What's wrong with the Buffalo Bills?
I’m not sure a Super Bowl prediction has ever fallen apart faster than my 2016 Buffalo Bills pick. Just eight days into the NFL season, the Bills are 0-2, leaving my selection in ruins.
Winning a Super Bowl after a 0-2 start is not unprecedented—the New York Giants did it in 2007—but it’s extremely unlikely, and that particular Giants’ victory remains one of the biggest upsets in the game’s history.
The pick of the Bills doing something special this season always had the potential to go the other way, and was very much a boom-or-bust prospect, but there was a lot to like about this team before the start of the season.
The first thing working in Buffalo’s favor was the absence of Tom Brady in New England for the first month of the season, potentially giving the Bills a chance at the AFC East title they wouldn’t ordinarily get. They have thrown that advantage away already by starting 0-2, while the Patriots have won their first game with Jimmy Garoppolo under center.
So, what’s wrong with Rex Ryan’s Buffalo Bills through two weeks of play, and can they right the ship soon?
Problem 1: QB Tyrod Taylor
Last season, first-year starter Tyrod Taylor was a revelation for the Bills, and ended the year with an overall grade of 89.8, good enough for seventh-best among NFL QBs. He wasn’t just a surprise package, but a genuinely impressive QB who made throws few other players in the league can make. There were flaws in his game, but they were on the routine underneath passes that most pro QBs tend to master first. Simply put, he was good at the difficult things, and not great at the easier stuff.
If Taylor had improved on his negatives, he would be a QB that could take this team places in 2016; instead, he seems to have regressed across the board, at least through two games of the 2016 season.
In the first game against Baltimore, Taylor just couldn’t make many plays, and last night against the Jets, the big plays were back, but he missed too many passes, and the interception early in the fourth quarter should have been a big gain to put the Bills into the red zone down by three—it instead resulted in a critical turnover. Taylor just hasn’t been the same player he was a year ago, and unless he can rediscover that magic, this team is sunk on offense.
Problem 2: Pass coverage
One of the more exciting things about this Bills team entering the season was the defense they could field, and more impressively, the coverage they had on the back end, with Stephone Gilmore and Ronald Darby forming one of the better cornerback duos in the NFL. With Darby just a rookie last year, I felt they could be even better in 2016, but like Taylor, they have gone the other way.
Last season, targeting Darby yielded a passer rating of 78.3, and Gilmore, 82.1; both players allowed exactly 54.3 percent of passes sent their way to be caught. So far this season, targeting Darby is yielding a passer rating of 93.6, and Gilmore, 116.7. In fact, Gilmore has surrendered 75 percent of the passes thrown his way for receptions. Against the Jets, in particular, he was torched, allowing seven receptions for 129 yards on just eight targets. Ironically, the front-seven didn’t play badly on Thursday, but the coverage on the back end allowed the Jets to keep the chains moving almost at will—and you can’t play defense like that at the NFL level.
Problem 3: Belief
Much of my logic hinged on this team believing it was capable of winning, with the Patriots faltering without Brady. Losing to Baltimore on opening weekend was a blow, but I think the more significant hit to the confidence came when the Brady-less Patriots knocked off a good Arizona team on the road. That put the Bills a game back already at a time they were hoping to steal a march on the Patriots; instead of being able to galvanize belief, head coach Rex Ryan was left trying to convince the team they could still compete.
The bottom line here is that, for the Bills to compete this season, they need a minor miracle. The 2007 Giants team started 0-2, but won their next six games, ending the season 10-6 and nabbing an NFC Wildcard spot in a relative down year (Washington behind them, at 9-7, also earned a wildcard berth).
The 1993 Dallas Cowboys also opened 0-2 before winning seven straight—and 12 of their next 14 games—to take the division on their way to the Super Bowl, and the 2001 Patriots opened 0-2, losing three of their first four games, but winning eight of their last nine to take the division at 11-5.
It’s not impossible for the Bills to salvage this season, but they need to start winning now—and likely forget about taking the division. This team certainly has enough talent to succeed. The defense is actually still playing relatively well on an individual level up front, but they are being undone by a scheme that is leaving too many holes in behind. We saw last season that Taylor has better play in him, but the time to prove it is running out.
Ultimately, you are unlikely to see a Super Bowl prediction unspool more quickly than the eight days it took my Bills selection to do so, but I think this team can salvage something from the year, even if it is only a bit of pride and self-respect.