The Buffalo Bills have a decision to make
Which individual should this franchise run through? The choice should be easy after a fifth straight crushing playoff loss.
The team’s best player this century will not storm the offices of Sean McDermott or Terry Pegula this week. We know that much. We know the farm kid from Firebaugh, Calif., is not confrontational. Josh Allen is here to throw the ball a mile high, run through your face, flex, strut, “establish the fact,” as one ex-teammate put, “that he’s the biggest alpha male dog quarterback in the history of pro football.”
Yet, that same alpha snatching the souls of opponents does not carry himself like his alpha contemporaries after the whistle. He doesn’t shoot death stares at wide receivers or scream at coaches. Allen sincerely views himself as one of 53, a major reason why Buffalo Bills teammates have loved the guy since Day 1. This is a rare quality in the elite of the elites. But this can also get frustrating at times. One ex-Bill used to be blunt with his quarterback, telling his pal he needed to drop his proverbial, uh, genitalia on the table to remind his boss who’s really boss around here.
Allen never would. Allen likely never will.
But this is unquestionably the moment he should.
If there ever was a year to get Patrick Mahomes, this was it. The Bills finally forced the Chiefs to play in their house and… nothing changed. They lost, 27-24. So, here we are again. A fifth straight playoff defeat in the prime years of a Hall-of-Fame talent crystallizes the Bills’ reality for all to see. Is the end goal division titles? If so, party up. Put on that AFC East Champs shirt, light yourself on fire and hurl your body through a table. The mission, in 2023, was accomplished. I’ve got good news, too. In 2024, Buffalo will again account for the 44 percent of AFC teams that make the playoffs. Another heroic dash to the tournament is imminent.
Those suffering from Drought Brain — terrified of another dark age — will soon nestle into another blanket of excuses and swiftly demonize any criticism of team, of coach.
There’s always been two ways to view today’s Bills. Group No. 1 views this as a team with a balled-up fist banging on that Super Bowl door, bound to knock it down. This is how the organization is sold at press conferences. Group No. 2 sees a window closing. Group No. 2 knows the quarterback cannot snatch souls forever and — correctly — wants to see coaching and management that maximizes Josh Allen while he’s Josh Allen.
This remains a team that incoherently schottenheimers through its head coach instead of its $258 million-dollar quarterback. There are a million conversations worth having on these Bills, but everything starts here.
The calculus should have changed with the rise of Allen. It has not.
The calculus should’ve been painfully obvious as Mahomes became the unquestioned greatest football player on the planet. It has not.
The run to 11-6 was a hoot. But all this season did was accelerate the Bills toward one very uncomfortable, very necessary decision: Do you continue to build around your head coach or — once and for all — go all-in on your quarterback? The wheels won’t fall off under McDermott. He’s a solid regular-season defensive coach. More than capable of joining the 44 Percenters year-in and year-out and maybe that’s enough for a franchise breaking ground on a new stadium. But it’s a choice that’s doomed to fail every January.
If the latest loss to Kansas City doesn’t ramp up urgency, nothing will.
Subscribers can access our three-part series, The McDermott Problem, in full.
We’ll get to a defense that’s now been emasculated through five straight playoff exits. That’s always been the head coach’s show.
The offseason conversation must begin with the offense because the conversation should always begin with the offense when you possess one of the three best quarterbacks in the sport.
Speaking of, Happy “13 Seconds,” everyone. Today marks the two-year anniversary.
The bet here is that football archaeologists forever cite Jan. 23, 2022 as the moment that broke this Bills team. A lot went into this natural disaster at Arrowhead: the touchback, the “Kodak” moments before each defensive play, the head coach skirting accountability en route to a sweet contract extension. Before all hell broke loose, however, this was an all-time classic between two heavyweights. A “Rocky” film brought to life. Two years later, we’re seeing more damning residue from the aftermath. Rather than realize that this is exactly how you need to play to beat Mahomes — putting up 36 points and 442 yards — Buffalo gradually reinvented itself for worse.
A lot of what McDermott wants to do as a coach looks good on paper, but fails in practice.
This is a Bills team that wants to host playoff games in the frigid cold and snow and — on paper — that means playing a different brand of offensive football. You may remember one defensive starter criticizing the roster makeup of the Bills in Part II, saying the Bills’ offense was built to play in a dome like those “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams. But that’s supposed to be a bad thing? Why run away from this? Let’s not forget that the week before Allen vs. Mahomes, the Bills offense had a perfect game against Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots. In the wild card, the kickoff temperature was 7 degrees.
That didn’t stop Allen. The Bills played the first perfect game in NFL history, scoring touchdowns on every single one of their possessions. They didn’t face fourth down the entire game. They also didn’t turn it over once.
Yet, the self-scout apparently was not to load up with more artillery on offense. Not to maximize their own Greatest Show opportunity. It was to get McDermott the pieces he needs to avoid another 42-point, 552-yard pantsing in 2021. All fine if picks hit. They have not. After taking Ed Oliver (2019, No. 9 overall), A.J. Epenesa (2020, No. 54), Gregory Rousseau (2021, No. 30) and Boogie Basham (2021, No. 61), the Bills responded to 13 Seconds by using the 23rd overall pick in 2022 on Florida cornerback Kaiir Elam, signing DaQuan Jones, Shaq Lawson, Tim Settle, Jordan Phillips and, of course, handing the aging Von Miller a contract that’s essentially $52.3 million over three years. Miller showed some juice before tearing his ACL in Year 1, then disappeared in Year 2. Oh, wait. He didn’t disappear completely. Miller was accused of assaulting his pregnant girlfriend over the bye week in Dallas, but stayed in the lineup. Easy to forget about that when the team’s public relations, the CBS broadcast crew and many media members are too busy painting McDermott a victim of his own 9/11 words.
And where did all of these strokes of the pen get Buffalo? Opposing quarterbacks have hardly been touched, for one. Mahomes was hit twice on Sunday. Never sacked. Oliver racked up 9.5 sacks during the regular season. Problem is, it’s not about the regular season with the Bills anymore. It’s all about the playoffs and — yet again — Oliver was bowled over at the line of scrimmage. On 96 total defensive snaps vs. the Bengals last season and Chiefs this season, Oliver has two assisted tackles. Not the best $68 million can buy.
The great excuse this season will likely be injuries. Losing Matt Milano was a major loss, and the head coach did a fine job of patching up holes. But aside from the fact that the Chiefs had defensive players dropping one by one in this game, the Bills’ defensive line was completely healthy. And utterly bullied. Isiah Pacheco blasted away for 97 yards on 15 attempts and Clyde Edwards-Helaire broke free for another 28-yarder.
There was only one defensive lineman who registered at least two tackles. (Miller, with two.)
Season on the line, yet again, McDermott’s defense was exposed as paper tigers.
So much money, so many picks. To quote the great Ricky Watters, “For who? For what?” To lose the same way every year? That’s the definition of insanity.
After squandering a 16-0 lead to the Houston Texans in the 2019 wild card, here’s how McDermott’s defense fared through the next four meltdowns. (h/t Mookie Alexander of Field Gulls.)
8 field goals
6 kneeldowns/end of Half
1 missed field goal
134 points allowed … good for 3.52 points per drive.
This is a track record that’s gotten coaches fired before.
McDermott is a defensive coach who has proven he cannot stop the best offenses when it matters most.
Here’s another damning stat.
In the five drafts since Buffalo took Allen in 2018, they’ve selected one wide receiver and two tight ends in Rounds 1 through 4. In the three drafts since the Packers took Jordan Love in 2020, they’ve drafted four wide receivers and three tight ends in Rounds 1 through 4. So, despite a defense prone to crater, the Packers just became the youngest team to ever reach the NFL playoffs. One year ago, GM Brandon Beane said he didn’t want to suck bad enough to draft Ja’Marr Chase. That’s fine. He wasn’t wrong. But in his first season as a starter, Love just eclipsed 4,000 yards and threw the second-most touchdown passes in the NFL, throwing primarily to a 132nd overall pick (Romeo Doubs), a 50th overall pick (Jayden Reed) and a 159th overall pick (Dontayvion Wicks).
That’s the beauty of the draft. Buffalo hasn’t had the funds to pay up for a wideout in free agency opposite Stefon Diggs, but that’s why you should constantly load up around your quarterback. Wideouts have never been so NFL-ready. You’re adding real talent on a manageable rookie pay scale.
When the Bills finally did draft a weapon early — tight end Dalton Kincaid last April — it panned out. Kincaid became Allen’s go-to target by season’s end.
Wildly enough, some of Allen’s most impressive throws were his incompletions. You can count on your hand the number of quarterbacks capable of launching that bomb to Diggs 65 yards through the air and sticking another deep shot on Trent Sherfield’s shoulder. But by then, Diggs was mostly phased out of the offense and Sherfield, while a great story, was a second-tier signing. Who’s making the final call on draft day is always a mystery. I was told Beane has “the juice” in the room, but it’s also true McDermott was hired before the GM. Either way, the Bills have insisted on giving the head coach pieces on defense.
Good enough for a ticket to the playoffs. Little else.
None of this happens if the Bills realize what they’ve got at quarterback at the 13-second inflection point and audible accordingly.
None of this happens if the Bills — ownership on down — operate with Allen at forefront of mind. He’s the most important person in the building. He’s the employee with the richest contract in Buffalo sports history. That’s what blew the minds of so many players and coaches I spoke to for The McDermott Problem. Those who’ve been around McDermott every day describe the coach as a simpleton when it comes to this position, as if he never understood that Allen was the No. 1 reason this team is a Super Bowl contender.
“He still doesn’t believe that there are only a half-dozen guys walking this planet that are franchise quarterbacks,” said one former Bills assistant. “There are literally hundreds of guys walking the planet that could be head coaches in the NFL. You keep poking one of the six and they’re going to replace you and go to pick one of the hundreds that are still walking around out there.”
Here's how one ex-Bill starter put it: “There’s so many coaches that you can just name and plug in there and they won’t be worse.”
Because of Allen.
Remember, the offense coordinated by Brian Daboll essentially said “F--k that!” at halftime of that Tampa Bay game in 2021 and unleashed Allen in full. That’s what triggered the best month of offense in Bills history. That offense pushed back. It took a while, from Daboll to Ken Dorsey to interim Joe Brady, but McDermott finally built the offense he always envisioned would complement his defense. An offense, he believed, was fully capable of slugging defenses in the jaw when that cold front engulfs the stadium. Six straight wins surely emboldened the coach in this vision. To his credit, Allen even became a part of that power run game. To his credit, we also saw a much more aggressive head coach the final month of the season. He used timeouts at the end of halves to give Allen time. He went for it on fourth and short more often. He was a bolder coach, albeit with a pinch of overcompensating.
The run from 6-6 to division champs was exposed as fool’s gold by the Chiefs.
It’s always handy to have a running game in the tool box — you’ll need that hammer at some point. But it was always short-sighted for the rushing attack to serve as this unit’s bread and butter. Dinking and dunking and rendering Allen a game manager for most of a football game is coaching malpractice. So is turning Diggs into a decoy. We all had a good chuckle after the Cowboys blowout when the quarterback described himself as the kid in the group project who didn’t do anything and still got an A” All of this “complementary football” jargon appeared justified when the Bills kept winning.
But if the goal was Super Bowls, all of this was nothing but a sad McDirection.
Grounding and pounding has a shelf life. To win four straight playoff wins in modern football, you better possess a quarterback capable of matching the greats. Games of keepaway are eventually rendered silly. Elementary. And that is what’s crazy. The Bills have the quarterback capable of reaching the Super Bowl, yet asked Josh Allen to be Ryan Tannehill. Because Allen is still Allen, he can still find a way to be special under these rigid circumstances. His third-and-goal touchdown pass to Khalil Shakir was one of the best throws you’ll see in any era. On the run, rolling left, he gunned that ball through a mailbox. The week prior, he blasted the Steelers on a 52-yard touchdown run.
I guess this is the plan now. Run and run and ask Allen to be Superman from time to time.
There’s more than enough proof to realize the Bills have been at their absolute best when the foundation of the offense is Allen vanquishing opponents to dust through the course of an entire game. If he throws an interception, so what. That’s part of the entire package. You can’t meticulously pick and choose which parts of Josh Allen you’d like to see. Yet, McDermott tried. From ordering the QB to change his game in March 2023 right through the move to this new offense. As a result, the Bills lost a killer instinct. Even through their magical run to the 44 Percent Club, the Bills engaged in pillow fights with Easton Stick, Bailey Zappe and Mason Rudolph. None of those games had any business being close deep into the fourth quarter.
When you actively choose to function through your defensive-minded coach as a franchise, that’s what happens. Games tighten vs. both good and bad teams.
No wonder the Bills resembled a team in an identity crisis their final offensive possession.
After Allen hit Shakir on a fourth-and-3 swing pass — moving the offense within striking range — the Bills didn’t know if they wanted to keep bleeding the clock or let Allen win it downfield. Those old 13-second nerves resurfaced.
Yes, Diggs was open on the crosser underneath on second and 9. But Allen went for the kill, the TD, and that’s how the Bills should always attack games. If Chris Jones doesn’t walk left tackle Dion Dawkins back into Allen to bump him, he connects with Shakir.
Joe Brady did a damn good job. For what he was clearly asked to do — build a power rushing attack — he succeeded. And there are people reading this who’ll gladly sign up for this offense again in 2024. It’s true that the conversation changes if Diggs catches that bomb from Allen. But if the master plan is to move the ball in seven- and four- and three-yard increments down the field, good luck with that.
The best offenses push the ball downfield because it means more plays and more possessions for your special QB. Explosive plays reign.
Take a gander around the AFC.
The Baltimore Ravens went the opposite direction, dumping OC Greg Roman for Todd Monken to modernize its scheme. Jackson will now win MVP for a second time. Unlike his former colleague in Philly, head coach John Harbaugh consistently evolves for good. Even replacing Wink Martindale for Mike Macdonald at defensive coordinator was a master stroke. Macdonald should win assistant coach of the year. Meanwhile, McDermott pushed away Leslie Frazier and installed himself as the DC. Joe Burrow returns from his torn wrist for the Cincinnati Bengals. Obviously, the Chiefs are the standard. Count on Andy Reid hunting for a new weapon this offseason. We can also expect another quarterback in another innovative offense to join the chat. Justin Herbert with a new coach in Los Angeles or Houston’s C.J. Stroud fresh off a historic rookie season are prime candidates.
No coach has found a way to blend an all-time quarterback with an effective run game quite like McDermott’s old boss, Andy Reid. He learned from his Eagles days. On Sunday night, the Chiefs moved the ball at will by air, by ground and that’s why it’s lunacy for anyone to pin this loss on kicker Tyler Bass. If he splits the uprights, the Chiefs still have 1 minute, 47 seconds and two timeouts. Mahomes would’ve gotten KC into field-goal range blindfolded.
Let’s reset the suffering. You can’t make it up.
The Bills spend two decades losing to Tom Brady.
Brady leaves for the NFC. Brady retires.
The Bills’ owner falls hard for a quarterback out of Texas Tech but refuses to meddle. So, Buffalo deals its No. 10 overall pick in 2017 to Kansas City and the Chiefs choose that QB.
Mahomes has a realistic chance to usurp Brady as the greatest quarterback ever.
Josh Allen proves to be a damn good consolation prize. A quarterback fully capable of matching Mahomes blow for blow.
McDermott botches those fateful 13 seconds against the Chiefs.
The second time around, Allen is more of a game manager. Bills lose again. The apple of Pegula’s eye, Mahomes, prances off the Bills field as snowballs rain down.
The dash back to the playoffs sure earned McDermott goodwill. Step aside, Phil Jackson. Get lost, Lombardi. There’s the door, John Wooden. One beat writer on the scene declared McDermott the greatest coach in pro sports after he slayed Rudolph in the wild card. And remember the golden rule of journalism, kids: Never under any circumstances “monetize” a “struggle.”
All for the Bills to ram directly into the same brick wall.
This is what it looks like when a team is maxed out under its head coach. They’re basically Imagine Dragons. A fine production, but each season sounds the same.
As I write this column, McDermott is holding his season-ending press conference. He says the biggest reason for their turnaround was cutting down turnovers. Let’s hope he doesn’t try to neuter Allen’s arm this offseason after taking aim at his legs last offseason. The state of the Bills mirrors to the state of the Dallas Cowboys. Fans should be staring at both teams with the same question: What’s the realistic path toward improvement? In Dallas, Dak Prescott had the best season of his career and it still wasn’t good enough to get past the first round of the playoffs. At home. Mike McCarthy offered up this word salad after keeping his job: “We have established a championship program. It’s just not a world championship yet.”
Eerily similar to how McDermott explained away his latest playoff loss. (With a twist.)
“When you look back to the AFC Championship, our first playoff meeting with Kansas City, it wasn’t close,” McDermott said. “It really wasn’t. We were at a different point. They were at a different point. Now, it is close. That shows you the strides we’ve made over the years. We have to find ways to make those plays.
“To me it starts with that belief. You’ve got to go for it. You’ve got to have that mindset in order to get that result. You’ve got to believe in yourself and believe in your team.”
McDermott later said that he believes you “throw to win” in this league. Encouraging. We’ll see which actions match which words one year from now. This team can only be judged in the playoffs.
Financially, there’s not much they can do. As it stands now, they are $43 million over the 2024 cap. This loss to KC objectively signaled the end of one era. A slew of core players are set to hit free agency. Safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, in town since Day 1, may both leave. Next year’s team will look drastically different.
So, it’s decision time. Buffalo must decide which individual they should orbit around. That will guide both draft decisions and X ‘n O philosophy. Obviously replacing McDermott with a new coach could help maximize Josh Allen before it’s too late, but Pegula didn’t do that after a fifth straight playoff loss.
Allen could speak up. He won’t rock the boat.
That leaves one person to look in the mirror and change if the Bills are ever going to win a Super Bowl. The head coach.
He’s right. He needs to go for it.
That means unleashing his best player in full.