Starters: Jason Peters, Derrick Dockery, Melvin Fowler, Brad Butler and Langston Walker
Marv Levy’s two-year cameo as the Buffalo Bills’ general manager came and went without any of the “Marv Magic” fans hoped for. Buffalo went 14-18 under the 82-year old G.M., simply extending the franchise’s playoff-less drought to eight seasons.
But not so fast. Levy has exited with at least one major crowning achievement. He may have picked the lock that has suppressed Buffalo from contention for a decade.
For once, there’s stability on the offensive line.
Last off-season, Levy shelled out the then-richest contract in Buffalo sports history to an offensive guard most Bills fans probably never heard of. He gave a five-year, $25 million deal to an offensive tackle that was on a team that won one game and allowed 72 sacks – by far the most in the NFL. Levy also signed journeyman lineman Jason Whittle to a one-year contract. This trifecta of signings came in lieu of the G.M. cutting four of the team’s top seven linemen from 2006.
Levy put his head on the line and spent wildly. Turns out it wasn’t age. Levy helped make history.
Last season Buffalo’s starting offensive line of Peters, Dockery, Fowler, Butler and Walker allowed only 26 sacks – the team’s least amount since 1982. Twenty-five years. The Bills surrendered at least 43 sacks in six of the seven seasons. But after going from 25th in ‘06 to 11th last season in that category and drastically improving the run game from 27th (97 ypg) to 15th (112.5 ypg), it appears Buffalo has finally solved the hair-pulling mystery that is a perpetually putrid offensive line.
The additions of Dockery and Walker were crucial. In one season, Dockery was easily Buffalo’s best guard since Ruben Brown departed four years ago. Dockery allowed only 1.5 sacks and committed only one holding penalty. He was most vital, however, in the instant emergence of rookie running back Marshawn Lynch. Buffalo had success running inside on Dockery’s pulls and traps throughout the ’07 season. In the Bills’ blueprint 38-17 win over Miami, Dockery was the biggest reason Buffalo had two 100-yard rushers for the first time since 1996. On Fred Jackson's 24-yard burst in the first quarter, Dockery pulled from the left to the right and washed linebacker Joey Porter completely out of the play. In the second quarter, he had two more pull-blocks to spring first downs. A successful rushing attack opened up the play-action, and Trent Edwards threw four touchdowns - a cause-and-effect Buffalo failed to establish most of the season.
The gigantic, 6-8, 366 lb. Walker had a rebirth of sorts in his first year with Buffalo. In Oakland, he was responsible for 10.5 of the 72 sacks. His quarterbacks Andrew Walker and Aaron Brooks turned into human punching bags. Matching up against opponents’ second-best pass rusher last season, Walker allowed only two sacks. He appears to be the answer at right tackle, and worth the five-year investment.
But by far, the anchor of the Bills’ resurgent line is Edwards' blindside tackle, Jason Peters. The converted tight end was Buffalo’s lone Pro Bowl selection last season. A product of former offensive line coach Jim McNally’s tutelage, Peters has blossomed into a team cornerstone.
Two years ago, Buffalo inked Peters to a five-year, $15 million deal. Today, that's robbery. Peters’ current value warrants a contract at least double that amount. Hernia surgery held him out of the 2008 Pro Bowl, but it shouldn’t sidetrack his career. Peters is unusually athletic for his 6-4, 320 lb. frame. His speed allows him to consistently beat pass rushers to the edge. The Bills rarely ever needed to slide an extra tight end or running back to help Peters, which allowed a natural pocket to form and 25 years of history was broken.
On an island, Peters was a rock.
Levy has returned to his native Chicago, but in 2008 the offensive identity he installed within the front office may come full circle on the field.
During training camp last year, ex-offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild half-toyed with an ugly offspring of the St. Louis’ “Greatest Show on Turf” he was a part of as the Rams’ running backs coach. When J.P. Losman proved to have no Kurt Warner-cells in his body, Fairchild’s play-calling became a confused breed of hand-cuffing a rookie quarterback, while still trying to use Lee Evans as a deep threat.
Next season, the mission on offense should reflect a Dick Jauron team. (Only the hope is that Edwards is a tad better than Jim Miller) Last season, the Bills passed the ball 445 times and ran 448 times. Freaky balance. But the numbers are deceiving. With two polar opposite quarterbacks, the offense never found a rhythm. A 55:45 run/pass ratio is ideal. Next season, Buffalo’s offense won’t fall into an identity crisis. Look for the Bills to pound the ball early and often with Lynch and Jackson, mainly because they finally have the horses up front to do it.
Tyler Dunne is the Publisher of the Buffalo Football Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org