Should you Trust the Process? An Assessment of the Buffalo Bills’ Front Office
I try to stick mostly to hockey but weighing in on the Buffalo Bills is something I cannot continue to pass up. Let’s start by acknowledging I have rooted for the Buffalo Bills for approximately 15 years so nothing would make me happier than seeing the team succeed. Having said that, I can put aside my fandom to provide a fair assessment of the current regime and whether Bills fans should have confidence in them. The Bills motto has become “Trust the Process,” similar to that of the Philadelphia 76ers during their rebuild. I do not doubt for a second that the Bills front office has a plan in place that they believe will take them from the most mediocre team in the NFL to a consistent playoff contender. The focus of this piece will be whether fans should trust that plan to be successful. To assess, we will look at both reasons fans should be optimistic and reasons fans should question the regime. At that point, you as the reader might be able to form your opinion. I will also provide my opinion as well.
Reasons for Optimism
First, this seems like the first time where I have paid close enough attention to the Bills that I feel the front office has a true plan in place and it is a plan that fans should be able to get behind. The team had maybe their most consistently competent quarterback (QB) since Drew Bledsoe in Tyrod Taylor. Many other quarterbacks had their moments, but Taylor has been the first since the Doug Flutie/Rob Johnson combination to lead the team to the playoffs. However, Taylor showed in that playoff game that he is not a quarterback that is going to lead the team to more than an occasional playoff berth. Yes, making the playoffs for the first time in 17 years was an accomplishment to savor but fans should not be satisfied by sneaking in the playoffs and exiting unceremoniously in the first round. No playoff team should lose a game where they hold their opponent to 10 points. The front office and coaching staff were clearly not 100% committed to Taylor last season as they benched Taylor for unproven Nathan Peterman while still firmly in the playoff race. The playoff game sealed Taylor’s fate. I give credit to the front office for realizing they could not be in the championship conversation with Taylor as their starting quarterback.
When the Bills hired Sean McDermott, it was clear he came in with a plan in mind. The hiring of and actions of general manager (GM) Brandon Beane, further cemented the notion of the team having a clear plan in mind. Fans should be excited that there is a plan in place (I will later discuss whether there should be optimistic about the execution). For too many Buffalo Bill regimes, there has been a clear lack of a plan in place. For too many offseasons, moves were made with little regard to the future. The weight of the playoff drought was much too heavy and too often caused incredibly short-sighted moves. Cap hits were constantly pushed down the road for average to above average players. And through all of it, few attempts were made to find a true franchise quarterback. With the constant construction of average rosters, the Bills too often picked in the middle of the pack, missing out on opportunities to draft a true star quarterback. Outside of drafting EJ Manuel and JP Losman, there was never a concerted effort to find a quarterback. This regime quickly bucked that trend with the drafting of Josh Allen.
The Bills correctly identified that this year’s draft was where they should look to find their franchise quarterback. I don’t really think you can question that as there was a consensus that this year’s quarterback class was the best in years. Maybe Brandon Beane’s goal was to tank the 2017 season. Under no circumstances was he or anyone with the Bills going to acknowledge that. The same applies to this season. Had the Bills finished toward the bottom instead of in the playoffs, they wouldn’t have had to move up nearly as far in the first round. I’m not going to dwell on the failure of the Bills to tank. My theory is a team has two options. First, make the playoffs, where anything can happen or finish with a top-five draft pick. Everything in between is a waste, which is what the Bills have done in almost every one of the past 17 seasons. From a pure asset management standpoint, tanking is the best decision as that is where teams are going to have the best chance of finding the quarterback capable of taking the team to the playoffs. Consider the below chart, showing the number of starting QBs by draft position as well as Super Bowls won and playoff appearances by draft position.
Before continuing, I need to make a few notes about the above table. First, it is important to acknowledge there is likely survivor bias involved in top picks starting for teams in the last three seasons. Most teams who spend a high draft pick on a quarterback are going to give them every opportunity to do so. However, it is hard to argue that the teams who have been the most successful recently have highly drafted quarterbacks leading the way. In the last 18 Super Bowls, Tom Brady has won 5 of them, half of them were won by quarterbacks drafted in the first round. The other four Super Bowls were won by Kurt Warner (undrafted), Brad Johnson (ninth round), Russell Wilson (third round), and Drew Brees (second round). Please note, I gave credit for the Eagles’ win to Carson Wentz. Commonly the argument for not drafting a QB as high as possible is maybe the team will find the next Tom Brady. In eight years of playoff data (96 instances), only 18.75% of playoff games have been started by a QB not drafted in the first two rounds and not named Tom Brady. If anyone wants to bet that the Bills will draft that QB who will buck that 18.75% trend, hit me up on Twitter. I’ll gladly take your money.
However, the plan the team has in place goes farther than just drafting a quarterback. Brandon Beane recognized the team would never truly be able to take a big step forward with the cap situation they had when he took over. Beane could have continued the trend of pushing salary cap hits down the road like his predecessors but instead, he has made a concerted effort to clear the future salary cap even if that meant short-term pain. Even though this season is not fun to watch, fans should be encouraged by this. In his first offseason as general manager, it seemed clear that Beane’s plan was to draft who he believed would be the team’s franchise quarterback and shore up the rest of the defense. It seems he will leave the offense to this offseason. In my time following the Bills, I don’t remember a GM having this clear of a plan. Too often the team looked to fill a hole here and there as they arose but never really did so with a long-term vision in mind.
Although watching a near historically bad offense is painful, especially with the way the league is trending, I think fans should be encouraged by the plan in place. The plan falls very much in line with that of many of the successful teams in the past two years. Let’s start by looking at last year’s champions, the Philadelphia Eagles. When the team made the bold move to move up to draft Carson Wentz, they had already built a tremendous defense that could possibly steal them a game or two. With the drafting of Wentz, they added the most important piece to the team, who just so happened to be cost controlled due to the nature of rookie contracts. This allows the team to spend wildly at other positions to provide support and they did just that with the additions of players like Alshon Jeffrey, LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi (in season), and Torrey Smith. It also allowed them to trade (and eat the salary of) Sam Bradford for a first-round draft pick.
Still not convinced that this is a good plan? Let’s look at some of the top teams this season, the Los Angeles Rams, Kansas City Chiefs, and Chicago Bears. All three teams have quarterbacks on their rookie contracts and went out this offseason and added top-end talent at a high price. The team Bills fans should look most closely at are the Chicago Bears. The Bills’ plan should be exactly one year behind what the Bears have done. Last offseason, they drafted Mitchell Trubisky and had a great defense and talented running backs in place. Like this year’s Bills, the talent around Trubisky was lacking. This past offseason, the Bears went all in on adding talent on the offensive side of the ball. They signed Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Burton in free agency to provide Trubisky with talented weapons to throw to. They didn’t stop there as they also traded up to ensure they could land Anthony Miller, another wide receiver (WR) (and a favorite of mine) in the draft. Let’s not forget their additions of Khalil Mack (trade) and Roquan Smith (draft). One main difference between the Bears and the Bills is the Bears hired Matt Nagy to be their new head coach, an up and coming offensive mind to work with Mitchell Trubisky.
This is a great time to move onto discussing the Bills’ coaching staff. Clearly, the teams that I have listed as teams to follow all have “offensive-minded coaches.” Sean McDermott is clearly not that. However, from a pure football standpoint, he is a tremendous head coach. He has gotten so much out of a roster that has really been devoid of talent in the past two seasons. I will never question his ability to lead, motivate, and get buy-in from his players. I will definitely question other things about McDermott in the next section. I think I should also give McDermott credit for trading down and drafting Tre White. Trading down in the draft and still getting one of the players that were likely in consideration when you picked the first time around is a tremendous win. Maybe I’m not giving Doug Whaley enough credit here and giving McDermott too much credit. However, no matter how great of a coach McDermott is, he is not going to be the one to turn around the offense. That comes down to Brian Daboll, who I think is impossible to fairly evaluate given the total lack of talent on offense.
Like McDermott, there are many things to like about GM Brandon Beane. First, he has shown a willingness to develop and stick to a plan while also being aggressive. I am a big believer in developing and sticking to a specific decision-making process. I think Beane has done just that. I will later discuss whether he has done so correctly. Beane, the rest of the front office, and the coaching staff have shown they can identify talent on the defensive side of the ball. The signings, draft picks, and trades that McDermott (maybe I’m not giving Whaley enough credit) and Beane have made on the defensive side have a very high success rate. The only major blemish was Vontae Davis, which I don’t want to fault too much as on the surface the correct decision-making process appeared to have been followed. Some fans might also point to Philip Gaines, but had Davis worked out as anticipated, Gaines wouldn’t have become an issue.
Causes for Concern
I have praised the Bills for the plan they appear to be following. It is the execution and foresight of the plan that raises major concerns for me. Let’s start with Josh Allen. I hope I have convinced you that taking a quarterback high in the draft is smart. Taking Josh Allen, especially in the manner in which they did raises a major red flag for me. Josh Allen could succeed. I would bet he won’t. How can I confidently say that? Every Bills’ fan is probably tired of reading and hearing about Josh Allen’s college completion percentage, but I have to point to it. Betting on Josh Allen to improve on his college completion percentage is the equivalent of betting the Bills will draft a franchise QB in the later portion of the draft. Possible but unlikely. There are plenty of things to like about Allen and maybe the Bills saw and know something I don’t. I’m willing to give them a little wiggle room. However, where I have a really hard time giving the team a pass is their decision to trade up, giving up a multitude of assets with two QBs on the board. The only way the trade up would be justifiable was if Allen was the team’s clear-cut number one QB on their board. That seems unlikely given Beane’s post-draft comments. If it was, that raises an even greater concern as the completion percentage red-flag should have at least prevented them from making Allen the clear number one. Since it seems likely that Allen and Rosen were ranked somewhat close on their draft board, the trade up to pick seven is one of the reasons I have strong concerns with this current regime.
Let’s flashback to draft night starting with pick four. Clearly, the Browns were not going to pick a QB, the only fear the team should have had was them trading down. The Bills should have been able to find out if they were committed to making the pick. Ultimately the Browns took a corner, a position that was clearly not on the Bills’ radar. Pick number five was where the team had to start getting nervous but shouldn’t be panicking. The Broncos could have (and probably should’ve) strongly considered taking a QB. It was reported that the Bills were trying to convince the Denver Broncos to trade down from pick five, only for them to say no so they could take Bradley Chubb. Beane dodged a bullet there as there shouldn’t have been a need for him to move up with two QBs on the board. Pick six belonged to Indianapolis who was clearly not taking a QB. Now comes to pick seven, the pick Buffalo ultimately traded for. This is where Beane made a major mistake.
There was no reason the Bills should have traded up when they did. They should have looked to strike the moment one of Allen or Rosen were drafted. Had Arizona traded up to seven instead of Buffalo, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. The Bills then could’ve chanced staying at pick 12 as Miami was the only team who possibly would’ve considered taking a QB between pick 8 and 12. If Miami was a concern, the Bills could’ve moved up from 12 to 10 and paid a much lower price and drafted Josh Rosen as their likely QB. This would be the scenario that I would consider ideal. I think this was a major draft mismanagement by Beane and his staff. To further elaborate on the Bills’ draft mismanagement let’s look no farther than the Colts moving down and, in the draft, and the Bills not being their dance partner. Getting up to third should have been the goal. All else would be a waste. Somehow, Beane didn’t make it happen.
Another issue I would like to raise regarding the drafting of Allen is in the previous draft they passed on a quarterback who had many of the same adjectives describing him as Allen. That would be none other than Patrick Mahomes. A quarterback with all the arm talent who’s decision-making needed some work. That sounds a lot like Allen. We can’t blame passing on Mahomes on Beane but it will always be a major red flag on McDermott’s resume. The question will now always be whether Mahomes and the other draft picks lost trading up for Allen, is better than having Tre White and Allen (I am assuming they would draft Edmunds in either scenario). As great as White looks to be, I think everyone would take Mahomes. Maybe I am leaping in assuming the would’ve taken Mahomes but I am confident enough in what I have said to put it down here.
At this point, I must raise another issue with the Bills’ process in drafting Josh Allen and those are Allen’s less than flattering tweets from high school. I’m not going to dwell on the content and how they potentially reflect on Allen, but it is a major concern to me that the Bills said that they had not seen Allen’s tweets before they started circulating. I find that hard to believe. However, this is something that seems silly to not be truthful about so I’m going to take the Bills at their word. For a team that preaches getting to know the men they are drafting, not uncovering these tweets is a huge problem. Anyone in the world could uncover those tweets. This is a team with billionaire owners about to make a franchise-altering decision and they don’t thoroughly screen a social media account? This is such a major concern of mine. When you claim you get to completely know the prospects you are drafting and fail to screen their social media accounts? That’s a major red flag on their process.
After they took Allen, they doubled down on trading up to draft Tremaine Edmunds. This is another move that goes against what the numbers would suggest. Edmunds could turn out to be a star and like Allen, all will be forgiven if they get the pick right. However, giving up multiple assets to acquire a middle linebacker is just poor asset management. Middle linebackers are generally a position that you can draft in later rounds. They also do not generally command top dollars in free agency so it is not a major advantage to have one under cost control. After trading up for Edmunds, the Bills would only have the ability to make three picks in the first three rounds. In my opinion, the first three rounds are what really matters, with a drop off to the fourth round, and a free fall in the final three rounds. As I acknowledged, the current Bills regime has found talent late in the draft so maybe they can change my mind on this.
Their draft mismanagement is only one concern of mine when it comes to the current Bills’ regime. The biggest concern I have is the lack of overall foresight they have shown. First, they traded Tyrod Taylor, a move I actually like when looking at it in a vacuum. However, they then went on to sign AJ McCarron to be their supposed “bridge QB.” Another move that seemed fine in a vacuum. However, there was no reason to believe he was going to be more than average. The Bills went into the draft with McCarron and Peterman as the two QBs on their roster. They clearly were taking a QB and that QB really should have been ready to play immediately if the team had any desire to compete this season. Allen did not fit the bill. I’m not going to get into whether sitting or starting is better from day one as they are plenty of QBs you can use as examples on every side of the argument. However, Allen clearly was the least ready to start immediately so taking him instead of Rosen seems questionable given who was on the roster at the time. Had they kept Taylor and drafted Allen, it would’ve made a lot more sense. When they traded Taylor, it is possible the Bills thought they would have their choice of Allen or Mayfield and maybe they would’ve taken Mayfield. However, the way things were trending in early March, it seemed more and more likely that they would be choosing between Allen and Rosen. This means they should’ve thought Allen was the likeliest possibility, meaning they should’ve strongly considered keeping Taylor. Follow all that?
Once the team went into training camp with an “open competition,” they needed to focus on the players who were on their roster, Peterman, McCarron, and Allen. If the Bills were truly having an “open competition,” they correctly named Peterman the starter. He was clearly the best quarterback in the preseason. They were also correct in trading McCarron as getting a draft pick for a player who was anticipated to be the third-string quarterback was great as well. Where they failed was thinking that going into the season with Peterman and Allen, both incredibly inexperienced players, was a smart idea. The fact that it took them weeks to add a third quarterback was a major problem. There were plenty of options available from the start of the season, yet the Bills waited a month before acting. That turned out poorly.
The quarterback position is a microcosm of the entire offense, where there clearly have been roster miscalculations by the front office. I’m willing to give them a pass for the Eric Wood situation. When Wood retired, it looked as though the team would have an adequate replacement in Ryan Groy, who had played well enough in relief of Wood previously. He played well enough to draw an offer sheet from the Rams so two teams thought he was good enough to play in the NFL. Unfortunately, he did not play well when he did play this season. The rest of the offensive line is where a foresight problem existed. We can argue about whether the Bills should have seen the Richie Incognito “retirement” coming but regardless this season would have been his last in Buffalo. Couple that with the fact the right side of the offensive line was below average last season and offensive line should have been near the top of the team’s priority list this offseason. The did bring in two veteran players, Russell Bodine and Marshall Newhouse, who the front office obviously expected to help the team. Bodine is starting and playing average at best while Newhouse was moved to Carolina because he was just not good. The problem with the signing of both players is most observers thought that those two players were not good and the analytic-centric websites backed that narrative up. These signings should not have precluded the Bills from adding more than one offensive linemen in the draft. However, when the draft was over, they had one fifth-round selection, Wyatt Teller, to add to the offensive line competition. It seemed like everyone, except the Bills, knew the offensive line would be a problem going into the season and it was.
The question that is still unanswered is why the Bills did not do more? Did they actually think the line would be good enough? Did they not have enough draft picks to draft more players on the line? Are they planning to address it this offseason? If the answer is yes to any of those questions, it is a problem to me. I will elaborate on why I would be concerned even with them planning to address the line this offseason. You can find the free agent offensive linemen here. I watch a lot of football but don’t study the game enough to comment on whether there are good linemen options available or not. I do recognize some names from their draft status but that does not mean they are good options. My bigger concern is they needed to shore up the line because without a quality line, there is no way to evaluate the rest of your team. The number one priority this season needed to be evaluation of both your QB and your aging running back. Josh Allen has had time to throw in many instances, but the line has gotten minimal push in the running game. The line has been mostly pieced together with mostly aging veterans who will likely regress and likely aren’t the answer for sustained success.
The offensive line has been better than expected recently but the group that has been as poor as expected has been the wide receiver good. The front office’s decisions here has been where my biggest concern lies. The Bills came into the season with easily one of the worst if not the worst wide receiver group in the entire league and it quickly got weaker when they decided to release Jeremy Kerley so they could activate another defensive tackle in the second week of the season. I think Zay Jones will develop into a very solid complementary possession wide receiver. That’s a step in the right direction. However, the rest of the wide receiving core at the beginning of the season was dreadful and showed the front office may have a problem in evaluating the offensive side of the ball in the modern NFL. I think offenses in today’s NFL need to be built on speed.
The Bills did the exact opposite but have recently tried to change that, which I have been very encouraged with. A WR core featuring Kelvin Benjamin as the supposed number one WR is not going to cut it in today’s NFL. Big, strong, contested catch specialists line up as tight ends (TE) now. The front office and coaching staff brought in Benjamin to be their top WR. It appears they are starting to acknowledge their need for speed as they have started to bring in smaller, speedy WRs. It will be interesting to see how that works out for them. The team’s shift to more speed might change this narrative but the poor WR group has thus far made it nearly impossible to truly evaluate Josh Allen, which, again, has to be the top priority. Basically, punting the WR issue was a major problem. If they didn’t think the WR group was going to be an issue, then that is a bigger issue. The challenge for the front office will be finding a true number one WR.
I think the only place the team can find a true number one is in the draft. There are some nice WRs available in free agency (you can look at the list here but definitely no game changers. Last offseason the list definitely had players who are closer to game breakers, though outside of maybe Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins, there were also no number WRs. However, I think the overall depth and skill level was much better last offseason so failing to add any of those pieces might compound the Bills’ WR problem unless they can find a diamond in the rough. Even though many top WRs have been first-round picks, the only way it makes sense to pick a WR in the top 10 is if they are a true superstar. The team would need to land a WR at the level of Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, AJ Green, Julio Jones. I’m not sure anyone this year will be quite at that level. It currently appears that the Bills will have a top 10 so if that pick is going to be made, a WR might not make the most sense. Trading down and taking a WR will likely be the best scenario for the Bills. I think they more likely will frustrate fans and make their pick and it will be a cornerback, offensive lineman, or defensive lineman. From a value perspective, this would be the safer and even smarter move. However, this team is so devoid of WR talent, that I’m not sure fans would be too happy with that decision. What the Bills cannot afford to do is waste a top 10 pick on a less than star WR.
I can understand why the Bills may not pick a WR with a top 10 pick. However, I under no circumstances could defend them not using their next pick or two at WR. This is my biggest concern with the front office. I think they are going to build “an old-school, ground, and pound, blue collar” football team, which is not the way to build a contender in today’s NFL. They had that team last year and it got them to 9-7 with a first-round playoff exit. My fear is the team adds Devin Funchess in free agency, who is too much like Benjamin, and calls it quits for the year while using their draft picks to address the offensive line, running back, and defense. If this is the path the Bills’ regime takes, I will lose all confidence in them.
My biggest current concern with the Bills overall is Sean McDermott’s game management. I praised McDermott’s ability to coach and lead. However, when it comes to his in-game decision-making, I am almost always left shaking my head. He punts much too often, he challenges too close of plays and many times they are not even important plays. His timeout and clock management are usually a problem. In sports, there are many things that are left to chance. None of these qualify as that. All these decisions can be and should be controlled by rational thought. To me, McDermott too often lets his emotions come into play when making these decisions. The difference between making the playoffs and missing them could come down to a key decision here or there. This year, we could see both the Colts and Panthers miss the playoffs and the Titans possibly making the playoffs because of the decision their coaches made late in the game. If McDermott can’t set aside his emotions, he needs to have someone in the booth, like the Eagles do, making those decisions for him. He also needs to be willing to listen to those people. As far as Daboll goes, I am concerned that we cannot fairly evaluate his performance because of the lack of talent on offense. This is a concern because the best teams in the NFL right now rely on amazing offensive schemes. With no talent, we don’t know if the problem is the scheme or the talent.
I am also deeply worried about the Bills’ embrace of analytics. This offseason they publicly touted how they were going to embrace analytics, even going as far to have a press release when they hired their new director. This is not standard operating procedure for most teams. Many teams try to keep these sort of hires as far under the radar as possible. I personally think the Bills have trumped up their use of analytics, at least when it comes to on-field performance and decision-making. From the drafting of Allen, to trading up twice in the draft, to the punting and poor timeout usage, far too many of their decisions, big and small go against what the numbers would suggest. It is also possible that they don’t have the right people in the job, though I would lean toward the former option or a combination of the two.
I don’t think the question of whether we should trust the current Bills’ regime is cut and dry. I believe I have laid out plenty of ways to justify either side of the argument. You can certainly form your own opinion. Maybe I have missed something that you consider valuable in evaluating the front office for either side of the argument. Going into last year’s draft, I was cautiously optimistic. Now I fall on the slightly pessimistic side but have been encouraged by the Bills’ recent moves in adding speed at the wide receiver position. This to me signals that the front office has recognized their mistakes quickly and have looked to correct them. As much as I would love to see the team finish as low in the standings as possible, I would also like to see their offense perform well in hopes of the front office appreciating what the addition of serious speed can do for them. Bills fans should look to the Bears as a sign of hope and if the Bills are building correctly, the team’s offseason should closely resemble the Bears’ recent offseason. If this doesn’t happen, it will be time to look for another new GM and coach. I’m always available!
Feel free to let us know of your thoughts as well on Twitter (@afpanalytics) or @k_sticher.
All contract data and free agent lists are courtesy of spotrac.com. Draft position breakdown is courtesy of Wikipedia. Feature image via Buffalo News.
KYLE STICH is the Director of AFP Analytics. In addition, Mr. Stich is a tax specialist and Director of Operations at AFP Consulting LLC, whose clientele include professional athletes performing services on three separate continents. Mr. Stich earned his Master of Science in Sport Management with a Concentration in Sport Analytics from Columbia University in 2017. He earned his undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Sport Management from St. John Fisher College in 2015, where he has served as an adjunct professor teaching Sport Finance and Baseball Analytics.