Sunday rituals, back to normal – the Bills were back at 1pm on Sunday and I was ready. Due to a Monday night tilt in Seattle and a bye week, I hadn’t settled down for a Sunday afternoon Bills game in 3 weeks and it was good to get back to my normal Sunday afternoon routine. You’d think that a return to football normalcy, in conjunction with a Bills victory would have me feeling great, but nothing could be farther from the truth.
Sunday’s win over Cincinnati was as unsatisfying as they come – like having a monster poker hand and winning $2 or having a fine chocolate and discovering it’s old and dry. Sunday was a win, but it left more questions than answers.
These are the questions I asked myself on Sunday that I’ve been trying to answer ever since:
- Is Tyrod Taylor the quarterback of the future in Buffalo?
It’s hard to think that Tyrod Taylor won’t be back with the Bills next year, but that seems more likely a result of the dearth of quarterbacks available more than Taylor earning a big deal. Simply put, if Tyrod isn’t under center for the Bills next season I don’t know who will take his place – there’s really nobody of any talent available – at least nobody significantly better than Taylor.
After an initial season where he showed promise, the Bills rewarded him with a contract more in line with his production and dangled the option for another $90 million by picking up his option starting next year. The hope was that Taylor would take steps this season to show that he was ready to be the long-awaited franchise quarterback Buffalo has sought since the retirement of Jim Kelly, and if he regressed the team could walk away without being crippled under the salary cap.
Unfortunately, this year did not go according to plan at all. Sammmy Watkins, the prime tarket in the Bills passing offense, has been missing for most of the season with a foot injury – he may or may not come back in future weeks. Robert Woods has been forced into a primary wide receiver role, and he is just not a primary wide receiver. After Sunday’s game Woods won’t be in the mix anyway – he was injured and he could miss multiple weeks. Behind Woods you have Justin Hunter, Marquise Goodwin, and the newly-unretired Percy Harvin. It’s easy to see that it might be difficult to really gauge quarterback talent based on a makeshift receiving corps.
Lack of receiving talent notwithstanding, Taylor hasn’t done himself any favors by missing open receivers consistently and being off the mark on a bunch of his longer throws. Taylor has looked quick to go through his reads and either checkdown the pass or try and make a play with his legs. Not forcing the ball into bad spots is admirable, as is the ability to make plays with elusive running talents, but if you’re going to be a true franchise quarterback you have to be able to find the open man, make the difficult throws and hit players open on mismatched – Taylor has done little of that this season.
Another thing a franchise quarterback has to do is win games. I’ve said it countless times this season – Taylor isn’t the reason the Bills are losing games, but he’s not the reason they’re winning, either. I can’t tell you how many times he has had the opportunity to be the hero by engineering the winning drive, bringing the Bills back from being down or putting the game away for good, and he’s failed to do it. Sunday was no exception – with the Bills defense able to prevent the Bengals from scoring in the second half, Taylor really only needed to drive the Bills to a touchdown to put the game away – he couldn’t. Late in the game he didn’t even need to score any further points – just convert a third down and prevent Cincinnati from getting the ball back – he put a quick out pass out of the reach of Harvin. At some points you have to make those drives, make those throws and all season long Taylor has been getting by without being the hero – it really should make you question whether he should see the next $90 million on his contract.
I’m really torn about Tyrod – he’s certainly better than any of the quarterbacks the Bills have had since Kelly (not a very high bar), but if you compare him against other quarterbacks in the NFL rather than the pothole-filled role that represents Buffalo quarterback path it’s clear he’s not any better than an average quarterback at this point – maybe one that just runs and makes plays with his feet better than most. He hasn’t had great talent to work with and letting him go would almost certainly guarantee having a worse quarterback for the Bills next season, so what do you do?
- What’s wrong with the defense?
For the second year in a row the defense is underperforming under the Rex Ryan scheme. Two seasons ago the defense was excellent and with few losses and a supposed defensive genius coach many expected the defense to win games for Buffalo – the offense just needed to not lose games. The first season under Ryan was an eye-opener – the Bills went from being at the top of the sack list to being at the bottom. Ultimately the dropoff was attributed to a complex new system that players had to learn. 2016 would be different with players being acclimated to the system and defensive help coming in the draft – Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland. Before the season even started disaster struck – Lawson would miss his entire rookie training camp and the first half of the season and Ragland was lost for the year with an ACL injury – so much for adding significant talent to the defense.
A funny thing happened, though – Buffalo hit the jackpot by signing some veteran players and utilizing what little depth it had. Zach Brown at linebacker has been fantastic, posting numbers we only dared dream about. Likewise, Lorenzo Alexander has been a monster pass rusher alongside Jerry Hughes – he’s even a candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, so it’s been hard to say that injuries and depth have been major issues for the Bills on defense.
Sadly, the Bills secondary has played very poorly in 2016. Rex Ryan’s defensive scheme relies on getting pressure on the quarterback and leaving the cornerbacks on an island to handle receivers in man coverage. While Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby played well last season, both seem to have regressed. At the beginning of the season Gilmore was complaining about getting top five cornerback money, but his actually play has shown him to be less than average. Darby has had his ups and downs as well. Many times the corners have been incapable of covering their man well enough to break up a pass or make an interception and both corners have been victimized when they have let receivers get by them – Buffalo leads the league in pass plays over 20-yards allowed. Safety has been problematic with the loss of Aaron Williams. Put it all together and you’ll see a unit that looks very stout against the run (especially when Marcell Darieus is blocking up the middle), but is continually giving up third downs via the pass. The first half on Sunday was awful – third-and long after third-and long conversions being made – most when a receiver ran past the sticks and caught a pass with nary a Bill in sight. Despite knocking Pro-Bowl receiver A.J. Green out of the game in the first quarter and coming away with two interceptions in the first half, Gilmore still played poorly enough that I’d really like to NOT see him in a Bills uniform next season. I still have hope for Darby, but I’m not sure if he’s seasoned enough to play the demanding role needed week after week. Despite leading the league in sacks, the Bills are only ranked12th in total defense – 20th against the run and 11th against the pass.
- How many *(&^%! penalties can they get?
Fresh off their bye week, the Bills were back at it again with penalties – 9 of them for 75 yards on Sunday. The team looks disorganized and undisciplined. The Bills are fourth in the league in penalty yards with 733. Penalties are always maddening, but when they are of the stupid variety they really make you want to tear you hair out. Week after week the Bills seem to get stupid penalties for things like too many men on the field and illegal formation – things veteran teams and coaches should be able to avoid. Then there are the undisciplined penalties – just ask Hughes about the personal foul penalties he’s racked up doing stupid things (his head butt on Sunday was brilliantly stupid). Then there are the “got beat” penalties we always see, often in the secondary – defensive holding, pass interference – things that happen when your man beats you – these are often for big chunks of yards and/or drive extenders. Lastly there are the special team penalties that flip the field. Instead of a nice return, a play gets called back due to a block in the back. No matter how you slice it, the Bills continue to kill themselves with penalties and whatever Rex Ryan is doing to try and eliminate them is not working.
So there you have it – the big questions I’m struggling with, even after a win. I know there are plenty of Bills fans who haven’t given up dreams of the playoffs – it happens every year – until the Bills are officially eliminated there are those people who cling to the “in the hunt” graphic, forgetting that the Bills would essentially need to win out the remainder of their schedule given to their poor tiebreaker position. As much as I want to see that monkey off of Buffalo’s back, the team is on the same trajectory it always is this time of year – one game either side of .500 – some things never change, don’t kid yourself.
And so the Bills move on, time to meet Jacksonville again. When last the teams met in London the Bills were down to the second string bus driver at running back and E.J. Manuel at quarterback. He promptly turned the ball over for two touchdowns. We all got to watch on a choppy Yahoo feed at 9:30 in the morning with Cheerios and beer– what a treat. Sunday’s game should be better, although the Bills are now without their top two receivers, so the game could be more interesting than it should be. The Bills have some winnable games on the upcoming schedule – just enough to start to get hopes up before the inevitable middle of the road finish. I look forward to watching some more entertaining Bills games, cheering the team on, collecting some more wins and looking forward to next season – maybe I’ll even get some of my questions answered.
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