PITONIAK: Time to Reflect and Look Ahead

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                It will go down as a 17-9 victory against the New England Patriots that snapped a 12-game losing streak at Gillette Stadium and secured the Bills first winning season since 2004. And as long-time Buffalo fans will tell you, any win against Tom Brady’s bunch deserves to be savored because the Patriots have owned the Bills and the AFC East for more than a decade.

                But let’s try to keep things in perspective. Let’s not go overboard. The Patriots already had clinched homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Their main objective was not to get any of their key people hurt. Which is why Brady played just a half, and why Rob Gronkowski, the All-World tight end with 37 receptions for 543 yards and nine touchdowns in seven starts vs. Buffalo, did not play a single snap Sunday. Yes, Bill Belichick hates to lose, but he has his eyes on the big prize – a fourth Lombardi Trophy – so he used his key players sparingly, if at all. By late third quarter, the fourth-winningest coach in NFL history was treating this as if it were a preseason game.

                Now, after the newsiest season in Bills history, we begin the post-mortem. What went right? What went wrong? And where do they go from here?

                On the plus side, the Bills did make some progress. Their 9-7 record was three games better than a year ago and included victories against three playoff-bound teams, including the high-point win against the Green Bay Packers two weeks ago. The strength of this team was its defense, which played at a championship level much of the season, particularly in back-to-back shut-downs of Canton-bound quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. The special teams, especially kicker Dan Carpenter, also were solid, producing a team record 34 field goals, along with blocked punts, blocked field goals and touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns.

                
Unfortunately, the anemic Bills offense didn’t carry its fair share of the load. If it had been just a wee bit more efficient, Buffalo would have won two more games and ended its NFL-long 15-year playoff drought. The bold switch from skittish second-year quarterback EJ Manual to veteran journeyman Kyle Orton after Game Four, provided a spark and much-needed stability, and it enabled Buffalo to play relevant games late into December for the first time in years. But Orton’s immobility and inaccuracy were detriments as Buffalo’s offense averaged just 20.4 points and fewer than two touchdowns per game.

                The at-time baffling play-calling of offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and Doug Marrone’s penchant for punting on fourth-and-short certainly contributed to the Bills scoring difficulties. But an even bigger problem was the inconsistent play of the offensive line and Buffalo’s failure to establish a dependable ground game.  The line woes were especially troublesome for Marrone, a former offensive lineman and coach, who devoted extra time since training camp in hopes of solving the problem. It didn’t help that he was forced to go with two raw rookies on occasion. It also didn’t help that promising, third-year, left tackle Cordy Glenn regressed as the year went on.

                The running back corps, headed by C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, figured to be more productive, especially with the off-season additions of Booby Dixon and Bryce Brown to give them an occasional blow. But Spiller never got untracked and wound up missing most of the season with a broken clavicle. And Jackson, who at 33 was the NFL’s oldest running back, began showing signs of aging. The line’s breakdowns, coupled with the running backs problems at reading the holes correctly, resulted in the Bills plummeting from second to 19th in the league in rushing yards. They averaged 51 fewer yards per game and their 1,378 total was the lowest 16-game output in team history.

                Clearly, if the Bills want to end their postseason streak they are going to need to address their line and quarterback issues. Glenn is capable of bouncing back. And rookies Seantrel Henderson and Cyril Richardson have potential. But this year’s second-round pick, Cyrus Kouandjio, remains a project at tackle – and that’s too bad because the Bills were expecting the former Alabama star to have an immediate impact.

                Solving the quarterback problem won’t be easy. My gut tells me that the 2015 starter isn’t on the Bills roster. But if they decide to jettison Orton, what will they do? It’s not like you can go on amazon.com and purchase a new one. The fact the coaching staff wouldn’t put Manuel back in, despite the offensive struggles, tells me that his days in Buffalo are over.

                Jay Cutler’s name has been bandied about, but I’d prefer not to go in that direction. He is a me-guy too in love with his magnificent arm, and he has failed to become an elite QB in either Denver or Chicago, so what makes people think he is going to be reborn in Buffalo? There will be other trade or free agent possibilities.  Perhaps, Philadelphia will part with either Nick Foles or Mark Sanchez. And we know the Bills don’t have a first-round pick in the 2015 draft, so you can forget about any immediate help there.

                Another important position that may need to be filled is defensive coordinator. Jim Schwartz did a superb job, taking this unit to an even higher level. His performance certainly piqued the interest of several teams that soon will have head coaching vacancies. Schwartz definitely knows how to run a defense, but questions remain whether he has the stuff to be a successful head coach after bombing in Detroit. Regardless whether it’s Schwartz or someone else calling the signals, the defense figures to be stout again. Buffalo needs to re-sign pass-rushing whiz Jerry Hughes. And, don’t forget, Kiko Alonso returns next season, and could be even more of a playmaker after moving from inside to outside linebacker.

                The big question is: Who will be making these personnel decisions? Bill Polian’s name is in the news again. The ESPN analyst denies reports that he’ll be joining the Bills tomorrow. But where there’s smoke, there’s fire, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he does, in the coming weeks, return to the team he helped lead to four Super Bowls. I’ve been advocating this move since the day he was fired by the Indianapolis Colts a few years ago. He’s just what this franchise needs to get over the hump. And I hope new owners Terry and Kim Pegula realize that.

                I believe Marrone deserves to return for a third year. I don’t agree with some of the things he’s done, but I believe he has this team moving in the right direction. He was asked after Sunday’s win if the Bills have undergone a culture change in his two years on the job. “Well, it’s not changed yet,’’ he said. “It’s not where we want to be. We’re working on it.”

                One of the things that still needs to be worked out is the tension between him and general manager Doug Whaley. Clearly, that will be one of several topics discussed between them and the Pegulas in the coming week.

                After chronicling Ralph Wilson’s death, Jim Kelly’s successful battle with cancer, the drafting of Sammy Watkins, the early season switch at quarterback, the historic snow storm, stirring upsets and deflating losses, the news cycle figures to remain busy at One Bills Drive as we bid adieu to one season and begin preparations for the next.

                WROC-TV Bills contributor Scott Pitoniak is an award-winning columnist, best-selling author and radio talk show co-host in his 42nd year as a journalist.

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