By Dan Durkin-
The Bears host the Bills on Sunday at noon. This is the first in a series of weekly breakdowns on Chicago’s opponents.
(CBS) Since the passing of Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson this past March, the focus of Bills’ nation has centered around who will become the club’s new owner.
Three non-binding offers just shy of $1 billion have been submitted — one from Terry Pegula, the owner of the Buffalo Sabres; one from a Toronto consortium that previously included Jon Bon Jovi; and another from real-estate magnate Donald Trump. Whichever bid is eventually accepted by Wilson’s estate will fetch a fine haul, considering Wilson purchased the team for $25,000 in 1959.
Fan angst centers around the possibility of the team ending up north of the border. This is an admirable display of loyalty toward a team with the NFL’s longest postseason drought (14 seasons) and only one winning record (9-7 in 2004) over that span.
After watching previous coach Chan Gailey perpetuate the pain with a 16-32 record, he was fired the day after the 2012 season ended. This move triggered a cascading series of peculiar events within the Bills’ power structure.
The day after Gailey was fired, Wilson stepped down as team president, handing over the reigns to CEO Russ Brandon. Less than a week later, Doug Marrone was abruptly hired as head coach. At the time, Marrone was an eight-year NFL assistant whose only head coaching experience was a four-year stint at Syracuse, where he compiled a .500 record.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick proved unworthy of the six-year, $59-million extension with $10 million guaranteed, and he was released in March 2013. Kevin Kolb was signed that April, but his season — and possibly career — was cut short after suffering a concussion in the 2013 preseason.
Then-general manager Buddy Nix presided over the 2013 draft, in which the Bills traded down from the eighth overall selection to 16th and chose Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel. A little more than two weeks after the draft, Nix stepped down as general manager and just days later assistant general manager Doug Whaley was promoted to the top post.
Connecting the scattered dots over this timeline helps illustrate the organized confusion that has plagued the Bills franchise for more than a decade.
Marrone’s NFL experience came as an offensive line coach with the Jets and as Sean Payton’s offensive coordinator in New Orleans for three seasons. In his final year with the Saints, he helped orchestrate the league’s top-rated offense.
Marrone runs an up-tempo scheme. In 2013, the Bills ran the fourth-most plays from scrimmage, deploying a balanced attack that slightly favors the run and uses a variety of formations, pre-snap shifts and packaged reads for the quarterback, primarily from three-receiver sets.
Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s timing-based passing game features high-low and shallow crossing route concepts and requires a rhythm passer to make quick decisions.
On that note, the biggest issue facing the Bills on offense is the slow development of Manuel.
Manuel looks the part (6-foot-5, 237 pounds) and has plenty of arm strength with the movement skills to match. However, the same issues that plagued him at Florida State — questionable decision-making under pressure, not going through his progressions and inaccuracy — have carried over to the NFL. He has a tendency to stare down his primary receiver and force passes.
Kyle Orton recently signed a $5-million contract with Buffalo, so clearly patience is running thin on Manuel, who’s under pressure to perform.
This past May, the Bills boldly moved up in the draft to select Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who is a gifted open-field runner with game-changing speed. He has been dealing with a rib injury throughout the preseason, so how much this affects him during the regular season remains to be seen.
Second-year wideout Robert Woods will operate out of the slot. Woods is a smooth route runner who was heavily targeted in the preseason. The Bills traded for Mike Williams, who played for Marrone at Syracuse. Williams ran into trouble in Tampa Bay but has been an effective red zone target. Speedster Marquise Goodwin is a vertical threat, but will Manuel improve on his 33-percent deep ball accuracy?
The Bills’ bread and butter on offense remains their running game. They led the league last year with 546 rushing attempts and boast three capable running backs with complementary styles.
C.J. Spiller is elusive and instinctive with breakaway speed, Fred Jackson is the best receiver and short-yardage back and newly acquired Bryce Brown runs with a blend of both speed and power.
In 2013, Spiller’s four carries for 40-plus yards tied for first in the league (with Matt Forte), and his nine carries for 20-plus yards were the second-most. Impressive numbers on their own, but even more impressive considering he played the majority of the season with an injured ankle. Collectively, the Bills had 56 rushes of 10-plus yards, which was the eighth-most in the NFL.
Given Marrone’s background as an offensive line coach, the Bills are still seeking the right combination of offensive linemen and are putting an emphasis on size. This group primarily executed zone-blocking techniques, so by adding bulk, they may be able to add more man and gap blocking concepts.
Left tackle Cordy Glenn missed a portion of the offseason program with an illness but is back to anchor the blind side. Eric Wood is the sixth highest-paid center in the league, but his play doesn’t always match his pay grade.
Surprisingly, the Bills spent $13.5 million in free agency on left guard Chris Williams. This move, more than any, signaled Marrone’s desire to get bigger along the line. The Bills then spent three of their seven draft picks on massive offensive linemen, and the last one selected — seventh-round tackle Seantrel Henderson — will start the season at right tackle.
When Mike Pettine in January accepted the job to become the coach of the Cleveland Browns, the Bills were assured of their fourth defensive coordinator in as many years. Pettine turned the Bills into a playmaking unit that finished second in the league in negative plays (123), sacks (57) and interceptions (23).
Less than 24 hours after Pettine moved on, the Bills hired Jim Schwartz as his replacement. Philosophically, this was a curious move. Pettine runs 3-4 hybrid fronts and frequently stunts his down linemen and second-level blitzers. Schwartz, on the other hand, runs a fairly static 4-3 base with wide-nine defensive ends.
Outside of replacing departed All-Pro free safety Jairus Byrd and injured linebacker Kiko Alonso (ACL tear), the biggest question facing the Bills is how the scheme change will affect their defensive line, which produced 41 sacks in 2013.
Defensive end Mario Williams flourished under Pettine. He was deployed from various positions, giving him a variety of rush lanes and angles to get to the quarterback. Schwartz would be wise to move the powerful Williams around instead of using him exclusively on the left side.
Opposite Williams is Jerry Hughes. After three lackluster seasons in Indianapolis, Hughes was headed toward first-round bust territory, but he blossomed last year, bending the edge en route to an 11-sack season.
Wedged in between Williams and Hughes is the Pro Bowl defensive tackle combination of Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. Williams and Dareus form one of the league’s most disruptive duos. They’re able to both hold the point against the run and shoot gaps to collapse the pocket.
The Bills have finished in the bottom five in run defense for five straight seasons. They took a corrective measure by signing free agent linebacker Brandon Spikes, the league’s premier second-level run defender. In their base package, Spikes will be flanked by veteran Keith Rivers on the strong side and rookie Preston Brown on the weak side.
After successfully making the transition from cornerback to strong safety last season, Aaron Williams is on the move yet again, this time to free safety. He has the requisite coverage skills but has big shoes to fill. After Earl Thomas, Byrd is the best ball hawk in the league.
At cornerback, the Bills have a pair of former first-round picks, Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin, who doubles as the punt returner. Last year, a wrist injury cost Gilmore the first five games of the season and the lack of depth at the position was exposed. To buttress against a repeat this season, the Bills spent $16 million on Corey Graham, who will contribute immediately in nickel and can start in base if needed.
The Bills have speedy, young talent on both sides of the ball, but it’s a quarterback-driven league. Manuel will be given an opportunity to prove he was worthy of a first-round selection, but based on his preseason play that seems unlikely. Teams will load the box to try and neutralize the running game and put the onus on Manuel to beat them.
The Bills won’t be breaking their playoff drought and will likely face a familiar finish as a six- or seven-win team.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.