By Sal Maiorana - Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
That sound you heard emanating from inside Ralph Wilson Stadium last weekend when the Bills walked off the field inexplicable 35-34 losers to the Tennessee Titans was all too familiar.
It was the sound of disgust, of disbelief, of sheer frustration, of fans heading out to the parking lots swearing to themselves (and some swearing out loud) and shaking their heads while trying to comprehend how the Bills had blown yet another game.
How many times has that scene played out at that old edifice over the past 12-plus years? Too, too many, and what was most irritating this time is that this year was supposed to be different. This was the year the Bills were going to beat the teams they were favored to beat, and maybe even beat a few they weren't expected to beat.
This was the year they were supposed to end their millennium-long postseason drought - at least that's what some in the national media were telling you, writers and broadcasters who just don't know enough about this middling franchise and were duped into believing the signing of a few new players would make a difference.
As the Bills sit at home Sunday enjoying their week off, they would be wise not to watch the talking heads on the pregame shows because as they have been so often through the years, they are a laughingstock. The most common refrain: How could a team that spent so lavishly to upgrade the worst defense in team history (2011), actually be worse this year? Well, they are the Bills, so should anyone be surprised?
Buffalo has reached its bye with a 3-4 record, and it faces a pair of daunting road games when it gets back to work - at Houston Nov. 4 and at New England Nov. 11. No one in their right mind gives the Bills much of a chance to win either, so if they fall to 3-6, it would stand to reason that no one in their right mind could envision them going 6-1 in the last seven games to give them a realistic chance to make the playoffs with a record of 9-7.
So yes, here we are again, wondering when the misery will ever end, wondering when the Bills will ever become relevant. True, they could shock us all and turn it around; crazier things have happened.
But seriously, does anyone really believe that?
"This season has been a disappointment," quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick admitted. "I think nobody expected us to be 3-4. I think it's good that we're disappointed. It just sucks that this is now another season that we feel that disappointment. Right now I think we feel urgency that we have to get this thing going before it's lost."
I couldn't have said it better myself. Here are my bye week, close-to-midseason grades:
Quarterback: When it comes to disappointing, the woebegone defense has it all over Fitzpatrick, but the leader of the team is the first one to tell you that he's not having a good year, either.
The Bills don't require a whole lot from Fitzpatrick. They need him to manage the game, be smart, utilize running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller as much as he can, and don't turn the ball over. There are times when Fitzpatrick has done that this season, just not enough of them and his ever-persistent inconsistency continues to drag him and the offense down. He ranks 15th in the NFL in passer rating (86.1), and while his 15 TD passes look good, his 9 interceptions and his completion percentage (61.0 despite the fact that he never throws the ball further than 15 yards) don't. Grade: 5.
Running back: The lone bright spot on the team. Spiller and Jackson, Jackson and Spiller, however you want to rank them, have been very good. Yes, there is a sentiment out there that coach Chan Gailey needs to stick with one guy and only use the other to provide some relief. But that doesn't make much sense because they are the Bills' two most viable weapons, so why dry-dock one of them? Spiller has been dynamic and his 7.3 yards per carry leads all regularly used running backs. Jackson's been no slouch either when he's been healthy, and last week was an example of what they can be together as they produced 222 yards of total offense. Gailey needs to find a way to keep them both involved because they give the offense its best chance to succeed. Grade: 8.
Wide receivers: Has Stevie Johnson been getting open, and Fitzpatrick hasn't been able to get him the ball? Or is Johnson not getting open so Fitzpatrick is looking elsewhere? It may be a little of both, and Johnson's 32 receptions for 387 yards are pedestrian numbers, to say the least.
The problem is that Johnson gets almost no help from a below-average corps of receivers. No one is worrying much about Donald Jones or T.J. Graham, nor should they, so Johnson draws mostly double teams. And given that Fitzpatrick can't throw the ball downfield, opposing defenses simply squat on the short routes and the Bills receivers struggle to make big plays. Grade: 5.
Tight end: Scott Chandler has the potential to be a key member of the offense, but outside of a few shining moments, he really hasn't been this season. He has 19 catches for 234 yards and 4 TDs, matching Johnson's scoring total, but in the last two games, he has a combined three catches for 19 yards and the Bills need more from him. Grade: 5.
Offensive line: Despite a slew of injuries, this group has continued to play well, though it is coming off one of its worst games. The Bills have been without rookie LT Cordy Glenn and RG Kraig Urbik for the last three games, and then Urbik's replacement, Chad Rinehart, went down last week. However, C Eric Wood, LG Andy Levitre and RT Erik Pears have been rock solid, and Chris Hairston has filled in nicely at the vital LT spot. Fitzpatrick has been sacked just eight times, and the ground game is averaging a whopping 5.3 yards per attempt. Grade: 8.
Defensive line: Mario Williams started complaining about his sore wrist in Week 1, and if that didn't endear him to Bills fans, his play certainly hasn't, either. The $100 million man has 16 tackles and 3.5 sacks, and his best games have come against the three worst teams the Bills have played - Cleveland, Kansas City and Arizona.
The other big-money free agent, DE Mark Anderson, has been sidelined the last few weeks, but he wasn't doing anything before he got hurt. And then there's second-year DT Marcell Dareus who hasn't played anywhere near close to his No. 3 overall draft status. The only lineman who has been noticeable is DT Kyle Williams, but he can't do it alone. Once thought to be one of the best lines in the league, it has played like one of the worst. Grade: 3.
Linebackers: It would be tough to argue that this isn't the weakest unit on the team. Nick Barnett is the best of the bunch, but even he's often out of position and missing tackles. Kelvin Sheppard has been overmatched far too often and doesn't seem ready to be a starter. Arthur Moats busted as a starter, so the Bills have turned to rookie Nigel Bradham, but he's still in the clueless stage and thinking too much, which is taking away from his athleticism. Nickel LB Bryan Scott was opportunistic early as he came up with a turnover in each of the first three games, but he's been nowhere to be found lately. Is it any wonder the Bills are last in the league in rush defense, allowing 176 yards per game? Grade: 2.
Secondary: Second-year CB Aaron Williams has given up five TDs in the first seven games and is starting to look like another high-round flop. Thankfully, 2012 first-rounder Stephon Gilmore - though making some rookie mistakes - looks to be a solid pick and should only get better with time. FS Jairus Byrd has made some big plays, but he's also been caught out of position on running plays, which has been his problem for three years. And SS George Wilson, a team leader, needs to be better. Had he held onto an interception last week, the Bills would have won that game. In the sub packages, the Bills aren't getting much from oft-injured Terrence McGee or Justin Rogers, the latter being the victim on Tennessee's winning TD last week. Grade: 4.
Special teams: In one of the most puzzling moves in recent memory, and that's certainly saying something, the Bills cut punter Brian Moorman so they could procure the services of undrafted rookie Shaun Powell. Powell has shanked punts two weeks in a row. The return game has been superb, led by Leodis McKelvin who has a league-best 24.0 average on punts including an 88-yard TD, and a 32.0 on kickoffs. It's just too bad the Bills can't get it in his hands more often (he has only 19 total returns). Rian Lindell has been one of the least busy kickers in the NFL with just five field goal attempts, and he's made all five. Kickoff specialist John Potter hasn't been what the Bills hoped, and he was inactive last week, and that could become more commonplace. Grade: 7.
Coaching: Chan Gailey is starting to feel some heat. The honeymoon is over, and Bills fans are beginning to call into question his play-calling, and his inability to get the offense on track. He's supposed to be an offensive guru, but he hasn't been with the Bills, though some of that has to do with the mediocre talent he has to work with. But no seat is hotter than the one defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt occupies. Fans are screaming for his head after watching the Bills' defense perform embarrassingly all year. Wannstedt hasn't done anything to curb the downfall as the Bills seem to get worse each week. Grade: 3.