by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

A lot has happened since 1995. Back then, Bill Clinton hadn’t even finished his first term in the White House. It would be almost a decade until anyone outside of Chicago would hear of Barack Obama. And ex-Buffalo Bills were in the news...for different reasons. O.J. Simpson had recently been acquitted of criminal charges in the famous case of the murder of his ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman, while Jack Kemp would soon by the GOP's vice-presidential nominee a few months later.

It was also nearing the end of a decorated era for the Bills, as HC Marv Levy and QB Jim Kelly would each be retired within two years, and Thurman Thomas was also near the conclusion of his days as a featured RB.

What else about 1995? It was the last year in which the Bills won a playoff game, prevailing over Miami in a wild card tussle in Orchard Park before getting smoked at Pittsburgh in a division round game the following week.

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In fact, it’s been a long time since we could even mention “playoffs” and “Buffalo” in the same sentence. The Bills haven’t been in the postseason at all this millennium, the longest-such drought in the NFL.

Which means that for the past thirteen years, the last memory Bills fans have of the playoffs is the “Music City Miracle” in the 1999 AFC wild card playoff round at Nashville against the Titans, when Frank Wychek’s cross-field lateral to Kevin Dyson resulted in a miraculous 75-yard kickoff return TD on the final play of the game to allow Tennessee to score a “miracle” 22-16 win.

On the bright side, at least any Bills fans under 21 years of age probably can’t recall that nightmare in Nashville. Then again, those sorts don’t know what a Buffalo postseason win feels like, either.

But the Bills sure look like they’re trying to turn things around, as GM Buddy Nix and HC Chan Gailey endured a very active offseason which saw Buffalo emerge as a major player in the free-agent sweepstakes. Moreover, if analysts are to be believed, the Bills might have fared among the best of any team in the April NFL Draft.

Does it portend a long-awaited return to the playoffs? Let’s not get too carried away, but at least there is some excited anticipation on the Niagara frontier this fall.

No matter, Las Vegas wagering outlets aren’t yet convinced the Bills are a playoff team, posting their season win total between 7 and 7 ½ wins, depending upon the sports book. Buffalo is also no better than the third pick in the AFC East, where the Bills are priced at 8/1, well behind the Patriots and Jets. Adventurous sorts might find some interest in bomber prices on Buffalo to win the AFC (33-1) and Super Bowl (66-1), but we doubt even Lou Saban’s descendants are expecting the Bills to bring home their first title since winning the old AFL crown in 1965.

Last year was a tale of two seasons for Buffalo, which rushed from the gate to a 5-2 start, with a handful of white-knuckler wins (including the first over Bill Belichick’s Patriots since 2003), and only a pair of defeats, each of those by a mere three points.

But just when Buffalonians were thinking that they could wait until Christmas before paying attention to the hometown NHL Sabres, the floor drooped from beneath the Bills. Buffalo lost eight of its last nine games and allowed a whopping 5938 yards and 434 points in the process, each the most ever permitted in franchise history.

Considering some of the bad teams in Buffalo’s past, that defensive low-water mark is ignominious indeed.

As for second-year HC Gailey, suspicions that he might not be up to the task have become a featured topic on Bills blogs across the internet. Gailey’s track record as a head coach isn’t as bad as some believe, as he recorded a winning mark in two years with the Cowboys and also didn’t fare badly at Georgia Tech, enjoying modest success before the Yellow Jackets began to regress late in tenure. But don't try to convince angry Buffalo fans of the same.

And 2011’s developments are a red flag for Gailey’s critics, who suspect that Chan lacks the fire to ignite a team when the going gets tough. As it certainly did a year ago when injuries decimated the roster and the team collapsed in the second half of the season.

Obviously, defensive upgrades were the first order of business in the offseason. Veteran aide Dave Wannstedt, who has always fared better in an assistant’s role than a head coaching one in his career, was promoted from LB coach to d.c. after last year’s coordinator George Edwards had to walk the plank following the second half of the season meltdown.

But it was on the personnel side where the Bills made their biggest moves. Beyond Peyton Manning, Houston DE Mario Williams (left) might have been the top prize of this year’s free-agent class, and Buffalo lured him to Ralph Wilson Stadium with a multi-year deal. Ex-Patriots DE Mark Anderson also enlisted, and the two bring an immediate upgrade to what was a sluggish pass rush that generated only 29 sacks last term; Williams and Anderson have 88 ½ career sacks between them in their young careers.

The Bills also went for “D” at the top of the draft when tabbing South Carolina CB Stephon Gilmore with the tenth pick overall. Gilmore, rated alongside LSU’s Morris Claiborne as the top available corner in the draft, is expected to step right into the starting role on the right side, opposite Aaron Williams.

Buffalo added more compelling defensive pieces later in the draft, selecting mobile Florida State LB Nigel Bradham and LSU CB Ron Brooks (considered a huge sleeper by many) each in the fourth round, while adding TCU LB Tank “Mr. Intangible” Carder in the fifth round. All could make contributions this fall.

The upside looks considerable for the platoon, especially with the DL appearing as if it could be quite menacing with the new additions at the end spots and the potential at defensive tackle. But Wannstedt has to make sure DT Kyle Williams is back to 100% after foot surgery curtailed his 2011 participation, and also coax more consistency out of second-year DT Marcel Dareus (right), the No. 3 pick in the entire 2011 draft, who performed erratically in his rookie season.

Let’s not forget, however, that this defense was the worst in franchise history a year ago. All of the newcomers, plus holdovers such as Dareus, DE Shawne Merriman, and LB Nick Barnett (left, vs. the Giants last October), have to mesh, while a rejuggled secondary now featuring a rookie at the corner must upgrade.

But whatever improvements the Bills make on defense might not matter if the offense disappears as it did in the last half of 2011. Injuries, especially along the OL, didn’t help down the stretch last fall, but those pale to concerns regarding the direction of the career of QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose collapse during the second half of the season was alarming to say the least, with 17 picks over those last nine games after the quick start. By the time the dust cleared, Fitzpatrick had tossed an NFL-worst 23 interceptions in 2011.

More disturbing to the many blue-collar Bills backers is that Fitzpatrick’s performances began to deteriorate almost immediately after signing a huge contract extension near midseason. Several NFL insiders considered that big-money deal to be premature, given that Fitzpatrick (right) had delivered big numbers in only a handful of games.

Still, the ex-Harvard man looks to be Gailey’s best QB option in 2012. Ex-Titan and Eagle Vince Young has been added as an alternative, with journeyman Tyler Thigpen also still in the picture should Fitzpatrick continue along the path to oblivion.

Recall, however, that during the first half of 2011, the Bills were percolating. Their final stats, which include drastic leaps in yards gained (from 25th to 14th) and scoring (from 28th to 14th), suggests there is real potential within the strike force and that longtime offensive mastermind Gailey has an idea what to do on the attack end.

There are still some intriguing weapons in the Buffalo arsenal. RBs Fred Jackson (left) and C.J. Spiller but each gained better than 5 ypc in 2011, though keeping both healthy might prove a challenge. WR Stevie Johnson caught a team-best 76 passes last season and was importantly re-signed by GM Nix in the offseason. The Bills were so enamored of NC State rookie wideout T.J. Graham that they traded up to nab him in the third round.

Still, it was no coincidence that the offense commenced its downturn last fall when the OL began to have injury problems. In particular, key C Scott Wood, without whom the Bills struggled in 2011 and whose full recovery from serious ACL surgery is not guaranteed. It is hoped that second-round pick Cordy Glenn, a LT from Georgia, will at the least provide improved depth, while at the most emerging as a solid and dependable starter for years to come.

Of course, the Bills’ pointspread performance mirrored their straight-up pattern from a year ago, with the first half of the season positive, and the second half negative. Buffalo dropped seven of its last nine vs. the number a year ago after covering five of its first seven. Despite the late fade, Gailey still managed spread covers in six of ten as an underdog. With ample firepower, Buffalo could again provide interesting value once more in the underdog role.

Conversely, the Bills were a very unreliable favorite last season, dropping five of six spread decisions as chalk. Buffalo is also just 2-7 as a favorite since 2010.

Defensive shortcomings resulted in a 10-6 “over” mark a year ago, but the first reaction regarding “totals” in 2012 is that any stop unit upgrades could alter that dynamic. If Williams, Anderson, and Gilmore indeed help the “D” as much as some might expect, Buffalo might not be involved in as many shootouts as it was a year ago.

Curiously, many Las Vegas sports books are reporting plenty of season-win “buys” on the Bills, who have moved from mostly 7s to the aforementioned 7 ½ at most outlets. Apparently customers are discounting Buffalo’s (and Fitzpatrick’s) late-season fade from a year ago; we’re not sure we’d do the same.

Summary...We acknowledge some of the cautious (and no-so-cautious) optimism of Bills fans, and a best-case scenario to get Buffalo back to the postseason is not especially far-fetched. Moreover, there might be some room to make a move in the AFC East, with the Jets hardly a guarantee to rebound from last season’s fade and Miami in rebuild mode under a new head coach, Joe Philbin.

But no matter how many defensive upgrades made in the offseason by the Bills, they’re not going anywhere if QB Ryan Fitzpatrick looks as lost as he did late last season. We also can’t forget how Gailey could not find a way to stop the bleeding once it began last fall. We need a bit more convincing before considering Buffalo a legit playoff threat.


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