The election season is gearing up, so it’s not surprising to see red, white and blue campaign signs sprouting in yards throughout Western New York. What is surprising are the names on some of these plastic-coated cardboard rectangles. Rather than Trump/Pence or Biden/Harris, they tout the candidacy of Allen/Diggs, a quarterback/wide receiver ticket the Buffalo Bills hope will be a winning combination this fall, and beyond. By Election Day (November 3), half the National Football League season will be completed (pandemic dependent, of course), so we’ll have a pretty good idea whether Josh Allen to Stefon Diggs is the final piece of the puzzle for a franchise that hasn’t won an AFC East title or playoff game since Jim Kelly was quarterbacking the Bills and President Bill Clinton was quarterbacking the country.
The last time the Bills’ favorability ratings were this high was 1995, when they rushed for 341 yards while squishing the Miami Dolphins, 37-22, for their last postseason victory. All signs point to an end to Buffalo’s quarter-century drought this season. Much of the national media is bullish on the Bills. Oh, sure, there remain several contrarians who are trashing Allen, and thinking the Tom Brady-less New England Patriots remain the team to beat, but those nattering nabobs of negativism are in the minority. The vast majority of pigskin pundits — this one included — have the Bills winning the division and at least one playoff game.
Let’s face it, everything is set up well for the 2020 Bills, with the exception of fans not being allowed in the stands because of coronavirus concerns, when the season kicks off in Orchard Park Sunday against the New York Jets. But home-field advantage can be overrated, even in Buffalo, a drinking town with a football problem. The team hasn’t done a great job feeding off the energy of its table-smashing fans in recent years, going 4-4 at home in 2018 and ’19. Hardly what Coach Sean McDermott had in mind when talking about “defending your dirt.”
The departure of Brady, who went 32-3 vs. Buffalo, is an enormous roadblock removed. The exodus of several other prominent Patriot starters, either through free agency or pandemic opt-outs, also should help. That’s not to say the Bills will have an easy path. As long as evil genius Bill Belichick is plotting game plans in Foxborough, the Patriots should not be underestimated. Much will depend on how healthy and effective broken-down free agent Cam Newton is. No one is expecting the 2015 version, when Newton took the league by storm and won most valuable player honors. But if the Patriots are able to field, say, the 2017 version (22 touchdown passes, 754 rushing yards and 11 victories with the Carolina Panthers), they will continue to be a formidable foe. A Newton revival would make the Bills schedule even more demanding, considering their non-division games against defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City, Seattle, Tennessee, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and the Los Angeles Rams.
With impact players, such as lock-down pass-defender Tre’Davious White — now the highest paid cornerback in league history — and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, the Bills defense will be stout again. It might even become elite if it can rev up the pass rush and stuff the run a bit better. Pairing Diggs, a true No. 1 receiver, with John Brown and Cole Beasley gives the Bills a tough-to-cover pass-catching corps. The offensive line is above average, and the run game could be dynamic with second-year Devin Singletary and rookie Zack Moss leading the way.
That said, the Bills will go as far as Allen takes them. The highest drafted quarterback in franchise history made strides in 2019. His passer rating jumped nearly 18 points, his touchdowns rose from 10 to 20 and his interceptions dipped from 12 to 9. Allen’s adjusted completion percentage (which subtracts spikes, throwaways, drops and hits while throwing) improved from 64.7 percent in his rookie year to 71.7 percent, and he continued to be a dangerous runner, topping 500 yards for the second consecutive season and scoring nine TDs. Only league MVP Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, Jameis Winston and Dak Prescott had more combined passing/rushing touchdowns than Allen’s 29. His five game-winning drives tied Watson and Wilson for most in the league.
Despite that progress, the Bills ranked 27th in passing yardage and 22nd in yards per attempt and adjusted completion percentage. There remain legitimate questions about Allen’s accuracy, especially on deep throws, where he ranked near the bottom of the league. In his final four games last season, he failed to post a completion percentage higher than 53 percent, including a 24-for-46 performance in the playoff loss to Houston, a game in which they squandered a huge lead.
Harsh critics remain. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell lauds Buffalo’s “Super Bowl-caliber roster,” but refers to Allen as the team’s Achilles heel, adding, “They might be the preseason favorites to win the whole thing if they had drafted Lamar Jackson in the first round in 2018.” NFL general-manager-turned-media-analyst Michael Lombardi also is bearish on Allen. “I wouldn’t mind (his low) completion percentage if he hit a couple of those deep balls,’’ Lombardi said recently on the television show, One Bills Live. “Too many long foul balls.”
Enter Diggs, a receiver capable of turning foul balls into home runs. Going back to Allen’s college days at Wyoming, he’s never had a true game-changing receiver. Diggs can be that guy. Acquired from the Minnesota Vikings for four draft picks, he was one of the NFL’s most dangerous deep threats in 2019, averaging 17.9 yards on 63 receptions. His mere presence will attract double coverage and create additional opportunities for Brown and Beasley, who combined for 139 catches, 1,838 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago.
McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane have surrounded their young quarterback with a title-contending cast. There’s no reason Allen to Diggs can’t be a winning combo, and take the Bills to a place they haven’t been in a quarter century. Anything short of a division title and at least one playoff win will be considered a bust.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest book, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” was just published and is available in paperback and digitally at amazon.com.