On Sunday, the Bills will play a regular-season finale with a possible playoff berth on the line for the first time since 2004. As suffering fans well know, they lost at home, 29-24, to a Steelers team that had clinched home-field and used a lot of backups.
There are parallels to this year's team. The '04 squad had a first-year head coach, Mike Mularkey. They had a defense that was among the leaders in takeaways and an embattled quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, who had regressed in his third year as the starter. The passing game had dropped to 27th in the league. Bledsoe was released after the season.
I've often wondered if Tom Donahoe would have kept Bledsoe if they had reached the playoffs. I suspect not. Donahoe was ready to turn the job over to J.P. Losman. A similar decision looms as Tyrod Taylor gets ready for the finale in Miami. On to the Mailbag.
Cliff Fazzolari asks: I’m having a social media debate with a guy who still feels Taylor is the answer and that his three years have compared favorably with Brady’s three years. Any chance that they go into next year with him as the starter?
Sully: I assume your friend was talking about Brady's first three years as a starter. It's still ludicrous, regardless of stats. As I said before the season, Tyrod has hit his ceiling. The Bills are 32nd in passing. The offense is built around his limitations, not his strengths.
It's highly unlikely that Taylor is here next season. Sean McDermott made it clear when he switched to Nathan Peterman that he wants to move on. He jumped the gun, but he's right. The standard has to be higher for a regime that claims to be shooting for much more than a wild-card spot.
As I suggested in the open, it will be tougher if they snap the 17-year playoff drought with Taylor and perhaps even win a playoff game. But my sense from McDermott and GM Brandon Beane is they've already made up their minds and will draft a quarterback high in the draft.
There's a chance they could stick with Taylor as a bridge QB, their "best chance to win." But it's unlikely after the events of the season. Why would Tyrod want to come back after the way they treated him?
Thomas Pullano asks: With Jacksonville making the playoffs, do you think more highly of Doug Marrone? Or did he luck into a situation with a talented team in a weak division?
Sully: I didn't see greatness in Marrone in Buffalo. He seemed like the typically conservative coach. But he was in a tough position with weak ownership and a divisive first-time GM in Whaley. Yes, he's taking advantage of a very talented defense and quarterback problems -- be it injuries or spotty play -- in the rest of the AFC South.
Some people give Tom Coughlin the bulk of the credit for the Jaguars' turnaround (not to mention GM David Caldwell). But Marrone has done a nice job with that team. They play with the fire that his Bills team did in 2014. He's also managed to revive QB Blake Bortles, who was seen as a problem. Let's see how he does in his first playoff.
@moegavin1 asks: Has anyone found a reason why the Bills threw a screen to DiMarco and a slant to Tolbert after Shady's big catch and run? Does Shady pull himself from the game too often after one of his signature scampers?
Sully: Seriously, after the Tolbert play last Sunday, I tweeted "Do they have any more fullbacks to throw to?" That sequence threw me back to other curious fullback calls, like Mularkey throwing to Daimon Shelton, or Turk Schonert dialing up a screen to Corey McIntyre on the play where Losman was sacked and fumbled the game away at the Jets in '08.
The infatuation with Tolbert has been puzzling from the start. As for McCoy, I think they tend to pull him after long runs to preserve his legs and avoid injury. Shady has 333 touches, which is close to a career high, so you can't say they've underused him.
@lostnascarfan asks: Enough time has passed now, so how bad did Tim Murray mishandle the Sabres rebuild? Are the scouts that bad or did Murray override their views?
Sully: He mishandled it royally. Murray tossed around draft picks like Cheerios, overpaid for free agents, decimated the organization's defensive depth, and squandered the good will he had built up with ownership and fans. I can't say how much blame goes to the scouts. Murray was a bit of a bully. But I don't see a lot of brilliant picks, either.
Crangs asks: Is Robin Lehner back next year? If so, at what price?
Sully: I'm guessing he's gone. Lehner bet on himself with a one-year deal and you could argue he's been the Sabres' best player (if you throw out overtime). He probably wants three or four years and will probably get it in free agency. There's a chance he gets moved at the deadline. Linus Ullmark is likely to be the No. 1 goalie next year.
Question of the Year
Awhile back, I was so inspired by the mail that I promised to award questions of the year. The plan was for a top five and honorable mentions, so I'll stick with that. The first inaugural Sully Mailbag questions of the year for 2017:
1. Thomas Pullano asked "Which was the more incredible to witness in person: The first half of EJ Manuel in London, or Nathan Peterman's experience in LA."
It was a great question and brought back grisly memories of Manuel's three-turnover mightmare against the Jags, but I went with Peterman in the end.
2. Daniel Meyer asked "Which recent action by our President disappoints you most: His refusal to fill out an NCAA bracket, his decsion to watch FOX News instead of Oregon-Kansas in Elite Eight, or refusing to throw out the first ball at the Nationals opener?"
I know it infuriates my enemies on the right, but after Trump's outrageous first year in office, I had to honor Meyer's submission.
3. Paul Waas asked: If you could give one past great a "healthy" final year, would you choose: Bill Walton, Bobby Orr, Bo Jackson or Sandy Koufax?"
This was a terrific question, the kind of multiple choice that makes you think. I was torn, but went with Walton because his injury came the earliest in his career and Bob Ryan once said if he had to win one game, his first pick would be a healthy Walton.
4. Sam Ruggiero, who is always urging me to drink the Kool-Aid, asked, "With all the high draft picks we own, wouldn't it be wise for Beane & Co. to try and trade for, oh, a quality wide receiver or linebacker?
You have to appreciate a reader who sees the future. The Bills traded for Kelvin Benjamin soon after Sam's contribution. He also felt they would push for a playoff spot, while I insisted six wins was their ceiling. It helps to drink the Kool-Aid sometimes.
5. Don Stoeckel asked: Big question is, was Housley's success as defensive coach in Nashville system or players?
As a Housley skeptic, I said he benefited from some remarkably gifted defensemen during Nashville's run to the final. I also reminded him that Housley was reviled by many fans as a Sabres defenseman for his soft play and lack of playoff success.
Honorable mention: @dwill517, who asked whether Doug Whaley or Dan Bylsma had a better chance to be here this year; Steven Pagallo, who wondered why the Bills were 1-12 on Thursdays at one point last season; Rick McGuire, who asked if the Bills might bring back Karlos Williams because of a lack of running back depth; and @lebronstein, who asked for my favorite all-time dunk and other basketball trivia.
Oh, and Joseph Genco asked why the Bills didn't give backup offensive lineman Ryan Groy a chance to start. Jay Skurski and I joke that Groy had to be the most common subject in our mailbags. Never has there been such passion over the fate of an O lineman.
Happy New Year to all, and keep those cards and letters coming in 2018. Next year, you might make the top five.