It may seem like an eternity ago, but if you go back to last spring, you’d have been stunned to see the midway point of the 2010 NFL season come with the Buffalo Bills still in search of their first victory.
Not only was Dick Jauron long gone, but so was his extension of him, hand-picked defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. Director of Pro Personnel John Guy was also canned. Buddy Nix, regarded around the league as a pure football guy, took over as general manager. Chan Gailey, who had a solid but not spectacular career as head coach in the NFL and college, was tabbed to lead the rebuilding Bills.
The biggest development was the announcement the team would switch to a 3-4 defense. After being pushed around in it by division foes for years, Buffalo decided it was time to join the club and so some pushing of their own. They even hired George Edwards, who spent five years coaching up linebackers with division rival Miami, as the new defensive coordinator.
The team signed new starters in free agency at right tackle, defensive end and inside linebacker. The culmination of new talent influx was draft night, when the Bills selected C.J. Spiller, who many regarded as the most explosive player in the draft. Surely, at worst this team would challenge the six tallies their Jauron/Fewell-led underachieving predecessors put on the win sheet in 2009.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Nine weeks ago the NFL season commenced and since then it’s been a non-stop nightmare for Bills fans. Just when you thought it wasn’t possible, the organization has once again re-written the book on how to lose football games.
Still, just like the movies and music, there’s an awards show every year, even when it’s a down one. The Buffalo Bills are no exception, so it’s time to get out those trophies and recognize the best.. and worst of the first half of the season.
Without further ado, here’s the Buffalo Bills midseason awards, sponsored by bleeding ulcers of Bills fans everywhere.
Most Valuable Player- Ryan Fitzpatrick: While publicly saying there would be an open competition, Chan Gailey basically handed the starting quarterback to Trent Edwards at the start of training camp. After a pair of ugly performances to start the season, Gailey realized he was wrong. Edwards was benched in favor of Fitzpatrick, then released altogether a week later. Since then, Fitzpatrick if nothing else has made the offense bearable to watch.
He’s thrown for 1,499 yards and 13 touchdowns in just six starts, including a 382-yard, four touchdown performance at Baltimore on October 24. It was the first time in 60 games a Bills quarterback slung the ball for 300 yards. Fitzpatrick also was the first since Jim Kelly (1990) to throw three or more touchdowns in consecutive games.
Fitzpatrick hasn’t been without error. He’s thrown crucial interceptions that arguably have cost the Bills a couple of wins. But far and away he’s been the most valuable player.
Biggest Revelation- Stevie Johnson: I openly confessed to Johnson and have since offered him the most sincere of apologies. I do that because I never, not even for a second thought Johnson would become this kind of football player. While Fitzpatrick is probably a short term, feel good story, Johnson looks like he’s here to stay as a dominant wide receiver. At the halfway point of 2010 Johnson has grabbed 41 passes for 554 yards and six touchdowns. He had 12 catches for 122 in his first two years combined. He has a reasonable chance to break the Bills single-season record of 11 touchdown receptions set by Billy Brooks in 1995. If you foresaw this coming in September, my hat is off to you.
Defensive MVP- Kyle Williams: It’s very hard to find a bright spot on a Bills defense that has been utterly atrocious. But Williams is one of, if not the only exception. He leads the team with three sacks and has 42 tackles. No one can accuse him of not going all-out on every play. It was expected he wouldn’t be a fit in this new defense, but at this stage he’s probably the most irreplaceable player on the entire underachieving unit.
Comeback Player- Roscoe Parrish: After catching three passes last year, being a game-day scratch four times and barely seeing the field when he was in uniform, it was hard imagining Parrish even being on the roster in 2010. But Gailey believed in Parrish’s ability and was determined to make him an impact player. Parrish responded with a career-best 400 receiving yards and 33 receptions, just two off his career-best in eight games. Unfortunately a broken wrist last Sunday ended his season. Still, Parrish showed enough to warrant a successful comeback and will be counted on to be a part of the team’s ongoing rebuilding project.
Biggest Disappointment- Jairus Byrd: When the Bills went 6-10 last year, Byrd was their biggest star and team MVP. The rookie had nine interceptions and was the lone player voted to the Pro Bowl. Perhaps 2010 has been the classic case of a sophomore slump.. or evidence that the pile of interceptions last year was a fluke. Either way, Byrd has done nothing at the halfway point of this season. He, along with the rest of the secondary has been held without a single pickoff. Byrd was to anchor a secondary some considered the most underrated in the NFL. You can accurately place blame on the front seven for giving little pressure to opposing quarterbacks, but a player of Byrd’s stature should be making plays regardless. Clearly, he hasn’t.
By the way, many will claim this spot should belong to Aaron Maybin, but I didn’t expect much of him to begin with.
Best Acquisition- Dwan Edwards: He’s one of the classic players where numbers never tell the story. He has 46 tackles and just one sack, but Edwards has been pretty good for the Bills so far. If the opposition had an outside linebacker to worry about, Edwards would be free to make more plays. He’s double teamed nearly every time the Bills are on defense.
Worst Acquisition- Cornell Green: He was supposed to come in and provide strong veteran leadership to the offensive line, but was a disaster at right tackle for five games before succumbing to an injured knee that forced him on injured reserved. To his credit, he did try to play through more pain than has been reported. Regardless, he made an already shaky offensive line worse than it was last season.
Best Personnel Move- Cutting Edwards: Let’s keep this short and sweet. The Bills are 0-8 and I can’t comprehend how unwatchable they’d be if Edwards was still under center. As badly as Gailey screwed up by starting him, he owned up to his mistake and cut him loose.
Worst Personnel Move- Chris Kelsay’s Extension: I mean, seriously. The defense is among the worst in franchise history, Kelsay has been around for eight years and has looked like the ultimate misfit for the 3-4, and Nix gives him a four-year extension worth $24-million? This is a move I’ll never understand.
Most Pleasant Surprise- David Nelson: With former second rounders James Hardy and Chad Jackson in training camp, it was a long shot for Nelson to make the roster. At best, most figured the undrafted free agent rookie would wind up on the practice squad. But from day one of the summer, Nelson impressed and it led to him earning a roster spot. Not only did he earn his place, he’s been productive in doing so. Nelson has 17 catches for 189 yards in eight games and with Parrish shelved for the season, will get a huge opportunity to put up bigger numbers in the second half of the season.
Most Unpleasant Non-Surprise- Donte Whitner: Even with a new defensive coordinator and schematic change, did anyone really expect Whitner to step up and become a force? He’s the same mostly irrelevant player in 2010 he’s been the four previous years. He’s a hard worker, a stand-up guy for sure and it’s not his fault the organization tabbed him eighth overall in 2006, but for anyone to think he’d ever be mentioned in the same breath of an Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu is laughable. To show how far apart Reed and Whitner are, Reed had two interceptions and a forced fumble in three quarters of his first game back against Buffalo. Whitner has no picks and no forced fumbles in eight games. He does however, have about a billion shoulder tackles 15 yards down the field.
Gutsiest Decision- Benching Aaron Maybin: Gailey knew there would be a million media questions asking why a top 12 pick from just a year ago would be riding the bench and ultimately deactivated, but draft stature meant nothing to Gailey. The truth is Jauron, Tom Modrak or whoever was in charge of the 2009 made a colossal mistake with Maybin. He’s not strong nor wily enough to fight off blocks and the current staff recognizes it. He’s been passed on the depth chart by Antonio Coleman and inactive three straight games. I give credit to Gailey for not automatically riding with Maybin because he was drafted so high.
Dumbest Decision- IR’ing Marcus Easley: Following a knee injury that saw him miss essentially all of training camp, the Bills placed Easley on injured reserved the third week of August. As it turns out, reports surfaced that Easley did not tear his ACL and recovered enough that he could’ve been playing by the fifth or sixth game of the season. With Parrish now out for the season, Easley could’ve been getting valuable game reps and gotten adjusted to the NFL in live action. Because the Bills were either impatient or unknowledgeable to the extent of the injury, they shelved him too early so they could have another roster spot. Considering their record it was a horrible decision. Now, Easley basically has to start all over again as a rookie in 2011.
Best Part of 2010- The Bills Continue To Fight: The team is going nowhere and the national media has them labeled as a joke, but the Bills have played hard nearly every Sunday. Their last three games have been decided by a field goal, including two in overtime and in total they’ve lost five games by a score or less. If you think the Bills stink, they’re not listening to you and that’s a credit to the work they’re putting in. It’s not the effort that’s missing; they’re simply not talented enough to win right now.
Worst Part of 2010- Buddy Nix’s Draft: Naturally you should never grade a draft after a half of one season, but at this point the Bills have gotten next-to-nothing from a rookie class that was an early pick in each round. Instead of Thurman Thomas, Spiller is reminding many of Eric Metcalf right now (which is on the coaches more than anything). Torell Troup has played some but not accomplished anything yet. Alex Carrington and Ed Wang don’t even dress on Sundays. Easley and Danny Batten saw their seasons end before they started, and the project quarterback (Levi Brown) drafted was cut from the team, not offered a practice squad spot and then later resigned to the active roster. For the time being, sixth rounder Arthur Moats looks like he has as much potential from this class as any pick. Amazingly, the undrafted free agents (Nelson, Cordaro Howard, Coleman) have been more productive than the guys Nix tabbed during the draft.
Maybe things turn around in the second half of the season for the youngsters, or perhaps in 2011. But right now, this looks like a terrible draft. Seeing that the road to the Bills being a contender again clearly lies through their draft prowess, this doesn’t look like a great start for Nix.
(Photos by Michael Thomas)