Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Bills Fan's Excitement-Skepticism Complex: Episode II

Like most folks from Buffalo, I've been a Bills fan for life, but it wasn't until my freshman year of college that I really became a Bills fanatic. It was 1999, the last year that Buffalo was really relevant. Fandom is a strange thing- my love for this team was growing at precisely the same time that the Bills couldn't help but soil themselves on the field. Looking back on the last 12 years, I think that part of that affection springs from my distaste for what George Orwell called the "the tyranny of the strong over the weak" (well, someone writing about George Orwell called it that anyways). The Bills have been, for the most of the last decade, the weak. They've been smaller, or slower, or too prone to mistakes, or incapable of capitalizing off of the mistakes of others. Often, they've been all of these things.

Never has this been more evident than when the Bills have played the Tom Brady-led Patriots. Home or away, the Patriots have owned the Bills the way the President's Physical Fitness Challenge owns the fat kid with asthma. Its been excruciating to slog through each year, secure in the knowledge that you are guaranteed to be humiliated twice a season. No matter how hopeful I am for the season, it's been something I can't get past- a permanent part of the furniture of my mind.

And now, suddenly, that's all gone. The Bills are, as far as pure wins and losses are concerned, the best team in the NFL (at least tied for the best). If there was ever a week to deal with the hope/terror axis that Bills fans continually rotate around, this is it.

1. Sweet Jesus, we just beat the Patriots.

The writers of this blog have always tried to maintain a certain objective distance from the teams we love. Admittedly its an impossible task, but we always try to back up any outlandish claims or observations with something concrete. The idea is that any casual observer reading this blog will come away from it with a sense of the state of the franchise we're scribbling about.

Sometimes though, you just have to throw out all logic and reason, and embrace the fan that you are. In that spirit: HOLY SH#T!!! WE BEAT THE PATRIOTS!!! F^&K YEAH!!!

Whew. I feel better.

There has been the sneaking suspicion amongst Bills fans that, whatever the end result of the year would be, the Bills were an improved team this year. You'd be hard pressed to find an observer who thought that the Bills had a realistic shot at beating the Patriots, but wonderfully enough, they have.

As I alluded to above, the Patriots have been symbols of everything that has been wrong with the Bills for the last twelve years: the crucial mistakes, the inability to fight back when down, shoddy QB play, bad gameplanning and game management. The Patriots haven't beaten us just because they had better players (I'd argue that they probably haven't always actually), but because they had the mental toughness and the intelligence.

Sports pundits talk all the time about building your team to win your division first, and win your division by knocking off the best team. I'm not sure I agree with that concept (Jacksonville for example has been building to beat the Colts for at least six years), but I think that were very few doubts amongst Bills fan that we wouldn't be a contender until we beat the Patriots.

In and of itself, the victory was of course, moderately important. It gives us a leg up on divisional games this year, and gives the team confidence heading into what will be a very tough stretch. More importantly, it psychologically opens the door, for me at least, that we are not only a legitimate playoff contender, but a Super Bowl contender.

2. Ryan Fitzpatrick has the cleanest non-kicker jersey in football. 

I think that its same to safe that most Bills fans have been pleasantly surprised by the Bills performance as a whole this season. Even if we weren't coming of an endorphin-inducing win against the Patriots, we would still be feeling pretty good about the two excellent victories that preceded it. Maybe nothing has been more surprising or exciting than the play of Buffalo's offensive line.

Those who read Pro Football Focus might have noticed an interesting tidbit on Thursday. According to their metrics, Buffalo is league's best team with regards to pass blocking efficiency. Yesterday that little stunner with a another revelation thats not surprisingly only because of the prior tidbit: Three Bills are top five in their respective positions in pass blocking efficiency. LG Andy Levitre came in fifth among guards, RT Erik Pears came in second (really?) among right tackles and the much maligned LT Demetrius Bell came, astonishingly, in first amongst LT. What that means folks, is that a guy who nearly lost his starting job in the preseason to a guard is rated by PFF as the best player at maybe the second most important position in football through three weeks.

The first thing that popped into my mind: How could this have happened? If you asked an optimistic Bills fan about our chances of playing the run better, they'd probably tell how big an acquisition Dareus is going to be. If you asked that fan about the pass rush, and they'd suggest that perhaps you'd see a resurgence from Merriman. If you asked about the offensive line though, they'd probably tell you it was going to be a train wreck. But whether you buy PFF's analysis or not, the line's play has undeniably excellent.

In three games, the Bills have officially surrendered two sacks, tied for best in the NFL. They've also given up only 11 QB hits, tied for fourth. Lest you think that its a product of playing some bad pass rushing teams, please observe that the Oakland Raiders have 10 sacks on the year, tied for fourth in the NFL. They managed only one of those against Buffalo.

This sudden surge of competence doesn't stop with the passing game however. The Bills O-line has been impressive in the run game as well. As a team, the Bills are averaging 5.6 yards per carry, good for 2nd in the NFL. They've run for first downs on 30.1% of their carries thus far, also 2nd in the NFL. A lot of that yardage is coming via huge Fred Jackson runs. Last year the Bill had 9 runs of 20+ yards and no runs of 40+ yards. Already this year, they have 6 runs of 20+ and 1 run of 40+. I'm not forgetting the fact that Freddie Jackson is playing like the best back in football, but anyone who's watched the games can attest to just how big those holes have been.

1. Can we trust the pass defense?

Question: How many times has Tom Brady thrown four INTs in a game? Answer: 6, including last week's game. That means that it happens about once every 28 games or so (including playoffs). Thats not very often, in fact it last happened in 2006. Optimists and casual observers are quick to praise the play of Buffalo's secondary. And I see how they could make that argument. Jairus Byrd continues to be the best player in the secondary (actually I think he's been the best player on the defense so far this year), good Leodis showed up for a change, and Drayton Florence had another INT for a touchdown. Even Wilson, although abused for much of the day, made a huge play in the fourth quarter to kill a Patriots scoring drive.

That said, remove a lucky bounce or two, and the Bills lose this game. Take out some uncharacteristic bad decision making by Brady and its a walk for the Patriots. On the flip side of those four (glorious) interceptions, we're still talking about a secondary that surrendered 387 yards passing and four touchdowns to number 12. That brings the total to 710 yards and six touchdowns the last two weeks. Wes Welker (16 catches, 217 yards, 2 TDs) and Rob Gronkowski (7 catches, 109 yards, 2 TDs) both had career days. Welker was guarded for a unnervingly large portion of the game by safeties and more frustratingly, linebackers. Nick Barnett is a fine coverage 'backer, but he's no match for an elite quick twitch athlete like Welker. Yet there he was, play after play.

You're probably thinking to yourself right now, "Well of course Barnett was there a lot, they were playing a lot of zone coverage". And you would be correct. The problem though, is that unless you have the horses up front to get pressure out of your base lineup, sitting back in hook zones doesn't do you many favors. If there is one thing that the Bills have been awful at this year, its getting pressure on the QB.

So far the Bills have amassed all of two sacks in their three games, worst in the NFL. At that clip, the Bills will end up with about 10 sacks on the year, a feat six teams have achieved in three games. Odds are currently good that a single player will produce more sacks than the Bills roster (unless we can somehow schedule the Bears for the next 13 games).

Right now, it could be said that Chris Kelsay is the Bills best pass rusher, and while he's played very well, this is not a positive development. Outside of a toe tap to Brady last week, Merriman has been ineffective and often on the sidelines. Younger players like Dareus, Carrington and Batten have had moments, but have racked up few pressures. Even the erstwhile Kyle Williams has been far less dominating this year.

Whatever the issue, the Bills can't afford to let it linger. Over the past ten years, the eventual Super Bowl champion has finished out of the top ten in sacks only three times, and out of the top 13 only once (the 2006 Colts). If we're serious about this being a championship team, then this just has to get better.

2. A bungle in Cincinnati?

In his press conference after the game, Coach Gailey was quick to praise his club's effort and resolve against a very tough opponent. He was even quicker though, to caution against getting too much ahead of ourselves. This week's victory makes it clear that the Bills have learned how to deal with hard times, but we don't yet know how they will deal with success. Already the media scrutiny is starting to build (you may have seen this week's SI cover for example). Major sportswriters, who usually write little more than a quick snippet commenting on the Bills continuing ineptitude, will suddenly have feature stories on our young players. You many think that dealing with success would be an insignificant challenge after toppling the Patriots, but NFL history is littered with the charred remains of promising young teams.

We don't need to look much farther than our week one opponents, the Kansas City Chiefs, for instruction. Last year's AFC West champs were set to take another big step this year, into real contender status. Now three weeks into the season, they're 0-3, losing by a combined score of 109-27. Not only that, but they've also lost their two best players for the year (Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry). Matt Cassel, the supposed franchise cornerstone, has a smidgeon worse passer rating than Kerry Collins, the only NFL quarterback ordered by his doctor to observe a strict diet of muselix and oat bran.

The Chiefs aren't alone in their failed expectations. Even teams who consistently win are prone to melting down. The Ravens finally took it to their arch rival Pittsburgh in a highly emotional contest, only to fall to a less talented (although admittedly underrated) Titans team the next week. And Baltimore had at least beaten the Steelers in the last eight years.

We've also been here before haven't we? 4-0 in 2008. 2-0 in impressive fashion in 2003. Its always tease, tease, tease. 

So here we are. One of only three undefeated teams in the National Football League, facing the lowly Bengals, a team who just last week lost 13-8 to a team who's entire offensive line false started. This should be a walk. We haven't lost to the Bengals since 1988 (we lost twice to them). That's ten straight victories. If you've owned a team for that long, a team that's once again struggling, than the game is in the bag right?

And that is exactly why you should be nervous. The Bengals defense is 3rd in the NFL right now. They're allowing just 2.9 yards per carry, tied for best in the NFL. They're also 6th in opponents completion percentage and only surrender 188 yards passing game (although this is admittedly offset somewhat by some big plays they've surrendered). So far this year, the Bills have beaten the 23rd (Chiefs), 28th (Raiders) and 32nd ranked (Patriots? How is that possible) defenses in the NFL. With an emotionally exhausted Bills team coming to town, the Bengals have to think that they have a real shot at this ballgame, and unless the Bills are extremely focused, they're probably right.

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