Last Tuesday, I was chatting with veteran center Eric Wood and asked if he knew how many current Bills were on the team when Rex Ryan was hired in January 2015.
“Nine,” Richie Incognito interjected from the adjacent locker.
“Without counting, I’d say nine,” Wood replied, in an inspiring show of team unity.
Not bad. The number is eight. I thought they’d guess higher, but apparently the older guys notice when their teammates move through the locker room as swiftly and frequently as cars navigating the drive-through at Tim Hortons.
The amazing eight survivors: Wood, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Cordy Glenn, Seantrel Henderson, Preston Brown, Jerry Hughes and Colton Schmidt. That’s it. It seems only yesterday that Ryan came to town, promising big things. He was gone in the blink of an eye, like all those ex-players.
Reggie Ragland was the latest. Ragland, who was supposed to compete for the inside linebacker job, was traded to the Chiefs last Monday for a conditional fourth-round pick in 2019. He never played a regular-season game for Buffalo. Reggie, we hardly knew ye.
The Ragland exit was the latest blot on Doug Whaley’s administration. Whaley thought so much of Ragland that he traded two fourth-round picks to move up eight spots in the 2016 draft – from 49th overall to 41st – to draft him. It’s another example of Brandon Beane, the new general manager, distancing himself from the team’s former gaffes.
Beane isn’t tanking it, but his actions bespeak a man who is cleaning up after is predecessors and looking to the future. Sure, he and Sean McDermott would love to compete for a playoff spot, but they know they’ve inherited a weak roster, a difficult situation.
Fans want to believe the Bills can win this year, but the NFL is a harsh, unsentimental business. You win by drafting well, developing your own players and having a bunch of talented guys in their first contracts, balancing out the highly paid stars.
The Bills now have 19 of their own draft picks on the roster, a staggeringly low figure for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in 17 years. They have 13 of their own picks if you exclude rookies. The Steelers and Patriots, models of NFL success, have 29 apiece.
Beane took on the bloated payroll of a team that you’d expect to have won something, not one with the longest playoff drought in sports. It’s likely to get worse before it gets better. That’s life in the NFL, where you spend heavy to win and pay later.
The fans have invested an outsized faith in McDermott and Beane, largely because they’re not Ryan and Whaley. The new regime seems to have a coherent plan, but at some point it won’t be enough to be new faces, lipstick on the dysfunction.
The Bills aren’t without talent. They have a terrific running back in LeSean McCoy and a strong offensive line – at least in the run game. On defense, they have reliable veterans in Hughes, Kyle Williams and Lorenzo Alexander, promising young guys in Shaq Lawson and rookie Tre’Davious White.
But every team has good players. The Bills don’t have enough of them, and they don’t have a franchise quarterback. Tyrod Taylor is a dynamic player, but he’s an inferior passer and his tendency to take off and run makes him an injury risk – as his recent concussion attests.
They’re deficient in emerging young talent. On defense, they’re banking on a career malcontent (Dareus), two 34-year-olds who are close to the end (Kyle Williams and Alexander), a gifted but volatile pass rusher (Hughes) and an unproven secondary.
Both of last year’s starting cornerbacks – Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby – are gone. So is their leading tackler, Zach Brown, and the rest of their secondary. Expectations are high for the new safeties, Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, which means they could be average.
The defense has raised hopes with its play in preseason against marginal opposition. Let’s see how it goes in the real games. Bills defenses have a way of looking good against mediocre offenses, then melting when a team shows up with a good quarterback and real weapons.
The defense was putrid when it mattered last season. They gave up 27 points in each of their last eight losses. They allowed three backs to have 200-yard rushing games. By the end, some of them were indifferent tacklers who seemed to have quit. It left a bad taste in the mouth of some.
“Absolutely,” Hughes said.
“I know it’s been on my mind all offseason. I can only imagine the other guys in the room. The new guys understand the standard we have for ourselves; they know last year was unacceptable.
“We look at the film and we see we made a lot of mistakes,” Hughes said. “Guys talk about wanting to communicate better, wanting to tackle better. We actually implemented tackling drills throughout training camp.”
Tackling drills? A marvelous idea. McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier should be a major upgrade over the Ryan brothers, if only because they manage to put 11 players on the field on a regular basis.
On the other hand, the offense had three penalties in Baltimore for lining up incorrectly. The penalty flags have been flying. Wasn’t a lack of discipline supposed to be a memory, along with Ryan and his coaches?
That reminds us that McDermott is still a rookie head coach who has yet to coach his first regular-season game. He and Beane are new to their jobs and will experience the hard realities of running an NFL team that is mired in a two-decade drought.
It’s foolhardy to think they’ll lead some miraculous turnaround. People who claim to be diehard NFL fans should show more respect for the league, which makes dysfunctional franchises pay dearly for bumbling. The Bills aren’t contending, they’re bottoming out.
They’re not a good team or even an average one, but one of the half-dozen worst teams in the NFL. I figured five wins before the Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby trades. Now they look like a 4-12 team, which might be giving them the benefit of the doubt.
It has stark parallels to 2001, after Ralph Wilson fired John Butler and Wade Phillips. That team also had a defensive-minded rookie coach who had been coordinator for a Super Bowl loser – Gregg Williams. It had a new GM, Tom Donahoe, who had to deal with the financial excesses of his predecessor.
It had an athletic but flawed quarterback, Rob Johnson, who took a lot of sacks and was near the end as a starter. That team had talent, too, but was rebuilding and bound for rough times.
This group has the same feel. It would be silly to entertain high hopes for this year. I know it’s hard, but accept is as necessary suffering along the way, and take solace in any signs of good things to come.
And make sure to wave goodbye when, inevitably, more of them head out the door.