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  • Tony Fiorello

TONY’S TAKE – BILLS-BENGALS DIVISIONAL ROUND THOUGHTS

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Sloppy. Soft.

Those are the two words that best describe the Buffalo Bills’ meek ouster in the AFC Divisional Playoffs at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals.

This column was written some 24-48 hours following the loss to digest both the game and to gather my thoughts. Which is the right thing to do, so one could think rationally and clearly about the outcome.

In some ways, the Bills’ organization became tougher over the last calendar year while having to deal with multiple situations. 13 seconds. The Tops mass shooter. The death of Luke Knox. Injuries up and down the roster. Two massive snowstorms. Damar Hamlin.

But at the end of the day, when Sean McDermott said at his season-ending press conference that the most telling signs of weakness on your football team become known in the last game of the season, it was very true on Sunday. The Bengals exposed a lot of warts on Buffalo’s roster – especially the two listed above – and I’ll outline some more of my concerns here:

  1. Buffalo was among the league leaders in the regular season with 27 turnovers, and Josh Allen had 14 interceptions and 13 fumbles in the regular season. He also had four turnovers combined against Cincinnati and Miami in the playoffs, which sort of reminded me of the 1992 Bills, which were also turnover-prone (and had that issue come back to bite them at the worst time when they coughed the ball up nine times in Super Bowl XXVII).

I understand that Allen is a bigger, more mobile modern-day version of Brett Favre and is essentially a gunslinger. But there’s a time and place when to be aggressive and when to take what defenses give you, and he needs to learn it more. It’s all part of the maturation of a quarterback.

  1. A lack of want-to when things got tough. Sure there were players who battled through injuries in order to suit up in the postseason – Jordan Poyer, Jordan Phillips and Ed Oliver come to mind. But to “lack energy”, as Matt Milano put it? For a playoff contest and the right to advance to the AFC Championship Game? With Hamlin in the house? That’s inexcusable, even if they may have been emotionally spent from everything that’s gone on this year.

  2. Gameplanning and player usage. While Ken Dorsey deserved a shot at running the Bills’ offense this year, they never developed an identity (besides over-relying on Allen and Stefon Diggs). The running game was inconsistent, no reliable secondary or slot target developed (thanks to Dawson Knox, James Cook and Nyheim Hines being underutilized, Gabriel Davis’ questionable hands, Isaiah McKenzie being overused, Khalil Shakir taking longer than expected to adjust to life in the NFL and Jamison Crowder injured – leading to reunions with Cole Beasley and John Brown) and Dorsey rarely used certain concepts – like intermediate throws, screens, bootlegs, zone-read options, etc.

Not to mention that for completely inexplicable reasons McDermott and Leslie Frazier’s defense continues to come up short against the best offenses in the playoffs. It’s one thing to dominate subpar quarterbacks in the regular season – it’s a different animal entirely having to stop the best of the best, and those two have failed to do so three years in a row. It’s also a problem that the team couldn’t figure out who to consistently fill in at safety when Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer were injured and refusing to play Kaiir Elam for most of the season. Michael F. Florio of nfl.com broke down some of their woes perfectly with this Twitter thread here:

Yesterday I said that Josh Allen covers up a lot of bad for the Bills and people were quick to say he’s not without blame. And obviously, no QB is when their team loses that way … BUT I don’t think people realize fully how much he has covered up for people in that building — Michael F. Florio (@MichaelFFlorio) January 23, 2023

  1. The offensive line’s flaws showed up at the worst time. This offseason should be reminiscent of the spring of 2019 where Brandon Beane had to address one of the worst starting five units in the NFL quickly. Both guard spots and right tackle should be up for grabs, and maybe center too should Mitch Morse call it a career. Your offensive line is arguably the second-most important position group on offense – you can’t have your franchise quarterback running for his life game after game and your running backs having to bounce it outside because they can’t find a crease to run through.

  2. Recent strikeouts by Beane. When Von Miller – and eventually DaQuan Jones – went down, none of the team’s other defensive linemen stepped up in the pass rush department (Rousseau did improve over the course of the season, however). Epenesa, while getting marginally better as a rotational piece, so far has the appearance of a bust while Carlos “Boogie” Basham hasn’t done much either. Phillips and Oliver were both hampered, yes, and Settle and Lawson are also rotational guys. But to show nothing against an offensive line missing three starters like the Bengals? Pathetic, especially when so many resources have been spent to try and improve in this department. Benjamin Solak of The Ringer broke it down well here:

Since 2019 the Bills have spent along their D-Line: 1st round pick (Ed Oliver) 2nd (A.J. Epenesa) 1st (Greg Rousseau) 2nd (Boogie Basham) 2-yr/$15M (Vernon Butler) 3-yr/$30.5M (Mario Addison) 2-yr/$13.25M (Quinton Jefferson) 2-yr/$14M (DaQuan Jones) 6-yr/$120M (Von) — Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) January 22, 2023

On that note, I had a conversation with a Twitter user who goes by the handle @TheHonestNFL, who used to be a pro/advance scout for several NFL teams. He agreed – the best way to have success in the postseason is to have dominant lines on both sides of the ball. And not to mention that Beane hasn’t drafted a Pro Bowler since Allen and Tremaine Edmunds in 2018 and a lot of his other moves (gambling on Davis and McKenzie to take a step up, Crowder to stay healthy, Rodger Saffold to provide quality play, etc.) didn’t pan out. To wit:

I've seen some "Bills coach changes?" takes off this loss. I don't really have a take, but the Bills haven't drafted a Pro Bowler in four years. Drafting is a very hot 'n cold thing, and I still think Beane is a solid GM. But that's where the heat belongs, IMO. pic.twitter.com/eAYRYWWLts — Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) January 22, 2023

One last thing on the coaching staff – I understand some people might take one look at both coordinators and want, to paraphrase the words of Daniel Day-Lewis’ character Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York, to “festoon their bedchambers with their guts.” And they would be well in their right to do so, because the frustration is palpable and obviously warranted, what with two AFC franchises (along with the Kansas City Chiefs) now standing in the Bills’ way and Allen’s new contract kicking in next season. Plus there are plenty of talented offensive and defensive minds and play-callers available.

But sometimes, patience is still a virtue in this world, and who knows – maybe keeping Dorsey and Frazier (and especially letting Dorsey grow into the role) could serve the Bills well in the future. There’s a lot of evidence that exists showing that first year coordinators get exponentially better in year two after evaluating their performance. Thing is though, I’m not the one in charge of the Bills’ football decisions – I’ll leave those choices to much smarter and qualified men, although I wouldn’t be opposed to someone different on either side of the ball.

The last two seasons have had frustrating endings. Which is why their AFC title game loss to the Chiefs in 2020 still bothers me to this day. Many people absentmindedly said, “We’ll be back” but that’s never a guarantee. You don’t know when your opportunity to go to the Super Bowl and win it will come – it had been 27 years since their last appearance in 1993 – so you have to seize the chance when you have it, and they didn’t. Who knows if Allen and company can ever get to that point again.

But I digress. Anyway, the next eight months until the kickoff of the regular season in September will be a long, hard look in the mirror at the way McDermott, Beane and company do business. Despite Allen’s relatively youthful age (26), the clock is ticking on the rest of the roster and – in the words of the late, great Gregg Allman – this franchise shouldn’t be “wasting time no more”.

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