For long as fans would care to recall, the Bills have been the least productive and most conservative passing team in the NFL. The facts are damning and undeniable.
Over the last 16 seasons — that is, since Drew Bledsoe’s one good year in Buffalo — the Bills have the fewest total passing yards of any team in the NFL. Not surprisingly, they also have attempted the fewest passes during that time. They've finished in the bottom five 10 times in 16 years, including the last four, when they ranked 28th, 31st, 32nd and 31st.
They have lacked imagination and daring in the passing game. At times, the coaches have been stuck in a bygone era, convinced you can win by running the ball, playing stout defense and having a quarterback who managed the game and limited his mistakes.
The biggest thing, of course, has been the lack of a true franchise quarterback who can make the big throws and pick apart the best defenses. A limited passer has a way of limiting a coaching staff’s willingness to be bold in the passing game.
But maybe it’s finally about to change. It was only one game, and a preseason opener at that, but Thursday's 24-16 win over the Colts might be a sign that the Bills’ offense has finally begun to develop an attitude, that they're committed to being a passing team in a passing league.
On their two possessions with Josh Allen at quarterback, they looked like a team that was determined to attack through the air rather than assume the typically conservative posture of handing off and feeling their way with the run in the early going.
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll called passes on his first eight plays. It wasn’t perfect. Allen made some very nice throws. He also overthrew Zay Jones badly down the field and underthrew him on third down on the opening series. He reminded you he’s still a young QB whose accuracy at times leaves much to be desired.
But the most important thing was seeing the offense with a fresh mindset. Yeah, it was only the first eight plays of preseason, but it sure felt as if Daboll and the Bills were telling the world that this year was going to be different, that they have a gifted young quarterback with a powerful arm and some new weapons, and they’re going to ride him for better or worse.
Allen threw the ball down the field incomplete for tight end Tommy Sweeney on the very first play. He hit Cole Beasley on a crossing pattern on the next play. It got called back for a penalty, but Allen made a quick read and Beasley was open on a play that has been there all training camp and is expected to be a signature for the offense this season. A good sign.
After only two possessions, Allen gave way to backup Matt Barkley. But it was sufficient time to establish an early identity. Zay Jones got involved as Allen targeted him five times, once when he was wide open for 23 yards out of a four wide receiver set. Jones dropped a pass near the goal-line and took a forearm to the head by the Colts' Khari Willis.
Jones was evaluated for a concussion and was later cleared. Considering the situation with center Mitch Morse, who remains out with a fourth career concussion, it was a troubling moment. But overall, it was an encouraging performance for Jones, a third-year wideout with a lot to prove this season.
The entire offense has a lot to prove. But it was a promising opening performance. They attacked and dictated to the Colts defense. Allen looked assured and quick to get rid of the ball. Remember, there was a lot of concern that the offensive line might struggle without Morse. But it’s a lot easier when the plays are being run quickly.
Those first eight plays reminded me a little of the Patriots over the years. The Pats will often come out throwing on every down to put the defense on its heels and establish a tone for the game. All right, so I’m going overboard with parallels to Tom Brady. It’s only the first preseason game. But there was an unmistakable attitude on display with the offense.
“Overall, I thought he took what the defense gave him at times,” coach Sean McDermott said after the win.
That’s the kind of coach-speak that makes you wonder if McDermott is truly on board with developing a more aggressive passing mindset. Taking what the defense gives you is a nice concept, like “process.” But it suggests allowing the other team to dictate your approach with the ball.
After nearly two decades of dull, conservative football, of “taking what the defense gives you,” wouldn’t it be nice if the Bills were the team that dictated, one that acted like it believed in its franchise quarterback and took what it damn well pleased?
It’s about time the Bills offense got into the 21st century. Maybe the days of running on first play and getting into difficult down and distance situations are finally over. If it’s all about Allen, they might as well turn him loose and treat him like a weapon, not some project who needs to have his opportunities for mistakes kept to a minimum.
Allen has more weapons now. One of the biggest might just be Devin Singletary, who looked very good and has people saying he’ll be their best back before long. I’ve been saying that since May. Listen to me, seeing new exciting possibilities in a Bills offense. Maybe, at last, there’s a good reason.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York, as well as the host of The Jerry Sullivan Show from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. weekdays on 1270 AM The Fan. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at email@example.com.