2012 Record: 6-10
Rock Bottom Run Defense
After Buffalo filled Mario Williams' bank account with $96M over six years (with $50M of it guaranteed), the notion seemed to be that Buffalo's defense would improve from 2011, when it allowed 27.1 PPG, the third worst average in the NFL.
Good news: Buffalo climbed to just the seventh worst average in 2012. The bad news is their average actually increased to 27.2 PPG. Williams contributed with 10.5 sacks to Buffalo's decent total of 36 on the year, but the run defense is where things stall.
Buffalo allowed 139 rushing YPG in the NFL in 2011, fifth worst average in the league. A year later, they fell to second worst, giving up 145.8 YPG, and falling 30 yards shy of the worst mark in the league. Three times, Buffalo gave up 240+ rushing yards in a game, including 311 to the 49ers.
Turnovers, Especially Fumbles
But of course, any defense is going to be susceptible to rising flood waters as long as the offense puts them in position to fail. Although Ryan Fitzpatrick mostly had a decent season with 24 touchdowns and 3,400 yards, he did throw 16 picks, which leads to another concern.
As a whole, Buffalo had 34 giveaways in 2012, half of which were lost fumbles. Of those 17 cough-ups, 6 came from Fitzpatrick (who had just 2 in 2011), 4 from running back Fred Jackson, and 3 from CJ Spiller. Jackson's and Spiller's losses were the only times they fumbled in 2012, meaning when they put the ball on the ground, it wasn't coming back.
Buffalo ranked fifth from the bottom in turnovers, and fourth from last in fumbles lost. In five games last season, Buffalo turned the ball over 3 or more times (including a 6-turnover disaster in Week 4 vs. New England). No surprise; Buffalo went 0-5 in those games.
2013 Projected Wins: 5
Top 3 Rookies
-EJ Manuel, QB (1/16): Lone QB taken in the first round and Senior Bowl MVP can power-run like Cam Newton, and complements that with raw power and mature leadership.
-Robert Woods, WR (2/41): No-frills receiver overcame a slew of injuries to be productive at USC, and will compliment Steve Johnson as he did longtime teammate Marqise Lee.
-Kiko Alonso, LB (2/46): Youth is needed in a muddled linebacking group, and Alonso has enough flexibility to cover both the outside and the middle.
There have been no grandiose deals doled out like the one Williams received last year, or the one Fitzpatrick signed for in mid-2011. In fact, Fitzpatrick was released March 12. About four weeks later, Buffalo signed the rather unlucky-so-far Kevin Kolb to a $2M deal, though he could be backing up Manuel if the rookie has a smooth summer.
It's been the defensive side, however, that's received critical attention. The team released its two leading tacklers, Nick Barnett and George Wilson, and franchise tagged their hawking safety, Jairus Byrd. Once-reliable DE Chris Kelsay retired after a 10-year career.
Among the newcomers to the defense are sizable linebacker Manny Lawson, after two serviceable years in Cincinnati. Hulking defensive lineman Alan Branch comes over from Seattle, and team re-signed corner/returner Leodis McKelvin to a four-year contract.
Potential Starting Lineups
QB - Kevin Kolb
RB - C.J. Spiller
FB - Dorin Dickerson
WR - Stevie Johnson
WR - T.J. Graham
TE - Scott Chandler
LT - Cordy Glenn
LG - Sam Young
C - Eric Wood
RG - Kraig Urbik
RT - Erik Pears
DE - Mario Williams
NT - Marcell Dareus
DE - Kyle Williams
OLB - Mark Anderson
ILB - Nigel Bradham
ILB - Kiko Alonso
OLB - Manny Lawson
CB - Leodis McKelvin
CB - Stephon Gilmore
FS - Jairus Byrd
SS - Da'Norris Searcy
K - Rian Lindell
P - Shawn Powell
LS - Garrison Sanborn
2013 at a Glance
Buddy Nix's three-year tenure as Bills GM ended abruptly in May, following a team minicamp practice.
The defense languished during Nix's run, and his lasting support of previous coach Chan Gailey fell on deaf ears in the end.
Incoming coach Doug Marrone brings with him a dubious record from Syracuse, going 25-25 over four seasons, managing just two winning records.
An offensive mind, Marrone previously spent four years as offensive line coach with the Jets, and three with the Saints as coordinator.
Marrone is a flexible coach, willing to scrap methods if they don't work, and experiment with different concepts. By the end of his time with the Orangemen, they were succeeding with a simplified offense that mixed in plenty of zone-read options.
The basic parts of the offense would benefit Kolb, who is a skilled player that displayed a love-hate relationship with the West Coast Offense in Philadelphia. The zone-reads are also helpful to Manuel, who can add dimensions to the offense with breakaway speed.
Indications are that Buffalo will make use of two-back sets that will accentuate Spiller's quickness (6.0 YPC) and Jackson's power (he will be 32 this season). If nothing else, Marrone will fit the playbook around the talent, not vice versa.
New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine presents a worthwhile hire, considering what he was able to do for the New York Jets upon his hire in 2009. In one season, he, alongside friend Rex Ryan, took a largely average defense and had them giving up the least amount of points and yards. That was the first time the Jets had led in either category since their Super Bowl run 41 years earlier.
Pettine, like Marrone, doesn't rely on rote inflexibility. Over the past couple of seasons, the Jets defenses would run anywhere from under four defensive backs to as many as seven, given the circumstances. They would also vary their schemes between 3-4, 4-3, and base sets quite often.
For a team that made few personnel changes on defense outside of releasing a few older players, the Bills give Pettine plenty of young bodies to shape his ideas around.
The results are clear: while the Jets fell out of contention the last couple years due to offensive ineptitude, the defense was always in the bottom ten in terms of yards allowed, three times finishing among the five best.
It's easy to overlook the Bills when they don't make any free agent moves that sound ESPN's alarm, and when they haven't been a playoff team in well over a decade. The Marrone hire has come under scrutiny, with a number of exasperated Bills fans staging protest on social media sites.
The optimist would say Buffalo has a good chance for long-term success. Forward-thinking and adaptability have benefited today's best coaches, like Bill Belichick, Jim Harbaugh, Pete Carroll, and Bruce Arians. It may take more than one year, but Buffalo has the right idea.