The promises have been unfulfilled. Rex Ryan vowed to build a bully that’d put the rest of the league on notice. Instead, the Buffalo Bills are 6-7 and wobbling to the finish line yet again.
They don’t have a 1,000-yard rusher or receiver, but they do have 1,086 yards in penalties. For all the talent, the promise, the playoffs-or-bust hype leading to record season-ticket sales, this Bills team is collapsing exactly like the previous 15.
The No. 1 reason? The Bills were never able to effectively channel their violence, their eye-twitching adrenaline. All of the renewed energy created by Ryan — via leaps from a plane, impassioned pregame speeches, postgame expletives and public battle cries — never translated to a flurry of touchdowns and sacks. No, it translated to penalties. And more penalties.
From afar, arguably the most violent player in team history has watched this 2015 season crumble. It pains Darryl Talley because his teams struck this balance through four straight Super Bowl runs.
They intimidated without spinning out of control. This team? Not even close.
“Everybody’s doing their own thing,” Talley said. “They’re supposed to be working together like five fingers on a glove. All of them. That’s what made us different because we could beat you on offense, we could beat you on defense, we could beat you with special teams. Right now, they aren’t really beating you any kind of way.
“There’s no pattern, no come-from-behind, there’s no... nothing.”
After four games, the Bills had 46 accepted penalties, on pace to set a NFL record. Ryan pounded the lectern that he loved his team’s fight, later said the Bills were on a mission to be the least penalized team in the league and here they are. Fifteen penalties doomed Buffalo in a 23-20 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, virtually ending its season. Ryan's club is now up to 123 flags on the season, only two behind the NFL-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Back in the 1990’s, Talley noted, Hall-of-Fame coach Marv Levy only had two rules — “don’t be dumb, don’t be dirty” — and players took care of the rest.
He absolutely believes a team can achieve Ryan’s bully objective without these embarrassing strings of 10, 15 flags a game. It's a delicate balance. And these Bills, Talley said, "can't find the balance."
“There’s ways to take care of things during the play," Talley said. "And when they do take care of it — not get caught. Because here’s the deal: we took care of a lot of things. ... There’s ways to handle it. You have to be discreet and handle your business. That’s what has to be done.”
Sure, there was the game against the Houston Oilers when Talley was ejected. As he recalls, linemen were chopping defenders down at the knees and swinging Bruce Smith by the facemask. So he bee-lined from 50-60 yards and socked a player in the groin one scrum.
He was caught then. Usually, Talley was not.
Players need to pick their piles, their moments.
“And you know who’s in the pile,” Talley said. “You can come in that pile if you want to — you can be a part of that tackle if you want to — but I guarantee you when you come out your eyes or something will be hurting. You’ll be punched in the (groin) or your (groin) will be grabbed. I don’t give a (expletive). You’re not going to do that to me. I’ll punch you. I’ll poke you in the eye. Whatever I have to do. I’m going to get my justification for what you did to me or did to one of my teammates.”
He learned tricks from Phil Villapiano of the renegade Oakland Raiders. Talley even had plastic splints on his hand in training camp for fighting tight end Buster Barnett so much. But over time, he morphed into a tough, menacing presence who sent a message without drawing flags.
His larger point? Above all, it’s about playing together. Sticking up for each other. Setting the right tone. In other words, traits missing from the 2015 Bills.
Talley doesn't know what these players are thinking, what makes them tick. But he does see the sloppy, penalty-filled product on Sundays.
“They play with an edge,” he said. “But they don’t know how to take care of each other’s back. From what I see, this group of guys, they go out as individuals.
“That lends to a great, great deal of harmony with a group of guys, if they know you’re willing to go fight for them. I don’t know if anybody’s ever sat down and told them that. I don’t think they even play in that manner. Everybody seems to be their own CEO of their own little company. We were CEO’s of our own company but we had one bigger company and that was the Buffalo Bills — and that was the company we looked out for. I don’t think that’s being done.
“That’s the only thing I see that they don’t have. Point blank, they don’t have a togetherness.”
One scene was particularly alarming to Talley on his trip to London to see the Bills play the Jacksonville Jaguars.
No, it wasn’t the ghastly 27-3 deficit Buffalo fell into. It was his flight back to the states. There were two players on his commercial flight and the two players, Talley said, didn’t acknowledge each other the entire time. Not a word. One sat in first class, one sat in coach.
To Talley, this trip signified a deeper problem.
“I was like, ‘Hmm. They don’t talk to each other, huh? OK,’” Talley said. “We didn’t give a care who it was. If two of us got on the plane — if it was me and Adam Lingner — we’re going to sit down and talk. We’ll say, ‘Hey, what did you think about the game?’ We’ll talk about what in the hell we have to do when we get back. Something. There’s no way in hell we’re going to be up in the air for nine hours on a damn plane reading a book. Nah.
“I have one of the buddies that I played with on the plane with me? Wow. I found that very, very strange.”
Of course, the flags and fourth-quarter failures continued — this team has not handled late-game adversity well at all.
Players so often take on the personality of their coach, and the coach here has been as emotional as it gets. Really, this season would've made one dramatic Netflix series. But beyond the coach, Talley believes it's on the players themselves to hold each other accountable. If someone ever had a bonehead mistake on his teams in the 1990's, everyone knew it meant a trip “to the woodshed," he said.
“Somebody has to be willing to say, ‘Hey, what in the hell are we doing here fellas?’" Talley said. "I don’t know. I don’t know if a coach can do that. We did it as players.”
Is it too late? It's never too late.
If something, anything clicks these final three games, if the Bills can finally (legally) send that bruising message Ryan promised, finish with a bang and discover that elusive team chemistry, Talley said, the key is remembering “how they found it” and “where they found it."
“I wish like hell I was in the locker room,” Talley said, “and in meetings with them and just around them more so I could understand what their mental make-up is, what their thinking process is.”
Because right now, whatever the Bills are doing is only feeding loose, undisciplined, choppy play. Not wins. Not a trip to the playoffs.
Only an early vacation.