Are the Bills in full tank mode, merely fair to middling, or ready to shock the world and surge into playoff contention?
There is plenty of grist for that conversational mill elsewhere in The Buffalo News’ NFL Preview section, as well as on talk radio, the nearest Twitter and Facebook feeds, and at better barstools everywhere. But sometimes we need to break out of the Bills Nation bubble and find out how the team is viewed by NFL observers in the national media.
Inspired by the roundtable format popularized by Sports Illustrated media columnist (and University at Buffalo graduate) Richard Deitsch, Mixed Media has assembled the inaugural Buffalo Bills Media Roundtable.
Our roundtable panelists, in alphabetical order:
Judy Battista, columnist for NFL.com;
Jarrett Bell, NFL columnist for USA Today;
Greg Bishop, senior writer for Sports Illustrated;
Kevin Connors, ESPN SportsCenter anchor and unapologetic Bills fan;
Sam Farmer, NFL writer for Los Angeles Times;
Gary Myers, columnist for New York Daily News, author of “My First Coach” (Grand Central Publishing);
Dan Pompei, writer for Bleacher Report and The Athletic (Chicago);
Ian Rapoport, National Insider for NFL Network and NFL.com;
Adam Schefter, ESPN’s NFL Insider.
Each panelist was sent an identical five questions about the 2017 Bills. Take it away, panelists …
The Bills' organization, under GM Doug Whaley and coach Rex Ryan, became kind of a mess last season. The team cleaned house and brought in Brandon Beane as general manager and Sean McDermott as head coach. In your opinion, will these "changing the culture" moves eventually translate into more wins and ending their playoff drought?
Battista: Yes, I think eventually the changes will lead to more wins if – IF – the Bills stick with this for more than two or three years. Assuming that the Pegulas finally have their braintrust aligned in McDermott and Beane, they now need time to enact their vision – for personnel and for how McDermott wants to play. As for playoffs, can you tell me how much longer Tom Brady is going to play, because I can't envision any other team winning the division while he and Belichick are still upright. But the Bills haven't been THAT far from the wild card.
Bell: The fresh start has promise, and after such a long playoff drought you’d think the odds are in their favor that it will eventually turn in the right direction. A first-time head coach can be such a mystery, but at least McDermott and Beane will have synergy, given their time together in Carolina. That was hardly the case with Whaley and Ryan, joined together in something like a forced marriage.
Bishop: It's hard to say exactly. But I do agree with the premise of the question. It did look like a mess. I remember specifically Whaley's press conference after Ryan was fired. He didn't inspire confidence, or even sound like he was in control. It was bizarre and indicative it seemed over larger issues going on inside. I'm split on the idea of culture changing, though. On one hand, when something seems as in disarray as the Bills appeared last season, then it's always good I think to move in a new direction. But I also believe the Bills are one of those franchises that is constantly making changes in important places, like head coach, or general manager, or quarterback. The best teams in the NFL have way more continuity than that, and they don't even have to look outside their division to see a good example of where continuity works. (New England, obviously.)
Connors: Yes. I’ve spoken with multiple NFL people here at ESPN (Louis Riddick, Herm Edwards and others) who really like both McDermott and Beane. As in really like them. Accountability and discipline have been missing in recent years and that (seemingly) has changed under the new regime. More than anything though, compatibility between the head coach and front office now exists – what a concept! No organization in sports succeeds without it.Hard as it may be, I caution Bills fans to give this group time. We may finally have the right leadership.
Farmer: It’s clear that the Bills are far more organized now, with discipline and accountability much more in play than they used to be. It’s not like a fraternity house anymore. It’s a place where you focus, punch the clock, and come to work. We’ll have to see if that ends the playoff drought, but it seems like a better formula to achieve that end.
Myers: It's hard to believe in this era when good and bad times run in cycles that the Bills have not made the playoffs since the Music City Miracle game in 1999. Certainly a culture shift was necessary after all the fun times with Rex, but with a first-time GM and first-time head coach, it's hard to predict if the changes will bring success. Will Beane make the right decisions with all the draft picks the Bills own in 2018? Can McDermott make the step up from coordinator to head coach? Until they show they can do it, you never know. There's plenty of success stories of qualified people like Beane and McDermott becoming stars when they've taken on these kind of jobs: John Elway has done very well in Denver as the football boss, Ben McAdoo made the playoffs in his first year as the Giants, to use recent examples. But there's also a long list of failures when these guys get their first big NFL jobs: John Idzik was a disaster as the GM of the Jets, even Nick Saban didn't succeed as a head coach with the Dolphins. The Bills need to hit it big with rookies in these two crucial spots for a team with no recent history of success. Early on, I like what Beane and McDermott have done. They were part of a Super Bowl team in Carolina a few years ago, so they have been exposed to winning. But it's way too early to say if or when this will result in a playoff season.
Pompei: They can change the culture, but they need to bring in better players if they are going to become the team they want to be. Culture only goes so far. When you have good players who win football games, the culture usually takes care of itself. All that being said, I have a lot of respect for Sean McDermott. I think he is a smart, grounded coach who knows people. He has been mentored by some high-character football men – Andy Reid, Jim Johnson and Ron Rivera among them. I think he’s going to be a good head coach, and one who is capable of creating an environment that is conducive to winning. It will be up to Brandon Beane and his staff to provide McDermott with the talent.
Rapoport: Believe it or not, I feel like the Bills aren't that far away from a playoff berth. The past couple years, despite being a bit disorganized and having some internal conflict, they've been within arm's length of the playoffs. Now, maybe they momentarily took a step back with the Sammy Watkins trade and the other moves they made over the last week. But for me, that's worth it. They are at a point now where maybe they are as good as they can be – which is maxing out at 9-7 or so. To me, having six picks in the first three rounds in next year's draft will set them up for the future. So while I think they are fine and in the mix for this year's playoffs, maybe a long shot, if they draft right it'll only get better.
Schefter: Eventually they will, whether or not it is this season. It takes people a little bit of time to implement their program, with their people, in the way they want it. McDermott and Beane will get there, and they’re on their way. I don’t think the Bills will end their playoff drought this season – Tom Brady still resides in the AFC East – but I do believe they are headed in the right direction with the right people.
What did you think of the Bills' trading of Sammy Watkins to the Rams? Was that a "moneyball" move to get better in the future? Was it done partially to send a message to the rest of the Bills that no one is expendable? What is your take?
Battista: Watkins' relationship with the franchise was complicated and perhaps irreparably damaged by how poorly his foot injury was mismanaged last year. Add in the draft capital Doug Whaley expended for him, which he had underperformed, and there was just a lot of baggage there. He was in a contract year, and given the fact that it was highly unlikely he would be back, it was smart to get something for him.
Bell: My first reaction: Wow. Just think of what they gave up in order to draft Watkins ... amid such a deep receiver crop. That move was one that defined the moves that backfired under Whaley. I’d see it as more of a “Moneyball move” rather than something to send a message. It’s the NFL. No need to amplify that with such a move, when nearly everyone is always expendable. The big takeaway is that they salvaged what they could for Watkins. Too bad it didn’t work out. I was at his rookie training camp and remember him sky-walking in double coverage for a spectacular catch. So you know it’s in there somewhere – if conditions, including health, are ripe.
Bishop: This one didn't bother me that much. When the Bills chose not to exercise their fifth-year option on Watkins they put themselves in a tough position to re-sign him, should he live up to his vast potential this season. Problem was, he hadn't been able to stay healthy. So the fact that they got something for him – and were able to send a message – made sense, even though it hurts to lose a player of that caliber.
Connors: My initial thought was “oh no!” But then I got up, told the medics they could leave, took a deep breath and said … right move. It’s hard to look in the mirror and be honest about what you see sometimes, but that’s what happened here in more ways than one. Yes, the front office saw a dynamic player in Sammy – but they also saw an oft-injured guy, in line for a huge pay-day next offseason. They then had three choices:
1. Commit to Sammy long-term
2. Lose him for nothing
3. Get something for him while he still has value
Obviously they went with No. 3. Big picture I think the front office evaluated the landscape and said we’re not ready to contend right now. That’s tough for us long-suffering fans to accept, but it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. If we draft properly in 2018 we address numerous needs. If we package picks we (potentially) move up to get a (potential) franchise QB. Long-term this trade will bear fruit.
Farmer: That move was planning for 2018 and ’19 rather than thinking about 2017. Watkins probably wasn’t going to re-sign, or he was going to be asking for such a big number that the Bills would have had to roll up the Brinks truck. So the Bills were thinking long term. It’s not like Buffalo stood pat. They got Jordan Matthews from Philadelphia. They got some serviceable players and picked up a couple draft picks. After all, they’ve got six picks in the first three rounds next year. That’s not bad.
Myers: The Bills didn't pick up Watkins' fifth year option by the May deadline, which was a strong indication his injury history and disappointing production gave Beane and McDermott plenty of doubt about his long-time future in Buffalo. Unless they were going to franchise him next year, they ran the risk of losing him for nothing in free agency. So getting back a second-round pick in 2018 from the Rams was a way to stay ahead of things. The problem for the Bills is they gave up so much to get Watkins in the 2014 draft and he could not stay healthy. This was a net loss. Things might have been a lot different if the Bills had just drafted Odell Beckham Jr. I don't necessarily think the Watkins trade was meant to send a message to the rest of the team that everybody is expendable. Just about everybody in the NFL is expendable and the players know that. This trade was made to give the Bills extra currency in next year's draft in return for a player who didn't fit in their plans. Beane and McDermott are trying to build the roster with their own players as quickly as possible. They will have a lot of flexibility to move up get a quarterback now that they have two picks in each of the first three rounds.
Pompei: The new regime didn’t think Watkins is a game-changer who could be counted on consistently. They wouldn’t have traded him if they did. But they knew he was a commodity, and they are trying to rebuild with a stock of high draft picks. I really think that’s what the deal was about, no more than that.
Rapoport: I don't see it sending a message, but Sammy Watkins didn't do anything wrong. He didn't piss anyone off or act badly or anything like that. He simply was injured. When he was healthy, he was very good. To me, this was about a team saying, Maybe we aren't 100 percent sold on a player for the future, so let's get a lot for him now. And they did receive a lot for him, getting a starter and a high pick. If you play it out and he has a great year, they'd have to franchise him then give him a huge extension. If they aren't in love with him, it's best to get out now. It's really just a way to get value without mortgaging your future on a player who you don't see being part of it. Rather have a second rounder now than a third-round comp pick a year from now.
Schefter: Again, new people like their people. Watkins is a talent, and I would have liked to have seen what he could have done in Buffalo this season. But if the Bills can capitalize on that second-round draft pick, Buffalo will like that trade a lot more. It’s easier to assess this trade when we know how Buffalo has used that second-round pick.
Can you picture Tyrod Taylor leading the Bills to the playoffs, or is a playoff berth more likely to come with their next quarterback, whoever that may be?
Battista: I'm answering this after Taylor had an awful outing in the second preseason game, and you can't assume at this point he'll even last through this season as the starter. So I'm going to say no, because I don't think the Bills make the playoffs this season and I think they'll have to look at other quarterbacks if they don't. But I also don't think Taylor is the only reason they'll miss the playoffs.
Bell: Yes, I can see Tyrod taking the Bills to the playoffs. Sure, he needs to improve the consistency with his accuracy. But I love his touch on the deep ball and the threat he brings with his legs. I’ve always liked him temperament. I think he’s a leader who can rally his teammates. Like any young quarterback, he’ll be better with a stronger supporting cast – and maybe better if he doesn’t press to try to do too much. Then again, Aaron Rodgers won’t apologize if you told him he tries to do too much.
Bishop: I can picture Taylor leading the Bills to a playoff berth. I cannot picture him leading the Bills to a Super Bowl, or even on a deep playoff run. All of which makes me think that the Bills will end their playoff drought – and it will end – with another quarterback under center. I don't think that'll be this year.
Connors: Tyrod Taylor has defied the odds to become a starting NFL QB and that is a testament to him, his hard work and his commitment. But he’s not the answer – long term anyway, in my humble opinion. I hope I’m proven wrong. You have no idea how much I hope I’m wrong.
Farmer: It doesn’t help that his best receivers are either playing elsewhere or retired. He’s not in a great position to succeed this year. Losing Watkins and Anquan Boldin really hurt. They don’t really have a proven guy to stretch the field, so Tyrod is probably going to be facing a lot of blitzes and will be forced to make a lot of fast decisions. They’re not going to be able to defeat defenders one-on-one a lot.
Myers: Taylor will help keeps things respectable this season with is mobility and arm strength. But I expect Bills to be into position to draft a quarterback high in the first round next year and it will be that guy who they will count on to get them into the playoffs in the next few years. So while fans in Buffalo keep one eye on the Bills this season, they should also be scouting Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen.
Pompei: I think it’s possible Taylor could be the quarterback of a playoff team, but the team would have to be built around the running game and the defense. It probably will be difficult for Taylor to survive this rebuilding effort. Someone is going to have to take the fall if the Bills have a rough season. Unless Taylor develops into something he has not previously been, I would think it is likely that the Bills will have another player under center the next time they make the playoffs.
Rapoport: Sure. Why not Tyrod? I've seen far worse QBs in the playoffs than him. He's good enough, hard-to-defend enough, smart enough to be a playoff QB. If the defense last year had stopped anyone, they would've been in the playoffs as well as he played. But then again, I never bought into the narrative of him going somewhere else, either. Especially once Sean McDermott came in, to me it was just a matter of striking the right deal to keep Taylor in Buffalo. I don't believe there was an option that would've been as good, nor do I believe the Bills seriously considered moving on from him.
Schefter: I’m a Tyrod Taylor fan. I believe the Bills made the absolute right call bringing him back this season. Doesn’t mean he takes them to the playoffs. But success should not be measured in whether the Bills make the postseason this year; it should be measured through the eye and heart test. Bills fans will see it and know it if this team is on its way.
There are high hopes in Buffalo for LeSean McCoy to run wild with Rick Dennison as the new offensive coordinator. What do you expect from McCoy in 2017?
Battista: I'm on the big season for Shady bandwagon, too. In the game against Philadelphia, he looked quick as ever and still cutting as sharply as ever. Dennison has spent nearly his entire career with Gary Kubiak, who is a practitioner of the zone blocking scheme that fits perfectly with a runner that has McCoy's vision and agility.
Bell: After throwing so much shade with his breakdown of Colin Kaepernick, I’m expecting Shady to provide a great scouting report for the quarterback crop in next year’s draft – which, with all due respect to Tyrod, the Bills may be interested in. As for the running, it’s always about health with McCoy. When he’s intact, he’s such a beast. Love watching him run. Love his Mamba Mentality. Bet he loves what he sees in Dennison’s scheme. Note to self: Be bullish on McCoy in the fantasy draft.
Bishop: He should have a big year, but that's also a little problematic. Losing Watkins means McCoy should get the ball even more, but it also means he'll be targeted by defenses even more as well. McCoy is a versatile back, able to run and catch and shift away from defenses. If I'm playing against him next season, I'm focusing on him almost exclusively and letting somebody else try and beat me. It seems likely McCoy will see a lot of that.
Connors: LeSean is one of the greatest players in Bills history. I don’t think that’s debatable. Certainly not saying he’s had one of the best careers in Bills history – but his skills are as unique as just about anyone who’s ever worn the uniform. If he can stay healthy in 2017, behind this offensive line, I think he has the chance to have a tremendous season. Part of me wishes we could cryogenically freeze Shady, right now, then thaw him out in three years.
Farmer: If he can stay healthy, he could have a huge year. He wants to prove he’s the best running back in the NFL, and he just might be. Nobody cuts back like LeSean McCoy, except on Madden. If the Bills can get any semblance of a passing game to loosen things up for him, he should have a big year.
Myers: As long as McCoy is healthy, he's still one of the most dangerous backs in the league. Dennison saw first hand in Denver back in the Mike Shanahan years that his system was so good he could plug in just about any back and he would get 1,000 yards. McCoy, again if he stays healthy, is more than just any back, and he should have a big year. It would help if the Bills had some semblance of a passing game so defenses don't put eight men in the box on every play to stop McCoy.
Pompei: Shady is in the prime of his career playing in an offense that is well-suited to utilize his abilities, so I understand the high hopes. The one thing that I wonder about is how many chances will he have? Typically, the running backs who put up the biggest numbers get the most touches. And they get the most touches because their teams are protecting leads in the third and fourth quarters. The Bills might have to scrap plans to run and try to play catch-up in the late stages of games.
Rapoport: The sky is the limit. Seriously, I think Shady could have a career year. Everyone is successful in this scheme, but rarely is it a RB with the kind of elite talent an elusiveness that McCoy has. And this system is designed to get a back loose. Even at his age, if he's injury-free, I can't imagine McCoy being in a better situation than he is now.
Schefter: A big year. Rick Dennison knows how to operate a ground game. McCoy is one of the best backs in the league, and their best player. If he stays healthy, there’s no reason he shouldn’t have a big season.
Over on Planet Earth 2, Donald Trump bought the Bills after the death of Ralph Wilson. How different does history look on that planet, either for the franchise or for the country?
Battista: I need to sit down for this one. Can you imagine Donald Trump running an NFL franchise? What on Earth would owners' meetings be like with him? The draft war room? How would he have treated a player who complained about his contract? Given what we've seen in the last seven months, let's just say the Bills might not have been a model of reasoned, patient and steady ownership if Trump had bought the team instead of running for president. But we probably wouldn't have had to talk quite so much about Nazis lately either.
Bell: If Trump owned the Bills, one thing for sure: Jim Irsay would have to move over as the NFL owner with the most outlandish Twitter posts. And they might be on their fifth or sixth head coach by now. New PR executive Derek Boyko? That guy would be in huge trouble! I don’t think Trump would Make The Bills Great Again, but the Buffalo News would have a field day with all of the headlines he would generate. And the NFL-convicted bully, Richie Incognito, would probably extend his career.
Bishop: Good question. Depressing question. If Trump bought the Bills he'd be Tweeting at Commissioner Roger Goodell rather than North Korea and calling The Buffalo News fake news. That's a world I'd like to live in and hopefully it would give The News a subscription bump!
Connors: Kim Jong Un might feel more empowered. Bill Belichick might not. It’s quite possible we might have fired half the organization by now too?
Farmer: If Donald Trump owned the Bills, we’d be hearing about “Little” Adam Gase, “Low Energy” Todd Bowles, and “Crooked” Bill Belichick.
Myers: If Trump purchased the Bills a few years ago, I would like to think he would have kept them in Buffalo. But would anybody be surprised if they were the Los Angeles Bills? He would have loved to hire his good friend Bill Belichick as coach and trade for his good friend Tom Brady to be the quarterback but he would never do that to his good friend Robert Kraft. He might have built a new stadium in Buffalo if he could have found somebody else to pay for it. As far as the country without Trump running it, well, it would be different for sure.
Pompei: Trump vows to put an end to the unfair trading that has hurt the Bills. He pledges to put up a wall around Ralph Wilson Stadium to keep out anyone who isn’t a Bills fan. And he can't keep a media relations director.
Rapoport: LOL. No. I have no idea. (Head explodes.)
Schefter: I’ll refrain from any snide remarks and simply wish the best to Buffalo this season.
Story topics: Adam Schefter/ Brandon Beane/ Dan Pompei/ donald trump/ Doug Whaley/ Gary Myers/ Greg Bishop/ Ian Rapoport/ Jarrett Bell/ Judy Battista/ Kevin Connors/ LeSean McCoy/ Rex Ryan/ Sam Farmer/ Sammy Watkins/ Sean McDermott/ Tyrod Taylor