It was the tail end of the Bills dominant era. Jim Kelly was unknowingly playing his final season and the K-Gun offense relied far more on the run game than they ever had before. Fortunately a defense fortified by veteran free agent additions helped lift the team to a 10-6 finish and yet another postseason berth. One of them being four-time Pro Bowl MLB Chris Spielman. Now a college football and NFL analyst for ABC, Spielman believes Buffalo's veteran free agent additions this offseason could again capably position the Bills for a postseason berth.
"I think what the Bills have done in the free agent market is comparable to what the Bills did in a pair of offseasons in '95 and '96," said Spielman. "The Bills brought in Mario Williams, well the year before I came to the Bills they brought in Bryce Paup. When you have Bryce Paup on one side and Bruce Smith on the other side that puts a lot of pressure on an offense. And both of those guys fed off each other."
In the '95 and '96 offseasons the Bills also added Ted Washington and Spielman to the defense, and in '96 Buffalo's defense was a top 10 unit (9th).
Spielman sees similar talent on hand for the 2012 Bills in addition to Williams with holdovers Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams and free agent Mark Anderson. The wild card for him is Shawne Merriman.
"If you get a healthy Shawne Merriman and I've been reading and following the Bills and they say he has a chance to be back to what he was and you put Mario on the other side that puts a lot of pressure on offenses," said Spielman.
Spielman, who led the '96 Bills defense in tackles with 157, was part of a unit that finished third in the league in sacks (48) and fifth in pass breakups. He thinks Buffalo's pass rush in 2012 could produce similar results, but he's not sure it'll be enough to translate into a playoff berth. Spielman maintains that still another asset must be present to make the postseason aspirations of the Bills a reality.
"The key in the NFL and college football, and I see it every week, you have to have a quarterback," he said. "If your quarterback is playing at a high level and your defense is solid, top 10 solid, which the Bills certainly have the ability to be, you have a chance."
The former Bills linebacker likes Ryan Fitzpatrick as a quarterback, as well as the continuity of Buffalo's offense which finished 14th in the league last season. If Fitzpatrick can raise his game another notch in 2012 Spielman admits he could see the Bills closing the gap on the perennial AFC East leader, New England.
"It depends on Fitzpatrick," said Spielman. "If he can play and raise his game to a higher level then you're good. Obviously a good pass rush will help too. If they can put all those pieces together and Fitzpatrick plays his best football and they can run the football in a solid way they have as good a chance as anybody."