PROJECTED RECORD AT THIS POINT: 1-4
So I was all set for it, right? It would be just like a normal Bills season, only we’d be losing semi-on-purpose instead of on the team’s own (lack of) merits. How much harder could it be?
I’d done what I could to get into the right mental space to ride out Tankathon 2017: Play Dead. I had stocked up on alcohol, of course. I worked out how to stream the games (legally) onto my laptop so I could watch every game in the bathtub, insulated from the inevitable pain of watching Tyrod Taylor constantly scramble for dear life by the warm embrace of Soothing Moments Premium Bath Bubbles. I specifically made plans to be busy during the New England games, because even when you’re trying to lose, it’s sick-making to watch Tom Terrific smirk and complain his way through a thrashing of your team.
I was all set. I had taken Dr. Thompson’s advice and was ready to learn to enjoy losing. “Lie back and think of England.” Prepare your anus. Whatever.
But that’s not what’s happened. No, in a strange turn of events, the Bills have showed flashes of what can only be described as sheer, heart-pounding, gut-wrenching competence.
Under other circumstances, it would be the oddest team trajectory of the season so far. Of course, following the usual pattern of things in New York State, New York City* is getting all the attention. The Jets were attempting the same thing as the Bills, only more spectacularly—whereas the Bills were trying to maintain Tank Deniability and pretend they were still trying, the Jets went with the Partial Sam Hinkie, clearcutting their roster with the undenied intention of sucking hard and fast for two years and getting high draft picks. Of course, the Jets are unable to execute any plan, and they are in mortal danger of not sucking badly enough with a 3-3 start. Hell, their stadium-mate Giants (who were a trendy pick to make a deep playoff run, to the extent anything sportswriters do can be described as “trendy”) are more likely to get a top-5 pick at this point, where they will face the interesting question of whether it’s time to consider drafting a Manchild of the Future against the day that Eli decides to hang up his waterwings. I’m looking forward to the fanbase civil war between “HE’S OUR QUARTERBACK HE BEAT BRADY TWICE WHO CARES THAT HE’S BEEN AVERAGE FOR MANY YEARS ARGLEARGLEARGLE!!!” and “HE’S A BUM AND HE HASN’T BEEN THE BEST QUARTERBACK EVER AND HE HASN’T WON THE ENTIRE SEASON SINGLE-HANDED IN THE LAST FIVE MINUTES AND THE GREATEST CITY IN THE WORLD DESERVES BETTER BARGLEBARGLEBARGLE!!” My money is on “Bargle” personally.
*I usually enjoy pointing out that the Jets and Giants are New Jersey teams, not New York. But I’m coming to believe that the nation might be better off with some realignment, including splitting New Jersey up, giving the northern portion to New York and the southern portion to Pennsylvania. Under the Mayhem Plan, we would also consolidate the Dakotas and Montana into a single state, divide up California, jump Puerto Rico up to a state and sell Wyoming to Jeff Bezos so that Amazon can become a sovereign nation. Subscribe to my newsletter!
Anyway, the Bills have somehow managed to beat both the Reigning Super Bowl Bedshitter Atlanta Falcons and the more-competent-than-expected Denver Broncos, both in relatively convincing fashion. They also beat the Jets, because you gotta have some pride.
They have also lost a field-goal fest to the Carolina Panthers, presumably because Ron Rivera has incriminating photos of Sean McDermott getting his giant head licked by a prostitute, and shat the bed against Cincinnati, one of only two teams to score fewer points than the Bills this year. Because we wouldn’t want to get too ambitious…
What’s interesting is how the Bills have a record over .500 and are within a half game of leading the AFC East, while having no offense and relatively little defense to speak of. They are averaging 17.8 points per game, lower than the Jets and 49ers and barely above such luminaries as Cleveland, Chicago, Cincinnati, Miami and the Giants. The Bills are mustering an average of 271.6 yards per game. That’s total yards, not passing yards (165 per game), by the way. Only thanks to the mysterious disappearance of Joe Flacco and the not-so-mysterious appearance of Jay Cutler are the Bills not dead fucking last in what we are constantly told is a passing league.** Nor are the Bills getting it done through the run game, despite being explicitly built as a Running Team. They are smackdab in the middle of the table at 106.6 yards per game, and that’s with a top-5 talent at running back and a very mobile QB.
**This increasingly appears to be Bullshit. Six teams are averaging under 200 passing yards per game so far, and an amazing 22 teams are averaging fewer than 250. I’m normally not one to Decry the Poor State of Quarterback Play, but this is a pretty significant indictment of the talent pool in the Age of Liberalized Passing Rules.
Normally, a winning record with this anemic of an offense points to Ravens Syndrome: a dominant defense that is keeping the offense afloat. But the amazing thing is that the Bills’ defense hasn’t been overly impressive, except in the ultimate issue of points allowed. They don’t have a huge number of sacks, and they are right in the middle of the pack in yards allowed per game. They are holding teams down on the rushing side, but are giving up more passing yards to balance that out.
No, what’s keeping this team afloat, other than God’s perverse sense of humor, is turnovers and the lack thereof. Through five games, the defense has forced eight interceptions and two fumbles, and several of these have come in the red zone. This is unexpected for a team where the CB1 is a rookie and the secondary was considered highly suspect headed into the season. Conversely, the offense may not be moving the ball, but they are not giving it up either- only two turnovers all year, which is especially impressive when you consider that they played high-quality defenses in Denver, Carolina, Atlanta and Cincinnati. As a result, the Bills have a +8 turnover ratio, second only to the similarly mystifying jaguars. Whether this is a statistical abnormality or a sustainable model for the season remains to be seen.
Which brings us to the Overarching Question: what the fuck are the Bills doing?
They’re not doing well enough to suggest that they can continue to punch above their weight for an entire season. Ballhawking is all well and good, but when you are still giving up significant yardage it suggests opportunism rather than a solid defensive scheme. And even if you’re not turning the ball over, you do have to score at some point if you want to win.
On the other hand, they’re not doing poorly enough to make tanking worthwhile. The Bills need to be in the top five of the draft to have any hope of effecting Real Change, either by drafting an ELITE talent or trading down for a plethora of picks. Their obvious need is at quarterback, and it’s supposed to be a bumper crop coming out of college. I really like Tyrod Taylor, but at this point we’re all pretty much willing to admit he is not a top-10 passer in any given year. In most games and situations, he’s good enough to get you a win if everything else goes right, but he will not usually play well enough to overcome problems in any other aspect of the game. Most of the rest of the team is playing the same way, save perhaps the secondary- as long as no one else is having a bad day, they are probably adequate. Unfortunately, the season is too long and the other teams too evenly matched for a team to expect that approach to work out any better than 8-8 though.
And that’s been the Bills’ primary problem (again, other than Divine Comedy) since the Immaculate Deception: they are trapped in the Purgatory of Average. They’re never really good, but they’re not bad enough to effect real change. The Bills have a 107-154 record since 2001, which ESPN tells me is sixth-worst in the league. However, they have only finished 3-13 or worse once during that stretch. That year was 2001, which meant that their lofty draft position in the 2002 (4th overall) gave them such options as Patrick Ramsey, Josh McCown (Jesus, he’s old), Rohan Davey and J.T. O’Sullivan. Similarly, their 3rd overall pick in 2011 gave them the options of Jake Locker, The Flow and Christian Ponder. Whenever the Bills are bad, there’s someone worse and the table scraps are not worth the eating. Whenever they make a run, they either Bills it up or someone inexplicably has juuuust a little better year (see Chad Pennington’s 2004 Jets).
I am told that “perfect” is the enemy of “good”. I am told that “good enough” is also the enemy of good, because it encourages you to limp along, make-do and try surface fixes instead of re-evaluating the underlying structure.
It’s more than just not being in position to take the fabled Generational Franchise Quarterback- the team’s inability to escape the middle of the pack has knock-on effects that continue to undermine any effort to climb out of the Gravity Well of Mediocrity. For example, the Bills weren’t bad enough to get Sammy Watkins through draft position, so they had to mortgage the farm to go up and get him. Since he wasn’t good (or at least healthy) enough to solve all the Bills’ problems, that move ended up being a net-negative for the team: the depletion of draft capital prevented them from potentially adding other productive players AND devalued the Bills remaining picks by helping to keep them in the 9-7/7-9 band that they habitually inhabit. They’re not good enough to be good. And they’re not bad enough to get good, because they are constantly dealt middling draft picks and share the majority of the league’s inability to spot diamonds in the rough.
At the beginning of the season, I held out some last glimmer of hope that the Bills would be Good. I was fully prepared for them to Bad. What I was not braced for was the vicious, punishing onslaught of ennui that has been the 2017 Buffalo Bills.
To borrow from Pink Floyd (and in turn Thoreau): hanging on in quiet desperation is the Buffalo Way. Bring on the nondescript offensive lineman we will inevitably draft at Pick Number 12.
PREDICTION: Foxboro delenda…nevermind….