By Sal Maiorana Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
If they take care of business Sunday afternoon, the Buffalo Bills — your beloved Buffalo Bills — will be sitting all alone in first place in the AFC East. That’s not fake news, people, that’s a fact.
Thanks to the Patriots getting gloriously blown out by the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday night, and the Dolphins idled by Hurricane Irma, all the Bills have to do is beat the Jets — who are one of the few teams in the league sure to be worse than the Bills this year — and Buffalo will be at the top of the division.
A word of advice: If it happens, which I expect it will, make sure you screenshot the standings because the splendor won’t last long. In a season that will undoubtedly include more losses than victories, and will end for an 18th consecutive year with the Bills not making the playoffs, a brief stay atop the AFC East will serve as a 2017 moment to cherish.
I don’t mean to rain on the excitement of opening day at New Era Field, I’m just pointing out the reality that reasonable Bills fans have already come to grips with. Coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane are building what we hope will be a successful team in the years to come, and I like how they have started that process. But the remake is going to take time, certainly more time than the 2017 season will allow.
This is a roster that has some nice pieces in place. LeSean McCoy is one of the best running backs in the NFL; the offensive line run-blocks as well as any in the league; Charles Clay, when utilized properly (and hopefully that will begin this year) can be a playmaker at tight end; rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White and wide receiver Zay Jones, the top two draft picks, show a lot of promise; the defensive line has a chance to be outstanding in McDermott’s 4-3 defense; and the new kicker, Steven Hauschka, is very good.
But, even if all those pieces perform as expected, there are too many other deficiencies and a meat-grinder of a schedule that will undoubtedly lead to the Bills cleaning out their lockers on New Year's ’ Day.
You know the expectations are low when, before the first game of the regular season is even played, some in the media and fan base are already keeping a close eye on the 2018 NFL Draft quarterback class. My Twitter feed last week was filled with information on how USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield performed in their season openers.
If you don’t mind, I’m going to ignore the campaigns to “Suck for Sam” or “Reek for Rosen” because it’s a little premature to care about college quarterbacks. Let’s let their seasons play out before we start picturing any of them in a Bills uniform next year.
I remember a few years ago, Bills Nation was enthralled with Washington’s Jake Locker in the 2011 draft. He was going to be the quarterback that would turn the franchise around if they could get their hands on him. Buffalo took Marcell Dareus No. 3, and Locker ended up getting picked at No. 8 by the Titans and he went on to start 23 NFL games in four years before retiring prior to 2015.
I'm more interested in focusing on whether the Bills are making strides this season, and here’s three things I’ll be paying attention to, with more to come as the season wears on.
► Let’s figure out if the quarterback of the future is already on the team. I don’t think it’s Tyrod Taylor, nor do I believe McDermott or Beane think it’s Taylor. Might it be Nathan Peterman? Well, if the Bills stumble out of the gate and are, say, 1-4 at the bye, I’d like to find out. Put Peterman in then, give him the rest of the season to show us what he is. Hey, maybe he’s the next Dak Prescott (I kind of doubt it), and if he is, rather than trade away several of those precious 2018 draft picks to move up to get an alleged franchise QB, they can use those picks to plug other holes on the roster around Peterman.
► I’d like to see if anyone emerges as a home run threat in the passing game because, as it looks right now, there’s no one capable of blowing the top off a defense. Is it Jones? Possibly the new guy, Kailin Clay? Andre Holmes? This seems like a major problem area for Rick Dennison’s offense.
► Is this the year Dareus starts living up to his draft status, and his ridiculously over-priced contract? There are no excuses for Dareus. He has failed to deliver, but now he’s back in a 4-3 front where he belongs. Let’s see something, big fella. And get a new alarm clock while you’re at it.
Taking my shots
► The success of the Bills’ defense this season is going to be predicated on how well their defensive line plays. It has to provide pass rush pressure, and it must be stout against the run. It’s the best unit on the team, and against the Jets, Dareus, Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams and Shaq Lawson should be able to dominate the Jets offensive line which is young and not all that impressive.
► Speaking of Lawson, keep an eye on him because this is a big season for the 2016 first-round draft pick. His rookie year was basically a waste because he underwent shoulder surgery, missed the first six games, never really got into a groove when he returned, and was completely miscast in Rex Ryan’s defense. He needs to emerge in the 4-3 and prove that he was a worthy of his draft status.
► I really don’t have a problem with the Bills cutting Jonathan Williams. He’s just a guy, a fifth-round pick who hasn’t done a thing in the NFL. However, his release raises my eyebrows for one glaring reason. The previous two years, the backup to McCoy was a young, energetic player — rookie Karlos Williams in 2015, and last year it was 25-year-old Mike Gillislee, who had almost no tread on his tires in the NFL with just 59 touches before 2016. Now, the Bills are going to rely on 31-year-old Mike Tolbert to be McCoy’s backup, and I find it hard to believe that he’ll be able to match the production of either Williams or Gillislee.
► Naturally, I can’t resist relishing the Patriots' meltdown Thursday night. That had to make Bills fans feel great, especially after that nauseating, over-the-top, self-aggrandizing pre-game celebration. The Patriots displaying the third-quarter score of the Super Bowl on the scoreboard, when they were trailing 28-3 to the Falcons before their historic rally, was such a cheap shot to the Falcons. I mean, if Atlanta was the opponent Thursday night, maybe I could understand it as gamesmanship. I know the Patriots will bounce back, but it was satisfying listening to the gloomy silence as that stadium emptied.
If it were up to me …
The NFL season would start a week earlier and build an extra week into the schedule at the end of the season before the start of the playoffs. Aside from letting teams enjoy Christmas, this would accomplish three things:
It would give the NFL a designated week to reschedule games that may have to be postponed for whatever reason, such as this week’s Tampa Bay at Miami contest which won’t be played due to Hurricane Irma. The league was lucky both teams happened to have the same bye week, so the game was easily moved to Nov. 19. I’m not quite sure what it would have done without that fortuitous break.
That week off after the regular season would give the teams in the wild-card games a chance to heal a bit. The playoffs are supposed to be the biggest games of the year, a showcase for the league, so wouldn’t it be nice if the teams had a better chance of being at full strength? I know, then it’s an awful long time off for the teams that earn the first-round bye, but if you weigh rust vs. rest, I’m pretty sure those teams would prefer the rest.
Last, starting a week earlier might be the impetus to get the preseason cut short by a game, maybe even two, which might be the best reason of all to make this switch.
Hey, it’s just an idea. I have plenty of them, and they all make sense to me.
The numbers game: 14.7
That’s the percentage of passing attempts Tyrod Taylor made last year into what was deemed tight coverage by the folks at Next Gen Stats. In that category, termed aggressiveness, Taylor ranked ahead of only Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, Washington’s Kirk Cousins, and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick.
What this indicates is that Taylor is not a risk taker, and it helps explain why his interception total (6) was so low. He throws a pretty deep ball, and he also throws the short ball well. However, his major weakness is in the intermediate range, an area where QBs have to be proficient, and part of the problem is that he leaves plays on the field. He simply doesn’t take enough chances on those plays, and while that lowers his turnover rate, it also costs the Bills potential chunk gains.
Games to watch Sunday
► Seahawks at Packers. Probably the marquee matchup of the day, Aaron Rodgers going against that always-tough Seahawks defense, which now has added DT Sheldon Richardson, allowed the fewest points in the NFL in 2013, 2014 and 2015, and was fourth last year.
► Giants at Cowboys. Hey. Dallas fans, watch closely because this may be the last time you see running back Ezekiel Elliott for a while as his six-game suspension looms. New York swept the series in 2016, and the Cowboys lost only one other regular-season game.
► Raiders at Titans. Many experts believe Oakland is on the cusp of greatness this year. I’m not sure they can beat out the Chiefs in the AFC West. They get an early road test against Mike Mularkey’s team that was 9-7 in 2016 and is on the rise under third-year QB Marcus Mariota.