Another January, another postseason spent at home.
The 2015 Buffalo Bills were so much like past editions. Hope and hype soon morphed into anger and disappointment. So for a 16th straight year, this team misses the playoffs.
And after last year’s shopping spree, the Bills will be tight up against the salary cap. This isn’t a team that can dive into free agency. Nor is this an ownership group that wants more front office upheaval. General Manager Doug Whaley will stay. Head coach Rex Ryan will stay. The coaching staff and personnel will go mostly unchanged this offseason.
Next year’s schedule promises to be much more difficult, too. The Bills will play the NFC West and AFC North instead of the NFC East and AFC South.
Does this already equate to more gloom and doom?
Not necessarily. Here are 10 items that should be on the Bills’ offseason to-do list. Check these off and maybe, just maybe, that notorious playoff drought finally ends in 2016.
A lame-duck general manager benefits no one. As reported, the Buffalo Bills plan on giving Doug Whaley a multiyear extension.
This is the right decision, too.
Has Whaley been perfect? Of course not. Quarterback EJ Manuel has flopped. Badly. Yes, Buddy Nix was technically still the GM, but he departed two weeks later. Whaley took Cyrus Kouandjio in the second round one year later and the Alabama tackle hasn’t cracked the lineup. But, no, Whaley is not to blame for the Bills’ struggles this season.
He added talent to a lukewarm offense – LeSean McCoy, Tyrod Taylor, Richie Incognito, Charles Clay and Percy Harvin (before going on IR) all served as shots in the arm. The high-stakes gamble to trade up for Sammy Watkins started to pay off. In his final nine games, Watkins averaged 8.9 targets, 5.4 catches, 100 yards and one touchdown per game.
He resembled a star worth the king’s ransom.
Cornerback Ronald Darby (21 passes defensed) and running back Karlos Williams (5.6 yards per carry), two more gambles in 2015, look like steals.
Here’s thinking the alternative of ripping up the front office and/or bringing in a “football czar” would be a rash, panic move. After cycling through 13 combined head coaches and general managers since 1997, the Bills need to take a deep breath for once.
The owners believe there’s enough talent in house to win now.
If they go 3-13 next season, they’ll have the money to start over. If they go 10-6, playoffs or no playoffs, the patience will have paid off. Extending Whaley now empowers the GM to make decisions with a clearer focus.
First, the finances. By releasing the defensive end before June 1, the Bills will clear up $12.9 million, essential capital for a team pinching pennies. According to NFLPA records, the Bills have approximately a $153 million 2016 salary-cap number, third-highest in the league. Williams also has indicated he wouldn’t take a pay cut.
Second, the fit. As early as October, Williams began criticizing Rex Ryan’s defense. So used to exclusively rushing the passer, he was suddenly dropping into coverage and taking on double teams. The 6-foot-6, 292-pounder let everyone know this wasn’t working and, frankly, he probably had a point. Let loose under Jim Schwartz, he flourished.
Third, the effort. There are players who believe the 10-year vet did not check out. And then there are players furious with Williams’ effort level. “Beyond furious” is actually how one teammate put it.
“Zero effort,” the player said. “The tape speaks for itself. … He takes two steps and stops.”
Then there was this line: “Terrible teammate. Doesn’t work hard. Doesn’t play hard. Doesn’t talk to anyone. Does not give one” crap “about this football team.”
And this text: “He’s more concerned about his (remote control) cars and farm equipment than playing football for the Bills.”
To be honest, this was all just the tip of the iceberg, too. It’s probably time for the Bills to move on.
Cordy Glenn and Richie Incognito.
Once Whaley decides to cut ties with Williams, his attention should turn to the left side of the Bills’ offensive line, to tackle Cordy Glenn and guard Richie Incognito. He could place the franchise tag on Glenn, but it’s worth locking him up for multiple years right now.
Simply look around the league: terrible offensive line play plagues teams. Blame the spread offenses proliferating on the college level, blame the freaks of nature rushing off the edge, blame tick-tack holding calls.
It is harder than ever to find NFL-quality – let alone pass-rush silencing – offensive tackles.
And the tape doesn’t lie. Glenn stifled dangerous pass rushers week after week, including Kansas City’s Tamba Hali and Houston’s J.J. Watt. In that win over Houston, Glenn lined up on the left side and the right side, attached to Jordan Mills. He’s especially skilled at forcing the pass rusher to tip his hand – he doesn’t panic. And at 26, Glenn is just now hitting the prime of his career.
This is also someone who had a kidney removed before the 2014 season and won the team’s Ed Block Courage Award. His toughness resonates.
Incognito, meanwhile, is a legitimate comeback-player-of-the-year candidate. Languishing in football exile the entire 2014 season – Incognito didn’t know if he’d ever play again – the brawling yet mobile vet was arguably the best guard in the NFL. He consistently ranked first or second in Pro Football Focus’ grades.
The Bills’ offense was at its ground-and-pound best, running a sweep play to McCoy behind this duo.
Keeping this intact should be a priority.
Wait on ...
Tyrod Taylor’s contract.
How many times have fans watched this horror film? A Bills quarterback provides a dash of promise, of hope and management prematurely believes. Let’s recap:
• Todd Collins throws for 309 yards and a touchdown in a 1996 win over Indianapolis, filling in for Jim Kelly. One year later, he’s the starter and fails.
• Rob Johnson excels in his backup role with the Jacksonville Jaguars, so the Bills trade their ninth overall pick (Fred Taylor) and a fourth-rounder for the quarterback, then hand him a five-year, $25 million contract.
• J.P. Losman, a 22nd overall pick, struggles through a 1-7 season in Year Two with a 64.9 rating, shows just enough through a 7-9 season in Year Three to warrant a Year Four as the starter. Trent Edwards – the calmer, sturdy replacement – takes over and then rarely ever drives the ball despite the downfield weapons on the field.
All along, false hope in both prevented the Bills from drafting potential franchise quarterbacks.
• Then, there’s the $59 million contract given to Ryan Fitzpatrick ($24 million guaranteed) after Fitz guided Buffalo to a 4-2 start.
So everyone take a deep, deep breath and count to 10.
Taylor absolutely surpassed expectations in 2015. Yes, he went 8-6 as the starter with 3,035 yards, 20 touchdowns and only six picks, in addition to setting a Bills QB record with 568 rushing yards. Yes, he converts the impossible third down. Nobody else in the NFL escapes on third and 6 versus Dallas as Taylor did in Week 16.
Yes, he found chemistry with Sammy Watkins. And as Kelly said himself, this is probably the best quarterback Buffalo has had since Drew Bledsoe in 2002.
But the 6-foot-1 Taylor rarely threw over the middle of the field. And as noted by Whaley, he fell short in the fourth quarter too often. How will he respond to the rest of the NFL now having footage of him?
If the Bills are forced to hand a blank check to Taylor by the midway point of next season, so be it. That’s a great problem to have, a problem the Bills never have. As for how Taylor will deal with being one of the NFL’s cheapest starting quarterbacks, remember, he was Joe Flacco’s backup. In Baltimore, Flacco bet on himself through a contract year and won a Super Bowl with a near-perfect postseason.
It’s OK for the Bills to stay skeptical at the most valuable position in all of sports.
“Compromise” will be the theme of the offseason. Players must buy in and coaches must listen to the players. Because it took far, far too long for the two sides to meet in the middle in 2015.
“We just never got into the flow of things,” inside linebacker Preston Brown said. “When you thought we kind of found our way, we took steps back. And that’s something that you don’t usually see in a defense throughout the year. You usually get better.”
Considering Whaley’s budget, the answers must (mostly) come from within. Rex Ryan’s defenses historically thrive on disguise and complexities. Yet players seemed to become only more confused and frustrated in time.
It’s on Ryan and coordinator Dennis Thurman to call a game that allows defenders to play with an uncluttered mind. Viewing, reviewing and reviewing the film from 2015 some more should give both a better understanding of who can handle what within their playbook.
There’s no excuse for defensive tackle Marcell Dareus – 330 pounds of hell on wheels – dropping into coverage on two Kansas City touchdowns. That entire 30-22 loss, dubbed a “playoff” game by the team, players floated in no man’s land on the second level.
The Bills must simplify and attack in 2016. The talent is in house to get it right.
Also re-sign ...
Inside linebacker Nigel Bradham.
Through training camp at St. John Fisher, all signs pointed to Bradham breaking out in Ryan’s scheme. His speed, his bruising hits, his range seemed tailor-made for a playbook that triggers playmakers. The season began and Bradham was too often confined inside. Very rarely did he blitz, very rarely did he get the green light to play downhill. Instead, Bradham often played backward in coverage.
There were lowlights. Bradham’s eyesore of a missed tackle on Rashad Jennings’ 51-yard touchdown reception was the nail in the coffin against the New York Giants.
Yet when Bradham missed the final five games with a high ankle sprain, the Bills were also killed in the flats. Opposing tight ends went to work on Buffalo and Brown’s play, consequently, declined.
Bradham is willing to sign a “prove it” type of deal to set up a larger payday next year.
“If I have to do another year to prove it,” Bradham said, “it’s not a big deal. If it is, it is, if that’s how they feel. I’ve been in the league four years now. I should have enough out there.
“If not, it’s nothing for me to go and prove it. I’ve got the talent to prove it.”
So this is absolutely one area the Bills can rewire a 19th-ranked defense with the current personnel. Expand Bradham’s role.
An instant defensive starter at No. 19.
Of course, there are still holes on defense. Let’s not kid ourselves. The Bills must find a Day One starter with their first-round pick – and they can realistically draft a player at any level.
Defensive end … where they must replace Williams. Inside or outside linebacker … where they could use another hair-on-fire pass rusher opposite Jerry Hughes. Safety … where Aaron Williams’ future is uncertain. Whaley was hopeful, but not positive, that Williams will return from his neck injury.
This May, Ryan will covet pieces for his defense. And the pressure is on after such a giant step back in 2015. Drafting Darby was a good start. He can hold up in one-on-one coverage. Now, through picks and even undrafted rookies, Ryan must continue to infuse the roster with players he sees as fits.
Mock Draft Mania has already begun, of course. ‘Tis the season. Watch Alabama’s Reggie Ragland in Monday night’s National Championship Game. Preston Brown sounded unsure about his own future in Buffalo – possibly Ryan seeks a new inside linebacker. At 6-foot-2, 252 pounds, Ragland brings the size Ryan covets. A unanimous first team All-American, he also handles the complexities of Nick Saban’s NFL-ready scheme.
This season, Ragland has 97 tackles (6.5 for loss) with two forced fumbles and seven passes defensed. The fact that Ragland’s predecessor at ‘Bama, C.J. Mosley, has been so successful with the Baltimore Ravens (250 tackles, seven sacks, 15 passes defensed in two years) is a good sign.
In his final draft with the New York Jets, Ryan had a choice at safety: Louisville’s Calvin Pryor or Alabama’s “Ha Ha” Clinton-Dix. As he said on a conference call before a Week Two game against Green Bay, “I took the guy who will knock your face in.”
Time will tell who’s the better. Pryor improved in his second season; Clinton-Dix has been steady for the Packers. Here in Buffalo, that Pryor-like thinking showed in Ryan rolling with Bacarri Rambo at safety when Williams was lost to a neck injury.
Rambo is a 1970s throwback foaming at the mouth. His favorite hit? When he got knocked out cold himself in college on a crushing hit at the goal-line.
He was awful early, single-handedly won the game at New York with three turnover plays and did improve with his assignments before a shoulder injury severely limited his tackling ability into late December.
Is he the answer? Is Leodis McKelvin? The longtime Bill is open to a pay cut and a permanent switch to safety. The Bills have to have Plan B, C and D ready because erratic safety play hurt them when Williams went down.
A ton of pressure is put on the free safety in this defense – Buffalo should either sign or draft a player more apt to make a play on the ball than send a player into Tuesday with a hard right shoulder. That’s the game today. Flags fly freely. A smart playmaker who’ll be in the right place at the right time is valuable.
All season, Buffalo’s primary safeties produced only four interceptions and 15 total passes defensed.
Another deep threat at wide receiver.
Power to Chris Hogan and Robert Woods. The outside world had no clue both wide receivers were battling painful injuries. Hogan gritted through torn ligaments in his wrist the final 3-4 weeks. Woods played through a torn groin all season.
Hogan turned to downing NyQuil to get sleep and felt a shocking pain down his arm whenever the ball hit that hand. Woods couldn’t open up on his routes.
In truth, both willing blockers are worth retaining. Hogan will be a restricted free agent, while Woods has one year left on his rookie deal. But this offense needs a supplementary home-run threat that’ll take the top off the defense. Ideally, track star Marquise Goodwin is that player but his football career’s been ravaged by injuries.
Armed with a quarterback who throws a picturesque deep ball and a star in the making at wide receiver (Sammy Watkins) bound to attract even more attention in 2016, it’d pay to have another weapon who can burn a cornerback deep in man coverage.
Percy Harvin’s promising season ended with a recurring hip injury. Maybe he’s still an option – the Bills’ medical staff put him through a year-end physical – but they’re more apt to find a younger version.
The best offenses in the NFL have such a threat. Arizona’s John Brown (1,003 yards, 15.4 avg., seven touchdowns) is roasting secondaries with his 4.34 speed. Ted Ginn Jr., a football outcast, has been rejuvenated in Carolina (739 yards, 16.8 avg., 10 touchdowns).
A few free agents to-be include Cincinnati’s Marvin Jones, Miami’s Rishard Matthews and Cleveland’s Travis Benjamin with the more realistic option finding such a player in the draft. Speed demons are always in high supply.
The special teams.
One act of frustration summed up the season. After his sixth missed extra point, Dan Carpenter slammed his helmet onto the turf last weekend and the helmet bounced up to smash the kicker in the face.
In Carpenter’s defense, Ryan didn’t do much for his confidence. The coach always so quick to defend his players – even Mario Williams – ripped the kicker after the fourth preseason game, saying “Hell, we can’t make a field goal. …We better be looking for every, any guy that’s ever kicked a football in his life.” Ryan signed Billy Cundiff Oct. 7 and released him six days later.
It’s hard to imagine the Bills carrying two kickers again. And the Bills could be hiring a new special teams coordinator, too. Danny Crossman is from the previous regime.
In addition to Carpenter’s extra-point odyssey, Buffalo’s return game was a mess. The longest kick return, all year, was 32 yards. The longest punt return, all year, was 27 yards. Whoever the Bills add as a deep threat should double as a returner.
And the penalties? Buffalo had 25 total penalties on special teams for 228 yards this season. An overhaul is needed.
As for the team as a whole? Expect Whaley and Ryan to take tweezers to this roster instead of a hacksaw. Terry and Kim Pegula don’t believe it’s time to hit the reset button with this franchise. They see the talent, from the top down, to win now.
The next seven months are crucial.