A longtime friend and former newspaper colleague recently lamented the departure of Rex Ryan as Buffalo Bills head coach. I do not share his yearning for bad, old days. In fact, I wanted Sexy Rexy gone before he arrived. I knew he was going to be a disaster.
But I know where my fellow sports scribe was coming from. Ryan was a columnist’s dream. By routinely saying or doing something unpredictable and dumb, the fun-loving Ryan provided an endless stream of opining fodder. Covering him was like casting a line at a fish hatchery. The catches just kept on coming. What he didn’t provide was an end to this unfathomable playoff famine that has now reached 17 consecutive seasons.
And so a new era that we hope doesn’t become an old error officially begins Thursday at St. John Fisher College when rookie NFL head coach Sean McDermott attempts to undo the damage Ryan wrought and prove that, after a successful stint as the defensive coordinator of a Carolina Panthers team that reached the Super Bowl two years ago, he is ready to be the guy calling the shots.
So far, the best thing McDermott has going for him is that he’s not Ryan. From a writer’s perspective, the new guy is rather boring. But that’s OK, because boring might be just what the Bills need as they attempt to end the longest active postseason drought in North American major-league sports. Slowly but surely, McDermott has begun orchestrating a culture change. Discipline and accountability have been emphasized throughout off-season workouts. The word is out at One Bills Drive: Silly mistakes and me-first behavior – hallmarks under McDermott’s predecessor – won’t be tolerated.
This is a welcome change because Ryan often seemed more concerned with being his players’ buddy than their coach. Although I like what I’ve seen from McDermott and new General Manager Brandon Beane, we aren’t going to know if they are the right guys for some time. McDermott has said and done all the right things, but how’s he going to react when confronted with his first fourth-and-two decision or the first Jerry Hughes unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and sideline blowup? Only then, will we begin to ascertain if McDermott is the architect worthy of this reclamation project or just another in the run-on-sentence of mediocre coaches who have fueled the drought.
He comes to Fisher facing many questions. The answers to some of the following inquiries will determine how successful his first season is.
Can Sammy Watkins stay healthy? The fourth-year wide receiver is coming off his second foot surgery and has missed 11 games the past two seasons, which is why the team wisely decided not to pick up his option for next season. It’s make-or-break time for Watkins, and given the Bills lack of experience and depth at wide receiver, they desperately need him to be productive for 16 games. There’s no question about his ability. The issue is his availability.
Does Tyrod Taylor have the stuff to become a franchise quarterback? He played well enough to get this team into the playoffs the past two seasons, but the defense didn’t hold up its end. Taylor has some limitations, but McDermott and new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison realize that, so they aren’t going to ask him to stand back in the pocket and try to pick people apart. They’ll have him throw on the run—and continue to have him run. Like Watkins, it’s now or never for Taylor. The Bills have two first-round picks next year that they can bundle to draft one of the handful of top quarterback prospects.
Will the defense improve? One would think so, after Ryan turned a fourth-ranked unit into a 19th-ranked unit. McDermott’s 4-3 alignment seems better suited for Buffalo’s roster, but the Bills lack the athletic linebackers that made the Panthers “D” hum. The loss of cornerback Stephon Gilmore to the New England Patriots hurts, and means rookie first-rounder Tre’Davious White will have to make an immediate impact. The defense needs to be markedly better because it appears the offense might regress a bit.
Will defensive tackle Marcell Dareus return to All-Pro form? When motivated and in shape, Dareus is a force. But his availability and motivation have been lacking. Last season, he missed eight games because of suspension and injuries. McDermott and new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier would love to see production like Dareus had playing in the 4-3 defense of Jim Schwartz in 2014.
How many more miles does LeSean McCoy have left on the odometer? The man they called “Shady” led the team in rushing (1,267 yards), while averaging a robust 5.4 yards per carry and scoring 14 touchdowns in 2016. McCoy remains a dynamic, top-five running back, but he is 29 and you have to wonder if he is ready to hit the proverbial running back wall after so much wear-and-tear. The Bills won’t have the luxury of mixing in Mike Gillislee, who also defected to the Patriots, so they will have to count on untested, second-year running back Jonathan Williams.
Will fans be patient with McDermott and Beane? They’ll need to be, because unless Taylor becomes a legitimate franchise quarterback and the defense turns back the clock to 2014, I don’t see this team winning more than six or seven games. There are too many holes and a brutal out-of-division schedule featuring games against Atlanta, Oakland, Kansas City, Tampa Bay and Denver. So, it’s going to take time, perhaps a few seasons. McDermott and Beane are friends, and that’s a plus after the tempestuous relationships between former GM Doug Whaley and ex-Bills coaches Ryan and Doug Marrone. Whaley’s hunger for power and questionable personnel moves fueled the dysfunction.
Rochester Business Journal sports columnist Scott Pitoniak is entering his 34th season covering the Buffalo Bills.
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