Bills Look To Rebound In Home Opener

The Bills had high hopes for the 2012 but many of those hopes came crashing down when they were routed on opening day by the Jets 48-28.  However as Bills fans know from experience, one game does not a season make.  After all this is the team that won their opener on the road against the Chiefs last year 41-7 on their way to a 5-2 start before the season came crashing down and they finished at 6-10.  Maybe they are trying reverse psychology this season?  Either way Bills fans are on edge after the big loss to the Jets and winning their home opener will go a long way in calming the fears of the masses, particularly with what could be the easiest road game on the schedule, at Cleveland, in Week 3.  Here are some things to look for in Week 2 for the Bills:

  • Mario Williams needs to produce for the Bills today

    Will the Bills d-line be able to put pressure on Matt Cassel?  The Bills had no pass rush to speak of in week 1 due to a strong performance by Mark Sanchez who made good, quick decisions.  The Bills CBs are talented but raw and will need to lean on the veteran defensive line to create pressure.  They didn’t do it last week and they absolutely must this week.  Mario Williams needs to show up or he’ll have a lot of people questioning the big investment made in him after only two games.

  • Which Ryan Fitzpatrick will show up for the Bills?  The bad Ryan Fitzpatrick showed up for the Bills last week, they need the good one this time around.  Fitzpatrick had a huge day in the season opener against the Chiefs last year, throwing for 208 yards and 4 TDs.  It will be a tough task without his top slot receiver David Nelson who was lost for the season in Week 1 after he tore his ACL.  The Chiefs do have a banged-up secondary (more on that in a second) so Fitzpatrick will have a chance to take advantage.
  • Will the Chiefs try to injure Stevie Johnson?  Last year Eric Berry was lost for the season after Stevie Johnson blocked him low in the Bills/Chiefs match-up last year on opening weekend.  Not only did Berry criticize Johnson for what he considered a cheap hit in the immediate aftermath but he also opined that their may have been a bounty on him after the Bounty Gate story broke out.  To me it sounds like a cock-eyed conspiracy theory and simple sour grapes from Berry but that hasn’t stopped him from obsessing over it.  The funny thing is that last week Fred Jackson was hit by Jets safety Laron Landry in a manner not all that dissimilar from the way Johnson hit Berry but when asked on Twitter if it was a dirty hit Jackson said it wasn’t and plays like that happen in football all the time.  I guess that’s what separates a guy like Freddie Jackson from a guy like Eric Berry.
  • Will T.J. Graham be ready to step up in for David Nelson?  Rookie receiver T.J. Graham was a surprise healthy scratch last week.  Coach Chan Gailey said that Graham was still picking up the offense.  I hope Graham really picked it up in the last 6 days because the injuries to Nelson and Jackson will force Graham to play early and often on Sunday.  He will likely play on the outside with starting receiver Donald Jones moved into the inside on 3-man sets.  If you hadn’t noticed by now, Gailey is rather fond of 3 and 4 receiver sets.  Hopefully Graham is ready to go because they will need him this week.  The Bills don’t figure to add another veteran receiver until at least Jackson returns to the lineup.
  • Marcell Dareus will be plating with a heavy heart today after the loss of his brother

    How will Marcell Dareus play after dealing with his personal tragedy?  While the national sports scene has been fixated on the Bills poor opening week performance the mood in Buffalo has been different.  The mood quickly changed in Orchard Park last week when Marcell Dareus learned that his brother was shot to death in Alabama on Sunday night.  Dareus comes into the home opener with a heavy heart.  The kid has been a leader in the Bills locker room since his first game as a pro last season.  It would be tough to lose a sibling under any circumstance but I can’t imagine going out and playing a game just 6 days afterwards.

Between the expectations coming into the season, the performance last week, the home crowd this week, and the team rallying around one of their leaders it will make for high emotion at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday.  All eyes will be on the defense on Sunday as fans are ready to see the team’s investment both through the draft and free agency start to pay off.  Ryan Fitzpatrick will be under the microscope as well.  If he has another poor performance then fans and pundits will start talking about whether or not Tarvaris Jackson is a better starting option and I can tell you that neither Fitz nor the Bills mafia wants to have that conversation.  With the pressure on this is a must-win for the Bills.  Usually games in week 2 of the season aren’t must win but if the Bills don’t start winning now you have to question if they ever will, at least for this season.

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It’s Go Time

There probably isn’t a better weekend in America year in and year out the NFL’s opening Sunday.  Every team goes into that first week tied for 1st place.  Then teams spend the next 16 weeks trying to make the playoffs for a shot at the Lombardi trophy.  What makes the NFL so unique and exciting is that every game is an event.  There is a week of build up to the game and then the game itself.  It’s the only sport like this and that’s what makes it so popular.

Ready for liftoff…

If you are a Buffalo Bills fan, which I have been since I was 7 years old, today is a more exciting opening day than we’ve had for the better part of a decade.  It’s not just about the prospect of having a better team.  It’s not just that the Bills went out and spent big money on Mario Williams.  My fellow Red Sox fans can now relate to having to root for that unlikable team.  Well Bills fans have been doing that for over a decade.  Even their last playoff team was marred by a quarterback controversy between two unlikable guys.  The previous opening day starters before the current one, J.P. Losman and Trent Edwards were, for the lack of a better term, a couple of stiffs.  Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Harvard educated man who looks like a lumberjack, is an easy guy to root for.  Picked in the 7th round of the 2005 draft he played for 2 teams before settling in Buffalo as the starter.

Starting receiver Stevie Johnson was a 7th round pick.  The other two starting receivers, David Nelson and Donald Jones, went undrafted.  Running back Fred Jackson was undrafted out of Division III Coe College.  His other stops before finally making it to the NFL included the Arena League and NFL Europe.  These are the type of guys that you love to root for as a sports fan.  Even the high draft picks like Marcell Dareus, Eric Wood,  C.J. Spiller, and Aaron Williams are likable players.  Good ‘ole southern boy Chan Gailey is a likable coach.  This team is different from the team in years passed.  Maybe it’s because the team has finally invested in keeping it’s own players.  Maybe they just finally “get it” up in Western New York.

Of course the games still need to be played but something can be said for hope.  In years passed Bills fans were excited by opening day but it was more blind faith that drove them.  Now there is finally substance to the hope in early September.

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Buffalo Bills Pre-Season Game 1 – 5 Things To Watch

The Bills kick off their preseason slate of games tonight when they host Robert Griffith III and the Washington Redskins.  It’s been a long off-season for Bills fans who were given hope in the wake of their late season collapse with the high profile free agent signing of star defensive end Mario Williams as well as a push to retain their own key players, a philosophy that had been lost on the organization in the decade prior.  The Bills will begin their push to return to the playoffs in earnest tonight with their first tune-up.  The starters will likely be on the field for roughly 12 plays before giving way to the backups who will be fighting for a roster spot.  Here are 5 things to watch in tonight’s game:

Rookie 2nd rounder Glenn will start at left tackle tonight

1. Who will be the left tackle?  This one will be interesting to watch tonight.  Both candidates for starting left tackle, rookie 2nd round pick Cordy Glenn and second year player Chris Hairston, will be in the starting lineup as incumbent starting right tackle Erik Pears is out with an injury.  In a perfect world the Bills will have Glenn as their starting left tackle and Hairston the starting right tackle in the long term but they still have the veteran Pears on the roster and both of the younger guys need to gain experience.  Glenn seems to have the edge so far at left tackle and he will get the chance to prove it with the start tonight.  Hairston played well in spurts last year but he did suffer several injuries.  Both guys will be going up against starting defensive ends at the beginning of the game which will help in evaluation.  Expect to see both guys at left tackle at certain points tonight with both the 1st and 2nd units.

2. Who will step up at wide receiver?  The Bills have two spots locked up at receiver – they have a bonafide #1 receiver in Stevie Johnson who just signed a 5-year extension in the off-season and a mainstay at slot receiver in David Nelson who has caught 92 balls over his first two seasons in the league.  Donald Jones is the #2 right now, as he was at the beginning of last season.  Jones is dependable enough when he’s healthy but he’s missed 9 games to injury over his first two seasons.  Of note to watch are two young receivers who will be jockeying for playing time – 3rd round pick T.J. Graham, a burner who can get behind a defense quickly, and 3rd year man Marcus Easley, who has yet to play a down in the NFL.  After losing his rookie season to a knee injury Easley had a good camp last year before hitting injured reserve right before the start of the season with a heart ailment.  Easley is purportedly back to 100% and is a big target with plus speed so any contribution from him will be an added bonus.  Veteran Derek Hagan, who showed good chemistry with Ryan Fitzpatrick late last season, also figures to be in the mix.  Nelson won’t play after tweaking his knee in camp last week so it should give some of the otehr guys some time with Fitz tonight.

Young has struggled in his attempt to become Fitz’s backup and may be playing for his job already in game 1

3. Will Vince Young make it to preseason week 2?  There has been rumblings out of training camp that the Bills coaching staff is already prepared to cut ties with quarterback Vince Young who has been slow to catch on to the Bills offense.  That says a lot about Young when you consider that the Bills thought so much about Young’s competition for back-up QB, Tyler Thigpen, that they let Ryan Fitzpatrick play the last 9 games of last season with cracked ribs rather than inserting Thigpen into the lineup.  It seems like a make-or-break game tonight for Young who will get to prove himself in game action before the Bills make any decision on him.  If I were Thigpen I wouldn’t rest in my laurels without Young as there is plenty of time to get someone else into practice and throw them into the competition if Young bows out this early.  Despite the reports of Young’s demise GM Buddy Nix told NFL.com’s Steve Wyche this morning that he expects the battle to go down to Week 4 of the preseason so we’ll see how it goes.

4. How will the defensive line’s second unit shape up?  We know about Mario-Kyle-Dareus-Anderson but what about the guys coming up behind them?  Chris Kelsay is an everyman who is as solid as any 3rd DE in the league.  Shawne Merriman can be a huge asset if he is healthy but he hasn’t been healthy in 4 years.  The keys to the 2nd unit are the two 3rd year men – Alex Carrington and Torell Troup.  Carrington has shown flashes in his first two years and if he continues to develop he can be molded into a Chris Canty-type player on this stacked defensive line.  Troup on the other hand has shown very little in his first two seasons  A lot of it is due to injury but again you’ve got to stay healthy to produce.  Troup played in the 4-3 in college and he said in the off-season that he would be more comfortable as an attacking d-tackle in Dave Wannstedt’s new 4-3.  Now is the time for him to show it.

2nd year man Williams has a leg up on the competition for 2nd CB spot

5. How will the cornerback unit shape up?  So far in training camp Stephon Gilmore has lived up to the hype and appears to be a lock for one of the starters jobs.  2nd year man Aaron Williams has been playing the #2 spot to mixed results, one day Gailey and Wannstedt will criticize his play and the next they will praise him.  He definitely played well as a rookie.  Leodis McKelvin has been working in the slot and that might be the best spot for him.  He struggles mightily against bigger receivers and gets beat along the sidelines often so the middle of the field might be the best place for him.  Terrence McGee is coming back from injury and looking to make one last run with the Bills in his 9th season with the team.  He will be pushed by youngsters Justin Rogers, who was a revelation as a 7th round pick last season, and Ron Brooks, who played behind two All-Americans at LSU.

That’s the 5 biggest things to look for in this game tonight.  There are of course larger issues such as how Wannstedt’s new 4-3 defense acclimates but that is something better reviewed over the long haul of the full preseason schedule rather than after 1 game.  The 1st game will really be about young guys jockeying for position and fringe roster players fighting to live another week.  It will be interesting to see how conservative RG3 is in his first NFL preseason game, particularly against the Bills’ revamped and revved-up defensive front.  One thing is for sure – it’s great to see some NFL action again after a long off-season.  Enjoy the game.

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Bills brass changing the culture in Buffalo

I wrote back in November during the midst of a 7-game losing streak that the Bills organization desperately needed a culture change.  Since then the Bills have re-signed 6 of their own players, including star wide receiver Stevie Johnson, and signed defensive end Mario Williams who was the biggest free agent on the market.  I’d say that it is far from business as usual this off season at One Bills Drive.  The Bills talked about being aggressive right before the free agent market opened on Tuesday afternoon but not even their staunchest supporters could have predicted that they would successfully woe Williams to Buffalo for the next 6 seasons.

Bills WR Stevie Johnson with CEO Russ Brandon and GM Buddy Nix

Buddy Nix said in his introductory press conference as Bills GM on New Year’s Eve in 2009 that his goal would be to draft and develop players and them sign them long term.  People may have been skeptical after seeing the likes of Nate Clements, Antoine Winfield, Jason Peters, Jabari Greer, Willis McGahee, Peerless Price, Marcellus Wiley, and Sam Cowart, among others, all traded away or allowed to walk in free agency rather than signed to long term contracts.  Nix was true to his word starting last off season when he re-signed versatile safety George Wilson right before the NFL lockout started.  He re-signed Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kyle Williams to a 6 year deal last August.  He signed starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to a 6 year contract extension during the season.  Since the season ended he has re-upped tackle Erik Pears, long snapper Garrison Sanborn, kicker Rian Lindell, wide receiver Stevie Johnson, wide receiver Ruvell Martin, tight end Scott Chandler, and linebacker Kirk Morrison in that order.  Rather than using their assets in free agency and the draft to fill the holes that they had opened by letting players walk, as they had in previous off-seasons, they were left to simply fill in the holes that were already there and add depth.

Bills DE Mario Williams with GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey

The Bills most glaring weakness last season was pass rush.  Sometimes opposing quarterbacks would have 6, 7, 8 seconds to throw the ball in the backfield.  That in turn weakens your secondary who can’t be expected to cover the receivers for that long.  The Bills brass identified this early and were aggressive to correct it.  Their plain was simple – sign Mario Williams, a guy that could not only get to the quarterback on his own but enhance the talent of the players around him.  They did their due diligence and they knew that an interior line that featured Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus would be a strong selling point to Williams.  They knew that Mario was more of a small time guy and he wouldn’t be turned off by the small market nature of the Buffalo area.  But they were still the Buffalo Bills and they had to convince Mario that they were the best fit.  They flew down on a private jet to meet him in North Carolina and bring him back to Buffalo at the very start of the free agency period.  They put the hard sell on him for parts of three days at their facilities in Orchard Park and in the end they closed the deal.  They made the biggest deal in NFL history for a defensive player because they felt that they had to.  Is he the one missing piece?  No but they felt that they brought him close.  Now they will push forward with drafting and trying to re-sign their own guys and hope that it all adds up to a contender.

Bills defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt woes Mario Williams during his visit to Buffalo

For those who still may be skeptical after re-singing their own and landing a big fish there is one more thing to consider.  One of the things the detractors have criticized the Bills for over the years is spending the money to make competent coaching hires.  The Bills attempted to woe former Super Bowl winning head coaches Bill Cowher and Mike Shanahan to Buffalo to no avail and settled for Chan Gailey, a veteran who had coached under Cowher in Pittsburgh.  Gailey surrounded himself with mostly inexperienced coaches in his first season and it looked like more of the same from the Bills front office.  But remember this – if the Bills do turn this thing around here in the near future the biggest transaction may not have come on the day Mario Williams signed, or the day that Stevie Johnson re-signed but on the day that the Bills hired Dave Wannstedt, a Super Bowl winning defensive coordinator, onto the coaching staff.  Wannstedt has been instrumental in recruiting not only Williams but guys like Nick Barnett and Kirk Morrison as well.  Now he will instill his championship winning 4-3 defense next season.  The Bills also hired highly sought coaching veteran David Lee to coach the QBs this season.

You can no longer say that the Bills front office, from owner Ralph Wilson to CEO Russ Brandon to GM Buddy Nix and all of his staff, are not committing to win.  They are and they’ve shown it in how they’ve built the team.  Now it’s up to the players on the field to deliver.

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Buddy Nix is changing the blueprint in Buffalo

The Buffalo Bills announced a 5 year contract extension for WR Stevie Johnson today.  Johnson will get paid $36.25 million over the contract that will keep him in Buffalo through his 31st birthday.  Johnson’s 5 year agreement comes a few months after the Bills signed both QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and DT Kyle Williams to 6 year contract extensions.  They also signed starting RT Erik Pears, K Rian Lindell and LS Garrison Sanborn to 4-year extensions last month.  Last season they extended DE Chris Kelsay and SS George Wilson to multi-year deals as well.  Why is this news?  Because the Buffalo Bills have long been notorious for not keeping their players beyond their rookie contracts.

Fitzpatrick and Johnson will anchor the Bills offense for at least the next 5 seasons

Astoundingly the Bills have signed only 1 first round pick to a second contract since 1997.  That was WR Lee Evans who was traded to the Ravens two years into his 4 year extension.  11 players – RB Antowain Smith, CB Antoine Winfield, DE Erik Flowers, CB Nate Clements, T Mike Williams, RB Willis McGahee, QB J.P. Losman, SS Donte Whitner, DT John McCargo, RB Marshawn Lynch, and LB Aaron Maybin – were all cut, traded, or signed away in free agency after being drafted in the first round by the Bills.  Their track record hasn’t been too much better with players that were late round picks that they developed on their own either.  Late round gems like CB Jabari Greer and DT Pat Williams were lost in free agency.  T Jason Peters, a perennial Pro Bowler in Philadelphia now, was traded away when the Bills would not meet his salary demands.  Long story short is that this has been a franchise that has been spinning their wheels for over a decade.

That’s why Stevie Johnson’s re-signing was significant.  As mentioned before, Stevie is the 6th starting player re-signed by the Bills since Buddy Nix took over as GM in early 2010.  There were 6 starters in the Bills starting lineup last opening day with contracts expiring at the end of the year.  Only two, T Demetrius Bell and TE Scott Chandler, remain unsigned.  Buddy Nix said at his introductory press conference on New Year’s Eve in 2009 that he wanted to “draft ’em, develop ’em, and keep ’em here.”  So far he has been true to his word.

Williams' 6 year deal will pair him with fellow DT Marcell Dareus for the next half decade

For the first time in what seems like ages the Bills won’t enter draft weekend simply trying to fill the holes that they opened up by losing players in the off season.  It’s all about building depth, which is what good teams do on draft day.  It’s something that the Bills haven’t done in over a decade.  Now they can also go into the summer and start negotiating with the next batch of pending free agents which includes RB Fred Jackson, G Andy Levitre, and FS Jairus Byrd.  They no longer have the stigma of a team that doesn’t keep their players.  They no longer have the stigma of a team that doesn’t go the extra mile to build a winning team.  Will it finally start equating to wins in Buffalo?  Maybe, maybe not.  One thing that is certain is that they seem to be up there swinging and it’s definitely better to go down swinging then to go down looking.

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Bills and Stevie Johnson on the verge of a 5 year contract extension

Adam Schefter reported on his Twitter page earlier tonight that the Bills and WR Stevie Johnson are on the verge of a new deal that will keep Johnson in Buffalo for at least the next 5 years.  Schefter reports that per a source the Bills and Johnson’s representation worked aggressively on Sunday to strike a deal before the Bills would have to place the franchise tag on Johnson before the 4:00 PM EST deadline for designated franchise players.  The deal is expected to be completed in the next 24 hours.  I’ll have more tomorrow on the details of the contract and what this means for the Bills long term.

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Random Sunday Sports Thoughts

Today is reporting day for pitchers and catchers for the Red Sox in Fort Myers.  Baseball season is on the horizon and we are getting for the stretch run in hockey and basketball.  Here are some (almost) mindless sports thoughts for a Sunday morning/afternoon.

  • Wakefield ended 17 great years in Boston on Friday

    Tim Wakefield was classy until the end.  Wakefield closed out his Red Sox, and baseball career on Friday evening with a press conference in which Wake carried himself the same way he did for 17 years in Boston.  Wakefield brought it for 17 years for the Red Sox and carved out his own little place in Boston baseball lore.  Thank you Tim.  I saw you pitch live at Fenway more than maybe I wanted to but you did a lot for the organization, including win 2 rings.  I’m not sure if you can think of a better successor to Mike Andrews as chairman of the Jimmy Fund than Wakefield.

  • Listening to Bobby Valentine talk this morning it sounds like this truly is an evaluation period for everyone on the roster.  It sounds like Jose Iglesias has a legitimate shot to be the Sox’ every day shortstop.  Things that happened last year will probably be addressed but it seems to me that Valentine will make his own impression on the players by what he sees himself in the clubhouse and on the field.
  • My bold prediction on the first day of Sox’ spring training – Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront round out the rotation to start the regular season.
  • If fans in L.A. start hearing about Angels camp being “Camp Tranquility” just an FYI, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
  • Miguel Cabrera's transition to third base will be one to watch

    Some of the more interesting storylines heading into camp outside of Boston – how will the defending champs fair with former catcher Mike Matheny replacing Tony LaRussa, one of the most decorated managers of all-time, as manager of the Cardinals?  He did retain some key guys such as Jose Oquendo and Mark McGwire from LaRussa’s staff.  Also will be interesting to watch Miguel Cabrera’s transition from first base to third in Detroit camp.  He was never a good defensive first baseman so third base could be an adventure.  It looks like there is a clown show coming to Athletics camp this week as well and his name is Manny Ramirez.

  • In non-baseball news, the Andrew Luck show, I mean the NFL Scouting Combine is this week in Indianapolis.  The guy with the least amount of pressure on him might be Robert Griffith III, the consensus #2 QB to be taken in the draft.  Although he can conceivably go anywhere from picks #2-#6 to at least 3 different teams the focus will squarely be on future Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck as he works out for scouts in what will become his home stadium next season.  RG3 can just go out there and do his thing.
  • Negotiations with pending free agents should kick into gear next week in Indy.  There’s a lot of talent out there unsigned.  Ray Rice, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, Drew Brees, Vincent Jackson, Wes Welker, Jermichael Finley, Mario Williams, Cliff Avril, and Chris Carr just to name a few.  Negotiations between teams and free agents have been modest so far but teams and agents use the scouting combine to kick off serious talks.  The Buffalo Bills jumped ahead last week by exchanging numbers with the agent for WR Stevie Johnson and they hope to close the gap this week in Indy.
  • Is anyone else sick of Linsanity already?
  • Kevin Garnett and company are starting to show their age.

    The Celtics are looking their age already.  It’s tough to see them making a deep run into the playoffs this year.  They desperately need yo get younger next season.

  • I can’t believe that it’s time for bracketology already.  The bright side to that is it means that spring is right around the corner.
  • The Bruins are starting to get beat up.  They could use some reinforcements at the trading deadline but it seems like a situation like last year where they need to tinker rather than make a major move.  I still feel that this team can compete for another championship with their current core, they just need to add some guys in some tertiary moves.  They struck gold last year with Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley.
  • For years it seems they’ve been trying to make a TV show about professional sports that is enjoyed by both fans and players alike.  Sure there was Friday Night Lights but that was a show about high school sports.  ESPN tried the controversial “Playmakers” years back but players thought the portrayal of edgy behavior of athletes off the field, while maybe accurate, was the part of the game that wasn’t for fans to see.  Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and Will Ferrell had a great idea a few years ago – make a parody so over the top that both players and fans would get a kick out of it.  They created Kenny Powers, an ignorant, insensitive, and masochistic cariacture, who was one of the best relief pitchers in baseball before bottoming out.  Tonight starts the third and final season of Eastbound and Down.  It’s probably the best sports comedy ever on TV.  Check it out at 10:00 PM EST if you have HBO.  Here’s a little Kenny for you:

 

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Bills’, Johnson’s poorly crafted gamesmanship coming to a head

Since the end of the season the Buffalo Bills’ brass and impending free agent wide receiver Stevie Johnson’s representation have been saying all of the right things.  Johnson’s agent C.J. Laboy has expressed interest to get a deal done while at the same time acknowledging that the Bills have been slow to engage in serious negotiations.  Bills’ GM Buddy Nix has reiterated all along that the Bills want Stevie back, that the issues regarding his benching in the season finale are behind both him and coach Chan Gailey, and that they plan on negotiating with Johnson in good faith.  Both sides are saying what they need to in order to keep their leverage while making it known that both sides have an interest in getting a deal done.  It turns out the negotiations have begun to turn fruitful.  Per Rodney McKissic of the Buffalo News both sides have exchanged new contract proposals and talks are primed to heat up at next week’s NFL scouting combine.

It may be a Happy New Year after all for Johnson if he signs an extension with the Bills

There could be several reasons for the sudden increase in dialogue between the Bills and Johnson’s camp.  The first is that the wide receiver market may be beginning to work itself out with the dialogue, or lack thereof, between other impending free agent wide receivers and their current teams.  Recent reports suggest that both Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson and Saints receiver Marques Colston will hit the open market.  Other potential free agent receivers that could possibly be hit with the franchise tag are the Eagles’ DeSean Jackson, the Patriots’ Wes Welker, the Chiefs’ Dwayne Bowe, and the Colts’ Pierre Garcon.  If one of the teams that need a #1 receiver fill their slot without Johnson teams that are looking for a complement could opt for a free agent who would take less money such as the Giants’ Mario Manningham, the Saints’ Robert Meachem, or the Rams’ Brandon Lloyd.  There are also veterans such as the Colts’ Reggie Wayne, the Packers’ Donald Driver, and the Steelers’ Hines Ward that could hit the open market as well.  All in all the receiver market is looking like it is about to get flooded and that was before Randy Moss announced his return to the NFL this week.

GM Buddy Nix has made it a priority to re-sign his own guys

The other reason is the realization that the Bills and Johnson are the best fit for each other.  Despite the week 17 benching Johnson has a good relationship with coach Gailey.  He also has a good relationship and great chemistry with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who himself just signed a 6-year contract extension.  He has also taken a leadership role with younger receivers David Nelson and Donald Jones.  Johnson also seems to be comfortable in Buffalo and has already become the first receiver in Bills’ history to have back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons.  At the age of 25 Johnson is already 16th on the Bills’ all-time receptions list with 170.  He only needs 108 catches to crack the top 10 which would take less than two healthy years to attain.  He’s also 19th on the Bills’ all-time receiving yardage list and is a third straight 1,000-yard season away from cracking the top 10 there as well.  Say he signs a 6-year extension, he would likely be at or near the top of all of the Bills’ receiving categories by the end of the contract.  He could carve out his own legacy in Buffalo and if the team turns into a winner he would be a key component, something that seems to be weighing on the mind of Johnson.  The bottom line is that Johnson was a 7th round pick out of Kentucky in 2008 and bid his time while he played behind the likes of Lee Evans, Terrell Owens, and Josh Reed and it was Gailey who had the confidence to make Johnson the offense’s primary aerial weapon when he took over before the 2010 season.  None of that is lost on neither Johnson’s camp nor the Bills.

If Johnson was re-signed it would be the 8th starting or key special teams player to be re-upped by Buddy Nix and co.  At this point with momentum firmly on their side things look optimistic for a deal to be struck.  Still things can go wrong in any negotiation and the process is far from over but both sides seem to want it.  With motivation and momentum now on their side however its hard to see this thing going south.  I’d say that it this point I expect Stevie Johnson to be a Buffalo Bill next year and likely many more to come.

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Why the Bills must re-sign Stevie Johnson

The Bills have been in a meteoric free fall in the standings for the past two months.  Fans are getting restless with the same old Bills.  It’s easy to start looking around for scapegoats.  It would be easy to look down on things like feigning a self inflicted gunshot to the leg in a Touchdown celebration.  It would be easy to look down on an eccentric personality that wears hats that say F.U. (according to him standing for “FlyGuy University”) around the locker room.  It could be easy at this time to say you’ve had enough with the quirks and let Stevie Johnson walk after his contract expires after this season.  My advice to the Bills at this point would be this – don’t try and run away from Stevie Johnson’s big personality, embrace it.  Embrace it to the tune of many years and many millions of dollars.  Embrace it with billboards and posters and as much exposure around the league as you can.

Why So Serious Bills front office?

Stevie Johnson is a excitable guy and, at least for now, he is excited to play football for the Buffalo Bills.  Sadly you can not say that about every football player these days.  Stevie embraces playing for the Bills, embraces what it means to represent the city and the fan base and for that the Bills should embrace him.  How many guys can get people talking about the Bills on a national level?  How many guys can get Bob Costas to go off on a long, boring, drawn out soliloquy on the youth of the nation like Stevie Johnson did after his Plaxico Burress-mocking touchdown celebration?  Stevie’s just having fun out there.  Like his Why So Serious? Joker celebration after a touchdown against the Bengals last year, mocking Cincinnati’s “Batman and Robin” receiver tandem of Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens.  It was all in good fun.  Things like wearing his hair in a fro-hawk with the Buffalo Bills logo shaved into the sides of his head…all in good fun.  People are sick of the No Fun League and Stevie is a whole bunch of fun, in a place where people haven’t been having much fun at all for over a decade.

Johnson could be a premiere receiver in the league during the next five years

Let’s talk about production.  In almost four years with the Bills Stevie has caught 157 balls for 1,975 yards and 18 touchdowns.  Keep in mind that during his first two seasons, when he was buried in the depth chart behind the likes of Lee Evans, Josh Reed, and Terrell Owens, he only had 12 receptions for 112 yards and 2 TDs.  He’s on pace for his second straight 75+ reception, 1,000+ yard, 8+ TD season, which would make him a bonified #1 receiver.  He is getting better too.  You can point to his 8 catch, 75 yard, 1 touchdown performance against the best cornerback in the NFL, Darrelle Revis, for that.  Not many people can go right at Revis and have success like Stevie did that day.  Plus Stevie has some great chemistry with Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Bills quarterback who was just signed to a 6 year contract extension.  How many times do you sign a guy to a new contract only to turn around and get rid of his security blanket?

Here’s an idea for the Bills – re-sign Stevie Johnson and then add more players around him.  Add another receiver who can line up on the outside.  Add some overall depth to the team’s offense so they don’t fall apart when a few guys get hurt.  Add some good players to a defense that gives up almost 30 points a game.  Then maybe Stevie Johnson will be more than a Lee Evans, an Aaron Schobel, or a Terrence McGee who came to Buffalo and worked their asses off for years only to accomplish nothing because a team wasn’t properly built around them.  That’s my two cents anyway.  Hopefully the Bills offer him more than that in the off-season.

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Thoughts on Bills/Jets

After looking like they’ve been left for dead on the side of the road for the past month the Bills finally showed some signs of life yesterday at the Meadowlands.  It wasn’t enough, however, for the Bills to avert the Jets from completing the season sweep.  The last minute 28-24 loss made the Bills 0-2 on the season at the Meadowlands with losses by a combined 7 points.  Still the Bills are at 5-6 and barely clinging on to the playoff hunt.  It is almost impossible for the Bills to hop over the Bengals AND the Jets, as they have lost tie-breakers to both of those teams.  There is still something to be said for finishing out strong and the Bills might have picked up enough momentum to end the year with a handful of wins and build some momentum going into the all-important third year of the Gailey/Nix regime.  My game thoughts:

  • First let’s talk about how the 2010 draft set the Bills back and you can’t even fault C.J. Spiller for this game.  He ran hard and didn’t back down in his first full game as the primary back.  He’s still a work in progress.  2nd round pick Torell Troup missed another game and will likely miss the rest of the year.  3rd round pick Alex Carrington started off strong but has faded into mediocrity.  4th round pick Marcus Easley hasn’t seen a professional snap and may well never see one at all.  They’ve gotten no production at all from the class.  That’s the kind of draft class that set you back for years.
  • Now let’s talk about the 2011 draft.  Marcell Dareus is going to be a good player in this league for a long time, he just needs more people around him.  2nd round pick Aaron Williams was thrown into the fire after missing half the year and held his own (I’ll have more on him in a minute).  3rd round pick Kelvin Sheppard didn’t have his best game but he’s played real well in the last few weeks and plays hard until the last whistle.  4th rounders Chris Hairston and Da’Norris Searcy are great back-up players who have filled in admirably for injured starters.  This is the type of draft that can set you up for years.
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick seemed to get some of his confidence back yesterday.  It would have been nice if he made that touchdown throw to Stevie Johnson wide open in the end zone at the end of the game but it was a good bounce back game nonetheless for Fitz.  He’s generally played well in December for the Bills so I expect him to keep it going for the rest of the year.
  • Stevie Johnson also had a great bounce back game with 8 catches and 75 yards.  It would have been nice if he caught that ball over the middle right in his hands at the end of the game.  And that celebration.  Oh, that celebration.
  • You have to give the Bills offense credit for playing a good game against a good defense without Fred Jackson.  It was pretty ballsy for Fitz and Stevie to play pitch and catch right in front of Darrelle Revis, which they did for most of the game.  I’d like the see C.J. Spiller hit the hole a little harder and finish off runs.
  • Leodis McKelvin is becoming a beast on Special Teams.  The guy is a good football player and just needs to learn the instincts in the passing game to succeed at CB.  I said a few weeks ago that he can be great if he got it all together and maybe he can get his confidence back up excel at this part of the game.
  • Defensively the Bills are as inconsistent as ever.  They played hard but they are undermanned, both by injury and overall lack of depth.  Nick Barnett is a player but they have NOTHING at outside linebacker.  Spencer Johnson can not set an edge to save his life.
  • Back to Aaron Williams.  That kid has gone though a lot already in his first year…thrown into the fire when Terrence McGee was hurt in the first series of the year, being carted off the field in week 3 against the Patriots, missing the game in his hometown of Dallas, and then being thrown right back into the fire coming off of injury due to Terrence McGee’s second injury.  Williams started his first NFL game and played well all game against Santonio Holmes, a former Super Bowl M.V.P.  After all that he gave up the game winning touchdown after Sanchez had what seemed like an eternity to find Holmes open in the end zone.  From all accounts Williams is a great kid and a talented football player and I hope he bounces back and continues to become a key part of the Bills defense for years to come.

Well that’s about all she wrote for the Bills’ playoff chances.  It has to be disappointing for this team and this fan base to be back in mediocrity after such a promising start.  The important part is for the Bills to win a few more games this season and put together another good draft and come back next year and maybe finally make it “that year”  Until then it will be another long offseason in Western New York, unless of course they can work a miracle in the last five games.

Twitter @ErikVenskus