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PITONIAK: Bills slightly better than last year

Same record, but new trend
                If, as Bill Parcells is fond of saying, you are what your record says you are, then the Buffalo Bills are no better than they were a year ago.

                Six wins, 10 losses, last in the AFC East in 2012,

                Six wins, 10 losses, last in the AFC East in 2013.

                New coaching staff. New general manager. New quarterback. Same old results.

                My gut, though, tells me this team, despite having been run over by the New England Patriots, 34-20, Sunday, is better than the Bills team that finished last season with four losses in its final five games.

                I think this roster boasts more promising, young players, and a coaching staff that’s willing to adjust to situations. This team has more upside, and could take a quantum leap next season if it has another bountiful draft and if EJ Manuel becomes consistent and durable. I realize those are big “ifs.”

                Before the season I wrote that the Bills probably weren’t going to make the playoffs and that there record probably would be what it was in 2012. There were just too many changes in personnel and approach in too short a time for them to take huge steps forward. I also wrote that I wasn’t going to measure the progress of the team solely by its won-lost record, but also by the development of its young quarterback.

                Unfortunately, 16 games later – only 10 of which Manuel played – the first-round pick from Florida State remains a question mark. I’m still not certain if he’s THE guy we’ve been searching for since Jim Kelly retired sixteen years ago. And that’s disconcerting because I would have hoped by now that we felt there was something to build on with Manuel.

                To compound matters, we not only have questions about whether he is has the necessary tools, but also whether he is sturdy enough. Three knee injuries in just four months have contributed greatly to this uncertainty.

                I still believe Doug Marrone is the right coach to fix this mess. I saw what he achieved with a Syracuse University program that was in much worse shape than the Bills program he inherited. And, for the most part, I like his staff, especially coordinator Mike Pettine, whose defense – despite Sunday’s embarrassing yield of 267 rushing yards – has made some positive strides. Employing a variety of blitzes and formations, the Bills set a team record for sacks and ranked among the league leaders in interceptions. The run defense, though slightly improved, remains suspect.

                I’m not as enamored with offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s game-day performances, but I remember the job he did in developing former SU quarterback Ryan Nassib into a coveted NFL prospect. So, there’s hope he can work similar magic with Manuel.

                Linebacker Kiko Alonso played much of the season like the leading NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, but faded a bit in the second half of the season. I attribute some of that to not being used to the grind of a 16-game season. He’s a superb athlete. He just needs to get a little stronger and smarter. Later in the season, teams began taking advantage of his aggressiveness. I think young receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin have great potential and I like the way undrafted rookie cornerback Nickell Robey came on. I also am comfortable going into training camp with Thad Lewis as the backup quarterback after his 2-3 record as the fill-in starter.

                The Bills will pick ninth in the 2014 draft. I would like to see them choose a stud linebacker, a run-stuffing thumper to pair with Alonso. They also should be in the market for more offensive linemen, a big, physical receiver, a running back and cornerbacks.

                If they are finally going to end this 14-year playoff famine, if they are going to compile a record that says they are good again, the quarterback who is a question mark is going to need to become an exclamation point in a hurry.

2013 GRADES
                OFFENSE: Fred Jackson, Old Reliable, was the MVP, moving piles, catching passes and picking up blitzes, all while being hampered by knee and rib injuries. C.J. Spiller finished strong with a 100-yard rushing performance, but his season failed to live up to gaudy expectations. Manuel went 4-6 as a starter and set a Bills rookie record with 11 TD passess. But his inconsistency was unnerving. Veteran receiver Stevie Johnson had an off-year after three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. It will be interesting to see where he fits into future plans. The offensive line was solid for much of the season, but could use some upgrades and needs to become more physical. C
                DEFENSE: Tackle Kyle Williams, defensive end Mario Williams and safety Jairus Byrd had Pro Bowl seasons. Jerry Hughes, acquired in a trade from Indianapolis, recorded 10 sacks, more than he totaled in three seasons with the Colts. Aaron Williams filled in at cornerback early in the season, then switched to his natural safety position and made some huge plays. Byrd missed a third of the season because of a holdout and foot ailments. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bills slap the franchise tag on him again. C
                SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Dan Carpenter was signed just before the regular season and wound up being a weapon, hitting 33 of 37 field goals. Brian Moorman returned to the team after being cut loose last season and was an upgrade with 15 kicks inside the 20. The return units were disappointing. The longest punt return was 21 yards; the longest kickoff return was 28 yards. The coverage unit was a joke. New England’s LeGarrette Blount had 145 yards in kickoff returns in Sunday’s victory. D
                OVERALL:  There were some positives and the Bills were competitive in all but one of their games. But they were hurt by a series of injuries as well as costly turnovers and foolish penalties. Again, the biggest disappointment is not knowing if Manuel is the guy or if the game of quarterback roulette will continue at One Bills Drive. C  
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