by John Furgele
Most observers say that the Buffalo Bills have a nice little team. They have a great defensive line, very good linebackers, scrappy cornerbacks, a very good kicker and a solid punter. On offense, they have a potential star in wide receiver Sammy Watkins, an emerging Robert Woods, a decent tight end in Scott Chandler and serviceable running backs. Yes, the offensive line needs some reinforcements, but the Bills will never be a playoff contender until they find the one missing piece.
The Buffalo Bills have been searching for this missing piece since 1996 when Jim Kelly retired. That’s 18 seasons of below average QB play. The Bills missed the playoffs in 1997 but did advance to the AFC Wild Card round in both the 1998 and 1999 seasons under, for the most part, Doug Flutie. Flutie sparked the Bills in 1998, going 7-3 as a starter and that team lost to Miami in the ’98 Wild Card game, 24-17. The next year, Flutie went 10-5 as starter, took the season finale off and then watched as Wade Phillips—and the Bills brass—benched him for Rob Johnson in the 22-16 Music City Miracle loss at Tennessee.
Some call this the Flutie Curse, or maybe the Flutie Flake Curse, but since 1999, the Bills have come up dry. They did have a shot in 2004, when all they had to do was beat a Pittsburgh team that was resting its starters, but the Bills with Drew Bledsoe, lost at home to finish 9-7 and out of the playoffs. Since 2004, the Bills have never had a .500 season until this year.
Have the Bills improved? Yes, but in the end, this was a wasted season, a season where there will be more questions than answers. The head coach, Doug Marrone took a gamble after the fourth game when he benched the struggling E.J. Manuel for the veteran Kyle Orton. Nobody can blame Marrone for making this decision. Be that as it may, it was a gamble, a risk and the only way the risk/gamble would be rewarded was with a playoff appearance. By delaying Manuel’s development or non-development, Marrone was saying that Orton was good enough to get the Buffalo Bills into the playoffs. He had to be right.
There are many that will backtrack here. They will say that the coach should have kept Manuel on the field so the organization could see what they have—or don’t have. But, after the Bills lost in Houston, those people were screaming for Orton and as we know, the backup quarterback is always the most popular player on a team when the number one guy struggles.
No one can blame Marrone for taking the gamble, but like a gambler who gambles away $10,000 hoping to win $100,000, Marrone came up with nothing, in fact, he lost the $10,000. The Bills are not only out of the playoffs, but they have more uncertainty than ever at the most important position in professional sports. What they do now is anybody’s guess, and there is not only pressure on Marrone and the front office, there is enormous pressure on new owner Terry Pegula.
The Bills could have done what the Oakland Raiders did and that is start their rookie Derek Carr for 16 games, take massive lumps, but at season’s end, see what they may have at quarterback. The jury remains out on Carr, but he may have played good enough to warrant 16 more starts in 2015. In fact, assuming he starts in Week 17 against Denver, he will have as many starts (16) as the second year Manuel.
The difference is pretty obvious of course. The Raiders know they’re in a rebuilding mode and sure, they could have played the veteran, Matt Schaub and made a run at 7-9, but in the midst of what will be a 3-13 or 4-12 season, they found that their rookie quarterback may be a decent, quality starter in the NFL.
What did the Bills find out? Well, they confirmed what we already knew and that is that Orton is a competent backup quarterback who will win half and lose half of his starts. He can hold serve, but he’s not breaking serve and upping his winning percentage to 60 percent, which is required to qualify for the NFL playoffs. Orton can’t move, and he’s not accurate enough to start full-time and help a team make a run. It’s not Orton’s fault. He is a backup, a decent backup and always has been. The Bills were hoping that he could find that magic season, and do enough to get the Bills into the playoffs. The good defense, coupled with the game manager quarterback and presto, an end to the playoff drought.
The Bills also found out that they have no idea whether Manuel can “do it,” in the NFL. He started 12 games in 2013, four in 2014. His 2013 season was broken up by a knee injury and his 2014 season was derailed before the train was set in motion. The Bills knew that this could happen; that they could bench Manuel, take the gamble with Orton and come up empty-handed, and that’s precisely what occurred.
Now, after one meaningless game at New England, the Bills will head into the always topsy-turvy offseason. They will lose key players on defense, they will have to plug holes on both sides of the football and they’ll have to determine what to do at quarterback. Eerily silent has been Terry Pegula, the new owner with all the money. As much as fans despise meddling owners, Pegula has to meddle this offseason. He has many things to meddle with. First, he has to decide to retain or dismiss Doug Marrone. Most think that despite some questionable game management scenarios; that Marrone will be back. In the end, Marrone will be either 8-8 or 9-7, an improvement from 2013. And, because he improved without a bonafide, quality quarterback, you can make an easy case for him to be back.
Pegula is going to have to weigh in on what to do at quarterback, too. If he leaves it up to Doug Whaley, Marrone and Russ Brandon, they may wallow again and go with Orton, another middle-aged backup, or Manuel. Pegula has to sit the brass down and lead the discussion. It’s very simple; Pegula has to look the three in the eye and ask if E.J. Manuel is the guy. If they say yes, then Manuel gets the entire season to show his goods. And, that might mean a 5-11 or 6-10 season if Manuel struggles. There can’t be panic or false hope like there was this year. The Bills have to do what the Raiders did and that is sink or swim with the youngster. If they say no, then Pegula has to tell the three to find another quarterback via free agency (slim), or the draft or through a trade.
Finding a quarterback is not easy. Of course, some teams get lucky. The Colts had Peyton Manning for 14 seasons, then, after going 2-14 in the year that he missed, they got Andrew Luck. They may go through two quarterbacks in 28 years, while teams like the Bills change them like you and I change our underwear.
They have to be out there, somewhere. Is it really this hard to find a decent enough quarterback to play in the NFL? Apparently, it is. Jay Cutler they say has the tools, but they said the same thing about Jeff George. Acquiring Cutler would be a colossal mistake. Mining in the draft is hardly a recipe for success. For every Aaron Rodgers, there is a J.P. Losman.
There is no proven formula when it comes to finding quarterbacks. Ton Brady was found in the sixth round. The Colts were torn between Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf, the Cowboys found Tony Romo at Division 1-AA Eastern Illinois and the Ravens found Joe Flacco at Delaware after he transferred from the University of Pittsburgh.
The Bills went for broke this year and it didn’t work. They missed the playoffs for the 15th straight season and are still looking for the guy to be the guy for a decade. Jim Kelly retired in 1996, and 18 years is a long, long time.