By Ch2 Sports Director Ed Kilgore A lot of Bills fans tend to scoff at anything gm Buddy Nix says because way up North here, they almost feel like they need a translator. In fact, Chan Gailey's soft southern drawl is rather mild in comparison to Buddy's Alabama/Tennessee twang. But make no mistake, Charles "Buddy" Nix is still going strong at 72 and says he'll "see this thing through" in retooling the Bills. Don't let the accent fool ya; Buddy knows football.
Nix has always been known as a straight shooter, much like Gailey, and he openly admits the Bills weren't quite as good as their 5-2 record indicated at the time, but its only fair to point out he also thinks the Bills are much farther ahead of where they were this time a year ago than their disappointing drop to a 6-10 record would indicate.
When asked when the Bills might be a playoff contender, Nix didn't beat around the bush earlier this week, saying he thought the Bills would be "much improved" in 2012 and gave several compelling reasons to back up his opinion. Nix's words won't mean much to the skeptics who've heard this before during the Bills 12 year playoff absence, but I for one think he deserves the benefit of the doubt on this one.
When Nix and Gailey first took over the Bills a couple years ago, they were simply a mess with no real direction. Several failed drafts and failed head coaches had the Bills treading water at the very least, but there is growing evidence this duo may get this thing right, and maybe sooner than many of you may think.
Nix thinks the Bills are "about four players away" from being a good football team, and when he says good, he means a team that not only makes the playoffs but a team that can make a run once it gets there. Yes, he wants to resign Stevie Johnson before our favorite end zone celebration disaster hits free agency in March, and I'd be very surprised if it doesn't happen. Johnson is clearly the Bills top receiver, just completing his second straight 1,000 yard season despite the absence of a true threat on the other side. Nix says that is a priority, but he adds the return of Donald Jones and Roscoe Parrish with the possibility Marcus Easley could fit the description is encouraging.
Simply put, says Nix, Ryan Fitzpatrick can be "the guy" to get us to "the promised land", if he has better players around him. He says the fact Fitz had 23 interceptions to go with his 24 td passes is very misleading, and I have to agree. The Bills defense was so bad, Fitz was usually trying to catch up, being forced to take chances he wouldn't take if the Bills weren't forced to gamble to score points. Oh, Fitz is a gunslinger, but what the Bills want him to be is more of a "controlled" gunslinger.
Even though the Bills may draft a qb, Fitz is clearly their guy as his new 6-year, $59 million contract indicates. There is a lot to like about Fitz, and only some of that is the way he plays quarterback. We know he's smart, duh, Harvard and all, but he's tough as nails and durable.
Durable isn't a word that would describe a lot of Bills players this past season, and while Nix says you can't fall on the injuries as an excuse, it's a fact that no less than a dozen key players went on IR at some point, and the Bills simply didn't have the quality depth to make up for those losses. Nix is aware of that and says the Bills will continue to improve their veteran depth.
Nix says it's way to early to say "I told you so" when the subject of C.J. Spiller comes up, but Spiller and the word "bust" were being thrown around together earlier this season when Fred Jackson was probably the best all around running back in the NFL until a freak leg fracture sidelined him. Spiller quickly proved he can be a star in the NFL, as he averaged an eye-popping 5.2 yards per carry, right behind Jackson's 5.5, with 7 runs of 20 yards or more, also right there with Jackson's 10 with many more carries.
It isn't a fluke that Jackson and Spiller averaged over 5 yards per carry and Fitz was sacked only 22 times - the least in the NFL for a starting qb - when you realize the biggest surprise this season was the play of the offensive line. That is also despite a rash of injuries there that saw budding star center Eric Wood go on IR, and left tackle Demetrius Bell continue to be plagued by various injuries. Rookie Chris Hairston played well at LT in Bell's absence and could well become the starter next season, although the Bills plan to resign Bell.
For the record, Nix also said the Bills will draft a tackle at some point in the draft, and they'll also take a couple cornerbacks? Say what? Don't the Bills have enough cb's? Nope, not in this league, says Nix, you simply have no shot if you don't have depth at that position.
Also for the record, Nix makes it clear the Bills TOP priority is a pass rushing defensive end or outside linebacker. Forget the talk of 4-3 and 3-4 and all that; the Bills played both about half the time this past season and that probably won't change with new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt taking over.
Assuming Kyle Williams returns at full speed, and he's well on schedule now, he and Marcell Dareus can make a formidable pair inside. Nix says it's all about making the quarterback uncomfortable in the NFL, and the Bills lack of a pass rush made almost everybody comfortable. When the Bills were able to get some pressure, we saw what happened as both Tom Brady and later wonder rookie Tim Tebow both had season high four int games in losses to the Bills.
Looking ahead at the AFC East, only New England looks like a sure bet to be strong again, and with Brady, that will remain the case even though the Pats defense is quite beatable. The Jets? Miami?
Nix says owner Ralph Wilson hasn't given him any indication the Bills won't spend to the cap and be aggressive in free agency in this off season, and the fact Gailey and his qb return gives the team some much needed cohesion heading into 2012.
Now if the Bills "d" can finally STOP somebody? THAT is THE question going forward.