Saturday, September 8, 2007

Sleeping With The Enemy: Week One, Broncos @ Bills

Welcome to the House of Georges' newest feature, "Sleeping With the Enemy." Each week, we'll publish a chat, recorded via a series of e-mail exchanges, with a fan of our teams' opponents for the week. Kickoff weekend sends the identity-seeking Kansas City Chiefs to Reliant Stadium where they'll battle the Houston Texans, while the Broncos invade Ralph Wilson Stadium for a dogfight with the Buffalo Bills.

Your handsome Bills expert is Danny Goldman, head honcho over at Circling The Wagons.

Old No. 7: The Bills seem like a team on the rise. I see big things for JP Losman, Lee Evans and Marshawn Lynch in that offense. I'm equally pessimistic, though, about the defensive losses of London Fletcher-Baker and Nate Clements. What's your read on this team right now? Is Dick Jauron the right coach for you guys?

Danny Goldman: The Bills definitely are a team on the rise, though it might be hard to improve on last year's 7-9 record as they are facing the toughest schedule in the league this year. The quality of play will definitely improve due to the additions of Derrick Dockery and Langston Walker, but I think the team is a year away from being a contender.

Losman and Evans are due for another big season now that the team finally improved the offensive line. Lynch seems like he should be good, but he did not show much in the preseason.

The losses of London Fletcher-Baker and Takeo Spikes are overrated. While Fletcher did log at least 130 tackles in each of his five seasons in Buffalo, many of those tackles were after the running back made considerable gains. There is a reason Buffalo’s run defense was one of the worst in the league last year. Spikes missed four games last year as he struggled to stay healthy have his Achilles injury. At
30-years-old, he is not going to get any better and the Bills are a rebuilding team. His absence was hardly noticed when rookie Keith Ellison filled in last year.

Dick Jauron is actually the first coached I’ve liked in Buffalo since Wade Phillips. He’s honest to the fans and media and seems to be a player’s coach. The game plan he goes with is sometimes boring and very conservative, but he knows how to win games. Buffalo was very competitive in games against Indianapolis and San Diego last year and beat playoff teams such as New York and Jacksonville.

7: In my experience, it seems like most fans of AFC teams hate the Broncos. I attribute this to the Elway years, and the effect of all those gut-wrenching come-from-behind victories he engineered. That's a lousy way to lose a game, and I understand the resentment. I've always felt a kinship with the Bills, however, due to the similar situations we endured before 1998. Do Bills fans commiserate with teams that have never won a Super Bowl, like the Vikings? Do you guys hate the Broncos, or is it just another conference rivalry?

DG: I really don’t think there is any hatred toward the Broncos from
Bills fans. During the Elway Super Bowl runs I personally rooted for Denver once the Bills were out. I made it to the last meeting between the teams in Buffalo on a Sunday night. I saw the typical taunting towards Denver fans there, but I think it was only because of the excitement for the night game and the amount of drunks in the
bleachers. So I’d just say it’s just another conference game, not a rivalry.

As for commiserating with other teams, I don’t think Bills fans really
have any bonds like that.

7: I was actually born in upstate New York (Schenectady) and I love it up there, but the winters are brutal. How do you handle it?

DG: I have a lot of family in Schenectady actually, nice little area. I’m from Rochester originally and I suppose it’s just something you deal with. I’ve pretty much grown accustomed to the snow and cold by taking up skiing and other winter sports. Back in high school, I remember the thermometer would get to 50 and kids would bust out the shorts. Now I live in Boston and the weather is pretty much the same, only less snow.

7: Who's your favorite Bill of all time?

DG: That’s a tough question, but I’m going to have to go with recent
Hall of Fame inductee Thurman Thomas as my favorite. He was so much fun to watch run and was so consistent over his career. Thomas also revolutionized the position by being such a good receiver, leading the way for Marshall Faulk and LT. To this day he still is loyal to the city of Buffalo and the team.

7: And who do you think is the most underappreciated Bill of your lifetime?

DG: Underappreciated would have to be Steve Tasker. Bills fans very well know him, but other football fans might not even know about him aside from his commentary work for CBS. Tasker is one of the best special teams players of all time and was a quality receiver.

One of my friends is a Broncos fan and he expressed his hatred for Jake the Snake all through last season. Jay Cutler looks like he has the arm to be a good NFL quarterback, but how do you feel about his inexperience? Is that going to hurt the team this year? Is he already better than Plummer?

7: Jake Plummer will go down as one of the most enigmatic and confusing players in Broncos history. I initially thought getting him was a bad idea for two reasons: One, I was under the impression that Brian Griese wasn't getting a fair shake (that impression turned out to be wrong—Griese is not a valid starter in the NFL). Two, I felt they spent too much to get Plummer as a free agent (that was also wrong—with the explosion in QB contracts and the salary cap, Plummer's deal was actually a bargain).

Anyway, Plummer was, by and large, a very effective QB in a Broncos uniform. He was universally liked and respected by his teammates, he always played hard and he won an awful lot of games. I thought the calls for his job early last season were preposterous—this was a team that had just hosted the AFC Championship and you want to hand it over to a rookie? In the end, Shanahan benched Jake and played Cutler at the appropriate time. Even though the switch probably cost the team a playoff spot, the Broncos are much better off with Cutler having that sliver of experience.

Cutler's progression is, of course, the story of the season. If he's lousy, good night. If he limits turnovers, converts a few third downs and keeps learning, they could be very good. And if he takes a big step up toward the elite of the QB position, this team has a shot at the Super Bowl.

I'm optimistic about Cutler, he looks like he has "it," that quality that can make a QB a winner. But he's not there yet, whereas Jake Plummer was most certainly a winner (if not a great stats QB) in Denver. Cutler is already better from a technical standpoint than his predecessor, but we'll see if he can transfer that into W's.

DG: Overall, how are you feeling about the team's prospects this year? Are they going to give the Chargers a run for the division?

7: Again, if Cutler can advance as a player, they shouldn't be any worse than last year's 9-7 team. They have a ton of talent and a coach who knows what he's doing. There is a huge amount of uncertainty in many areas, but it's mostly a veteran team that should be able to handle a bit of adversity.

That said, our only shot at unseating San Diego as the division's best team is a freak occurrence, such as LT blowing out a knee, a massive earthquake or Norv Turner singlehandedly wrecking another team. I think San Diego will win the Super Bowl. Norv will eventually wreck that club, but not this year.

DG: What do you think about the additions of Brandon Stokley, Daniel Graham and Travis Henry to the offense? Is Brandon Marshall a legit No. 2 receiver?

7: Stokley, provided his Achilles' is fully healed, is a good addition. He's clearly better suited to the No. 3/slot role, but I'm afraid he'll be needed as a starter eventually.

Dan Graham is, mark my words, going to be one of the most important free agent acquisitions in the NFL. He's the best blocking tight end in the game, and the Broncos' O-line has been deteriorating over the past several seasons. Graham alone will add 300 yards to the running attack this season.

Furthermore, Graham's addition will allow Shanahan to pair him in two-TE formations with Tony Scheffler, which give Coach maximum offensive balance and flexibility. Scheffler's downfield speed and Graham's sure hands create multiple options in the passing game, while a devastating seven-man line will crush opposing run defenses.

Henry, I'll get to in a minute with your next question. As for Marshall, I don't think we'll ever be able to rely on him. He seems too unfocused and too fragile to step up and fill that starter spot.

The Denver Broncos have to have the worst drafting record when it comes to wide receivers in NFL history. I think Marshall (who seemed like a fourth-round steal last year) will end up on the same scrap heap as Darius Watts (2nd round pick), Ashley Lelie (1), Chris Cole (3), Travis McGriff (3) and all-time bust Marcus Nash (1). The best receivers in team history were Lionel Taylor from the old AFL days (poached from the Bears), Steve Watson (undrafted), Ed McCaffrey (free agent) and Rod Smith (undrafted). The only way we can get WRs (and cornerbacks, for that matter) is via trade.

DG: Do you think Shanahan is serious about using Henry as the first
feature back since Terrell Davis or is he going to upset fantasy owners across the nation?

7: Travis Henry is legit and will excel in this offense, provided he stays healthy and pays his child support. And don't forget that the last RB of this caliber that Shanahan had at his disposal was Clinton Portis, who was the very definition of a featured back.

Fantasy football is wonderful and I'm as hopelessly addicted as the next guy, but it's definitely rotted our collective brains when it comes to evaluating certain parts of the game. Platooning running backs is possibly the most visible example. If it works and helps you win games, then what in the world is wrong with it?

Denver rushed for 2152 yards in 2006. The other eight teams that topped 2000: Atlanta, San Diego, Jacksonville, Washington, Tennessee, San Francisco, NY Giants, and Kansas City. All of those teams had either running quarterbacks or much better running backs than Tatum and Mike Bell. What matters, for a team, is gaining the yards, not who gains them.

That being said, I hate Shanahan from a fantasy perspective too. I've been burned many times myself.

DG: I imagine you are excited about the addition of Dre Bly. What do
you think Jim Bates can do with the defense with two potential lockdown corners? How will the defense being affected by the loss of Pro Bowler and team captain Al Wilson?

7: Dre Bly, while too much of a gambler for my taste, will make far more good plays than bad ones. He'll have a ton of picks opposite Champ. Thus far the Jim Bates System smells like a catastrophe, but I'm willing to give it a chance. He's run Gerard Warren (who appears to still be capable of playing some good ball) out of town, and preseason games showed me no appreciable improvement in pass rush or overall defensive effectiveness. And I don't think Simeon Rice is going to solve anything either.

The biggest concern is D.J. Williams moving to Wilson's spot at MLB. He looks horrible. He's been confused, awkward, slow and constantly out of position. For the life of me I can't figure out why they don't return Williams to his strongside spot and let Nate Webster (an unspectacular but effective LB) man the middle (Editor's Note: Old No. 7 blatantly poached this idea from Cecil.). Or, at the very least, go after Jeremiah Trotter instead of Rice on the waiver wire. Bates' D will, I think, eventually coalesce—and I think the secondary could end up as a truly special unit—but right now it provides much more concern than confidence.

DG: Are there any question areas or concerns for you on the team?

7: Other than the defensive front seven (which is a mess), a total lack of leadership (with Al Wilson and Rod Smith out of the picture), a virtual rookie quarterback, a crappy offensive line, the advancing age of half the starters, a rapidly decomposing kicker and shoddy special teams quality, there are no concerns whatsoever.

DG: This Sunday what will be the keys for the Broncos against Buffalo?

7: I think the Broncos will win if:

A. They keep Lee Evans in front of them and limit the Bills' third down conversions—this was a huge problem area both in recent years and this preseason.

B. They take care of the football. I know, this is some kind of advanced analysis. Real rocket surgery.

C. They come out with energy and emotion in the first quarter. I've seen too many of these games (on the road, on turf, in the Eastern Time Zone, early kickoff, season opener) get derailed. If they come out flat they will not win, period.

Now the game. I personally don't have a good feeling about it--we always play poorly in these early road openers, and we looked awful in preseason games. I still think the Broncos will win, but it will be hideous to watch--think 16-14. What's your pick, and what are you looking for your team to do to win this game?

DG: I share similar concerns about the opener because the Bills did not look sharp in the preseason. The team also started off slowly last year, making the run to the playoffs at the season’s end even harder.

As for a pick, I’m going with Buffalo this week by a score of 23-17. For the Bills to win they need to run the ball effectively against. If the run game can’t get going, Buffalo will need to pass more and the Bailey/Bly duo scares me with Losman’s tendency to rely on his arm to fit the ball into small windows.

7: Thanks for your time and good luck on Sunday.


bankmeister said...

Good stuff. Nice call on the score, dude. Sheesh.

But Dan Graham? Best blocking tight end in the game? Ever heard of a guy named Jason Dunn?