ORCHARD PARK NY - DECEMBER 26: Ryan Fitzpatrick #14 of the Buffalo Bills fumbles as he is hit by Gary Guyton #59 of the New England Patriots at Ralph Wilson Stadium on December 26 2010 in Orchard Park New York. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Buffalo just recovered the ball. Down 3 they were driving against a stout Pittsburg defense. A pulse was building. There was a palpable feeling that - coming off back to back wins - this was their chance to build their first 3 game win streak in recent memory and to do it in dramatic fashion against the Pittsburgh Steelers made it all the more exciting.
With 2.16 left to play, Fitzpatrick snapped the ball and dropped back while on the far left side of the field, Steve Johnson took off blowing by his defender. Recognizing Johnson had his man beat, Fitzpatrick tossed a perfect strike that hit his receiver squarely in the numbers. Game over...or at least it should have been.
Instead of a roar from the home crowd, the 70,000 Bills fans let out a collective and painful moan. Steve Johnson's dropped game winning touchdown pass over the Pittsburgh Steelers perfectly summed up yet another losing season. For Buffalo, it was the season that slipped right through their fingers.
Unlike in years past when Buffalo was thoroughly dominated, this team fought hard. They were resilient and - save for the past 2 games when they were outscored 72-10 - they were competitive.
4 of their losses (3 of them in 0T) were by a combined score of 12 points.
After several years of seriously lacking talent, playmakers and leaders began to emerge. While their presence was not enough this year, the organization and the loyal fans of Buffalo have their hopes set high for next season (sadly such hopes are not new).
Season in Review: 4-12 Buffalo Bills
It was another tough season for the Bills sprinkled with gut-wrenching defeat along with a few unpleasant blowouts.
After a rough start, the Bills won four of six and should have beaten the Steelers along the way as well. Even though 2010 was a lost cause, the effort and mini win streak certainly raised the excitement about this upcoming season and the near future. After their week 6 bye, the Bills scrapped and clawed finding ways and players to challenge teams and remain competitive.
Yet, as if Bills fans haven't suffered enough, Buffalo managed to deflate the hope and tempered the expectations by finishing on a major sour note, turning in ugly performances against the Pats and Jets.
Having missed the playoffs the last 11 seasons, Bills' fans should be accustomed to such ill-treatment and lousy play. Still, this year felt different. For the first time in years, especially on offense, big time playmakers emerged and flashed potential.
The notorious Steve Johnson had a breakout year hauling in 82 passes for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. Such numbers smashed his past two seasons total of a combined 12 receptions. After releasing Marshawn Lynch, stud rookie running back C.J. Spiller secured the backup role behind Fred Jackson and began to show glimmers of his talent. Even journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, who started the season as a backup, played well beyond expectations and managed a career best 23 touchdowns and 3000 yards.
Defensively, the Bills secondary was excellent holding opponents qb's to only 192 yards a game ranking them third best in the league in yards surrendered. The problem, a problem Colt's fans know all to well, was stopping the run. The Bills managed to be worse than the Colts finishing dead last against the opponent's ground attacks.
An even more troubling statistic however, was that the Bills couldn't keep opponents off the score board.
Opposing teams constantly lit up the Bills posting 30 or more points 9 times on the flawed 3-4 base defense. The offense's inability to keep pace translated onto the record sheet and once again Buffalo was resigned to care more about their draft position than the number of W's.
Season Highlights: Steve Johnson
Steve Johnson provided Buffalo fans with the good, the bad and the ugly. Having already mentioned the ugly, let's focus on the positives: 82 catches, 10 touchdowns, the humorous why so serious TD celebration and lots of light off the field moments lifted the spirits of an otherwise dispirited fan nation.
More than that, it appears Johnson is a good guy as well. After dropping the would be go-ahead touchdown catch against the Steelers, Johnson was remorseful, apologetic and willing to shoulder the blame. According to buffalorumblings.com, when asked today on Twitter about his favorite catch of the season, he mentioned an insignificant 3 yard catch because it helped set up his teammate's first career touchdown on the following play.
After a breakout year, it seems highly likely that Johnson will be heavily involved in Bill's highlight reels for the foreseeable future.
Offseason Momentum: Mixed
Emerging offensive players like Steve Johnson and C.J. Spiller are the explosive spark this team has needed. Their continued development will making watching the Bills previously drab offense more palatable and keep fans interested.
The hiring of former University of Pittsburgh coach, Dave Wannstedt, as the new linebackers coach is a solid hire and a move that will only improve an already strong unit.
Overall however, there are lots of red flags on the horizon. For one, the Bills have several key players who are free agents and seem set on leaving. Secondly, the Bills have the undesirable decision to make regarding whether to draft yet another qb and look toward the (distant) future or stick it out with Fitzpatrick, a guy who could improve and be better than a serviceable quarterback, but who will most likely never be truly good enough to lead them to the playoffs.
Whichever path the team chooses it is almost certain to draw flack from fans. If they pass on a quarterback, people will criticize the missed opportunity. If they draft one, fans will harp on the fact that once again the Bills would be prepared to sacrifice another season.
Drafting a quarterback early and then promising to play Fitzpatrick isn't a good solution either as such a move would only invite controversy.
Offseason Anxiety: Free Agency Departures, Choosing a QB
The biggest concern for the Bills has to be the fact that several of its defensive starters, including a majority of its linebacking core are free agents. Donte Whitner has also expressed his desire to leave or be traded and morale, especially on the defensive side, does not seem to be all too high.
Over at buffalorumblings.com contributor Brian Galliford even entertained the notion of re-tooling the secondary, which finished 3rd in the league in pass yards allowed. When fans want to blow up the strongest part of their team, that is when you know you have serious flaws and anxieties.
On top of all of these legitimate concerns, the front office has to decide who will be the face of the future for the team. Will it be Ryan Fitzpatrick or a rookie - say Jake Locker perhaps?
Draft Desires: QB? Linebackers? Offensive Line?
The Bills are stuck in an impossible situation. The first, which was covered above, is what to do at QB. Unless a prospect really stands out and significantly raises his draft stock, I don't think the Bills can select a quarterback 3rd overall. Unlike years prior, the talent isn't there for such a high pick. GM Bud Nix responded to a question about whether or not Buffalo needed to take a qb by saying 'uh yeah probably.' How is that for a vote of confidence for Fitzpatrick? Not particularly a definitive or inspiring statement either.
The guys they are said to be considering - Washington's Jake Locker, Missouri's Blaine Gabbert and Alabama's Greg McElroy - aren't deserving of the honor. Although Sports Illustrated's Don Banks predicted the Bills would indeed select Gabbert, that pick seems much more of a need pick than a value pick as they are all mid-to-late first round selections at best. Cam Newton could technically be another option, but nobody seems to think he will go that early either.
If they can't resign standout linebacker Paul Posluszny, then the Bills might be forced to select a linebacker such as Texas A&M's Von Miller who scouts are raving about. But then again, if the words forced and draft are used in the same sentence that can't be a good omen.
Otherwise, the Bills also need tons of help up front on the offensive line. There are all sorts of possibilities, but so far no standout player has materialized that the Bills seem to particularly covet.
My prediction, and probably the safest bet, would be to trade down and stockpile picks. The problem is, and the reason why this year's particular pick is so undesirable, is that right now there doesn't seem to be enough top-tier talent that teams would be willing to move up for. Of course this could change, but at the moment Buffalo may be stuck with the pick.
Free Agency Farewells: Everybody worth keeping on Defense
Starting wtih Paul Posluszny, who actually wants to resign with the Bills, it seems many of Buffalo's top players on defense may depart. Its hard to argue with them. Buffalo hasn't made the playoffs in almost a decade, its cold, Buffalo as a city is struggling and the team may be moving north of the border to Toronto.
Buffalo fans are loyal but attendance is dropping. If Buffalo cant find ways to keep players like starting DL Marcus Stroud (formerly a beast for the Jags), starting linebackers Paul Poslusnzy, Akin Ayodele and Chris Kelsay as well as starting cornerback Drayton FLorence, fans will only further desert the team.
The problem is (obviously depending on the new CBA) the money might not be there to keep them, and Donte 'Whiner' Whitner, all happy. Already buffalorumblings.com is reporting that the Bills might release Stroud and let him test the free agency without an offer.
In a bizarre move, the Bills did however resign washed up former all-star linebacker Shawne Merriman to an extension.
Unfortunately or Colts fans, none of the available free agents fit any of our current needs. Marcus Stroud would be an interesting addition and certainly a big body with plenty of experience, yet signing him seems unlikely. Pasluszny is the type of tough gritty inside linebacker that the Colts have craved, but he will command far too much on the open market.
The good news for the Colts, who play the Bills next year, is that the free agency period could wipe out and do damage to what was a solid unit, leaving them highly inexperienced and susceptible to Peyton's wily ways.
Premature Glimpse Into the Future
Off the field, the outlook is definitely gloomy. Fans lament the eventual reality that the team will move to Toronto yet are even more despondent over what appears will be another year removed from the playoffs. On the field however, the fans should be treated to a lot of fireworks and a lot of aggressive and exciting play calling. If Fitzpatrick cements himself as a solid qb and Spiller emerges as many predict he will, the two of them teamed with Johnson and maybe a serviceable TE could be fun to watch. At least fans will be entertained by a high scoring offense that could put up a lot of points. Unfortunately though, those points won't equate to wins. 5-6 wins certainly seems reasonable. 8 is unlikely but wouldn't be unimaginable but anything more becomes drastically far fetched, especially considering the division they are in.
According to Vegas, the Bills have the second worst chance of winning next year's super bowl trailing on the Carolina Panthers. Knowing this, 5-6 might be a bit optimistic.
Threat to the Stampede: 0
The 0 hasn't changed but we are still talking about the bottom handful of teams here, and after all, we are the Peyton Manning led Colts. Still, the Bills could present a stiff test and will require the offense to put up numerous points - something that shouldn't be too much of a challenge.
The Colts should be fine and come out victorious, something that probably won't be as regular an occurrence for the Buffalo BIlls.
Stay tuned as tomorrow we visit with Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens for a closer at how to celebrity TV stars can ruin a franchise.