Breaking Down the Bills

The Buffalo Bills had a tumultuous, unforgettable season, experiencing tragedy both on and off the field.

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Snow pummels the ground in Orchard Park as the Buffalo Bills take the field while the fans scream the iconic “Shout!” song at the top of their lungs. Superstar quarterback Josh Allen and second-team All-Pro wide receiver Stefon Diggs are preparing their team to face rising superstar Joe Burrow and his Cincinnati Bengals. This game was touted to be among the best divisional round games in recent history: both teams boast superstar quarterbacks and high-octane offenses, and the regular season matchup had been canceled because of Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s distressing cardiac arrest. The Bengals jumped to an early lead, as Burrow threw 9/9 for 105 yards en route to two consecutive touchdowns to open the game. Meanwhile, the Bills’ aerial attack was nonexistent, forcing them to punt consistently. The sentiment of the team was evident in Diggs’s frustration on the sideline later in the game, as the early lead proved too difficult to overcome and the Bills fell, 27-10.

Coming into the season, the Bills were the favorites to win the Super Bowl. It seemed as if fate had wanted them to win since Josh Allen’s breakout game against the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round last season when he cemented his status among the elite quarterbacks, giving Bills fans a real reason to hope, a rare case for Buffalo fans. In the Bills’ 53 years in the NFL, they have won no championships––and neither have the Buffalo Sabres, the local NHL team. Buffalo’s luck has made it hard for fans to get too hopeful, between a 17-year playoff drought and four consecutive Super Bowls losses with coach Marv Levy and Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly’s electric team. After resigning themselves to disappointment year after year, Josh Allen’s emergence finally gave fans a reason to hope they could capture the elusive Super Bowl, but their dreams were once again crushed in a heartbreaking loss to the Bengals.

After the game against Cincinnati, fans began calling for firings, trades, and other impulsive moves. It’s easy to point fingers reactionarily after a disappointing loss, but management has to have the headspace to reflect and make sensible decisions.

In hindsight, Bills and NFL fans alike have to sympathize with the team for the pain and suffering they endured throughout the year. Before the season even began, the local Buffalo community was inflicted with countless lives lost in blizzards and the tragic Tops shooting. Additionally, co-owner and president Kim Pegula was hospitalized for a cardiac arrest, though the cause of the hospitalization only became known more recently. Looking past the tragedies to a season of football was never going to be an easy task, and the sudden loss of tight end Dawson Knox’s brother, Luke Knox, only compounded that.

Finally, Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, one of the most emotional moments in recent sports history, took a heavy toll on the organization. The outpouring of love received from across the game was a beautiful gesture of unity, but very little could compare to what the Bills players emotionally endured in that moment. This wasn’t any normal season; the seemingly insurmountable emotional obstacles would make it nearly impossible for any team to power through, making it all the more impressive when the Bills made the divisional round.

In addition to the emotional rollercoaster, the Bills’ lengthy list of injuries was a huge deterrent to their season. Allen carried an elbow injury for much of the season; linebacker Von Miller missed the season with an ACL tear; top cornerback Tre’Davious White was recovering from an ACL tear for half of the season; and starting safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer suffered injuries that significantly impaired their performance. The sheer number of injuries shows the adversity of the team to continue their efforts even after major setbacks. While injuries aren’t an excuse for failure, they were clearly detrimental to the Bills’ hopeful season.

However, a bigger problem has been established with the coaching staff’s methodology. Although Allen didn’t play up to his standards, the defense let him down in a big playoff game, as they allowed the Bengals to jump to an early lead that Allen was never able to make up. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier needs to change his methods, as they’ve become predictable and easily exploited. First-year offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey struggled under the spotlight but also discovered and utilized rookie running back James Cook’s talent out of the backfield. However, Dorsey’s inexperience was evident in his many questionable calls in the final game, such as throwing it deep on third-and-short and under-utilizing the short passing game. On the bright side, head coach Sean McDermott showed leadership and character throughout the season, lifting the team up after every tragedy and being a leader for the players to look toward.

Looking at next season and the future, the Bills should be worried. For starters, Allen’s mammoth salary cap kicks in next season, meaning there’s less room to surround him with versatile weapons. The Bills are already $21 million over the salary cap, without accounting for re-signing free agents such as Poyer and Tremaine Edmunds or any rookie deals and contract extensions. Additionally, the wide receiver room is lacking in talent, outside of Diggs. Gabe Davis has shown only flashes of brilliance and isn’t an ideal WR2 for a contending team, and none of the Bills’ other options are particularly inspiring. Other AFC rivals, such as the Bengals, have multiple deadly options or make up for it with the run game. The Bills’ run game was mediocre, doing well statistically, but proved to be ineffective on the field outside of Allen’s winding runs through the secondary. General Manager Brandon Beane has some significant changes to make if the Bills hope to put themselves in a confident spot to contend.

Most worryingly, there’s a lost sense of hope from Bills fans. As Allen ages, each year becomes dimmer, potentially causing fans to be less willing to push the team forward. Bills fans have been considered the best in the NFL for consecutive years due to their resilience and unrelenting passion, and have played an intangible but significant role in the Bills’ resurgence. In order to have a successful future, fans need to be prepared to support the team unconditionally, even if that means yet another heartbreak.

While Buffalo doesn’t have the highest fan number, the “Bills Mafia” make up for it with their sense of community and family––characterized by their many charitable acts. In 2017, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw a 49-yard touchdown pass with under a minute remaining to knock out the Baltimore Ravens and send the Bills to the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. This led Bills Mafia to raise over $440,000 for Dalton’s foundation helping pediatric patients, and their generosity has only seemed to grow. Since then, they have inspired rival fan bases, members of Bills Mafia, and partnering companies to donate millions to good causes. One notable movement was donating increments of $17, Allen’s jersey number, to Oishei Children’s Hospital’s Patricia Allen Pediatric Recovery Wing, named in memory of Allen’s late grandmother who passed from cancer. The Buffalo community also gave millions to fight racism, buying “Choose Love” shirts, with 100 percent of proceeds donated.

One can worry about the Bills’ pain, but every season is a new beginning, and one can rest assured that the faithful fans will be there en masse on opening day. And, then again, there’s Josh Allen, and that’s all we need (sometimes).