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NFL – Bills’ Season Review – Part 4

03 Jan

The fourth and final section of this Buffalo Bills’ 2014 season review was originally supposed to deal with how the team could use the draft and free agency to upgrade the roster and improve upon this season’s 9-7 record. However, I’ll also now include my thoughts on how they should handle the search for a new head coach now that Doug Marrone has taken the money ($4 million) and ran. According to reports, GM Doug Whaley will have a say in picking the new man, and the list of reported candidates they are looking to interview includes current defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and former Bills’ backup quarterback and current San Diego OC Frank Reich. Also on the list are the hot, young coaches everybody else is after – both Seattle coordinators, Darrell Bevell and Dan Quinn, Denver OC Adam Gase and New England OC Josh McDaniels. My ideal situation would be for the Bills to hire Reich, who fits the situation best and “gets it” as far as what it takes to coach here, and somehow convince Schwartz to stay on to coordinate the defense and keep the continuity there. Maybe a big raise and promotion to “associate head coach” or something along those lines would do it. That way the entire defensive staff would remain intact while Reich completely retooled the offensive staff with more forward-thinking people of his own choosing. As far as re-stocking the roster, Whaley created a big hole by trading away the Bills top pick and 4th rounder in this year’s draft to get Sammy Watkins. Can Whaley convince new owner Terry Pegula to ante up for a couple of key free agents to make up for those lost draft picks? The Bills still have 7 choices in the 7 round draft, but with no first rounder they could use a high-quality free agent to keep pace with the rest of the league. That player doesn’t necessarily need to be a quarterback, even though that is the position of biggest need.   Here are the positions where the team needs help, in my opinion, and what Buffalo could do to improve these areas:

Quarterback

The free agent crop is extremely thin, and there are really no long-term answers there. If the Bills are looking for another decent veteran, similar to Kyle Orton, to come in and compete with EJ Manuel, Dolphins’ backup Matt Moore, who is 30 years old and has starting experience, would be a good option. If they want to take a flyer on a younger player who has been thrown to the wolves with a bad franchise and could be salvageable, then Jake Locker, who has been a bust in Tennessee, might work. He was compared to Jim Kelly coming out of college but hasn’t played up to the billing, although it can be argued that he was thrown into the fire before he was ready, much like Manuel, and might blossom with better coaching. With no first round draft pick, any QB coming out of college would have to be a Derek Carr/Jimmy Garropollo type of player that could be found in the later rounds. A couple of names in that group would be Oregon State’s Sean Mannion and Baylor’s Bryce Petty.

Running Back

The Bills are going to either have to add some talent here or find out whether Bryce Brown can be a bigger contributor. In the draft, Todd Gurley from Georgia is a first round talent who may drop into the second or third round after missing time in 2014 with injuries. Among free agent backs, Oakland’s Darren McFadden is an intriguing name. He’s underachieved with the Raiders but could just need a change of scenery.

Receivers

The Bills need to add some players here, with the depth behind Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods being thin. They also could stand to upgrade the tight end position. At wide receiver,  San Diego’s Eddie Royal, a productive #3 type receiver, is an interesting free agent name who would fit well here, especially if Reich is hired as head coach. Tyler Lockett of Kansas State is a projected mid-round receiver who looks like he will be a solid pro. The Bills could make a splash in free agency with a push for a big signing at tight end.  Julius Thomas, one of Peyton Manning’s premier weapons in Denver, is available, while Jordan Cameron of Cleveland underachieved this year but could be a good addition to the offense.

Offensive Line

Buffalo could offset the loss of the first round draft pick by reaching into the free agent market and signing guard Mike Iupati away from the San Francisco 49ers. He’s young (27) and a solid starter who would immediately upgrade a position of need. The Niners are in somewhat of a state of flux with coach Jim Harbaugh departing, so this signing is not a pipedream. The Bills are likely to look for more help along the line in the draft, and a couple of good prospects are Ari Kouandjio of Alabama, younger brother of the Bills’ rookie, and Corey Robinson of South Carolina.

Defensive Back

The Bills’ defense is in pretty good shape going into 2015, but one position that could use some help is safety, especially if Da’Norris Searcy isn’t re-signed. If Reich is brought on as coach, perhaps Marcus Gilchrist, a Charger safety, could come along with him. Gerod Holliman of Louisville is projected as a first or second round talent in the draft, and if he falls to the second round and is available to the Bills he would be a great pick, with good size and tremendous ball-hawking skills.

 
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Classic Team Logo of The Day

03 Jan

SaginawValleyStateCards2

Logo of a small college football program, the Saginaw Valley State Cardinals, who play at the Division II level in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. The list of Cardinal players who’ve gone on to play in the NFL is small, and includes Paul Spicer, Ruvell Martin and Eugene Marve.

 

Classic Sports Card of The Day

03 Jan

60fleerramsey

1960 Fleer football card of former pro football player, and the first head coach in Buffalo Bills’ history, Garrard “Buster” Ramsey. He coached the Bills in their first 2 seasons of existence, in 1960 and ’61. Ramsey enjoyed a six year playing career in the 1940s and ’50s with the Chicago Cardinals, but his greatest success came in the ’50s when he served as chief defensive assistant coach with the Detroit Lions, helping them win 3 NFL championships. Ramsey is credited with devising the 4-3 defense, which is a standard scheme in today’s NFL, and also being the first coach to blitz linebackers, a tactic he called the Red Dog. His defensive prowess got him the head job in Buffalo, and after he was fired from that post he returned to the NFL and coached the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense from 1962 until 1964. Ramsey passed away in 2007.

 

NFL – Bills’ Season Review – Part 3

02 Jan

Part 3 of this review deals with the Buffalo Bills’ defense and special teams. The defense was the driving force in the team winning 9 games, while the special teams were competent for the entire season. Jim Schwartz stepped into the role of defensive coordinator and did an outstanding job of not only maintaining the efficiency of a good unit but improving it.   Special teams coach Danny Crossman’s units were sub-par in 2013, but GM Doug Whaley stocked the roster with better ST players in 2014, and the bomb squads were improved in all aspects. Here are the position by position assessments of the defense and special teams:

Defensive Linemen

 

The Bills’ front four consisted of four Pro Bowl-caliber players, even if only three of them actually were voted into the game. Tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus and end Mario Williams were all elected to play in the annual all star game, and the other end, Jerry Hughes, could make a case that he belonged there also. There was great depth behind the starting four also, as backups Stefan Charles, Corbin Bryant, Manny Lawson and Jarius Wynn  all got significant playing time in the D-line rotation, with very little drop off in performance. Bryant is a restricted free agent so the Bills can bring him back if they choose to. It’s interesting that in the season ending game at New England, Wynn got the start in place of Dareus instead of Bryant (and played well), which may say something about who they keep around. Both Wynn and Hughes are unrestricted free agents. Hughes looks like he should be a top priority to get signed, but then again his habit of playing undisciplined and taking foolish penalties could diminish his value, especially if the Bills hire a new head coach who has no patience for it.

Linebackers

 

Linebacker was a position that needed a major upgrade going into the 2014 season, and things got worse when Kiko Alonso, their prize rookie of 2013, got hurting working out prior to the season. Whaley went out and signed veterans Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers in free agency to bolster the unit. Spikes added a winning attitude to the locker room and at times showed a much-needed physical presence on the field, but his play diminished as the season went on, and he’s a candidate to not be re-signed for 2015. Rivers never made much impact at all, but luckily two young players, Nigel Bradham and rookie Preston Brown, rose to the occasion and not only nailed down starting spots but played consistently well all season. Add their play to the fact that Alonso will return next year and the Bills have the makings of a solid linebacking corps. Reserves include Ty Powell, Larry Dean and Randell Johnson. Powell played a major role on special teams and seemed to get the playing time edge over Rivers as the year wore on. Dean was strictly a special teamer who is a free agent and not likely to be back. Johnson showed early flashes of brilliance, especially on special teams, but fell out of favor with the coaching staff, like a lot of players seemed to do under Marrone, and was barely visible the second half of the season.

Defensive Backs

 

The Bills had the second highest rated defense in the AFC, so the secondary must have done a lot of things right in 2014. The biggest story of the Bills’ defensive backfield may have been the improvement of cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who finally started to live up to his top draft pick status as a cover corner. The other starter, Leodis McKelvin, had an up and down year that ended early due to an injury, but he is a competent player who, in my opinion,  would benefit from being freed from his punt return duties to concentrate fully on his cornerback responsibilities. Corey Graham not only strengthened the special teams but played a key role as a backup and sometimes starter at both corner and safety. Reserves Nickell Robey, Ron Brooks and untested rookie Russ Cockrell make this a deep unit going into 2015. The play of both starting safeties, Aaron Williams and Da’Norris Searcy, was inconsistent. They both had their golden moments but also had some disappointing games. Backup Duke Williams, a young player who has become one of the hardest hitters on the club, seems destined to eventually take over one of those starting spots, most likely Searcy’s since he is an unrestricted free agent. Of the other safeties on the roster, Bacarri Rambo had a game for the ages against Green Bay to put his name in the mix for 2015, while Kenny Ladler and Jonathan Meeks are both unknown commodities.

Special Teams

 

All of the Bills’ special teams units were head and shoulders better than the 2013 ones. Kicker Dan Carpenter was pretty much money in the bank on field goals. Marcus Thigpen handled kickoff and punt returns late in the year and should be considered for those roles next season, taking the pressure off McKelvin and filling the kickoff return void left by Marquise Goodwin’s inability to say healthy. Graham, Boobie Dixon, Duke Williams, Brooks and Marcus Easley were all valuable kick coverage players. The Bills kept two kickers and it’s questionable whether keeping kickoff specialist Jordan Gay for another year is worth it. Punter Colton Schmidt started out fine but faltered late in the year, which probably warrants bringing in some competition for him in 2015.

 
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Classic Team Logo of The Day

02 Jan

OregonST7396

Logo of the Oregon State Beavers, a major college football program. This logo was used from 1973 until 1996, when the team was part of the Pacific Eight Conference, which has now grown into the Pac 12. The school fielded its’ first team in 1893. They had one Heisman Trophy winner, Terry Baker in 1962. Former OSU players who have played in the pros include Vic Sears, Chad Johnson, Sam Baker, Bob Grim, Paul Lowe, Stephen Jackson and Brandin Cooks.

 

Classic Sports Card of The Day

02 Jan

74toppsskorupan

1974 Topps football card of former pro football linebacker John Skorupan, who played eight seasons in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants. He was a starting ‘backer for the Bills immediately after being drafted out of Penn State in 1973, when the school was known as “Linebacker U.” due to the large number of stars they turned out at that position. He played for the Bills for 5 seasons before moving on to New York, where he played on the outside for 3 years before giving his starting spot over to a young player named Lawrence Taylor.

 

NFL – Bills’ Season Review – Part 2

01 Jan

Part 2 of the Bills’ 2014 season review deals with the offense, which was clearly the weak link of the team, but still played adequately enough to win 9 games. The main story of the year offensively was the benching of EJ Manuel at quarterback, and his subsequent replacement by Kyle Orton. However, the QB position wasn’t the only problem offensively. The O-line was inconsistent, and for the first time in team history the Bills did not have a 100 yard rusher in any game. Notesince part 1 of this season review was posted, Bills’ coach Doug Marrone opted out of the third year of his contract, so the decisions to be made for next season will be made by a completely new regime, as far as the coaching staff is concerned. That being said,  here is a position by position look at the Buffalo offense:

Quarterbacks

 

Coach Doug Marrone made the switch from Manuel to Orton after 4 games and the move worked, as Orton engineered a 7-5 record in his starts. The move got Marrone what he was looking for – consistent QB play. However, Orton was what he’s always been, consistently average. As the season ended, Orton surprised the team by announcing his retirement, which leaves just Manuel and Jeff Tuel, both basically unproven, as the only signal callers on the roster. This is a spot that has to be majorly upgraded in the off-season, even if it means overstocking the club with QB candidates going into training camp, then waiting to see what shakes out of the competition. One thing is for sure – even if Orton hadn’t retired the Bills needed to upgrade the play at the quarterback position going into 2015.

Running Backs

 

The Bills finished the 2013 season with the running game being the strength of the offense, then made a strong stable of backs even better with the off-season acquisitions of Boobie Dixon and Bryce Brown. The result? The running game never got untracked all season, and for the first time in club history not one runner gained 100 yards in a game all year. Now it looks like running back may be another position of need for the Bills to address, especially with C.J. Spiller entering free agency. Fred Jackson, one of the team’s true leaders, should be back but as the oldest RB in the NFL he is more suited to play a complementary role to another, younger workhorse back. Buffalo has an interesting decision to make regarding Spiller. He missed a lot of the season due to injury, but still never really hit his stride even when healthy. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett hasn’t found any creative ways to get Spiller into open space, in either the running or passing attack. It’s very possible he may sign with another team with better coaches and become the next back to leave Buffalo and blossom (see Marshawn Lynch). Of course, it could be argued that Spiller is the type of player mentioned in part 1 of this review, who makes a bad play for every good one and wouldn’t be missed if he wasn’t re-signed.  Dixon is a valuable man on the roster, as a reserve back, special teams player and locker room leader. Brown showed some promise in limited action, but if the coaching staff saw anything in him, he surely would have seen some action prior to when he did, basically after both Jackson and Spiller got hurt in the same game.

Receivers

 

Bills’ management felt the talent at wide receiver was deep enough that they could afford to jettison Mike Williams, who they gave up a 6th round draft pick to acquire, but beyond Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, both of whom should be solid starters for a long time, there isn’t much depth. Chris Hogan won the #3 spot, and was decent, but he’s a restricted free agent. He’s probably worth re-signing but there might be a free agent available who would be an upgrade. The other receivers on the roster are Marquise Goodwin, who will need to prove he can stay on the field next year to even earn a roster spot, Deonte Thompson, a late-season addition who is totally unproven, and 2 players who are strictly special teams contributors, Marcus Easley and Marcus Thigpen. At tight end, there’s Scott Chandler, a mostly reliable weapon, MarQueis Grey, another late-season signing who made plays and is versatile, Chris Gragg, a late round draft pick who has shown flashes of good play, and Lee Smith, the blocking tight end who is an unrestricted free agent and, with his penchant for penalties, isn’t worth re-signing, in my opinion. He is a poster child for the type of player mentioned in part 1 of this review, except he makes 2 bad plays for every good one and could be removed from the roster and replaced with a better option.

Offensive linemen

 

While we’re on the subject of Marv Levy’s “addition by subtraction” type of players, we might as well add both starting guards, Erik Pears and Kraig Urbik, to that list. Center Eric Wood didn’t have his best season, but he may have looked worse than he actually played due to the poor play of the guards on either side of him. The starting tackles, Cordy Glenn and Seantrel Henderson, are building blocks for the future. It’s possible Glenn could be moved inside to guard if a good tackle can be found in free agency. Henderson was a feather in GM Doug Whaley’s cap as a seventh round draft pick as he started all year at right tackle and held his own. Two other rookies, Cyril Richardson and Cyrus Kuandjio, still have potential but their lack of development is disappointing considering Marrone’s background is as an offensive lineman. Chris Williams, who was a 2014 free agent signee but didn’t see much action this year because of injury, should also compete for a starting job at guard next year, but didn’t play all that well when he was healthy, so his starting job shouldn’t be automatically handed back to him. Chris Hairston, another reserve lineman, is an enigma – a guy who has filled in admirably when needed at multiple positions but never been able to play his way into the starting five on the line.

 
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Classic Team Logo of The Day

01 Jan

arkansas5162

A classic team logo, used from 1951 until 1962, of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. A major college program, the Razorbacks are now part of the Western Division of the powerful Southeastern Conference, after being long-time members of the old defunct Southwest Conference. The “Hogs”, who began play in 1894, claimed a national championship in 1964 when they defeated Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl to complete a perfect season. Former Arkansas players who’ve gone on to play in the pros include Lamar McHan, Pat Summerall, Preston Carpenter, Lance Alworth, Joe Ferguson, Steve Atwater, Dan Hampton, Jason Peters  and Darren McFadden.

 

Classic Sports Card of The Day

01 Jan

89scorequinnearly

1989 Score football card of former pro football wide receiver Quinn Early, who played 12 seasons in the NFL for four different teams. His longest stay was with New Orleans, where he played five years, while also putting in three year stints in San Diego and Buffalo. Early currently resides in San Diego, where he teaches Kung Fu at a martial arts academy. He has written books on that subject and also been published in Inside Kung Fu magazine.

 

NFL – Bills’ Season Review – Part 1

30 Dec

This is part 1 of a four part series reviewing the recently completed regular season of the 2014 Buffalo Bills. This segment will discuss the front office and coaching staff, with 3 other posts to follow covering the offense, defense and special teams, and what the team needs to do to improve in 2015. It’s a whole new ballgame as far as management and the coaches are concerned, as the team enters its’ first off-season under new owners Terry and Kim Pegula. My personal opinion is this – team president Russ Brandon, who has done a great job holding down the fort after taking the reins from Ralph Wilson, should remain with the team in a role similar to that of Ted Black with the Pegulas’ other team, the Buffalo Sabres. The other two management faces, general manager Doug Whaley and head coach Doug Marrone, both have their pluses and minuses but deserve to return to try and complete the job they’ve started. Whaley gets credit for adding veteran free agents who improved the club and added a winning dimension to the locker room. Those players include Brandon Spikes, Corey Graham, Anthony Dixon and Dan Carpenter. He also worked hard to add pieces during the season, and MarQueis Grey, Marcus Thigpen and Bacarri Rambo all contributed to late-season wins. It can be argued that Whaley gave up far too much to the Cleveland Browns in the 2014 draft to try to move up and get Sammy Watkins. Personally, I believe in the long run that will turn out to be a positive in Whaley’s corner. But still, the team will go into the 2015 draft minus both a first and fourth round pick, which has to hurt the club. Although Pegula got burned with the Sabres when he initially spent a lot of money on free agents who didn’t work out, it would be a good idea for Whaley and Marrone to convince him to try to sign a couple of useful players on the market to help replace those lost draft picks. Whaley’s draft in 2014 produced not only Watkins but two other starters in Preston Brown and Seantrel Henderson, while the jury is still out on the rest of the picks. Whaley’s biggest negative is the fact he has left the roster cupboard bare at the quarterback position for two consecutive years now. The team has to settle that position, especially with Kyle Orton announcing his retirement, prior to training camp, so they don’t spend the preseason auditioning guys off the street at the most important spot on the team, as they have the last 2 years. That brings us to Marrone, who also has both positive and negative qualities. On the plus side, he reacted to the loss of Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator with the quick hire of Jim Schwartz, who molded a solid unit into an even better one.  He coached the team to their first winning record in a decade, a 3 game improvement over his first year. He made a bold move in benching EJ Manuel after 4 games and going to Orton, who wasn’t even with the club in preseason. He also handled a tough situation in the snowstorm-cancelled game that was switched to Detroit. He got his team focused, despite missing valuable practice time, and they played one of their best, most inspired games of the year there. On the negative side, Marrone, to me, still has to separate himself from his predecessors in the Bills’ coaching ranks. Too many winnable games got away from the team due to mistakes, turnovers and penalties. In short, they still haven’t completely changed the losing culture. Marrone needs to set the bar higher and refuse to accept repeat mistakes, making the players accountable to him and each other. To use a historical reference to make my point, go back to the first full season Marv Levy had as coach of the Bills. Levy systematically removed players who gave inconsistent efforts – Fred Smerlas (who played hard but routinely and unapologetically jumped offsides), Ronnie Harmon, Joe Devlin and Chris Burkett to name a few. Those players were guys who were decent players, but the type who made 2 or 3 mistakes or bad plays for every big play they made. Marrone may have to identify and replace those types of players. In our next 2 segments, I’ll give my opinions on who those players are and what shape the team is in going into 2015.

 
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