We are now five days removed from the Buffalo Bills’ season coming to an end, but I still cannot find the words to explain what we witnessed Sunday at Highmark Stadium. The Bills fell to the Cincinnati Bengals 27-10, concluding their season in the AFC Divisional Round for the second year in a row. It was an all-time gut punch, and this fan base knows a thing or two about gut punches.
The best word I can use to describe how I felt (and still feel) is numb. I sat in the first row of the upper deck in utter disbelief as I watched the Bengals celebrate on OUR FIELD, with THEIR FANS taking over OUR STADIUM with their “WHO DEY” chant. I was so numb and emotionless that the security guard had to come poke me on the shoulder and tell me to leave.
A Season That Could’ve Been
The Buffalo Bills had so much hype going into this season… it was on levels we had never seen before. Everyone was so high on the Bills after their performance last year in the playoffs. Even though they lost, that all-time classic against the Chiefs showed the world how good this team could really be. And then they followed that up by signing DE Von Miller, beefing up their defense, and adding some more weapons on offense. How could you not buy into the Bills? Not only were they the favorites to win the Super Bowl, they were favored to win EVERY single game this season. And for the cherry on top, QB Josh Allen was projected to win MVP.
And then everything came to a crashing halt.
You can really trace it back to after the bye week, specifically in the second half of the Packers game. It’s crazy to think that the season went off track before Halloween. The Bills finished 13-3, won their division for a third year in a row, made the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, had an eight-game winning streak going into the Bengals game, and only lost their three games by a combined EIGHT points. But that’s what happens when you follow a team as closely as we do and have standards as high as we do. We knew something wasn’t right.
Dealing With Adversity
Now, I can’t go on any further without mentioning all of the adversity that the team had to face this year:
- The Tops shooting.
- The hospitalization of team co-owner Kim Pegula.
- The death of Dawson Knox’s brother.
- The Matt Araiza situation.
- Micah Hyde and Von Miller sustaining season-ending injuries.
- Josh Allen playing through an elbow injury.
- Two blizzards (one forcing the relocation of a home game to Detroit and the other stranding them in Chicago, away from their families, on Christmas).
- And, of course, the biggest one… the Damar Hamlin incident.
These aren’t excuses, it’s a list of things that this team had to deal with and overcome throughout the year. It appears as though the Bills were just emotionally drained by the end of the season; they had no juice left in the tank. But I think there were bigger problems right along from a football standpoint.
What Went Wrong For The Bills?
In my opinion, the biggest problem with the Buffalo Bills this season was that their offense was too aggressive and their defense was too conservative; this team never had any balance. It just felt like the game plan was to have Josh Allen do everything each and every week and carry the team, almost as if he was playing Madden putting up video game numbers.
I tweeted this while walking out of the stadium as I tried to find some words to describe what I had just witnessed.
Starting with the offense… it is absolutely mind-blowing to me how OC Ken Dorsey failed to implement a short passing game this season to take the pressure off of Allen. Now, Josh isn’t perfect here either. A lot of times, guys were open in the flat or over the middle of the field and he either failed to recognize it or chose not to throw it there.
Dorsey’s whole motto this season was to play “smart, not conservative.”
But how smart is it when you’re trying to chew up the clock while maintaining a fourth quarter lead and you take two deep shots on first and second down, leading to a sack on third down and only using 59 seconds of clock? Or how smart is it to throw 30+ yards on 3rd and 2 to WR Gabe Davis, who had a 52% catch rate this season? (Davis finished the regular season with 48 receptions, 836 yards, and 7 TDs.)
The Buffalo Bills’ main goal last offseason – at least from an offensive perspective – was to add speed and YAC (yards after catch). We all thought they wanted Allen to get rid of the ball quickly, avoid taking hits, and put the ball in his playmakers’ hands.
Buffalo drafted RB James Cook in the second round, WR Khalil Shakir in the fifth round, and then acquired RB Nyheim Hines at the trade deadline. Those three players are all quick, explosive, and dangerous with the ball in their hands. However, the three of them combined for only 36 receptions this season… THIRTY SIX. Cook had 21 receptions, Shakir had 10, and Hines had five in his nine games in Buffalo. (And, for what it’s worth, Jamison Crowder only had six receptions in four games before going on IR.) Just unacceptable.
Dawson Knox, who the Bills made one of the highest paid tight ends in the NFL at the beginning of the season, had 13 games with less than five receptions. Knox finished the regular season with 48 receptions for 517 yards and 6 TDs. TE Quintin Morris, who flashed during training camp, finished with just 84 yards and one TD on eight grabs. FB/TE Reggie Gilliam also had just 8 receptions for 69 yards and a TD. I would’ve loved to see more out of the tight ends this season.
Isaiah McKenzie, who did have his fair share of drops, only had 42 receptions for 423 yards and 4 TDs. I already mentioned Shakir and Crowder… Cole Beasley only had two receptions in the two regular season games that he played in this season.
And of course, there was never ever real balance with the rushing attack. Devin Singletary led the way with 177 carries for 819 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and 5 TDs. Allen followed him with 124 carries for 762 yards (6.1 yds/carry) and 7 TDs. Cook was third with 507 yards and 2 TDs on 89 handoffs (5.7 yds/carry). Meanwhile, Hines only got 6 rushing attempts for -3 yards.
Let’s not forget that against the Vikings, while nursing a lead and Josh Allen’s elbow, the Bills ran the ball just seven times in the second half and OT… and they had SIX active RBs (Taiwan Jones and Reggie Gilliam were the others).
A lot of these stats might not seem too bad, but Allen is a huge eraser and can cover up a lot of mistakes with his style of play. For instance, the Buffalo Bills offensive line allowed the eighth-fewest sacks this season (33), but they didn’t have one starter who finished with a PFF grade over 74. (They definitely need to upgrade there this offseason.)
You could look at this from multiple different angles, as we will all offseason. But for now, I’m going to leave it general and say that Dorsey didn’t use his strengths to his advantage. Look what Joe Burrow and the Bengals did on Sunday; short, quick passes to get the ball in their playmakers’ hands ALL DAY LONG. You would’ve never known that they were missing 60% of their offensive line.
That being said, we hardly saw any screen passes, check downs, slants, crossers, trick plays, play action, boot legs, etc. In addition, we barely saw any outside zone run concepts this year; rarely did the Buffalo Bills get their athletic linemen out in space. I know Allen ran the ball 124 times, but there should have been way more QB designed runs. Rather than throwing it deep on 3rd and 2, how about you just keep the ball in your best player’s hands and pick up the two yards?
I kept thinking that Dorsey was saving plays and packages for the playoffs, but nothing ever changed. The offense refused to take what the defense gave them and, instead, forced everything down the field.
As for the defense, DC Leslie Frazier coaches a great regular season defense but then seems to get WAY too conservative in the playoffs. The fact that this photo even exists is absolutely mind-boggling. You mean to tell me that you want to give arguably the best set of weapons THAT MUCH cushion? Especially on 3rd and 4!? And this comes after the soft coverage last season in Kansas City.
The Buffalo Bills continuously play soft zone nickel coverage, especially in the playoffs for whatever reason. Their bend-but-don’t-break mentality will only take them so far. All it takes is a smart team like Cincinnati to realize that the Bills are willing to give them chunks of yards at a time; they can work their way down the field without having to go for it all at once. (I wish our offense would realize that.)
Buffalo had the sixth-best total defense this year. They were 15th against the pass, fifth against the run, and second in scoring, only allowing 17.9 points/game. However, over their last three playoff losses, Frazier’s defense has given up 107 points (35.7 points/game) and 1,403 total yards (467.7 yards/game).
The Buffalo Bills drafted CB Kaiir Elam last year in the first round. Elam excels in press man coverage due to his physical traits and athleticism, but yet was benched in favor of Dane Jackson late into the season. Granted, Elam dealt with injuries throughout the year, but time and time again we saw the first-round draft pick on the bench, losing valuable snaps to a seventh-rounder.
And then there’s the defensive line, who failed to generate any pressure on Burrow and gave up 172 rushing yards on Sunday against the 29th-ranked rushing offense and a backup offensive line. The Bills have heavily invested in their defensive line throughout the last few years, but where has it gotten them?
We’ll save this talk for the weeks to come, as we get closer to free agency and the Draft.
What They Had To Say
Bills head coach Sean McDermott said Monday that he’s extremely satisfied with how far their organization has come, but he’s not satisfied with how the season ended.
“We’ve had success, obviously not the success that we all want which is to win the Super Bowl, but the journey continues, and we won’t stop until we get there and that’s the vision moving forward.”mcdermott on his team
A dejected Josh Allen said after the game Sunday night that everything that they did during the regular season essentially doesn’t matter because they didn’t accomplish their goal.
“Our goal is to win a Super Bowl, a world championship, and we didn’t accomplish that. So, everything that happened this season is kind of null and void in our minds. It sucks.”allen on the season
Allen was a bit more optimistic at his end-of-the-season conference on Monday, saying that he doesn’t want the bad to take away from the good.
“I don’t want to just discredit everything that we did this year. There were a lot of positives that we saw throughout the year, a lot of adversity that this team had been dealt. I’m still proud of our team for how we handled some of those really adverse situations.”Allen on looking at the good
In terms of his coordinator, Allen spoke very highly of Ken Dorsey. He said he thinks Dorsey did a very good job and he “respects the hell out of him” for how hard he works. However, he did say there’s still a lot of room for the two of them to grow.
When asked about Dorsey and the offense, McDermott seemed to share some of my sentiments.
“I thought early on in the year, we were getting the ball out a little bit quicker at times and then later on in the year, we were working the ball down the field maybe sometimes too much. So I think that’s an area that we have to look hard it this offseason.”mcdermott on the offense
Take this as you will, but McDermott wouldn’t commit to either of his coordinators, saying that it was too soon. He had the chance to shoot down any rumors that they could be getting fired, but didn’t take that opportunity.
“I’m not going to get into staff right now… [we’re] not even 24 hours past [Sunday’s] game.”mcdermott on his coaching staff
Bills GM Brandon Beane’s press conference on Tuesday may have hinted that Dorsey isn’t going anywhere. This was just his first season as a play caller, so the Bills may want to cut him some slack.
“Ken will be very self-critical, we’ll all put our heads together… Sean talks about having the growth mindset and I believe Ken does have that and we’ll continue to look for ways to help him and that’s our job to kind of support him as he enters year two.”beane on dorsey
As for Leslie Frazier, Beane still has confidence in him as well.
“You can second guess these guys all day long, but statistically speaking, we’ve had really good defenses in his credit and Ken’s a first year coordinator and again, not everything was perfect for either one of them, but they’re both pros.”beane on frazier and dorsey
How Will Buffalo Move Forward?
If I were to read in between the lines, it seems as though both Dorsey and Frazier will be back. I could be wrong, but that’s what I took away from those press conferences.
I am not one to call for firings, but something needs to change or else this team will plateau. Whether it’s moving on from Dorsey or Frazier or both, the Buffalo Bills need a shakeup. This team’s window is still open but is closing ever so slightly. They cannot afford to be passive this offseason. They must honestly look themselves in the mirror over these next couple of weeks.
And if they’re too reluctant to make any changes based on the stats or the relationship side of things, then I think they need to at least bring in some new voices (on both sides of the ball) who can help take this team to the next level.
Frank Reich? Brian Flores?
I created a Twitter poll to see who Bills fans want for each coordinator position. Out of 149 votes, 59.1% of the people want Frank Reich to be the new OC; just 23.5% want Dorsey back. (8.7% want QB coach Joe Brady to get promoted and the other 8.7% want another option.)
Out of 134 votes for DC, 45.5% want Brian Flores, 32.8% want Vic Fangio, and just 11.9% want Frazier back. (9.7% chose “other.”)
UPDATE: It looks like the Frank Reich homecoming is off the table as he is set to become Carolina’s next head coach, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero.
Assistant Coach Firing
The Buffalo Bills did make a move today, firing safeties coach Jim Salgado.
This is a bit surprising to me, considering the Bills were without Micah Hyde just about all season, Jordan Poyer dealt with an elbow injury and was playing on a torn meniscus, and then they lost their backup in Damar Hamlin.
I hope that certain assistant coaches aren’t scapegoated this offseason and rather, they take a serious look at their coordinators. Before, I would say they should work from the bottom-up in terms of their coaching staff. But after four straight years of getting bounced out of the playoffs and not reaching the Super Bowl, I think they have to start from the top and work their way down.
We have officially entered the offseason, so that means it’s time to start looking at the build/construction of the roster, salary cap, free agents, draft prospects, etc. As of now, Beane said he’s not sure how much cap space the Bills have, but it’s not too much.
This offseason will be huge for Beane and his staff. Every offseason is big, but they need to make the necessary moves to put this team in a position to finally win it all. Adding more weapons to the offense and protecting Josh Allen are huge musts.
*All player quotes come from the postgame press conferences (via the Buffalo Bills YouTube channel).
Featured Image: Adrian Kraus/AP