Did the Bills improve in ’13? Yes. Enough? No.

BILLS

 

The Buffalo Bills finished 6-10. Again.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. The Bills finished 6-10 in 2009, in 2011 and in 2012, too. Chan Gailey’s first team disrupted the rhythm in 2010, going 4-12.

The 6-10 streak is a rung of ignominy down from those 7-9 records the club was stuck on from 2006-08 under Dick Jauron.

If you’re a Bills fan, you know the rest. The team missed the playoffs for the 14th consecutive season in 2013, the longest active drought in the league.

The question everybody in Western New York is asking this week is, Did the club move any closer to the playoffs after one year under new president Russ Brandon, new GM Doug Whaley, new head coach Doug Marrone and new quarterback EJ Manuel?

At a news conference on Monday afternoon in Orchard Park, Brandon answered yes.

“We’ve made a significant step under coach Marrone,” he said. “The leadership that he’s brought to this organization, the level of accountability and where we’re trying to reach.”

BILLSBrandon also cited the “excellent” draft class of Whaley’s, the way he reshaped the football personnel department, and the players Whaley (right) acquired via trade and free agency, such as pass rusher Jerry Hughes and placekicker Dan Carpenter — the latter an emergency signing only days before the first game, after rookie Dustin Hopkins was injured.

“What we don’t feel good about is sitting here talking to you at 6-10, and that needs to change,” Brandon said.

Later in the 34-minute news conference, Brandon was asked about the Cleveland Browns pulling the plug on the Rob Chudzinski coaching regime after one season, and what that says about the pressure to win.

“Continuity wins in this business if you can keep making progress,” Brandon said. “And like I said, (I’m) very disappointed in sitting up here at 6-10, but I have all the faith and belief in coach (Marrone) and Doug (Whaley) to continue to get this ship pointed in the right direction and see significant progress as we enter 2014.

“(I) do not plan on sitting here next year in this capacity.”

A warning to Marrone? You be the judge.

But significant progress did not occur in 2013, in my opinion. Progress, yes. Significant progress, no.

Such as at quarterback.

In April the Bills traded down eight spots in the first round of the draft to acquire the first quarterback of a moribund 2013 passer class, EJ Manuel.

It’s still far too early to give up on him, folks, despite his inconsistent, injuries-dominated first year. Manuel missed half of training camp and four of his first nine games as a pro with assorted knee injuries.

Whether he’s just too injury prone is a legit concern, but only that. If he’s hurt often again in Year 2, it becomes a thing.

As his teammates have said this season, and as impressed NFL teams discovered in interviews at the scouting combine, Manuel is an intelligent, savvy competitor who prides himself more than anything on being a winner.

Is his accuracy worrisome? Yes. Is his utter lack of instinctiveness as a runner at times concerning? Even more so.

But despite a sub-par offensive line overall, and a receiving corps full of green speedsters and too-often stone-handed veterans, he made some impressive first-year strides.

His two-minute 80-yard drive to beat Carolina in the closing seconds becomes more impressive by the week.

Manuel didn’t do much against the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, but Joe Flacco threw that game away (with five picks), not Manuel.

Those perfectly placed, back-to-back bombs he launched into that fierce autumn wind at the Ralph in November gutted the New York Jets.

In Toronto he did more than enough to lead the Bills to victory against Atlanta, at both the end of regulation and in overtime; the fumbles weren’t on him.

And after a horrible opening, he calmed down to have perhaps his best passing game as a pro in a win at Jacksonville, his last action.

BILLS“Obviously you can see flashes of (his skill),” said Marrone (left). “I think it’s very important (that) in his first year he played in 10 games with probably the least amount of practices and preparation to play in those games.

“We feel very comfortable with the future with EJ.”

Offensive regression was to be expected with the reset-button switch to a rookie passer. Manuel’s injuries made that regression more pronounced.

To be sure, there are other pressing holes on this roster.

Starting with the No. 2 quarterback. A better, more experienced backup for Manuel is a must. Not having a competent backup for Manuel after Kevin Kolb went out (undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel wasn’t close to ready) was Whaley’s biggest error.

If the Eagles unload Michael Vick, he might be ideal for the role.

Through free agency and the draft, the Bills must upgrade elsewhere on offence — at guard, at right tackle, at tight end and Whaley must land a sure-handed wideout with height.

The two most encouraging elements of this Bills team are the running backs and the defence.

The dynamic duo of Fred Jackson — the team’s MVP in 2013, it says here — and C.J. Spiller are the envy of most of the league. They’re for real. Spiller can return to elite status if he cures himself of the bounce-outs.

If the offence in 2014 can improve even just to the mid-teens range overall, Mike Pettine’s defence can carry this team into the playoffs. His attacking unit finished second to Carolina in sacks (with 57), second in interceptions to Seattle (with 23) and seventh in pass breakups (with 89) — impressive numbers — but was 31st against the run and 19th overall.

To help against the run, better linebackers are needed to complement star rookie Kiko Alonso, who finished as the NFL’s No. 3 tackler (with 159). DT Marcell Dareus must get his act together, too, and prove to everyone on the team he truly is done being a distraction, as he keeps having to say.

BILLSMario Williams might rank among the league’s top pass rushers, with 13.0 sacks, but he needs to be a menace much more consistently. His dominant play came in too few bursts. He seldom runs hard to the ball, and was almost invisible in some games — again this year, both times against New England. After next season Williams will have been paid almost all of his $50-million guarantee on his six-year, $96-million contract. He needs to have a season of consistent effectiveness that convinces the club not to consider making him a salary-cap casualty heading into 2015.

To sum up, as with everything in life there is no same. You’re either getting better or getting worse.

The 2013 Buffalo Bills indeed got better. Just not nearly enough.

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Bills in Toronto series on thin ice? Perhaps

BILLSDon’t be surprised if the Buffalo Bills do indeed wind up pulling the plug on the Toronto series.

Bills team president Russ Brandon on Monday, for the second time in a month, chose not to give the series — which sees the club relocate one of its eight home games each season to the Rogers Centre — an endorsement.

Far from it.

“We’re still in that evaluation mode,” Brandon said, four weeks after he’d first indicated the series might be reconsidered. “Nothing has changed since the last time I spoke on it.

“We’re going to have a thorough organizational meeting on anything and everything that touches the football operation. And we’re going to do everything in our power (to) empower (head coach Doug Marrone and GM Doug Whaley) in their roles.”

The Bills have lost five of the six regular-season games they’ve played at the Rogers Centre.

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