To preview this Thursday night’s matchup between the Jets and the Bills, I asked Jeff Hunter from Buffalo Rumblings five questions on the 5-2 team out in Buffalo.
1. Based on their moves prior to the year, it seemed clear that the Bills were building for the future. What are the primary reasons they have been far better than most thought?
The Bills have eschewed the more common talent acquisition we see in football these days and instead simply relied on true team-building. The key contributors on the offense and defense aren't the most talented guys in the world, but they have a role and they fill it well. Jordan Poyer, for example, was an after thought in free agency but has been a perfect complement to Micah Hyde at safety. Tyrod Taylor isn't in the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks, but he executes the game plan efficiently and has the physical skills to help the offense do what it does better than it otherwise could have.
To that end, the bulk of the credit has to go to Sean McDermott. He's still working on some of the finer points of the head coaching job (he made a baffling challenge of the ball spot on the Raiders' opening drive on Sunday, for example), but he has the locker room behind him 110%. If the fans aren't buying into his process yet, the players seem to be behind him all the way. Rex Ryan did a good job of making friends in the locker room, but McDermott is a true leader.
2. The Bills have been winning on the strength of an extremely impressive turnover margin, taking the ball away at will defensively and using a run-first offense. Turnovers are volatile events. Is Buffalo's success sustainable with this approach?
If the Bills take a sudden downturn this year, that's going to be the reason why. You're absolutely right in saying that the turnover margin (+14 at this point) is the primary reason for their success, but when they fall off it's unlikely that it'll go far in the opposite direction. The Bills' offense has always been turnover-averse with Tyrod at quarterback, and the defense has enough playmakers like Hyde and Poyer that they'll continue to force turnovers, if not at the astronomical rate they're going at now (13 in the last four games) then at least something slightly above average.
The key will be whether or not the Bills can move the ball on offense when they're not coming off a turnover. It'll also be important whether or not the defense can force stops even when they're not just taking the ball away.
3. Has Tyrod Taylor shown any progression over his first two seasons in Buffalo, and has his play been enough to convince the Bills to stick with him (and his contract) down the line?
Tyrod has most definitely improved, although the scouting report on him is the same as it was in 2015: he makes use of his legs to keep plays alive and can deliver a decent downfield ball while avoiding big mistakes, but he's reliant on a strong running game and needs a top-notch line to keep pass rushers off of him. The improvement is that he's better at avoiding mistakes and less reliant on those around him.
His talent and place in the hierarchy of NFL quarterbacks is still a point of endless debate, and one of the main defenses of keeping him around is that there are few better options available. While that may be true (in fact, it is true), it's not exactly a ringing endorsement of his talent.
Still, he's improved noticeably over the last few seasons. He's always been a runner, but this year he's much better at eluding pass rushers instead of just simply taking off to run. In fact, he's only run for 25 yards a game this year after going for 39.6 in his first two seasons with the Bills. As far as whether or not he sticks with the Bills, his current contract is voided after next season. I'd be surprised to see the team move on from him after this year unless everything completely falls apart over the next few weeks, but it's going to be something to watch for, especially when the draft rolls around and we see whether the six picks the Bills have in the first three rounds are used on players or for trade bait.
4. Who is a player that fans outside of Buffalo didn't know about at the start of the season who is now a key contributor to the team?
There were a few raised eyebrows when the Bills re-signed reserve linebacker Ramon Humber earlier in the year, and even more when McDermott tabbed him as a starter before the season even began. Nobody expected the same guy who was a depth player in Rex's defense to earn a starting spot, but by the time he broke his thumb in the Week 4 win over the Falcons he was fourth in the NFL in tackles.
Not to be outdone, fifth-round pick Matt Milano transitioned from a special teams role and immediately picked up right where Humber left off. Milano isn't the tackler that Humber is, but he can hold his own in coverage and even plucked a fumble out of midair for a 40-yard touchdown return against the Raiders on Sunday.
While Humber seems confident that he's fully recovered from thumb surgery (this is right around the time we were expecting him back), Milano's earned a bigger role in the rotation. Either way, both players have helped the defense get to where it is right now, and both should be productive down the stretch.
5. What is the hype among the fanbase like? Have there been comparable moments in time over the past decade plus, and does this team have what it takes to finally end the drought?
The Bills started out at 5-2 in both 2008 and 2011. The finished those season a combined 3-16, so while optimism is high there's still plenty of skepticism.
That said, a sixth win against the Jets would be big from a milestone standpoint. The Bills haven't earned their sixth win before November since 1991, and they haven't won six of their first eight since a 7-1 start in 1993. They finished both of those seasons in the Super Bowl.
It also helps that the schedule isn't as daunting as it might seem. I only see a few games that the Bills will probably lose (Chiefs, both New England games) and one against the red-hot Saints that will come in Buffalo on ten days' rest. An 11-5 record isn't out of the question at this point, and if they reach even 10 wins it's safe to say The Drought would be over.