OK, it’s early. If there’s one thing our Buffalo sports teams have taught us over the years, it’s the danger of overreacting to a hot start.
But it’s easy to get carried away when our two major franchises are doing well at the same time. For the better part of a decade, the Sabres and Bills were mired in parallel dysfunction, their defining feature a gift for making moves for the wrong reasons.
Now they’re both 4-1 for the first time since 2011, shortly after Terry Pegula bought the Sabres. Sure, neither made the playoffs that year, but you’ll have to indulge me. Remember, if not for a miracle pass by Andy Dalton two years ago, both Buffalo teams would have the longest playoff droughts in their respective sports.
This is the most optimistic I’ve been about the franchises as a tandem since, well, maybe since the turn of the new millennium. The standard is admittedly low, but both teams appear to be making strides and demonstrating a rare, refreshing sense of competence on the management and coaching sides.
Again, history has taught us to be wary. They’ve teased their fans too many times before. But you also can’t ignore what you see with your own eyes. The Bills are a legitimate playoff contender, with an elite defense and improving offense in Josh Allen’s second season as the starter.
Before the season, I predicted 10 wins. At this point, when you consider the beleaguered state of the AFC and the relatively soft schedule, it would be a letdown if they didn’t get to 10 victories and make the playoffs. There are really only two AFC teams — the Chiefs and Patriots — who are clearly better. They’re two games clear of the Chargers, Browns, Titans and Jaguars.
The Bills are still a work in progress. Keep in mind, they were trailing with under five minutes to play against the Jets and Bengals, two teams that as of Sunday had yet to win a game. But they’re in far better shape than anyone could have imagined back in August.
The point is, the window is wide open. It has to be a consideration at One Bills Drive. I know Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott believe in the process, in building slowly through the draft and winning by developing their own guys. It’s going well. If Josh Allen is for real, they’ll be a contender for the next decade or so.
But sometimes, you need to seize the moment. When the window is wide open and circumstances are falling your way, you have to go running through it. I’m not saying Beane should do anything stupid and mortgage the future, but if he can make a move or two to bolster his roster for a playoff run, he should consider making a deal by the trade deadline, which is 4 p.m. Oct. 29.
The most pressing need is at wide receiver. Allen isn’t making big plays down the field — or even attempting many. He hasn’t completed a pass that traveled 30 yards in the air.
John Brown and Cole Beasley have been as good as advertised. But the other wideout has been a zero. Zay Jones was traded. Robert Foster, who was expected to build on a promising start last. year, doesn't have a catch. Duke Williams had a great debut against the Titans, but he doesn’t stretch defenses. They need to do better to take advantage of Allen’s big arm.
Beane should at least kick the tires on a wideout. The Vikings’ Stefon Diggs stepped away from the team last week, raising speculation that he wanted to be traded. The Bengals’ A.J. Green could be available. He’ll be a free agent after the season and the 0-5 Bengals have to consider moving a receiver past his prime.
The Bills value their assets. But a second-round pick for Diggs or Green or a similar talent wouldn’t be unwise. They’ve built a foundation of young talent through the draft. They have a budding star at all three levels of the defense in Tre White, Tremaine Edmunds and Ed Oliver. They have the presumed franchise quarterback in Allen and a dynamic running back in Singletary.
Package a second-rounder and maybe the fifth they got for Jones and see if they can fortify the roster for a real playoff run. With their best defense in 20 years, there’s no telling how far they could go with a reliable offense in a watered-down AFC.
The Sabres, meanwhile, are a flawed but talented and promising group. Like the Bills, they’ve adopted a more attacking mentality, a willingess to dictate to the opposition. There’s a sense that the coaching staff knows they have better talent and intend to use it. Their high-end players are playing at a high level and the additions are making significant contributions.
They still give up too many good scoring chances. They’ve been bad in their own end for long stretches of the young season and blew two-goal leads in the third period of their last two games. It was a jarring reminder of last year, when they squandered leads on a regular basis and fell apart after Thanksgiving.
Still, this year feels diferent. The Sabres are showing a more confident, resilient mentality under new coach Ralph Krueger. At the very least, they figure to be entertaining — maddeningly so at times. Home attendance is down, a sign that some fans are tired of empty promises and aren’t buying in anymore.
Buffalo fans don’t ask for a lot. They simply need the team to play as if it cares, which wasn’t the case down the stretch last season. Fans in this town need to stop accepting a lower standard. At least Jason Botterill and the Pegulas realized their mistake with Phil Housley.
They look better under Krueger. They could hardly be worse. I picked them for 88 points, more than a lot of experts did. If they keep this up, they should sneak into the 90s and contend for a wild-card spot. It won’t be easy. They’re in the best division in hockey and there’s little chance of them finishing in the top three.
Krueger has a reputation as a communicator, and it seems he’s gotten through to some guys. The power play has been phenomenal, a sign he knows a thing or two about hockey tactics. He’s rewarding solid effort. He’s getting surprisingly strong early-season production from the likes of Kyle Okposo, Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson.
They’re still a shaky defensive team. But if they keep pushing the action and playing more freely in transition, they’ll make it hard for opposing defenses and they’ll continue to draw penalties. That’ll help, as they have eight power-play goals in five games, the most in the league. They had 46 all last season, so they won’t be able to rely on the man advantage every night. Things will level out, and they’ll eventually find their level.
But one week into a new season, there’s reason to believe their level might be a little higher than expected. Like the Bills, they’re giving their fans genuine hope. It’s about time.
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.