaron Williams isn’t much more than a pedestrian with a jersey on and Jairus Byrd, their best defensive back, wants out of Buffalo faster than manufacturers in the early 2000s.
Sure, Spiller and Fred Jackson, if healthy, make for a terrifying tandem on offense, and Mario Williams and Marcel Dareus will still command the respect of every offensive lineman in football, but even they can’t do enough to mask the gaping holes all over the Bills’ roster. Maybe when Manuel and Gilmore return, things will be different and the Bills can inch back to that middle class football team they were expected to be. But, until then, there isn’t much hope to extract from this lot.
Often times things have to get worse before they get better, and, as much as Bills fans might cringe at the thought, that process will require patience.