The Bills cleaned out their lockers Monday, adhering to standard protocol for explaining away another lost season. Kyle Williams and Fred Jackson are well versed in 6-10 seasons and injecting hope into the following year, so they took their customary positions and addressed the media.
Even hardened critics start feeling sorry for the two classy veterans after watching them try to come up with fresh perspective year after year. The Bills were one Chris Kelsay and one Ryan Denney away from taking us back to 2009, when they also finished 6-10 and landed the ninth pick overall in the draft.
By now, you know the template.
The Bills have finished 6-10 in three straight seasons and four times in five years. They have finished 6-10 or 7-9 seven times in nine years. They’ve gone into the draft picking between eighth and 12th overall eight times in 11 years going back to 2005, a numbing stretch of repetitiveness that covers five head coaches.
Add and subtract a few free agents – in this case Jairus Byrd for Donte Whitner, for example, or Scott Chandler for Robert Royal – and the first day of the offseason was like many others. So, yes, Monday struck a familiar if not predictable tone.
“I feel good about the direction we’re headed,” Williams said. “Now, that doesn’t say that we don’t have a lot of work to do, because we do. But the good thing is we have a long offseason, we have a bitter pill to swallow headed into that offseason, hopefully that will prod it a little bit.”
Of course, also true to form over 14 straight seasons of playoff failures is their attempt to make sense of their flawed quarterback situation. It always comes back to the man, or men, behind center. The Bills on Monday threw their confidence behind EJ Manuel even though he failed to establish himself as a reliable starter this season.
In fact, the Bills aren’t any closer to finding their franchise quarterback than they were a year ago. The Bills were 28th in passing. Manuel suffered three knee injuries and failed to arouse the masses. He wasn’t significantly better than Thaddeus Lewis behind him or Ryan Fitzpatrick and Trent Edwards before him.
The Bills are banking on Manuel improving. He’ll have a full offseason to prepare and more experience behind him, so he should be better next year. But there’s also a chance Manuel will be another name on a list of quarterbacks who have taken them nowhere since Drew Bledsoe was acquired from New England.
“Does he want to get better? Yes,” GM Doug Whaley said. “We think he will get better. We know he will get better.”
Marrone assured Manuel that he will be the No. 1 quarterback when training camp opens next season. For Marrone to make any proclamations about his quarterback was unsettling. Then again, he also was 110 percent certain that Manuel would be ready for the regular season finale against New England.
When a team finishes 6-10, nothing is certain.
Marrone looks like the right coach and a good fit for Buffalo, by the way. He didn’t make any egregious errors this season. You didn’t see any boneheaded decisions under pressure, which made him a considerable upgrade over the men who preceded him. You could sense a shift in the Bills’ collective mindset.
They were competitive in most games and were disappointed to finish 6-10, a departure from years in which they were thrilled with six wins. They were 3-3 in the division. If you’re looking for shreds of hope, well, there you go. An optimist would argue they were a handful of plays, rather than a handful of players, from going 10-6 or better.
Danny Amendola made a spectacular catch to keep the winning drive alive for the Patriots in the opener. The Bills allowed a long touchdown pass late against the Jets. They lost in overtime to Cincinnati. Jeff Tuel threw an interception against Kansas City that turned a game upside down. Take your pick of fumbles against Atlanta.
There are numerous ways to 6-10. The Bills made too many mistakes along the way. Their passing game faltered or they couldn’t stop mediocre running attacks or their special teams fell apart. They had a strong running game and won the turnover battle. No matter how many ways you dissect the season, they were 6-10. They failed.
New England, meanwhile, won its fifth straight division title. The Patriots were a handful of plays from having their season flipped upside down. They won six games by three points or less. Tom Brady led to them to a 12-4 record, their 13th straight winning season and another first-round bye in the playoffs.
“You have to give a lot of credit to the guy that’s running the show out there,” Jackson said of Brady. “You have a guy who is an MVP and Super Bowl champion. Any time you’ve got a guy that’s going to make some plays, make some adjustments on the field, it helps change those plays.”
And that’s the difference, folks.
In the NFL these days, it’s about the quarterback. Look at the Packers, who were holding up Aaron Rodgers as a savior Sunday after his game-winning bomb to Randall Cobb. Green Bay isn’t in the playoffs without Matt Flynn. He won only two games, which were enough to help the Packers return to the postseason.
Philadelphia won a division title after riding backup Nick Foles. Every playoff team had an efficient quarterback. The Bills had a struggling rookie in Manuel, an inexperienced veteran in Lewis and unsigned free agent rookie in Tuel manning the offense. None was good enough to make a difference.
We’ll see if it changes. Manuel may have needed a full year to grow comfortable in the NFL and assume command in the huddle. He appeared to have chemistry with Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. There was talk about him being better off without Stevie Johnson, who is expected back next season.
But it wasn’t a good sign that Manuel needed to be asked, or ordered, to return to One Bills Drive and answer a few questions Monday.
The Bills for years have emphasized the importance of accountability, but it was mostly a shallow buzzword. Manuel is a quarterback and supposed leader. He and C.J. Spiller left the practice facility Monday. They reappeared after making an unexpected U-turn, presumably because they were summoned by team officials.
Johnson never showed his face Monday. Same goes with Mario Williams and a few other so-called leaders on this team. Byrd slipped into the locker room and slipped out without speaking to reporters, leaving the media to read into an autographed jersey left in his locker by Aaron Williams that looked like a goodbye present.
Kyle Williams and Jackson, meanwhile, volunteered to make sense of it all for yet another season. They didn’t need to be ordered into taking responsibility. They did what came natural and made it look easy. Then again, when it comes to explaining away losing seasons, they’ve had more than enough practice.
“There were times in my time playing here that we were fortunate to get to 6-10,” Jackson said. “This year, being 6-10 was definitely disappointing. All the games that we had an opportunity to win and we didn’t, you look at those and say, ‘If we wouldn’t have gotten this or one play here or one play there, that’s a win for us.’ If you followed us this year, you know there are five or six plays that changed the outcome of our season.”