The Rex Ryan-led Bills are on their way to finally getting their act together
When coach Doug Marrone up and quit on the team on New Year’s Eve, the Buffalo Bills were doing what they always do: leading the NFL in dysfunction. Marrone was on the job just two years and had led the team to a 9–7 finish, Buffalo’s best in a decade but still not good enough to end a 15-year playoff drought.
But just when it seemed to be business as usual, new owner Terry Pegula and second-year general manager Doug Whaley began making blockbuster moves all over the place. It began with the hiring of Rex Ryan, jettisoned by the rival New York Jets, to replace Marrone. It reached a fever pitch when a trade was swung with the Philadelphia Eagles to acquire running back LeSean McCoy.
“Is this thing on? Because it’s going to be on,’’ blurted the colorful Ryan into the microphone.
Whether Buffalo has improved on offense enough to complement one of the league’s top defenses remains to be seen. But Team Dysfunction has finally gotten its act together.
The Bills have lacked true star power on this side of the ball, but things are turning. The McCoy acquisition vastly upgraded the club’s moribund rushing game that fell to 25th in the NFL at 92.6 yards per game as veteran Fred Jackson and the departed C.J. Spiller (New Orleans) battled injuries. As a team, the Bills set a franchise record for fewest rushing yards in a 16-game season with 1,482.
McCoy, just 27, had 1,319 yards on 312 attempts all by himself for the Eagles. With 9,074 combined career yards and 54 touchdowns, he is an elite talent with workhorse stamina for whom teams will have to game-plan.
Without the McCoy deal, along with the signing of Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton, Ryan’s proclamation of “ground and pound’’ would amount to ground chuck. Now the Bills — under new coordinator Greg Roman, who rode Frank Gore with the San Francisco 49ers — can complement the quarterback with a running game that can dictate tempo.
Oh yes, quarterback. The Bills will hold a wide-open competition for the job among 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel, savvy veteran Matt Cassel, picked up in a trade with Minnesota, and free agent Tyrod Taylor.
For Manuel, who was benched after a month in favor of the departed Kyle Orton, this is a crossroads. Unless he’s the clear-cut best player through the preseason, Ryan and Roman will be more than content to have Cassell game-manage their run-based attack. Cassell, 31, led 10-win teams in New England and Kansas City in the past, and his 96-to-70 TD-to-interception ratio for his career has to be respected.
But don’t get the impression Buffalo will be all run and no fun. The Bills receiving corps is young and dynamic, led by last year’s rookie sensation Sammy Watkins, who set team rookie marks for catches (65) and yards (982), and second-year man Robert Woods. The well-traveled Percy Harvin was also added to the mix, and Chris Hogan is an emerging talent. The tight end position received a huge boost as well with the signing of Miami free agent Charles Clay, who will give the Bills many matchup advantages downfield.
The line will remain a bit unsettled through the summer but figures to shake itself out just fine. Free agent guard Richie Incognito, who spent a year in exile after “Bullygate’’ in Miami, brings attitude and toughness to a unit that produced just seven rushing TDs and yielded 39 sacks. The other guard spot is up for grabs, but there is no shortage of candidates, including rookie John Miller. Underrated center Eric Wood will man the middle for a seventh season.
In 2014, the Bills ranked fourth in yards allowed (312.2), behind only Seattle, Detroit and Denver. They also ranked fourth in points allowed (18.1), first in sacks (54), third in takeaways (30), third in pass defense and first in third-down efficiency.
That makes for a pretty tough encore for new coordinator Dennis Thurman, who came over with Ryan from the Jets. But it is one Buffalo — given its wealth of talent — is capable of.
It all starts up front where the Bills feature not one, not two, but three Pro Bowl linemen: Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. With Jerry Hughes, who was re-signed as a free agent, Buffalo is able to generate immense pressure on opposing quarterbacks without having to blitz much; those four combined for 39.5 of the team’s NFL-leading 54 sacks in 2014. Things are so good at this position, the backups could start for other teams, although Dareus will miss the season opener after being suspended for violating the league’s policy on substance abuse.
Ryan is known as a 3-4 proponent, but in truth, he matches his scheme to his personnel, so the Bills will feature a lot of four-man looks (disguised as three-man). Mario Williams and Hughes can play off the line as outside linebackers as well.
Depth in the front seven is one reason Buffalo was able to deal star middle linebacker Kiko Alonso, who missed last season with a knee injury, to the Eagles for McCoy. The linebacker corps features young talents in Preston Brown, who led the team in tackles as a rookie with 109, and Nigel Bradham, who had 104. Ty Powell, Randell Johnson and rookie sixth-round pick Tony Steward will battle it out for playing time.
In the secondary, the Bills lost starters Jairus Byrd and Da’Norris Searcy the past two years in free agency but still have plenty on hand. The corner spots are manned by former first-round picks Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin, who combined for seven interceptions last year. McKelvin was having a strong season until sitting out the final six games with a broken ankle. Stepping in superbly was veteran Corey Graham, a free-agent signee who finished with a team-high 15 passes defended.
Aaron Williams, a 2011 second-round pick and former corner, has blossomed at strong safety and chipped in 76 tackles and five pass breakups. Third-year man Duke Williams will get the nod to replace Searcy at the free spot. Overall depth in the secondary remains a team strength, led by the likes of Ron Brooks, Nickell Robey and Bacarri Rambo, who intercepted Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers twice in a game last year. Things got even better when Buffalo spent its top pick in the draft on Florida State cornerback Ronald Darby.
Placekicker Dan Carpenter set a franchise record with 34 field goals. The former Miami Dolphin has embraced the challenging weather conditions of Ralph Wilson Stadium. With Jordan Gay handling kickoffs, Carpenter can focus solely on the uprights. Punter Colton Schmidt was an August waiver find, and the California native also found an unlikely home, averaging 42.9 yards an effort with 31 dropped inside the 20. Return specialist Marcus Thigpen returns to handle punts and kickoffs.
Ryan is the biggest coaching hire in Buffalo since Chuck Knox in the late 1970s, and expectations are high that the NFL’s longest playoff drought will come to an end at 15 seasons. Nobody’s toppling New England in the AFC East as long as Tom Brady is slinging passes, and landing a wild-card spot will take at least 10 wins. But the Bills got to nine last year and could finally knock down the door.