Take a deep breath, Bills Mafia members, and repeat after me: “The world is not coming to an end. This painful loss was just part of the process. Happy Days will be here again before you know it. So, don’t stop Bill-ieving.”
Yes, Saturday night’s second-half collapse in which Buffalo squandered a 16-point lead and wound up losing in overtime to the Houston Texans was a bitter pill to swallow. And, yes, it felt like the fates and the guys in the striped shirts were piling on yet again — this latest heartbreaker joining Wide Right, Music City Miracle, No Goal, and so many other miserable moments in Buffalo sporting lore.
Still, despite this sucker punch, the future looks bright. Really bright, in my estimation. Coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have done a yeoman’s job in drastically making over this roster in a really short time, and the team they field in 2020 figures to be even more potent. With Father Time finally getting his paws on arch nemesis quarterback Tom Brady, there’s legitimate hope of ending the New England Patriots’ generation-long stranglehold on the AFC East. The Bills proved this season they can compete with anyone. Now, they must prove they can beat anyone, especially Brady’s Bunch, who have won 32 of the last 35 meetings.
Many of the pieces already are in place at One Bills Drive, and with nearly $90 million salary-cap space, and a surfeit of draft choices, the roster figures to grow considerably stronger before next season kicks off. Priority No. 1 is finding talented-but-still-very-raw quarterback Josh Allen a strapping, home-run threat wide receiver to take the top off defenses and provide a big target in the red zone.
Wideouts John Brown and Cole Beasley enjoyed career years in their first seasons in Buffalo, combining for 139 catches for 1,838 yards and 12 touchdowns. They can become even more dynamic with a receiving stud added to the mix, conjuring memories of the Andre Reed-James Lofton-Don Beebe trio from the Bills’ Super Bowl years. During his rookie season, Devin Singletary showed he can be the dual-threat running back that drives opposing defenders crazy with his ankle-breaking moves and sure-fingered catches.
The Bills’ defense already is a top-five unit, and can become truly elite as its young core, featuring Pro Bowl cornerback Tre’Davious White, linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano, and rising rookie tackle Ed Oliver, continues to mature.
Of course, for the Bills to win their first divisional title and playoff game in a quarter-century, Allen is going to need to become the quarterback the “McBeane team” believes he can be. He made significant strides this season, as evidenced by a six-point jump in his completion percentage and a 14-point rise in passer rating. A year after throwing 12 interceptions in 12 games, he tossed just nine in 16 games. He also accounted for 29 touchdowns, with his nine rushing scores best among NFL quarterbacks, and that’s saying something, given the breakout season by Lamar Jackson, the most elusive running QB in league history. Allen also ranked among the league’s most efficient fourth-quarter quarterbacks, engineering come-from-behind victories six times.
Despite the progress, Allen remains an enigma. There are times when he exhilarates with Houdini-like escapes and throws that only a handful of quarterbacks on the planet are capable of making. But there also are times when he exasperates by overlooking open receivers and flinging it into double- or triple-coverage, or by failing to protect himself and the football. Good Josh and Bad Josh were on full display Saturday night in Allen’s jittery postseason debut. His second-half fumble resulted in a momentum-changing Texans field goal that proved fatal in a game ultimately decided by three points.
We have to remind ourselves that Allen is just 23, and still trying to figure it out. You hope that with experience comes wisdom, and that he keeps the context of the game in mind before taking head-scratching risks, such as that crazy lateral he tried late in regulation. This coming season will be crucial in determining whether he is or isn’t THE guy going forward. He’ll need to continue his ascendency and not follow the career trajectory of Mitch Trubisky, who thrilled Chicago Bears fans in his second NFL season, only to back-pedal into mediocrity in 2019.
Allen has the size, the arm, and plenty of intangibles. His teammates respect him and follow his lead. They love his moxie. I like the way he took full responsibility for Saturday’s collapse, said it was on him. He talked about how the sting of this loss would fuel him during an off-season that will feel longer than normal because of the nature of this collapse.
Next season also will be telling for offensive coordinator Brian Daboll — and for McDermott, for that matter. Daboll’s play-calling has been inconsistent — at times Bill Wash-brilliant, at times more conservative than Calvin Coolidge. I wonder if McDermott, a defensive-minded coach, tempers things too much and becomes a little too cautious in the second-half of games, particularly after securing leads. The Bills ranked 23rd in the NFL in scoring this season, averaging 19.6 points per game. That was by far the worst average among the 12 playoff teams, and more than a touchdown per game below the averages posted by Baltimore, San Francisco and Kansas City, each of whom averaged 28 points or better. The bottom line is Buffalo is going to need to score more next season if it wants to end that 25-year playoff victory and division title drought — and that’s on Allen, Daboll and McDermott.
While reports of the demise of the Patriots’ dynasty have proven premature in recent years, I think the end is nearing for their 42-year-old, first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback. Brady said after Saturday’s rare home playoff loss to Tennessee that he doesn’t plan to retire. There’s still a possibility he may re-up with the Patriots or sign a free-agent contract with another team. (The San Diego Chargers would be a plausible landing spot for the California native to finish his otherworldly career. There’s also some talk of him playing for Frank Reich in Indianapolis.)
Brady’s inability to make certain throws became evident as the season wore on. Yes, the blood clot that sidelined center Dave Andrews for the entire season didn’t help the Patriots cause. Nor did the retirement of Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski. Despite those loses, Brady still managed an excellent 24-to-8 TD-to-interception ratio and passed for a tad more than 4,000 yards. But his completion percentage was down five points and his 88.0 passer rating continued a three-year slide and was nine points below his career number. This is not to say he no longer can play at a fairly high level. The $25-million question for the Patriots is whether he can perform at a championship level.
Bills fans, of course, would love to see Brady either retire or become the latest great athlete to hang around a year or two too long. Their dislike of him is understandable given that the Patriots quarterback has dominated their team like few athletes have ever dominated an opponent. Still, the once-canyonesque gap between Buffalo and Bill Belichick’s team has closed dramatically. Now, the Bills must take the next step and beat them and regain control of a division they dominated in the 1990s.
As disappointing as the wildcard loss to the Texans was, it was not an omen. Perspective is necessary as the fresh wounds heal. Things are looking up. They really are. The Bills appear on the verge of a fertile rather than futile stretch. Happy days will be here again, perhaps as soon as 2020.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.