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Bills Mailbag: Are fans and media being too critical of a 6-3 Bills team?

Jay Skurski

This week’s Bills Mailbag starts with expectations for this year’s team. What’s fair and what’s not? It also hits on sparking the offense, what would happen with a loss to Miami (here’s a hint: Stay away from social media) and Josh Allen’s continued struggles with the deep ball, plus much more. Let’s dive in …

Dale Zuchlewski asks: Do you think the Bills’ brass understands that the fans aren't being overly critical, but that we are just desperate to have a winning team? We've had our hearts broken so many times over the years it hurts when we get teased.

Jay: I believe this is the first question Dale has asked for the mailbag, and it’s a great one. It’s one I’ve thought a lot about. General Manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott seem to have a good grasp on what being a Bills fan is all about. They’ve embraced Western New York and seem to get just how much the football team they’re in charge of is a part of the fabric of our community.

With that being said, they’ve only been around three years. When the 2011 team started 3-0 then went in the tank, they didn’t care. It didn’t bother them when Leodis McKelvin fumbled on Monday Night Football against the Patriots, or that EJ Manuel bombed out as a franchise quarterback. They probably didn’t pay much attention when Doug Marrone took his ball and went home on New Year’s Eve with $4 million in his pocket.

Truthfully, if I were Beane or McDermott, I’d probably be a little ticked that my team is 6-3 and yet most of the talk surrounding it is about how unimpressive those wins have been. They have every right to say, “at the end of the day, 6-3 is 6-3,” and they would be right. Complaining about how wins look should be a problem of Patriots fans, not Bills fans.

With that said, I don’t think fans should blindly point to the team’s record as a sign all is right in the Bills’ world. The truth is, the team has yet to put together a solid, start-to-finish performance. The offense continues to languish in the bottom half of the league. The run defense has had issues. So has the special teams.

The Bills are far from a finished product. It’s OK for the front office to remind us of that, and for fans and the media to look at the franchise through a skeptical eye until it gets there.

Ed Helinski asks: In your estimation, what’s it going to take for Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to stick with a consistent running game with Frank Gore and Devin Singletary and lessen the pain in watching this offense struggle?

Jay: It would help a great deal if Josh Allen could hit a deep ball or two to loosen up the defense. The game plan for opposing defensive coordinators isn’t tough to guess at the moment – make Allen beat them. When he starts doing that, the run game should open up. It’s easy to say the Bills have to come in with a game plan that focuses on establishing the run. If that’s unsuccessful, though, Daboll will be criticized for that, too. I would like to see more of a commitment to the run game, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the passing game entirely. Allen was drafted seventh overall. He needs to show he can win games for this franchise.

Rick McGuire asks: What happens if the Bills lose to the Dolphins on Sunday, which is something I'm not ruling out the way Miami's been playing lately? Do the Bills and fans lose confidence? Can (will) they rebound to beat Denver? Will McDermott make changes? Will they make the playoffs? Also, I'm assuming that San Francisco will release kicker Chase McLaughlin once Robbie Gould is healthy. Should the Bills bring him back to compete with Stephen Hauschka, who is struggling? He was really good in preseason and in short stints with the Chargers and 49ers.

Mark Martin asks: After 2-3 wins and early season adversity for AFC wild-card competitors, many Bills fans had the season’s “sure bet” wins and wild-card position written in stone. After a series of unimpressive wins and the loss to the Browns, it’s apparent there is no longer a “sure bet” on the schedule, which includes a rugged stretch in weeks 13-16. How damaging to the Bills’ realistic playoff chances is a loss to Miami?

Jay: A loss to Miami means Twitter will require putting on a hazmat suit before logging on. I would guess a good deal of the fan base will exit the bandwagon. Yes, the team could respond the following week against Denver. The NFL truly is a week-to-week league, as Atlanta going to New Orleans and smacking the Saints (knocking me out of my suicide pool in the process) in Week 10 showed. The playoffs would still be a possibility, but I wouldn’t pick them to make it, so in that sense it would be extremely damaging.

As for the kicking game, I wrote a lengthy story in Friday’s edition about Hauschka’s struggles. Over his last 14 games, he’s converted just 58.3% of his field goals. That’s unacceptable. I’d be surprised, however, if the Bills brought in competition for Hauschka as it relates to the 53-man roster. It’s possible they could add a kicker to the practice squad, which would send a message in itself, but I wouldn’t consider that likely, either. I believe McDermott is genuine in expressing his confidence in Hauschka. We’ll see if the coach is rewarded.

IDon’tTrustTheProcess asks: Which is more surprising: The Bills’ lack of offensive improvement despite all the offseason additions or the defense not being able to stop the run since the bye week? Are either likely to get fixed for a stretch run or do we start looking ahead at mock drafts soon?

Jay: Can I pick neither? No? OK, I’ll go with the offense. We’ve seen struggles against the run in previous years under McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. With an entirely rebuilt offense and a quarterback in his second year, the Bills should be expecting more on that side of the ball. Getting that many new players on the same page is a challenge, but we’re into the second half of the season at this point.

Rich Ullman asks: Under Sean McDermott (and most Bills head coaches), clock management, challenges, and play calling – especially in clutch time – have been poor. Is “Trust the Process” really just code for “I’m not very good at making on-field tactical and personnel adjustments as the game develops?”

Paul Mitchel asks: Could Sean McDermott take more ownership of the offensive play calling, rather than just being a defensive coach? He's suggested in the past he doesn't want to focus on one side of the ball, will he now focus on offense and call plays, etc.?

Jay: To Rich’s point, McDermott would be the first to tell you his process on challenges has to improve. The clock management against the Browns in the final minute was also poor. McDermott chalked it up to “operation,” whatever that means, but of course that has to be better. The play calling is another issue. For starters, on offense that job is Brian Daboll’s. As the head coach, McDermott could conceivably pull a trump card, but I don’t see that happening. That leads us to Paul’s question.

McDermott absolutely could take more ownership of the offensive play calling, but again, I don’t see him doing that. His background is as a defensive coach. That’s not to say he doesn’t know offense and couldn’t call plays, but that’s why Daboll is here. My guess is that any changes McDermott wants to make on offense will occur during the week in consultation with Daboll and not with McDermott taking over the play calling on Sundays.

Beast of the East asks: The deep ball has been a major issue this year. What do you think is the issue and do you think they can resolve it? A lot was said about how big Josh Allen's arm is, but that doesn't matter if you can't complete those passes.

Jay: In my opinion, it’s mental. It looks to me like Allen is afraid of underthrowing the ball and is overcompensating, which leads to overthrowing his receivers. I’m no football coach, though. As for whether it can be resolved, all I’ll say is it better. His inability to connect on even some of those throws is detrimental to the offense. I agree with the last part – Allen’s arm strength doesn’t mean much if he can’t deliver the ball accurately. The good news is, he’s improved in that area on short and intermediate passes. The glass-half-full take would be that he can get there on the deep balls, too, by putting in the work.

Doug Pagano asks: How did T.J. Yeldon get in McDermott’s doghouse and inactive the last three games? Am I the only one who thinks he might provide a spark to the Bills' stale offense? Why are the Bills dressing a special teamer and keeping him out of the game-day lineup or how about sitting Gore instead?

Jay: I’m not sure it’s fair to say Yeldon is in McDermott’s doghouse. The Bills simply like their third running back to play special teams and feel like Senorise Perry does it better than Yeldon. I’ll trust the coaches on that. As for the second part, about providing a spark to the offense, I’m not against the idea. At this point, the coaching staff should be trying anything and everything to get the offense going. How big of the drop-off is Perry to Yeldon on special teams? The tricky part is sitting Gore. Even though he’s struggled big time the last two weeks, McDermott has to worry about how that will look. An easier way might be to dress Gore but really limit his carries, using Singletary as the featured back and Yeldon as the third-down back.

Robert Goodwin asks: I keep hearing Lee Smith is a good locker room guy. How about we give him a job in the locker room and keep him off the field? Your thoughts.

TNFP69 ask: We use our blocking tight end in the area of 20% of our plays and he is being called for a lot of penalties and we set a weapon (Duke Williams) inactive. What’s wrong with using another lineman line like most other teams? Wouldn’t this give us a better option on the field?

Jay: It’s totally unacceptable that Lee Smith has the most penalties on the team and plays a part-time role. There’s no other way to put it. I’d have no problem if McDermott benched Smith in favor of Tommy Sweeney, but like with the scenario above mentioned about Gore, that might be tricky to navigate for the head coach when it comes to sitting a rookie for a veteran. As for the second question, if Smith were to take a seat, I don’t think it would open a spot in the lineup for Duke Williams. Daboll seems to like having three tight ends active. I understand the point about using a sixth offensive lineman. My guess, and that’s all it is, is that doing so would tip teams off even more that a run play is coming. When it’s a tight end in that role, the offense maintains some more flexibility.

Tom Zaccardo asks: Your opinion of Ed Oliver? In the last two games, his playing time has decreased and not one tackle in either game. If not for Josh Allen and the offense taking the heat, I feel Oliver would be.

Jay: He hasn’t been noticeable enough in the snaps he has received. I’ll admit that I haven’t grinded the all-22 to see Oliver’s impact – or lack thereof – on every snap, but the ninth pick in the draft was brought here to make big plays (read: sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, etc.) for the defense. He’s made very few of those to this point. Oliver is another young player – of which the Bills have several – who still has a long way to go in his development.

A note to readers: If I didn’t get to your question this week, it will be in next week’s Mailbag. Thanks for all the submissions!

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