I could pile on like so many others have after such a tumultuous preseason. I could lament the loss of the Buffalo Bills best defensive player (Marcell Dareus) for four games because of a substance abuse suspension. I could harp on the fact the team’s top two draft picks (Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland) have been laid low by injuries, prompting the Bills to sign linebackers off the street, including one guy who had been out of football for nearly two years. I could rant and rave about how promising second-year running back Karlos Williams ate – and perhaps smoked – his way off the roster by ballooning to 261 pounds and failing an NFL drug test, allegedly for marijuana.
But why bother? What’s done is done. And, besides, you poor Bills fans have suffered enough, and this is supposed to be the start of a New Era that goes beyond the new name of the old stadium. So, as the team that both entertains and exasperates western New Yorkers prepares for its season opener Sunday on the road against the Baltimore Ravens, I’m offering a game plan for ending the 16-season playoff famine.
Marv Levy, the Hall of Fame coach and wordsmith, once said, “What it takes to win is simple – it’s not easy.” This certainly won’t be easy, but this isn’t mission impossible either. To make the postseason, the Bills will need …
TYROD TAYLOR TO ELEVATE HIS PLAY. Armed with a new contract that could pay him as much as $90 million over six years, Taylor must build upon an impressive season in which he threw 20 touchdown passes and just six interceptions and ran for a franchise quarterback record 586 yards as a first-time starter. Taylor needs to develop a rapport with receivers besides Sammy Watkins. He has to utilize tight end Charles Clay more over the middle and in the red zone. He also has to win games with his arm after going 0-5 in contests in which he threw 30 passes. I don’t expect the Bills, under coordinator Greg Roman, to suddenly become a pass-oriented team. But there will be times when Taylor will have to throw his way to victory. Winning close games is a huge measuring stick for elite quarterbacks. Last year, Buffalo was 3-5 in games decided on the last possession. I like what I’ve seen from Taylor, but he’s still a work in progress. If he improves a few notches, he can compensate for some of the team’s deficiencies on defense.
THE TRIPLETS TO STAY HEALTHY. Taylor, Pro Bowl running back LeSean McCoy and Watkins missed a combined total of nine games, and were somewhat limited because of injuries in several of the games they did play. We saw the disastrous results when Taylor missed two games to a knee injury and EJ Manuel took over. Without Watkins, there’s a huge dropoff in the passing game. And McCoy, when healthy, is among the league’s top five running back threats. The good news is that, unlike last season, the trio is healthy heading into the opener.
THE DEFENSE TO REDEEM ITSELF. We all just assumed that the defense would take care of itself last season, and maybe even become better with defensive guru Rex Ryan taking the reins. Instead, under Rex it became a wreck, plummeting from fourth to 19th. There’s hope this was an aberration because in Ryan’s 11 NFL seasons as a coordinator or head coach, his defenses have ranked in the top eight nine times and have been No. 1 twice. If the Bills rebound to become a top 10 defense, their playoff odds will be greatly enhanced. But without Dareus, the rare tackle who can gobble up blockers and pressure the quarterback, it’s going to be a challenge. The linebacking corps also raises concerns, but the Bills do have one of the league’s best cornerback combos in Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby.
TO PRESSURE THE QUARTERBACK. Perhaps the most disconcerting thing was to watch the Bills record only 21 sacks after leading the league with 54 the year before. The challenge is going to be to find a pass rusher to take additional blockers off Jerry Hughes, who is looking to regain the form that made him a double-digit sack guy in 2013 and ’14. Lawson was supposed to be that guy. And this task has been made tougher by the absence of Dareus, too.
REX RYAN TO DO A BETTER JOB. I don’t expect a leopard to change its spots and Rex to muzzle himself. But, hopefully, he learned a few lessons, like not shooting his mouth off before playing a New England Patriots team that had beaten the Bills 25 of 28 times. With his brother, Rob, and his former Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed, on his staff, the confusion on how to run his complex defense should clear up. Rex has never been a great game-day coach, so I don’t expect a lot of improvement there. And he still needs to find a way to field a more disciplined team than the one that was flagged for 16
TO GO AT LEAST 4-2 IN THE DIVISION. This is doable, and so is 5-1 because Buffalo plays a Tom Brady-less New England in Week 4. The Bills need to rack up some wins early because they have a three-game stretch, starting on Oct. 30, when they play the Patriots (with Brady back) at home followed by consecutive road games in Seattle and Cincinnati. Winning Sunday would be huge, because after that they host the Jets in a Thursday night game, followed by a home game vs. Arizona, the road game in New England, a road game against the Los Angeles Rams, a home game vs. San Francisco and a road game in Miami. During that stretch, the Cardinals game seems like the only non-winnable contest.