The Buffalo Bills have been attempting to find the correct formula for success for what seems like an eternity. By the looks of the team's approach to the 2011 season, it appears to be an ongoing search.
There was a time when the Bills were the AFC's dynasty, but it's now been nearly two decades since the glory days of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith and four straight Super Bowl appearances. And it's been 12 years since the franchise last reached the playoffs, tied with the Detroit Lions for the longest current drought in the NFL.
The times have changed following Buffalo's once iron-clad rule of the conference, and so has the landscape of the league. The advent of the salary cap era has been a long-standing impediment for the Bills, who have annually faced an uphill battle to attract free-agent talent due to their small-market environment and cold-weather climate.
The Bills have tried just about everything to deliver a winning product during their dark period. They've gone through coaches and quarterbacks like Paris Hilton goes through shoes. They've brought in big-name stars (Terrell Owens, Drew Bledsoe, Shawne Merriman) no longer wanted by other teams because of age or injuries.
Alas, the results have still been predictably the same for an organization that's endured six consecutive losing seasons and produced just one winning record since 1999.
Because of their restricted situation, the Bills have been forced to take chances in their quest to restore themselves back to respectability, and they'll be rolling the dice on a number of players in 2011 in hopes of turning around a 4-12 record in head coach Chan Gailey's first season at the helm.
Buffalo is banking on Ryan Fitzpatrick, a career backup cast off by two other teams, developing into a high-caliber NFL quarterback after he put together an encouraging 2010 season in his first real shot to be a starter.
The Bills are gambling that Merriman, once one of the league's most feared pass rushers before having his career derailed by a litany of injuries, can re-emerge as a pass-rushing force on a defense that's sorely in need of game- changers.
And Gailey and general manager Buddy Nix will be keeping their fingers crossed that a host of unproven youngsters can step up at wide receiver after dealing away one of the offense's best weapons, Lee Evans, during the preseason.
That last move underscores the dilemma the Bills find themselves in for the upcoming season. Their commitment to Fitzpatrick by passing on several prospects in a 2011 draft that was well-stocked at the quarterback position indicates Buffalo believes it's indeed ready to compete now. The Evans trade, on the other hand, conveys a completely different message.
Gailey's outlook is the optimistic one, with the well-traveled coach publicly declaring his faith in Fitzpatrick as the man who can lead Buffalo out of its continued funk.
"I am extremely confident in Ryan Fitzpatrick. I really am," he said. "We can win a bunch of football games with a guy a like that. I've been to the playoffs a couple of times with guys that haven't performed as well as Ryan has. So, I think we can do it."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Buffalo Bills, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2009 RECORD: 4-12 (4th, AFC East)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 1999, lost to Tennessee in AFC Wild Card
COACH (RECORD): Chan Gailey (4-12 in one season with Bills, 22-26 in three seasons overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Curtis Modkins (second season)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: George Edwards (second season with Bills)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Steve Johnson, WR (82 receptions, 1073 yards, 10 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Kyle Williams, NT (77 tackles, 5.5 sacks)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 25th overall (18th rushing, 24th passing), 28th scoring (17.7 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 24th overall (32nd rushing, 3rd passing), 28th scoring (26.6 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: DE Marcell Dareus (1st Round, Alabama), ILB Nick Barnett (from Packers), QB Tyler Thigpen (from Dolphins), QB Brad Smith (from Jets), WR Buster Davis (from Chargers), WR Ruvell Martin (from Seahawks), ILB Kirk Morrison (from Jaguars), CB Aaron Williams (2nd Round, Texas)
KEY DEPARTURES: WR Lee Evans (to Ravens), DE Marcus Stroud (released), ILB Paul Posluszny (to Jaguars), SS Donte Whitner (to 49ers), QB Brian Brohm (not tendered), RB Quinton Ganther (not tendered), TE Jonathan Stupar (to Ravens), NT John McCargo (to Buccaneers), ILB Akin Ayodele (not tendered), ILB Keith Ellison (not tendered), OLB Aaron Maybin (to Jets), OLB Pierre Woods (released), CB Ashton Youboty (to Buccaneers)
QB: Fitzpatrick made the most of a long-awaited opportunity to start, with the seventh-year pro amassing a career-best 3,000 yards after taking over the reins of Gailey's offense in Week 3 of last season and putting up 23 touchdown passes, the most by a Bills' quarterback since Bledsoe had 24 in 2002. The Harvard grad is smart and an underrated athlete as well, having rushed for 269 yards in his 13 appearances. He'll have two new backups behind him after the Bills signed former Dolphin Tyler Thigpen (435 passing yards, 2 TD, 2 INT in 2010) and versatile ex-Jet Brad Smith, a quarterback in college who previously spent his five-year pro career as a wide receiver and impact return man, in the offseason. The latter will be employed in special packages in Gailey's creative scheme to take advantages of his talents as a runner and passer. Thigpen figures to be a good fit in his new surroundings, as the 27-year-old threw for 2,608 yards and 18 touchdowns with Kansas City in 2008, when Gailey was then the Chiefs' offensive coordinator.
RB: Buffalo should be in good shape here, with two capable backs both returning for their second year in Gailey's system. The dependable Fred Jackson (927 rushing yards, 31 receptions, 7 TD) eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in 2009 and was extremely productive over the second half of last season, surpassing 100 yards three times in a five-game stretch from November and December. He's also an accomplished receiver who's averaged 38 catches over the past three years. Speedy sophomore C.J. Spiller (283 rushing yards, 24 receptions, 1 TD) didn't have the impact the team hoped after being chosen with the ninth overall pick of the 2010 draft due to ball-security issues and a slow learning curve, but there's no denying the former Clemson star's breakaway ability. More comfortable in his second training camp, he's expected to take on more prominent role in the game plan this year. The Bills are also excited about the potential of rookie Johnny White, a fifth-round choice in April's draft who impressed in summer practices, though the North Carolina product will likely be eased slowly into the offense. Veteran Corey McIntyre is back at fullback, though his true value to the roster comes from his special-teams work.
WR/TE: Evans' departure came in part due to the breakout 2010 campaign of Steve Johnson, who supplanted the new Raven as Fitzpatrick's go-to receiver and compiled superb numbers of 82 catches, 1,073 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. He's probably in line for a heavy helping of double teams this season, though the Bills do have two solid options out of the slot in shifty vet Roscoe Parrish (33 receptions, 2 TD), who was having an excellent 2010 before fracturing his wrist in November, and college free-agent find David Nelson (31 receptions, 3 TD), who provides a big target at 6-foot-5. Donald Jones (18 receptions, 1 TD) is the leading candidate to fill Evans' old spot after showing flashes as a rookie last year, though the undrafted 23-year-old is a steep drop-off in terms of experience. Buffalo got next to nothing from the tight end position in Gailey's first season, as 2009 fourth-rounder Shawn Nelson has yet to pan out. Scott Chandler, a 6-foot-7 journeyman who's bounced around the league since 2007, was working as the starter in the preseason, but has just one career catch to his credit. Keep on eye on second-year receiver Marcus Easley, a raw but physical fourth-round pick in last year's draft who missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury.
OL: The most unsettled, and perhaps the greatest area of concern as well, for the Bills resides on an offensive line that was viewed as a weak link in 2010. Though all five starters are back, it's possible none will be in the same position they held for the majority of last year. The unit's probable anchor will be 2009 first-round selection Eric Wood, who worked primary at right guard last season but has been shifted to his college position at center. Andy Levitre, a second-round pick in that same draft, started all 16 games at left guard in 2010 but is being pushed for his job by ex-Redskins washout Chad Rinehart. Levitre in turn has seen time at left tackle, where Buffalo hasn't been pleased with the progress of fourth-year project Demetrius Bell, during camp. The front-runners for the two right-side spots are both unappealing, as guard Kraig Urbik is a failed former high pick of the Steelers and tackle Erik Pears -- a one-time regular in Denver -- was out of the league for a good part of last season. Pears will have competition from rookie Chris Hairston (4th Round, Clemson), while veteran Geoff Hangartner -- a 12-game starter at center last year -- lends experienced interior depth.
DL: The Bills finished dead last in the NFL in rushing defense in 2010, allowing a porous 169.6 yards per game, which prompted Nix to use the third overall pick in April's draft on former Alabama standout Marcell Dareus. Incredibly agile despite weighing 343 pounds, the 21-year-old will be an instant starter at strong-side end and likely an immediate upgrade as well, as he's been outstanding during the early stages of the preseason. Nose tackle Kyle Williams (77 tackles, 5.5 sacks) led Buffalo in sacks and was a Pro Bowl alternate last season, which recently earned the scrappy overachiever a well- deserved six-year, $39-million contract. With those two in place along with reliable end Dwan Edwards (57 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), as well as a couple of promising young backups also on hand in tackle Torell Troup (23 tackles) and end Alex Carrington (8 tackles, 1 sack), the line could go from a weakness to a strength.
LB: Buffalo's pass rush was sporadic at best last season, with the team's cumulative total of 27 sacks tied for the fourth-fewest in the league, which is why the team is counting so heavily on a return to form from the brittle Merriman, acquired last November off waivers from San Diego. The 27-year-old has shown glimpses of the burst that made him a three-time All-Pro with the Chargers from 2005-07 this summer, but he's missed 30 games over the last three years with an assortment of ailments. If healthy, he'll line up opposite converted end Chris Kelsay (72 tackles, 3.5 sacks) on the edges of the Bills' 3-4 look. There are also medical concerns regarding the two projected inside starters, as offseason free-agent pickup Nick Barnett (24 tackles with Packers) was limited to just four games a year ago due to a wrist problem that required surgery and veteran returnee Andra Davis (41 tackles, 1 INT) made only six appearances last season before being shelved with a torn labrum. As insurance, the team signed seasoned pro Kirk Morrison (89 tackles with Jaguars), who owns 95 career starts over six seasons with Oakland and Jacksonville, midway through the preseason. He'll added needed depth along with second-year man Arthur Moats (33 tackles, 2.5 sacks), who acquitted himself well in spot duty as a rookie and can fill in at any of the four positions.
DB: The secondary shapes up as one of the Bills' better departments heading into the season. Cornerbacks Terrence McGee (18 tackles) and Drayton Florence (58 tackles, 3 INT, 15 PD) are both quality cover men with substantial game experience, while ball-hawking free safety Jairus Byrd (89 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) has garnered 10 interceptions in two years and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2009. Fourth-year corner Leodis McKelvin (62 tackles, 2 INT, 11 PD), has plenty of ability as well, though the 2008 first-round pick has had a somewhat inconsistent career thus far, while the second-round selection of good-sized University of Texas product Aaron Williams in April's draft furthers the talent base, a priority considering the injury-prone McGee has missed 12 games over the past two years. Buffalo let strong safety Donte Whitner walk in free agency during the offseason, though team player rep George Wilson (35 tackles, 2 INT) is a worthwhile replacement who started 12 times there in 2009. The future at the position may be rookie Da'Norris Searcy, a fourth-round draft choice out of North Carolina who's regarded as a sound run supporter. Buffalo finished 28th overall in pass efficiency defense and surrendered 28 touchdown passes in 2010, though those poor numbers were in part due to the lack of a pass rush.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Spiller didn't contribute much on offense in his debut, but the highly-skilled youngster quickly made his mark in the return game, averaging an outstanding 14.6 yards on punt runbacks and 23 yards per kick return along with a touchdown in the season's third week. He's one of several strong options in that area, as Brad Smith (28.6 avg, 2 TD on KR), Parrish (10.9 avg. on PR), McKelvin and McGee all have previously recorded special-teams scores in their careers. Kicker Rian Lindell is coming off a subpar season in which the 11-year veteran made just 16-of-21 field goal tries and also missed an extra point, though he does possess a strong leg and has been generally trustworthy during his tenure. Punter Brian Moorman (42.4 avg.), renowned for his superior hang time on kicks, is back for his 11th season as the Bills' punter and is a two-time Pro Bowl selection.
PROGNOSIS: The Bills weren't as bad as last year's record indicated, as three of the 12 losses came in overtime and the team went 4-4 over the second half after losing its first eight games. And considering the defense couldn't possibly be any worse than last year's disaster, a better overall result in 2011 may very well be forthcoming. However, there are still too many question marks, particularly on the offensive line and at the skill positions, and although Gailey has a track record of getting the most of his resources on that side of the ball, there's simply not enough in place to project Buffalo to be a factor in an AFC East pack that contains two conference powerhouses in New England and the New York Jets.