Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane burned down the Bills for the insurance money

September 6, 2017

It’s very tempting to praise the Bills for realizing their spot in the NFL food chain and acting on it. A surface-level look of the franchise history leaves you wondering when the mediocrity will end.

But running an NFL team isn’t quite so black-and-white.

I’ve seen people who approach Buffalo’s recent trades of Ronald Darby and Sammy Watkins by patting new general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott on the back like they are the only fourth-graders who have savings accounts. “Think of all the good these future picks will do,” they say, as if the picks are guaranteed to have value.

The truth about most good NFL teams is that they are built incrementally. While records are a bit more volatile on a year-by-year basis because good and bad schedules and breaks can inflict a lot of chaos on a 16-game season, most teams do not suddenly wind up being incredible with one draft or draft pick.

When Dallas went from 8-8 to 12-4 in 2014, they did so because they incrementally created a running game and offensive line that improved their overall team. They slid back to 4-12 when Tony Romo was hurt, then bounced back to the top of the league after Dak Prescott proved to be a draft steal of the highest order. Another good recent example is how Seattle built an incredible defense, and then selected Russell Wilson.

Buried in the chaff of the NFL is a ton of success stories, but success stories on only one side of the ball. The Houston Texans of the 2010s have created a defensive dynasty, and have created a comical scenario where every year they play a bad enough division where somehow the defense gets a dead-end quarterback like Brian Hoyer to the playoffs.

The reason Buffalo’s recent run separates them from the rest of this chaff is that they’ve had good offense and good defense – they just never matched them both together in the same season.

Some criticisms I frequently see about the recent offenses are that Tyrod Taylor can’t throw over the middle of the field, that they don’t have much of a passing game at all beyond Watkins, and that if you stop the run they’re vulnerable. Those are all fair critiques. But they are critiques born of the past: the idea that the Bills once had Jim Kelly, and so they should have another great passing offense again to topple the looming shadow of Tom Brady.

The truth of the matter is that only so many teams in the NFL get to have the Tom Bradys and Aaron Rodgers of the world. Everyone else has to make a good offense around what they can realistically get their hands on.

The recent Bills have done that.  Per Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic, which measures how far above or below average a unit is based on play-by-play success rates, the Bills had a top-10 offense each of the last two seasons. They did this by finishing first and second in run offense DVOA, which is something that Taylor helps facilitate with his legs. Considering the fact that they are surrounded by teams that have traditionally good quarterbacks in these rankings, and Taylor was plucked out of obscurity as Joe Flacco’s backup, this should have been one of the most wonderful success stories in the NFL.

But instead, defensive mastermind Rex Ryan took Jim Schwartz’s Bills defense that finished in the top-5 in defensive DVOA in 2014 and 2015 and ran it right into the boat pier. Now, yes, some of the players on those units were going to get worse over time. Kyle and Mario Williams were getting older. But the only reason the Bills weren’t a playoff team the last two years is because Ryan’s outfit finished in the bottom-10 in defensive DVOA both seasons. Combine the 2015-2016 offense with the 2013-2014 defense and the Bills would have been a legitimate contender.

So it’s with that context that I can’t help but look at what McDermott and Beane are doing with a skeptical eye.

Watkins is a supremely talented wideout who has often played hurt to his own detriment. Rather than embracing the fact that NFL teams sometimes need to invest money in unsure things, the Bills declined his fifth-year option, forcing him to free agency a year earlier. They then sold him at the absolute nadir of his value, coming off an eight-start season that dwarfed the 2015 season where he needed only 96 targets to create 1000 yards.

The fact that they still got a second-round pick is evidence of just how highly other teams thought of Watkins. Perhaps his foot is damaged to the point where he’ll no longer be the superstar the Bills thought he’d be when they traded up for him in the first round, but that’s not a good reason to rage-quit one of the few high upside players on the roster. If the Bills fancy themselves in need of a rebuild, shouldn’t they have been gambling that Watkins would hit his upside and could return an actual haul?

In moving Ronald Darby, the most logical explanation is that the Bills don’t think they need good cornerbacks to run McDermott’s defensive system. That’s fine and fair, and Darby certainly had his warts. But did McDermott not enjoy having Josh Norman in Carolina? Was that not helpful at all to him? It certainly seemed like the Panthers did much better with the “extraneous” asset.

I started discussing the Bills with Tyrod Taylor because the looming assumptions, ones that are barely concealed at all, are that a) Taylor is a gimmick quarterback and b) the draft-pick haul Buffalo got in these trades will help them deal for the ever-imagined True Franchise Quarterback. They’ll then put Taylor out and win easily, as every team with a true franchise guy does.

But how many true franchise quarterbacks have you counted that have come out in the last few years?

Andrew Luck is the obvious best prospect of the 2010s, followed by, in some order depending on what you want to emphasize, Sam Bradford, Robert Griffin III, Marcus Mariota, and Jameis Winston. (Cam Newton was way too polarizing of a prospect to make this list.) Luck has been fantastic in the NFL, but his team has taken zero incremental steps forward around him. Bradford essentially became a statistical pariah, never healthy enough or with the players around him post-Rams to validate the scouting hype. Winston came out of college with a tendency to play reckless and turn the ball over and has never fixed it. Mariota has looked stellar when on the field, but has ended two of three years on IR.

And if you want to use the extra second- and third-round picks from these trades to move up? Good luck. The Rams got three first-round picks and a second-rounder for Griffin. Even in moving up for Jared Goff, a quarterback that there was quite a bit of disagreement on, the Rams had to give up two first-rounders, two second-rounders, and two third-rounders.

The idea that these extra picks are ammo to move up for a quarterback is akin to dropping the tip after your friend paid for the meal and saying you helped. They don’t hurt, but they aren’t the main pieces.

In giving up the known good players for the unknown picks, the Bills have said a lot about the way they intend to build the team. They have set up Taylor to fail with a passing game full of slot receivers. They have given up on incrementally improving the team and will instead let it languish. They will choose their system over talent.

And, perhaps worst of all, they will turn the hunt for worthwhile selections with those picks to the same two guys who thought Watkins and Darby were replaceable commodities in the first place.

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Rivers McCown
About Rivers McCown

Rivers McCown is a contributor to The Buffalo Star as well as a football analytics writer for Football Outsiders, The Athletic and ESPN Insider. Besides that, he's here because the football world can never have enough McCowns.

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