The 2017 Buffalo Bills season ended just as it began and run its course – full of mixed emotions. It took me quite some time at the beginning of the season to move out of a rebuilding mode where losing might actually accelerate long term progress (some may have called it tanking) and to embrace the team’s surprising winning ways. Like many fans, I was stunned that the team jettisoned multiple talented young players in favor of future draft picks, but eventually came to trust the process. Today I sit here heartbroken by the loss to Jacksonville that ends the season, yet I still feel positive about many things – so many emotions.
A week after the euphoria of snapping the 17 year playoff drought, I, like many Bills fans, feel pretty terrible. I feel terrible because the Bills lost a winnable game in a frustrating fashion – something we’ve all established a high tolerance to based on plenty of repetition over the past 17 years. Regardless, it still hurts to realize the 2017 season stops here – the next game is 9 months away.
Jacksonville had a great year this year, but they were certainly beatable. Like they Bills, the team is built on defense with an offense to put up just enough points to win. Sunday’s game wasn’t supposed to be a shootout between two offensive powerhouses and it wasn’t – it was a low key, low scoring affair. The first 8 possessions by the teams resulted in 8 punts with the longest drive going for only 45 yards. In the second quarter the Bills finally mounted a scoring drive but after 8 shots from the red zone Buffalo finally had to kick a field goal, settling for 3 points rather than 7.
With just over a minute before halftime the Jaguars managed two drives, one of which ended up with a tying Jacksonville field goal. For the fourth time this season the Bills went into the locker room at halftime tied with their opponent – in 3 other games the score has been within a field goal and 4 other times the scores have been within a touchdown.
The Jaguars made some decent adjustments in the second half – they started to move the ball with much better efficiency with quick passes into zones and the running of Blake Bortles. Bortles was the 7th best rushing quarterback in 2017, averaging 20.1 yards per game, but set a career high with 88 rushing yards against the Bills. In a tight game where long drives were at a premium, it is easy to argue that Bortles runs killed Buffalo, and it was frustrating to watch.
In a close, low scoring game it’s the little things that can make or break you, and Buffalo didn’t get many of the little things they needed to augment some generally stout defensive play. Missed tackles, missed interceptions, dropped passes – all of these things helped kill the Bills and no doubt lead to colorful language by Bills fans everywhere.
Possibly the biggest reason the Bills did not advance is the anemic play of the offense, especially by the quarterback. Sunday may have been the final game for Tyrod Taylor as a Buffalo Bill and it did not end well – he threw for a paltry 134 yards, completed under 50% of his passes and finished with a 44.2 rating. After taking a blow to the head late in the game, Taylor left the field wobbly and entered the concussion protocol.
Over his Buffalo career Taylor has been the cause for many mixed emotions, but after this loss I think it might be hard to find fans advocating for his continued leadership behind center next year and beyond. Tyrod showed what he was very clearly - a guy who can win some games with his feet and escapability in the pocket but one who has extremely limited field vision and too often settles for check down options in the passing game. Only a dozen of Taylor’s 37 passing attempts went to wide receivers and his longest pass of the day was 16 yards to LeSean McCoy where most of the yardage was after the catch. In a game where the Bills desperately needed a big play for a chunk of yardage to get back into or even win the game Taylor came up short – he’s just not that guy.
As crushed as I am about the loss and the end of the season and as frustrated as I am that this was a close game the Bills could have won, I do have some positive thoughts. My first thought is about how proud I am to be a Bills fan. Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of the term Bills Mafia – I know it’s unique to the Bills, but it always seems associated with some of the most out of control antics anywhere in the league. I’m all for crazy fan antics – I love Pinto Ron’s setup and his ketchup and mustard ceremony – good “clean” fun. I’m less enthused about fans too drunk to stand, setting people/things on fire, and hurting themselves jumping through tables hyped up on liquid stupidity, but that’s a topic for another time. I am super proud of the positive good done by the Bills and the accompanying attention Bills fans got for donating nearly $350,000 to Andy Dalton’s foundation. To see fans channel their excitement into something good, even though it’s outside of the local community, as a way to express their appreciation, their excitement and their fandom was just amazing. The money pledged by Bills fans is going to help a lot of folks who need help and it reflects the strong neighborly values found throughout the Western New York region – nothing brings me more pride than to be a part of that group.
I also have some positivity because I think the future looks pretty bright for the Bills. Football in the NFL is never easy, but by getting the playoff monkey off our backs it demonstrates that the Bills can win and aren’t just a punchline. It also shows the organization is heading in the right direction which is fantastic after just 1 year of the McDermott/Beane regime. Players bought into the system this year and played well. Personnel decisions in the 2017 draft were solid and the Bills have some nice young players. The Bills have a treasure trove of draft picks for the 2018 draft and if used well could create the base of a future contender. The Bills will also be in a good position to go after the quarterback they so desperately need. Taylor is not a terrible quarterback, but if the Bills want to get to the next level they’ll need someone with an expanded repertoire of passes, better accuracy and the guts and talent to take and make shots downfield.
And so we as fans begin the long offseason with a frustrating loss stuck clearly in our minds. It’s never a good time when you lose, especially when it also means the end of season and no shot to continue and become champion. There are many question marks about the future – who will be under center for the Bills next year, how will the Bills address the other weaknesses on the team, how can they find a way to win 10 or more games next year? With these questions come opportunities – opportunities for new players who will be drafted, possibly new coaches/and new system (a new offensive coordinator would be great). Heck, they’ll probably even be some opportunities to watch some great games and show what a great fan base the Bills have, and for that I’m very pleased – I hope you are as well.