For the Buffalo Bills, it's all about February
Exhibition blowouts are fun. So are 13-win seasons. But these Bills have the talent to win it all. So, how did they get to this point? And what are the potential concerns? Let's examine.
After one of the most crushing losses in NFL history, the scene inside the visitor’s locker room at Arrowhead Stadium was pandemonium. Not the sort that legend Van Miller would describe inside Rich Stadium through the 90s, either.
Anger understandably reigned.
Refresh our dissection of 13 seconds if you’d like — a “bad, bad situation” — but, yeah, guys were pissed. Players, one told me, “were about to throw hands.” This should’ve been the scene of celebration. The Buffalo Bills should’ve triumphed over the Kansas City Chiefs and flown home to host the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship. Instead, there was nothing but despair and a lifetime’s worth of what-ifs.
Eternal happiness for an entire fan base was squashed that night. Thirteen seconds is this generation’s “Wide Right.” That’s the bad news.
The good news? This team is positioned to mount another title run. As heartbroken as that same fan base was that night, its equally ecstatic right now. The feeling is palpabale throughout Western New York. And the reason is that the Bills didn’t sit on their hands all offseason and shout “run it back” through a megaphone. That was the grave mistake after getting embarrassed by the Chiefs at the tail-end of the 2020 season. The Bills refused to attack its deficiencies and stagnated. The Bills staggered to 7-6 before surging late… and seeing that lack of an elite pass rusher eventually backfire. This offseason, the front office conducted business like a team well aware of its own Super Bowl window, and that’s a good thing. Because as fun as that shellacking of the Denver Broncos was at home in the preseason, as neat as division titles have become after a 17-year playoff drought, it’s no longer about anything that happens in August or September or October or November or December or even January for that matter.
Winning the whole f’in thing should be the expectation. Anything less will feel like a gigantic missed opportunity. A failure.
That’s no burden. That’s a magnificent place to be.
For most of two decades, this was an organization spiraling in a vortex of inferiority. Fans began to think they didn’t deserve nice things as the team kept doing weird and wacky things to manufacture optimism: Handing T.O. the key to the city, bringing Marv Levy back as GM, convincing itself Trent Edwards could swap haymakers with Tom Brady in the AFC East, drafting a quarterback 16th overall in a draft completely devoid of quarterbacks before then promoting an assistant GM (Doug Whaley) who actually had a third-round grade on that same QB. For what felt like forever, inching into that “In the Hunt” graphic around Thanksgiving was as close as this team got to contention.
Those days are over. Nobody agonized over another quarterback competition in this training camp. Instead, the Bills were deciding who’ll punt for them in 2022. Which, by the way, they did only 2.9 times per game last season. These are underdogs no more. Everyone at One Bills Drive should embrace a Super Bowl or Bust mentality. Buffalo should think and play like the aggressor, like the team that expects to win by three touchdowns and does exactly that.
Welcome to the team’s new realm of reality.
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Brandon Beane did the right thing in completely changing his philosophy as a general manager. Remember, back when he replaced Whaley as the team’s GM, Beane essentially vowed to treat free agency like a field full of land mines. “I’m going to build through the draft, first and foremost,” he said then. “You have to draft well and sign those guys. If you draft well, you sign them. You’re not going to see big splashes of free agency. Free agency sets you up for your draft.” It’s hard to argue with such logic. But after drafting four defensive linemen in the top two rounds 2019- ‘21 — Ed Oliver (ninth overall), A.J. Epenesa (54th), Gregory Rousseau (30th) and Boogie Basham (61st) — Beane had to stop wishing and hoping and praying for someone to make Mahomes sweat in the playoffs. The Super Bowl is the goal, after all. Not raising divisional banners. So, the Bills did the correct thing in throwing as much money as they possibly could at Von Miller.
The same head man frowning upon big paydays inked Miller to a six-year, $120 million contract.
Even with a potential out after three years, hell yes, this is a massive risk. Miller is a 33 ½-year-old whose game is finesse and agility. His brand of pass rushing can fade — fast. But you know what? So can Super Bowl hopes. Nobody should assume that just because the Bills have Josh Allen, they’ll be competing for championships the next 15 years. History is littered with special quarterbacks who didn’t sniff a championship after coming so close early in their career. If the Bills get even 75 percent of the Miller we saw in L.A. this past postseason, he’s worth every penny. It’s a gamble — 161 games is a ton of mileage for a player who has lived in the trenches. Also, take a quick gander at his 2011 draft class and you’ll find names like Cam Newton, Julio Jones, AJ Green, Marcell Dareus, Aldon Smith and Patrick Peterson.
The end is near for Miller, and that’s OK. The Bills didn’t sign this 115.5-sack man for the regular season. We can fully expect coordinator Leslie Frazier to monitor his snaps all season long with the playoffs in mind. He’s in town to deliver two or three critical plays in two or three critical playoff moments. Be it Mahomes or Joe Burrow or Justin Herbert or Russell Wilson or Lamar Jackson, the Bills will need to fluster a murderer’s row of quarterbacks to reach the Super Bowl. Lost in the madness of touchbacks and defensive backs lining up in other zip codes and coin flips was that KC knifed through the Bills’ defense in OT like piss through snow. Nobody got close to Mahomes that entire eight-play, 75-yard drive.
Von Miller, the MVP of one Super Bowl, was signed to destroy this exact drive.
Von Miller, who sacked Burrow twice in a second Super Bowl, has had this knack his entire career.
The worst thing a GM can do is let ego weigh the roster down. Beane had to admit this team may not know exactly what it is doing when it comes to drafting big people on defense. That’s OK. Go sign someone who’s proven. That’s why we were banging the drum two offseasons ago for the team to pony up for Yannick Ngakoue or Matt Judon or Bud Dupree or Leonard Floyd in free agency. Albeit a year later, maybe they found the missing piece.
Miller is going to help that locker room, too. His reputation alone does plenty of talking. Many of the defensive linemen he’s mentoring now looked up to him as kids.
Buffalo didn’t stop evolving there, either.
Isaiah McKenzie replaces Cole Beasley as the team’s slot receiver. Remarkable considering McDermott seemed extremely close to booting him from the roster entirely last season. On the “Isaiah McKenzie Show,” you may recall McKenzie opening up on his benching. He was depressed. He thought he was done. When a rash of Covid cases gave the Bills zero choice but to play McKenzie at New England — the most important game of the regular season — all he did was catch 11 balls for 125 yards with a touchdown. As McKenzie has also explained on the show, his rapport with Josh Allen dates back to the 6-10 season the quarterback’s rookie season. He’s the longest-tenured receiver on this team.
Nobody on the roster has been catching passes from Allen in practice more than him, and it showed through Bills training camp this summer. His size doesn’t matter. Allen is more than willing to gun passes downfield on a variety of routes to McKenzie. Always a man-beater with his speed, his quickness, his wiggle, McKenzie has now appeared to master zone coverage. He’s able to read coverages and nestle into the soft spots — Beasley’s specialty. And exactly as Beasley did for him, McKenzie could be seen teaching the younger receivers how to do this at St. John Fisher University.
He’ll add a new dimension to Buffalo’s passing game.
And after failing to sign both J.D. McKissic and Chase Edmonds — thank those abhorrent taxes — the Bills found a dual-threat running back in the second round of April’s draft: Georgia’s James Cook. This was a gamble, too. Cook carried the ball 10 times in only six of 46 collegiate games — he’s a mystery prospect. The Bills passed on Iowa State’s Breece Hall in the first round for a cornerback (more on that later) and there’s a chance Hall makes them regret this decision for many years. But like McKenzie, Cook could also add a completely new wrinkle to the offense. Expect to see Cook line up all over the field in a hybrid RB-WR role. If first impressions mean anything, I’m in. What a peaceful sight it is to see him with the ball in his hands…
Buffalo wisely paid a premium for a competent backup quarterback in Case Keenum. His presence should give new coordinator Ken Dorsey the green light to call the same designed QB runs his predecessor did. This offense came alive last December when Allen started running more. This aspect of his game should not be eliminated. With Keenum around, there’s no need for Dorsey to call a scared game. He’s more than capable of getting the Bills through two or three games if Allen gets dinged up.
And the team’s best addition this offseason might’ve been its new offensive line coach. Aaron Kromer is widely regarded as one of the best in his profession. Former Bills guard Richie Incognito could’ve raved about Kromer for the entire 85 minutes last Friday night. Beyond Kromer’s motivational strengths, he’s smart. He took the Bills’ line to a new level under Rex Ryan. Incognito cited Kromer as the No. 1 driving force behind the 2015 Bills’ No. 1-ranked rushing offense. When Rex’s staff was whacked, Kromer excelled with the Rams.
As far as holdovers go, it’s reasonable to expect both Dawson Knox and Gabe Davis to take huge steps forward. The Bills’ offense is prepared to pick up exactly where it left off in the playoffs.
When a team is the Super Bowl favorite in Vegas — when it’s all about February — it’s also important to hunt for potential snags. To nitpick. Contrary to what’s being broadcast nationally, there certainly are areas of concern.
All summer, McDermott has been ultra-vague when it comes to Tre’Davious White’s recovery from a torn ACL. In a conference chockfull of wide receivers capable of burning you deep, Buffalo needs its No. 1 corner. Especially considering first-rounder Kaiir Elam struggled mightily through training camp. While it’s not yet a code-red cause for concern — most rookie corners endure such growing pains — this is also a team that cannot afford for such growing pains to linger too long. They’ll need things to click for Elam. This may prove to be one area where trying to upgrade backfires. Levi Wallace exemplified everything a contender should want, and was promptly painted a scapegoat for 13 seconds.
If we’re all talking about 185th overall pick Christian Benford in the same breath as Elam, that’s not a good thing.
Considering White hasn’t even practiced yet, he seems unlikely to play Week 1 against Cooper Kupp, Allen Robinson and the defending champs. Beane said the team is trying to “run out the clock” on when to activate him. Placing White on the PUP list, where he’d miss the first four games is a real possibility now. Even with a difficult schedule, the Bills probably can afford to ease White back. I get the argument that the Bills’ offense is so loaded that they’re capable of outscoring defenses through September.
But, again, that’s a September conversation. That can fly for now.
Not so much when the games really count.
Every January and February, it’s proven that you need to get stops. Maybe that’s why Bengals’ corner Chidobe Awuzie takes offense to the widely-held belief that the Bills would’ve waxed them in a hypothetical AFC title game. Whereas this Bills defense had no answers for Mahomes in the postseason, Cincinnati completely shut him down in the second half. A strong Bengals DB room only gets stronger with rookie Dax Hill and Jessie Bates returning from his contract holdout. The fact that we’ve seen this unit swarm elite offenses is why I’d still give Cincy the edge over Buffalo in the AFC. Baltimore will be getting all of its injured players in the secondary back, too.
Elam’s importance to this Bills season cannot be understated. They need him.
Does Miller break down? Again, he’s getting old. Does “Bad Josh” reappear? Before torching defenses in the playoffs, he did go 11 of 26 with three interceptions against Atlanta. How much does Brian Daboll’s departure hurt the offense’s rhythm? The Giants’ new head coach was a driving force in Allen’s development and, as a playcaller, wasn’t afraid to take shots downfield. Are Tremaine Edmunds and Oliver liabilities in run game? Yes, the Bills force opponents to throw and throw and throw to keep up, but both first-rounders have gotten pushed around in the middle of this defense. If the Bills are baited into this type of football game (see: Indy last season), that’s trouble.
More than anything, the Bills will also need their head coach to rise to the moment.
After blowing a 16-0 lead to the Houston Texans in 2019… and settling for those chip-shot field goals and punts in the 2020 AFC title game… and choking away those fateful 13 seconds in 2021, what happens in Round 4? Arguably no head coach thrives in the minutiae of the profession quite like Sean McDermott. Everyone who plays for him is blown away by his attention for detail and, yet, the details keep getting jumbled in his mind when the season is on the line.
That can’t happen again. Not with Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs and Von Miller and a roster that can win.
The best coaches ever learn from their mistakes. Andy Reid, the coach who mentored (and fired) McDermott back in Philadelphia, certainly endured his share of postseason calamities.
No doubt about it, McDermott will get his chance again. In the postseason.
Then — and only then — can this team truly be judged.