At midseason, average was the appropriate word to describe the 2015 Buffalo Bills.
After their 8-8 finish, it still holds up … right along with the now-16-year streak of failing to reach the postseason.
The season was disappointing in more ways than one. The hype over the hiring of Rex Ryan as head coach and his promise of a playoff appearance had pretty well faded by midseason. His reputation for being a defensive genius took a beating as the Bills plummeted from fourth to 19th in total defense and their ferocious pass rush of the previous two seasons disappeared. Much of the assault came from his own players, who weren’t shy about telling the media the defense the team ran in 2014 was a better fit for them than the one Ryan implemented.
The Bills were exceptional in one respect: they led the NFL in rushing with 2,432 yards. Another highlight was that their offense improved from 26th to 13th.
Other than that, there was mostly what the record reflected: mediocrity.
My final position-by-position grades follow, with midseason marks in parentheses:
B- (C+). In going 8-6 as a starter, Tyrod Taylor proved the best quarterback the Bills have had in a long time. Taylor was more than competent, ranking seventh in the NFL with a passer rating of 99.4. Although he was 23rd in the league with 3,035 passing yards, he did rank fifth with an average gain of 7.99.
The analytics website Pro Football Focus has Taylor as the ninth-rated quarterback in the NFL. His running dimension (he ranked second among QBs with a club-record 568 rushing yards) is a huge factor in evaluating his overall productivity.
But Taylor didn’t show enough consistency making plays from the pocket, too often struggling with his relative lack of height (he’s listed at 6-foot-1) to find open targets in the middle of the field. He has yet to display the ability to lead them to victory primarily on the strength of his passing late in a game.
The guy does, however, have an exceptionally strong arm and gives the Bills better quick-strike ability than they’ve had in a long time. Fourteen of Taylor’s 20 touchdown passes covered 20 or more yards, with five covering 40 or more yards. The biggest anchor at this position is EJ Manuel, 0-2 as a starter when Taylor was injured, as the backup. That’s something the Bills must address in the offseason.
A- (C). This could have easily been an A or even an A+ had the two best players here – LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams – stayed healthy the whole season. McCoy missed four games, Williams missed five.
But when they played in the run-first scheme of offensive coordinator Greg Roman, they were mostly impactful, helping the Bills lead the NFL in rushing. McCoy ran for 895 yards, averaging 4.4 yards per carry, and three touchdowns on the way to becoming the Bills’ lone Pro Bowl selection. He had three 100-yard rushing games (112 in each) and became only the third player in franchise history to produce 100 yards from scrimmage in seven consecutive games.
Williams rushed for 517 yards, averaging 5.6 yards per carry, and seven touchdowns and became only the second player in league history to score a rushing or receiving TD in each of his first six games. Pro Football Focus has McCoy as the NFL’s 18th-rated running back. Williams is 22nd.
One of the season’s more intriguing developments was the emergence of Mike Gillislee after he was activated from the practice squad for the final five games. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry and had touchdown sprints of 19, 60 and 50 yards. Jerome Felton, who didn’t contribute much, was PFF’s 21st-rated fullback.
B (C+). The turning point of Sammy Watkins’ NFL career could very well be when he publicly demanded more targets after barely seeing the ball through most of the first half of the season. The coaches got the message, and Watkins began making his biggest strides.
His four highest target totals came in the final six games. That allowed Watkins, despite missing three games with calf and ankle injuries, to finish with a team-high 60 receptions for 1,047 yards, an average of 17.5 yards per catch, and a career-best nine touchdowns. He combined elite speed and athleticism with improved route-running, helped by the meticulous teaching of new receivers coach Sanjay Lal. PFF has him as the NFL’s 10th-rated receiver.
The Bills never had a true No. 2 receiver. Robert Woods finished third on the team with modest numbers: 47 receptions for 552 yards, an average of 11.7 per catch, and three touchdowns. PFF has him as its 105th-rated receiver. Chris Hogan, who finished fourth on the Bills with 36 catches for 450 yards and two TDs, is PFF’s 94th-rated player at the position.
C (C). Going strictly by what the Bills spent to sign Charles Clay, this grade easily could have been lower. His production was nowhere near that of the fourth-highest paid tight end in the NFL (with a five-year deal worth $38 million). But money is not part of this equation. Clay, who finished third on the team with 51 receptions for 528 yards (an average of 10.4 yards per catch) and three touchdowns before missing the final three games with a back injury, was pretty much all that the Bills had here. His cause wasn’t helped by the fact Taylor couldn’t always find him the several times Clay drew favorable one-on-one matchups in the middle of the field, or by the ramped-up efforts to get the ball to Watkins in the second half of the season.
But Clay was solid enough as a playmaker and blocker, perfectly fitting Roman’s ideal tight end prototype, to provide the Bills hope that they can build upon what he brings to the position. PFF has him as its 12th-rated tight end.
B+ (B-). Richie Incognito had a career year that should have resulted in his being a Pro Bowl selection rather than the alternate pick he became. Who would have ever expected that from a 32-year-old left guard who hadn’t played a game since Oct. 31, 2013, Incognito’s last before the Miami Dolphins suspended him for his role in a bullying scandal?
PFF has him as its second-rated player at his position. Incognito brought more power, speed and toughness than the Bills have had at guard (or any offensive line spot, for that matter) in a long time.
Left tackle Cordy Glenn showed more consistency than at any point since joining the Bills as a second-round draft pick in 2012. PFF rates him as the league’s 10th-best tackle.
After an up-and-down 2014 season, center Eric Wood came back with one of the stronger of his seven years in the NFL and was picked as a Pro Bowl alternate. He’s the seventh-rated center in the league, according to PFF.
Rookie right guard John Miller missed three games with groin and ankle injuries, and wore down physically late in the season. PFF rates him 77th among guards. Veteran reserve Kraig Urbik drew a 48th-place rating from PFF. Right tackle Seantrel Henderson’s play was adversely impacted by a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, which caused him to miss the final three games. PFF rates him 74th at tackle. The Bills are in need of a depth upgrade across the line.
D (C+). There isn’t a whole lot positive that can be said. Not when you go from generating 40 of an NFL-leading 54 sacks to 14 of 21, the team’s lowest total since 1977.
The biggest disappointment was end Mario Williams, who went from a team-leading 14.5 sacks in 2014 to five and seemed half-hearted with his effort for at least part of the season. Williams, who is expected to be released to give the Bills $12.9 million in salary-cap relief, is PFF’s 93rd-rated edge rusher.
Fellow end Jerry Hughes, whose sacks dropped from 10 to five, is the 21st-rated edge rusher, according to PFF. Tackle Marcell Dareus saw his sacks plummet from 10 to two. PFF has him as its 16th-rated interior defender.
Fellow tackle Kyle Williams’ leadership and stout work against the run were missed after he suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for the final 10 games. PFF ranks him 52nd among interior defenders.
C- (C+). Communication pretty much was a season-long problem among the linebackers, as was tackling and pass coverage. The player here who was bothered the least was Manny Lawson, who became much more of a significant contributor as a stand-up linebacker than he was in 2014. PFF has Lawson as its 28th-ranked linebacker. Nigel Bradham is 80th in PFF’s linebacker rankings, while Preston Brown is 89th.
A- (B). The Bills hit a major home run in the draft with second-rounder Ronald Darby, who rebounded from a poor preseason to quickly establish himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. His lock-down coverage and solid run support earned him a spot on the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team.
Pro Football Focus rates Darby – who tied for second on the team with two interceptions and ranked fifth in the NFL with 21 passes defended – as the fourth-best cornerback in the league.
Fourth-year veteran Stephon Gilmore had a career season at the other cornerback spot, leading the Bills with three interceptions and tying for seventh in the NFL with 18 passes defended before missing the final four games with an injured shoulder. PFF has Gilmore as the ninth-best cornerback.
Former starting cornerback Leodis McKelvin was OK in reserve duty; PFF ranks him 83rd among cornerbacks.
As with running back, the only real drawback with this group was its inability to stay healthy the whole season. The Bills’ best safety, Aaron Williams, suffered a neck injury that caused him to miss 13 games. It helped having a steady veteran, converted corner Corey Graham, at the other safety spot. But he had his struggles in coverage. PFF has him as its 50th-rated safety.
Bacarri Rambo, in a contract year, did a credible job in Williams’ place; PFF ranks him as its 57th safety. The Bills had decent depth here with cornerbacks Mario Butler and Nickell Robey, and safety Duke Williams.
C- (B). First, the good news. The Bills gave up the fewest kickoff yards in the NFL (17.2), were No. 1 in average opponent drive start (19.9-yard line) and tied Tennessee for most special-teams takeaways (four).
None of that, however, overshadows a heaping pile of bad news for the Bills’ kicking game. Dan Carpenter had a difficult time adjusting to the extra-point distance being extended to 33 yards. His six PAT misses were the second-most in the NFL. Carpenter also missed four of 27 field-goal attempts.
Between injuries and poor performance, the Bills had season-long turnover in their return game. And for as well as they did in kickoffs, thanks largely to the 42 touchbacks of kickoff specialist Jordan Gay, the Bills found ways to hurt themselves with 25 special-teams penalties for 228 yards. The two brightest spots in this area were punter Colton Schmidt, who ranked seventh in the NFL with a net average of 41.3 yards and was a rock-solid holder, and the dependable long-snapping of Garrison Sanborn.
C- (C). The Bills were spared a worse grade here by the strong effort they showed in winning the final two meaningless games. They generally played with a purpose, especially in eliminating the Jets from the playoffs – something the players knew meant a great deal to their head coach a year after that team fired him.
It’s easy to write off Rex’s recent hiring of his twin brother, Rob, as assistant head coach/defense as a case of blatant nepotism. Another way to look at it, however, is that Rex recognized the desperate need for help – that whatever he and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman were doing to teach a new scheme to players who had thrived doing something else failed miserably. Maybe that will help solve the disconnect.
Ryan is proud of his no-muzzle policy with players and wants fans to have an open-door perspective on his team. But it got out of hand, to the point where players not only felt emboldened to speak out about what they hated about the defense but also about the team’s lack of discipline that resulted in the Bills sharing the NFL lead with 143 penalties. There were clearly holes in his loose ship.
Ironically, the best coaching job on defense was done by defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson, and the team parted ways with him after the season. Roman turned in the best coaching performance on the staff, getting strong production from a first-year starting quarterback and an offensive line with problems on the right side.