Bills' 2020 outlook: Buffalo is on the rise, but don't count out the possibility of a 2019 Bears-type season
Unless Josh Allen improves as a passer, the Bills could be looking at a disappointing season in 2020
Shortly after the Bills blew a 16-0 lead to the Texans and ended up losing a heartbreaker in overtime to wrap up yet another season without a playoff win -- something that has eluded the franchise since 1995 -- the attitude toward the Bills' future felt overwhelmingly positive from all corners of the internet. This was a team that managed to turn its 6-10 record a year ago into a 10-win season. Oft-maligned second-year quarterback Josh Allen improved. The defense was stellar. With Tom Brady facing an uncertain future and the Patriots clocking out in the first round of the playoffs, the Bills appear to be the team best positioned to usurp New England in the AFC East.
But appearances can sometimes be deceiving. I'm not so sure this version of the Bills is destined for greatness.
Don't get me wrong. I think the Bills are very talented football team. I do not think they will be a bad football team next year. But I'm not certain they can be counted on to replicate the success they found this year in 2020. I think there's just as good a chance they're on a similar trajectory as the Bears, just one year behind them.
In 2018, the Bears made the playoffs before suffering their own heartbreaking first-round exit. But the attitude in Chicago, despite Cody Parkey's double-doink, was positive. Second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky flashed improvement under first-year coach Matt Nagy. The Bears' defense was outrageously dominant. With a little more improvement from Trubisky, the Bears would be right back in January and with a better kicking situation, they'd be equipped to embark upon a playoff run. That, of course, never happened -- but it had almost nothing to do with their kicking situation, which for the most part, was fine.
It didn't happen because Trubisky failed to make the leap, and the Bears' defense, while remaining very good, regressed due in part to worse injury luck and a decline in takeaways. The Bears finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs in the ultra-competitive NFC.
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I see some similarities in this Bills team. It starts at quarterback.
Did Allen improve? Yeah. But he didn't improve nearly as much as the narrative suggests. While his raw numbers look better across the board than they did last year, the advanced metrics indicate the improvement was marginal at best. A year ago, he ranked 33rd in DYAR and DVOA, and 26th in total QBR. This year, he finished 27th in DYAR and DVOA, and 26th in total QBR. Here's where it's worth noting that Trubisky was 28th in DYAR and DVOA, and 30th in total QBR. In other words, Allen was only barely better than Trubisky, at least according to the advanced metrics.
Outside of a midseason stretch where he legitimately played good football -- a stretch that peaked with his awesome performance against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, which probably helped create the narrative given just how many eyeballs were on him -- he really wasn't that good in 2019.
What makes Allen such a frustrating and tantalizing prospect is that he'll go from looking like the league's best quarterback to the league's worst quarterback all in the span of a few throws. If you pieced together a highlight reel with only his best throws and showed it to a person who doesn't watch the NFL, they'd think he was the best quarterback in the solar system. If you cobbled together a highlight reel with only his worst misses and showed it to another person who doesn't watch the NFL, they'd think he was the worst quarterback in the universe.
One second, he's missing Cole Beasley for an easy third-down conversion.
An hour later, he's doing this.
Specifically, Allen struggles with consistency as a passer. He's probably the league's second-best running quarterback behind only Lamar Jackson. His athleticism can be weaponized, as the Bills' first series against the Texans so clearly demonstrated. Not only did he pick up 42 yards on the ground, but he also caught a 16-yard touchdown.
Despite his athleticism, Allen needs to improve as a passer. In that sense, he's not that dissimilar to Trubisky. A year ago, Trubisky actually finished the season third in total QBR behind only Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees, which seems impossible to believe, but probably has a lot to do with his contributions as a runner. He averaged 30.1 rushing yards per game. That number dropped to 12.9 in 2019. Unsurprisingly, considering he was unable to improve as a passer, Trubisky's overall production fell off a cliff.
This season, Allen averaged 31.9 rushing yards per game. The Bills would be unwise to turn Allen into a strict pocket passer. They should continue to weaponize his legs. But if Allen's production as a runner does decrease, he'll need to offset that decline in production with a more efficient approach as a passer. To this point, he's yet to prove he can do that over the course of a full season.
Defensively, the Bills were fortunate to remain healthy throughout the season -- something that might not sustain itself next season.
Just ask the Bears. For most of last season -- outside of a two-game absence for Khalil Mack and late-year injuries to Eddie Jackson and Bryce Callahan -- the Bears stayed remarkably healthy on defense. This year, star defensive lineman Akiem Hicks missed 11 games, up-and-coming linebacker Roquan Smith missed four games, and establishing starting linebacker Danny Trevathan missed seven games, to name a few notable extended absences. The Bears' defense managed to finish the season eighth in DVOA -- nobody should say they were bad -- but that still represents a big drop off from 2018, when they were the league's top defense by a wide margin.
If the Bills' defense doesn't stay as healthy as it did this season, it could also be in for a drop off even while remaining a good unit. Lorenzo Alexander, who appeared in all 16 games, already retired.
None of this is intended to portray the Bills as a soon-to-be bad football team. Saying the Bills might be the latest version of the Bears isn't a huge insult considering the Bears won half of their games in 2019. 8-8 isn't terrible. The Bears are still a few tweaks away from being a playoff team -- OK, maybe only one tweak away, but it just so happens that the tweak needs to be made at quarterback. Even if Allen doesn't improve, the Bills should remain competitive. Their future will remain mostly bright because they're a very talented football team.
The Bills might still make it back into January next season, but to get there, it feels like they'll need Allen to actually make a significant leap. The Bears didn't get that from Trubisky to offset their defensive regression. It remains to be seen if the Bills will get it from Allen in 2020. If he does ascend, the Bills might actually fulfill their destiny as usurpers. If he doesn't, the Bills might fall short of expectations.
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