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After laying another post-season egg, Bills have plenty of work to do

Many moons ago, famed cartoonist Charles Schulz drew a Peanuts comic strip that, for me, captured the heartbreak Buffalo Bills fans have been forced to endure. You’ve probably seen it. It’s the one where Charlie Brown trusts Lucy to hold the football for him as he prepares for a kick. Charlie sprints forward, but just before he can put foot to ball, Lucy yanks away the pigskin. Charlie goes flying in the air and lands embarrassingly on his back. The panel concludes with Charlie shouting “Aaugh!”

Sunday afternoon, the Bills Super Bowl aspirations were yanked from them by the Joe Burrow-led Cincinnati Bengals at Highmark Stadium. And one could argue this Super Bowl derailment may have been more disappointing than last year’s infamous “13 Seconds” post-season loss to the Kansas City Chiefs because this one was over shortly after it started.

The Bills were flatter than the state of Indiana; flatter than a can of beer that had been popped two weeks ago. And this development was both inexplicable and understandable, given the circumstances leading up to it.

You would have expected the Bills to be sky high, fueled by a raucous home crowd and the presence of safety Damar Hamlin in the stadium just 20 days after he almost died of cardiac arrest. But adrenaline can carry you only so far. It seemed to me the cumulative impact of a tumultuous season punctuated by Hamlin’s near-fatal tackle, a deadly winter storm that forced the Bills to play three games in 12 days, and a rash of injuries had taken its toll.

“At the end,’’ said safety Micah Hyde, who missed all but two games because of a neck injury, “we just ran out of gas.”

I know fans don’t want to hear that. They think it’s a lame excuse. But I believe the Bills were emotionally spent by the time they took the field Sunday afternoon. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be held accountable for laying an enormous egg. They should. They were out-played, out-coached, out-everything’d by the Bengals. Fans have every right to feel like Charlie Brown and shout, “Aaugh!”

And now the Bills are left to pick themselves up. It’s not going to be easy.

After losing the postseason, they are going to need to win the off-season because the salary cap is going to force Bills General Manager Brandon Beane and Coach Sean McDermott to make some difficult decisions. They’re also going to need to make an honest appraisal of the coaching staff. Everything is on the table, including the possible replacement of offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, neither of whom distinguished themselves against the Bengals.

The great news is the Bills already have their elite quarterback in place. Only a handful of NFL teams can say that. And I have to keep reminding myself and others that Josh Allen is only 26 years old, just entering his prime.

The bad news is that the “McBeane Team” needs to surround Josh with more weapons and protection in a hurry, lest they waste this generational talent. They need to identify a legitimate No. 2 receiver to pair with Stefon Diggs. After watching Gabe Davis tie an NFL single-game postseason record a year ago with four touchdown receptions against the Chiefs, we all thought he was going to take flight this season. He didn’t. Too many drops. Too inconsistent. He looks more like a third option than a second one.

Rookie Khalil Shakir flashed early on and appeared he might become a second or third target for Josh, but he disappeared, as did Isaiah McKenzie, and the Bills, in a desperation move, dipped into their past, signing John Brown and Cole Beasley off the scrap heap. Maybe Davis and Shakir will develop into something special, but the clock is ticking.

The season-ending knee injury to superb pass-rusher Von Miller in early December proved devastating. Without him, the Bills no longer could rely on just their front four to pressure quarterbacks. There was hope high draft picks Ed Oliver (first round), A.J. Epenesa (second round), Greg Rousseau (first round) and Boogie Basham (second round) would step it up, but they were missing in action against an injury-riddled Bengals offensive line featuring three backups.

The Bills offensive line also under-achieved, and will need to be upgraded, especially at right tackle and left guard. Josh’s elusiveness masked some of the line’s deficiencies, but he took a pounding, resulting in the elbow injury he gutted through down the stretch.

The Bills are $8.49 million over the salary cap, and will become trickier to handle as big contracts awarded to Allen, Diggs, Miller, cornerback Tre White and left offensive tackle Dion Dawkins kick in. Many of Buffalo’s 21 free agents will be gone. The biggest loss could be linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who likely will receive offers the Bills can’t match.

Windows close quickly in sports. Buffalo’s competition has grown noticeably stronger. Burrow is only 26 and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes is only 27, so neither the Bengals or Chiefs are going away. If the Miami Dolphins can somehow keep Tua Tagovaliloa healthy and the New York Jets land, say, Derek Carr or – heaven help us – Tom Brady, the AFC East will become nastier. And look out for Jacksonville and their up-and-coming quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

It bears reminding that the McBeane Team did a successful massive roster makeover in a short time after inheriting Rex Ryan’s mess. It also bears reminding that the Bills have won 51 games in four seasons, made four consecutive playoff appearances, and boast one of the top three quarterbacks in the game. They remain very, very good.

But in the NFL (Not For Long League), you better seize the day while you can. The Bills seem further away from clutching a Lombardi Trophy than they were a year ago. So, Beane, has his work cut out for him, and so does McDermott, who must show he’s not the second coming of Aaron Boone and Marty Schottenheimer — field bosses who consistently led their teams to the playoffs, but not to the big game; coaches who made you shout “Aaugh!”

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

3 comments

  1. ESPN flashed across the screen, yesterday, or the day before, that in addition to the Jets possibly getting Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Lamar Jackson, could be in the mix.

  2. They have many glaring holes , most you mentioned. The I- line , a real number 2 receiver. They need to keep Edmunds and seriously need a stout running back.

  3. Hockey Puck, those also are possibilities, for sure. David, I would love to see them retain Edmunds, but he’s going to command huge dollars and Beane has a ton of work to do with a bloated salary cap. This is the reality when your franchise quarterback and other star players’ contracts kick in. It will be interesting to see how Brandon handles things.

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