Three weeks ago, after Rex Ryan was fired after 31 games, the Bills finished off another regular season with an embarrassing loss to the Jets. The players cleaned out their lockers, the general manager held a disastrous news conference and the owners sat down for a lengthy interview.
Their first order of business was hiring Sean McDermott. He doesn’t move the needle the way Rex did, but he’ll be an upgrade assuming he can count to 11. Veteran Leslie Frazier is aboard to oversee the defense. McDermott struck out twice on offensive coordinators before settling for Rick Dennison.
OK, so what’s the plan?
The same question pertained to the Sabres within three years of Terry and Kim Pegula purchasing the franchise. They grew progressively worse. The Sabres had a winning record in their first full season under new ownership and finished .500 in their second season before the bottom fell out.
The Bills didn’t take the same nosedive, not yet, but they’re trending in a similar direction under the Sabres’ owners. Buffalo was 9-7 in 2014, when the Pegulas took over, finished 8-8 a year later and were 7-9 last season. With a rookie head coach and 24 free agents, indications point toward the pattern continuing in 2017.
No wonder why many were flabbergasted when Doug Whaley claimed they were “close” during his postseason charade with the media. My initial reaction was that Whaley was right, that they were close … close to 4-12. He actually was referring to the playoffs, but GMs often say they’re close when they sense trouble.
In another attempt to buy time, Whaley later hinted toward a rebuild while speaking to the team’s website. Who knows what to believe with him? This is the same guy who claimed he didn’t know anything about plans to fire Ryan and never questioned the move when he led the charge behind the scenes.
So what’s the plan?
Terry Pegula sounded like it was classified information during his interview with The News, as if the Patriots desperately wanted to crack the Bills’ code and uncover their secret to missing the playoffs for 17 consecutive seasons. Trust me, other teams aren’t jumping into dumpsters for intelligence on One Bills Drive.
The public wasn’t expecting intimate details from Pegula. Most were looking for a general idea about the team’s objective. Fans have been incredibly loyal over the years, something the organization took for granted. Sometimes, I wondered if their loyalty contributed to an overall lack of accountability for the product on the field.
Fans deserve to know Buffalo’s plan, too, before deciding whether to renew season tickets. Are the Bills pushing for a playoff spot and clinging to the far-fetched notion anything can happen in the postseason? Have they accepted the reality that they’re nowhere close to a Super Bowl and require an overhaul? Are the Pegulas leaning toward another tank at your expense? I have no idea.
It’s sad that it needs to be asked considering the goal for a majority of teams, to varying degrees of veracity, is winning a Super Bowl. The Bills’ standards have been lowered so many times that meaningful games in December stand as a measure of success. Given the current uncertainty engulfing the organization, there’s no end in sight.
Their futility is astounding when playing in a league that’s designed to be cyclical. The NFL is set up for parity with the salary cap and free agency, which is why there hasn’t been a repeat Super Bowl champion since the Patriots won their second straight in 2004. It’s why most teams take turns ascending to the playoffs and falling down.
Simple math suggests, with six playoff teams in a 16-team conference, the Bills should reach the postseason 37.5 percent of the time. They should have played no fewer than six playoff games during the current drought. The Jets made the playoffs six times in 17 years, the Dolphins three times, the Bills zero times.
A retired engineer from Hamburg emailed me last week to say the Bills had 0.034 percent chance of missing the playoffs for 17 consecutive seasons. It sounded right – 10 of 16 teams to the 17th power. But that doesn’t even take into account NFL safeguards for poor teams, such as improved draft position and top players from good teams becoming available via free agency.
The Bills have defied odds to a dizzying degree, based on all things being equal. The reality is that there’s an X-factor, or more specifically the QB factor, in football. The AFC championship game Sunday between the Patriots and Steelers was another sobering reminder of the importance of the position.
It marks the 15th time in 16 seasons that the winning quarterback in the AFC title game was Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger or Peyton Manning. Brady and Roethlisberger were guaranteed to combine for 11 titles with Brady previously winning six and Roethlisberger four. Manning also had four. Joe Flacco won the other.
The Pats, in their matchup with the Steelers, were playing their 33rd postseason game since the Bills last reached the playoffs. Pittsburgh was playing its 24th playoff game over the same period. The Pats made the postseason 14 times under Bill Belichick. The Bills made the playoffs 17 times in their history and missed them for 17 straight.
New England was fortunate to land Brady with the 199th pick overall, but success was no accident. The Pats recognized his potential early in his career, developed him into a star and addressed other needs knowing he gave them a chance to win. Since he became a starter, they’re also 13-6 without him.
If the goal is reaching the postseason in 2017, it almost certainly means keeping Tyrod Taylor and accepting mediocrity. He’s the best quarterback currently available, but he doesn’t belong in the same sentence with Brady or Big Ben. Renegotiating his contract is a Band-Aid on a broken leg. It may sell hope but solves nothing.
The Bills have had 16 starting quarterbacks and have not made the playoffs since Brady was drafted. Buffalo has a new coaching staff, the same general manager, two dozen free agents to address and an uncertain future. As it stands now, without a clear plan or a franchise quarterback in place, it appears to be business as usual.