16 years. That’s now how long it’s been since the Bills last made the playoffs and it’s disappointing really. Of all the years prior though, this one had a special lure to it. The defense was coming off a dominant season where they led the lead in sacks. The roster was loaded with talented skill positions like RB LeSean McCoy, WR Sammy Watkins and TE Charles Clay. The offense had a new leader in mobile quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who brought with him a lot of optimism. And then you had a brand new coaching regime enriched with the apparent defensive guru Rex Ryan and a creative offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Yet none of that matter in a 35-25 loss to the Washington Redskins that ultimately will keep Buffalo watching the playoffs at home rather than being active participants.
1) It’s not a question anymore, this defense is bad
Early on in the season people were waiting for the defense to turn the corner, learn Rex Ryan’s scheme and get back to their usual dominant ways. Mid-way through the season doubts started to set in and questions arose wondering what Ryan had done to a once shut-down group. Then even despite a Monday Night loss in New England back in November it looked like they had finally got it together. Now, after surrendering 1,593 yards of total offense to their opponents over the last four games, it’s clear as crystal – this defense is bad.
Ryan came to Buffalo with thunderous statements about building a bully, being the top defense in the league, so on and so fourth. Yet here we are entering Week 16 and the defense is a far cry from being called ‘elite.’ Heck, they’re a far cry from even being called average at this point. They’re flat out pathetic. Maybe the problem is that Ryan’s scheme is too complex. Maybe Ryan doesn’t have the right personnel he wants to run his daunted 3-4 defense. Whatever the reason this season has been an utter failure defensively. That doesn’t necessarily mean Ryan deserves to lose his job after just one season – bringing in new coaches is always an adjustment. But it’s certainly fair to question his coaching ability considering how far this unit has fallen from one season and one coach to the next.
2) Mike Gillislee has earned himself a roster spot
At the beginning of the season Buffalo’s running back carousel consisted of LeSean McCoy, Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown, Karlos Williams and Boobie Dixon. After numerous injuries and transactions three of those remain – McCoy, Williams and Dixon – but a fourth back has suddenly emerged in Mike Gillislee. Gillislee is just three week removed from being signed off the practice squad by the Bills in Week 13 after Karlos Williams had suffered a concussion. Since then he has had limited touches backing up McCoy but made them count, taking his 14 carries for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Yesterday he ripped off a 60-yard TD run for the longest run of his career. With news breaking today that McCoy will likely miss Week 16 with a sprained MCL in his right knee that means Gillislee can continue to show what he can do and potentially earn himself a spot on the team next season. Based on what he’s shown so far though he appears to be a solid, patient runner that can do some damage for Buffalo.
3) It’s time to stop fretting over the Bills moving up to draft Sammy Watkins instead of staying put and drafting Odell Beckham Jr.
Beckham Jr. is a tremendous talent, no one even questions that. However it’s not like Watkins has been a bust for the Bills – in fact he’s been far from one. Just yesterday he set a new franchise record for most receptions by a wideout in his first two seasons, as he’s now up to 109 catches. Over the last seven games he’s made 33 receptions for 680 yards and seven touchdowns. That’s a 20.6 yards per catch average. Watkins has also gone over 100 yards in four of those seven contests and twice gone over 150 yards. After working through those injuries earlier this season and getting on the same page with Tyrod Taylor, Watkins has been out of this world. Don’t let his solid second half go unnoticed.
Let’s also remember who has been throwing the ball to OBJ – Eli Manning – in comparison to Watkins who’s been fielding passes from E.J. Manuel, Kyle Orton and now a much more reliable but still inexperienced Taylor. At the end of the day it makes little sense to compare the two receivers especially just two years into their respective careers. Both have differentiating skill sets but have been equally as effective and nearly as productive for their teams. With nothing left to root for in terms of the playoffs for Buffalo, Watkins’ development and success this year is something that should be celebrated by Bills’ fans, not regretted. If these last seven games are any indication Buffalo’s offense can be extremely dynamic in seasons to come with Watkins as a deep threat.
Ryan’s message to the team after the loss revolved around change and evaluation. That’s essentially what the rest of the 2015 season is for the Bills – an opportunity to figure out who they want to continue to build this team around and who is holding them back. While Ryan wouldn’t get into specifics early today on what or who specifically was the the target of these upcoming off-season changes, it’s easy to figure out.
Mario Williams may be first and foremost. Due $19.9 million next season it’s a good bet he won’t be at St. John Fisher College for the start of training camp next August. The Bills could easily cut ties with the 10-year veteran and save over $12 million in cap space to use elsewhere. It’s probably a smart move and given how unproductive Williams has been in Ryan’s 3-4 system it makes a lot of sense. Williams has shared his feelings on the defensive schemes a number of times this year, even as recently as yesterday. Given his unwillingness to take a pay cut Buffalo’s hands are tied.
Another expendable player is Leodis McKelvin who was exposed in Sunday’s loss to the Redskins. TE Jordan Reed and WR’s DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon each scored on McKelvin at some point throughout the contest. It was a truly sad effort. With rookie, cornerback Ronald Darby proving to mostly hold his own in this league McKelvin isn’t necessary anymore.
Of course there is and always will be lingering questions about Tyrod Taylor as Buffalo heads into the off-season following weeks 16 and 17. Barring an absolute meltdown by Taylor in the final two weeks he’s likely done enough to at least be the starter heading into next season. Still the Bills shouldn’t be content at the QB position and it never hurts to draft some insurance.
One other area that is gaining a lot of attention is in the coaching staff and front office. Rumors circulated on Sunday that Bills’ owner Terry Pegula is seeking outside advice on what needs to be done to fix some the franchise’s key issues, which if true doesn’t bode well for GM Doug Whaley. There have been other reports that Whaley has been at odds with the coaching staff over several key decisions and that he and Ryan are likely to butt heads this off-season. Throw in the fans’ discontent with Ryan and the rest of the coaching staff for taking a top tier defense and making it disturbingly porous and it’s safe to say tensions are high at One Bills Drive.
No one knows just yet how everything will play out, but potential major changes are a-coming. With needs in several key areas such as offensive line and the linebacking core, these next two weeks will be telling in terms of who will be part of the 2016 Buffalo Bills.