It sure was a great run by Josh Allen and rest of Buffalo Bills in 2020
Perhaps Buffalo Bills fans weren’t in the mood to notice or care, but the sun did rise Monday morning in western New York, which was news in and of itself given how drearily overcast it has been the past few weeks.
While life inexorably marches on, it was perfectly understandable that it did so with a shortage of smiling faces around these parts after the Bills were manhandled by the Kansas City Chiefs 38-24 in the AFC Championship Game. A bummer, no doubt.
But take a step back and consider this: Last August when the team first convened in Orchard Park for training camp, a team that hadn’t won a playoff game or an AFC East title in a quarter of a century, and Josh Allen was still a great unknown in terms of being the franchise quarterback, did anyone really dare to believe that in late January 2021, the Bills would be playing for the opportunity to advance to Super Bowl 55?
Yeah, some of you probably did, the same delusional group that believed that would be the case during all 17 years of the postseason drought. But I can’t imagine the vast majority of fans thought the season the Bills just gave us was remotely possible.
And that’s what you have to take into the offseason, the thought of knowing that the Bills are no longer lost in space like some dysfunctional NASA satellite; they have re-entered the atmosphere of the NFL and with a few tweaks here and there to an already strong roster, better days are quite possibly ahead.
“This is a heck of a season whenever you get this far,” said coach Sean McDermott, who was not smiling in contentment when he said this because he’s not content and he was as disappointed as any of you, in fact, probably much more so. “A lot has gone into the season, a lot of sacrifice because of the type of year it is in particular. Guys stayed together. They love one another, they played hard for one another, and this has been a heavy lift since day one (because of the pandemic).”
Look at what happened in 2020: The offense finally realized it was the 21st century and thanks to Allen’s massive leap forward and the tremendous performances he got from players like Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley, the Bills scored a franchise-record 501 points.
The Bills won their first division crown since 1995; they made it to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since the 1993 season; they won 13 regular-season games for the first time since 1991; and as one of the most entertaining teams in the league they found themselves playing in seven night games including two in the playoffs. Not even the 1990s Super Bowl teams had that much primetime exposure.
“Oh, for sure, for sure,” safety Micah Hyde said of the leaps and bounds the team made. “I’m proud of what we accomplished this year. I’m proud of the guys in this locker room. The ups and downs of the season, not to mention COVID just threw a wrench in everything. It was such a unique year. I could talk to you about that for an hour and a half right now, the stuff that you (reporters) don’t even know about that, honestly, we keep in-house. And it was frustrating, it was difficult, coming in each and every day, trying to get a leg up on the rest of the league because of these COVID situations ... it was hard.”
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Indeed, the Bills handled the pandemic as well as any team in the league, suffering only a handful of positive tests and having none of their games altered because of their own COVID issues.
The ending was disappointing, but it can’t be allowed to wipe out all the good that happened for the Bills in 2020.
“It’s a major step for our organization,” said McDermott. “We fell a little bit short, but I’m extremely proud of the team, proud of the organization, and thankful and proud of Bills Mafia as well for making the trip. Most of them made it out here and the ones that didn’t make it back at home, I wish we could have had a different outcome.”
Here are some other observations:
Defense needs to be more aggressive
McDermott and his defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier, have been together for four seasons now, and they have built a defense that, by and large, has been reliable, competitive, and at times very good.
But as we saw twice in 2020, that’s not nearly good enough to beat Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and the rest of the Chiefs and if the Bills believe that they can be the top contender to Kansas City’s throne over the next few years, they have to make some changes to the way they do things.
The conservative approach they employed in the two losses to the Chiefs this season did not work. Kansas City scored 64 points, gained 905 yards, made 56 first downs, were 15 of 24 on third down, and went 8-for-12 in the red zone.
What was frustrating Sunday night was the Bills’ passive coverage, giving Kelce, Hill, and Mecole Hardman far too much cushion and naturally, Mahomes ate them up. He didn’t throw deep at all; instead, he took advantage of the Bills laying back, threw short and intermediate, and let his playmakers do what they do best – run after the catch.
The Bills started blitzing a little more in the second half, but it didn’t really matter because the Chiefs offensive line held up and Mahomes is just a magician at avoiding the heat and delivering the ball.
Next season, the Bills have to find a way to generate more pass rush, and they may need to re-think playing as much zone as they play a little more press man coverage, even if it’s only a little bit.
Josh Allen just didn’t have it
After the season he had, it’s a shame that this is the performance Allen has to take into the offseason, just as it was last season when he had to live with his poor outing in the wildcard loss to Houston.
It happened only a few times this season, but Allen just didn’t look comfortable, the poise he showed all year was absent, and he made questionable decisions from start to finish. His contemporary, Mahomes, one of the quarterbacks he will be compared to for as long as they’re in the league together, was so much better in both games they faced each other.
“I didn’t perform well enough to help this team win the game,” Allen said. “Scoring 24 points against this team usually doesn’t do it. The name of the game is to score more than the other guys. I didn’t give us a good enough chance to do that tonight.”
He’s right, though it wasn’t entirely his fault. His receivers failed him, particularly Stefon Diggs, as they just didn’t win often enough against a surprisingly effective Kansas City secondary. His offensive line was awful, bull-rushed and speed-rushed by a ravenous Chiefs front that had Allen running for his life. It was an entire offensive letdown, and it didn’t help that the defense was just as bad.
“Yeah, you know, at times maybe,” McDermott said when asked if he thought Allen tried to do too much. “There were a couple times where he extended the play a little bit maybe too long instead of throwing the ball away. Josh is a heck of a competitor and so I love that about him. I think he’ll continue to take more steps now being in this setting tonight and that’s why it’s so critical we were in this setting.”
Allen can’t hang his head. He can be disappointed for a little while, but he has to learn from this and improve, and here’s the good news: Look at how he took that Houston playoff loss. It only steeled his desire to learn from it, to make improvements, and the result was 4,544 passing yards and 46 total touchdowns in the regular season.
What was up with the field goals?
McDermott took some heat in his first three seasons for his often too-conservative nature, but he seemed to break that mold this year. The Bills were one of the most aggressive offensive teams in the league, and during the regular season they were 8-for-10 when they went for it in fourth down, one of the best marks in the league.
But then, in the biggest game of the season, McDermott went soft at the absolute worst time given the explosive offense of the Chiefs. His reasoning for kicking field goals from inside the 10-yard-line at the end of the first half and midway through the third quarter was that he felt the Bills needed points. Yeah, they did, seven not three.
“I thought about it on both occasions, really, and maybe if I had to do it all over again I would have went for maybe one of them,” McDermott said. “But the one before the half, for sure, I wanted to get points. We were having trouble coming up with points and I wanted to at least have something to show for it going into half, especially knowing they were getting the ball after half.”
The Bills were down 21-9 and it was fourth-and-goal at the 2. Allen is a dual threat, and you have more than enough weapons to draw something up to score. Not to mention, the Chiefs were the worst red zone defensive team in the league this season. By kicking the field goal, the Bills went into the break trailing by two scores, same as it would have been had they gone for the TD and failed.
In the third quarter, the spread was 12 again and the Bills had fourth-and-3 at the 8. It was even more egregious to kick there because now there were only 21 minutes left to play and the defense hadn’t stopped the Chiefs from scoring on four straight possessions.
And in that situation, they had a little more room to work with from the 8 and could have made a first down. It was a brutal decision and just like the first one, it still left the Bills in a two-possession deficit.
Dawson Knox showed promise
Let’s hope Knox paid close attention to the way Kelce killed the Bills. Kelce is a rare talent, obviously. He is the kind of tight end every team dreams of – 6-foot-5, 260 pounds with decent speed, great hands and the ability to block. Oh, and he has the best QB in the NFL throwing him the ball.
Now, let’s look at what the Bills have in Knox. He’s 6-4 and 254, so very close in size to Kelce, he has similar speed and athleticism, and he has a very good QB in Allen to get him the ball. He doesn’t have nearly the same hands or blocking skills, but those attributes can improve.
I’m in no way saying that Knox can turn into Kelce, but in his third NFL season in 2021, it would be nice if he can become a much more viable weapon for the offense than he’s been thus far. He had only 24 catches for 288 yards and three TDs in 12 regular-season games, but in the three postseason games Knox caught 10 passes for 65 yards and two TDs. I call that progress.
It probably wouldn’t have mattered in the end result given the way the Chiefs played, but at the time, Devin Singletary’s dropped pass was a huge play. The Bills were up 9-7 early in the second quarter and would have had a first down across midfield had he made the simple catch and run. Three minutes later, the Bills were behind for good. You know McDermott felt it was big because Singletary spent plenty of time on the sideline after that and watched T.J. Yeldon play.
Speaking of Yeldon, he wasn’t a difference-maker in the game, but he gave the Bills a few good plays and it just feels like the Bills wasted this guy for two years by making him inactive almost every week. He was signed, we thought, to be a third-down back because he’s always been a good receiver. Instead, the Bills stuck with ancient Frank Gore in 2019, and then went with rookie Zack Moss in the timeshare with Singletary this season.
John Brown may have played his last game for the Bills. Yes, he was hurt much of the year, but he was blanked in the Colts game and then had only two catches for 24 yards against the Chiefs. Brown counts $9.5 million on the cap in 2021, but if he’s released it’s only a $1.6 million dead cap hit. With Gabriel Davis emerging this season, the possibility of re-signing Kenny Stills, and the potential of 2020 sixth-round pick Isaiah Hodgins who missed the entire year, keeping Brown seems as silly as keeping Trent Murphy was this season. Use that $8 million to perhaps re-sign Matt Milano.
My sense is that Leslie Frazier will lose out on the Houston job to Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy which means it looks like the top three Bills coaches will be back in 2021. Contrary to some people’s beliefs, that’s a very good thing. The one potential loss to look out for is QB coach Ken Dorsey who is reportedly on the Seahawks’ radar for the OC position, maybe Miami’s, too. Brian Daboll gets a lot of credit for Allen’s ascension, but Dorsey has done excellent work with him the last two years.
Plenty was made of the late-game penalties and near fights that broke out and it was called a lack of composure and discipline on the part of the Bills. No, it wasn’t. That was raw emotion coming out in a game they knew was over. They were ticked off. So what if Allen flipped the ball at Chiefs LB Alex Okafor. Minutes earlier, Okafor took a major cheap shot at Allen on the sideline which was flagged. And good for Dion Dawkins and Jon Feliciano coming to his aide when Okafor again came in a bit late after Allen had been sacked by Tanoh Kpassagnon.
The Bills won’t be picking in the first round of the NFL Draft until No. 30 because they had a tougher strength of schedule than the other championship game-losing team, the Packers. All I can say is it’s better than picking in the top 10.
Sal Maiorana can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.