I’ll admit, this is unfamiliar territory. Over the years, it became customary for me to be skeptical of the Bills in the preseason, to resist the communal optimism so common among fans and media in the summertime.
Really, how much stock can you put into training camp and exhibitions? How many times have we heard glowing reports about the latest quarterback hope, only to see him fall flat in the games that really mattered?
The Bills made the playoffs eight times under Marv Levy. Do you know how many times they had a winning record in the preseason in those eight playoff years? Zero.
Wins and losses often don’t mean a thing in August. The Bills won at Carolina on Friday night, 27-14, making them 2-0 in the preseason for the first time since 2013. That was EJ Manuel’s rookie season, which tells you how the promise of summer can evaporate in the fall.
But some preseasons are more meaningful than others. This one feels different. The Bills have the sense of a team whose time has finally come, one that has a good chance to be one of the five NFL teams, on average, that improve by four games from one season to the next.
I’ve said the standard should be 10 wins, based on their offseason acquisitions and their rising young talent, including second-year quarterback Josh Allen. The last two weeks have heightened the sense of belief that the Bills are ready to be a playoff contender in the AFC.
Sure they have issues, starting with the offensive line, which is average at best and is waiting to see if Mitch Morse, their free-agent prize, will return to form after suffering his fourth concussion the first day in pads. The running game is still a major question mark.
There are two major reasons for optimism: Allen’s evolution as a franchise quarterback and the team’s improved roster depth, particularly on defense.
Allen is still a project, but he has looked good in the two preseason games and in the joint practices with the Panthers. He has been poised in the pocket and more accurate on his shorter passes, willing to take the safe throws while keeping his eyes trained down the field.
Granted, the Panthers were without their star linebacker, Luke Kuechly. Allen has faced vanilla defensive game plans in the two exhibitions. Things will get a lot tougher when he shows up for the opener against the Jets.
But regardless of the circumstances, Allen was impressive on Friday. He completed 9 of 11 passes for 102 yards and a 105.3 passer rating. He made a gorgeous throw down the right sideline to rookie tight end Tommy Sweeney on the Bills’ opening possession.
Allen was 5 for 5 on passes to veteran slot receiver Cole Beasley. I’ve been skeptical of fans’ gushing regard for Beasley. But he and Allen are developing an undeniable chemistry. If he stays healthy, Beasley can be the safety valve receiver an evolving young quarterback needs.
Allen told coach Sean McDermott before the Carolina game that he wanted the ball if the Bills won the toss. Today’s coaches, slaves to conventional thinking, love to defer. Allen wanted to be aggressive, to make a statement about the offense. McDermott let him go.
The defense has been dominant in both preseason games. Again, they weren’t facing the most daunting opposition. Carolina held out quarterback Cam Newton and running back Christian McCaffrey. The Colts were without star quarterback Andrew Luck in the first game.
Still, the defense looked deeper and more talented than a year ago. Defensive end Trent Murphy, who was hampered by injury last season, has made an impact in both games. It’s about time he lives up to his $7 million contract. Ed Oliver, the rookie defensive tackle, has been a force in practices and in the exhibitions.
The defense was second in the NFL in yards a year ago, but 18th in points allowed. They didn’t get consistent pressure and had some shabby stretches against the run. If Murphy and Oliver provide this sort of pressure, it’ll make Jerry Hughes even more effective at right end.
They have depth, maybe too much, at defensive end, where seventh-round pick Darryl Johnson — who has been a terror in preseason games — and second-year man Mike Love have stood out, raising the possibility that the Bills could keep five players at the position.
General manager Brandon Beane has taken some risks on players with injury histories. But he’s starting to distinguish himself as a judge of college talent.
Oliver looks like a steal at ninth overall. Devin Singletary will be the featured back before long. Sweeney was a find in the seventh round. Then there’s second-year linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who seems like a different, more assured player in Year Two.
Of course, it all comes back to Allen, who is looking to make the kind of second-year leap that many of the current young franchise quarterbacks (Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes) did in their second year in the NFL.
Each of those QBs led his team to the playoffs in his second season. There’s no reason Allen can’t do the same. So far, the signs are positive. Bills fans have been known for their blind optimism over the years. For once, it’s warranted. You can see it with eyes wide open.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York, as well as the host of The Jerry Sullivan Show from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. weekdays on 1270 AM The Fan. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at email@example.com.