Blocking out the Critics

Sunday, August 15th, 2004 – my first true exposure to live football.

Live professional football.

Live Bills football.

It was a simple preseason game, and my old man had just won a few tickets by calling into a radio show. I didn’t care that the game was meaningless, I was sixteen and this was the closest I’d ever come to seeing the game I was fully enamored with in the flesh. I grew up playing baseball and soccer, attending those games at many levels with decent regularity, but nothing compares. I was excited.

Being new to having the game right in front of me, I wanted to watch everything at once. The fans, the coaches, the tailbacks, the linebackers, the scoreboard… but it’s just not that easy when you aren’t used to it. We’re conditioned from watching on television to track the ball and the ball only, so that’s what I’d decided to do. On the first Buffalo series, Drew Bledsoe walked out to take his place under center and set the offense. He took the snap and, almost immediately, was sacked.

The team lined up again – Bledsoe got the ball again, looked downfield again, and was sacked again.

Third down – third play of seeing my team with my own eyes – trying to offset the pass rush, Bledsoe was set back in the shotgun formation. Center Trey Teague launched the ball back to his quarterback, and he was planted into the turf once more, sparking a loud explosion of displeasure from the modest 49,000 fans in attendance.

Three straight sacks. Buffalo went on to win that game, but the impression was there. Spending my life to that point following nothing but the ball and the big hits, I never had paid attention to the linemen – not at all. Now, it was in my mind and I’d thought about it the rest of the night. Did we really have that bad of an offensive line? These guys are professionals, right? They can do better than that… right? After paying more attention to linemen and the other unheralded parts of the game throughout that year from home, I’d come to the conclusion that yes, they really were bad. The impression stuck with me until I had truly seen improvement with them. After all, my initial knowledge of that unit was that they were horrendous so it made sense for me.

Photo credit to Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images

What didn’t – and still doesn’t – make any sense though, is why so many members of sports media (read: anyone not named Tim Graham or Sal Maiorana) have carried that notion on for the better part of the past decade. Pick up any season preview magazine or check out any of the numerous articles hosted by ESPN, PFT, or the league itself – in the ‘Too long, didn’t read’ sidebar summary for those who can’t manage to sit through a few hundred words – you’ll see that one of the major weaknesses and question marks for this Bills team is their offensive line. Now, I’ve never been of the group who complains that the media is out to get Buffalo sports teams, that they hate them, or that they don’t care. When you look at that statement, though, and you know the least bit about this team over the past couple of years, it’s hard to not question aloud the lack of effort and research that goes into these pieces.

Under line coach Joe D’Alessandris, this unit has been one of the best in the league, believe it or not. Though he’s fielded the most inexperienced group (platoon, rather) of players over his two years, the impact is noted. Looking at simple statistics kept for offensive lines lets you see what he’s done. In 2009, under Sean Kugler (now with Pittsburgh), Buffalo was 29th in the league with a ridiculous 46 sacks allowed and second-to-last with 103 hits to their quarterbacks. Not surprisingly, they had the fifth-worst scoring offense and only six wins that season. Enter D’Alessandris in that offseason and, with a relative group of nobodies, improved numbers. Granted, with all the personnel shifting, they weren’t greatly improved but his group were a full ten spots better in the sack column and moved to 28th (from 31st) in quarterback hits allowed. After spending an entire offseason prepping with the guys that he was to be using and adding depth along the way, those numbers jumped markedly higher in 2011.

Even with injuries and shuffling of parts all throughout the campaign, D’Alessandris’ guys surrendered a league-best 23 sacks and were tenth in hits allowed. In addition to that, the team had the fifth best rushing average amongst the thirty-two teams despite losing their starting tailback halfway through the year. These numbers are widely ignored, as is the fact that half of that season was spent with a mid-round rookie at left tackle and four different starters at center.

With the widely inconsistent Demetress Bell shipped off and young depth brought in through the draft, how anyone can truly look at this team and say that they’ve somehow magically become worse is beyond me. Second round selection Cordy Glenn is struggling in camp and will likely begin the season behind Chris Hairston on the depth chart. People are really losing their composure over how bleak a situation that is but, as far as fourth round rookies go, Hairston was solid if not better last year when Bell couldn’t play. Again, continuity helps, as he’s had an entire year (and then some) to prepare himself and gel with the scheme as well as his linemates.

Erik Pears, Kraig Urbik, Eric Wood, Andy Levitre, and the versatile Chad Rinehart will return with Hairston to re-form the group who were the league’s best pass protectors in 2011 and somehow, are now a liability. Strange, I missed that part where they became Jonas Jennings, Ross Tucker, Trey Teague, Chris Villarial, and Mike Williams over the summer.

Welcome to Buffalo, where no one cares but us – and they never will.

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The Lord of Buffalo Wins