COMMENTARY | The names have changed at every level. The uniforms have changed a few times. But for 14 consecutive years, one thing has remained a constant for the Buffalo Bills - falling short of the NFL's postseason.
Players cleared out their locker stalls Monday, less than 24 hours after the regular season came to a close.
The 2013 Bills were supposed to have a different feel, thanks in large part to a rookie class that featured a nearly 6-foot-5 quarterback, EJ Manuel; game-changing receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin; and a top-flight linebacker, Kiko Alonso.
The Bills even came into the season with a fresh look along the sideline, made up primarily by a rookie head coach, Doug Marrone; a 33-year-old offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett; and a big-name defensive coordinator, Mike Pettine.
But in the end, the number of losses (10) outweighed the victories (six) - a familiar tune, regardless of who conducts the choir.
"It's very difficult for the period of time that we've had, and not to go back in the past, to understand truly what you have to do," Marrone said. "When the coach gets up there and says, 'It's attention to detail and hard work,' we have to do our share to make sure that is spelled out, exactly what people need to do. I think a lot of times, people use the expression, 'Be a pro,' but there's a time where we have to keep pushing them and keep working through the preparation in what we do on the field."
As the new face of the franchise, much of the attention circles back to Manuel, whose first professional season has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride. During a Week 11 victory over the New York Jets, he connected on more than 70 percent of his pass attempts. Two games later, however, he threw four interceptions in an ugly loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - a game that all but mathematically eliminated the Bills from postseason contention.
"He has the ability to do it; there's no doubt in my mind," Marrone said of Manuel. "The problem is that it's like anything else, he's going to take a lot of the heat because of the position and that comes with it. At the end of the day, we need to make sure that the people around him are doing what they're supposed to do. To sit here and say that if everything was going well around him and he was the culprit, it would be easy for me to say and we'd go ahead and pull him and put another quarterback in there. I don't have any problem with that. He is working his way through it and we need help from everyone else around him to make sure everyone does their job."
There were, of course, other variables facing the 2013 Bills.
Things got off to an ugly start, dating back to August during training camp at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y.
Veteran quarterback Kevin Kolb - projected by many to take the reins while Manuel adjusted to life in the NFL - slipped on a rubber mat after an Aug. 3 practice, tweaking his knee and subsequently missing valuable reps.
Shortly thereafter, Manuel went down with a preseason knee injury of his own - forcing him to miss a bulk of the summer. But just when it looked like Kolb was back in the driver's seat, he left the next preseason contest with a concussion; the injury not only ended his season, but likely his career.
With only a few days of game-week preparation under his belt, Manuel returned to action Week 1 against the New England Patriots. If he wasn't ready to go, undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel was the announced backup plan.
Manuel had the Bills at a 2-2 record and looked poised for a third victory during a Week 5 meeting in Cleveland. But then it happened: Manuel went down with another knee injury. As Manuel's replacement that evening, Tuel struggled -- completing just 8 of 20 pass attempts for 80 yards and the game-deciding pick-six to Browns safety T.J. Ward.
With the Bills sitting at 3-6, Manuel made his return in Week 10 at Pittsburgh. The result was a 23-10 loss that was far uglier than the 13-point deficit indicates.
Quarterback was hardly the lone Bills injury, however.
Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd and budding star cornerback Stephon Gilmore were both on the shelf until Week 6, at which point each returned on a limited basis. Also missing time due to injury in the Bills' secondary were cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks.
"Here's how I feel," Marrone said, midway through the season. "I'd love to see our team with everybody healthy going out there and playing, and maybe that's unrealistic. But I would love to see our football team together -- practicing together, playing together. Maybe that's an unrealistic approach in this league, but I would really love to see this football team together, and how good we can be."
Miscues and inexperience
The Bills had a legitimate chance to beat the at-the-time undefeated Kansas City Chiefs in Week 9, with Tuel making his first NFL start (Thaddeus Lewis took over as the starter in Manuel's absence after Tuel's performance in Cleveland).
But just when it looked like a feel-good story was in the making, Tuel's lack of experience and NFL pedigree became a glaring issue for the Bills. With the ball on the Chiefs' 1-yard line, the Bills looked poised to take a 14-point lead in the second half. Instead, Tuel was intercepted by Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith, who ran it back 100 yards for the game-tying touchdown.
The Chiefs went on to improve to 9-0, dropping the Bills (3-6), 23-13. No matter who was under center, the loss stung Marrone more than any this season.
"I'm pissed," Marrone said afterward. "I'm going to go home…I'm not going to talk to anybody…I'm just going to shut it down…I'm going to be by myself…I'm not going to pet my dog.
"I'm going to get fired up...I'm going to come to work tomorrow and I'm going to watch this film…I'm going to be a pro…I'm going to be a man."
Tuel, who finished 18 of 39 for 229 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, took full responsibility for the game-changing play.
"It was zero coverage, all out," Tuel said. "One-hundred percent my fault, something I've got to see. I can't do that. We've got to finish with a kick no matter what, whether it's an extra point or a touchdown or field goal. So it's 100 percent on me."
One week after the Bills quite literally fumbled away a victory in Toronto against the Atlanta Falcons - Stevie Johnson and Scott Chandler put the ball on the turf in the fourth quarter and in overtime, respectively - Buccaneers running back Bobby Rainey victimized the defense, less than a minute into the contest. Rainey burst through the offensive line, shaking one would-be Buffalo defender en route to an otherwise untouched 80-yard touchdown run. And that was the second play from scrimmage.
Rainey's touchdown run was a dagger in the Bills' collective heart - an exclamation point at the end of the sentence that indicates the team has been eliminated from playoff contention, despite having more than 15 quarters of football remaining in the season at the time.
Through it all, the Bills' veterans have kept the locker room in order.
One Bills Drive is a drama-free zone. Nobody is publically calling for Manuel or anyone from Marrone's staff to lose his job.
Like all teams, the Bills will face a typical offseason that features free agents coming and going. Next year's roster might even have a bit of added depth at quarterback, for instance. But for the most part, this team should remain largely intact. Further solidifying that point, Marrone said at Monday's season-ending press conference that Manuel will return in 2014 as the team's starting quarterback.
"It's the first year [of the new regime]," said veteran running back C.J. Spiller. "You can't say that it's the same thing still. Even though we've played a lot, everyone is still getting familiar with each other. Everybody is still trying to figure out what we can do well and we've just got to learn to play well. We came in with high expectations. Our expectations were to make the playoff. …That doesn't mean that this organization isn't going in the right direction. I think we are. We've got a great coach; we've got great leadership in Russ [Brandon] and Doug Whaley, and they're putting pieces together to make this organization a championship-caliber team. Obviously when you don't see results right away everybody is going to backlash and say it's the same old or regression. To me, inside the building, I don't feel that. I feel this organization is heading in the right direction."
The Bills hold the ninth pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Charles Roberts covers the NFL's Buffalo Bills and the University at Buffalo's football program. His work has appeared in several local and national publications. Follow him on Twitter: @cHartleyRoberts.
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