Football beat the crap out of me this year, and I didn’t play a snap. Not even on Madden.
My passion for the sport, and for watching the Buffalo Bills, took a hard hit over the course of this season, but it’s been building for years. Many of you noted the lack of Bills raps toward the second half of the season. Much of that is due to the insanity of my schedule, but there was more to it.
Fact is, the Bills had teams that had far worse records that gave us more to like. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s time here had the “Fitzmagic” angle and there were years we were rallying around Fred Jackson, Kyle Williams and other types to overcome a severe lack of talent.
All that said, there’s plenty to be hopeful when it comes to the 2015 Bills. There is going to be a world of change on this roster between now and Opening Day 2016, so here are some thoughts on the past season with an eye to next season (again).
Positivity/negativity — Both Rex Ryan and Mario Williams are among the Bills who’ve bristled at the mention of public perception, and there’s a troubling thought I’ve had with a connection to the Chicago Cubs.
There is certainly something to the idea that an entire culture — fan base, players, support staff, coaches, administrators — can carry the burden of years and years of losing. Ryan was given the burden of the longest playoff drought in football, and held to that standard as if he masterminded every year of it. Tyrod Taylor did an admirable job of conducting his first year as a starter, on a playoff-expecting team, and didn’t seem to wrestle with Bills fans’ unquenched thirst for a successor to Jim Kelly, who you may know as one of the best quarterbacks ever.
It’s part of what’s so interesting about the Pegula era. I don’t advocate anyone losing their jobs, and true leadership can overcome history and any negativity, but for both the Bills and Sabres perhaps as clean sweep of staff, top to bottom, would’ve been ideal. Either way, we are where we are now — I don’t begrudge anyone keeping jobs — but when a media is going to draw upon failure after failure, positivity and pragmatism takes on an even more important purpose.
Quarterback — The Bills certainly shouldn’t quit their search for a franchise quarterback, but the rush to condemn Tyrod Taylor as incapable of carrying the label was hilarious and, at times, infuriating for observers. The dual-threat model is far from unworkable, and Taylor was working with an extreme lack of depth once the injuries starting piling on. Those injuries will happen every year, but the Bills offense — and most of the time Taylor — had to deal with injuries to LeSean McCoy, Charles Clay, Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins and a quick end to a promising beginning from Percy Harvin.
Taylor might not be an exciting prospect because he was a No. 2 to someone else’s No. 1, but in a draft where the Bills will almost certainly address defense first, I’m fine with the Virginia Tech man looking to continue progressing from a season that saw some flat-out dirty traditional numbers.
Defense — What a tire fire, and Ryan bears a lot of the blame for the team’s drop-off. That said, there are few people I would trust more with a full offseason to plan an improvement. These were pieces that won’t work as well in a Ryan system as they did last year. And Ryan had to try to bridge a gap from Jim Schwartz’s defense into his own, which we’d ideally have seen by the end of the year but were more likely to catch next year.
Mario Williams quit on this team, and his consistent bickering over his role likely carried down the line from his veteran status to other young guys. Marcell Dareus was vocal about his displeasure with the system despite the fact that he was still a dominant player in the scheme. And if Williams is responsible for acrimony winning the day, then good riddance. He certainly did a heck of a job being manhandled by tight ends in the loss to Dallas.
While No. 94 tried to play nice after the game, consider this line from his postgame interview when discussing AJ Tarpley’s game-sealing interception of Ryan Fitzpatrick:
“The calls were definitely different in general, especially that last play. That was a call from the field. That was a call from myself and talking to the DBs. The play that was originally called, we had run that a few times before. Just getting input from the players on the field, cause we’re the ones who had to execute it, it turned out great.”
Don’t let the door hit you, Mario.
Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby will work as Nos. 1 & 2 corners, but Buffalo needs help at safety (especially in Ryan’s scheme, which needs a stud. Aaron Williams is adequate there, but may not return and if he does, will he be as good as before?). They also need massive amounts of help at linebacker. Manny Lawson was a stud, and both Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown are okay but aren’t heroes.
Top Five individual successes of 2015
1. Sammy Watkins
2. Tyrod Taylor
3. Richie Incognito
4. Manny Lawson
5. LeSean McCoy
Needed more from you, and it was your fault
1. Mario Williams
2. Rex Ryan/Dennis Thurman
3. Special teams coach Danny Crossman
4. Chris Hogan
5. Tight end No. 2
Needed more from you, and it was your body’s fault
- Percy Harvin
- Charles Clay
- John Miller
If you were able to move time back to the start of this season, what are the top things to fix? Health will never be a certainty in the NFL, and the fact is that Buffalo would’ve gone 9-7 easy with a healthy team. Tyrod Taylor in place of E.J. Manuel beats Jacksonville (Maybe E.J. beats them if Buffalo isn’t flying weapons to England, too). There you go.
Honestly, I find it difficult to argue this team wasn’t top-to-bottom better than last year. Yes, they went 9-7 under Doug Marrone, but also won a game where Detroit’s kicker refused to miss field goals and beat New England in an absolutely meaningless finale (though the Bills won their last two meaningless games this year, at least one came against a team that needed a win to move on).
So if we’re suddenly back in August, I’m cutting Danny Crossman. I’m cutting or trading Matt Cassel, too, but I’m finding a better option. Trading for him was world-class silly in the first place. I’m dialing up a few more blitzes, but also putting Mario Williams in his place a lot earlier.
I’m designing more plays for Charles Clay, but much of that was health-related. The tight end depth was very disappointing, and Chris Hogan lost whatever bit of magic he head. We talked about the great depth of receiver before the season and that almost saw Hogan cut. Instead, injuries forced him to play. And, as much as this stings because it doesn’t put the blame on a coach or scapegoat player, the injuries are what killed the season. How was this team in a spot where undrafted rookie AJ Tarpley had to play an important role against Kansas City (where he was ritually abused)? Dudes getting hurt, that’s it.
Is it as simple as that? Maybe. Does that stink for your offseason debates? Yep. But Ryan will get this defense right, with his instruments playing his own composition as Whaley uses money freed by Williams — and maybe a pay cut to McKelvin — to improve this team in free agency (Rolando McClain reunited with old pal Dareus?).
And if Taylor can even replicate this season, the Bills will go back to the playoffs (especially with what Watkins did to Darrelle Revis today showing how much the student Watkins learns each week. Bonkers. Destroyed “the Island”). Does that mean the Bills have their answer at elite quarterback? Those are two very different things, but this is still a potential playoff team in 2016.