Sullivan: From COVID to Josh Allen, Bills' losses raising issues

Jerry Sullivan

Josh Allen had to know it was coming. The skeptics have been wondering all season about the Bills’ worthiness as a true Super Bowl contender. After this one, he was told, the narrative around the NFL will be that his team is a fraud.

“We know who we are,” Allen said after the Bills got demolished at home by the Colts on Sunday, 41-15. “What we put out there on the field today, that’s not who we are.”

Well, that’s open for debate after the Bills played their worst game since the first year of the Sean McDermott era, getting outplayed in every aspect of football — and this just two weeks after a distressing 7-6 loss at the lowly Jaguars.

Who are they, really? The team that marched to the AFC title game last season and started out this campaign 4-1, surging to the top of the NFL in offense and defense? Or the inconsistent mess that has now lost three of five, going back to that narrow, crushing loss on a Monday night at the Titans?

The questions were fair game after the Bills fell a half-game behind the Patriots in the AFC East race. When they stepped on the field that Monday night in Tennessee, they were three games clear of New England in the loss column. Now the Pats are on a five-game winning streak and looking down at them.

This is no cause for panic, as Micah Hyde would tell us, but it certainly has the look of a crisis. It’s not so much that the Bills lost, but that once again they were physically beaten at the point of attack on both sides of the ball, that they lost the battle in the proverbial trenches.

The players danced around it, as they always do. They’re too proud to acknowledge that they got punched in the mouth and lacked a sufficient response. But pressed on the matter, McDermott admitted his defense was “pushed around” by the Colts and also at times against the Titans.

“Pushed around” fails to capture how dominant Indy was. Jonathan Taylor, the best healthy running back in the league, ran 32 times for 185 yards and four touchdowns. Taylor also had a receiving TD, which made him the first Colt ever to score five TDs in a game and the first player to do it against Buffalo.

It was the most rushing yards allowed by the Bills since the Saints had 298 in a 47-10 win in Buffalo in 2017. That was McDermott’s first team, in the middle of a horrid run of defense. This came against a Bills team that was leading the NFL in total defense and scoring defense, and third against the run.

The Titans’ Derrick Henry had a big day in the Monday night win, showing that you could challenge on the Bills up front and win an old-fashioned ground war. Clearly, our old buddy Frank Reich took notice. The run game still matters in a pass-happy league; McDermott said he needs to figure out a way to stop it.

“Yeah, I really do,” he said, “and we’ve got to get that fixed. There’s a formula to win and a formula on the other end, too. When you’re getting beat at the point of attack, obviously I have to do a better job.”

The Bills have beaten six teams with a combined record of 23-40. They did beat the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes. They’ve also feasted on a bunch of rag-tag quarterbacks. They’ve played four teams with tough, physical fronts — Steelers, Titans, Jaguars and Colts — and lost to all of them.

This isn’t the era of Chuck Bednarik or Dick Butkus, or even Ray Lewis. But there’s a word for teams who can’t handle the rough stuff up front: Soft. In the case of the Bills, you could also call them soft and stupid.

There’s no dismissing the fact that the Bills were missing two of their most physical linemen on Sunday due to COVID-19 protocols. Nose tackle Star Lotulelei, the anchor of the defensive front, missed his second straight game after being put on the COVID list the morning of the Jets game. Lotulelei, who sat out the 2020 season with virus concerns, is believed to be unvaccinated.

They were also without rookie right tackle Spencer Brown, perhaps their most rugged offensive lineman, who was put on COVID protocol Thursday. The Bills didn’t provide details, but if Brown is unvaccinated, he will miss a minimum of 10 days per NFL rules and be out for the Saints on Thursday.

What we do know is that the Bills might have the lowest vaccination rate in the NFL. Brandon Beane recently told the Buffalo News that the team still has between five and 10 players who are unvaccinated. We also know that wide receiver Cole Beasley has been the league’s unofficial poster boy for resisting vaccination, making the Bills a natural focus on the issue.

I asked McDermott if the problems were especially galling when the COVID protocols weakened the middle of his run defense, not to mention the right tackle on an offense that continues to struggle running the ball.

“Again, I respect those guys’ decisions,” McDermott said, “and I’m going to talk about the guys who are here.”

That’s his stock response, and it’s hard to blame him. There’s no way to know for sure who is vaccinated and who isn’t. But when McDermott says he respects those players’ decisions, it’s reasonable to deduce that he’s talking about their decision not to get the vaccine.

Vaccination was a big issue in training camp and you knew it would persist into the season as long as some 15% of the roster remained unvaccinated. I imagine over a beer, the head coach might be less respectful and diplomatic about the guys who resist getting the shot in the arm.

“I mean, everybody has a personal choice to get vaccinated or not,” said left tackle Dion Dawkins, who had a scary bout of COVID-19 in the summer. “It's a free country, so hey, guys make their own decisions and we have to live with it, you know?”

Yes, you have to live with it, even if most of your competitors in the NFL have a higher vaccination rate and less chance to miss key players in the middle of the season. It’s a free country, and I'm free to believe that Beasley and his ilk are dumb and ill-informed and hurting their team.

It’s impossible to say exactly why the players went into COVID-19 protocol. There were actually five Bills who entered protocol over a recent 10-day period, which makes you wonder if this problem will persist in the weeks ahead.

The doctors say whatever pandemic issues persist in the country are a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” So, one can only assume that any NFL problem is essentially a problem of the unvaccinated players.

The questions were bound to increase if the Bills stumbled on the field, and here we are. They look like a soft, befuddled team, one that’s getting pounded physically and being compromised by penalties and turnovers — hardly the kind of issues we’ve come to expect from a McDermott team.

Allen has been maddeningly inconsistent. He was ordinary against the Colts, who came in with a league-leading 23 TD passes allowed. He was 21 of 35 passing, with two touchdowns, two interceptions and couple of other dubious throws that could have been picked off. He misfired on his first seven passes of the second half, ending with a dreadful throw that Kenny Moore picked late in the third.

“We’re a really good football team when we don’t bite ourselves,” Allen said. “Again, what we put out on the field today is not who we are. I’ve got a lot of trust in our team and it’s no secret we need to do a better job on all fronts.

“It’s not panic mode. We got to learn from this one and move on as quick as possible, because we got a game to play Thursday night.”

The company line is that the quick, three-day turnaround to New Orleans will be a good thing, a chance to get the bad taste our of their mouths. I’m not so sure. After three losses in five games, the Bills seem beyond cliches. Their problems are systemic, and a Thanksgiving game might further expose them.

They’d better change it fast, because if they don’t spit out the bad taste against the Saints, they’ll be looking up at the wild-card spots by Friday morning. What they are right now is a team fighting for its very playoff life.

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.

Trending Video

Recommended for you