The NFL offseason hasn't been boring, I'll give it that. If not for the Eagles' shocking wheeling and dealing, the Jets' lavish spending spree, the Dolphins' Ndamukong Suh splurge and the Saints' decision to put their whole team on the trade block, we might be talking about the Bills a little bit more right now.
Buffalo's offseason has been overshadowed a little bit by all that craziness, but I'll just say this: the Bills will be one of the most interesting teams to watch as the 2015 season kicks off.
Now that primary free agency has settled down, let's take a look at the moves the Bills have made, why they've made them, and take a stab at how they might work out.
Despite the fact that Buffalo notched its first winning season since 2004 last year, the franchise needed a shot of adrenaline after head coach Doug Marrone decided he'd rather go do just about anything but coach the Bills. He opted out of his contract and, at least in my opinion, Buffalo hired exactly the type of guy that could come in and rejuvenate the esprit de corps for a demoralized roster.
Rex Ryan is a players' coach who has spent the last ... well he's spent the last decade-plus being a charming and charismatic son of a bitch, and he wasted no time in bringing that trademark panache upstate. He's apparently getting along swimmingly with GM Doug Whaley and the rest of the Buffalo brass, and the coaching staff has set out to create a loose, fun culture.
A huge splash move to go get offensive superstar LeSean McCoy provided a spark for the fan base, and keeping Jerry Hughes, the top pass rusher on the market, proved to the league that Buffalo is still a team on the rise.
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"Build a bully"
The Bills already had an elite defense put together, and adding a defensive-minded coach like Ryan doesn't hurt that area. The new head coach in Buffalo then went out and made a nice move in hiring former 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Roman left a toxic environment in San Francisco and will install the type of smashmouth offensive system Ryan wants in Buffalo, and on paper I like LeSean McCoy's fit in the power-O pulling, trapping system.
Bottom line, though, is that Rex and company want to build a badass that emulates the 49ers' three-year run to the NFC Championship from 2011-13 (and also the 2009-10 Jets that went to back-to-back AFC Championships), where they were fearsome and wholly respected for their toughness and physicality.
Not finesse, not reliant on precision. Even without a clear starter at quarterback, Ryan has said he expects his team to be in the postseason.
"We're not afraid of it," he said. "My message to the players is get ready. We're going to be playing games in January and so forth. We're going to build a bully and we're going to see if you want to play with us for 60 minutes."
"We are not going to be pushed around," he added. "We're going to be the bullies. It's easy to build your football team the way this community is built, with the same kind of work ethic, the same kind of mentality. We will not be pushed around. We will do the pushing. We will build a bully."
"Ground and pound"
As one of my favorite Twitter accounts, Offensive Line Tips, recently wrote, "[I] don't care what anybody says, if you can't run the ball you're not a physical team. Period."
"We prefer to ground and pound it," said Ryan recently. "We're going to run it 50 times if we can on you."
That's where the trade for LeSean McCoy, who despite a slightly down year in 2014 is still in his prime at age 26, comes in. With that, the Bills let C.J. Spiller go, and will let Fred Jackson and former Roman/49ers running back Anthony Dixon provide depth. They also signed veteran fullback Jerome Felton, filling a role that Roman will need as he implements heavier, fullback and tight end-featured schemes and formations.
The foundation of the Bills' offense, like that of the Seahawks, Cowboys, Texans and Eagles, will be the run game. However, as Ryan said, "We're not naive enough to think we can get away with that. (Teams) are going to put them (their defensive players) all down there (in the trenches, to stop the run), no question. We still might not disappoint them, but at the same time we can spread them out and create some nightmares for you in coverage. If you want to stop our run by keeping all the big guys in there, then so be it, we'll be able to hurt you in a lot of different ways outside."
"Are we going to do 'ground and pound?' Yes. Going to throw it? Got Sammy Watkins outside, why wouldn't you?"
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A strong, even elite run game alone won't take you all the way. You have to have, at least, an efficient passing game in the modern NFL. Ryan realizes this. The Bills' brass realizes it. It's why they first went out and signed Matt Cassel, a solid hedge for the development of EJ Manuel. If Manuel doesn't show up and show out in training camp and the preseason, Buffalo has a fallback.
They then went out and took steps to try to make things easier for their quarterback in 2015, whether it's Manuel or Cassel. The theoretical run game will help, assuming the Bills can cobble together a strong line that's capable of running Roman's system, but signing free agent receiver Percy Harvin and the transition-tagged tight end Charles Clay gives Buffalo a multi-pronged, dangerous set of weapons that force opposing defenses to make some tough decisions in deciding coverage.
As Bills owner Terry Pegula framed it: "We want the Buffalo Bills to be a nightmare to play against."
Percy Harvin has had a rough couple of years -- it couldn't have been easy getting traded to the Seahawks and immediately missing almost the entire season after having hip surgery, nor was getting traded to the Jets then dropped after half a season a picnic -- but he's still the uber talented and absurdly fast player he was back in Minnesota. The Bills are just banking on the dream that they'll be the ones to finally coax out all that potential. On paper, Harvin presents matchup issues for opposing coordinators because Roman will line him up all over the formation to try to get him matched up against linebackers or bigger, slower safeties. When he heads out to the huddle, you really do have to make a decision on whether you're going to treat him like a receiver or a running back.
Harvin's home run speed and versatility should also augment second-year pro Sammy Watkins' game.
"What we're trying to do is take a little pressure off Sammy Watkins as well," Ryan said. "You might recall last year, Sammy got doubled almost every snap. You roll your coverage and all that. With Percy, that's going to be tough to do, because Percy can catch a slant and take it the distance. He can go over the top of you, all those types of things. He's a game breaker in the flexibility he gives you. Percy's one of those rare guys that you can put all over. You can put him in the backfield, you can run reverses with him ...
"The other thing people don't realize is he's a tremendous receiver. He's been a slot receiver for the majority of his career but we used him last year as an outside receiver, and he started getting better and better as the year went on."
Adding another variable to that mix will be the "joker" tight end. Clay -- whether the Bills overpaid for him or not -- also presents an interesting matchup issue for opposing coordinators because, as Ryan explained:
"This guy is a hard guy to defend. Real multiple in what you can do with him, so he creates matchup problems. He's too fast for a linebacker, and too big for a corner to cover. You've got to love that matchup with him. And he's a guy that's perfectly suited to what we're looking for in Greg Roman's type offense. You can put him in the backfield. There's a lot of things we can do with him. We love his versatility."
Many have speculated that Clay will play the Delanie Walker role that Roman utilized so well in San Francisco. Walker never gathered prolific stats, but he was a mismatch that could be used in key moments in conjunction with some of the Niners' other weapons. In Buffalo, if you put a linebacker on him? Audible into a seam route? A corner? Motion him to the wing and have him run a fade, utilizing his size and physicality to win at the top of the route. He's a joke piece, to be moved around at will.
"I watched him a lot in San Francisco, what he was able to do with not only the tight ends, but the offense in general," Clay said recently. "I know how creative of a mind he has.
"From the things I've heard, yeah. They don't want me coming off the field. They want to use me in a lot of different positions moving around a bit, which is something I feel very comfortable doing. Dating back all the way to high school, playing running back and getting to college and playing so many different positions and then coming here to Miami and playing a lot. It's something I feel very comfortable doing so whatever they ask me to do, I'm willing to do it, I'm going to work at it and try to master it."
With Watkins, Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin and a few others on the depth chart, Buffalo is suddenly very stacked on offense, and any time an offense can field two, three or four true playmakers, well that's extremely difficult to game plan for.
Looks good on paper, but ...
Of course, these types of flashy free agency moves have a tendency to flame out quickly and spectacularly as often (or more often) as they succeed. I can easily imagine a scenario where things go south in a hurry.
Percy Harvin is still volatile and frankly, unreliable. He is a high-risk, high-reward player at this point, and the history of QB-WR chemistry issues is disconcerting for a team that's trying to groom EJ Manuel. Richie Incognito is a risky, possibly disastrous move. The Bills are banking on the idea that LeSean McCoy isn't going to hit the running back wall and decline in effectiveness sharply as well. Charles Clay got a lot of money for a guy who, at this point, is not a top-tier tight end. Rex Ryan traded away an up-and-coming defensive star when he sent Kiko Alonso to the Eagles. That's the cynic in me.
So, while perspective can change the conversation, it's probably best to maintain that healthy level of cynicism until things play out in Buffalo early on this season. Right now, it looks like the Bills had "a great offseason," at least in my eyes, but many felt that way about the Buccaneers' moves last year, and we all saw how that turned out.
At the end of the day, I like what Buffalo has done thus far, and intrinsically I can find their thought processes and logic in many of their moves. However, what they've done comes with a good amount of risk, so it's going to be fun to observe.
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