The Buffalo Bills are taking a step into the unknown heading into the 2013 season. Gone are Chan Gailey and Ryan Fitzpatrick, the backbone of yet another failed regime in Orchard Park. Even general manager Buddy Nix is gone, retiring after the 2013 NFL Draft. The organization has received a massive makeover over the past several months, led by new general manager Doug Whaley and new head coach Doug Marrone.
The biggest on-field change for the Bills is quarterback E.J. Manuel, whom the Bills took in the first round of the draft, but that's not where the changes stop. The wide receiving corps will be completely remade behind Stevie Johnson, and with the additions of Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin to go along with running back C.J. Spiller, there will be speed at nearly every position on offense.
On defense, many of the same players return from 2012, but the biggest change is the addition of new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. The team didn't make a huge splash in free agency like they did last year when they signed Mario Williams, but that may not be necessary for the unit to improve.
With so many changes in Buffalo this year, what would constitute a successful 2013 season? Let's take a look.
Three steps toward success
1. E.J. Manuel exceeds expectations
Manuel will be given every opportunity to take the starting job in training camp. With Kevin Kolb there, the team doesn't necessarily need to rush Manuel, but he's the quarterback of the future, so they may as well get him on the field early.
No one questions Manuel's physical tools. He's big, has a strong arm, and can move well. If his decision-making can match his measureables, then the Bills may really be on to something.
2. Doug Marrone transitions seamlessly from college to the NFL
Marrone turned around a Syracuse program that was one of the worst in all of major college football during his four years in charge, bringing multiple eight-win seasons and some respect back to the program. Before that, he spent the better part of a decade as an NFL assistant, so he does have experience working with the professionals as well.
The NFL and college football are fundamentally different beasts, but if Marrone can show the same flexibility and tactical acumen that helped turn around Syracuse, he could very well do the same thing in Buffalo.
3. The defense bounces back from a disappointing 2012
The Bills spent big money last year to bring in Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, and there were high expectations for the defense. They fell well short of those expectations, finishing 22nd in the league in total defense and 26th in scoring defense. Pettine will shake up the very vanilla schemes they ran last year, and it's not difficult to imagine a significant improvement on the defensive side of the ball. Anderson should contribute after being injured for almost the entire year, and there are a pair of bona fide stars in the secondary in cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Jairus Byrd.
Three feats toward failure
1. Manuel and the quarterbacks struggle
If Manuel really struggles early, then Kevin Kolb or Tarvaris Jackson could be brought in to try to steady the ship. If these two's careers have been any indication, that isn't necessarily their strong suit. The team did the right thing by parting ways with Ryan Fitzpatrick, but the quarterback situation could get worse before it gets better.
2. Marrone looks overmatched
Marrone has years of successful experience as an NFL assistant, but that doesn't predict whether he'll be a good head coach at the NFL level. The new trend among NFL coaching hires is bringing in college coaches, but it still remains a dicey proposition. Nick Saban is one of the greatest college coaches in the history of the sport, and he looked average at best during his tenure with the Dolphins. Marrone could be in over his head at this level, which would be crushing for a franchise that desperately needs a bit of good luck.
3. The defense remains a mess
The consensus among fans was that many of the problems with the defense in 2012 were related to scheme, and the change from Dave Wannstedt to Mike Pettine will fix much of the problem. That may not be correct, though, and it's entirely possible that the same problems rear their ugly heads once again in 2013.
This process looks like it will be a slow build rather than a breakthrough. The team is now run by a young, energetic coach and general manager, which is a far cry from the old heads that were running the show just a year ago. Ultimately, much of this regime's success will depend on the development of Manuel, which will require patience. Some positive signs from him in 2013, paired with a resurgent defense whose production better matches its talent level, would make for a good year.