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Carucci Take 2 Bills mailbag: Postseason left little doubt Bills have regressed

You have questions. WGRZ Bills/NFL Insider Vic Carucci has answers.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — You’ve got Buffalo Bills questions. I’ve got answers.

Let’s do this.

John Jarzynski: Did the Bills regress this year?

Vic Carucci: If the measurement were only based on regular-season performance, the answer would be no, of course. Besides winning 13 games, the Bills also won six of their first seven, mostly in comfortable fashion. They also rebounded from back-to-back losses to win the last seven games they played to completion, showing remarkable resilience along the way. That can’t be ignored.

However, neither can the postseason. The lopsided manner in which the Bills lost that divisional-round game against Cincinnati is overwhelming evidence of a team that has regressed. Playoff results are the only standard that counts for a club that built itself to be an unequivocal Super Bowl contender rather than one that had been in the developmental stages of contention. 

The 2022 season was supposed to have been the Bills’ year, and that’s not just regurgitating some wide-eyed notion seen through the lenses of Bills-colored glasses. That’s how the players, coaches and everyone else in the organization saw themselves. That was the expectation of numerous people around the league with no loyalty to the Bills. And rightfully so.

Last year’s playoff appearance felt much more like a circumstantial derailment, caused largely by poor coaching decisions, on the way to a Lombardi Trophy rather than a journey that had no hope of completion. The performance against the Bengals, after a shaky wild-card showing against Miami’s third-string quarterback, made it abundantly clear the Bills had no business being viewed as a serious contender.

Their flaws were wide-ranging. Injuries exposed issues with depth. Opposing coaches did a better job of scheming. And, the hardest part of all to swallow, was a sheer lack of energy or desire to play a game of that magnitude — or any game, for that matter.

davidrichard: My question would be when will the media ask why it’s OK for McDermott and Frazier to scapegoat a single coach after head coaching mistakes? They blew 13 seconds and the nickel defensive philosophy does not work in playoffs against top tier QBs. Where is their accountability?

Frank Lauricella: 13 seconds last year, complete failure by the defense this year and still the same cliché by McDermott. Why hasn’t there been significant changes to the defense.

Erma Girsch (beer/wings): Why is Leslie Frazier still the DC? His predictable deep nickel zone never holds up against quality competition, and he’s incapable of game planning or making adjustments. He’s basically mailed it in.

Call me Dziadek: Do you think Eric Washington and Aaron Kromer should be held more accountable for not being able to develop the DL & OL?

VC: I’ve combined these questions and answers because they all primarily deal with the second-guessing of the assistant coaches.

Sean McDermott hasn’t been made available to the media since his decision to fire safeties coach Jim Salgado, who was recently replaced by Joe Danna. However, reporters questioned McDermott about work Frazier and offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey immediately after the Cincinnati game as well as the next day. He didn’t offer any substantive response, but the questions were asked.

I also would not presume that parting ways with Salgado was a case of “scapegoating.” NFL coaching staffs regularly undergo turnover, even when the head coach remains in place. That has been fairly rampant throughout the league since the end of the regular season.

McDermott has made similar moves in other years, and not strictly to replace coaches who have moved on for promotions. I have no problem with McDermott identifying an area where he felt a change was needed. That’s what a head coach is supposed to do, even when he doesn’t make the moves critics believe he should make. 

By all indications, McDermott is standing pat with his coordinators and his line coaches. However, I do think he needs to have some extensive discussions with them about the things that have gone wrong and how to correct them strategically.

I also strongly believe that the shortcomings, especially with the lines, don’t all fall on coaching. This team desperately needs personnel upgrading on both sides of the ball.

Rick McGuire: Sean McDermott has been a great coach for the Bills but seems to get out-coached in the playoffs each year. What must Sean do to improve his coaching performance during postseason games? Reminds me of former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer, who used to choke in big games, too.

VC: It’s a fair question and I’m not entirely certain there’s a single or simple answer.

It’s possible McDermott, who is among the more intense coaches in the NFL (which is saying a lot), becomes a bit too intense during playoff games. That can lead to trying to force things with his decision-making rather than letting them flow organically. That demeanor can rub off on the rest of his coaches and playoffs, because everyone on the team follows his lead, as should be the case.

I also think he needs to be more aggressive when it comes to going for it on fourth down and less cautious when it comes to coverages that look to eliminate deep passes and, therefore, leave too much cushion underneath.

Ed Helinski: In your estimation, what’s the biggest needs for the Bills? It seems free agency will create significant needs on the roster?

VC: Free-agent departures notwithstanding, the Bills have plenty to address if they are going to be the Super Bowl contender so many of us wrongly assumed they were before the 2022 season.

Their biggest need is a difference-making pass rusher. I am not optimistic that Von Miller is going to be back to full form from the torn ACL he suffered on Thanksgiving. At 34 and dealing with his second such injury, it’s hard to imagine him returning to action for much, or any, of the 2023 campaign. That’s a major blow, considering the Bills were counting on him to be their pass-rushing closer for at least the first three years of the six-year contract he signed.

Not far behind the gaping hole at defensive end is another for a consistently effective defensive tackle. The Bills simply didn’t get enough production there on a regular basis from Ed Oliver or Jordan Phillips, whose health issues contributed to his limited impact. 

Third on the need list is an offensive tackle to replace Spencer Brown on the right side and/or at least push Dion Dawkins on the left. Both tackles were disappointments.

Fourth is legitimate No. 2 receiver. After Stefon Diggs, there is no one that gives opposing defenses any concerns in coverage.

Next, is a cornerback to compete with Kaiir Elam and/or push Tre’Davious White, who has been nothing close to what he was before suffering a torn ACL on Thanksgiving 2021.

After that, a safety (or two) should be on the radar to replace Jordan Poyer, who probably will exit via free agency, and/or be ready to eventually take over for Micah Hyde, who could very well have a long road back from his neck injury. 

I suspect Devin Singletary will depart via free agency, opening the door for the Bills to find, probably through the draft, a powerful running back to help them convert in short-yardage situations. Relying on Josh Allen’s legs and power to make that happen is a risk they need to do a better job of avoiding.

It’s an exceptionally long list of needs for a team widely expected to have been preparing to play in the Super Bowl. It’s also far too long to realistically think all of the needs could be sufficiently addressed in one offseason.

MattinCleveland: Would the Bills look for another veteran pass rusher in the offseason to place in the rotation until Von Miller returns from injury? It’s pretty disturbing that when Von went down, he took the pass rush with him.

VC: I’m sure they’ll seek some pass-rushing help. It wouldn’t surprise me if they added at least one veteran in that role and one, if not two, via the draft.

No free agent they add there or elsewhere will be of the splash variety because, again, they don’t have the necessary cap space.

Stephen Rzepecki: Could the Bills try to acquire a veteran receiver via a trade? I would love to see Amari Cooper but he has a high cap number.

VC: They could, but whoever they acquire would need to have a cap friendly deal. I’m not thinking they’re going to find a high-quality player at any position via trade.

Gino Bona: Is it fair to say this is the end of an era with Josh Allen graduating from a rookie deal to a mega-contract? His cap hit will go from $16.4M in 2022 to $39.8M next season. By my math, you can sign two above-average starters for $23.4M per year. There’s less money to sign talent which will put even more of a burden on Allen ’s shoulders.

VC: True. However, I do believe Brandon Beane and his highly talented cap experts will do a good deal of salary maneuvering to create some cap space. One of the moves could be a restructuring of Allen’s deal that would convert some salary into bonus that would reduce his cap hit. That is likely to happen with other players as well.

Though I don’t think the Bills will have much cap space with which to work, they will have enough to get draft picks signed and probably their most important pending free agent: Tremaine Edmunds.

Johnny: What are your thoughts on Josh Allen’s ability to read defenses? Do you think he’s as good at it as Patrick Mahomes? Do you think he struggles at it?

VC: I don’t think Allen has any significant problems with reading defenses.

His issues with throwing interceptions and showing occasional indecision is a constant desire to hit the big play, to overlook a higher-percentage throw that would produce a first down or set up a favorable down-and-distance situation in order to get a much bigger gain. At times, Allen is overly trusting in his powerful arm, which, as with other great quarterbacks, is bound to be less accurate on longer passes.

I will say that Mahomes is as good as it gets when it comes to making decisions and finding ways to connect with his receivers when a play looks as if it is going nowhere. He is playing at a higher level than Allen and every other QB in the league, including Joe Burrow, who also is ahead of Allen. But being third on that list of elite talent is no disgrace.

Rich Mondy: Where’s Kim Pegula?

VC: Assuming this is a reference to her having not been visible in the context of the teams she co-owns with her husband, Terry, rather than her exact whereabouts, I have no idea. 

To say she has been conspicuous by her absence is a massive understatement, considering she had as close to a high-profile presence as either co-owner had including regular appearances on the Bills’ internal media platforms. That there have been no official updates from the family or Pegula Sports & Entertainment since June 14, when the family announced the 53-year-old Pegula was undergoing medical treatment for “unexpected health issues,” has left a significant information void that while being respected for the sake of privacy also is impossible to ignore.

So much has happened since that day, not the least of which is the ongoing negotiation for a lease for the Bills’ new stadium (a process in which she occupied a key role) and so much other business regarding the Bills and Sabres that fell under her control.

The media faces a delicate balance between honoring the wishes of the Pegula family to keep Kim’s health status private and trying to find out what her apparent lack of involvement in the business aspects of the Bills and Sabres means to the future of both clubs. In the meantime, we can only wonder whether any changes have been made to the ownership structure. Do the Pegula children assume greater responsibilities or has that already happened? Do succession matters need to be addressed or has that already happened?

I wish nothing but the very best for Kim and her family. I also understand why a question such as the one above has been asked by any number of people who are emotionally connected with the Bills and even those who are league partners of the Pegulas.

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