Maybe it had to do with the $4 million freed up by cutting Drayton Florence, or maybe it was just more of the Bills securing players that made them so good to start 2011, but Fred Jackson is now signed to anchor the Buffalo backfield through 2014.
There were big expectations from fans for Buffalo to pay the once undrafted Coe College alum whatever it took to keep him in red and blue (it was maybe even more important than signing Ryan Fitzpatrick and Steve Johnson to many of them) and extending his soon expiring deal, paying out an estimated $8.7 million over the next two years was music to their needy ears. GM Buddy Nix made it clear back in March that the Bills were still smitten with Jackson, promising that though Buffalo still "had priorities with guys that were unrestricted", once they cleared that up Jackson would definitely "have an extension before he went to camp". Sure, Bills fans have heard such promises before, but last season the now 31-year-old running back shocked the NFL by leading all backs with 934 yards in the first ten weeks, making it a priority to ensure his skills would remain in Western New York for the foreseeable future. Also, he was second in overall yards from scrimmage (1,376) when he broke his leg Week 11 against Miami, along with 6 TDs even though the Bills were by then well entrenched in what would become a seven-game losing streak. By season's end, those numbers were still good enough to rank him 20th among backs on the season, even without playing the last six games. Again, this from a guy who was undrafted and had just 2,860 yards rushing in four seasons, just 10 TDs.
Though this does little to clear up the CJ Spiller situation in Buffalo for the upcoming season, as the former first round draft pick ended the season with the type of numbers Bills fans had expected for a year and a half (561 yds rushing, 269 receiving, 6 total TDs), Freddy's extension was still one of the highest priorities left over from 2012. Sure, Jackson had another year on the deal, but with a base salary of just $2 million coming in to the season (he'll now be getting a $3 mil bonus on top of that for 2012, per the terms of the extension), the Bills definitely needed to show their unofficial 2011 offensive MVP some love and appreciation (and some more cash if they wanted him to be playing on their side come 2013).
Jackson, who, despite the broken fibula, averred that he still doesn't feel like he's "slowing down at any point" soon, was more than optimistic about the upcoming season and his part in it. "We definitely can feel the excitement... I'm excited to sign the extension to stay... I feel like something exciting is about to happen and I want to be a part of it.". That's a whole lot of excitement in one quote and is further proof that this whole loser mentality that's been lingering over Buffalo like a decade-long hangover has finally showed signs of truly dissipating. Players and fans are once more interested in what Buddy and the boys are putting together, has heard a buzz emanating from what was just recently considered a dead and perhaps soon to be moved franchise.
No guarantees can be made of course (this is still the Bills until they prove otherwise to the nation), but there have just been too many things done right this offseason by the front office to think that it will all be for naught come game time. Signing Jackson to remain a part of this new look Buffalo team was the last true loose end, the last part of that core of surprising talent that shook up the NFL to start 2011. No one expected the Bills to start so strong, to lead the NFL in points for the first half of the year, to beat the Patriots after 15 straight losses, to be in playoff discussions, and though they didn't have the depth to maintain it the whole way (it seemed the injury list was almost as long as the starting roster at times), there was no doubting that fans had seen more promise than they believed Buffalo could ever muster again.
Now, with the assured return of Jackson beyond 2012, the board is finally set, the pieces on both sides of the field are all falling in place, and it is now on the shoulders of Chan Gailey and the coaching staff to direct all this talent into the playoffs and (maybe... hopefully...) beyond. Hey, if Spiller and Jackson can find a way to co-exist successfully and get some sort of equal, agreeable rotation in playing time (there wasn't much luck with that last year), this may be one of the strongest, deepest offenses in the NFL. Marry that to a defense that not only switched to a more successful 4-3 under new D-coordinator Dave Wannstedt, but also got younger, faster, and deeper in a hurry during the offseason and you may see one of the best Bills teams since Jim Kelly was at the helm.
As the march to September 9th continues on, Buffalo seems to just keeps making the right moves this offseason, shaking off their mantle of ineptitude and showing fans that there might be some surprises left in the old girl yet. A solid Draft, some big free agent wins, and a new mentality of hope have characterized the start of 2012 in Western New York, leading many fans to wonder if those pipe dreams of playoffs they spoke of last year are closer to reality than they truly thought possible.
Again, there's no guarantees, but to a lifelong Bills fan, the buzz alone is enough to make me smile, maybe even shout.