Summer Questions: AFC East
What's left to be learned about Bills, Dolphins, Patriots, Jets?
Training camps are just around the corner, with the Buffalo Bills getting things started when players report on July 18.
But while players enjoy their final weeks of vacation, front offices continue to contemplate the direction of their teams -- both for this season and the long term.
With that in mind, ESPN's NFL Nation reporters identify and answer a pressing question for every team in this week's Hot Read feature.
Q: Does the offense have an identity crisis, caught between two competing philosophies?
A: Can a ground-and-pound running attack coexist with a fast-paced, no-huddle offense? That's one dilemma for the Bills.
When coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nate Hackett arrived from Syracuse last offseason, they brought along a no-huddle attack. Everything we heard last summer was about speed at quarterback, running back and receiver.
PUTTING THE LEAGUE IN FOCUS
ESPN.com's Hot Read series takes an
in-depth look at the people and issues shaping the NFL's present and future:
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• Josh McCown: Nine teams in 13 years
• Time's right for a minor league
• Inside a Hall of Famer's garage sale
• Philly hopeful's military journey
• 2015 QBs: Mariota, Winston, Hundley
Also see: NFL Hot Read home page
In the first four weeks of the season, the Bills averaged 30.6 seconds of real time between line-of-scrimmage plays, the fastest rate in the NFL. When injuries struck at quarterback, that rate dipped slightly, down to 34.4 seconds over the remainder of the season. Overall, the Bills' passing attack was stagnant, scoring the second-fewest touchdowns in the league.
Buffalo found more success running the ball. While the Bills ranked 14th in yards per carry, they ran for 2,307 total yards, second most in the NFL. With Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller in the backfield, the running game was the team's strength. Playing in frequent cold weather, a running-based approach makes sense. Indeed, it's the vision of general manager Doug Whaley, who cut his teeth as a scout for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"The game of football, in my background coming from western Pennsylvania, was more of the, 'Hey, get big guys, you move their guys out of the way, three yards and a cloud of dust,'" Whaley said recently. "That consistently has won."
Should the Bills slow down their offense and focus on controlling the ball with Jackson and Spiller? Or should they continue to push the tempo with EJ Manuel and, now, Sammy Watkins? Ideally, it's both. But practically, they'll likely have to lean one way or another.
-- Mike Rodak
Q: What are the likely repercussions if the Dolphins don't make the playoffs?
A: Optimism is high in Miami. The Dolphins added an energetic, first-year general manager in Dennis Hickey and made major changes in key spots, bringing in offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert.
But hidden behind the optimism is immense pressure to win in 2014. Another 8-8 or 7-9 season is unlikely to satisfy owner Stephen Ross. Miami must make the playoffs or there will be ramifications felt throughout the organization.
The power players with the most at stake are Hickey, head coach Joe Philbin and quarterback Ryan Tannehill. All three could all lose their jobs in 2015 if Miami has another non-winning season.
Philbin is just 15-17 in his first two seasons. He has yet to lead the Dolphins to a winning record and has picked up additional blemishes on his résumé along the way. Miami's late-season collapse in 2013 and Philbin's inability to recognize a bullying scandal inside his locker room only added to questions about his leadership. He must win this year to silence critics.
The same goes for Tannehill. For all his potential, he's also 15-17 as a starter with no playoff appearances. Last year, he tossed 24 touchdowns but also had 17 interceptions. This might be Tannehill's final chance to prove he is the long-term solution in Miami. Rarely are four seasons of uneven play tolerated from an NFL quarterback.
Most observers would agree it's unfair to give Hickey just one season as Miami's general manager. However, Ross' decision not to hit the reset button with previous regimes could impact Hickey. In the past, the Dolphins fired the coach (Tony Sparano) but not the general manager (Jeff Ireland). Then, Ross fired the general manager (Ireland) but not the coach (Philbin). If the Philbin-Hickey pairing doesn't work out in Miami, Ross might be motivated to completely clean house in 2015.
-- James Walker
Q: Have the Patriots done enough to improve their third-down defense, a primary weakness in 2013?
A: The Patriots' third-down defense ranked 26th in the NFL last season, as opponents converted 42.2 percent of the time. Getting one of the best defensive players in football, cornerback Darrelle Revis, will almost certainly improve their standing. Coupled with the addition of 6-foot-4, 221-pound Brandon Browner, chances are high we'll see a different style of play from the team's top cornerbacks, with more physical press coverage at the line of scrimmage.
So the coverage should be improved, but what about the pass rush?
One of the reasons the Patriots invested a first-round pick in defensive tackle Dominique Easley is the interior push he could potentially provide on third down. Add in the return of veteran defensive tackle Vince Wilfork from a ruptured Achilles tendon, and those are two key pieces up front to pair with ends Chandler Jones (11.5 sacks) and Rob Ninkovich (eight sacks).
The return of three-down linebacker Jerod Mayo, who tore a pectoral muscle Oct. 13, is also a key factor, as his loss had others playing out of position for the final 10 regular-season games and into the playoffs.
The key to better results on third down is twofold -- better coverage and an improved rush. The longer the quarterback has to hold the ball because of the coverage, the more time the rush has to get to him. Meanwhile, the quicker the rush can get there, the easier it is for DBs in coverage.
The Patriots have taken steps to improve both of those areas this offseason, and it all starts with Revis.
-- Mike Reiss
Q: Are owner Woody Johnson, general manager John Idzik and coach Rex Ryan on the same page?
A: By words and actions, the three most important figures in the Jets organization have, at times, created the perception they're operating on different timetables.
Idzik, entering his second season, is building the Jets with a slow and steady approach, emphasizing the draft and avoiding the temptation of tapping into their inordinate amount of salary-cap room. He's known as John the Deliberate. He's not into quick fixes, especially when they're costly. He's trying to create a consistent winner, not just a one-year wonder.
Obviously, Johnson is on board -- after all, he hired the man and his plan -- but the owner turned up the heat this offseason when he declared, "I'm not going to use the word 'patient' anymore. We want to do it now."
Last season's surprising 8-8 finish, in what was deemed a rebuilding year, apparently has Johnson thinking championship in 2014. He's the boss, so he has the right to say anything he wants, but his sentiment seemed to contradict Idzik's approach.
Then there's Ryan, who, despite a two-year contract extension through 2016 (the final year isn't fully guaranteed), begins another season in a win-now situation. He has missed the playoffs three consecutive years, and it will be difficult for him to make a compelling case to stay if he misses again. Remember: Idzik didn't hire Ryan, and he can easily change coaches and bring in his own guy.
From all indications, Ryan and Idzik get along well despite different personalities -- think Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar -- but, on the surface, they have conflicting agendas. That could manifest itself with regard to the quarterback position. Idzik badly wants Geno Smith, his draft pick, to succeed. Ryan can't afford another season of Smith's growing pains. If things go bad quickly, Ryan might tab the experienced Michael Vick to win games and save his job. That dynamic could get interesting.
To counter those questioning his plan, Idzik cooked up a snappy response that smacks of something out of Public Relations 101: "We want to win now. We want to win tomorrow. We want to win the next day." It's been a long time since the Jets won three straight of anything.
-- Rich Cimini
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