Today's absurd prediction:
The Bills' continued improvement will not show up in the win/loss column.
It's purely a matter of schedule, which I'll get to later on. They made a lot of changes this offseason, and chemistry could also be an issue. They signed three new offensive linemen at top dollar (and are thus largely responsible for the Alan Faneca and Pete Kendall disputes), which almost never means instant success, and while J.P. Losman came into his own last year, he's still got a bit of learning to do.
Here's the breakdown for the Buffalo Bills:
Coaching Changes: N/A
The relatively unimpressive collection of names returns: Dick Jauron as head coach, Perry Fewell as defensive coordinator, and Steve Fairchild handling the offense. They exceeded expectations last year, and with more success Fewell and Fairchild may soon become well-known names and get a shot at the head coaching circuit. And before anyone bashes me for calling Jauron an "unimpressive name," keep in mind that I said "relatively," as in his name isn't one of the more recognized names among non-fans. And I definitely didn't say he's a bad coach. I just mean that he's not the sort of guy Dan Snyder would hire, because Dick Jauron isn't going to sell any extra tickets. But like I said, they did well last year, and 2008 looks pretty bright if they keep the team intact next offseason.
Draft: A freakin' +
They nabbed my pick for rookie of the year in Marshawn Lynch at #12. They traded up to grab Paul Posluszny at 34th overall before he slid any farther - I think he'll be a great player in time. If they'd taken Trent Edwards in the second round, I'd say "Hm. What does that tell J.P. Losman?" But they took him toward the end of the third, which makes me say "Wow. What a steal. If they can develop him into the next Matt Schaub, they might get a nice trade for him in a few years." I don't agree with taking RB Dwayne Wright in round 4 - he's not versatile and they already got a workhorse back who needs no complement. I suppose, though, he's the right sort of guy to back up Lynch - he'll run up the middle behind your shiny new blockers and pick up 3-4 yards consistently.
Player Movement: C
They had one of the most significant free agency periods around the league. They demonstrated that the term "franchise player" is inaccurate; meaning in actuality "player we want to keep for one more year," as former FP Nate Clements cashed in on the open market. They drove up the value of every offensive lineman in the league by offering huge contracts to three good but not great big guys - Derrick Dockery, Langston Walker, and Jason Whittle. In addition, they lost LB London Fletcher-Baker, and traded RB Willis McGahee for draft picks. Then there's the issue of the trade with Philadelphia. This is interesting. They traded LB Takeo Spikes and QB Kelly Holcomb to the Eagles for DT Darwin Walker, who has demanded a raise. Talks have stalled out, and it looks like Walker might not play for the Bills after all. There's a clause in the trade agreement, however, that says that if Walker doesn't report by Aug. 5, he gets sent back to Philly, and the Bills get a sixth-round pick. Granted, that's not fair value for Spikes, let alone Spikes and Holcomb, but it's enough to prevent this grade from dropping too much farther. All in all, it's more change than they needed, and may cause some early-season losses that keeping the team together would have prevented.
Their schedule is kind of the reverse of the Dolphins. Mostly the same opponents; the NFC East, the AFC North, New England twice, the Jets twice, each other twice. The Bills draw Denver and Jacksonville, which is no walk in the park. But it's the arrangement that's different from Miami's, and it works in the Bills' favor. They open against Denver and Pittsburgh, and it gets worse from there. The next five opponents all made the playoffs, and after that it's Cincinnati. Painful to say the least. However, this is the part of the season during which I would expect struggles anyway, with the new line learning how to work together and everything. Weeks 13-16 are Washington, Miami, Cleveland, and the Giants - possibly the easiest games on the schedule, all in a row. That stretch will finally get them above Miami in the AFC East standings, but the playoffs will be long gone at that point.
They played a lot of good teams tough last year, and should do the same, and may pull off some upsets. It'll be important for Ralph Wilson and Marv Levy to show patience - if the games are close, but halfway through the season they're 1-7, it is not time to panic. Don't fire coaches, and don't put Edwards in for Losman. It'll get better.
The Record: 7-9
They'll match last year's record, score another good draft pick, and have a nice core of young people to build for future success.
Incidentally, I know I've violated one of my pet peeves by keeping the AFC East largely the same. I'm allowed to do it once. The rest of my divisions will see a changing of the guard, don't worry.