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Expect Bills to take a few steps back in order to move forward

scottteaser-215x160The Labor Day morning announcement by the Buffalo Bills that Nathan Peterman will start Sunday’s regular-season opener against the Ravens in Baltimore elicited the kind of sarcasm one might expect from the cesspool known as Twitter. One tweeter joked about making preparations for a Super Bowl parade. Another wrote, simply, “Ugh!” And these were from people who claimed to be members of Bills Mafia.

The decision, though underwhelming, was the right one, given the state of the Bills hodgepodge offensive line and the rawness of prized rookie quarterback Josh Allen. With three new starters, this isn’t yet a National Football League-caliber O-line, but rather an OMG-line, as in “Oh, my God, our quarterback is going to get killed!” Better to start out with second-year pro Peterman than subject the inexperienced Allen to a potential pummeling. He clearly isn’t ready. Neither are his pass protectors. Imagine an indecisive rookie operating behind a porous line that this season will be going against raging pass-rushers J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack. Ouch!

Peterman appears to have bounced back from his hideous NFL starting debut last November when he threw five interceptions in the first half before being yanked. He filled in well during that challenging “Snow Bowl” victory against Indianapolis last December and has been consistently good in the offseason and preseason, for whatever that’s worth. His ability to get rid of the ball quickly will be essential behind a line still dealing with the unexpected, injury-forced retirement of center Eric Wood and the departure of talented but mentally unstable left guard Richie Incognito.

It’s too bad the AJ McCarron experiment didn’t work out. But the former Cincinnati Bengal backup/spot starter failed to seize the opportunity, and the “McBeane” team of Bills coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane was wise to salvage what it could by getting a fifth-round draft pick in a trade with Oakland.

At some point this season—perhaps by the halfway mark—Buffalo will take the bubble wrap off Allen, and begin his real-game development. For now, the job belongs to Peterman, deservedly so. He earned it. He’s shown a lot of moxie, worked hard to prove he’s more than the punch line he became after that interception fest. The 2017 fifth-round draft pick out of Pitt remains a longshot to keep his job beyond this season, but, hey, stranger things have happened.

I know many table-smashing, grill-diving members of Bills Mafia don’t want to hear this, but their team isn’t going to the playoffs this season. In fact, they probably are looking at six, maybe seven wins, tops. And their record could be worse, especially against a schedule that sees them playing five of the first seven on the road, including games at Minnesota and Green Bay.

The aforementioned offensive line is the biggest concern. But there are holes other places, too.

The Bills took a flyer on former Cleveland Browns first-round pick Corey Coleman in hopes a change of venue would help the speedy wide receiver. But Coleman never grasped the offense and was cut over the weekend. That leaves Buffalo with a receiving corps of wideout Kelvin Benjamin, tight end Charles Clay and a bunch of no-names, including a rookie whose name I really like—Ray-Ray McCloud III.

Benjamin apparently is healthy again, after being stymied by leg injuries that saw him miss the entire 2015 season and limited him to 16 catches and one touchdown in his six games last year with the Bills. McDermott would love to see the 6-foot-6 target respond with a season like he had in his rookie year with the Carolina Panthers (73 receptions, 1,008 yards, nine touchdowns). Of course, that was before Benjamin’s knee issues and came while on the receiving end of passes from the strong-armed Cam Newton. Clay has been dependable, but not spectacular, and could benefit more from an offense that won’t be afraid to utilize the middle of the field the way it didn’t with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. Veteran receiver Jeremy Kerley could be a tertiary target. He has 268 receptions and 13 touchdowns in seven seasons as a backup.

In all likelihood, Buffalo will continue to ride the legs of LeSean McCoy, and spell him with the punishing runs of veteran Chris Ivory and impressive third-year back Marcus Murphy. McCoy and McDermott slough off mentions of the running back being 30 years old, but it is a concern. McCoy has lots of miles on the odometer—2,626 touches in 10 seasons—and although he was extremely productive last year with 1,138 rushing yards and 59 receptions, his per-carry average dipped from 5.4-yards in 2016 to 4.0-yards last season. Also, one has to wonder if the Bills rushing attack will remain effective behind a questionable line.

The secondary, led by Tre’Davious White, should be strong again, and I’m looking forward to watching rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. He has the potential to become a dynamic defender, but it will be interesting to see how the 20-year-old handles the pressure of being the defensive signal-caller.

Though the defensive line could be bolstered by the addition of veterans Trent Murphy and Star Lotulelei, and rookie Harrison Phillips, I wonder about the Bills pass rush. Last year, they ranked near the bottom of the league with 27 sacks, 12 fewer than the previous season. Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson led the way with just four apiece. Dramatic improvement is needed because they’ll be facing some pretty good quarterbacks, including Tom Brady (twice), Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, Deshaun Watson and Matthew Stafford.

Although there appear to be chinks in the New England Patriots armor, they still have Coach Bill Belichick and Brady, who just turned 41, but is coming off a record-setting 505-yard Super Bowl performance. Unless Peterman or Allen discover stardom immediately, I don’t see a repeat of last season. With just 28 players back from the roster that opened the 2017 season, this remains a team in flux. Next season has the potential to be much better because the Bills finally will be done with the ludicrous contracts they inherited from the previous regime and will have cap-space room to recruit quality free agents. They’ll also have 10 draft picks. In the meantime, Bills fans will have no choice but to trust the process. Could be a long year.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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