The best thing about the Buffalo Bills' 6-10 season is it serves as a cold slap in the face of the organization.
Any illusions anyone had about the team being close to a championship contender are gone.
A total rebuilding job is in store for an offense that ranked 25th in yards, 29th in points, 20th in sacks allowed and 30th in third-down conversions. The Bills need two starting offensive linemen, two tight ends, a young wide receiver who eventually can start, and a speed player, who could be either the new receiver or a backup running back.
Then they have to find the biggest piece of the puzzle -- a quarterback.
This will not be easy. There are a handful of teams -- the Raiders, Jets, Saints, Bears, Falcons and Cardinals -- that have spent the better part of a decade in a fruitless search for a quarterback.
The trick for the Bills' brain trust apparently will be to find some serviceable veteran at a reasonable cost who can tide them over while they search for the new quarterback of the future.
Even with a strong defense -- the Bills ranked ninth in yards allowed, third in first downs allowed -- filling all those holes looks like more than a team can accomplish in one year.
You expect first-year starting quarterbacks to miss open receivers, throw interceptions and look bad. However, you also hope to see a few occasional glimpses that the young guy has something special.
Did anyone see enough of those glimpses from Todd Collins? We did not. He doesn't improvise well, doesn't scramble and seems to shut down in the face of pressure. His leadership remains a major question mark. Yes, he had a lot going against him -- bad blocking and a new system. But the fact is, he showed less presence and play-making ability than Alex Van Pelt, who has identical experience and less physical talent. And Collins really suffered in comparison with young QBs such as Steve McNair of Tennessee and Jake Plummer of Arizona. The numbers for those three were virtually identical, but McNair and Plummer sure look like they have more of a future.
The Bills have to decide whether to keep Collins around another year just in case he suddenly puts it all together. Van Pelt, if he recovers from shoulder surgery, could be an adequate backup. GRADE: F.
Antowain Smith gained 840 yards and averaged 4.3 yards a carry, virtually the same as Thurman Thomas' rookie-season numbers. He looks like a sure thing in the Bills' offense for the next five years, at least. Thomas averaged 4.2 yards a carry, his best total in five years. He still can contribute. Darick Holmes is good insurance as the third back. GRADE: B.
Lonnie Johnson's three-year tenure as starting tight end undoubtedly is over. He went out with a bang -- the sound made when he blindly ran into Darren Sharper after catching a fake-punt pass at Green Bay. That's how Johnson will be remembered, for his mistakes. The Bills need to find two blocking tight ends to fit the ball-control style. Second-year man Jay Riemersma might develop into a good player if he can block better. He has good hands.
Andre Reed and Quinn Early had good seasons and can be counted on again next year. But they will be 34 and 33, respectively, next season. So even if Eric Moulds turns his career around (he is a total bust so far), the Bills still need another young receiver. The lack of a true deep threat hurts the offense. GRADE: D.
In order to make the line an asset, the Bills need to find two good players -- not just average ones -- to play the right side. The line had disaster written all over it when the coaches decided four games into preseason that Glenn Parker and Corey Louchiey weren't the answer on the right side and it was time to experiment. The Bills have one sure thing in Pro Bowl right guard Ruben Brown. Left tackle John Fina is adequate at best. Center Dusty Zeigler could develop into a decent player. There's no certainty that Jamie Nails will drop the 25 pounds necessary for him to contend for the right tackle job. Marcus Spriggs could not supplant Corbin Lacina and remains a project. Jerry Ostroski, given his versatility, would be worth retaining as a backup. GRADE: F.
Ted Washington was the most valuable player on the team. The Bills held opponents to 3.0 yards per rush the final eight games -- after both starting inside linebackers were lost to injury. John Holecek did a fine job at middle linebacker, but Washington was the biggest reason for the success. Bruce Smith's 10th Pro Bowl selection was well deserved, and Phil Hansen was excellent. The knee injury to Sean Moran may force the Bills back to the 3-4 next season. GRADE: A
Bryce Paup is better suited to the 3-4 defense than the 4-3, as evidenced by the fact he was beaten in pass coverage by tight ends such as Miami's Ed Perry and Chicago's Ryan Wetnight. However, Paup is super against the run and remains a good pass rusher. With three Pro Bowls under his belt, he's bound to get a huge offer to leave the Bills. And he may opt to return to Green Bay, no matter what offer he gets. He would be a big loss to the Bills' defense. Sam Rogers quietly had an excellent year at the other outside spot. Gabe Northern didn't come on like the Bills hoped he would, probably largely due to the fact the 4-3 was an unfamiliar adjustment for the young backers. The Bills may have to rely on Northern if Paup leaves. Holecek played well in place of Chris Spielman. The Bills must add depth inside, since the health of both Spielman and Damien Covington is uncertain. GRADE: B.
A lack of big plays is the concern here. Corners Thomas Smith and Jeff Burris and strong safety Henry Jones fill their roles solidly, but they have combined for just four interceptions the past two seasons. Kurt Schulz, most likely to get pickoffs from his center field spot, had just two this year. The Bills rank 27th in turnovers forced over the past three years. They could use a big playmaker back here, specifically at free safety. GRADE: C .
Coach Bruce DeHaven's units, mostly excellent the past 10 years, fell apart. Since young players make up much of the special teams, one has to conclude the Bills' depth isn't particularly good, and some of the young players need to be more dedicated. Several veterans suggested as much later in the season. The Bills desperately need a kickoff return man. Steve Christie and Chris Mohr remain a fine kicker-punter combination. GRADE: F.
There was nothing wrong with Dan Henning's desire to build a power running game, play to the strength of the defense and take pressure off the quarterback. The problem was how woefully those plans were executed. Ball control is the only way to win in a division with Bill Parcells and Jimmy Johnson.
The problems started with the fact the coaches overestimated some key young players -- Corey Louchiey and Lonnie Johnson (not to mention Collins). There was no vision regarding the offensive line. Glenn Parker should have been cut on June 1 and a move made to replace him at right guard. Instead, the team went back to the drawing board two weeks before the opener. Henning didn't have the kind of players he needed, but he's on the hot seat as well. Antowain Smith had 20 carries in only one game and only had 15 or more in four. And then there was play-calling that blew up -- like the no-huddle attack against Denver, the failure to attack hobbled corners in Tennessee, the cross-field interception against the Jaguars. Odd. Marv Levy deserves the blame for keeping Tom Bresnahan on staff. The new coordinator simply should not have to work with the demoted former coordinator, no matter who's involved.
Wade Phillips' defense, meanwhile, did a fine job under the circumstances. Consider: The Bills held a lead of more than a touchdown for a combined total of 18 minutes all season. It's amazing the defense still had 46 sacks. Last year, opponents gained possession 26 times in Bills' territory and only scored three TDs on those possessions. This year, due to the dreadful offense and special teams, the opponents took the field 40 times in Bills' territory and the defense held them to seven TDs. Both years, that was the second-best percentage by any defense in the league. GRADE: D.
General manager John Butler was hamstrung by the fact owner Ralph Wilson opted to save his money last offseason. Wilson had spent with both fists in previous years. But in a year in which Jim Kelly retired and the offense underwent a total makeover, bold moves were required. Wilson needed to be convinced of that. The Bills made no bold moves, other than the ill-fated trade for Billy Joe Hobert. There had to be some lower-priced tight end available who could block better than Johnson. There had to be a Plan B when it was learned Jim Dombrowski couldn't play. There's no way, back in May, that Levy could have envisioned starting Lacina and Ostroski at right guard and tackle.
It's time for bold moves. It's up to the front office to continue what overall has been a good record on personnel acquisitions. The Bills have hit on six of their last seven No. 1 picks (with Moulds being the lone miss) and are 6 for 6 in major free-agent signings (with Washington, Paup, Spielman, Early, Jim Jeffcoat and Bill Brooks). GRADE: F.
BILLS' FINAL REPORT CARD
Quarterbacks: Welcome to the post-Kelly era. F.
Running backs: Too bad they didn't run more. B.
Receivers: Calling all tight ends -- help wanted. D.
Offensive line: Major overhaul is needed. F.
Defensive line: Ted ate up everyone in sight. A .
Linebackers: Future of good unit uncertain. B.
Defensive backs: Team needed more big plays. C .
Special teams: Yucky. F.
Coaching: Vision, bold moves lacking. D.
Front office: Underestimated rebuilding task. F.