The Bills are 3-5 with half their games in the book, although this 3-5 doesn’t feel like so many of its predecessors here since the millennium. Buffalo has been competitive in literally every game they’ve taken the field on so far this season; a far cry from previous years during this seemingly everlasting playoff drought.
The biggest shame at this point of the season is we still have precious little idea of how good the Bills offense can be. E.J. Manuel has seen his rookie season derailed by a pair of knee injuries while C.J. Spiller has been dealing with a bum ankle for the past several weeks. Top receiver Stevie Johnson has only missed one game, but is playing through a lot of pain each week he’s out there. With some luck, this offense can get healthy for at least a six game stretch and we can find out a lot more about where they’re at.
Of course, we’ve only seen half the games—- which means we have every right to renege on each award at season’s end and transfer it to a new winner when we do this again in January.
Without further ado…
Team MVP/Defensive MVP, Mario Williams: After a disappointing 2012 debut campaign and disastrous offseason, Williams is showing why Buddy Nix was eager to overpay for his services. Williams has 11 sacks at the season’s midway point, putting him on pace for 22, which would shatter Bruce Smith’s team-record of 19. Not only is Williams putting up big stats, but this year they’ve been meaningful. Williams has been instrumental in two of Buffalo’s three wins; notching a franchise-record 4.5 sacks in the squeaker over Carolina and a pair of fourth quarter sacks of Ryan Tannehill in the comeback win at Miami. By the way, Williams has also been formidable in helping to stop the run. This award is a no-brainer.
Offensive MVP, Fred Jackson: Where would this Buffalo offense be without the timeless Fred Jackson? The talk throughout training camp was the team feeding the ball to C.J. Spiller until he puked. Maybe it should’ve been feed Spiller the ball until he struggled in the read-option offense and then suffered a nagging injury that’s slowed him down dramatically. An afterthought most of the summer, all Jackson’s done is run for 425 tough yards and a team-high six touchdowns on 101 carries, and catch 27 passes for 223 yards, putting him on pace for a career-high in receptions. The remarkable thing is Jackson is still helping the offense despite a knee injury that’s limited his already fading explosiveness. The guy has been a solider through the first half of the season and has earned the right to be one of the team’s most popular players over the past several years.
Rookie of the Year, Kiko Alonso: The rookie out of Oregon locked this category up early in the season after picking off four passes in a three week span, including a remarkable interception in the win over Baltimore. He’s only half way through his rookie season and the kid has already made a national name for himself, but has become something of a folk hero with “The Legend of Kiko” moniker that now follows him around each time he makes a big play. His four interceptions is still tied for the NFL lead and his 81 tackles tie him for second. Simply put, Alonso has been a monster and a key component to build around.
Flop of the Year, Nigel Bradham: I really anticipated big things from Bradham this season, particularly after the team released veteran Nick Barnett and made it appear Bradham was ready to become a three-down, full time starting linebacker. Unfortunately for him he’s been beating out of steady playing time by Arthur Moats to the point he’s been an utter afterthought defensively. I’m not sure where he’s at in the team’s long-term plans but he showed far more promise as a rookie last season. Given his expectations this season, Spiller deserves honorable mention though to be fair, he couldn’t control an ankle so drastically slowing down his campaign.
Best Personnel Move, Jerry Hughes & Manny Lawson (tie): Lawson was a low key free agent signing while Hughes came in a trade with Indy for Kelvin Sheppard. Both have made a positive impact on the defense. Lawson has been slowed down recently with a hamstring injury, but he was stout against the run through his first six games. Hughes has three sacks and has been an asset in the pass rushing department. The front office did an excellent job in acquiring these two.
Worst Personnel Move, Jairus Byrd: Not that it came unexpectedly, but the whole Byrd situation has been a mess since the offseason, from the time the franchise tag was put in place to not agreeing on a long term deal to him not reporting until late in the preseason all the way through missing the first five games with a foot injury. To make matters worse there’s no way the Bills are tagging Byrd again this winter at over $8 million and it’s incredibly doubtful he re-signs with the team unless he becomes the league’s highest compensated safety. All this, coupled with Colin Brown being a disaster at left guard before recently getting cut makes you wish the Bills just bit the bullet last March and used the franchise tag on Andy Levitre, even if his 2013 salary would’ve been hard to see in print. As of now it appears the Bills will be shopping for both a safety and an upgrade at left guard this coming offseason.
Best Game, Baltimore win: Nothing serves notice better for a young team trying to find their way than by knocking off the defending Super Bowl champions, and that’s exactly what the Bills did in Week four with a 23-20 victory that saw their upstart defense pick off Joe Flacco five times, including two each by Alonso and Aaron Williams. Regardless of how the second half of the season goes, this game showed the fans and people all over the league that the Bills are a team to be reckoned with each and every Sunday and their credit, they pretty much have been.
Worst Game, Cleveland Loss: “Ugh” is best word to describe the Thursday night primetime debacle in Cleveland. Fresh off the Baltimore victory the Bills had a chance to move to 3-2 against the Browns, and things looked great when Alonso’s hit knocked starting quarterback Brian Hoyer from the game (and the rest of the season). But while playing with the lead E.J. Manuel took an unnecessary hit on the sideline instead of getting out of bounds sooner and injured his knee, forcing Jeff Tuel into the game and we all know how catastrophic that turned out. The Bills gave up a long punt return for a score (punter Shawn Powell was cut following this game) and T.J. Ward returned a Tuel interception 44 yards for the game-clinching score. The Bills blew a game they should’ve won and had they did, their fortunes with a 4-4 record at the midpoint of the season would look far more promising than their current 3-5 mark. If the Bills finish strong and end up just outside of the playoffs at season’s end, this will be the game that really bit them.
Surprise of the Season, Nickell Robey: Raise your hand if you even had Robey making the Bills roster in July, let alone becoming an important part of it. Bills brass saw enough they liked in Robey during the preseason that they forgive a pair of horrendous blunders on botched punt returns. Robey has responded well and progressively seen his role in the defense increase, capped off by a pick-six against Miami two weeks ago. For the time being at least Robey has surpassed both Justin Rogers and Ron Brooks on the depth chart.
Feel Good Moment of the Season, Brian Moorman: How pumped were Bills fans when the team cut Powell and replaced him with Moorman, who was arguably the team’s most popular player during his 11-year tenure the first time around? It’s not only the fans that have benefited as Moorman’s done a fine job since coming back, averaging 46.6 yards per punt.
Under the Radar Solidifier, Dan Carpenter: If you shrugged your shoulders and quipped “whatever” when the Bills signed Carpenter to replace the injured Dustin Hopkins right before the season started, you aren’t alone. Carpenter was cut from Miami after last season and released from both Arizona and the New York Jets this summer before landing in Buffalo. Despite his missed 50-yarder in New Orleans yesterday Carpenter has been solid for Buffalo, making three of four kicks from 50 yards or beyond, which already equals the amount Rian Lindell made from that distance in his last three seasons here.
The Stepped It Up Award, Marcell Dareus: Do yourself a favor if you’re one of those knuckleheads still calling Dareus a bust because he was drafted ahead of A.J. Green—just stop. Stop being ignorant and start actually paying attention to the games. After an admittedly disappointing 2012 that was at least in part due to the tragic loss of his brother, Dareus has developed into a beast this season. His four sacks are tied for second on the team with Kyle Williams, but perhaps more importantly he’s becoming a huge nuisance for opponents trying to run the ball. Can he still get better—sure, but enough with the baseless criticism already. Dareus is part of the solution in Buffalo, not the problem.
The Please Step It Up Award, Alan Branch: He got $3 million in free agency for coming over from Seattle and has exactly one really strong game (at least from what I’ve seen) to his credit. It would be nice to see his play dramatically improve in the second half.