A columnist never enjoys eating his or her words, but that’s what I’m going to do this week. So, please pass me a libation with which to wash them down because these things are rarely pleasing to a wordsmith’s palate.
You might remember that a month ago, after the Buffalo Bills staggered to a 0-2 start, I called for Rex Ryan’s head on a platter. I wrote that his firing of offensive coordinator Greg Roman wouldn’t make much of a difference; that “Wrecks,” as I referred to him, was merely using G-Ro as a scapegoat, a sacrificial lamb.
Well, if you’ve been paying attention the past four weeks—and I know Bills fans have been—you can’t help but notice that Rex’s crew has been on quite a run. Literally and figuratively. His players have rallied around him—especially running back LeSean McCoy, whose “I-don’t-believe-what-I-just-saw” moves defy description. To invoke a favorite expression of an old NFL scout, “He’s running like his hair’s on fire.”
The promotion of Anthony Lynn to offensive coordinator has worked wonders. Since he started calling plays, the Bills have averaged an astounding 212 rushing yards per game. That’s almost triple what they averaged their first two games. There can be genius in simplicity. Lynn scaled back Roman’s tome of a playbook, and his players have thrived in a system where there’s more doing and less thinking.
And it should be pointed out that the Bills are winning while employing Ryan’s formula, which emphasizes a ground-and-pound offense and an opportunistic defense. After last year’s fiasco, in which Rex’s passive, confused defense cost Buffalo a playoff berth, he’s streamlined things and turned his guys loose. The results have been dramatic. The Bills already have 20 sacks—just one fewer than they accumulated in 16 games in 2015—and they’ve yielded a combined total of only 53 points during their streak. In their last four games, they’ve not merely beaten their opponents; they’ve grounded-and-pounded them into submission, winning by margins of 15, 16, 11 and 29 points.
So, it’s only fair that if I’m going to blame Rex for the debacle of last season and the dismal start to this one, then I should also praise him for the rousing about-face.
The Bills are in a really good spot. Although this week’s opponent, the Miami Dolphins, is coming off an impressive beat down of a Pittsburgh Steelers team that was on an incredible roll, this is a winnable game. A victory would put Buffalo at 5-2, and set up a colossal showdown on Oct. 30 at New Era Field against AFC East nemesis New England. Can you imagine the hype preceding that game against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the quarterback and coach who have owned the Bills for a generation?
That contest begins a challenging stretch that includes road games against Seattle and Cincinnati. If the Bills were able to steal one of those three games, they would be sitting pretty going forward because the back end of the schedule features four home games in the final six weeks and four games against teams with losing records. And I haven’t even mentioned that the Bills defense will be bolstered by the return of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and rookie pass-rushing specialist Shaq Lawson, the team’s first-round draft pick.
Little wonder Bills fans are flying higher than a blimp above New Era. Now, I don’t mean to be a killjoy, but I would still preach cautious optimism. We’ve been down this road before. Remember the tease of 2011, the FitzMagic season when quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick guided Buffalo to a 5-2 start? That season devolved rapidly, as the Bills lost eight of their last nine. And there was the promise of 2008, when quarterback Trent Edwards led Buffalo to a 4-0 start on his way to a 7-9 finish.
Everything is so precarious in this game. All it takes is one injury to—in the immortal words of former Bills coach Hank Bullough— “take the sails out of our wind.” We were reminded of this toward the end of the first half of Sunday’s 45-16 annihilation of the hapless San Francisco 49ers when McCoy went down and clutched his knee. Fortunately, he got up and was fine, but, for a fleeting moment, a season seemed in jeopardy.
For now, everything is good. The Bills are making their supporters want to shout, not pout. The onus is on Rex and his players to finish what they’ve started; to remain focused and take the hackneyed one-game-at-a-time approach. They did what they needed to do in the last month. Yes, the Patriots were without Brady and Rob Gronkowski three weeks ago. Yes, the Los Angeles Rams were missing three important defensive starters. Yes, the 49ers were dreadful. But that’s not the Bills fault. And let’s not forget, they’ve been without some key starters, too, including dynamic pass catcher Sammy Watkins. To their credit, the Bills did what legitimate playoff contenders do: They took care of business, winning the games they should have.
As much as I would love to tell long-suffering Bills fans that the 16-year playoff famine will end this season, I’m not going to believe it’s over until it’s over. Certainly, Buffalo is in a great position to go to the postseason right now. In fact, some oddsmakers and analytic geeks say the Bills have a 75 percent chance of making the playoffs.
To be honest, I’m still not totally sold on Rex as a head coach. I still worry he’ll do something foolish to screw things up. But I have to give him his due for righting the ship. The Bills have been winning because of him, not in spite of him. He’s made me eat my words.
Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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