Sullivan: As losses pile up, cracks show in Bills' 'culture'

Jerry Sullivan

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correctly attribute the quotes in the third and fourth paragraphs.

So much for resounding statements. That clunk you heard through the buffeting winds inside Highmark Stadium late Monday night was a resounding thud, the unmistakable sound of a beaten Bills team crashing to the Earth.

Safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, who apparently believe they’re doing the media a favor by speaking after games, grew indignant when I asked if it was embarrassing to become the first NFL team in more than 40 years to lose a game when the opposition attempted only three passes.

“What are you doing, bro?" Hyde began.

“What kind of question is that?” Poyer replied.

Well, it was a perfectly reasonable question. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, fellas, but the Bills embarrassed themselves in front of a national TV audience, losing 14-10 to the Patriots on a night when Bill Belichick decided he could abandon the pass altogether and still walk out of Orchard Park with a victory.

The Arrogant One pulled it off, leaving the Bills to contemplate their worthiness as a Super Bowl contender — indeed, their chances at even making the playoffs — after they fell a game and a half behind New England in the division and dropped into a tie for a wild card in the muddled AFC at 7-5.

They ought to be embarrassed. Here are some of the things being said about the Bills out there in football land:

• They’re soft, a finesse team.

• They have no offensive identity.

• They can’t run or stop the run.

• They commit stupid penalties.

• They’re frontrunners who go to pieces in a crisis.

• They’re in denial.

• They’re not constructed to play in tough weather.

• There’s a disconnect between their head coach and offensive coordinator. Oooh, more on that one later.

Hyde was asked, just before getting the embarrassment question, about the Bills’ defense getting steamrolled in the run game and losing the physical battle in the trenches.

“You asked that last time,” Hyde said.

“I’m asking it again,” Adam Benigni of WGRZ-TV responded.

That’s the point, Micah. It keeps happening, and the Bills have no answers. They beat bad teams, then they come up against a team that’s strong enough up front to punch them in the mouth, and they come up small. This is who they are.

Monday’s game was a chance to show the world that they weren’t the supposedly soft team that got run over at home by the Colts two weeks earlier. In the wind and cold, you knew Belichick and the Pats would challenge them physically.

The Bills weren’t up to it. Again. They lived down to their creeping reputation as a crepe paper team that can’t adjust to a physical game, one that is overly reliant on Josh Allen and the passing game and their resourceful pass defense.

That reflects on the coaching. The disconnect between Sean McDermott and Brian Daboll came blowing out into the open, like a paper bag in the Highmark winds, during the coach’s press conference shortly after midnight.

McDermott saved the greatest embarrassment for last. He made a pathetic attempt to minimize the fact that Belichick had coached his knickers off, then tossed Daboll under the team bus when asked about his offense.

“Let’s not give more credit than we need to give to Bill Belichick in this one,” McDermott said. “Whether it’s Bill or anybody else, they beat us.”

This is the same man who admitted upon getting the Bills head job that the Pats and Belichick kept him up in the middle of the night. After a one-year reprieve, it might be time for McDermott to lie awake at night sweating about the Pats.

Belichick owned him Monday night. McDermott used that tired rationalization — you know, take out the 64-yard run and the run defense numbers look pretty good. Come on. They gave up a long TD run to Derrick Henry and another to Jonathan Taylor. They count. Soft guys go for the big play and get toasted.

When McDermott talks up his defense after a loss, it sounds like a swipe at his offense. That became crystal clear when he was asked if Daboll was doing a good enough job with the offense, which went 1 of 4 in the red zone.

“Well I didn’t think, honestly, we took advantage of opportunities tonight,” McDermott said. “I really didn’t. The ball is at the 40-yard line. We’re 1 for 4 in the red zone. We’ve got to figure that part of it out.”

McDermott also became defensive when quizzed about his team’s identity, and whether it lacked the physical makeup to win games in bad weather — a quality that was once associated with successful Buffalo teams.

“If you were in the team meetings at training camp you would know what style of offense I want and what style of defense I want and what style of football team I want,” McDermott said. “That identity, and you guys have heard me talk about this before, is built in training camp. And that identity has got to embody toughness.”

There’s the rub, the disconnect. McDermott is an old-school coach, a defensive guy with a smash-mouth background. Daboll helped move him into the modern NFL era, one in which the pass is the predominant weapon and the “run and stop the run” ethos became seen as obsolete.

When Allen emerged as a superstar last season, the pass-happy attacking style covered up any physical shortcomings. Teams couldn’t keep up. But trends tend to shift in football. The Bills finally became a modern passing team, but they’re vulnerable to opponents that adhere to a more traditional running style.

Belichick has always been able to win both ways. It was easy to make it all about Tom Brady, but the Patriots loved to pound the ball on the ground during the Brady years. Running up big rushing numbers against Buffalo isn’t a novel event.

During the Belichick era, the Pats have had 10 games in which they ran 40 times against the Bills. This was the seventh time they went over 200 yards. Belichick is 36-7 against the Bills. At heart, he remains an old-school guy. To the chagrin of Bills fans, he’s once again built a team that’s more physical than the Bills. It's the 2001 model all over again.

They’re also better. It’s hard to draw any other conclusion after watching the Pats come into Highmark on a windy night and win a game that was being called the most significant meeting of the teams in a quarter century. And they didn’t have to throw the ball with their star rookie quarterback to do it.

Buffalo’s running game was woefully inadequate. Daboll isn’t above criticism. But is it his fault that general manager Brandon Beane hasn’t drafted an offensive lineman of any consequence, or that the running backs aren’t good enough? Daboll tries to run the ball, often to the team’s detriment.

One positive aspect Monday night was that Allen threw the ball very well in impossible conditions, which is one of the reasons they drafted him. But if the Bills lose the battle on both lines of scrimmage, they can’t make a serious Super Bowl run — or play at a high level two games in row anymore.

They have now alternated wins and losses in eight straight games. That’s not the sign of a champion, but an inconsistent team struggling to find itself. They look like a demoralized mess, and when McDermott takes shots at Daboll you have to wonder if his precious culture is beginning to show cracks.

Next week, they go to Tampa to play Tom Brady and the defending champions. That’s a sinister setup, putting them against the two icons of the Pats dynasty on consecutive weeks. A year ago, it was convenient to think that the torment had ended, and the Bills had left the Pats in the dust as the AFC East bullies.

Now the Pats are back in charge and the Bills are fighting for their playoff lives. Poyer and Hyde can sneer all they like, but the team ought to be embarrassed. Their reaction basically answered the question. This is a team in crisis, one has lost a sense of itself and that has become very, very soft.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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