Last season, the only people who had questions about the Buffalo Bills were the fans in Western New York and even they didn't have any real concern about the answers.
Ignored the country over since losing four straight Super Bowls, a half season of success in 2011 helped raised the eyebrows of the NFL again, as well as giving the hometown loyal a healthy dose of hope about what their team can truly do in 2012.
With Buffalo now popping in and out of the spotlight this offseason after snagging top defensive free agent Mario Williams and drafting big, not only are there now questions about the Bills' upcoming campaign, but a real curiosity surrounding the franchise.
There's a buzz brewing in Buffalo once more and the Bills are at its epicenter, but that doesn't make them foolproof, doesn't make the fans blindly accept that their team is ready for primetime. There are still questions, ones that are receiving even more attention now that minicamp is starting, are becoming more pressing to answer with training camp just a month away.
While the Bills are focused on gelling a team capable of having its first successful season in over a decade, the outside world can focus on worrying about what Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey have been doing the last couple years, questioning if the foundation they've been laying is ready to be built on in 2012. Here, then, are the three burning questions that the public has for the Buffalo Bills as they head for training camp.
HOW WILL C.J. SPILLER AND FRED JACKSON CO-EXIST ON THE TEAM?
Last season, the Bills were questioning if Spiller could even find a place on the team, but after losing Jackson Week 11 to a broken leg, C.J. put his critics in their place and showed he could still be the future of this running attack. Over the last six games of 2011, Spiller rushed for 446 yards, which is 48 more than his first season and a half combined.
After more than a season of looking like the odd man out in the offense, Spiller finally began justifying that first round pick, getting six TDs on the year (two receiving) and finally getting his first 100+ yard game in the NFL (111 against the Broncos).
Jackson, meanwhile, began yet another season as the one of the value stars of the NFL, as he was undrafted out of Coe College, but managed to lead the NFL in rushing for several weeks last year. By the time Fred went down against Miami, he had 934 yards, six TDs, and was the heart of Buffalo's success to that point. Though Fitzpatrick looked good in games and Steve Johnson made some nice plays, it was Freddy who really drove the Bills to their 5-2 start.
A powerful between-the-tackles runner with a quick second gear, Jackson was so vital to the Buffalo offense that they extended the contract of the now 31-year-old, which will keep him in Buffalo through 2014 (oddly enough, the same year Spiller's deal will expire).
So, now comes the concern over how, or if, the two backs can co-exist in 2012, as there's been no sign of that previous years. Spiller was shopped to several positions since coming to Buffalo in 2010, playing everything from special teams to wide receiver, but what he didn't get was real work at his chosen position. Though C.J.'s speed was never in question, Buffalo didn't seem to think he had the goods to be an every down, straight up runner in the NFL and weren't exactly sharing the load between him and the elder Jackson.
In 2010, Fred had 222 carries to Spiller's 74. When Fred went down in 2011, he had 107 attempts, while C.J. had just... 21! Fans in the Queen City were ready to stamp him a bust and shove him over the Falls by midseason, but losing Jackson gave Spiller his opportunity and he... well, he ran with it.
Suddenly a more complete player after a season plus of work all over the field (maybe coach Gailey had a plan for him after all), Spiller looked to now have some great vision and football smarts to add to that speed and talent, resulting in more consistent play and a more complete player. C.J.'s a starter on another team, but, as he's still tied up with Buffalo for two more years, he'll have to learn to share with Freddy if the Bills hope to succeed in 2012.
Fear not, it can be done. Look at the "Thunder and Lightning" that was Ron Dayne and Tiki Barber, a power and speed combo that racked up 1,776 combined yards and 13 rushing TDs in 2000 for the Giants (with a very balanced 228 carried for Dayne, 213 for Tiki).
The blueprint for Buffalo is the exact same as it was for New York a decade ago, a 50-50 or 60-40 share of the rushing game that allows for either player to get hot, as the offense will be constructed to expect either. If it is to be successful, Spiller's carries will increase tremendously in 2012, while Jackson's will become a bit more manageable as the offense won't need to put the run game (and the whole game, at times) completely on the shoulders of their 2011 workhorse.
Both backs have specific strengths, with C.J.'s ability to break to the outside for big gains (he had four games with a run of 24+) and Jackson's solid, dependable, through the holes yard grabs (he's averaged 5.5 per carry in 2011). At games in the Ralph, Spiller also seems to benefit from a huge home-field advantage, as his 3.4 YPC average away skyrockets to an amazing 7.2 when in Buffalo. That discrepancy, however, gives him a 5.2 overall, which is right on par with Jackson's overall road/home average.
If the Bills are smart, then the home crowd in Western New York will see gameplans featuring a healthy dose of Spiller (a homer by the numbers), while away games will probably see alot more Jackson (who can play like the same wrecking ball in seemingly any environment). However, the staff will have to be flexible enough to stick with whoever is feeling it in games, speeding up the offense and eating up large chunks of yardage if Spiller's having a good day, slowly marching up the field with purpose and short, consistent gains if it's Jackson.
Last season gave the Bills and especially Fitzpatrick an opportunity to get comfortable with either option, either speed, and we should see the fruits of those planted seeds on the field in 2012.
They can be successful with a two-back system for sure, especially if the quotes coming from OTAs are any indication with Spiller referring to Jackson as his "big brother" in the game and Jackson applauding the extra touches C.J. got as a result of the broken leg (he said, "that experience definitely was something [C.J.] needed"). Fingers crossed, Bills fans, you may have two 1,000-yard runners on your team in 2012... Can you say Thunder and Lightning part II?
HAVE THE BILLS FIXED THEIR DEFENSIVE WOES OF A YEAR AGO?
Injuries may have been largely to blame for Buffalo's poor showing last year, but the defense wasn't any help either, even in their wins.
Ranked 30th in points allowed, they gave up 139 per game on the ground (28th) and 371.1 yards average overall.
This was a team that was able to manage just 29 sacks in 2011, which was enough to rank them 27th, but would have driven them down to dead last had they not experience a nine sack abberation against the Redskins.
Sure, they intercepted many a ball (sixth with 20 INTs, four returned for TDs), but eight of those came in just two games (Eagles and Patriots) and otherwise the pass defense and rush was almost non-existent.
When Kyle Williams was lost for the year, it was made clear that many problems on the defense came down to depth and the lack of it. There just weren't enough healthy bodies on either side of the ball for Buffalo last season, too few (good) options when one of their starters went down.
However, the Bills have been active in the offseason looking to address not only their missing rush up front, but their overall roster talent as well. It may have begun with Super Mario and the $50 million guaranteed, but they also actively romanced defensive end Mark Anderson to Buffalo after his eye-opening performance in New England last year (he had his best year since his rookie campaign getting, 10 sacks and two forced fumbles).
The return of Kyle Williams and another big year from rookie standout Marcell Dareus in the middle should see the front four starters be one of the top in the NFL, but what's more important is the number of capable, talented, and now healthy D-linemen looking to contribute to the new 4-3 scheme under Dave Wannstedt.
Shawne Merriman is already performing at 100% in OTAs (about time, as locals were getting impatient to see what he could do besides tweet), Chris Kelsay and Dwan Edwards could start on virtually any team in the NFL, and both Spencer Johnson and Torell Troup have made a name for themselves in the offseason drills thus far (at least enough to get them backup work).
Going back further in the box, linebacker Nick Barnett led the defense last year (he had 130 tackles, three sacks, three INTs, and a TD) and will be anchoring the weak side beside returning rookie sensation Kelvin Sheppard (another OTA darling in 2012, he had 70 tackles and a safety his first season and will be locking down the middle this season for the Bills).
Though seven-year veteran Kirk Morrison may still be a question mark after his nearly invisible 2011 (just seven tackles and a sack), waiting in the wings is more depth with the former safety Bryan Scott and even Nigel Bradham making some waves fresh out of Florida State (a physical specimen who stayed entirely healthy in college to accrue 184 tackles, seven sacks, and three INTs; he plays like a safety, but hits like a linebacker).
Lastly, there's the defensive backs, who may have looked strong at safety (if not getting a little older), but will love to have some new blood in at cornerback. With the annual injury to Terrence McGee always floating over Buffalo and the clock ticking on Leodis McKelvin to perform, both the talented No. 10 pick Stephon Gilmore and similarly impressive fourth-rounder Ron Brooks could find themselves with starting shots their rookie seasons, especially if Aaron Williams doesn't start looking like he did at Texas a couple years ago.
There's a lot of youth and options at cornerback in Buffalo, so a blow like losing McGee to start the season wouldn't spell the end of the defense.
On paper, the Bills look healthy and full on the roster at all spots of the defense, so the injury bug shouldn't be the worry it was last year. Every level of the defense looks solid, looks top ten, and even if they can't get the interceptions of a year ago, the pass rush should be noticeably improved and the endzone defense should stand a lot stronger. Look for top ten rankings in several categories, especially with the defense sounding so cohesive after just OTA work.
WILL RYAN FITZPATRICK'S WORK WITH QB COACH DAVID LEE PAY OFF ON THE FIELD?
David Lee will be Fitzpatrick's third quarterback coach in Buffalo, but is quickly sounding like he'll be the best of the bunch.
Whether it was due to rib injuries or poor protection or even perhaps not being as good as his $59 million, five-year extension, Fitz definitely saw a dip in stats in the second half of 2011, something the Bills said Lee was brought in to address specifically.
Seems that, in all his years playing quarterback, no one was really teaching Ryan how to throw.
For a Harvard guy, you know his smarts aren't in question, but they aren't exactly spending the money on their football program that they are on academics. Ryan himself said, "I just go out there and throw. That's what I've done my whole life", so It's about time that someone explained the mechanics of the position to him, taught him more about how to play rather than telling him what they needed him to do.
With Lee's extensive knowledge and respected background (he's got 38 years of coaching under his belt), he's already identifying and making tweaks to the little things, like Fitzpatrick's footwork, as opposed to just introducing play packages and waiting for his QB to succeed or sink. Fitz is a smart guy, but if no one has taken the time to teach him the basics of how to throw a ball or given him informed criticisms on his foot placement, understanding how to read defenses or identify open receivers doesn't mean squat in the end.
Look at what Lee was able to do in developing Tony Romo at the beginning of his career and what a noticeable difference there was after Lee left in 2007 (some would say Tony's still thriving off of the reputation he had working under Lee). The QB coach could very well be the third most important member of the Bills' coaching staff behind Gailey and Wannstedt, especially if reports about Fitzpatrick's quick progression in OTAs are true.
Lee was brought in to try and ensure the Bills will see more of the Fitzpatrick who completed 68.9 percent and went 5-2 with 14 TDs and 7 INTs, rather than the one who completed just 57 percent and won just once the last nine games with 10 TDs, 16 INTs.
Again, Ryan's smarts aren't up for debate here, so to think he can't learn the right techniques under a coach who knows what he's talking about isn't up for much debate either. The reports from coach Gailey and Lee are that Fitz has all the tools to be a successful QB in the NFL, he just needs to have some of the rough edges sanded down by a good coach and Lee thinks he can be that guy.
Lee's focus on hip placement, on timing, on repeating the same motions over and over in some strange Mr. Miyagi/Karate Kid technique (wax on-wax off Fitzy), those are the things getting Ryan immediate benefits and should show further progression by training camp, even more by game time.
The words coming from the bearded QB himself are positive as well, as he said he can "see success from [Lee's coaching]... see some consistency developing", averring that his accuracy is "light years ahead of where it was last year", which is music to the ears of fans who saw too many easy passes sail high over open receivers at times in 2011.
Fans should be encouraged by the good reports coming out about Ryan, because if Fitz's arm has finally evolved to match his eyes and game-smarts, he could easily become the leader that Buffalo is paying him to be (and get him another 3000+ yard season. though hopefully with a TD/INT ratio that isn't as even as the 24/23 he threw last season). Seems Buddy Nix may have been right in gauging how talented Fitzpatrick really was, he just needed the right coach to coax it out of him.
There, three questions with answers that won't be forthcoming until the September 9th opener at the Jets, but will be circling in the minds of fans as training camp looms. Sure, one could also question who will be the No. 2 receiver after Stevie, or if rookie Cordy Glenn can take over successfully at left tackle, or even if Brian Moorman can get to another Pro Bowl (fingers crossed), but the season largely depends on the answers to the above three queries.
However, overall, the question is and has been: Will the Buddy Nix plan finally bear fruit in Buffalo? From the looks of things, the wait for that answer may be over in 2012.