Remember the time you got that shiny new bicycle for Christmas, but the weather was so crummy you couldn’t take it out for a spin?
That’s how this Bills preseason seems to me, like one interminable wait.
I imagine a lot of fans feel the same way. After months of hype, after all the OTAs and practices, people are impatient and ready for the ride.
It promises to be a wild ride, one way or another. The Bills moved a record number of season tickets, even more than the Super Bowl years. It seems the longer they go without playoffs, the greater the capacity for people to believe good things are coming.
There is great cause for excitement, starting with the bombastic head coach, Rex Ryan. From the moment Terry Pegula hired him last winter, Ryan has been making bold pronouncements and national headlines.
You don’t know what Ryan might do or say next, but he’ll never be boring. He promised to build a bully and brought in some of the NFL’s notorious miscreants, including Richie Incognito, Percy Harvin and IK Enemkpali, the man who punched out Rex’s former quarterback, Geno Smith.
During his first news conference in Buffalo, Ryan said he expected to make the playoffs. He said this would be his last chance to prove himself as a winner in the NFL. Late in training camp he reiterated his conviction about winning.
“Look, we definitely expect to be in the playoffs, period,” Ryan said. “We said that since Day One; we got no qualms about it. We expect to be in there.”
When Ryan took over for Doug Marrone, he brought a new sense of order and legitimacy, despite his recent failures in New York. He also raised expectations for a team that went 9-7 in 2014.
There was an urgent, win-now mentality at the outset a year ago, when the team was without an owner and people were desperate to save their jobs. Given a rock star coach and a slew of new talent, you bet the pressure is intensified in the first full year under Pegula.
Ryan knows there’s pressure to win right away, to reaffirm his myth as an elite coach and end the Bills’ 15-year playoff drought. Why not talk big?
We get so caught up in Ryan’s persona, we can forget how he made his name in the first place. He is one of the great defensive minds in the sport, an innovator who rode a relentless defense to the AFC title game in his first two years as head man of the Jets in 2009-10.
Ryan is the best at defending Tom Brady. Even in the last two years, when the Bills had a top D, the Jets were far better against the Pats. So there’s a justifiable hope that Ryan and Dennis Thurman can make even better a terrific defense, one that set sack records the last two years.
Last year’s defense ranked fourth in the NFL in yards and points allowed, third against the pass and first in sacks with 54. Four of the front seven made the NFL’s list of the top 100 players: Mario Williams (42), Marcell Dareus (55), Jerry Hughes (63) and Kyle Williams (72).
The offense has to be better, considering all the new toys Doug Whaley has brought in: LeSean McCoy had the second-most rushing yards of any running back in the NFL the last two years.
Charles Clay is a budding star at tight end. Harvin might finally be ready to unleash all that talent. Surrounded by such playmakers, young wideouts Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods should continue to evolve.
But it all comes back to the quarterback position. Tyrod Taylor won the starting job. He’s a dynamic talent with great possibilities. We’ll find out soon enough if he can do it in real games.
Taylor is the fastest QB in the league and possessor of a big-time arm. But he is raw and unproven. The regular season is an entirely different proposition, where everything speeds up and a quarterback must make quick decisions under extraordinary duress.
Vegas put the Bills’ over/under for wins at 8.5. The wise guys remain skeptical. Until they get respectable play at quarterback, there’s ample room for skepticism.
After the loss in Houston last year, I asked Marrone if the Bills were wasting great defense, considering the poor play of EJ Manuel. Marrone was indignant. He talked about winning and losing as a team. The next day, he made Kyle Orton the starter.
Until the Bills find a legitimate franchise QB, squandering exceptional defense will be an issue. The anointing of Taylor doesn’t change that. It does deflect attention from the failure of Manuel as a franchise guy, and the dubious commitment Whaley made to him by trading a first-round pick for Watkins.
Fans are excited about Taylor because they’re desperate for anything resembling a franchise QB. If he’s good, it alleviates the need to find one in the draft, while softening the embarrassment of investing so much in Manuel and having him not pan out.
If Taylor fails, we’ll hear more and more about the Bills’ failure to address the position in recent drafts – especially if Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles and Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater continue to make big strides in their second NFL seasons.
Maybe Taylor only needs to be average. Ryan believes you win with a pulverizing ground game, aggressive defense and adequate quarterback play. He can point to his first Jets team (2009), which made it to the AFC title game with inferior QB play.
That Jets team led the NFL in rushing and ran it 607 times, 82 more than the next-highest team. They were 31st in passing with rookie Mark Sanchez. They led the league in defense and held the opposition to 4.6 net yards per pass, the stingiest of any team in the last six years.
So there’s precedent for Ryan’s formula. But it’s rare for a team to be that good running the ball and defensively. For all that, the ’09 Jets were 9-7 and backed into the playoffs that year.
Ryan is operating a somewhat antiquated model, emphasizing “run and stop the run” in a league increasingly geared toward the pass. Seven of the eight teams in last year’s divisional playoffs were ranked in the top 10 in passer rating.
Running and defending the run still matter. The question is whether Ryan has the bullies to carry it off. McCoy carried the ball 300 times a year in Philadelphia, but he’s no ground-and-pound runner. He led the NFL in negative rushing yards a year ago.
The Bills allowed 4.8 yards a rush over the last 10 games a year ago. They’re thin at linebacker. Teams will test their interior run D on early downs. They’re also suspect at cornerback opposite Stephon Gilmore. As the Steelers showed in preseason, teams will attack rookie Ronald Darby.
The defense has exciting possibilities. It also has questions. You can’t flip a switch and repeat your success of the previous season. Will Dareus mope because he didn’t get a new contract? Will Hughes be less motivated because he did? Will Kyle Williams and Mario Williams avoid injuries?
There’s justification for enthusiasm about this team, but cause for doubt. It’ll be an interesting ride, but perhaps a bumpy and uneven one. They’re not terribly deep. The foundation is always flimsy when you’re not sure what you have at quarterback.
They’re better than a year ago. But they were worse than their record last season. They were a play away from losing to Detroit and Minnesota, and the Pats mailed in the finale.
I’ll stick with my earlier prediction and say 9-7, and that’s giving them the benefit of the doubt.