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Pitoniak: Housecleaning next for Bills
ORCHARD PARK - Back in August, I thought for sure this would be the season the playoff famine ended in Buffalo. I was not alone in that belief. Respected football observers throughout the land shared my sentiment, believed the addition of Super Mario Williams and fellow free-agent defensive end Mark Anderson would enable the Bills to field a shutdown defense.
A new chapter was about to be written. Or so we thought.
Unfortunately, the new chapter wound up being the same, old story.
Sunday afternoon, yet another sorry season came to an end with a meaningless 28-9 victory against the equally inept New York Jets at the snowy, half-empty Ralph. A game many had circled last summer as a contest that might have playoff implications wound up being a match-up to see if the Jets could join the Bills in the AFC East basement with a 6-10 record. (Technically, Buffalo clinched last place in the division for a fifth consecutive year based on tiebreakers.)
That makes three consecutive double-digit loss seasons, seven such seasons in the last 12 years, and 13 years without a playoff appearance - the longest current streak in the parity-conscious NFL. Hey, at least the Bills are consistent.
And, so, the time has come again for a major housecleaning at One Bills Drive. If I were owner Ralph Wilson, I would say good-bye to:
* Chan Gailey, a nice guy who managed to win just 16 of 48 games in his three seasons as Buffalo's head coach;
* Ryan Fitzpatrick, another good guy who whose pop-gun arm and penchant for costly turnovers resulted in a 19-31 as a starting quarterback in his four seasons with the team, and;
* Buddy Nix, the general manager who talks a good game, but has failed to resuscitate a franchise that last participated in a playoff game on Jan. 8, 2000.
I'm ready for some new blood to reinvigorate the organization. No retreads, please, this time around.
The first order of business is to hire a dynamic new general manager, someone who has a keen eye for talent and a clear vision for righting this ship. My choice would be David Caldwell, the Atlanta Falcons director of player personnel and a Buffalo native. He has 16 years NFL experience, including 10 with the Indianapolis Colts during their Super Bowl years. Caldwell is a Bill Polian-disciple who's developed a knack for finding talent. He will be courted by several other teams, but clearly would be intrigued by the opportunity to return home and revive the team he grew up rooting for.
There won't be a shortage of qualified coaching candidates out there for Nix or his successor to choose from. If the Bills GM wants to tap someone with NFL experience, he could go after Bruce Arians, the Indianapolis Colts interim head coach, who did such a marvelous job filling in for Chuck Pagano, who missed most of the season while being treated for leukemia. There's also highly regarded Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who worked under Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh. Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer might just be the no-nonsense, passionate leader the Bills have been lacking. Or maybe offensive whiz Kyle Shannahan, who's played a role in Robert Griffin III's rapid development in Washington. Or 26-year NFL veteran Vic Fangio, the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers.
I'm sure the usual suspects also will be bandied about, too - names like Jon Gruden, Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid and Cowher. But I don't see them as wanting the job. And that's OK because, like I said, it's time for new ideas.
I'd definitely also look to the college ranks. Oregon's Chip Kelly is one of the more creative offensive minds in the game, but I think he will wind up some place where the quarterback situation isn't so unsettled - a place like Carolina. Other possible candidates: Notre Dame's Brian Kelly, who has been brilliant waking up the echoes in South Bend, and Nebraska's Bo Pelini, who has done a fabulous job with the Cornhuskers and also has 9 years as an NFL assistant on his resume.
The top personnel priority needs to be quarterback. I'd look to both free agency and the draft. I don't believe concussion- and turnover-prone Eagles quarterback Michael Vick is the stop-gap answer. It would do the Bills good to take a serious look at the availability of an Alex Smith or Matt Flynn or even Philip Rivers, who could become expendable when the new regime takes hold in San Diego.
And I would definitely draft a quarterback, too. We're told that this isn't nearly as deep or talented a QB draft class as 2012, which produced the aforementioned RG III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. But that doesn't mean there aren't possible diamonds in the rough. Look at what the unheralded Wilson has done for the Seahawks. At 5-foot-10, he was supposedly too short to play quarterback in the NFL. The third-rounder has not only proved he can play, but play extremely well. He is as deserving as either Luck or RGIII for rookie-of-the-year honors. So, maybe there is another Russell Wilson out there ready to surprise.
West Virginia's Geno Smith is the highest rated signal-caller in the draft, although his stock may have dropped some after his poor performance in Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl loss to Syracuse. The weather conditions were treacherous, and he didn't respond well, so that's a concern for someone who will have to deal with adverse conditions during November and December games in the Ralph. Potential gems like North Carolina State's Mike Glennon and Syracuse's Ryan Nassib are definitely worth a look in the second round.
Unless the Bills braintrust is in love with one of the eight QBs projected to go in the first three rounds, I would attempt to address one of my other needs with my first pick.
I think Notre Dame inside linebacker and Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te'o would be a good fit for the Bills. Buffalo could use a play-making linebacker like Te'o to shore up a corps that didn't exactly distinguish itself this fall. One of the reasons the Bills yielded the second most points in franchise history and were routinely gashed by running backs was poor play by their linebackers. They often were out of position and failed to make plays when they did make correct reads. Te'o is a hard hitter, who's great in coverage and has a nose for the ball.
So, that's my wish list for the New Year. A shrewd talent evaluator at GM. An innovative, passionate coach who will hold his players accountable. A stop-gap quarterback, along with a young, drafted quarterback with an upside. And a play-making linebacker.
The time has come for some major changes.
A new chapter needs to be written - one that isn't the same, old story.
SCOTT'S REPORT CARD FOR THE SEASON
COACHING: Chan Gailey was a nice guy, perhaps too nice at times. It's OK to be a player's coach if the players perform. But this team became too comfortable under Chan. His decision-making and game-management left much to be desired. His failure to fully utilize his most dynamic weapon - running back C.J. Spiller - was baffling. He clearly was hamstrung by Fitz' deficiencies, but both he and Nix decided to go in that direction rather than find another quarterback or even give Tavaris Jackson a look. That error in judgment, along with the failures of the old friend he appointed as defensive coordinator (Dave Wannstedt) led to his downfall. As a result Chan became the first Bills coach to record three double-digit loss seasons. GRADE: F.
OFFENSE: C.J. was a dynamo who accounted for 1,244 yards rushing, 459 receiving and eight touchdowns. Stevie Johnson proved productive again, catching 79 passes for 1,046 yards and six scores. Fitzpatrick had decent numbers (24 TDs, 16 interceptions, 3,400 yards), but was terrible throwing the deep ball and making plays in clutch situations. His weak arm allowed teams to load up against the run. The Bills scored under 20 points in 9 games and wound up turning the ball over 34 times. GRADE: C.
DEFENSE: The Bills were among the league's worst at defending the run, yielded 45 or more points a team-record four times and produced just 20 takeaways. It was supposed to be different with Mario Williams and Anderson joining Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus on the front line. Mario came on in the second half of the season, finishing with 10.5 sacks, but was not the second coming of Bruce Smith. And Anderson wound up spending the majority of the season on the sidelines with injuries. Safety Jairus Byrd had a solid season with five interceptions and rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore improved considerably. Overall, the unit greatly underachieved, yielding a near-franchise record 435 points. GRADE: D.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Leodis McKelvin led the NFL with an 18.7 punt return average and two touchdowns. Brad Smith averaged 27.7 yards per kickoff return and had an 89-yard return for score. Rian Lindell had another solid season, making 21 of 24 field goals and Shaun Powell averaged 44.4 yard per punt and pinned 21 inside the 20 in place of the released Brian Moorman. Alex Carrington got his hand on a team-record five field goal attempts. Opponents returned two punts and one kickoff for touchdowns. GRADE: B.
OUTLOOK: I like Chan and Fitz. Good, solid, people. But it's a highly competitive business and the production just hasn't been there. So, sadly, a major housecleaning is needed once more.