Can Tyrod Taylor and the new coaching staff end the Bills' 17-season playoff drought?
The Buffalo Bills haven’t been to the NFL playoffs for 17 consecutive seasons, the longest active postseason drought in North American professional sports. So why should 2017 be the season this dubious streak is snapped? Because maybe the odds are in the Bills’ favor.
Terry Pegula, who fired coach Rex Ryan and general manager Doug Whaley in a span of four months, is now working on his third head coach and second general manager in just two-plus seasons of ownership. New coach Sean McDermott, the former Philadelphia and Carolina defensive coordinator, has been handed unprecedented power. The expectation is that with a little more discipline, accountability and structure, the Bills can get over the hump. Under the fun-loving Ryan, the Bills dropped nine games by a seven points or less and went 8–8 and 7–9.
Worst-case scenario for McDermott in his rookie year? Buffalo grabs another top-10 draft pick and, coupled with Kansas City’s No. 1 obtained in a trade, he finds his franchise quarterback in a deep 2018 class. Just don’t utter the word “tank.’’
|Head Coach||Sean McDermott|
|Record With Team||0-0|
|Offensive Coordinator||Rick Dennison|
|Defensive Coordinator||Leslie Frazier|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Danny Crossman|
|Running Backs||Kelly Skipper|
|Tight Ends||Rob Boras|
|Offensive Line||Juan Castillo|
|Defensive Line||Mike Waufle|
|Defensive Backs||Gill Byrd|
The Bills will look to improve on a unit that is lacking stars but ranked first in rushing offense and tied for 10th in scoring last season.
With few appealing options on the free-agent market, the Bills had little choice but to bring back quarterback Tyrod Taylor for a third year under a more cap-friendly contract. It was a prudent move as Buffalo’s new coaching staff under coordinator Rick Dennison will not have to waste valuable months staging a competition, and young prospects Cardale Jones and rookie Nathan Peterman can develop without any pressure. The Bills signed veteran T.J. Yates in case neither Jones nor Peterman can secure the backup job.
Taylor has been an electrifying and productive — if not winning — quarterback with a 14–14 record. He is limited as a pure passer, but his top-10 QBR ranking means he contributes in other ways, namely as the NFL’s top rushing quarterback. He’s rushed for 1,148 yards and 10 TDs for Buffalo, and his ability to avoid turnovers (six interceptions in 2016) is another positive.
McDermott was around dual-threat QBs in Philadelphia with Donovan McNabb and in Carolina with Cam Newton. Dennison, who worked with Taylor in Baltimore, runs an offense that will utilize many of Taylor’s skills. Can this be the staff that gets him to a new level? “It’s a player-friendly playbook, and I know I’m excited about it,’’ says Taylor.
Taylor will be working with a new primary target following the surprising trade of Sammy Watkins to the Rams on Aug. 11. To fill Watkins’ roster spot, the Bills completed a second trade that same day with Philadelphia, sending cornerback Ronald Darby to the Eagles for Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick in next year’s draft. Matthews, a 2014 second-round pick whose production declined last season, joins Zay Jones, Buffalo’s second-round selection this year who caught an FBS-record 399 passes for East Carolina, and veteran free agent Philly Brown in a re-worked receiving corps. Tight end Charles Clay, who led Buffalo with 57 catches for 552 yards, also is begging to be used more, and may now get his wish.
Taking some of the pressure off Taylor is a rushing attack that has led the NFL two years running. LeSean McCoy is still an elite cut-back runner who topped the 1,200-yard mark for the fourth time in his career. He had 50 catches and earned his fifth Pro Bowl nod. Losing top backup Mike Gillislee (5.7 yards per carry) to New England as a restricted free agent has opened a spot for second-year man Jonathan Williams. Two quality fullbacks were added as free agents, Patrick DiMarco and Mike Tolbert.
McCoy and company will run behind a quality line. Cordy Glenn, Jordan Mills, Richie Incognito, John Miller and center Eric Wood return up front, and second-round pick Dion Dawkins and veteran free agent Vladimir Ducasse upgrade the depth. Wood, one of the NFL’s best players at the pivot, is coming off a broken leg, but he’s bounced back strong from injuries before.
This was Ryan’s area of expertise, but he never got it right. Fielding units that ranked 19th in yards allowed two consecutive seasons hastened his exodus.
Now it’s McDermott’s turn. He, too, is a defensive coach, and it’s up to him and his coordinator, former Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier, to deal with the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and Tom Brady twice a year. To that end, the Bills will return to a pure 4-3 scheme after struggling to make Ryan’s complex hybrid looks work.
“It allows us to kind of play to our strengths,’’ end Jerry Hughes says. “Four guys coming off the ball creating havoc, closing in that pocket, putting a lot of pressure on QBs rather than just allowing him to stand back there and pick us apart.’’
The key question: Do the Bills have the personnel to make that work? Only four starters remain from Buffalo’s No. 4 defense of three seasons ago, and there are no Luke Kuechlys, Greg Hardys or Josh Normans — players McDermott had when he fielded top-10 defenses in Carolina.
Still, the Bills have a very good base, starting with the front four of Hughes, Shaq Lawson, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. Hughes is a gifted pass rusher who has 31 sacks over the last three seasons. Lawson, Buffalo’s No. 1 pick in 2016 who got a late start after shoulder surgery, was a dominant player at Clemson and showed flashes his rookie year. Dareus and Williams form one of the NFL’s best 1-2 tackle combinations. After playing just eight games due to suspensions and injury in 2016, Dareus needs a big season. Williams, 34, put off retirement after hearing McDermott espouse discipline and hard work. Second-year man Adolphus Washington, who made 11 starts as a rookie, has Pro Bowl potential himself and is learning from two of the best.
The linebacker corps is led by veteran Lorenzo Alexander, who resurrected his career with 12.5 sacks and earned a two-year deal. He provides leadership in the locker room. Others to watch are Preston Brown (139 tackles) and former Alabama star Reggie Ragland, Buffalo’s second-round pick last season who lost his entire rookie season to a torn ACL. Rookie Matt Milano will challenge for a spot in the rotation.
The secondary, a big part of McDermott’s scheme, has been overhauled, triggered by the loss of cornerback Stephon Gilmore to the rival Patriots for a massive $40 million guaranteed contract, and then followed up with the trade of Darby. First-round pick Tre’Davious White should start opposite former Ram E.J. Gaines, who was acquired along with a 2018 second-round draft pick for Watkins and the Bills’ sixth-round selection next year. Second-year pro Kevon Seymour and veteran Shareece White are very good special package players. Micah Hyde and either free agent Jordan Poyer or veteran Colt Anderson will be the two new starting safeties after the Bills parted ways with Aaron Williams and Corey Graham. Hyde, who made 33 starts for the Packers with eight picks, was Buffalo’s top free-agent signing ($14 million guarantee) and is a key building block for McDermott.
Stephen Hauschka replaces a fading Dan Carpenter at placekicker. Hauschka has kicked for Denver, Baltimore and Seattle — winning a Super Bowl with the Seahawks — and has a fine 87.2 percent career percentage. Punter Colton Schmidt (42.4-yard average, 20 inside the 20), a great free-agent find who has mastered the challenging Buffalo weather conditions, returns for his fourth season. Brandon Tate had a solid year returning punts and kickoffs, but many candidates will be tested out, including White, a terrific punt returner in college.
Regime changes always inspire optimism, but the fact is that five previous GM changes and six coaching changes during Buffalo’s 17-year playoff drought were not the answer. McDermott’s methodical, disciplined approach isn’t a magic wand. But if he produces the two to three wins the Bills have consistently needed to make the playoffs, he’ll be given a bust outside New Era Field.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC East