With a new head coach at the helm came a new energy and identity for the Buffalo Bills in 2015. When training camp commenced at St. John Fisher back in August nothing but positive vibes surrounded the organization as both new and old faces came together to form a talented roster. A quarterback controversy was solved in the preseason as Tyrod Taylor emerged victorious in the open competition. Then came an assertive 27-14 season opening win over Indianapolis and this season was well on it’s way to being different than those of the 15 years prior.
As the season progressed though, their weaknesses became abundantly clear and many of those issues – penalties, defense and injuries – plagued them along the pathway to a eventual mediocrity. 8-8 is all Buffalo could manage on a campaign filled with various peaks and valleys. Despite finishing one game better a season ago, it’s not quite a step backwards – their Week 17 win over New England last year was basically a gimmie. But it’s certainly not the result anyone associated the Bills’ organization expect. Worst of all the playoff drought has now reached a dreaded 16th straight year.
Here’s the end of the season report card:
The Offense: B+ (midseason grade: B-)
Through their first three games Buffalo was averaging 33 points per game, before injuries began piling up. In dealing with those over their next four games they conversely averaged just 19 ppg, leaving their bye week average hovering around 25 ppg. By season’s end that was down to 23.7, but injuries did continue to hinder the offense. Nonetheless this phase is much better off than it was a year ago. When healthy they have one of the top running backs in the league, in LeSean McCoy – Buffalo’s lone Pro Bowler. They’re scattered with recieving weapons from McCoy to TE Charles Clay and most importantly WR Sammy Watkins. They finally found a formidable quarterback in the dual threat Tyrod Taylor to lead the charge. In fact Taylor’s QBR of 99.4 ranked seventh overall in the NFL and seats him one spot ahead of Jim Kelly’s 1991 campaign for the third best single-season QBR performance in franchise history. He also set a franchise record for single-season rushing yards by a quarterback (568). We also can’t forget about offensive line. There’s a reason the Bills’ running attack topped the NFL with 2,432 total yards for a 152.0 ypg average, and the O-line is it. In pass blocking Buffalo’s front could be better, having allowed 42 sacks this season, so there is room for improvement. The foundation is there though. It will only get better if Buffalo makes it a priority to bring back both G Richie Incognito and T Cordy Glenn, while also strengthening up the right side of the line this off-season. We’ll see how it all plays out, but in their first season under Greg Roman the offense was an overall success. They’ve rightfully earned the best grade on this report card. B+
The Defense: C+ (midseason grade: B)
The best way to describe the Bills’ defense in 2015 is simply, disappointing. Like any unit, there were strengths – for example the cornerback play from Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby was fantastic – but the weaknesses stand out a bit more. First an foremost the massive drop off in sacks from a league leading 54 a season ago to just 21 this year is unfathomable. This unit also went from surrendering 312.2 total yards per game in 2014, to giving up a over 350 per game this season. Another major problem was the Bills red zone defense, which came in at 21st overall surrendering touchdowns to opponents at a 60% clip once they crossed the 20. On top of all of that Buffalo defenders struggled with the most important defensive skill – tackling. Maybe Rex Ryan’s scheme was a bit difficult to grasp for many players. Maybe Ryan doesn’t have the proper personnel at his disposal to run his defense. Whatever the reason may be it’s hard to grasp how a unit so dominant a year ago, fell so far with a well regarded defensive mind at the controls. That said, there were definitely an alarming number of injuries on that side of the ball this season, so in some aspects it’s hard to accurately grade them. All things considered Buffalo’s defense gets a reluctant C+.
Special Teams: C (midseason grade: C-)
The Bills’ various special teams groups got a little bit better but not drastically so over the second half of the season. Punter Colton Schmidt remains a bright spot, cracking the top 10 for gross punting average with a mark of 46.3. Placekicker Dan Carpenter on the other hand was the weak link. With the new 33-yard PAT rule in place this year Carpenter missed the second most extra points (6) among other NFL kickers. Only Jacksonville’s Jason Meyers finished with more (7). He also missed four field goals for the second straight season, leaving room for questions about his future in Buffalo.
Special teams penalties were an issue all year long although they were successfully minimized down the home stretch of the schedule. Both the kick and punt return games were miserable as well. Kick-coverage wise the Bills were fine, but a lot of credit goes to kick-off specialist Jordan Gay who finished with 42 touchbacks. Still not a lot went right in this phase of the game and there isn’t a moment to point to as an impressive special teams effort from this year. Changes are expected to come to Ryan’s coaching staff and Danny Crossman’s job could be in jeopardy. C seems fair for the team’s worst unit this season.
Coaching: B (midseason grade: C+)
First and foremost when a team piles up 143 penalties to top the league the coach is partially to blame. Yes, the players are the ones out on the field making the blunders, but it’s up to the coach to instill discipline in his players by any means necessary. Early on the issue was at it’s worst and it did get better during a later stretch of the season when Buffalo stayed under 10 penalties in five straight games. However in a crucial loss to Philadelphia on the road, 15 flags cost them a win and pretty much ended their playoff hopes. There’s no denying things got better in the penalty department as the season wore on, but there is still room for improvement and it starts with Rex Ryan teaching discipline.
Something that became very evident by Buffalo’s season-ending, two-game win streak is that the players never quit on their coach. That says a lot about Rex Ryan’s ability to connect to his players. It’s rare that Ryan led defenses struggle they way they did this year. It would appear that most players did indeed buy in to his concepts, but maybe just struggled to learn them. Surely a second year under Ryan’s scheme should go much smoother.
In Greg Roman’s first year as offensive coordinator Buffalo was able to lead the league in rushing (2,432 yards) and averaged over 23 points per game for the first time since 2011. There were some situations where Roman got a little too cute with his play calling, but overall his first year in Buffalo was a success. As long as he doesn’t get offered a head coaching gig somewhere, there is no reason to not bring him back next season and you’d have to think that the offense will only be better with a year of Roman’s playbook under their belts.
As for defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman it seems a bit unclear if he will be returning to the Bills’ in 2016. In yesterday’s season-ending press conference with both Ryan and general manager Doug Whaley, Ryan dodged questions about whether or not Thurman would be back on the staff, saying simply “we’ll assess all of our coaches in the coming weeks.” Maybe that means nothing, but the defense did take huge steps backwards from 2014.
Ryan’s reputation as a player’s coach and ability to hold onto his locker room in the closing weeks of the season were convincing. It seems just a select few players hurt the success of his team/defense. B for Ryan and his staff.
Overall: B- (midseason grade C+)
Last year the Bills offense was their weakness and the defense their strength. This year it was exactly the opposite. How Buffalo’s defense managed to fall so far in just one season under Rex Ryan is hard to understand. The talent was there, but changes in the coaching staff brings changes in philosophy and mood. A select few players didn’t want to accept the changes, other embraced them but had trouble grasping certain aspects. Everything just didn’t quite fall into place this year, especially on that side of the ball. There is obviously tremendous room for improvement on special teams as well. Offensively the biggest thing is just being more consistent as a whole. At times this season the offense would come out guns blazing and march down the field for an easy score, only to follow it up with a three-and-out on their next three series. That will get better though. It was only year one of players learning Greg Roman’s offense so give it some time to marinate. As a whole the 2015 goes into the grade book as a B-.
Offensive MVP: Sammy Watkins
LeSean McCoy may be the only for sure Pro Bowler, but Sammy Watkins really came into his own this season, despite missing three contests to injury. He recorded the first 1,000 yard season of his career and truly established himself as an elite NFL wideout. Over his final nine games, Watkins averaged 5.4 receptions and 100 yards per outing, snaring seven of his nine total TD’s in that span. He couldn’t have finished much stronger than that.
Defensive MVP: Ronald Darby
Darby was able to provide an answer to any doubts that people had about him at the beginning of the season, using a stout rookie campaign to keep receivers in check most of the year. If Stephon Gilmore – when healthy – was Batman, Darby was the perfect Robin in the secondary. Together the duo combined for 39 defended passes and Darby’s 21 was fifth most in the NFL. Without question he was one of the only consistently, reliable players on Buffalo’s defense this season.
Breakout performer(s): Karlos Williams and Mike Gillislee
Had Gillislee not come along and wowed us over the final five weeks of the season, this category easily belonged solely to Karlos. In his rookie campaign the former Seminole dealt with various injuries, but when he was in the lineup made his presence felt. He scored a touchdown in each of his first six games, ran for over 100 yards twice and finished with a 5.6 ypc average. It’s safe to say Williams was a steal for Buffalo in the fifth round of last year’s NFL Draft. As for Gillislee, the former practice squad back took full advantage of his NFL opportunity. He scored in three straight contests between Weeks 14 and 16, compiling 267 yards on 47 carries over five games. He’s more than earned himself a spot on the roster in 2016 behind McCoy and Williams.
Biggest disappointment: Mario Williams
No surprises here. Mario Williams was a complete let down this season and no where near worth the more than $19,000,000 he was paid. His initial criticisms of Rex Ryan’s defensive scheme seemed valid until it became very clear that really a lack of effort kept him from being effective. It’s already being reported that he will not be returning to Buffalo next season which will open up a ton of cap space. Good riddance.