Crumbling contender? Bills’ drastic move may not be enough to save season

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What exactly is the condition of the Buffalo Bills’ proverbial championship window?

It became a trending question Tuesday, the day after the three-time defending AFC East champions lost at home in prime time to the decidedly average Denver Broncos … in spectacular fashion … as time expired … with quarterback Josh Allen struggling yet again … and following the latest round of drama surrounding Pro Bowl wideout Stefon Diggs … not to mention the consequential the firing of offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey.

(Brief detour here, but what is a “championship window”? Are you supposed to go through one? Because that seems dangerous given the generally precarious placement of windows. Maybe that’s why the Bills have never done it since coming into the NFL in 1970, including those epic Buffalo teams that appeared in a record four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s. Maybe they’d stampede to glory if they had to go through a “championship door” or cross a “championship threshold”? I personally like that last one. Sorry, I’ll stop digressing, Mafia members.)

But since we’re stuck with the championship window metaphor, let’s cite Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow’s impregnable take on it. ‘The window is my whole career,’ Burrow said earlier this year. ‘Things are going to change year-to-year, but our window is always open.’

It should be no different in Western New York as it pertains to Allen, a two-time Pro Bowler and an upgraded version – at least in certain regards – of former league MVP Cam Newton. But Allen seems to need guidance, stability and help – and those aren’t insignificant issues for a player who appears to take on too much of the offensive load and/or is overly burdened with it.

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That was weirdly evident Monday in Dorsey’s final game. Allen threw two more interceptions – one clearly his fault while forcing the ball on a bad read, another off a deflected pass Bills receiver Gabe Davis should have caught in the first place – pushing Allen’s 2023 total to a league-worst 11. (Conversely, Allen threw for a TD against Denver and ran for one – meaning his 26 combined pass/rush scores also pace the NFL.)

Yet Dorsey was showing a healthier commitment to the run, producing a season-high 192 yards on the ground – only 13 from Allen – with running back James Cook carrying five consecutive times for 69 yards before Allen finished off Buffalo’s final drive with a 6-yard TD run, one that seemed like a game-clincher, inside of two minutes. It felt like a possession that would certainly salvage the evening and maybe even the season … until the Bills defense and special teams cracked with a pair of bad penalties that allowed the Broncos to hit their game-winning field goal on kicker Wil Lutz’s second attempt.

Where do the Bills (5-5), who are currently in 10th place overall in the AFC and a half-game behind the Houston Texans for the final wild-card spot, go from here? Very unclear.

Like most NFL teams heading into Week 11 of a given season, they’ve got few options in the short run aside from making things work as best as possible. The trade deadline already passed. Injured defenders Matt Milano, Tre’Davious White and DaQuan Jones won’t return to bolster a unit that’s been in steady decline amid its personnel setbacks and hasn’t gotten a boost from Von Miller following his comeback from last season’s torn ACL.

Offensively? Brian Daboll, the coordinator Allen clearly vibed with best when this group was at its peak in 2020 and 2021, isn’t coming back, either, pending a loan from his duties coaching the rudderless 2023 New York Giants. Maybe a new voice in Allen’s head will help at this point … and firing Dorsey seems like the path of least resistance for a .500 team grasping for answers given providing Allen a week off to clear his head or rest a throwing shoulder that’s clearly been a problem for weeks isn’t viable.

Head coach Sean McDermott largely absolved his decimated defense Monday night, crediting the unit for keeping Buffalo in a game when the Bills turned the ball over four times. He had yet to fire Dorsey at that point but didn’t have any better answers for the offense than “gotta figure that out” or “it needs to be better.”

For now, 34-year-old interim OC Joe Brady – a William & Mary product like McDermott – gets to try and crack that nut. Brady (no relation to Tom) saw his coaching trajectory skyrocket while calling plays for LSU’s already legendary 2019 national champions, yet saw it plummet just as fast after failing to make it through two seasons as offensive coordinator for Matt Rhule’s Carolina Panthers. For starters, Brady probably needs to build off the momentum the run game generated Monday. Yet he also surely needs to get more imaginative with a playbook that seems stagnant.

And then there’s the Diggs issue.

He was only targeted five times Monday (3 catches for 34 yards), yet that hasn’t been an issue for the balance of the season – Diggs pacing the NFL with 102 targets and tied for the league lead with 73 receptions.

Yet it seems like there’s always been smoke emanating from him in some capacity, whether during his time at the University of Maryland, with the Minnesota Vikings or – in the past six months for sure – on the shores of Lake Erie. Whatever embers were already smoldering got stoked after Monday’s loss. That’s when Diggs’ brother, injured Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowler Trevon Diggs, tweeted, “Man 14 Gotta get up outta there,” a reference to Stefon Diggs’ jersey number.


Only problem? Stefon Diggs’ four-year, $96 million contract extension takes effect in 2024. And while he doesn’t have any of his salaries guaranteed beyond this season for now – though his $18.5 million 2024 payout locks in next March – getting rid of him next year would mean Buffalo incurs more than $31 million in dead money. Untenable, especially for a non-quarterback. It would also qualify as self-sabotage to jettison your second-best player and one who’s been so intrinsic to Allen’s success – another matter Trevon Diggs (fairly) alluded to during his social media musings. Volatile as Stefon Diggs is − and even aside from the salary-cap implications – it’s highly unlikely Buffalo could even get fair-market value for a player who turns 30 later this month and comes with the amount of baggage he’s accrued. Probably, for at least another year, an arranged marriage.

So where does that leave the Bills?

They’ve got a temporary patch schematically and/or philosophically on the offense but are at least a few months from a reset if that’s what McDermott decides to do. They’re past the point of being able to acquire much help aside from street free agents who aren’t likely to make much of a ripple at this point. As for Diggs? Not sure how this club would realistically pivot from a cornerstone player – whatever his current level of dissatisfaction (and, it must be noted, Diggs didn’t speak to reporters Monday night) – given an extension he signed roughly 18 months ago is a major reason his team is already $29+ million out of compliance on the 2024 cap.

That championship window remains in place for a highly talented, if currently flawed club awash with topflight players, ample fan support and one of the league’s top five quarterbacks when Allen is right.

But that window may be jammed exactly where it is for the foreseeable future – no matter the amount of WD-40 McDermott applies to a squad that’s only advanced beyond the divisional playoff round once (2020) during his seven-season tenure. And that could be the primary obstacle in a conference ruled by Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs but with an ever-growing contingent of quality challengers joining the stuck-in-neutral Bills.


Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on X, formerly Twitter @ByNateDavis.

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