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Pitoniak: Looking back--and forward

"So, the good news is that Buffalo will improve slightly this season.
The bad news is the same old story will repeat itself as the Bills miss the playoffs for a 12th consecutive season."

Those were the last two lines of the pre-season column I wrote on this site before the 2011 campaign kicked off. I'd love to proclaim myself some sort of Nostradamus, but, given the recent history of this franchise, I wasn't exactly going out on a limb. In fact, this was a pretty obvious prognostication for anyone who's followed the Bills for any length of time - though the way the season unfolded clearly caught many of us off-guard.

Yes, the Bills improved slightly in the standings, adding two more wins than they had the previous year when they went 4-12. But the wimpy way they staggered to the finish line - eight losses in their final nine games - overshadowed any talk of significant progress. And it made that riveting 5-2 start that included a marvelous comeback victory against the New England Bradys seem as ancient as a leather football helmet.

And, now, as Buffalo enters the third year of this perpetual reclamation project, the heat is going to turn up dramatically on Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey - each of whom has gotten a pass to this point. Anything short of a .500 record could cause the revolving door of general manager and head coach to spin again.

But this is a New Year, so let's start with some positive thoughts.

The most encouraging thing I took from this past season was the play of the offensive line, which was everybody's biggest fear before opening day. Although injuries resulted in the usage of four different centers and other shuffling, the Bills yielded just 23 sacks (second fewest in the NFL) and opened holes that helped both Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller average more than five yards per carry.

The return of future Pro Bowl center Eric Wood along with the experience gained by other lineman having to play several positions bodes well for next year.
Jackson's season-ending injury opened the door for Spiller, who finally showed the play-making ability he had displayed as a consensus All-American at Clemson. The challenge now will be for Gailey to find a way to get each back enough touches. It's a great problem to have.

Defensively, there is much work to be done for a team that yielded the second most points and the most yards in team history. But I applaud Gailey for his willingness to address the problem by jettisoning George Edwards and promoting Dave Wannstedt, who has been a solid defensive coordinator in the NFL. I'm looking forward to Marcell Dareus taking a huge step forward in his sophomore season with the Bills and having a healthy Kyle Williams back. Free agent acquisition Nick Barnett was a huge upgrade at linebacker over Paul Posluszny and George Wilson was an improvement over Donte Whitner at safety. Several rookies, besides Dareus, got valuable experience as starters. Now, if the Bills could just find a pass-rushing outside linebacker in the draft, this unit could be vastly improved in 2012. (I believe it has to come from the draft because depending on injury-prone linebacker Shawne Merriman to be the guy is a reach.)

Another cause for optimism is the schedule. Kansas City, Jacksonsville, Tennessee, St. Louis, Seattle, Cleveland, Arizona, Houston and San Francisco, along with their AFC East foes will be challenging, but isn't exactly murderer's row.

My biggest concern, besides the porous defense, is the consistency of the offense, specifically Ryan Fitzpatrick. The quarterback with the beard as thick as the Oak Hill Country Club rough is capable of being spectacularly good - and bad. Fitz threw 24 touchdown passes, accumulated the third most passing yards (3,832) in team history and engineered a few compelling comebacks. But he also tossed a league-high 23 interceptions (several of which were returned for touchdowns) and struggled at times to complete a simple swing pass. The high number of turnovers along with his inconsistency can drive you bonkers. Gailey insists he is a quarterback capable of winning a Super Bowl. I'm not so sure - unless, of course, he has the '85 Bears defense or the Steel Curtain cleaning up his mistakes.

I do, believe, however, that if the Bills surround him with a better defense and he can work with a stable offensive line and corps of receivers that he can become a playoff quarterback. (Which Bills fans would gladly settle for, now that their team boasts the longest post-season drought in the NFL.)

Speaking of a stable corps of receivers, that brings us to the $7.5 million question - what to do about enigmatic wide receiver Stevie Johnson? He may not be an elite receiver, but he is very talented, as his back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons attest. Fitz obviously has good chemistry with him, and, understandably, wants him back despite the immature end zone celebrations that have hurt his team time and again. I've gone back and forth on this one, and I like what Gailey said at his season wrap-up press conference. Bring him back with stipulations. But I'd do so, only after I've fully investigated the free agent market.

Every team in the NFL has to deal with injuries, but the Bills' bug was more severe than most. Jackson was having an MVP-caliber season before he went down and Wood had made several mid-season Pro Bowl teams. The loss of Williams, the Pro Bowl defensive tackle, also hurt. His return, along with Dareus' continued development, should have a big impact on the "D."

The Bills wound up placing 18 players - nearly a third of their roster - on injured reserve. You have to think that kind of luck has to change in the coming season. (If they had a healthy Jackson, Wood and Williams the entire season, I don't believe they would have suffered through that seven-game slide.)

Nix will have the 10th overall pick in April's draft, and, like last year with Dareus, he's going to need to hit a home run.

So, what do I see as I gaze into my crystal football for next season?

It's still a little cloudy, but I honestly believe 8-8 is within the Bills grasp. But the playoffs might still be another year away.

Award-winning columnist and author Scott Pitoniak has followed the Bills since the mid-1960s and covered them since 1985, writing five books about the team along the way. His 14th book overall, Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story, has just been published by Triumph Books and is available both in print and digital editions. His next book, Johnny Antonelli: A Baseball Memoir, is scheduled to be published this spring. You can read more by Scott at www.scottpitoniak.com .
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