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Sully’s Mailbag: Bills could resemble ’99 group

Wow, I can’t believe it’s June. It seems only yesterday that Doug Marrone was skipping town on New Year’s Eve. The mail was a trifle light again, but the quality of the questions was very high. I’ll take that over junk mail anytime.

I’m thinking of writing a letter to the NBA about these ridiculous starting times for the Finals. Come on, 9 p.m. is way too late for working adults – and the games don’t actually start ’til 9:15 or so. Can’t the beneficent Adam Silver stand up for old folks and young people?

Keep those tweets and emails coming. You can reach the Mailbag through my Twitter account (@TBNSully) or at my News email address (jsullivan@buffnews.com). This week’s submissions and my humble replies:

@Viksjoj asks: Sully, does this Bills team remind you of the ’99 Bills? Can we get a Flutie-like performance out of one of these QBs and ride D to playoffs?

Sully: I love this question. It’s always fun and provocative to compare teams from different eras. In some ways, this Bills team reminds me of the ’88 version, which had a strong defense and was coming off a six-year playoff drought. Expectations were soaring in the third year of Jim Kelly’s career. I can’t say things are quite so optimistic for EJ Manuel in his third season.

Anyway, the parallels to 1999 are apt. That team rode a great defense – quite possibly the best in Bills history – and conservative, power running game to an 11-5 record and a wild-card berth. They won despite the fact that Flutie was in decline and unable to throw effectively down the field anymore.

The Bills were 11th in offense that year and had the second-most rushing attempts (519) in the NFL. Sounds a lot like a Rex Ryan attack. Flutie made some clutch plays with his arm and his legs. He pulled out some games late and was better than people remember that season. But his QB rating was a pedestrian 75.1. Surely, whoever wins the job can produce on an equivalent level this season.

The bigger question for me is whether the current defense can approach the ’99 team. That defense, with Ted Washington at nose tackle, led the NFL in total defense and pass defense. It was third against the run and allowed just 3.4 yards a carry. They allowed only 229 points, or a stunning 14.3 per game.

Last year’s defense rated fourth overall and fourth in points allowed with 289, the fewest since 2004. It was third against the pass and first in sacks with 54. So this D is more disruptive and has more playmakers than the ’99 team. But the run defense remains an issue. Last year’s run defense allowed 4.8 yards an attempt over the last 10 weeks, which would have ranked 31st over a full season.

That needs to change if the Bills expect to make the playoffs for the first time since that ’99 group – regardless of what happens with the quarterbacks.

Kevin L. asks: The AL East isn’t what it was, and the Yankees sure are streaky. Who is the one player who must stay healthy and produce for the team to make a run to the playoffs?

Sully: Kev, anyone who has followed my baseball writing over the years knows I’m a fanatic about the value of starting pitchers. So my answer on this one should be obvious: The most indispensable Yankee is Masahiro Tanaka.

The Yanks are in first in the AL East, but their hold is tenuous if they don’t get more reliable starting pitching. So Tanaka’s dominant, winning performance in Seattle on Wednesday after 41 days on the DL was a great development for Joe Girardi’s team.

If Tanaka stays healthy over the final two-thirds of the season and makes, say, 22 more starts, the Yanks should win the division, or at least earn a wild card. Without Tanaka, they’re an average team. A year ago, they were 14-6 in his starts and 70-72 in all other games. They’re a game over .500 without him this year.

One pitcher can be the difference between a .500 team and a champion, especially in the two-wild card era. Last year’s World Series featured two teams, the Giants and Royals, who won 88 and 89 games, respectively, in the regular season. Madison Bumgarner proved in October that he was the MVP of the Giants.

Tanaka had a stunning return in Seattle. His fastball was 2-3 mph faster than in April. He struck out nine men, seven looking. His last pitch of the day was also his fastest, a 96 mph heater that froze Kyle Seager for a third strike. His splitter was darting the way it did early last season.

Tanaka will mean four or five more wins if he takes his turn in the rotation the rest of the way. It could get the Yanks to the 88-90 win mark and be enough to win the AL East. That’s a big if. The $155 million man has a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament that could eventually require surgery.

@jaydcarr asks: Is there any role with the Sabres for Mikhail Grigorenko?

Sully: Grigorenko just turned 21, so there’s still a chance he could emerge as a responsible NHL player and be part of the Sabres’ future. But he has done little to distinguish himself in three years, and it’s hard to see him being a major part of the rebuild in the next year or two.

Really, if Grigorenko couldn’t stick with the two worst teams in franchise history, what’s the chance of him being relevant on a much deeper, developing roster? Tim Murray didn’t draft him, remember, and has no personal investment in the Russian.

Murray will probably dangle him as trade bait. More than likely, Grigo will start the 2015-16 season in Rochester, once again trying to prove that he was worth the 12th overall pick in the 2012 draft.

@gottahavejava asks: Sully, what is plan Z for Bills if none of these QBs look viable by early summer?

Sully: Plan Z? If the Bills don’t have a viable NFL quarterback and a solid backup by the end of the summer, it will be time to fire Doug Whaley and the entire personnel department. This year, there wouldn’t even be a player of Kyle Orton’s caliber out on the street.

I wouldn’t worry. Matt Cassel is a capable enough journeyman to start if EJ Manuel and Tyrod Taylor disappoint. I could see Manuel getting cut if he flames out in training camp, but for better or worse, the top two QBs are on the roster.

Bob Daley asks: If the Sabres had the first overall draft pick, after seeing how Jack Eichel played in the IIHF games, do you think that Tim Murray would pick him over Connor McDavid?

Sully: No.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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