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Bills inspire cautious optimism

I was still waking up Sunday morning and wishing my wife a happy Mother’s Day when my 17-year-old son walked into the room. He’s part of a younger generation that’s not old enough to remember the Bills contending for a playoff spot. He was born seven months after their last postseason win.

“So how did they do at the draft?” he asked.

Well, son, I have absolutely no idea and neither does anyone else. Sure, there will be no shortage of people who claim they know, but nobody really knows until the season begins. Draft professionals spend months watching video and breaking down players and still bungle picks every year.

Fantasy owners are familiar with feeling a rush of confidence after the draft, only to land in the basement. People tend to overvalue their draft wisdom. Let’s not forget that reasonable Buffalo fans were once higher than Seantrel Henderson about the likes of former first-rounders Mike Williams and Aaron Maybin.

Last week on the – cheap plug alert! – “Bucky and Sully Show,” my crabby co-host tried pushing me into a corner about whether the Bills would make the playoffs. Jerry Sullivan picked the Bills to finish 6-10 and wanted to either drag me down with him or set my expectations high so he could hammer me later.

Dude, this isn’t my keg party, as you say.

It’s foolish to make predictions now about the Bills. They built an empire on false hope. Too many variables exist that can determine success and failure in a given week in the NFL, let alone four months in advance. Bookies stay in business because at least half the bettors are wrong every week.

My sense is that the Bills will have their best season in a decade. They finished 9-7 in 2004 under Mike Mularkey but missed the postseason. It marked the only season in which they had a winning record and finished on the right side of the point differential since they made the playoffs in 1999.

The Bills weren’t six players away from making the playoffs last year. By my count, they were six plays from finishing 10-6 or better. Instead, they stayed true to form and found ways to lose. Still, they looked like they were on the verge of figuring out how to win under Doug Marrone.

Any optimism should come with numerous IFs that need to turn in their direction if they’re going to make a U-turn. Rather than proclaim today, May 12, 2014, that the Bills will win 10 games and make the playoffs, it makes more sense to acknowledge what needs to happen. The Bills will reach the postseason IF:

• EJ Manuel stays healthy and matures. The Bills aren’t going anywhere unless they’re right about their quarterback. Manuel was injured so often last year that it was difficult to evaluate him. He should be more comfortable with the offense, the NFL, his place on the team and his surroundings.

Manuel sounded more in command, and less like a nervous rookie, when he returned for volunteer workouts. It was a good sign. He should have more confidence in himself. He already had chemistry with Robert Woods. The passing game should be stronger, but that’s IF …

• Sammy Watkins is the real deal. The Bills needed an impact player, a franchise receiver who can catch passes when he’s covered and relieve pressure from Manuel. They made a bold trade to get Watkins. The Bills needs to be right about him. He can maximize his effectiveness IF …

• Receiver Mike Williams grows up. The Buffalo native is a potential wild card. They don’t need a wild child. He has more ability than many No. 1 receivers in the NFL. Marrone believes he can get more out of him and help him carry himself like a professional. Imagine the weapons in the passing game IF …

• The offensive line improves. Buffalo beefed up its O-line in the draft with the idea it can create competition in training camp and add a starter. Here’s hoping Cyrus Kouandjio plays as angry as he looked when the Bills selected him. Henderson’s first-round talent was supposedly hiding in his weed.

Manuel checked down too early last season, but he will throw the ball downfield more often when he’s comfortable with the protection. A little more time can make a big difference. And Buffalo will have yet another dimension IF …

• Bryce Brown contributes. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are quality running backs. Jackson is a consummate professional and leader. Spiller needs to stay healthy. Brown can help on special teams and should give them added punch and help extend drives on offense. It would help even more IF …

• The Bills stop the run. Brandon Spikes signed a one-year contract with the idea he can plug holes in the middle and get the defense off the field. The linebacker is a terrific tackler who brings bite. He’s determined to prove he can play all three downs. He’ll make enough plays inside, but his job will be much easier IF …

• Marcell Dareus acts like a professional. It’s not just the arrest for possession of synthetic marijuana, a controlled substance commonly used to pass drug tests. He tested positive for stupidity. He’s likely awaiting a suspension. If he can pull himself together and show up on time, he’s worth keeping.

It’s a big IF among many. But if the aforementioned factors come together, and if the Bills stay healthy, and if they win on the road, and if their defense responds to Jim Schwartz, we’re not going to be talking about the Bills making the playoffs. We’ll be wondering how far they can go when the postseason begins.

Then again, son, what do I know?


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