As you may or may not be aware, the Buffalo Bills currently possess the longest playoff drought in the NFL. Yes, even the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders have been the playoffs more recently than the Bills. Despite the annual misery and disappointment that has been the hallmark of Bills seasons for the last decade and a half, hope has always sprung eternal in Western New York and for the first time since 2004, there might actually be some substance behind that hope.
First off, let’s talk defense. The Bills’ defense was fantastic last year, kept nearly every player from 2014, and is primed to become a top two unit in 2015. Consider the talent at every layer: three Pro Bowl defensive linemen, two young studs at linebacker, a burgeoning star cornerback and safety, and behind each unit is a collection of solid depth and rotational players. Combined with the new coach (whom I will address later), this defense should have every quarterback and offensive coordinator quaking in their boots the week before facing the Bills. The only potential downfall of this defense is injuries. The Bills do have good depth, but when speaking of a player of Marcel Dareus’ or Mario Williams’ caliber, there is always going to be a drop off in talent should they go down.
Second, the offense. We all know that a truly great quarterback can elevate an average player to stardom; we have watched Tom Brady do that for years now. The question is whether or not a collection of great skill position players can help a struggling quarterback play well. The Bills should provide a fairly definitive answer to that question in 2015. Their offense boasts an impressive collection of weapons for whomever becomes the quarterback, headlined by emerging superstar wide receiver Sammy Watkins and dynamic running back Lesean McCoy. They have talent at tight end in Charles Clay, with a few young players behind him. And amidst all this awesome firepower, like someone’s twisted idea of a joke, will be quarterback EJ Manuel, Matt Cassel, or Tyrod Taylor.
Cassel is the established veteran of the group, except all that he has established is that he is not very good at playing quarterback. He will probably provide the same level of play Kyle Orton did in 2014, for whatever that is worth. EJ Manuel is the third year player who started Week 1 of both his previous seasons, yet he has only started 14 games in his career. Injuries, poor coaching decisions, and a lack of mental ability to play the position are the main factors in this lack of play time. It remains to be seen whether or not he will develop into any kind of worthwhile player, but the jury is still technically out on him. We’ll have to wait and see. Tyrod Taylor is a relatively unknown quantity. He spent his first four years warming a bench behind the Great Uni-brow in Baltimore, so no one really knows what he brings to the table other than great foot speed. He is being given a fair chance at winning the starting job in Buffalo and he has been just as inconsistent as the rest of the pack. Should he start Week 1, I would be no more surprised by that choice than either of the other two.
Finally, the new coach. Rex Ryan. I never wanted him for this job, but the Bills foolishly don’t ask my opinion on such matters. Coaching style aside, Ryan’s hiring has opened us Bills fans up to a great deal of ridicule from the rest of the AFC East fan bases, which is a pretty hard pill to swallow considering the fact that aside from Evil Emperor Hoodie, the rest of the coaches in the division are laughable. Apart from putting a gigantic target on the Bills’ collective back, Ryan is a defensive wizard with very few ideas when it comes to offense. He was clearly not the best choice for the Bills given a superb defense was already in place and the offense was the sole reason the drought exists today. However, the subsequent hiring of Greg Roman has made me forget all that. As offensive coordinator in San Francisco, Greg Roman has successfully engineered a creative variant of the power run scheme that carried the 49ers to a few playoff runs with Jim Harbaugh’s crew. Roman knows how to get the most out of his offensive line and he changed Colin Kaepernick from a mouth-breathing lackwit to a mouth-breathing lackwit who can hand the ball off well and take the open shots the defense gives him. I have no doubt he will be able to do the same in Buffalo, regardless of who is under center.
That means Rex Ryan will have something he knows how to work with. He’ll have a great defense, like he did in 2009 and 2010 with the Jets, a solid power run/play action offense, like he had in 2009 and 2010, and a mediocre quarterback, like he has had his entire coaching career. He’s proven that not only can he win with this formula, he can play deep into the post-season.
And one other thing comes to mind. Special teams is often overlooked in the NFL, just an afterthought, particularly in light of all the rules changes in recent years. The Bills had the second best special teams unit in the league last year and that play a significant role in their first winning second in ten years. That unit is returning virtually unchanged and with a stated goal of being the best in the league. It could very well be the final straw that broke the camel’s drought. Or some such metaphor.