Bills still a work in progress after 6-10 finish

Buffalo Bills president Russ Brandon opened 2013 vowing to

transform what he called the franchise’s ”tarnished”

reputation.

On Monday, Brandon closed the year with the job still

incomplete.

Though pleased with the direction the team has taken under

first-year general manager Doug Whaley and first-year coach Doug

Marrone, Brandon expressed disappointment with a 6-10 finish and

the Bills extending the NFL’s longest active playoff drought to 14

seasons.

”I have all the faith and belief in (Marrone) and (Whaley) to

keep continuing to get this ship pointed in the right direction and

see significant progress as we enter 2014,” Brandon said. ”What

we don’t feel good about is sitting here and talking to you at

6-10. And that needs to change.”

Change was the operative word last offseason, when the Bills

went through a near top-to-bottom overhaul. Buffalo purged much of

its roster, and began a rebuilding plan that included drafting

quarterback EJ Manuel with the 16th pick out of Florida State.

The transition has yet to start paying dividends. In closing the

season with a 34-20 loss at New England on Sunday, Buffalo finished

with six wins for a third consecutive year, ended fourth in the AFC

East for a sixth consecutive year, and extended its string of

losing seasons to nine dating to a 9-7 finish in 2004.

”With youth comes inconsistency,” Whaley said. ”So all those

guys that contributed this year, we expect them to take a bigger

step next year, play more consistent and be more productive.”

And that includes Manuel, who struggled with his consistency,

and had his development stunted by injuries to both knees since

August.

Manuel missed the final two preseason games with a left knee

injury. He missed four regular-season games after spraining his

right knee in a 37-24 loss at Cleveland. And he then closed the

year missing the final two games after tearing a ligament in his

left knee.

Manuel finished with a 4-6 record, completed just 58.8 percent

of his attempts (180 of 306 for 1,972 yards) and finished with 11

touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Marrone maintains confidence in Manuel, and has already informed

the quarterback he’ll be the team’s starter entering next

season.

Dismissing his critics, Manuel called his rookie season a

learning process.

”Obviously, you’re going to have ups and downs as a rookie,”

Manuel said. ”I’ve had some good games, and there’s a lot I can

take and build from. I don’t really know who’s questioning things.

But as far as me, I’m just continuing to get better.”

Marrone announced he’s already made one change to his staff by

firing receivers coach Ike Hilliard because of ”a difference in

philosophy.” Hilliard, who spent 12 seasons in the NFL playing

receiver, was responsible for overseeing a young group that

included rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin.

On the personnel front, Whaley intends to make an offer in a bid

to re-sign three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd. And Whaley

didn’t rule out the possibility of using the franchise designation

for a second consecutive year to retain the player’s rights even if

it risks the possibility of having the player miss the entire

offseason as he did this past year.

Byrd is open to re-signing, and also braced for possibility of

the Bills retaining his rights once again.

”I’m at peace with everything. I know what to expect,” Byrd

said. ”I’ve gone through it once. And it’ll be good. However it

works, it’ll be good.”

Statistically, the Bills showed improvement on several

fronts.

Their defense, though inconsistent in stopping the run, finished

second in the NFL with a franchise-record 57 sacks. The defense

ranked 10th in the NFL in yards allowed – the unit’s best finish

since placing second in 2004.

Byrd, defensive tackle Kyle Williams and defensive end Mario

Williams all earned Pro Bowl selections this year.

The defense also featured linebacker Kiko Alonso, a second-round

pick, who is regarded an NFL defensive rookie of the year

candidate.

On offense, the Bills’ running attack finished second in the NFL

with 2,307 yards – the most since 1992.

Running back Fred Jackson was among numerous veterans who

expressed confidence the team might finally be turning the

corner.

”If you watched us play this year, you’ll know that we’re not

the same team that we’ve been,” Jackson said. ”But there’s no

moral victories. We know that. We know that for us to be relevant,

we have to win more football games.”

NOTES: The Bills retained the rights to seven practice squad

players: QB Dennis Dixon, DB Mario Butler, OTs Edawn Coughman and

Jamaal Johnson-Webb, DE Ikponmwosa Igbinosun, WR Brandon Kaufman

and LB Jacquies Smith. … Whaley said he’s open to re-signing PK

Dan Carpenter and P Brian Moorman.

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org