It's been an interesting off-season. The Buffalo Bills are about to be owned by someone other than Ralph Wilson -- unless you include Tom Brady -- for the first time since their inception 54 years ago. Their first-round pick, Sammy Watkins, is the rare Bills player of the 21st Century to gain national approval as a star-in-the-making. Their stadium is undergoing major renovations; my view from the press box will now be in an upper corner, the Bills turning the old workroom into prime seats for fans, as it should be.
There's been a lot to talk about. Times are changing.
I just wish I could tell you that I think times are changing on the field too.
Right now I can't.
Neither EJ Manuel nor Doug Marrone has convinced me that they're, as we say in analytics, "above replacement level". And in case the term isn't self-evident, simply being above replacement level isn't exactly being a star.
Every fan knows how important quarterback play is to a team's results. Bills fans have to had to hope all off-season that Manuel takes a step forward -- from "average for a rookie", at best, to competent, or even good. Hope for our quarterback, again, is the best we can do, because evidence is scant.
Manuel has to make jumps in several key areas. He has to be more willing to let plays take their course, and not settle for a dump-off option to avoid getting hit. At the same time he has to be more willing to throw passes to his best receivers, namely Watkins. The Bills must overserve Watkins this season considering the price they paid for him or risk the pick seeming dubious. Manuel also simply must make more good passes than he has; it's one thing to read the play right, it's another to deliver the ball.
When I've watched Manuel at training camp this year it strikes me how few perfect throws he makes. In my opinion he does not impress on the level of a franchise quarterback.
He also consistently talks about how well it's going, this preseason, this camp. I hesitate to criticize him for that because if he sounds down on himself then that's not good either. But Saturday morning after his offense put up but up but a field goal Friday night in Carolina I heard Manuel pump up the performance and I'd had enough. "Well we scored three points in three possessions so how do you think I feel about it?", or words to that effect, would be nice to hear, I admit.
Of course every player benefits from good coaching, so Manuel could use Marrone to know how to handle him, and Marrone's staff to know how to teach him.
At this point Marrone has not convinced me that he's a cut above.
One week ago Marrone's short answers with media came to reveal that he was dismayed over the loss to the Giants in the preseason opener. This, of course, is madness. There is no correlation between preseason and regular-season records. Does Marrone think he can establish some sort of winning attitude by having his soon-to-be-cut third-stringers close out preseason wins? If he does this speaks to incompetence.
On gamedays last year Marrone for me was a frequent disappointment. Every year it's the same point: The small-market Bills are an inherent underdog in the NFL, against big-city rivals, against teams that are made at quarterback, or both (New England). So do they avail themselves to advantages suggested by data and game probabilities? Of course not.
The 2013 Buffalo Bills led the NFL in punts. (And it's not because they were good at it. They were 27th in yards per punt.)
I'd be in a better place with this upcoming season if I felt the Bills had an organized plan, but as often happened when Wilson was alive I look at their off-season moves as scattershot.
Win now? Or even win now, in italics, as in how Peter King interpreted Doug Whaley's emphasis on the word 90 minutes after the Watkins pick. Fine, let's do it. If this had been the plan though, why not pay Jairus Byrd? Heck, it's bad money they might say but we're here to win now. And go ahead and keep Stevie Johnson while you're at it, rather than have him account for $10.225 million in dead money. You don't even have to play him, but you'd have him for insurance. Isn't that what win now does?
How about at quarterback? Attempting to grow with Manuel after his performance last year isn't what win now does, it's what win later does. Win now signs Michael Vick maybe. What's Cleveland doing with Rex Grossman while having Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel in camp? I don't much like Grossman but it's at least a gesture toward doing the most you can do. Now.
I wish I knew what Whaley really thought of all this. The more he's been confronted with this win-now business, the more he's backed away. In this article, Whaley says everybody is trying to win now. So who knows?