By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The National Football League deserves a little credit. Its season started right on time Thursday night with a game between Kansas City and Houston.
In a year in which almost nothing has gone as planned, the NFL figured out a way to have just a little bit of normalcy. Good for them – the league can afford it, and we can use it. Timing helped, as the pandemic arrived in full force in March when the league was sort of hibernating (I know, there’s no true offseason in the NFL). But it had its draft on time, held training camps, and reached the starting line.
Yes, there were no preseason games. Raise your hand if you are a season-ticket holder and missed them. Let’s see … I don’t see any hands. I suppose the coaches would have liked to have played those exhibition contests, in that it might have helped determine what players might have filled out roster spots No. 45 to 53. But if you are a person that is fascinated by what defensive back might make the team and come in as a sixth defensive back in certain situations, you either are a huge, huge fan or you really need to start reading more books.
Now that the season is ready to begin locally, of course, we turn a page and try to figure out what’s coming up for the Buffalo Bills. That’s never an easy task, but optimism is running high right now. The Bills are coming off a playoff season, and their path seems to be easier thanks to the departure of Tom Brady from the New England Patriots. Maybe Cam Newton will become Cam Newton again in New England, but that’s a lot to ask. There’s a good-sized belief out there – and not just in Western New York – that it’s time for the Bills to win their first division title in a quarter-century.
Bills general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott have done a professional job of building a better roster, brick by brick, during their tenure. They straightened out their salary cap issues over the last couple of years. That allowed them to sign a few free agents as well as complete a trade for wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who could be the best wide receiver on the Bills’ roster in at least 15 years. He should make the entire offense better; I can’t wait to see him.
On defense, the Bills seem to be ready to face almost any challenge. The linebackers and secondary look solid. Star Lotuleiei is taking the year off and Shaq Lawson left as a free agent, but it seems like the team has plenty of bodies along the defensive line to plug in their spots. They aren’t the ’85 Bears, but you don’t see that sort of group every year.
The optimism, naturally, is accompanied by the usual fear that something might go wrong. It’s part of the sports DNA in Western New York. Without taking anything away from the job by Bills’ management, the team needed some breaks to reach the postseason in 2017 and 2019. In the former, Buffalo seemed to receive every possible bounce during the course of the season. When a football was deflected into the air, it seemed to land in the arms of an eager Bills’ player. The team won five games by seven or fewer points, and snuck into the playoffs with a 9-7 record. In the latter, Buffalo was handed a weak schedule that seemed to get easier as the season progressed. The only team that the Bills defeated that finished with a winning record in 2019 was Tennessee, and no one saw that win as an astonishing achievement at the time.
This year, the scheduling gods turned a little angry. Both Super Bowl teams, Kansas City and San Francisco, are on the schedule. The Rams, Seahawks and Titans figure to be good too. There’s talk that the Jets and Dolphins are ready to take a big step forward, although we’ve heard that before. Throw in the usual mischief from the injury gods – such as bad luck for starting quarterback Josh Allen – and we have the usual amount of unpredictability that has helped make the NFL so popular.
Then throw in issues related to Covid-19, and the situation becomes really silly. The Bills came very close to losing cornerback Tre’Davious White for the season when he thought about joining Lotulelei on the sidelines because of the virus. That would have changed the team’s outlook quite a bit. Since the teams aren’t in a bubble during the regular season (the guess is that they will go into “hiding” in January), some hiccups are quite possible as we go along. Baseball certainly had some earlier in its season, and it didn’t have 22 players crashing into each other dozens and dozens times per game.
We also don’t know what will be the effects of playing in stadiums without fans – or, depending on the team, without most of their fans. I’ve seen studies that indicate that the biggest influence of crowd noise is on the referees, who subconsciously tilt slightly to the home team. That will be gone. It will be interesting to see if teams lose their traditional home-field advantage.
In a season like this, a season that seems to be more silly and more unpredictable that almost any other, Allen seems like a perfect quarterback. Even he doesn’t seem to be sure what he’s going to do from play to play, or in the middle of a play. Josh may throw a pass, or run down the field, or throw a surprise lateral, or think of something else.
If Allen can take more steps forward – and he needs to do that, especially on his deep passes – and the team takes care of business in division games, the Bills look like something of a 10-6 team – with a chance to go even higher. The floor seems like 8-8 or 9-7 and a fight for a wild-card spot – one that no doubt will be decided in a 2020 way by the 12th tiebreaker, which I believe is point differential on Thursday night games.
Either way, it should be a fun season. Unless it gets too silly.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)