Bills need Bledsoe to return to form
The Bills hope Mike Mularkey can get Drew Bledsoe and the offense back on track.
Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.
Talk about change ... how about a new head coach plus 10 assistants? That's the byproduct of failed expectations.
Gregg Williams' lights-out interview with Bills president and general manager Tom Donahoe in 2001 notwithstanding, his third and final season failed to deliver on the promise of the previous year.
After going 8-8 in 2002, Buffalo players, virtually in one voice, maintained that anything less than a division title, or at the very least, a playoff berth, would be a major disappointment.
What resulted was a 6-10 campaign -- after a 2-0 start -- that featured 18 straight quarters on the road without an offensive touchdown and seven games where the offense failed to produce a touchdown.
Former offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride was vilified for stubbornness and inflexibility, QB Drew Bledsoe endured his worst season since his rookie year and RB Travis Henry gained over 1,300 yards, though playing most of the year with torn rib cartilage and almost half of it on a broken leg.
Even the defense, ranked No. 2 in the NFL for fewest yards surrendered, was a bit of a mirage, generating a franchise-low 18 takeaways.
As a result, Williams' contract wasn't renewed, with Donahoe revisiting his Pittsburgh connection, hiring Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to his first head-coaching job.
Mularkey added seven new offensive assistants, including coordinator Tom Clements, the Steelers' former QB coach, while retaining defensive coordinator Jerry Gray and most of the defensive staff.
Also leaving were CB Antoine Winfield, eight-time Pro Bowl OG Ruben Brown, FB Sam Gash, TE Dave Moore, RB Sammy Morris, LB DaShon Polk and QB Alex Van Pelt either to free agency, the waiver wire or retirement.
Quarterbacks: Bledsoe, still only 32, must prove last season was an aberration. The Bills think Clements can return him to the productive form Bledsoe showed in the first half of '02. Backup Travis Brown is out 4-6 weeks with a knee injury suffered in the third preseason game. First-round pick J.P. Losman is out indefinitely after breaking his leg in practice on Aug. 24. Buffalo signed journeyman Shane Matthews to back up Bledsoe while Brown heals. Grade: C-plus.
Running backs: Henry, who has rushed for 23 touchdowns and nearly 2,800 yards the past two seasons, was more than a little miffed when Buffalo drafted Willis McGahee with its top pick in '03. Henry's the starter, but McGahee has recovered enough from the knee surgery that kept him out all of last season to merit some playing time. Both have already indicated if they don't start, a trade is in order. And while the Bills have downplayed the controversy -- at times both have been on the field together -- it figures to fester before season's end. Shelton is strictly a blocker. Grade: B-plus.
Receivers: Eric Moulds is still among the league's elite receivers and should benefit from the presence of rookie Lee Evans. The former Wisconsin star has the speed to get some of the double coverage off Moulds, as Peerless Price did two years ago. Thus, Josh Reed returns to the slot position where he's more comfortable working underneath in traffic. Veteran Bobby Shaw is the No. 4 wideout. TE Mark Campbell comes off a career-high, 34-reception season while fourth-round draft pick Tim Euhus is bidding to be No. 2 on the depth chart. Grade: C-plus.
Offensive linemen: The biggest addition might just be a coach, Buffalo native Jim McNally. McNally worked some miracles with the Bengals, Panthers and Giants, and now he's trying to upgrade a group that did a horrible job of protecting Bledsoe last season -- allowing 51 sacks and seven games with four or more sacks allowed. C Trey Teague, Villarrial and OLT Jonas Jennings are set. But ORT Mike Williams, in two seasons, has failed to perform to expectations as a fourth overall pick. Meanwhile, Mike Pucillo, Ross Tucker and Lawrence Smith all started at the unsettled OLG position in the preseason. Grade: C.
Defensive linemen: DRE Aaron Schobel has averaged just under nine sacks a season over his first three years but must step up against the run. DTs Pat Williams and Sam Adams offer over 650 pounds of run-stuffing defenders inside, but the DLE position is still to be decided between good friends and roommates Ryan Denney and Chris Kelsay, a pair of former second-round draft choices. They will likely battle for that spot until the opener. This year's third-round draft pick, Tim Anderson, is in a battle with Ron Edwards, Justin Bannan and Lauvale Sape for the backup DT spots at what is the Bills' deepest position. Grade: B.
Linebackers: OLB Takeo Spikes is a Pro Bowl-quality player, and his mates, MLB London Fletcher and OLB Jeff Posey, are above-average performers. But that trio, one of the league's better units, is backed up by players whose forte is special teams. None of the reserves has ever started a single NFL game. Grade: B.
Defensive backs: CB Nate Clements is an emerging star. Winfield's loss was offset by the acquisition of Vincent, who has 42 interceptions, 11 forced fumbles and three recoveries in 12 seasons. By contrast, Winfield, a punishing hitter, had only one pick last year, a mere six in his five-year career and only one in his final 37 games. SS Lawyer Milloy suffered a broken right forearm in the third preseason game. Incumbent Izell Reese and former SS Coy Wire are battling for the FS job, although Wire could fill in for Milloy until he returns. CBs Kevin Thomas and Terrence McGee are squared off for the nickel CB job with the loser becoming the dime back. Grade: B.
Special teams: P Brian Moorman was third in the league in gross punting and tied for fourth in net average, but PK Rian Lindell struggled last season, hitting a lowly 3-of-9 field goals from beyond 40 yards. Returner Antonio Brown had an NFL-worst 4.4-yard average on punts among qualifiers and was 24th (21.8 yards) on kickoffs. Clements could inherit the PR job, and Reed and McGee are contesting the KR job. One major upgrade is that Mularkey is not averse to using starters on special teams, an approach which has improved blocking, tackling and returns. Grade: C.
Material from Pro Football Weekly.
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