Sullivan: Hard to poke holes in deep, experienced Bills

Jerry Sullivan

This isn’t easy for me. When it comes to the Bills, my default position has long been one of skepticism. I once told former general manager Tom Donahue, who was notorious for his thin skin, that it was my job as a columnist to be the team’s biggest critic.

Heaven knows, there was a lot to criticize during the 17-year drought, a generation of dysfunction that made me wary of any flickering Bills success. Years of experience taught me that when things look brightest, some calamity is usually sure to follow.

I imagine longtime fans of the team, who have suffered through some soul-crushing defeats over the years, can certainly relate.

So, I was ready to see the flaws in this year’s team, to be the Bills’ harshest critic. I was vigilant for signs of decline after a terrific 2020 season that saw them win the AFC East for the first time in 21 years and win a playoff game — two, actually — for the first time since 1995.

There’s always a tendency to see them in the brightest light in August, after they’ve spent a month practicing mainly against themselves. I’m generally careful not to attach too much meaning to the preseason, which can give you a skewed sunny perspective.

A lot went right with this team a year ago. Josh Allen had one of the most remarkable one-year improvements of any quarterback in NFL history. He broke most of Jim Kelly’s team passing records and led the Bills to a franchise record 501 points.

The defense got a bit overshadowed along the way, but Leslie Frazier’s unit came together in the second half of the season and shut down most of the quarterbacks they faced — especially in the first half of games.

History instructs us that things can unravel from one year to the next in the NFL. No one knows that better than Bills head coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane. They worked with the Carolina Panthers, who went 15-1 and reached the Super Bowl in 2015, then slipped to 6-10 the next year, becoming the only team ever to go 15-1 and miss the playoffs the following season.

There are other, more recent, examples of teams falling back from a breakthrough year. The 2017 Eagles, 2018 Rams and 2019 Niners all went 13-3, then failed to win 10 games the next season.

The cautionary tales are out there. I’m sure Beane and McDermott have reminded their team of what happened in Carolina, when injuries, the release of a star player in a contract dispute (Josh Norman) and the physical regression of a young star quarterback (Cam Newton) contributed to a precipitous decline.

But this Bills team hasn’t suffered roster erosion or any major internal disruptions, aside from the ongoing flap over COVID-19 vaccines. They’re not likely to fall apart, like the 2016 Panthers. They remind me of the 1991 Bills, who went 13-3 in 1990, then rolled to another 13-3 season in 1991 and went to a second straight Super Bowl.

Losing in the Super Bowl made that ’91 team even more determined, as they’ve often told us in the ensuing years. That was also before unrestricted free agency, which allowed teams to maintain rosters that would be cost-prohibitive in the modern game.

The window closes quickly in the NFL nowadays. But the arrow is still pointing up for the Bills, who have re-signed most of their key players — including Josh Allen — and have a year or two to make a serious run before salary cap issues infiltrate a deep roster.

There’s been talk that the players are angry about the way last season ended in the AFC title game and eager to make a statement in 2021. They’re a dangerous and motivated group that feels it’s their year, their time.

The Bills showed how they can bounce back from a harrowing defeat after the Hail Murray loss in Arizona last Nov. 15. They went 6-0 to close out the regular season, winning every game by double digits and rolling by an average 20-point margin of 38-18.

Granted, they got smoked by KC in the title game, but that six-game stretch showed how good the Bills can be. The defense was extraordinary, particularly early in games. They allowed more than 10 points in the first half once in their last 10 games. A lot of the yards and points they allowed were garbage-time.

The Bills are blessed with continuity, from top to bottom. The biggest continuity of all might be the coordinators. Brian Daboll (offense) and Leslie Frazier are as good a tandem as there is in the league, and head jobs could be waiting if the Bills make another run.

Sometimes, preseason tells you something. Watching the offense in the Chicago game, I was reminded how much Daboll’s system had evolved over the last few years. It was merciless and efficient, even with most of the starters sitting out.

At one point, it occurred to me that the Bills would make the playoffs with Mitch Trubisky at quarterback. It’s not an outlandish notion. The Bears made the playoffs twice in Trubisky’s four years in Chicago — albeit with an 8-8 record a year ago.

Still, watching Trubisky and a bunch of second-teamers carve up the Bears, you saw a machine, one that should be truly lethal again with Allen and a full complement of starters on the field.

It’s hard to imagine them breaking the franchise scoring record — points per game, that is — again. But with a 17th game on the schedule, I could see them putting up 501 points again.

There’s still concern about the defensive front, which was easy to run against at times last year. But they’re deep on the edges and seem to have an impact rookie in defensive end Greg Rousseau, who has looked great in preseason (granted, it’s preseason).

Kicker Tyler Bass was the most accurate kicker in the NFL down the stretch last season. He didn’t miss a field-goal attempt in the last seven games, and didn’t miss inside 50 after Nov. 1 in the regular season. Bass also made 50-yard kicks look easy at times.

There’s a lot to like about the Bills, even for a hardened cynic. Virtually every Bills fan I’ve spoken with in recent weeks mentions COVID as the most troubling issue, the one thing that could ruin them.

Beasley’s self-indulgent righteousness could cost them at some point. They have one of the lowest vaccination rates in the league, which makes them more vulnerable to an infection that could knock some key players out of regular-season games.

One loss wouldn’t crush this team any more than the Hail Murray did last season. Still, you do wonder if the vaccine issue has dented some of the team bond that McDermott has worked so hard to create. It won’t be good if players begin pointing fingers.

What’s more likely is that the team stays together, rises above any COVID issues that arise, and rides Allen’s arm and athletic ability to another division title and one of the AFC’s best records.

Other teams improve, of course. The Chiefs bolstered a sorry offensive line. Young quarterbacks are inspiring hope all over the conference, including the Bills’ three rivals in the AFC East.

None of them is ready to supplant the Bills atop the division, however. It’s a deep, experienced, talented and hungry team that’s ready to take another step, a team that has unfinished business from a year ago.

There’s always room for doubt. Allen has the big contract. Now he has to prove he can beat Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. This is still the Bills, after all, and even when they’re among the elite, you still find yourself bracing for the inevitable disaster.

But if it happens, this time it’ll be in the last game of the NFL season. It challenges the skeptic in me, but yes, I see them going to the Super Bowl.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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