Well, Bills Mafia, your favorite team is 8-3 and inching closer to their first AFC East title in 25 years. The only thing I will say about the Chargers game is something I said multiple times on Twitter: that fourth quarter was drunk! It was like watching a relative stumble out of the car after a night out and drop their leftovers on the driveway before getting in the house. (Love you, mom!)
The Bills dropped their leftovers three times in the final fifteen minutes yet recovered without spilling the food on the driveway. The Bills played like it was 2019. On offense, Gabriel Davis Moss’d a corner, Big Baller Beasley made an impact in the passing game (just in a different way), and the running backs carved up the Chargers like a turkey. (Happy belated Thanksgiving by the way.) Meanwhile, the defense shut down Keenan Allen, made Herbert see ghosts, and only allowed 77 rushing yards. The player of the game has to be the man, the myth, the mid-season legend, A.J. Klein. Just when you think you saw his best game, he one-ups himself.
Now, I have been teasing this article for the past couple of weeks, and I think it’s time to let it loose. Why now? In writing, it is argued that everything is more effective or enjoyable when done using three characters or occurrences. (This “Rule of Threes” is also illustrated in the popular adage, “Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern”, which I referred to in my Tyler Kroft profile.) Since Klein has officially logged three stellar games as a Bill, I feel comfortable writing this piece. So, in this week’s “2020 Vision”, I will discuss Klein’s improbable turnaround and weigh in on the apology debate that has spawned from it.
The Road to Redemption
Remember that sequence from The Shawshank Redemption where Tim Robbins crawls through the sewage pipe to escape the prison? (You probably hear Morgan Freeman narrating at this moment.) Well A.J. Klein crawled through “500 yards of Twitter foulness” the first five weeks and came out clean on the other side. As I mentioned in my mid-season awards article, Klein was the most improved defensive player over the first half of the season. However, I misidentified his progression. It started far before week nine.
His first five games were atrocious.
In his first five weeks, Klein had a grand total of 12 tackles. I’m pretty sure he missed more tackles than he made in that span. He became the subject of many a cursing and screaming fit by Bills fans, including myself. Klein looked lost in pass coverage and slow in pursuit. For someone making about six million dollars this year, he was not living up to expectations. The most likely cause of his on-field incompetence was being miscast as the weak side linebacker when Matt Milano went down the first time.
Then, something clicked.
The first sign of a turnaround was Klein’s strip fumble of Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce late in the first half of week six. When I saw that play, I thought, “Okay, he finally did something!” Then he did stuff against the Jets, Seahawks, Cardinals, and Chargers. In fact, he did a LOT of stuff. Over his last six games, Klein put up 46 total tackles, eight QB hits, five tackles for loss (TFLs), five sacks, two pass break-ups, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. This uptick in production coincided with a return to his natural position of middle linebacker as well as an increase in pass rush usage.
Klein made an unprecedented turnaround in the span of two months. He literally went from defensive liability to top-five production in all major statistical categories (i.e. total and solo tackles, TFLs, sacks, QB hits, pass break-ups, fumbles forced and recovered). Additionally, he lead all NFL linebackers in sacks for the month of November with four and a half, one more than all-pro edge rusher T.J. Watt. One could say he’s filling the Lorenzo Alexander role well.
The Apology Debate
Now, there has been a bit of a debate on Twitter over whether or not Bills fans owe A.J. Klein an apology. Some say “yes” and have gone so far as to create and circulate an “official” apology form (courtesy of Buffalo Sports Chatter). Others say that Klein was the one who owed fans an apology and his play the last few weeks served that purpose. Personally, I view this situation like that of a sitcom. Players seek forgiveness by balling out, while fans apologize for making insulting remarks.
Klein deserves both the criticism and the praise for his on-field performance this season. So if you want to show your appreciation by apologizing, as I did after the Seahawks game, fill out the form. (I admit that was a tad premature and did not speak for Bills Mafia; for that, I apologize.) If not, that’s fine too. I’m sure he doesn’t care either way. As for me, I will gladly fill it out with some minor alterations.
Now, if only Brian Winters could take a page from “Coach” Klein’s playbook.
* Player stats provided by Pro Football Reference.