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Can the Bills win with a run-first formula on offense? They're prepared to find out again

Doug Whaley has not hid his intentions. The Buffalo Bills general manager wants unrestricted free agents Cordy Glenn and Richie Incognito back.

He called it “imperative” that the Bills re-sign both.

So add it all up.

Tyrod Taylor will open as the 2016 starter. LeSean McCoy will be featured again — with Karlos Williams and Mike Gillislee licking their chops behind him. The team invested heavily in Charles Clay and Jerome Felton with coaches citing Clay’s blocking ability throughout the season. And in 2015, Buffalo ran the ball 52 percent of the time — their 465 pass attempts were the second-fewest in the league.

The early rhetoric this offseason suggests the Bills will be doubling down as a run-first operation again.

Is this the right call? Rex Ryan believes this is a winning model.

Citing the need for an “efficient passing attack” after the season, the head coach maintained Buffalo will “throw the football when we want to.” He sees the need for the ground and pound in Western New York.

“When you look at it with that kind of wind, you have got to be able to run the football in those conditions and we are able to do that,” Ryan said. “So I think it is a great thing. I think it speaks volumes about our football team, where you go in your first year you implement a system and be No. 1 in the league in rushing. I think that is a great thing moving forward. And I think it is only going to help our passing attack.”

True, the Bills did have the best rushing attack in the NFL. And it usually didn’t matter who had the ball — McCoy (895 yards, three touchdowns), Williams (517-7), Gillislee (267-3) and Taylor (568-4) were all effective in Greg Roman's complex blocking schemes. The week after former Bills architect Bill Polian harshly criticized the offensive line, the same line bullied the Dallas Cowboys to the tune of 236 yards on 40 attempts.

The Bills are wise to keep a good thing going: Incognito and Glenn are as close to sure things as you'll find, unlike past bottomless pits the Bills have poured cash into.  It just remains to be seen if this good thing is enough to contend for a title. Ground and pound — even at its ground and pound best — always fell short when Ryan coached the New York Jets.

“When you look at the positives this is a real positive thing,” Ryan said. “That we were able to lead the league in rushing and rushing average by the way with a stable of backs we feel really good about moving forward.”

There’s no denying this is a passing league. When Ryan’s Jets led the NFL in rushing in 2009, zero quarterbacks in the NFL had 600 pass attempts. In 2015 — only six seasons later — six eclipsed 600. The rules. The spread offenses all GM's must draft players from each spring. Everything is trending this direction. The New England Patriots, the team perpetually standing in Buffalo's way, have morphed a death-by-a-thousand-paper cuts passing attack into their virtual running game. Tom Brady's ball rarely travels 15-plus yards downfield.

And when Taylor threw the ball at least 30 times, the Bills were 0-5. As center Eric Wood notes, the times the Bills threw a lot, they were usually trying to catch up in the fourth quarter.

“Within our offense, we want to stay balanced,” Wood said. “It wasn’t that we threw the ball a ton early and he was throwing picks and he cost us the game.

“I have no issues about him coming along as a passer and he really put up good numbers this year.”

One of the four teams to make the NFL’s final four offers hope. The Panthers’ model — 501 passes (27th in NFL), 526 runs (1st) — worked to near-perfect through a 15-1 regular season. They too rely on a quarterback getting chunks of yardage himself and have a clear bell cow in Jonathan Stewart. Cam Newton might be the closest the NFL has to a LeBron James — a player who can single-handedly overwhelm defenses physically and athletically. He spins, jukes, runs you over.

Taylor is no Newton, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound locomotive. But there’s still a place in the NFL for the quarterback who burns defenses by air and by ground.

So for the Bills’ run-heavy attack to flourish, Taylor must take a Newton-like, a Russell Wilson-like jump as a passer and add some bulk to stay healthy.

“He has to get physically stronger in the weight room,” former NFL MVP Rich Gannon said. “He could put a little more weight on his frame and not lose the speed or quickness. He has to learn how to avoid some of the unnecessary hits. A guy his size is going to get knocked out. These guys — when you watch these playoff games — if you expose yourself to those types of hits, you’re going to get knocked out.

“His goal should be to play 16 regular-season games every year. That’s the first place to start.”

And the Bills need to squeeze as many peak years out of McCoy as they can.

Just as it’ll help Taylor to work with Greg Roman again, it’ll help McCoy to have position coach Anthony Lynn around again. Last season, Lynn helped McCoy trim weight to maintain his quickness. At one point, McCoy was down to 202 pounds. With McCoy turning 28 years old in July, they'll be taking on Father Time again. This is a critical off-season for the team's star back.

Maybe such thinking is archaic. Maybe the Bills are thisclose to breaking through.

A team trusting continuity in the front office is doing the same on the field.

 

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