From 1988 through 1993, the Buffalo Bills were one of the best teams in the NFL. The Bills went 70-26 during that six-season span, winning five division titles, 10 playoff games, and four AFC championships. Buffalo had the league's second-best scoring offense and fourth-best scoring defense during that time, and had a roster featuring some of the best players in the league on both sides of the ball. According to Pro-Football-Reference, Thurman Thomas, Jim Kelly, Kent Hull, Bruce Smith, and Andre Reed all ranked among the 25 most valuable players in the NFL during that six-year span.
Needless to say, Buffalo has not experienced anywhere near that kind of success in the time since those players moved on. The Bills have made the playoffs only six times since 1993, and prior to making it in two of the past three seasons, they were on the outside looking in every season from 2000 through 2016.
A major reason the Bills haven't been able to recreate that 1990s level of success has been, well, the division rival Patriots having that type of success themselves. The Pats won 17 division titles, nine AFC championships, and six Super Bowls between 2001 and 2019. A team in your own division having that type of success obviously crowds you out from potentially doing something similar.
One of the two consistent ingredients in that successful run -- Tom Brady -- has now been removed from the mix. The Patriots still have the best coach in the NFL in Bill Belichick, but there is near-universal agreement that an opening exists for one of the other AFC East teams to overtake New England over these next several years. Bills quarterback Josh Allen believes his team has the right mindset to step up and be that team.
"With Tom being gone everybody sees there's an opportunity but I still see the Patriots being the best team in the division right now," Allen said, in an interview with Sirius XM NFL Radio. "They've been to the playoffs the last 20 years basically. Just because they lose one guy I don't think it's going to be that much of a difference. I know Tom is arguably the greatest quarterback of all time but they also have one of the greatest coaches of all time. So we're not taking that any differently. It's going to be one game at a time. I definitely think our team has the right mindset going into it. I don't think we're expecting to be the favorites, expecting to go out there and win every single game. It's going to be a dog fight each and every game and we're working hard right now."
Allen goes so far as to say he thinks these Bills might even be able to recreate the type of success those old Bills teams had.
"I hear about it all the time about the early '90s when [Jim Kelly] and Andre Reed and Thurman (Thomas) and Bruce (Smith) had that city buzzing," Allen said. "That's really the feeling that we're trying to get back, that we're trying to bring back to Buffalo. You know, our team has the right mindset to do it here pretty soon. We're looking forward to playing this year."
Certainly, the Buffalo defense is on track to perhaps be even better than it was during the heyday of those late '80s and early '90s teams. Under coach Sean McDermott, the Bills have ranked 15th, second, and sixth in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA; they have a superstar in cornerback Tre'Davious White, and he's supported by strong contributors at all three levels of the defense.
Where Buffalo still has room to improve is on Allen's side of the ball. They've added a ton of talent the past couple years, bringing in John Brown, Cole Beasley, Stefon Diggs, Devin Singletary, Dawson Knox, Zack Moss, Mitch Morse, Quinton Spain, and Cody Ford to supplement Allen's skill set. In his two seasons as the starter, the Bills have ranked 31st and 21st in offensive DVOA, with their pass offense being the weaker unit in both seasons (31st and 23rd in DVOA).
Allen showed improvement as a passer in his second seasons, but was still below-average at everything except avoiding interceptions. His skill as a runner is prodigious and helps the Bills in myriad ways, but there is simply very little chance of the team recreating its early '90s success if he does not take several steps forward as a passer. The best NFL offenses go as far as their quarterback takes them, and Allen has a ways to go before he is able to take this team as far as Kelly did on an annual basis.