For too many Septembers now, Buffalo Bills fans have been duped into believing that this would finally be the season their team would contend for a playoff spot.
New coaches, new quarterbacks or hot-shot draft picks have all been enough to create a sliver of hope that the team is moving in the right direction.
You get the sense, as Week 1 approaches, that such blind optimism is no longer the prevailing sentiment for one of the most loyal fan bases in all of pro sports. No one in the organization is talking about a quick fix and that 11-year drought of missing the playoffs would appear to be in no danger of ending.
And perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.
Coming off a 4-12 season — their sixth losing campaign in a row and third consecutive year in the AFC East basement — the Bills are very much a work in progress. In Vegas, bookies have pegged their over-under win total at 51/2, which sounds about right and perhaps a little optimistic given that the Bills are stuck with the second most difficult schedule in the NFL, based on last season’s records.
Then there is the fact that the Bills have managed just three wins total against AFC East opponents in the past three seasons.
“In order to change, you have to win, but how does that happen?” Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick told reporters in Buffalo on Monday. “Our expectations are to win, that’s the big thing. Last year, there was a lot of talk about it, but I don’t know if that was the case a lot of times. It was expecting to go out there and hang around.
“We’re trying to change our thought process this year, going into games expecting to win. And really the only way you do that is by winning.”
There was enough hanging around, with four losses coming by a field goal and each of those against playoff teams. But the Bills either lacked the tools or the will to flip-flop the result in close games, especially in a rotten eight-game losing streak to start the season.
Predictably, then, the emphasis this season is to get off to a swift start, beginning with Sunday’s season opener in Kansas City. With games against the Raiders and Bengals in the first four weeks, the Bills certainly have a shot at building some momentum early, but what will it take?
Certainly the continued development of Fitzpatrick into a legitimate NFL quarterback will be the spotlight factor, especially given the team’s eternal struggles at that marquee position. A career backup until he replaced Trent Edwards, Fitzpatrick has shown signs of confidence and leadership that had been lacking at the position.
By the end of last season, Fitzpatrick had thrown for a credible 3,000 yards and had shown enough to coach Chan Gailey and general manager Buddy Nix to become the permanent starter. That said, in a recent survey by ESPN’s Scouts Inc., Fitzpatrick was ranked he 32nd best quarterback in a 32-team league.
“We like our quarterback,” Nix said earlier in the summer. “We think Fitz is a smart guy and a tough guy. He’s a leader for us and our players believe in him.”
With the breakout, 10-touchdown season from wide receiver Steve Johnson, the Bills felt they could part ways with Lee Evans in the off-season. But depth has been diminished and the offensive line is still a question mark.
As for the running game, Fred Jackson returns as the lead carrier, but a big season from last year’s first-round pick, C.J. Spiller, would go a long way towards adding some stability to the attack. Three times since 2003, the Bills have used their first-round pick to take a running back and it’s about time for one of them to stick.
On defence, the Bills have a few developments that can’t hurt, especially for a team that ranked last against the run in 2010. First-round pick Marcell Dareus is a beast of a defensive end who played college ball for Nick Saban at Alabama and could have an immediate impact. Linebacker Nick Barnett, acquired from the Packers also will help as will Shawne Merriman, assuming he can return to the health and form he showed earlier in his Pro Bowl career.
“I see flashes of it,” Gailey said of Merriman. “Every time he plays, he makes plays. I’m excited to see what he can do and I know he’s excited to see what he can do.”