The Buffalo Bills are a soft football team. Is this fixable?
Sunday's 41-15 loss was the worst loss of Sean McDermott's tenure as the Bills' head coach. This is a team getting shoved around weekly. We explain how it got here and if there's still hope in 2021.
The tired phrase was championed by fans and put into action by the front office.
Run it back.
Head coach Sean McDermott made no bones about it after his team’s season ended in the AFC Championship Game. He and GM Brandon Beane wanted to bring back everyone they could from their 15-4 team which, at first glance, sounds like a swell idea. They re-signed Matt Milano, Daryl Williams and Jon Feliciano. They made Josh Allen a very rich man, too. The only logical next step for the Bills, in 2021, was to reach the Super Bowl, win the Super Bowl and start naming streets in Orchard Park after all conquering heroes involved.
McDermott and GM Brandon Beane decided the best plan of attack was to field the same team and play the same way. Right now, the Bills are 6-4. They’ve beaten one good football team, the Kansas City Chiefs, that has actually morphed into a completely different team since then. Two of their last three games were calamities on par with some of the worst losses from the team’s 17-year playoff drought.
The Bills were bullied by the lowly 2-8 Jacksonville Jaguars and, after a brief reprieve to Mike White Island, curb-stomped 41-15 by the Indianapolis Colts.
There’s no under-selling it: This is a defining moment for McDermott, the true czar at One Bills Drive.
McDermott has not offered detail on much of anything through his four years of press conferences but if there was ever a time to be as human as possible — to send a message — it was Sunday evening after watching his defense get steamrolled for five touchdowns by Jonathan Taylor. This was no anomaly. All four teams that’ve beaten the Bills did so with a hammer. Instead, everyone was mostly treated to the usual lullaby.
“I believe we’re a physical football team. When I mention the point of attack on the defensive side, we’ve been better. Just in terms of our hand violence up front. So, 250, 286 yards, whatever it was rushing, it’s hard to win. And then when you turn the ball over, that’s a bad formula right there.”
“It starts with a mentality and an attitude. It’s a one-on-one game. You’ve got to win your one-on-ones.”
“At the end of the day, nobody wants to go through what we just went through. Give the Colts the credit. But again, I believe we’re a better football team but we have to play a better complete game than what we did in all three phrases.”
“It’s a journey every season. It’s going to ebb and flow. That, to me, is part of the challenge and I love that challenge to be honest with you. Not that you want to lose. But it’s making those adjustments to make our team exactly what it needs to be, and learn who you are as a team. And we continue to grow and move forward. We’ll see where we are after Thursday night.”
Not quite an address that’ll send players running through the nearest wall, no. I get it. This was McDermott’s appeal to begin with. My esteemed podcast co-host Jim Monos — who pushed for McDermott to get an interview and recommended the owners hire him — has noted several times on our show that McDermott’s sense of calm and direction was valued after two years of the batshit-crazy Rex Ryan Era.
But a loss like this — a Mike Tyson vs. Steve Urkel two-second knockout — demands more fire from the head coach. This loss is completely on those at the top of the organization because it’s clear that these 2021 Bills operate as front-runners. If the getting’s good against bottom-feeders, they’ll win by 30. They’ll dance and flex all over your grave. But if you’re a team capable of throwing that uppercut? These Bills, in 2021, retreat to the corner.
With the first shoulder lowered by Taylor, this game was a wrap.
That’s a reflection of coaching, of course. The Bills were woefully unprepared for the Colts and wildly undisciplined. Again. The Bills have 92 penalties through 10 games, per NFLPenalties.com. That’s only one less than the NFL-leading Browns and Dolphins, teams that’ve played an extra game.
This is all a reflection of the overall direction, too. The Bills have gone out of their way to build a team that they believed was equipped to win in a modern game. A quick team. An undersized team. A pass-happy team that’ll throw and throw and throw with a preposterous amount of talent at wide receiver. They loaded up to win the 38-35 shootout which, honestly, was understandable. It sure seemed like this was becoming a softer, streetball sort of game. But, as we wrote last week, that’s not the case in 2021. The best offensive minds running this sport basically decided over the offseason that, “Hey, if you’re going to draft small linebackers and play nickel, we’ll break your jaw (and your will) with the run.”
The teams that embraced such a mentality are in good shape as December nears. Count the Colts as one of those teams, too. Eleven times Taylor ran the ball against a box of eight-plus defenders on non-goal-to-go plays, per PFF, and he still gained 54 yards. This insanely high number speaks to an overall mindset. So does the fact that the Bills’ running backs combined for 11 carries while Taylor rumbled to 185 yards on 32 attempts.
Running it back has backfired. At his season-ending presser, in January, McDermott said the offseason “starts with the mentality of trying to keep as much of the pieces of our team together as possible.” The plan should start with deciding which pieces are worth keeping and which pieces are worth discarding — through tough, bold decisions.
This Bills offensive line has not been good.
It’s not even completely on the players, either. Hell, maybe deep down inside, they are good run blockers. Maybe Devin Singletary, Zack Moss and Matt Breida could form a 1-2-3 punch. We’ll never know because an organization cannot magically flip a switch. Everyone must be on the same page back in the spring and summer that physicality matters. You add personnel accordingly. You coach accordingly. You call plays accordingly. Then, when the whistle’s blown, you’re ready to brawl. The Bills are not ready which probably explains why they aren’t even trying to be much of a running team at this point. There’s a decent chance the Bills know they cannot pretend to be something they’re not and, if they’re going to win a Super Bowl, Allen must put the Superman cape on.
That’s too bad, too. It shouldn’t have come to this.
In the playoffs, you may recall, the Bills called 20 straight pass plays to start the AFC divisional playoff game against the Ravens. The offense scored 10 points. Into the AFC Championship, they continued to throw and throw and, this time, were blown out. Back in April, Singletary said that he was told out of that Chiefs loss that Buffalo would be more committed to the run in 2021.
Instead, the Bills didn’t just run it back with the same players. They stuck with the same offensive philosophy.
They handed Allen the $258 million deal, kept spreading the field with four and five receivers and, too often, he’s been Clark Kent this season.
He threw two bad picks against Indy.
Diggs, the star receiver, averaged only 5.8 yards on his four receptions.
The Bills have an opportunity to quickly get back on track, of course. They’ll play a tottering New Orleans Saints team on Thursday night. You’d think the gap between Josh Allen and Trevor Siemian is so unbelievably wide that nothing else on either roster really matters, but we’ll see. The Superdome is the loudest stadium in the league and Sean Payton’s team will be hungry and desperate. Then, come two dates with Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots, a team trending in the complete opposite direction. On Thursday night, they slapped around the Falcons with ease.
Belichick has been the one truly steering this leaguewide philosophical shift, too. QB-less in March, he unloaded millions on Matthew Judon, Jalen Mills, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith and others, knowing damn well he couldn’t engage in shootouts vs. Mahomes, vs. Allen but that he could try bludgeoning both teams.
So, McDermott’s biggest test ever awaits. He’s got to do what no Bills coach before him could sustain: Beat Belichick.
McDermott declares the Bills a physical football team, but he’s wrong. They are not. To best the Patriots, to salvage a playoff appearance and a playoff run, the Bills don’t have a choice but to win with finesse. They’ve got to lean into Allen and hope they get ahead because, when they do, they certainly can lap teams. There are still GMs across the NFL that’d sell their soul for this 6-foot-5, 237-pounder with the muzzleloader right arm. The Bills have to own who they are and quit trying to play a field-position game.
McDermott’s game management continues to reflect an identity crisis.
In the AFC title game, he infamously opted for the two chip-shot field goals against the Chiefs.
On Sunday, he opted for a field goal on fourth-and-5 from the Colts’ 31-yard line — in the rain, the wind, down 24-7, when his defense couldn’t stop a nose bleed. After kicker Tyler Bass’ miss, Taylor scored again.
McDermott rallied this team and city around his go-to phrase, “Trust the Process.” In Year 5, that process has gone stale. Harping on continuity makes folks feel warm and fuzzy inside but the truth is that teams either adapt or die. Right now, the Bills look like a stagnant organization in danger of slipping back into that dreaded “In the Hunt” graphic on your TV screen.
After asking their linemen to backpedal for most of three hours, there’s no asking them to move forward. This isn’t a roster overflowing with ass-kickers.
A players-only meeting was held ahead of the team’s blowout win over the Jets and maybe that helped. At some point, however, it’s on McDermott to send a message publicly and privately beyond players doing their “1/11th” as he said Sunday. Challenge your team. Use some harsh language. They looked soft and ill-equipped to contend in 2021 — everyone saw it. The funny thing about 2021 is that things can still change in a hurry. I don’t think it’s time for everyone to brace for another 20 years in the Patriots’ torture chamber but those two games will tell us everything we need to know about the direction of both franchises.
Somehow, the Bills will need to turn games into track meets and hope for the best. It’s possible.
But if they don’t? If the Patriots dominate their 1-on-1’s in the trenches? The Bills won’t have much of a chance and, come next spring, nobody will want to run anything back.
Isaiah McKenzie Show continues tonight
Episode 6 should be a good one. The Isaiah McKenzie Show at Go Long continues with a live recording at Mister’s Bar & Lanes in East Aurora, NY at 6 p.m.
Feel free to come on out. Would love to meet you if you’re here in Western New York.
Subscribers get first dibs on a table, which can be reserved on the Mister’s website. Just note the email address you use as a Go Long subscriber in the comment section. If we’ve learned anything on this show, it’s that McKenzie will always be honest and tell us what’s really going on with this team.
Feel free to catch up on all episodes right here: