The Buffalo Bills report to St. John Fisher College next weekend in hopes of laying the foundation for a playoff run in 2016. As some have again reminded me, the Bills haven’t made the post-season since relocating their training camp from Fredonia State to Fisher. With apologies to them, as well as to World Series-starved Chicago Cubs fans, I don’t believe in sports curses, whether they involve billy goats, black cats, fans interfering with foul balls or play-making quarterbacks being benched by meddling owners on the eve of the playoffs.
To believe the Bills have stumbled through 16 consecutive seasons without a post-season appearance—the longest active futility streak in North American sports—because they prep in Pittsford is to believe the upcoming presidential campaign will be staged with civility. It is a monumental stretch, and couches the real reasons for Buffalo’s famine. Questionable drafting, coaching and playing, coupled with the failure to find a suitable replacement for legendary quarterback Jim Kelly, are the real reasons the Bills haven’t made the playoffs since Bill Clinton occupied the White House and gas could be pumped for just over a buck a gallon.
If anything, the switch to Fisher by then-Bills president Russ Brandon in 2000 was a brilliant move that helped regionalize the franchise and prevent it from bolting Western New York. The venue change was good for the Bills and good for Fisher, which has blossomed into a Division III football power thanks, in large part, to the NFL team’s presence and vastly upgraded facilities.
Rex Ryan’s crew will arrive in our leafy suburb next Friday with their souped-up vehicles, high-def TVs and some pressing questions to be answered. At the end of last month’s mini-camp, the Bills brash second-year head coach proclaimed his team won the off-season, whatever the heck that means. Last I looked, you didn’t receive a trophy or a White House invitation for such victories. And I wonder if Rex had to give a few off-season wins back after the recent news in which one of his running backs was suspended four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy while another was arrested for DWI.
As we transition from the off-season to the preseason, here are some things I’ll be keeping my eyes on:
- Tyrod Taylor’s growth. A year ago, the Bills entered camp not knowing if they had a quarterback, but Taylor won the job and was a revelation. Displaying a nice touch on deep passes and an ability to make plays with his legs, the former Baltimore Ravens backup led Buffalo to an 8-6 record in his starts. He threw 20 touchdown passes and just six interceptions to finish seventh in NFL pass efficiency. But there’s still plenty of work to be done before he becomes the franchise quarterback the Bills have desperately sought since Kelly retired in 1997. In order to land a record contract extension, Taylor must prove he can consistently make throws over the middle and connect with receivers other than the talented Sammy Watkins. He also must stay healthy (he missed two games with a knee injury) and show he can win games in the fourth quarter, an attribute more important than ever in a league coming off a record number of contests decided on the final possession.
- Ryan’s development as a head coach. Since leading the New York Jets to AFC Championship Game appearances his first years, Ryan’s teams have failed to make the playoffs five consecutive seasons, while going 33-46. Defense is his strong suit, and had the Bills defense performed at the top-10 level it had the previous two years, Buffalo would have ended its postseason drought last season. Ryan’s tendency to shoot from the lip is entertaining, but sometimes gets him and his team in trouble. And his game management leaves much to be desired. Hopefully, he’s learned from last year’s mistakes and can build on his team’s strong finish. Otherwise, his job may be in jeopardy just two years into a five-year contract.
- The defense’s progress. Ryan clearly didn’t live up to his reputation as a defensive genius last season as he turned a fourth-ranked defense into a 19th-ranked defense. Players complained openly about being confused, and it wasn’t until the final few games that things started clicking. It may just have been an aberration, because in Ryan’s 11 NFL seasons as either a coordinator or head coach, his defenses have ranked in the top eight nine times and have been No. 1 twice. You would think the players will be more comfortable this time around. The addition of Rex’s twin brother, Rob Ryan, to the staff should help, because he’s coached the same, attack-style defense that was handed down by their late father, Buddy Ryan.
- Durability. Buffalo ranked eighth in the league in number of games missed by starters because of injuries. The Bills can ill afford to lose Taylor, Watkins and running back LeSean McCoy for prolonged periods of time. Look for them to keep the bubble wrap on McCoy and Watkins during the preseason. It also will be interesting to see how safety Aaron Williams (neck) and defensive tackle Kyle Williams (knee) come back from injuries that sidelined them most of last season.
- Kicker Dan Carpenter. He had an uncharacteristically bad season in 2015, missing six extra points. The tone was set during the preseason when he missed three field goals and an extra point. Carpenter needs a strong camp, or he’ll be jettisoned.
- Kathryn Smith’s work as a special teams assistant. Kudos to Ryan for making her the first female full-time assistant coach in NFL history. Smith earned it, and it will be encouraging to watch her assume even greater responsibilities as camp and the season progress.
- Right side of the offensive line. They’re solid at center (Eric Wood), left guard (Richie Incognito) and tackle (Cordy Glenn), but they need better performances from second-year right guard John Miller and the right tackle position, where Seantrel Henderson is attempting to come back from Crohn’s disease and could be pushed by veteran Jordan Mills or former second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio.
Nationally honored RBJ sports columnist Scott Pitoniak will be covering his 32nd Buffalo Bills training camp.
7/22/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.