Leadership was questioned all week. The Buffalo Bills were trounced at Washington, Sammy Watkins called the team out and, in the days following at One Bills Drive, this sounded like a team divided.
A 16-6 win over the Tony Romo- and Dez Bryant-less Dallas Cowboys does not mean everything is perfectly fine, but the Bills’ effort was much better.
After challenging the team’s “accountability” – saying that it’s time for players to call each other out – Watkins saw progress.
“I think now more leaders are speaking up and calling people out,” Watkins said. “That’s what we need. Even if I get called out, I’m fine with that. We’ve got to become our team, not the coaches, not everybody else, not the outside world. We’ve got to control what we can control, and I think it’s getting there. That’s why everybody’s having fun, it’s the time of the year to build off that and come together.”
So apparently the Bills won’t merely lie down and die these final two weeks at home. The home crowd certainly let them have it, booing the team after an eye-sore interception to close the half.
There were missed tackles, missed extra points, drops and misfires. One thing that wasn’t in question was the team’s effort, which was running on “E” much of last weekend.
“We have to go out like any other game,” Watkins said. “It’s still football. Football doesn’t stop because we’re not in the playoffs, and I think that’s the biggest part with our team. We understand that we’ve got to go out and build a foundation for ourselves the next year.
“That’s what I was looking for, for everybody to just go out there and fight. Like I said, it’s not about the coaches and everybody else, it’s about this team, these players and that’s who I play for.”
Watkins caught five of the six passes thrown his way for 84 yards. Beyond him, on both sides of the ball, several new players were thrown into action. The primary cornerbacks – Mario Butler and Ron Brooks – have hardly been used on defense at all this season. Inside linebacker AJ Tarpley, cut and signed to the practice squad after a miserable performance at Kansas City, picked off a tipped ball when Dallas was driving.
And of course, there’s running back Mike Gillislee rushing for 239 yards on only 23 carries (10.4 avg.) with three touchdowns in his four games as a Bill.
In need of direction, Watkins decided to speak up. Sunday was a start.
Despite the fact that this Week 16 matchup could’ve been mistaken for a preseason game.
“All these guys deserve to be in the National Football League, and I think they showed that today,” coach Rex Ryan said. “Guys had to step up in a big way, and I thought they did.”
This season has not gone according to plan for the Bills. A team that expected to contend is 7-8 and out of the playoffs. But it hasn’t necessarily been the fault of General Manager Doug Whaley and the team, apparently, realizes that.
One source tells The News that Whaley is likely “safe” this offseason. The GM has one year left on his contract and, right now, it’s unlikely the team would let him go. NFL Network on Sunday reported that Whaley is more apt to be extended than fired. Maybe there are “drastic” changes coming to this team, as Ryan said after last week’s loss at Washington, but there probably won’t be drastic changes to the front office.
Whaley, who has one more year on his deal, has been the GM of the Bills since Buddy Nix stepped down in May 2013. Since then, the roster has undergone seismic changes. In his first draft as the GM the following year, Whaley traded up to take Watkins, a risky move considering the talent pool was already deep at wide receiver. While he has battled several injuries, Watkins has emerged as one of the NFL’s best wideouts since the bye week this season.
Last offseason, the Bills acquired guard Richie Incognito, running back LeSean McCoy, tight end Charles Clay, wide receiver Percy Harvin and quarterback Tyrod Taylor in a flurry of offseason moves to improve a mediocre offense. The verdict is still out on such moves, but Ryan’s defense – not the offense – has been the main problem this year. A unit ranked in the top five across many categories has not adjusted well to Ryan’s 3-4 scheme.
How much say Whaley had in Buffalo drafting Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel is unknown. At the time, he was working with Nix. And trading up for Watkins was an act of doubling down on Manuel. Also, this year, the Bills’ handling of the backup quarterback position was odd at best, hinting at a disconnect between the coaches and the GM. The decision to release Fred Jackson might not have backfired much on the field, but his presence could’ve certainly helped in the locker room.
Overall, Whaley helped add talent to a 9-7 team. Expect the GM to get more time, working with Ryan to turn the Bills around.
At one point, the Bills lost another pivotal starter: defensive tackle Marcell Dareus.
Dareus left in the first half with a neck injury and did not return. Afterward, Ryan said Dareus didn’t have a lot of feeling in his hands. Guard John Miller left with an ankle injury. And wide receiver Marcus Easley suffered what appears to be a serious knee injury. Easley was carted off with a brace around his entire leg.
Ryan wasn’t sure if McCoy – out Sunday with a knee injury – would return in the finale against the New York Jets.
“I know this is one of the most competitive guys that I have been around,” Ryan said. “So I think if he can play, he is going to want to play.”
Taylor might’ve had the worst throw of his 2015 season, a third-down pick at the end of the first half that was woefully underthrown to Chris Hogan.
But Sunday was also Taylor in a nutshell, too.
He completed 13 of 18 passes for 178 yards in a run-heavy attack employed by offensive coordinator Greg Roman. He added another 67 yards on 14 carries. Teammates continue to throw their support behind the quarterback as this season winds down and the Bills start to plan for 2016.
“I’m not too worried about him, he’s going to do what he’s got to do,” Watkins said. “He’s going to prepare the right way, he’s going to make the plays we need to make. My job is not to worry about him. We’re going to be on the same page, he’s going to get everybody in the right places to make plays and we’ve just got to keep improving.”
Taylor’s improvisational skills have gotten the Bills out of many third down jams.
His 517 rushing yards are now the most in team history for a quarterback, breaking Doug Flutie’s 1999 record of 476.
On third and 6 from his own 19-yard line with 5:35 to play, Taylor ran left, spun, somehow made both Greg Hardy and Tyrone Crawford miss and then beat cornerback Terrance Mitchell to the corner to gain 7 yards. He creates where no other quarterback can.
Asked if players in the locker room believe they’ve found their guy, Watkins said, “He shows it.”
“I don’t have to speak for him,” he said. “He plays well every week, he leads this team to wins. If we win, it’s on him. That’s what I like about him; he has been leading this team every week, he has been getting us out of trouble 10 times a game. I don’t have to speak for what he shows on the field.”
Kickoff for next week’s Bills finale against the New York Jets at Ralph Wilson Stadium will remain at 1 p.m.
The game was a possible contender to be moved to prime time, but the NFL announced Sunday night that the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers will meet for the NFC North title at 8:30 p.m. next Sunday on NBC.
Next week’s game is huge for the Jets – and the AFC.
If the Jets win, they are in the playoffs – and they’d have to do it against former coach Ryan.