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Bills need to play on the field like their fans cheer off it

Unless Sean McDermott can break Buffalo’s streak of mediocrity, the most exciting action in Buffalo will be in the parking lots.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Over the course of 17 playoff-less years, Bills fans have become much more interesting than the franchise they’re stuck with.

Buffalo, once home to the perennial AFC champions, now leads the league in most tailgating tables broken and pretty much nothing else. Official highlights from Sammy Watkins’ player of the week performance against the Dolphins in Week 16 have about 7,500 views on YouTube. Three different short clips of a sex toy being thrown onto the field at New Era Stadium during a game against the Patriots have nearly 750k views between them.

That’s right. The most indelible image of Buffalo’s 2016 wasn’t a LeSean McCoy touchdown run or a shutdown victory over their division rivals. It was a phallus with the words “Tom Brady’s Dildo” scribbled on the side.

That’s what happens when you field a historically mediocre team. The Bills haven’t been to the playoffs since 1999, but the intervening years have failed to produce the kind of bottoming-out that could jump-start a true rebuild. They’ve won at least six games in 14 of those 17 seasons, but never more than nine. They’ve only had three top-five picks in that span — and one of them was the result of a trade-up for Watkins, which time has yet to validate as shrewd.

The end result is a franchise with enough talent to compete with some of the league’s best teams, but not for long. In the past three seasons, they’ve beaten playoff teams like the Patriots, Texans, Lions, and Packers. They’ve also lost to the 3-13 Raiders, 5-11 Jaguars, and twice to the 5-11 Jets. Buffalo is a tidy 24-24 in that span.

That’s a familiar narrative for the Buffalo Bills: They’re good enough to ruin someone else’s day, not bad enough to rebuild in earnest. After years of uneven returns in the draft and free agency, it’s difficult to find their path out of the woods and into the playoffs.

How do the Bills return to the postseason?

New head coach Sean McDermott, taking over after Rex Ryan’s underwhelming performance got him fired, has been tasked with reversing 17 years of failure. He started by taking the reins at the 2017 NFL Draft. McDermott teamed with then-general manager Doug Whaley, who was fired days later, to bring a new approach to the team’s draft strategy. Buffalo traded down in the first round, shipping the No. 10 overall pick to Houston in exchange for three picks, including a 2018 first and a 2017 third that gave the team the leverage to make a pair of selections in the second round.

How much McDermott had to do with the process vs. Whaley’s contribution is still unclear — Whaley called the 2018 first-round pick the team gleaned from Houston his “parting gift,” while Albert Breer’s report from inside the club’s war room suggests the new head coach was calling the shots — but the early returns on these moves were positive.

After recent efforts to trade up brought mixed contributions from Watkins and Reggie Ragland, moving back will help replenish an unbalanced roster. First-round pick Tre’Davious White could prove to be a bargain replacement for Stephon Gilmore at cornerback. Second-round picks Zay Jones — the all-time receptions leader in FBS history — and Dion Dawkins, a versatile lineman who excelled at run blocking in college, will each add value as potential starters for 2017.

McDermott and his staff also added some low-cost contributors through the free agent market this offseason. Micah Hyde, one of the only reliable pieces in the Packers’ secondary, moved to the AFC with a $30 million contract. Cheaper additions like safety Jordan Poyer, fullback Patrick DiMarco, and guard Vlad Ducasse should all add value this fall as well.

The good news for the Bills is the NFL is not like the NBA; free agency and deep draft classes can turn a 5-11 team into a Super Bowl winner the next season. The bad news is everything starts behind center — and the Bills haven’t had an upper-tier quarterback on the roster since Jim Kelly retired.

Tyrod Taylor may be a two-time Pro Bowler, but his back-to-back invitations are more a commentary on the dire state of the league’s All-Star Game than his skill as a passer. The young veteran regressed from his breakout 2015. His yards per pass attempt dropped from an efficient 8.0 to Case Keenum-ian 6.9. A cheesecloth offensive line had something to do with that — no passer in the league was sacked more than Taylor’s 42 times.

The sad news is Taylor is the best of a long line of quarterbacks that have topped out at “average.” Since Drew Bledsoe left New York in 2004, the team’s primary starters have included:

Kelly Holcomb
J.P. Losman
Trent Edwards
Ryan Fitzpatrick
EJ Manuel
and Kyle Orton

That doesn’t even count other acquisitions like Thad Lewis and Matt Cassel, whose Buffalo career is best summed up with a Google search:

Teams with similarly quiet quarterbacks have won Super Bowls. The Broncos did it two years ago with a hobbled Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler. The Buccaneers did it in 2003 behind Brad Johnson. However, those teams had top-ranked defenses on which to fall back.

Despite hiring defensive-minded Ryan two years ago, Buffalo was 19th in yards allowed in both 2015 and 2016.

The Bills need to beef up Taylor’s supporting cast

The Bills have made waves to bolster their roster in recent years — for better or worse. Adding McCoy in exchange for linebacker Kiko Alonso proved to be a smart acquisition, but Buffalo’s inability to chain big moves together has kept the team mired in its playoff-less slump.

McCoy and free agent pickups like Mario Williams, Corey Graham, and Zach Brown have provided solid returns on the team’s investments — at least through the early stages of their contracts. Expensive pickups like Manny Lawson, Chris Williams, Percy Harvin, and Charles Clay have not.

2016 saw the franchise largely duck out of major investments on the free agent market. The biggest contract Buffalo handed out was a $1.5 million mistake for Reggie Bush, a move that ended about as poorly as a free agent deal can after Bush finished 2016 with negative rushing yards. That quiet year gave the team the latitude to jump back in with both feet to sign more players this offseason.

But while signing key contributors provides cause for optimism, there is reason to believe many of the players who perform the best in blue and red won’t be calling Buffalo home for long. This offseason saw the Bills lose their top two wideouts and star cornerback when Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and Stephon Gilmore left. They followed a trend set in recent seasons by starters like Nigel Bradham, Jairus Byrd, and Andy Levitre, who all departed as well.

Many of those moves worked out in the team’s favor — Byrd and Levitre famously failed to live up to the contracts they signed with other teams — but they certainly don’t help Buffalo’s reputation as a non-factor in free agency. In fact, some of those moves bring the added hindrance of strengthening division rivals at the same time. The Patriots in particular have made Buffalo their farm system recently by adding free agents Gilmore, Chris Hogan, Alan Branch, Scott Chandler, and Mike Gillislee the past few seasons.

Sean McDermott should be a significant upgrade

The Bills shucked recent tradition to grab a coaching mind on the rise rather than the decline. Their playoff drought features a head coach lineage more at home in an NFL retread mad lib than on the sideline in Orchard Park. Before bringing McDermott into the fold, Buffalo gambled on veterans like Chan Gailey, Dick Jauron, and Rex Ryan. It also bet on a Syracuse coach who peaked at the Pinstripe Bowl (Doug Marrone) and jettisoned Mike Mularkey (who resigned after a clash with management) after just two seasons.

McDermott is a breath of fresh air — the kind of defensive mind the club thought it was getting with Ryan. As a rising star coordinator, he helped develop a strong defense in Carolina that has consistently ranked in the top 10 the past few seasons.

His leadership will be key after Ryan failed in such a short time.

“He’s tough, he’s honest and he’s fair. I think that he’s the right guy for the job,” McCoy told Bills Insider Chris Brown. “The guys in Buffalo, we need somebody that we can believe in and trust. And not to say anything bad about Rex, because I love Rex, but I think that Sean is a guy that will get it done.”

He’ll have to erase the team’s recent history of unbalanced drafts. The past five years have brought starters like Alonso, Preston Brown, Ronald Darby, and John Miller into the fold. They also featured several high-profile misses: from 2011 to 2016, the Bills have the lowest draft retention rate in the NFL:

Watkins has yet to turn his potential into a full, dominant season as a No. 1 receiver while Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandin Cooks — players who were picked later in the 2014 first round — have blossomed as pros. His lingering injury issues prevented the club from picking up his fifth-year option this spring.

The Bills’ second-round pick that year, Cyrus Kouandjio, started only seven games in three seasons and was released earlier this week. 2016’s top two picks, Ragland and Shaq Lawson, combined to play in only 10 games last fall due to injuries. Buffalo’s top pick in 2013 was Manuel, who is now Derek Carr’s backup in Oakland.

Trading back and taking a shotgun approach to an imperfect science is a smart first step for McDermott. Moving back to 27th gave the team the latitude to move up in the second round and snag Jones without costing any of their original draft capital. More importantly, it added an extra first-rounder in 2018 that will add an extra punch to the team’s rolling rebuild next fall.

He’ll be able to counsel with a familiar face when it comes to making moves this summer and beyond. Buffalo replaced Whaley, who reportedly butted heads with McDermott, with Carolina’s Assistant GM Brandon Beane in May.

2017 probably won’t be better, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel

The Bills are a thrift store jigsaw puzzle; most of the pieces are there, but the big picture is all messed up

McDermott’s task is to build from a foundation that includes a talented-but-aging tailback, a middle-of-the-road quarterback, and a defense that proved capable of holding the Patriots scoreless and allowing the Jets to put up 37 points, in just a three-game span. When the pieces fall into place, the Bills look like a playoff team. Unfortunately, those perfect storms are few and far between thanks to the gaping holes in the team’s roster.

Healthy seasons from Ragland and Lawson will help. So will contributions from this year’s draft class, whose top three picks were all storied NCAA producers. As is tradition, those picks will be expected to stem the bleeding associated with the team’s free agent losses. Unless White, Jones, and Dawkins can develop into homegrown stars — an ingredient the Bills have desperately lacked in recent years — McDermott will struggle to break the cycle of mediocrity that has consumed Buffalo.

And until that happens, whatever happens in the stands and parking lots outside New Era Stadium will remain more exciting than anything the Bills can put on the field.