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It doesn’t look like a leap year for the Bills

It doesn’t look like a leap year for the Bills There are more questions than answers regarding Bills quarterback EJ Manuel and his backups to consider them a playoff contender. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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This is the time of year when every NFL fan sees the glass as half full. Camps are aglow with happy news. Players are in the shape of their lives. The bad boys have become good citizens. The rookies are dazzling and the marginal are ready to be stars.

Of course, there’s good reason for optimism in a league that promotes parity, where the line between 6-10 and 10-6 can be razor thin. The draft, the salary cap and free agency ensure that no team is quite as good or bad as it seems and good times are just over the horizon.

The numbers bear it out. Over the last 10 seasons, 58 of the 120 playoff berths went to teams that missed the postseason the year before. That’s almost exactly half. So six new teams reach the playoffs in a typical year.

Over the last decade, 30 teams made the playoffs after being 6-10 or worse the year before. The team with the worst record in the league has reached the playoffs the next season two years running: The Colts in 2012 and the Chiefs in ’13.

This is a reason for both hope and regret for Buffalo fans. While it’s encouraging to see that half the playoff field turns over on an annual basis, it’s maddening to know the Bills have missed 14 years in a row.

There are various reasons why teams make the leap. Two of the biggest are improved coaching and quarterback play. Last year, the Chiefs brought in a capable QB in Alex Smith and a proven coach in Andy Reid.

Upgrades in assistant coaching can have a big effect. Some teams have talented young players who emerge as major contributors. Having key players return from injury is a factor. A strong crop of rookies (the Seahawks two years ago) can lift a team to the playoffs. A soft schedule helps.

Last year, Kansas City played all four teams that finished last in the AFC divisions (same as the Colts a year earlier). The Chiefs won 11 games, but only one against a team that finished with a winning record.

I’d like to believe the Bills are ready to make that leap. But after 14 years, I’ve learned to be skeptical. There are too many questions about quarterback EJ Manuel, and his backups, to buy in at this point.

Here are six teams, three from each conference, that have a good chance of making the jump:

Steelers: They went 6-2 in the second half last year, drilling the Bills along the way. Mike Tomlin, one of the best coaches in the business, should keep them on the right track. Management continues to trim veterans in a move toward youth.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, 32, is the key. Big Ben took every snap in 2013 and threw a record 584 passes. He won’t need to do as much if the Steelers get their running game going. Le’Veon Bell came on strong as a rookie. LeGarrette Blount came over from the Pats after a monster finish (as Bills fans no doubt recall).

Dick LeBeau, who turns 77 next month, is still running the defense. His unit needs to stop giving up big plays. Rookie Ryan Shazier, who looked good early in camp, adds to a strong linebacker corps that includes Jason Worilds.

Texans: It’s hard to like a team that lost its last 14 games. But Houston has a new coach, Bill O’Brien; a new starting quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick; two stars coming back off injury in tailback Arian Foster and linebacker Brian Cushing, and the No. 1 overall pick, linebacker Jadeveon Clowney.

Fitz is smart and experienced enough to manage the offense and get the ball to ace wideout Andre Johnson, who ended his holdout. The Texans will rely on their defense. J.J. Watt is a terror at defensive end. Cushing sets the tone and Clowney will make big plays.

Houston is suspect in the secondary, but you can say that about most of the teams in the NFL nowadays.

Jets: Critics said they might have been the worst team in the league last year. But Rex Ryan got them to 8-8. Rex always finds a way to be better than the Bills.

Geno Smith is a big question mark at quarterback, like Manuel. The difference is, the Jets brought in a backup who could challenge him, Mike Vick. Don’t be surprised if Vick is No. 1 when the Jets come to town Nov. 23. Free agent signees Eric Decker and Chris Johnson upgrade the offense.

The defense is great, and teams that are elite on one side of the ball stay in the playoff hunt. The D line, led by defensive rookie of the year Sheldon Richardson, could be the best in the AFC.

Bears: Chicago set records for total offense and passing yards under new coach Marc Trestman last season. They also had a historically bad defense, which has been largely revamped. It should make for an intriguing opener when the Bills travel to the Windy City on Sept. 7.

Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery give Da Bears perhaps the NFL’s best receiving duo. Matt Forte could be the best two-way back. Quarterback Jay Cutler was having his best season before he got hurt last year.

The Bears signed Jared Allen, 32, who is second among active players in sacks. They added rookie Kyle Fuller to a solid secondary, so the D should be better.

Washington: Coming off a 3-13 season, the ‘Skins are poised for a bounceback campaign in the weak NFC East. They have a new coach in Jay Gruden. They added solid free agents in wideout DeSean Jackson and D-end Jason Hatcher. Quarterback Robert Griffin III is back from a knee injury.

They fit the profile of a team ready to make a playoff leap. Griffin has a lot to prove, but he’s an elite talent. It’ll help if tailback Alfred Morris, who rushed for 1,613 yards two years ago as a rookie, performs at a high level.

Linebacker Brian Orakpo, a three-time Pro Bowler, should be motivated by playing on a one-year franchise tag.

Buccaneers: Another team with a new quarterback (Josh McCown) and coach (Lovie Smith). Tampa finished 4-12, but has a lot of talent, especially on defense. Smith knows defense and won three division titles with the Bears. Another former head coach, Leslie Frazier, coordinates the D.

McCown, sensational as an emergency starter in Chicago last season, is an upgrade at QB. Running back Doug Martin, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie two years ago, is back from a shoulder injury. Two rookies, wideout Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, will boost the attack.

The Bucs signed two quality defensive free agents - end Michael Johnson and cornerback Alterraun Verner. Linebacker Lavonte David is one of the more underrated players in the NFL.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

  • Paul

    Jerry, Jerry, Jerry. Still trying to convince everyone that your old buddy Fitz is a starting QB in this league huh? I guess after you threw dozens of tantrums, in print and on the radio, about how the Bills should pay top dollar to this journeyman after he won a handful of games you need to stick with your story right? After all he was a great interview and it is all about you. Don't worry guy. Nobody takes what you say seriously anymore. You've proven yourself to be a vindictive hack that it better suited to work the gossip pages in town. I see you're a fan of Big Ben and Blount in Pittsburgh as well. That makes sense. They've never gotten into trouble right? It's only Marcel Darius that deserves your wrath. Didn't you say the Bills should cut him? Brilliant.

    • Paul Bruhns

      If you member, Fitz came in and was an immediate upgrade over Trent Edwards. Fitz moved the offense his first year. It was obvious he was a difference maker. His next year, The team started off 5 -0 !!! Everyone was in awe, including the national media. I even thought that was the year the Bills would get in the playoffs! Then London Fletcher broke Fitz's ribs up in Toronto and he never looked the same that season.
      I still root for Fitz. He got TN to within a whisker of the playoffs last year, and he's the best QB option that Houston has right now.

      • Paul

        When he took over for Trent Edwards he led the team to a 3-3 record and had 7 TD's and 6 INT's and 1000 yards passing. Pretty pedestrian if you ask me. That incredible season that captured the nation by storm started out 3-0!!! They were 4-2 before his injury and he was below .500 as a starting QB in the NFL. Then came the huge contract. BTW he finished the season with a league leading 23 INT's.
        It's fine to be a fan and root for him but don't exaggerate his value.

      • Paul

        And his record as an NFL starter stands at 27-49-1

  • ptato22

    There will also be plenty of teams that will surprise on the downside - like Pittsburgh, Washington, Houston, Baltimore and Chicago last year - just to name a few. Impossible to predict those teams who will be fighting for wild card spots. Many things will occur during the year that will surprise everyone. One of them could very easily be the Bills' offense finally scoring some points. The defense should give the Bills plenty of chances to win games. They only need to be slightly better than last year to get into the playoffs. Now, if we lose our starting QB...

  • Sweet Pea

    I gott'a admit coming into this season I did have a good feel about this season and I try not look to much into preseason games but on the other hand I would like to see some good signs of improvment and I see none of that from our offense. I agree our D will keep us in a lot of games but at some point that's going to "give" from what it's looking like our D will be on the field way to much, the offense has to get it together if not it's going to be another long season.

  • Jim Johnson

    E.J. doesn't have it. Period. And we don't have an adequate backup QB. How are you going to have a winning without a decent QB?

  • timeoutofmind

    The reason this team won't get anywhere near the playoffs ? is because they're institutionally broken. i don't think any team has more consistently made poor decisions than this one.

    i'm tired of the BS about the disadvantage of the small market, the snake-bites they consistently suffer, the injury bugs, the bad karma, the weak opponents playing over their heads, the bad luck, the never-ending promise to take ownership/buck stops here.

    this team is collectively stupid ... compounded by the fact their stupidity is in general aided and abetted by a compliant media and hypnotized fan base.

    i'm an avid fan; not a professional scout, not a media member (not an nfl writer, anyway), and i have as much access to the team as the next guy.

    for two years it's been crystal clear to me and anyone else who cared to take a decently hard look that the bills qb situation was a catastrophe in the making.

    they wanted a russell-wilson type lightning in a bottle pick last year --- and crossed their fingers and closed their eyes and hoped that they were right and the entire collective scouting wisdom was wrong ---- and that EJ was the man.

    OK --- forgive them for the desperation move. the NFL is fast, complicated ... but still, deficiencies are easy to see if you know what you're doing.

    I, and most OBJECTIVE people i know, could see from the start that EJ didn't have it; not even close. Any team ---- EVERY team ---- would have picked up a veteran this past off-season to compete with EJ for the job.

    Not the Bills. they coddle him, hand him the job outright, sell their immediate future up the river to surround him with offensive talent, and he still checks off and dumps to the back almost every play.

    (And they say with a straight face that he'll be better after he works on his 'poise, his awareness, his accuracy ... ")

    Is the staff out of their minds ? A second year NFL quarterback has to hunker down and learn to be ACCURATE at this stage ? You better have accuracy nailed by the time you're ten years old if you're going to be a pro.

    And now today: the Bills braintrust --- desperate still to defend the Manuel pick and hold on to their jobs --- have put up the smokescreen about being unhappy with the backups.

    The Backups !! of course, cue the stenographer-inspired media, and they'll be following that line all week, hopefully (as far as the team is concerned) obscuring the real storyline: that the bills bet insanely/recklessly on the wrong horse: EJ Manuel.

    Now -- they're setting the stage to acquire some QB discard who will inevitably be starting for this team by about October. They could have taken their time, and picked up their own Michael Vick during the off-season ---- instead, they'll be competing over scraps (ie Thyler Thigpen) with other similarly brain-dead teams, ie the Rams.

    And instead of having a veteran who's been in camp all spring and summer, we'll be getting a lukewarm body who has no clue about the system.

    I don't think any NFL team in history has sleep-walked through one year, into the next, so woefully unprepared at QB. Other teams have been crushed by untimely injuries at the position --- but this is something the bills did on purpose, as a matter of strategy and as an extension of their collective 'thinking'.

    This is the NFL. You have to compete for your job. Hall-of-Famers are mercilessly cut when they lose a step; established veterans are benched when better/younger talent comes along. And yet EJ Manuel gets a pass; he has done next-to-nothing to show that he is a franchise quarterback, and yet the job is handed to him by protective-mother coaches with a ribbon tied around it.

    • Columbuffalohio

      Excellent post and entirely correct. Look, everybody knows EJ is a third-string quarterback at best for most franchises, and for some (see Patriots) he wouldn't even make the squad. This team dropped the ball in the name of trying not to look bad, figuring if they brought in a proven quarterback to challenge EJ they would be admitting they made a poor choice, so they are riding this experiment until the end and it's us fans that have to suffer. The Bills also continue to avoid rattling EJ's already-frayed nerves by bringing in a viable backup/possible starter, but things look so bad that only now the staff is coming up with the smokescreen "our backups look bad." Just tell the truth and admit "all of our quarterbacks look bad."

    • Paul Dunphy Jr.

      Well said, they're just trying to do damage control on the EJ pick at this point. Been a Bills fan all my life and I don't know how much more blundering I can take.

  • Eric Munger

    The sad fact of the matter is that, as in every complex organization, it starts from the top. We've had an absentee owner for the better part of the last 10 years as Mr. Wilson receded into the distance in his final years. With that, accountability and direction were lost.

    The Bills will not begin to have a chance to climb back to being a competitive team - much less a serious playoff contender - until new ownership is established and some leadership can be put in place. This isn't an indictment on the GM, head coach, assistant coaches or scouting staff in place today necessarily, just a call to awareness that strong organizations in this day of parity start at the top and we have been operating at a severe disadvantage in that regard for years now.

    Let's all keep our collective fingers crossed that new ownership keeps the Bills in Buffalo, cares about winning, and knows what they're doing well enough to be able to put the right people in place to make it happen.

    • MikMul

      Thats it right there!!!!!!!

    • MikMul

      Thats it right there!!!!! When they all rally out on the field after the Superbowl, who gets the trophy first and all the congrats from whichever tv announcer that year?? THE OWNER!!!!

  • Guest

    I agree with Eric, but for another reason. The bills have always chosen mediocrity and less. In the early 90's they stumbled onto a number of winners, one of which, Jim Kelly, even opted for a different league instead of playing for the Bills. Yet, a mediocre coach, who, like Phil Jackson (of Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers fame), never really built the team, but took it over at the most opportune time becoming a cinderella hero mastermind. Yet, unlike Phil, never carried them to the promised land. I don't consider 2nd place a dynasty.

    Forward to today.

    Football isn't rocket science, go back to the tape of the bills of the 90's. Watch Jim Kelly control a game. See how he conducts himself in the pocket. Compare that to EJ Manuel today. Not even close...And the front line of the bills today is almost as good as that of the yester-year team.

    Yes, they threw EJ into the fire. Yes, it was too early to do so for someone like him (he needed 3 years as a back up to truly hone his skills and confidence). His "Mojo" has been run over by a Mack Truck...typical for Buffalo. Now someone with winning potential is well on his way to being another Buffalo QB statistic. Sorry EJ...Its a Buffalo thing.

    So, what now.

    "Jim Kelly Tough" is what the Bills need. A Quarterback/Linebacker. A WINNER. Someone who knows what winning is all about and is tough as nails. They may not have the mechanics of the ideal quarterback. May not follow all the accepted rules of an NFL quarterback. BUT THEY WIN! There's one out there. He's just not wearing a uniform right now. Yes, he's a bible thumper. Yes, he's Mr. Clean. Big deal. Live with it. Bring him in. Fire Jeff Tuel- he's not a winner.

    Let's get back on track and build something better than the 90's...Ensuring that they stay in Buffalo for a long, long time.

  • dave

    I agree with Eric, but for another reason. The bills have always chosen mediocrity and less. In the early 90's they stumbled onto a number of winners, one of which, Jim Kelly, even opted for a different league instead of playing for the Bills. Yes, they even brought in a mediocre coach, who, like Phil Jackson (of Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers fame), never really built the team, but took it over at the most opportune time becoming a cinderella hero mastermind. Yet, unlike Phil, never carried them to the promised land. I don't consider 2nd place a dynasty.

    FYI, Marrone is a mediocre coach, without the moxie to pull talent together. One season over .500 at a less than storied program does not an NFL coach make. He's not a winner.

    Forward to today.

    Football isn't rocket science as success leaves clues. Go back to the tape of the bills of the 90's. Watch Jim Kelly control a game. See how he conducts himself in the pocket. Compare that to EJ Manuel today. Not even close...And the front line of the bills today is almost as good as that of the yester-year team.

    Yes, they threw EJ into the fire. Yes, it was too early to do so for someone like him (he needed 3 years as a back up to truly hone his skills and confidence). His "Mojo" has been run over by a Mack Truck...typical for Buffalo. Now someone with winning potential is well on his way to being another Buffalo QB statistic. Sorry EJ...Its a Buffalo thing.

    So, what now.

    "Jim Kelly Tough" is what the Bills need. A Quarterback/Linebacker. A WINNER. Someone who knows what winning is all about and is tough as nails. They may not have the mechanics of the ideal quarterback. May not have the build of an ideal an NFL quarterback (neither did Doug Flutie, Johnny U, or today's chosen one - Russell Willson). BUT THEY WIN!

    There's one out there. He's just not wearing a uniform right now. Yes, he's a bible thumper. Yes, he's Mr. Clean. Big deal. Live with it. Bring him in. Fire Jeff Tuel- he's not a winner (Just take a look at his numbers and record at Washington State).

    Let's get back on track and finally start building a foundation for something better. This season is in the books. I'm saying 4-12. Hell, maybe even 2-14 after the performance these past 2 pre-season games (hell, the Bills first team offense couldn't even move the ball against Detroit's 2nd and 3rd string defense).

    I say, Let Marrone start the season, fire him after the first 6 losses, and finish the season with an asst. Then hire someone with WINNING as their middle name. He's out there. And yes, he will cost money.

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Vic Carucci returned to The Buffalo News as a Bills beat reporter in September. Carucci covered the Bills for 17 years before joining NFL.com as a columnist in 1999. Prior to rejoining The News, he spent three years as a senior editor for the Cleveland Browns.

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida.