Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Board Room: What went wrong for the Bills?

With the Buffalo Bills 26-24 loss to the Oakland Raiders, the thought about the Bills making the playoffs can effectively be put to bed.

It will be 15 straight years that the Buffalo Bills season comes to an end after Week 17.  15 years since the Buffalo Bills saw the "Music City Miracle" happen before their eyes, knocking them out of the Wild Card Round as the Titans went on to victory, eventually making it to the Super Bowl.

So where did it go wrong?

The easiest finger to point is to the reason that's correct.  The offense.  The defense wasn't the reason for the Bills demise in 2014.  Except for that 37-22 loss to New England in Week 6, the Bills have kept other teams at bay, holding teams to 14 or fewer points 5 times this season.

And the least we say about Dan Carpenter and special teams, the better, because Dan Carpenter's leg has been the reason why the Bills have won as much as they have all this year.

The offense was anemic at times, downright terrible at others, and rarely the true gem it needed to be in order for the Bills to be successful.

Signs of the offense faltering showed up following the Bills loss to San Diego and Houston, prompting EJ Manuel's benching for Kyle Orton.  Kyle Orton came up as top passer in four of the next five games, with that fifth being a loss to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

But signs of Orton's problems started to shine dimly in narrow victories against Detroit and Minnesota, and then magnified as the Bills emerged out of the Bye week with back-to-back losses to Kansas City and Miami.

The Bills are now 3-4 after the Bye week heading into this Sunday's game against the New England Patriots, and if the Patriots have to play hard to fight for the right to host the AFC Championship next month, it's not going to be easy.

So let's take a look at the 2014 season:
WEEK 1: at Chicago - WON 23-20 (OT) - First, people treated this as if it was a big upset of the Chicago Bears.  Knowing what we know now, this wasn't a monumental upset over a team destined for the playoffs, but, instead, an average win at most over a squad that's 5-10 with one game to go.

Second, the Bills were lucky to walk out of that game alive after giving up a 17-7 halftime lead, needing two Dan Carpenter boots to help free the Bills of their mistakes.

WEEK 2: vs. Miami - WON 29-10 - Bills fans were elated after this game, as the Bills knocked off the team that in Week 1 knocked off the New England Patriots.  And convincingly, too, on a day when they honored the late Ralph Wilson.

But the signs of the troubles to come were rampant in this game.  Of the 29 points, 15 came from the leg of Dan Carpenter, and another 7 came on a touchdown return by C.J. Spiller.  That means the Bills offensive unit only found the end zone once, coming on a EJ Manuel to Sammy Watkins pass to score in the third quarter.

WEEK 3: vs. San Diego - LOSS 22-10 - And here's where we started to see the troubles that led to EJ Manuel's benching.  Manuel completed 23 of 39 passes for 238 yards and a touchdown, but was plagued for three sacks and an intentional grounding penalty that gave San Diego two points on the safety.  The word "sacked" would also become a regular theme from here on out.

WEEK 4: at Houston - LOSS 23-17 - The good was EJ Manuel's two touchdowns.  The bad was his 2 interceptions, including the one to J.J. Watt that gave the Houston Texans the lead for good.  The ugly was Manuel's 21/44 for 225 yards.  This is an example of a game that got away from the Bills, one they should have won.

And 12 weeks later, it can be said that this was one they needed to win.

WEEK 5: at Detroit - WON 17-14 - This is a game that the Bills did not deserve to win.  After spotting the Lions their fourteen points, Dan Carpenter chipped away at that lead with two field goals, and the Bills were able to make a two point conversion on a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.  But then Dan Carpenter booted the game-winning field goal.

But the Bills didn't deserve to win this game.  They got lucky because of Alex Henery's inaccurate kicking, missing three field goal attempts.  Those three misses kept the Lions from winning, and forces them into a meaningful game in Week 17 against the Packers where the division and a potential 1st round bye is up for grabs.

WEEK 6: vs. New England - LOSS 37-22 - This game came at the heels of the announcement that Terry Pegula would be approved by the NFL to become the owner of the Buffalo Bills, essentially guaranteeing Western New York that the Buffalo Bills will remain there for years to come.

People were talking about the Patriots being a little off leading up to this game, which coupled with the announcement, led many in Western New York to believe this would be the year the Bills would finally knock off the Patriots.

Instead, Tom Brady made a statement that he's just as good as he's been in prior years, and Kyle Orton made Bills fans queasy with his interception and turnover, which helped lead to the Patriots taking a 13-7 lead at the half.  C.J. Spiller's fumble didn't help matters either.

WEEK 7: vs. Minnesota - WON 17-16 - For the third out of four times this season, the Bills won a game they probably shouldn't have won.  In this case, the Bills won thanks to a drive that was orchestrated in the closing minutes, culminating in Sammy Watkins bringing home Kyle Orton's pass with one second left on the clock.

This helped electrify the crowd at the Ralph, who earlier was reeling when C.J. Spiller went down with an injury on a 50 yard run and needed to be carted off.

Kyle Orton's stats wasn't great, but they weren't bad in this game.  He completed 31 of his 43 passes for 283 yards and two touchdowns, but did get picked off.  However, the Minnesota Vikings were 2-4 going into the game, meaning a stronger Bills squad should have easily plucked the Vikings.

WEEK 8: at New York Jets - WON 43-23 - The New York Jets gifted the Buffalo Bills with 6 turnovers, making it easy for the Bills to walk out of MetLife Stadium with the victory.  Kyle Orton didn't have to do much, going 10-for-17 for 238 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Geno Smith looked awful, throwing three picks and getting benched in favor of Michael Vick, who finally drove the Jets down the field to score.  It could be argued that the Bills should have won by more, but the running game was knocked down a peg because of the injuries to Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.

It gave the Bills fans a sense of hope that would last through the bye week.


WEEK 10: vs. Kansas City - LOSS 17-13 - The earlier losses to San Diego and Houston hurt, but this one stung stronger and is a real reason why the Buffalo Bills will be spending their January watching football instead of playing.

It didn't start that way.  The Bills entered the fourth quarter up 13-3, but had already lost the opportunity to score 7 when Bryce Brown fumbled the ball just outside the plane of the goal line, as the ball went out of bounds to give the Chiefs control at their own 20.  It was one of four empty trips to the Red Zone, where the Bills settled for two field goals from Dan Carpenter.

Then Kansas City scored 14 in the fourth quarter, and the Bills came up empty.  Kyle Orton completed 29 passes, but had to throw the ball 48 times in order to get the 259 yards of offense he produced.  It wasted a defensive effort where Alex Smith was dropped 6 times, and left the Bills with a 5-4 record.

WEEK 11: at Miami - LOSS 22-9 - Yep.  If the previous game didn't put the Bills playoff hopes on life-support, this lackluster effort did.  When you score 9 points in the NFL, you can tell that it was a heavy Dan Carpenter day for the Buffalo Bills.  On the primetime stage of Thursday Night Football, the Bills relied on the field goal when their offense stopped inside the 20, resulting in a 9-3 third quarter lead that was easily turned around by the Miami Dolphins when Ryan Tannehill connected with Brandon Gibson to give the Dolphins the 10-9 lead.

A safety, a touchdown and a field goal later, the Bills playoff hopes were dealt a major blow.

WEEK 12: vs. New York Jets (at Detroit) - WON 38-3 - After a freak winter storm dealt six feet of snow to the Orchard Park area, it was apparent that the Buffalo Bills would not be able to play their Week 12 game at the Ralph.  When the snow finally stopped flying, it was determined that the game would be played at Ford Field in Detroit, and questions developed whether or not the Bills would be mentally and physically prepared for this game that was rescheduled to Monday Night.

But it quickly became apparent which team was more focused for the game.  The Bills had no problem against the Jets, making Bills fans wonder if the cobwebs from the previous two weeks were out of the system.

WEEK 13: vs. Cleveland - WON 26-10 - With a trip to Denver and New England, and a home game against the Green Bay Packers still on their schedule, the Bills knew they had to win this game to remain in the hunt.

They did, while pulling a punch that would turn to be the fatal blow to the Cleveland Browns postseason hopes.  But while the Bills won by 16, all the problems that were talked about showed up again.

The Bills should have won by more.  But Kyle Orton was only 17/31, throwing 190 yards and 1 touchdown and getting picked off twice.  The Bills were 1 for 5 in the red zone, instead turning to Dan Carpenter to kick four field goals in the fourth quarter.

WEEK 14: at Denver - LOSS 24-17 - Peyton Manning wasn't at the top of his game, throwing two picks.  The Broncos were ripe for the taking, but the Bills couldn't cash in, as Kyle Orton threw two picks and was sacked four times.

He finally found the end zone in the fourth quarter, first passing to Chris Hogan early in the quarter and then with a minute left rushing to close to 7.  But the onside kick didn't work, and Peyton Manning was able to knee to give the Broncos the win.

WEEK 15: vs. Green Bay - WON 21-13 - Aaron Rodgers wasn't himself, either.

This time, however, the Buffalo Bills were able to do enough to keep the Packers at bay.  They earned a victory over a team they weren't expected to beat, and because of that, the Bills remained in the playoff hunt for one more week.

But all the problems listed above continued to plague the Bills.  Kyle Orton was intercepted once and was 14 for 27 for 158 yards.  His offense never found the end zone, instead all points were either scored on special teams or defense.

Dan Carpenter made four field goals, Marcus Thigpen had a 75 yard punt return for a touchdown, and a safety led to all 21 points for the Bills.

Had the Green Bay Packers been at the top of their game, things would of been different.

WEEK 16: at Oakland - LOSS 26-24 - This was the fatal blow for the Buffalo Bills.

Yes, the Bills had two key defensive injuries.  But at the hands of this defeat was another lackluster showing by the Buffalo Bills offense where Kyle Orton's 329 yards and 3 touchdowns were rubbed out because of two interceptions and two sacks.  The Bills inability to convert on 3rd down, converting only 4 of their 15, also helped contribute to their loss.

The Bills rushing was non-existent, getting 13 yards on 13 carries, further enhancing the need for Kyle Orton to play well.

In the long run, the Bills fate was sealed well before this trip to the west coast, but the Bills could have made Week 17 meaningful for them for the first time in awhile.  Instead, the Bills will head to Foxborough with only the chance to make 2014 a winning season.

If the Bills and Doug Marrone are smart, they should start EJ Manuel against the Patriots, and throw the playbook out into the Atlantic Ocean.  The Bills should start experimenting and figuring out what they have as far as talent is concerned for the year ahead.

So that they can draft for it.

Bills Pros: 
The defensive 11 is the biggest pro for the Buffalo Bills, and is a huge reason why the Bills even mattered in 2014.  Whether it was defensive sacks, interceptions, or stopping a team and forcing them into three and outs, the Buffalo Bills defense held strong and deserved much better this year.  The only key issue for the Buffalo defense was taking penalties at the wrong time, which led to opponents getting 39 first downs through the season via the flag.

Bills Cons:
The offensive 11.  The Buffalo Bills were ranked 29th out of 30 teams for scoring touchdowns inside the Red Zone, and relied way too heavily in the ability of Dan Carpenter in order to put points on the scoreboard.  The offensive line failed to protect their quarterback, resulting in 37 sacks and many other rushed passes that either was off the mark or intercepted.

The Bills don't have a big-name quarterback, and might not be able to pick one up easily after foregoing their draft picks to pick up Sammy Watkins in the 2014 draft.  So the Bills need to do the next best thing and work on their offensive line.  A better quality line will lead to better run and pass potential.  You'll still have rough decisions by middle-of-the-road quarterbacks that will cause trouble and lead to some unnecessary sacks, but you'll minimize how many of them burn you in the long run.

In Closing:
The Buffalo Bills are close to finally being relevant when it comes to being a playoff team.  A few more players, and we could start talking about the Buffalo Bills and January football.  They already have the defense to keep teams close.  Now they have to pick up the offense that will drive them to victory.

More touchdowns, less field goals.

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