105.5 The Team – The effects of a 17-year playoff drought have infected the culture of the Buffalo Bills. For fans, the drought is the root of all their frustration. Like a festering wart, it’s become a menacing omen over the organization, invoking immediate doubt regarding every personnel decision and self-inflicted hair loss following every meaningful defeat in December.
As for players, both new and old – despite none of them having been a part of the drought for its entirety (DT Kyle Williams’ 11 years with the organization leads the pack) – they’re reminded of it regularly and carry the pressures of an entire region with them every time they take the field. Then there are team owners Terry and Kim Pegula who will continually emphasize that their personal playoff absence with the team is only two years, however, they’re well aware of the mess they’ve inherited and are desperate to correct it.
So as the Bills get ready to dive head first into a complicated offseason that features more than 30 free agents – 22 of whom are unrestricted – and a mere $21 million in salary cap space at their disposal, it’s imminent that the key decision makers GM Doug Whaley and head coach Sean McDermott, block out the burden of this 17-year playoff drought. Building to simply “end the drought” is a shortsighted mentality that will only breed more mediocrity. Their aspirations need to be bigger; building a Super Bowl contending team.
Now you’re probably thinking, well the first step towards winning the Super Bowl is making the playoffs, which is a fair but misguided assumption. Obviously, a team must first make the postseason to have any shot at winning a Lombardi Trophy, but just because a team makes the playoffs, doesn’t mean they’re trending towards being a Super Bowl champion. In other words, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Take the Cincinnati Bengals for example. From 1990-2004 Cincy was part of a depressing 14-year playoff drought of their own, until finally in 2005 it was snapped. They’d wind up winning their division only to lose at home in the Wildcard round to eventual Super Bowl champion and division rival Pittsburgh, but hey, they finally had a taste of postseason football. Over the next 11 seasons, the Bengals made the playoffs six more times, including five years in a row from 2011-2015.
Not once did they advance out of the Wildcard round.
This idea of simply getting to the playoffs sounds euphoric, understandably so – it’s natural to want what you haven’t had for 17 years. But operating an NFL team on such a myopic concept is foolish.
This is why it’s prudent for the Bills brass and coaching staff to collectively figure out where they are as a franchise, before making any major decisions regarding the roster. At his end-of-season press conference, Whaley continually described Buffalo as “close” following a 7-9 season in which they fired their head coach short of two seasons in charge. Not to mention the defense was downright embarrassing at times and the offense, one-dimensional.
Whether or not the Bills are truly “close” is very much up for debate. Given the vast number of free agents they have and the minimal amount of cap space available to them, they seem closer to a rebuild than a Super Bowl.
Which brings us to the first major domino of the offseason: quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Last week, the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport remarked that while the Bills may pursue Cowboys veteran QB Tony Romo, there’s “probably a better chance” they end up retaining Taylor. That would require the Bills to either: pick up the option in his contract by March 11, essentially committing to the 27-year-old for the next three seasons (given his excessive dead cap hits between 2017-2019) and guaranteeing him $30.75 million; working out a contract restructure, or cutting him and re-signing him to a new, more cost-efficient deal. Numerous reports have suggested the latter option simply isn’t happening. Taylor won’t take a pay cut, which leaves exercising the option or restructuring the deal. Either decision would guarantee a lot of money to the quarterback of the third worst passing offense in the NFL in 2016, who in two seasons as the primary starter is an uninspiring 3-11 in games where the Bills were tied or within one possession of the lead in the fourth quarter.
Retaining Taylor would be a desperate move, by a team trying to patch together an average, hollow roster with paperclips and rubber bands. Taylor is a formidable stopgap, but the Bills have tried winning with placeholding QBs for far too long. If they aren’t looking to upgrade the most important position in the game, mediocre is all they’ll be.
Of course, Taylor sympathizers will cite a lack of viable weapons throughout the 2016 campaign as one of the biggest reasons to give him another chance, which begs the question: how do they add to Taylor’s arsenal with such limited cap space available to them? Buffalo currently has just five receivers under contract for 2017. Marcus Easley and Kolby Listenbee didn’t even play last season and Sammy Watkins missed significant time as well. The other two are Walt Powell and Dez Lewis. Not exactly a dazzling group.
Another argument for retaining Taylor is that with a better defense the Bills make the playoffs with the dual threat signal caller under center. Transitioning back to the 4-3 scheme under McDermott’s guidance should bode well for Buffalo based on the recent results of Jim Schwatz’ 4-3 defense from 2013-2014. A handful of those same players are still around, but McDermott’s blueprint is different, and he has plenty of holes to fill particularly in the secondary where CB Stephon Gilmore is an UFA, S Aaron Williams is contemplating retirement after a second serious neck injury and his aging partner in crime Corey Graham holds a $5.3 million cap hit. There’s also a lack of depth at numerous positions on that side of the ball and again, with just a shade over $21 million in cap space, what realistic upgrades can the Bills afford? The draft could provide some answers, but finding six NFL-ready players is unlikely.
To get to the playoffs with Taylor at QB would require assembling offensive and defensive units that can support him; an almost impossible feat given their current financial situation. Again, attempting to piece it together would be very shortsighted. Buffalo needs to look beyond just “ending the drought.”
Cutting Taylor would open up an additional $13.06 million in cap space, money the Bills could then use to either upgrade at the quarterback position or assemble a more stable roster through free agency and the draft while they continue their search for a franchise quarterback. The idea of a rebuild or pleas for patience won’t sit well with fans starving for a taste of the playoffs. Consider the circumstances facing the Bills this offseason, though. Like Doug Whaley said in an interview with BuffaloBills.com last month, “it’s not a quick fix.” He’s since tried to clarify those contradicting remarks, but he’s honestly not wrong. The Bills needs are exorbitant, more so than one offseason and $21 million in cap space can fix. We’ll see if the organization prioritizes ending the drought or building a Super Bowl contender over the next few weeks. The latter mindset would be wisest.
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