Monday, September 28, 2015

Bills off to Strong Start

The Rex Ryan era is only three games old, but the Buffalo Bills are certainly off the to a strong start. Their 41-14 beatdown of Miami in Miami was certainly impressive. This followed a strong opening win vs. the Colts, and then an interesting loss vs. New England, in which the Bills looked miserable for the majority of the game, but never quit and came back to make it interesting in the fourth quarter. And, of course, New England is pretty good.

So, we sit at 2-1, with two dominating defensive performances and an offense that has been pretty good - spearheaded by quarterback Tyrod Taylor, a former Ravens back-up making his first NFL starts and rookie running back Karlos Williams, who is averaging almost eight yards per carry. [Of course, this brings back into question the logic behind signing Shady McCoy to that expensive contract extension, which I've called into question before. Then again, I also called into question (at least once) the signing of Percy Harvin (which I thought my have contributed to Freddie getting cut), but he has looked great, and he and Tyrod really seem to be on the same page.]

Let's remember through that Ryan was able to take the Jets to the Conference Championship game in his first two years with the Jets, so I'm not really surprised by his early success with the Bills. It's the long-term consequences of moves like the McCoy contract that have me concerned. Plus, it's very early in the season, but the Bills have looked good.

Let's start with the defense. Ryan has been quoted as saying he wanted to "build a bully" in Buffalo, and he certainly seems to have done that. In addition to playing good defense, the Bills seem to be playing really physical defense. I don't know if there is a stat that can track hard hits and intimidation, but, as I've said before, this is the hardest hitting Bills defense since the Wade Philips days, and those were some killer defensive units.

I'm hoping the Patriots game was an anomaly, as, for whatever reason, the blitz-happy Ryan only dialed up 15 blitzes in more than 60 passing plays run by the Patriots after blitzing 27 times vs. the Colts the week previous. What I'm hoping is that Ryan realizes it's a long season and that he didn't want to tip his hand to the Patriots too early. In 2010, his Jets lost 45-3 to the Patriots before turning around and beating them in the playoffs. So, maybe Ryan is playing his cards close to the vest vs. the Patriots in anticipation of a higher stakes game against them in January. Does that seem far fetched?

As I mentioned, Tyrod has been fairly good on offense, completing more than 70% of his passes and hitting on seven TD passes vs. three interceptions. His biggest drawbacks - those three INTs came vs. the Pats in a game where he also took seven or eight sacks. Against, New England, Taylor clearly seemed to be holding the ball too long as he went through his reads, but to his credit, Taylor never appeared to panic and did make enough plays to earn a 93 QB rating for the game - for what that is worth.

Against Miami yesterday, Buffalo and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, went to more moving pockets and kept Taylor off the ground, while also appearing to give him lanes to throw - he's only 6' 0", so this is kind of a big deal. I think Colin Kaepernick's dismal performance yesterday also underscored somewhat Roman's ability as an OC. Kaepernick became a star under Roman's guidance - granted Roman was let go in San Francisco after the offense struggled somewhat last year - but he seems to have transferred some of that Kaepernick magic over to Taylor, at least for now. Taylor gets great reviews for his work ethic, so maybe he will continue to evolve and develop in Roman's offense, where Kaepernick seemed to stagnate after a while, and with Roman now gone, Kaepernick "rock bottom" yesterday.

To touch on Williams, he's a big back, a real downhill, north-south runner, who hits the hole quickly (or the line if a hole is not there) and has been much more effective than the elusive McCoy so far in Roman's offense. McCoy is averaging 3.4 yards per carry. Yes, it's early, but so far Taylor, Williams, and Harvin have been the three most impressive pieces of the Bills offense. (Richie Incognito is getting rave reviews too.)

Harvin had seven catches in eight targets yesterday, several for first downs. After a very promising start to his career in Minnesota, Harvin really struggled the past three years, bouncing around from the Vikings to the Seahawks, to the Jets, to finally Buffalo, but so far appears to be a good fit in Roman's offense and with Taylor at QB. Kudos to Ryan for choosing to pursue Harvin in the offseason even if his tenure with the Jets last year was not great (he scored one TD in eight games.)

Next week is home vs. the Giants. Let's hope there is no letdown following a big emotional win on the road over a division rivals. Giants don't seem that great, but they do have Eli Manning, which could make them dangerous. I heard a radio analyst the other day say that the Bills were destined for 8-8 due to the emotional nature of Ryan's coaching. The analysis was that you can't sustain a high level of emotion throughout a 16-game NFL season and that Ryan's team were susceptible to peaks and valleys that prevented them from being truly great - like say teams coached by emotionally level-headed guys like Bill Belichick (who always appears to be a dick). I'm hoping that analyst is wrong.

Go Bills.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Bills vs. Colts 2016 Opening Day

Yes, we are ready to get started with another Buffalo Bills season. I have been a Bills fan now for more than 40 years and the season has ended in disappointment probably 37 of those years. Lately, for at least the last 10 years, I've gone things with a fairly pessimistic attitude, so I was actually kind of happy with last year's 9-7 record, although we certainly had a chance to do better.

This year, for the first time in awhile, I'm going in with no idea what to expect. We have a new coach, Rex Ryan, who has certainly enjoyed some success in the past, but some failure as well. We have a quarterback who has been in the league for four years as a back-up, but has only thrown 35 regular season passes. He's also relatively short for an NFL signal caller and even though he completed almost 60% of his passes his senior year in college, has the reputation of really not being very accurate. We are definitely going to learn a lot about Tyrod Taylor in the upcoming weeks.

Ideally, his impact should be somewhat minimized by the presence of our great defense and a running game that the Bills have invested heavily in, not necessarily through the trade of Kiko Alonso for LeSean McCoy, but by ludicrously signing McCoy (who many feel may already be past his prime) to a hefty five-year contract extension. Whatever. It should have little affect on the team this year unless of course the insane cutting of Fred Jackson has something to do with Shady's contract.

Offensive questions aside, the Bills return almost all their starters from a defense that last year was fairly highly regarded by almost all measures. Fourth in points allowed, only 16 TD passes given up, second in net yards allowed passing - all good stuff. And none of the key players are really old, although Kyle Williams is on the wrong side of 30. We did, of course, change defensive coaches, as D is Rex Ryan's specialty and there wasn't any more room in town for Jim Schwartz, who by all accounts did an excellent job. But this should not prove to be a downgrade. We also lost Brandon Spikes, who was a key run stopper, so we'll see how that affects us. Biggest worry, however, is that Leodis McKelvin, who we were counting on to start at cornerback is out for at least the first six weeks of the season after taking a longer than expected to recover from an ankle injury suffered late last year. Ryan's defensive schemes reportedly put a lot of pressure on cornerbacks (Darrell Revis earned his initial NFL bones under Ryan's tutelage) and now we're stuck with rookie second-round pick Ronald Darby starting. Darby has been very up-and-down during the preseason.

All this leads to a very mysterious match-up (at least from my vantage point) today vs. the Colts. On the plus side, the game is at home, but aside from that I really don't know what to expect. Will our vaunted pass defense hold up against last year's number one passing attack? Will we be able to move the ball vs. a defense that was fairly mediocre last year before shutting down the Broncos in the playoffs. (Funny side note: I was reading an article on Peyton Manning the other day that blamed a "physical game" against the Bills in Week 14 for starting his downfall last year with culminated with that Colts' win. So, maybe the Colts owe us one in a karmatic sense.)

The pick: All that aside, going by the paper (which is really all I got except for one visit to the Bills training camp and seeing maybe a couple/three quarters worth of pre-season Bills play) I've got to go Colts 24, Bills 19. From a fan's standpoint, hopefully I'm wrong.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Nostalgia, the NFL, and One Hundred Years of Solitude

Just finished re-reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude. It tells the story of the Buendia family and the rise and fall of Macondo the town founded by the patriarch and matriarch of the family. It goes through several generations and ends pretty much with the last generation being wiped out by their affection for sex and nostalgia - two of my favorite vices by the way.

There is some fascinating stuff in the there about time and how it is not linear, but how everything happens at once - but I want to focus on the nostalgia part a bit. As I mentioned previously, I recently started thinking a lot about the 1970s NFL and even did some rudimentary research into the success rates of the six teams that really dominated the era. Why is the 1970s NFL so important to me? The more I think about it, it has to be nostalgia.

The 1970s were when I was coming of age as a child and the NFL seemed so great, so exciting. Really, all sports did to me, but the NFL was probably the most accessible and the most exciting. I realize a lot of bad things came of that time, like injuries to underpaid players who now can't afford proper medical care or who have died due to complications from the era. That said, I can't help but remembering the games with fondness. (This is also mentioned by Kevin Cook in his excellent book The Last Headbangers, which is about football in that era.)

So, here's a quote from One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I think sums up the power of nostalgia and why I can't help but think of the 1970s NFL as a great thing, when a lot of evidence points to the contrary. Aureliano, the last surviving Buendia, is deciphering parchments which foretell the destruction of the town. "Then the wind began, warm, incipient, full of voices from the past, the murmurs of ancient geraniums, sighs of disenchantment that proceeded the most tenacious nostalgia."

Yes, there are certainly "sighs of disenchantment" around the 1970s NFL, but the tenacity of the nostalgia is so great, that I can't resist it. More on this later.