With the 2018 Regular Season roughly one month away, our daily NFL Preview begins in Buffalo, where the Bills will be looking to pick up things up where they left off a year after breaking the longest active Postseason Drought in the league. Buffalo went a ridiculous Eighteen Years without a Playoff Birth, with their last appearance occurring back in 1999 when they found themselves on the wrong end of the Music City Miracle. Nearly Two Decades of Coaching Changes and mediocrity on the field and in the Organization itself had no doubt left Bills’ Fans with a cynical take on their beloved team’s fortunes. However, in 2017 everything changed with the hiring of Sean McDermott, who became the Franchise’s tenth Head Coach since 1999, instilling a Back to Basics Philosophy that would go to on get the most out of what had long been a talented, yet underachieving Roster. Behind one of the NFL’s most potent Rushing Attacks and an opportunistic Defense, McDermott’s charges rallied down the stretch to finish the Regular Season at 9-7, finally booking their long-awaited return to the Playoffs. However, they failed to do much with their opportunity, falling short in a 10-3 defensive slugfest with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Wild Card Round, bringing their campaign to a close. So with that said, let’s take a look at three key storylines that will ultimately decide whether or not last season’s success was a fluke, or rather a foundation to build upon.
In the Pursuit of Balance
If the Bills hope to take that next leap in their development, then they must find some semblance of balance on the offensive side of the football. For years, they’ve utilized an Old-School, Ground & Pound approach that appears more and more antiquated in this Pass-Happy, Modern Era. Now, we’re not saying that they need to ditch the Rushing Attack entirely, and why would you with a perennial Pro Bowl Tailback like LeSean McCoy lining up in the backfield? Buffalo ranked Sixth in Rushing Offense (126.1 Y/G) and Fourth in Rushing Attempts (30.4 A/G) in large part due to McCoy’s exploits, with the veteran ‘Back rushing for 1,138 Yards and Six Touchdowns, while reeling in another Fifty-Nine Receptions for 448 Yards and a pair of Scores. However, he turned 30 Years Old at the beginning of Training Camp, leaving one to wonder just how much longer he will be able to carry such a significant load on his shoulders. Buffalo added another veteran, Chris Ivory, to provide support for McCoy, and also to help fill the rushing void left in the wake of Quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s departure. Say what you will about Taylor, but he brought a sense of versatility and dynamism to the team’s Rushing Attack, gaining 427 Yards and Four Touchdowns on the Ground in 2017. It seems that his departure will hasten this unit’s transition to a more traditional approach, particularly with the addition of new Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll, the team’s fifth OC in as many seasons. After Four Seasons coaching up Tight Ends in New England, Daboll spent last year plying his trade for the University of Alabama in their pursuit of yet another National Championship. It’s crystal clear that he has quite a task on his hands, what with developing a young Receiving Corps, piecing together a completely renovated Offensive Line, and most notably solving the franchise’s most persistent issue: Quarterback.
Raising Josh Allen
The Bills made quite the splash in the NFL Draft when they traded up to select former Wyoming Quarterback Josh Allen with the Seventh Overall Pick, signaling the end of the Tyrod Taylor Era in Buffalo. At 6-5, 237 lbs, Allen is quite the physical specimen featuring rare arm strength that is ideal for the swirling winds and colder temperatures that engulf Western New York in the Fall and Winter. However, there were a litany of questions about this kid leading up to the Draft, from his poor accuracy, to the low level of competition he played against at Wyoming, to his overall mechanics, leaving many to wonder just how long it would take for him to see the field this season. Essentially, this kid is RAW, with that tantalizing upside that has gotten so many General Managers fired over the years. Given the team’s aforementioned changes along the Offensive Line, it wouldn’t be the worst thing for McDermott and Daboll to be cautious with the Rookie, particularly after Management acquired a dependable Stop-Gap Option in the form A.J. McCarron in the Offseason from the Cincinnati Bengals. While he has started just Three Games in his Four-Year Career, McCarron is generally well-respected across the league, and was very nearly acquired by the Cleveland Browns at the Trade Deadline in 2017, with his presence alone affording the Coaching Staff plenty of time to develop their prized asset. While exactly how long McCarron will be the Starter is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: both he and Allen must find a way to improve upon the team’s lackluster Passing Attack. Over the last Three Years, the Bills have ranked 28th, 30th, and 31st Overall in Passing Offense, and 31st, 32nd, and 31st in Passing Attempts. We touched upon the need for improved balance on this side of the football, and the only way that is going to happen is if these Signal-Callers take it upon themselves to do so.
Arguably the driving force behind Buffalo’s long-awaited return to the Playoffs was the opportunistic play of their Defense, which under the guidance of McDermott, improved by leaps and bounds in 2017. After two years of complex Coverages and Blitz Schemes courtesy of Rex Ryan, McDermott really simplified things on this side of the football for the Bills, who transitioned seamlessly to his Zone-Heavy Defense, which allowed his charges to simply react to the action on the field. As a result, they forced Twenty-Five Turnovers (9th Overall), including Eighteen Interceptions (6th Overall) and Seven Recovered Fumbles (19th Overall), even returning Three of them for Touchdowns. This, coupled with their own Run-Oriented Offense, led to a very healthy Plus-9 Turnover Differential, which went a long way towards masking the fact that they managed to ascend to the Playoffs despite relinquishing more Points (22.4 P/G) than they scored on average (18.9 P/G). The problem here though is this: while Turnovers oftentimes decide the outcome of a contest, they are also wildly chaotic, meaning that relying upon them in such a manner can have adverse effects. In Buffalo’s Nine Victories, their Turnover Differential was a sterling Plus-15 in comparison to a disappointing Minus-6 in their Seven Defeats. It should also be noted that this simply isn’t something that can be counted upon from year to year. Case in point; the Oakland Raiders returned to the Playoffs after a similar drought in 2016 based largely on the strength of forcing Thirty Turnovers (2nd Overall) and enjoying a healthy Plus-16 Turnover Differential, only to see that figure decrease dramatically a year later, with a scant Fourteen Takeaways (30th Overall) which parlayed into a dreadful Minus-14 Differential. With all the changes on Offense it’s not outlandish to think that the Bills will be passing the ball a bit more frequently in 2017, which will likely open the door for more Turnovers, which could see that crucial Turnover Differential fall well out of their favor.
2018 Outlook: 6-10
Despite finally breaking that harrowing Eighteen-Year Playoff Drought, the Bills have all the hallmarks of a young team that looks to be taking a step backward with the hope of ultimately reaping greater gains in the future. The entire Offense is in flux with yet another new Offensive Coordinator taking the reins, while there could be as many as three (possibly four) new Starters along the Offensive Line, and not to mention the situation at Quarterback. With a much more difficult schedule (particularly during the first month) it’s unlikely that the Bills will return to the Playoffs in 2018, with the Silver Lining being that with the rest of the AFC East (sans the New England Patriots of course) rebuilding, .500 should be their ceiling.