You know about the Buffalo Bills not making the playoffs since before iPods, DVRs and Facebook came to be. § So much of our population can’t remember what life was like without social media, yet the Bills’ last trip to the postseason is older than that. § Fifteen years and counting. § The human genome was mapped within eight years. That, too, was completed since the Bills were last in the playoffs. Yet the Bills somehow have made assembling a roster better than five-eighths of the NFL seem exponentially more complicated than cracking the code of life. § Now here come the 2015 Bills with reawakened hopes because at least one half of their roster is deciphered and proven. § Buffalo’s defense looks immaculate, and the team knows it.
“We have no fear,” Bills General Manager Doug Whaley said. “That’s how our defense is going to play. We’re good. We know we’re good.”
How much longer can it remain fearless is the critical question.
For as much as the Bills have painstakingly assembled a unit that could challenge the Seattle Seahawks as the NFL’s most dastardly, elite defenses are difficult to maintain.
History and analysis from those who have managed and played on superlative defenses affirm that teams have a tiny window in which to capitalize on such excellence.
“The window is not as open wide as it once was because of all the things that can happen to you,” Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene said. Greene starred for the Steel Curtain in the 1970s and was an assistant coach in the salary-cap era.
“If you get a year, you’re lucky,” Greene said. “If you get two, you’re very lucky.”
Dozens of great defensive clubs have failed to win a championship or even reach the playoffs because their offenses were incomplete or incompetent. Even those with offensive star power provide no guarantees.
The 1985 Chicago Bears, maybe the most devastating defensive team in the modern NFL, won a single Super Bowl and didn’t go back. The 2000 Baltimore Ravens had the same success.
The Fearsome Foursome didn’t win a Super Bowl for the Los Angeles Rams. Neither did the Purple People Eaters for the Minnesota Vikings.
Time comes and goes. Great players get older. “Age never stops,” Greene said.
Starters retire. They get injured and lose their jobs. They leave for big money as free agents. A roster gets rototilled by off-field issues and contract circumstances. The salary cap prevents a general manager from keeping everybody together.
Bills fans have lamented this for two seasons already. The Bills’ defense has rated highly in several statistical categories the past couple of years, but the team wasn’t good enough to play a truly meaningful December game.
Buffalo last year ranked fourth in points allowed, fourth in total yards allowed, 11th against the run and third against the pass. Buffalo led the NFL in third-down efficiency and sacks and ranked sixth in interceptions.
The Bills still needed the New England Patriots to rest quarterback Tom Brady and several other starters to notch a season-ending victory and finish with a winning record.
“The quarterback. … The quarterback. … The quarterback. That’s the issue,” said Greene, whose pre-salary-cap Pittsburgh Steelers featured Terry Bradshaw and four other Hall of Famers on offense.
“You’re very fortunate if everyone can come along at the same time, offense and defense. Rarely does it happen. You’ve got to have everything.”
Buffalo has star power on offense. Running back LeSean McCoy, receivers Sammy Watkins and Percy Harvin and tight end Charles Clay are enviable weapons. But quarterback Tyrod Taylor is unproven, and the offensive line is dubious. Analytics site ProFootballFocus.com rated Buffalo’s offensive line the rock-bottom worst last year.
Buffalo’s defense, however, does seem to have it all. New head coach Rex Ryan and his family – father Buddy was the architect of the 1985 Bears’ legendary 46 defense and coached the Purple People Eaters – have been involved with some pearls.
Bills safety Aaron Williams has announced anything less than the No. 1 defense this season will be a disappointment.
“The most important thing is having the guys on that unit stay on the field, stay healthy,” defensive end Mario Williams said. “I don’t mean just the starting 11; I mean everybody who’s contributing on Sunday being healthy.
“If we can roll it and roll it and roll it, then we never get tired, and we can be in the moment.”
Buffalo has three Pro Bowlers across the defensive line with Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Mario Williams. The fourth defensive lineman, Jerry Hughes, has recorded double-digit sacks the past two seasons and signed a five-year, $45 million contract in the offseason.
Last year’s top four leading tacklers are back: linebackers Preston Brown and Nigel Bradham and defensive backs Corey Graham and Aaron Williams. Top cornerback Stephon Gilmore is entering his fourth season.
Even so ...
“Unfortunately, in today’s game that window is very, very small,” said Ron Wolf, a Hall of Fame executive for the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers.
Wolf thrived before and after there were free agency and a salary cap. He won Super Bowls with the Raiders in 1980 and 1983. With the Packers, he traded for Brett Favre and won another Super Bowl in 1996.
“When I was in it, you had your core and you could keep maybe 18 guys,” Wolf said, referring to life before free agency. “You had a third of that disappearing all the time.
“You still have that third disappearing, but that window’s shrunk because of the cap and fewer players making the money.”
And that’s where the quarterback so often makes an impact on a team’s roster. They are so valuable that GMs must chase and retain that coveted franchise quarterback at the expense of keeping an elite defense together.
Taylor will be Buffalo’s 15th starting quarterback since Jim Kelly retired after the 1996 season.
A top-five defense is more difficult to maintain than a top-five offense.
Since the NFL implemented the salary cap 22 years ago, 26.7 percent of top-five defenses repeated the following season, while 40 percent of top-five offenses repeated.
Only 10 percent of top-five defenses made it three years in a row, but 20 percent of top-five offenses did. A fourth consecutive top-five year happened 1.1 percent of the time for defenses, but 8.4 percent of the time for offenses.
No defense in the salary-cap era has rated among the five best for five straight seasons, but offenses that have gone four straight made it a fifth 5.6 percent of the time.
The only defense to rate among the top five over four consecutive seasons this century belongs to the Ravens from 2008 to 2011.
“The pursuit of having a great defense is where you have to understand there’s more than just playing the game,” Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott said. “It takes on responsibilities all the guys have to do. Great defenses account for every gap.
“Think about the body of work of the 49ers from 1981 to about 1995. There was a period of free agency, but it’s pretty simple to understand. It’s a culture. People are going to get replaced no matter what. Most people play in the league only four years. There’s a turnover.
“To build something that really has the ability to galvanize, a culture is much different. It starts with having certain fundamentals, a culture around how you tackle, a lot of traits people don’t want to do that great teams buy into.”
Buffalo has not been a free-agent destination, with Mario Williams and Clay exceptions that could indicate a change. The club also has had more than its share of draft blunders during its postseason drought. That makes retaining the winners imperative.
A nasty contract situation could be roiling with Dareus. He’s entering the final year of his rookie contract and wants an extension in line with the six-year, $114 million deal the Miami Dolphins gave free agent Ndamukong Suh.
The Bills reportedly offered Dareus six years and $90 million, which he considered rude.
“They’re making it hard,” Dareus told The Buffalo News last month. “And it’s just really making me unhappy. I feel like they don’t really want me here.”
The Bills have plenty of time to calm those waters and re-sign Dareus before his contract expires. They also can use the franchise tag on Dareus, but that would ensure he’ll stay only one more year before leaving, as Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd did after the 2013 season.
Seattle is experiencing similar problems. Despite being able to re-sign quarterback Russell Wilson, all-world safety Kam Chancellor wants a new contract and has refused to report to the team.
Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner, also in need of a contract extension he eventually received, tweeted “Can’t keep everyone” when training camp began.
Seattle’s situation is a nice problem to have. Contract headaches on both sides of the ball usually mean a team is winning big. Players demand bigger paychecks.
The Bills’ defense can be in the same conversation as the Seahawks’ this year, although the Seahawks will try to reach their third straight Super Bowl and the Bills haven’t gotten remotely close since we had to rewind rented VHS tapes.
But the Bills and Seahawks could be mentioned in the same sentence when it comes to being a dominant defense that pulls its team into January.
“Being a part of making history is going to be a special feeling for sure,” Aaron Williams said one night after a training-camp session at St. John Fisher College.
What defines this history?
“Super Bowl, man,” Aaron Williams replied. “That’s what we’re going for. We’re shooting for the playoffs, and in my mind we’re getting there as long as guys keep working hard and keep our bodies healthy.
“And why can’t we do more than just playoffs?”