Buffalo Bills – Here come The Chuckle Brothers

Pop quiz Part I: What do the following have in common?

The Euro

Family Guy

The Romanian music festival Callatis

Buffalo Bills in the post season

Answer: They all appeared in 1999.

Pop Quiz Part II: The odd one out? The Buffalo Bills in the post season – they are the only one that hasn’t been seen since! It’s the longest active Play Off drought in the NFL and also the longest of any of the “Big 4” sports in North America.

Head Coach Doug Marrone quit at the end of the 2014 season despite leading them to their best record in a decade (albeit only 9-7) and new owner Terry Pegula decided enough was enough. He wasn’t prepared to sit back and watch yet another season of mediocrity and miss out, yet again, on some post-season action. So he lit a fire.

It wasn’t an actual fire of course (although that may have been a better idea in hindsight), it was a metaphorical fire. One which put the Bills firmly on the front and back pages, and across most of the sports networks.

The fire had the same kindling, spark, accelerant and fuel – Rex Ryan.

Having been jettisoned by the division rival New York Jets in the off season, Pegula decided Rex was the man to bring some much needed character and personality to one of the League’s most inconspicuous franchises. Not something Rex has ever had trouble doing.

He would have one of the best defensive units to work with who ranked fourth overall in 2014 for both yards and points allowed as well as leading the League in sacks with 54. There were ProBowlers aplenty along the line and some strong young talent in the secondary.

He added some talent on offense, too, trading with the Eagles for LeSean McCoy to bolster a lacklustre run game, sophomore wideout Sammy Watkins was given some veteran help in the shape of Percy Harvin after his solid rookie year and there was an upgrade at Tight End with the arrival of Charles Clay. Rex took the decision to bring in some competition at Quarterback as well, with veteran Matt Cassell added from Minnesota and the hither-to unproven free agent Tyrod Taylor from the Ravens – a QB Rex Ryan had already been known to rate highly.

Season ticket sales were at record levels, the Bills were enjoying plenty of off-season exposure and, on paper at least, they had a roster with plenty of talent. Things were looking up.

Load ammunition, point downwards…

There are many things that can be (and indeed have been) said about Rex Ryan. One of them is that he has an excellent defensive footballing brain. Given the defensive unit he inherited and his propensity for old fashioned hard nosed defensive football, most were expecting the Bills D to be borderline unstoppable.

That simply wasn’t the case and I think it was mainly down to another of Rex’s traits – he tries too hard to be one of the guys.

The defense recorded fewer than half the number of sacks it had in 2014, and spent most of the year looking more than a little confused with Rex’s complex schemes and ideas with one or two looking decidedly uninterested to me. It was almost as if the new teacher had come in with a lot more homework for everyone in class which most were struggling to comprehend and the others just flat out refused to try and learn. They weren’t quiet in letting everyone know, either.

By the time the Bills arrived in London for what I think turned out to be a pivotal Week 7 game against the Jaguars (more on that later), there were plenty of questions being asked of Ryan and his coaching team about whether the locker room had been lost and if players were refusing to play the schemes they were being asked to. Ryan, of course, had plenty of answers and sound bites to offer in response, but there was clearly a fractious atmosphere around the camp and it wasn’t all the players’ fault.

Offensively, things weren’t quite so disparate.

The previously lacklustre running game found new life with the arrival of McCoy who, despite missing time through injury, recorded just shy of 900 yards on the season. Solid contributions from Karlos Williams and Michael Gillislee added to a run game that went from 25th in 2014 to topping the League last time around. The second best ground game in terms of yardage for the Bills wasn’t any of these guys though, it was Tyrod Taylor.

For everything you can criticize Rex Ryan for last year (and I think there’s plenty but I could be here all week) I think he has to be given some credit for bringing in Tyrod Taylor and ultimately giving him the starting job.

It’s easy to forget that despite being with the Ravens for four years prior to joining Buffalo, Taylor only took a handful of competitive snaps during limited game time and therefore was, for all intents and purposes, a Rookie. Sure, he’d had plenty of time to study tape with the likes of Joe Flacco but there’s no substitute for being under center with opposing linemen snorting at you just a few feet away.

He showed glimpses of what could be a solid career with more time under his belt and an improved offensive line in front of him. A view that the Bills clearly agree with having just signed him to a multi-year extension, albeit with seemingly comparatively low risk (in today’s game) in terms of cold hard cash.

However, for all the improvement they showed on offense, there was one thing that was a constant thorn in their side on both sides of the ball – penalties.

The Buffalo Bills finished 2015 with a massive 1,249 yards called against them on 143 accepted penalties, with far too many of them to list here coming at crucial times in games where they would either surrender momentum, chalk off a big play or even a score, or overturn a drive stopping play by the defense. If the Bills could do one thing consistently last year, it was shoot themselves in the foot. It was their season in microcosm and it was painful to watch.

It’ll be different this time though, right? Right?

The Rex Ryan apologists will tell you that the Buffalo Bills were a team in transition in 2015. A team whose offense took time to gel with the new pieces they had and a defense who are still learning the complexities of Rex’s master plan. 2016 will see a marked improvement on both sides and this could well be the year they finally return to the post season.

I don’t want to upset any Bills fans, but I’m not buying it.

Granted, there probably is some merit buried in that train of thought concerning the offense at least. Tyrod Taylor will need to show progression in his decision making and his accuracy on the shorter passes or quick releases will have to improve, but I think there is scope for him to grow in to a solid Quarterback who can be equally dangerous with both his arm and his legs.

The run game is clearly working behind an improving offensive line and McCoy and Williams will return again in 2016 as an impressive 1-2 punch which, coupled with Taylor’s elusiveness, gives the Bills plenty of options on the ground.

Outside of that however, I don’t see that much has changed.

Sammy Watkins remains the only serious receiving threat and he’s coming in to the season off the back of foot surgery. After him, where do the Bills go? Woods? Goodwin? Salas?! As good as Watkins is, and he finished 2015 white hot, he can not carry the passing game on his own which means one of the other three, along with Charles Clay, needs to make a big leap this time around.

The defense will of course have had a year under their belt of Rex’s way of doing things and their run defense will likely still be stout, as will Gilmore and Darby n the secondary, but I think they will again be without a top grade pass rush outside of Jerry Hughes, particularly with the losses of Enemkpali and Ragland meaning a reshuffle in the linebacker corps. There will be pressure a plenty on first round pick Shaq Lawson when he recovers from his recent shoulder surgery to give them more in that department.

All of that said, I think the biggest factor the Bills will have to deal with again this year is Rex Ryan himself, and this time around he’s brought his brother along for the ride too.

Whilst the Rex press conferences and interviews are entertaining to say the least, the constant excuses when things go wrong and mumblings of disharmony that seem to follow him wherever he goes make him, well, tiresome. Do the players like having Rex around the facility and taking meetings, practice, etc.? Sure. Do the players respect him and his philosophies as a Head Coach? I’m not so convinced. Now they have his brother bringing new ideas to the table as well. It’s a double act that’s not so much Holmes and Watson as The Chuckle Brothers for me.

As in 2015, the Buffalo Bills are entering the season with a roster of talented players on both sides of the ball and a hope that this year could well be the year that their post season drought finally ends.

As in 2016, I think next year’s season preview will start with a certain pop quiz.