Young, inconsistent Bills remain a work in progress under first-year coach Marrone

Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel launches a pass against the Atlanta Falcons during first half NFL football action in Toronto on Sunday Dec. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)

Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel launches a pass against the Atlanta Falcons during first half NFL football action in Toronto on Sunday Dec. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)  (The Associated Press)

Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone has gradually come to the same realization his four immediate predecessors encountered during their first years on the job.

Transforming the Bills into winners doesn't happen overnight.

Though not counting the Bills out just yet, Marrone grudgingly acknowledged this week that the high expectations he had after taking over in January have begun giving way to the reality that his young, inconsistent team remains a work in progress.

"Yeah, I have a hard time with that," Marrone said. "We have players here who are capable of winning games. We have coaches here that are capable of winning games. And we're not getting that done. And that's where I'm struggling to get ourselves over that top and creating consistency."

The only thing that has remained consistent is the team's losing record as the Bills (4-8) prepare to travel to play Tampa Bay (3-9) on Sunday.

Buffalo is in jeopardy of extending the NFL's longest active playoff drought to 14 seasons. That would tie Cincinnati (1991-2004), Tampa Bay (1983-96) and Kansas City (1972-85) for the 11th longest stretch in league history.

Following a 34-31 overtime loss to Atlanta last weekend, the Bills are guaranteed their ninth year without a winning record.

It's as if, Marrone said, that he's fighting an uphill battle against the franchise's losing past.

"Make no mistake, I think that you do fight those things," Marrone said. "But that's why we're here. That's why I'm here. That's why our staff is here. That's why the players are here to change that."

Easier said than done for a team now on its fifth coach since 2001.

Under Marrone, Buffalo has shown glimpses of progress.

The Bills have been competitive particularly at home, where they're 3-4, including last weekend's game at Toronto. The four losses have been decided by a combined 17 points, including two in overtime.

They've shown signs of resilience in overcoming injuries, especially at quarterback after rookie starter EJ Manuel missed four games with a sprained right knee.

And their defense has improved under new coordinator Mike Pettine.

Buffalo's NFL-leading 43 sacks are the most by the Bills through 12 games. Buffalo is also tied for second in the league with 16 interceptions.

What's been most promising is the play of their crop of rookies. It's a group led by linebacker Kiko Alonso, a second-round draft pick, who has merited mention as a rookie defensive player of the year candidate.

Manuel, the team's first-round pick, has been inconsistent but efficient at quarterback. He has a 3-4 record in games he's started and finished. Overall, Manuel has thrown nine interceptions versus four interceptions and also scored a touchdown rushing.

The trouble has been the Bills' inability to consistently manufacture their own breaks.

They squandered a 14-0 lead to Atlanta, and then lost the game by losing fumbles on their final two possessions. In a 23-13 loss to Kansas City on Nov. 3, Buffalo held a 470-210 edge in yards offense, but still lost after the Chiefs returned two turnovers for touchdowns.

Those are among the telltale signs of growing pains that were expected from a team that went through a top-to-bottom offseason overhaul.

"It's definitely tough, but it part of it," running back Fred Jackson said. "There are some growing pains there."

Linebacker Manny Lawson likes what he's seen in his first year with the Bills.

"I haven't been here for the past years, so I don't know everything that's gone on," Lawson said. "But I see a lot of promise."

The Bills' season so far can be summed up by a motivational message, "Don't confuse effort with results," Marrone had painted prominently on the two end zone walls inside the team's practice facility.

It's a message that hits home to Jackson.

"That's something we talk about probably every week. We say, 'We're giving the effort, we're still not getting the results,'" Jackson said. "That means we've still got to keep working."

NOTES: TE Scott Chandler was excused from practice because his wife is expecting a child. ... WR Marquise Goodwin was held out of the final portion of practice as a precaution after hurting his calf. ... DT Kyle Williams returned to practice after getting a day off to rest his sore right foot.


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