Some overly optimistic Buffalo Bills followers want to draw parallels to their beloved football team’s resurrection back in the late 1980s. To me, that’s a leap greater than Josh Allen’s hurdling of that Minnesota Vikings linebacker last season. I’m not ready to jump to that conclusion, but I will concede this much: The Bills appear to be moving in the right direction under the leadership of Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane. This is a vastly different — and better — team than the one they inherited from their predecessors.
As we were reminded again with Saturday’s release of running back LeSean McCoy, the McBeane team isn’t afraid make bold and necessary moves. Shady’s departure means only three players — Jerry Hughes, Lorenzo Alexander and Shaq Lawson — remain from the Rex Ryan/Doug Whaley error. That’s a 96 percent turnover of the roster in just three years. When the Bills start the season against the New York Jets Sunday afternoon in the Jersey Meadowlands, their starting 22 will be 90 percent different from the one the Bills fielded in Ryan’s final opener in 2016.
But it’s not just the numbers; it’s the talent. This team is far more skilled, with many more upside-players, thanks to the extreme makeover by McBeane.
Again, it’s way too early to make comparisons with the reclamation performed by Hall of Fame General Manager Bill Polian and Coach Marv Levy 30 years ago. Heck, that team boasted five players (Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and James Lofton) who are enshrined in Canton, Ohio, plus about 10-12 guys who qualified for the Hall of the Very Good. They dominated the AFC East for nearly a decade, while making their four consecutive trips to the Super Bowl. The current team’s history is yet to be written.
So, Bills Mafia members need to pump their brakes a bit. In reality, this young squad, which features 25 players with two or fewer seasons of NFL experience, is probably a season away from the playoffs. But that’s not to say it couldn’t happen this year if several things fall into place.
First and foremost — and this is hardly “stop-the-presses!” news — Allen has to show marked improvement in his sophomore NFL season. That doesn’t mean going out and tossing 30 touchdown passes or completing 60 percent of his throws, but he does need to learn that sometimes discretion is the better part of valor and settle for a five- or six-yard checkdown completion instead of forcing it downfield or immediately taking off and running. Clearly, the deep throws and quarterback keepers need to be a part of the Bills offense. Coordinator Brian Daboll would be foolish not to utilize Allen’s bazooka arm and fleet feet. But the offense will sputter if the young quarterback continues to be overly reliant on his athletic blessings and shows he hasn’t learned the positives of occasionally taking what the defense gives you.
Unlike last year, when he often was forced to run for his life and was throwing to some receivers who couldn’t catch a cold, Allen should be protected better and have more sure-handed targets. It may take time for an offensive line with four new starters to gel, especially since a concussion cut deeply into center Mitch Morse’s preseason practice time. But on paper, at least, this is a much-improved group, as is the receiving corps, which features free-agent newcomers John Brown and Cole Beasley. Brown is a field-stretcher who averaged 17 yards on his 47 catches for the Baltimore Ravens in 2018, but I’m more intrigued by Beasley, a smurfy possession receiver who had 65 receptions for the Dallas Cowboys last season. Allen needs to improve on his short and intermediate passes — the ones that keep the chains moving — and Beasley could quickly emerge as his go-to guy.
The revamped offensive line should result in an improved run game. Carries and receptions will be divided among Frank Gore, a 15-year vet who needs just 522 yards to supplant Barry Sanders as the third-leading rusher in NFL history; Devin Singletary, a jitterbug rookie whose impressive training camp made Shady McCoy expendable, and T.J. Yeldon, who was a productive back for Jacksonville last season, with 901 yards from scrimmage, including 487 on 55 catches. As mentioned, Allen also will be part of the run game after rushing for a franchise quarterback record 631 yards and eight touchdowns in 12 games. But it’s better for his durability if he isn’t averaging seven-to-eight carries a game.
Defense again will be the strength of the team. The secondary, with veteran safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer and clamp-down corner Tre’Davious White, is among the league’s best. Second-year linebacker Tremaine Edmunds is on the verge of becoming an elite player, and rookie defensive lineman Ed Oliver could provide a much-needed pass-rushing boost.
The Bills open with winnable games against both New York teams on the road and the Cincinnati Bengals at New Era Field. That will be followed by a visit by Tom Brady’s bunch, then a trip to Tennessee, a bye, and a home game against the tanking Miami Dolphins. Were Allen to make a quantum leap, it’s conceivable to envision a 5-1 start. The rest of the schedule will be much more demanding with road games in Cleveland, Dallas, Pittsburgh and New England. Sunday’s matchup is intriguing and will give us an idea if the Bills or the Jets, with promising second-year QB Sam Darnold and do-it-all free agent running back Le’Veon Bell, are ready to battle for a wildcard spot behind perennial division champ, New England.
There is cause for optimism, but let’s not jump the gun. The Bills remain a work in progress, and we still don’t know if we’re going to be comparing Allen to Jim Kelly or EJ Manuel.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.