Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane will meet with the media Tuesday for their season-ending press conference, earlier than either of them would have preferred.
The Buffalo Bills’ head coach and general manager will recap the 2019 season – one that ended Saturday with a 22-19 overtime loss to the Houston Texans in an AFC wild-card playoff game – while surely feeling like their team should be preparing for a divisional-round game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
“We had opportunities to win the game and we came up short,” McDermott said in his postgame press conference at NRG Stadium. “Not an easy thing – not an easy pill to swallow this time of year. A lot of pain in that locker room. A lot of work has gone into it. And so we learn from it, and we go into the offseason and keep building, keep working.”
Here are 10 questions worth asking of Beane and McDermott – not that they’ll answer all of them – as they head into the offseason.
1. Can ‘hero ball’ ever be coached out of Josh Allen?
There were plenty of good tweets that summarized Allen’s second-half performance against the Texans, but my personal favorite was this one, from Kelsey McKinney: “I really identify with how Josh Allen just randomly completely forgets how to do his whole job.”
That’s a fitting description of what happened in Houston. All the progress Allen made over the second half of the regular season disappeared in the second half against the Texans as he launched bombs to fullback Patrick DiMarco (who was double covered!), tried an ill-conceived lateral to tight end Dawson Knox and otherwise looked like he was treating every snap he took like it was the last one he’d ever play. Sprinkled in with those baffling plays, of course, were some incredible ones, which accurately defines the Josh Allen Experience to this point.
It’s easy to say Allen is only in his second year, but the quarterback on the other side, Houston’s Deshaun Watson, is only in his third. Watson persevered despite constant pressure from the Bills (he was sacked seven times), keeping calm and making the plays his team needed.
Allen didn’t do that Saturday, regressing to what many thought was his default setting coming out of college. Until he gets another chance to show he’s changed, there will be questions about whether he ever truly can.
2. Can the defense do it again?
Buffalo’s defense undoubtedly was the key to the team’s 10 regular-season victories. The Bills allowed more than 25 points just once in 2019, finishing second in points per game allowed (16.2) and third in yards per game allowed (298.3).
Maintaining that standard will be a challenge. Over the past five seasons, four different teams have led the league in scoring defense. The Patriots have done it twice (in 2016 and 2019) while the Seahawks (2015), Vikings (2017) and Bears (2018) have done it once.
Simply put, it’s difficult for a defense to be consistently great. There will be some turnover on that side of the ball, as well, which leads to the next question.
3. How do you prioritize which free agents to bring back?
Here is the list of players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March: running back Frank Gore, defensive end Shaq Lawson, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, running back Senorise Perry, left guard Quinton Spain, cornerback Kevin Johnson, offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle, linebacker Julian Stanford, linebacker Maurice Alexander, safety Kurt Coleman and safety Dean Marlowe.
The team has one restricted free agent, wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie, and three exclusive-rights free agents: wide receiver Robert Foster, tight end Jason Croom and cornerback Levi Wallace.
A closer look at each of their situations will be coming, but it will be interesting to see what Beane has to say about some of the more noteworthy names on that list.
Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander’s contract also is set to expire, although he has indicated he will retire. With that in mind …
4. Who steps into the leadership void created by Alexander’s retirement?
McDermott is big on player-driven leadership, and the Bills now have lost perhaps their most respected leader in back-to-back offseasons with Alexander following Kyle Williams – who hung up his cleats after the 2018 season finale – into retirement.
The team has a couple likely candidates in safety Micah Hyde and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, but perhaps the coach and/or GM have someone else in mind.
5. What’s the best use of the team’s ample salary-cap space?
The Bills have about $90 million in space under the salary cap, according to contracts website spotrac.com. That’s fourth most in the league based on the website’s projections. That number will be adjusted once the 2020 cap is set by the NFL, but the point remains that Beane will have money to spend.
How he prioritizes doing so will be interesting to see. The list of unrestricted free agents above includes starters or key contributors in Gore, Lawson, Phillips, Spain and Johnson. The Bills also have several young players eligible for contract extensions, most notably cornerback Tre’Davious White, left tackle Dion Dawkins and linebacker Matt Milano.
6. To that end, would you consider moves to free up even more cap space?
While it’s true the Bills have a considerable amount to spend, more room under the cap is never a bad thing. The Bills demonstrated that last year by cutting tight end Charles Clay and running back Chris Ivory. Are there possible cap casualties on this year’s roster as Beane and McDermott see it today?
While a spending spree like last season – when the team signed 15 unrestricted free agents from outside the organization who eventually made the 53-man roster – seems less likely, Beane may want to address an offense that finished 24th in the league in both yards and points per game (330.2 and 19.6, respectively).
7. What, exactly, needs to change offensively?
Maybe it’s even more competition along the offensive line, despite the addition of four new starters in 2019. Maybe it’s a true No. 1 receiver, tough as those are to find. Maybe it’s a better second option at running back to pair with Devin Singletary. Whatever it is, the Bills’ offensive rankings clearly need to improve.
8. Are any changes coming to the coaching staff?
McDermott hasn’t been shy about making changes to his coaching staff in three years on the job. In that time, he’s replaced his offensive coordinator, special teams coordinator, wide receivers coach (twice), offensive line coach and defensive line coach, among others.
The possibility exists that the Bills could lose their offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, to a head coaching job – he was scheduled to interview with the Cleveland Browns on Monday for that position – but outside of that, big changes do not appear to be forthcoming after a 10-win season.
9. Why wasn’t the home record better?
The Bills went 6-2 on the road in 2019, tying a franchise record for road wins. The team was just 4-4 at home, though, which is puzzling given the home-field advantage at New Era Field. Granted, two of the losses were to annual nemesis New England and Baltimore, the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs and a Super Bowl favorite. It’s also true that the last loss, which came to the New York Jets, was in a meaningless game.
Nevertheless, the home record will have to be better next season, because the road schedule looks much tougher in 2020. In addition to their AFC East opponents, the Bills will travel to Tennessee, San Francisco, Arizona, Denver and Las Vegas. That’s four trips out West and three games against teams that made the 2019 playoffs (New England, Tennessee and San Francisco).
10. Why is this not the “same old Bills?”
McDermott and Beane rightfully bristle at that term – for good reason. They’ve made the playoffs in two of their three seasons here and brought stability to what was a rudderless ship. Still, it was hard not to come away from Saturday’s loss feeling like the more things change, the more they stay the same with this franchise. The Bills routinely found new and inventive ways to lose games before Beane and McDermott arrived. That’s happened far less since they’ve been here, but Saturday’s game fits the description. It will be up to the front office and coaching staff to make sure the result against the Texans doesn’t carry over into next season.
Story topics: Brandon Beane/ Brian Daboll/ Charles Clay/ Chris Ivory/ Dean Marlowe/ Devin Singletary/ Dion Dawkins/ Frank Gore/ Isaiah McKenzie/ Jason Croom/ Jordan Phillips/ Josh Allen/ Julian Stanford/ Kevin Johnson/ Kurt Coleman/ Kyle Williams/ LaAdrian Waddle/ Levi Wallace/ Lorenzo Alexander/ Matt Milano/ Maurice Alexander/ Micah Hyde/ Quinton Spain/ Robert Foster/ Sean McDermott/ Senorise Perry/ Shaq Lawson/ Tre'davious White/ Tremaine Edmunds