As much as I didn’t want to pay attention to the return of the NFL, I must admit that I was really intrigued by all the activity on the free agent market over the last week. Typically I’m about as excited for these details as I am for that person on the empty subway car who thinks the best place to stand is directly in front of me. But the last seven days have been really interesting.
Thanks to the lockout, the NFL’s usual drawn-out off-season free agency period was condensed to a one-week feeding frenzy once teams finally got to talk with the big-name players. A lot of deals were made but it’s hard to tell for the most part who made truly significant improvements. But clearly there were two obvious winners: the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles.
Seriously though folks, this was a huge steal for the Patriots. They already had an incredible passing game, now they’ve added a veteran receiver one year removed from a 1,000-yard season. And you can’t tell me leaving Cincy & Carson “Unmet Expectations” Palmer won’t be a boost for him. Besides that, I believe he understands that he is in the decline of his career. For him to restructure his contract, when he doesn’t have a big payday coming down the road, tells me he’s ready to try and bury his ego to win.
And even if it doesn’t pan out, what did they give up? Two late round draft picks, at least one of which probably came from trading away Moss last year? That’s incredible.
Not only did they snag Ocho, but they also picked up the next most discussed, low-impact player in the NFL over the last couple seasons, Albert Haynesworth. While it’s hard to find weaknesses in a team that went 14-2, certainly there were some flaws. In the regular season, their defense ranked 3rd from the bottom in passing yards against. In their second round playoff loss to the Jets, Mark Sanchez was not sacked once the entire game. Conversely, Brady was taken down five times. So clearly the defense needed some help if the Patriots were going to make another Super Bowl run. And if anyone can make Haynesworth shut up and play, it’s Bill Belichick. Oh and what did he cost the Pats? One fifth-round pick. In 2013. Damnit.
Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Boy, Apologist, you’re really not saying much about our boys in the red, white and blue. What does any of this have to do with us?” Well… you’re right. I’m not talking about the Bills because, quite frankly, they haven’t done anything for me to get excited about. I've been trying to ignore the feeling for a while, but my enthusiasm from last season has turned mostly into apprehension entering this one. My biggest concern is that it’s hard to tell what exactly the plan is at 1 Bills Drive.
It seems for now like the Bills are happy to just collect a series of pieces without actually building a true team. What is the identity of this team? If someone asked me that, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with any kind of clear answer. I’d probably say we’re a below-500 team with a pretty good offense and a bad defense. To which my questioner might reply, “Great. You just described 20 other teams in the league.”
That’s why teams like the Eagles and Patriots continue to have great success. Because they’ve carved out an identity for their teams that succeeds. The same goes for the Colts or the Steelers. Once you’ve built a foundation for success, you can do whatever you want. The Steelers can let a player like Santonio Holmes walk out the door and only fall 7 points shy of winning a Super Bowl.
Alright, so of course all of that is easier said than done and goes deeper than one off-season. But right now, the closest think we have to a backbone for our team is Ryan Fitzpatrick and Fred Jackson. And when given their opportunities (cuz remember how we didn’t let them play because we wanted to trot out guys we knew couldn’t hack it?), they went above and beyond expectations, but the fact of the matter is that we were still near the bottom in every statistical category on the books, offensively and defensively. Not to mention, do I need to remind everyone that we lost 12 of 16 games.
The fact is the Bills are in a deep hole and a .500 season would be a surprise to most logical fans. But it’s something fans are willing to deal with if we’re headed in the right direction. And maybe I’m asking too much, but I was hoping I’d see some signs of life from the front office this off-season, that told me they had plans for improving us for this season, not just gathering parts for something somewhere down the road.
When I follow the Eagles and Patriots, I see teams not just looking to improve, but looking to become Super Bowl contenders, in the true sense of the title. Picking up players with baggage like Haynesworth & Young or a hefty pricetag like Asomugha are risks you can afford to take when you’ve raised the bar of success for your franchise.
I would like to believe that that sort of foundation is exactly what Buddy Nix is trying to build these days. And I do think he’s looking through all the options that are available to him and figuring out which pieces best fit the system he and Chan are trying to build. My problem is we don’t see any semblence of that on the field. Yes, it’s early and the hole he stepped into was quite deep. But after a full season, Nix should know what kind of cards he’s playing with. We believe offense is our strength, but we stand pat in early August with two tackles most teams wouldn’t trust on their practice squads. Meanwhile on defense, we’ve made improvements to our linebacking corps., but how much confidence do you honestly have in our secondary that will be asked to handle the likes of Brandon Marshall, Chad Ochocinco, Wes Welker and Santonio Holmes twice a season for the next Lord knows how long? There are realities that our organization just doesn’t seem to be facing. Obviously this is due in part to the fact that He-who-shall-not-be-mentioned-in-this-post’s future is quite tenuous, but that’s a topic for a different post.
To be fair, Nix hasn’t been doing nothing. The fact that only one draft pick missed a day of practice due to their contract is outstanding. Now that I think about it, the only thing that could’ve made me less excited about this preseason is a contract holdout.
I will say that I like the Brad Smith signing. It adds depth and new dimensions to our offense. But past that, the signings of Thigpen and Barnett seem like the same old thrifty Bills, looking for bargain deals out of the bottom of the barrel. Ok, ok. Maybe Barnett isn’t bottom of the barrel, but between him and Merriman, there’s no way the linebacking corps. is making it through the season healthy. And once again, might I add, our tackles are a joke.
So where does that leave me? Besides sour, disappointed and all around untrusting of our beloved Bills’ caretakers? Well… about where I always am by the start of August. Anxious and wary, but still excited to see the Bills run out of the tunnel for Game 1. The fact is, until a foundation is set to build upon, we might as well spend our time reading about the exciting moves other teams make, rather than frustrating ourselves fretting over the ones our team won’t.
Besides, it’ll make it that much easier to laugh at Andy Reid the first time you see him without any timeouts in the 1st quarter.