The Buffalo Bills hit a new low on Monday night. In a game nearing must-win territory, a shocking 24-22 home loss to the previously 3-5 Broncos has left the Bills organization and fan base in utter disbelief.
Once again, a backbreaking loss brings more questions about a team whose playoff chances are as bleak as they’ve been since 2018.
It begins with what is quickly becoming the glaring characteristic of the 2023 season — the overall failures of the offense and growing discontent for what was once the very reason the Bills became a potential Super Bowl contender in previous seasons.
The Ken Dorsey conundrum
After yet another uneven offensive performance in Cincinnati — the Bills’ fifth straight — the tone after the game seemed to change. There were some good things done, but the overwhelming conclusion was that things needed to change. Execution was occasionally lacking from a player perspective, and the Bills offense was once again predictable. But even with that wake-up call, the Bills stayed the course with offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. Deciding to stick with Dorsey after that game was something that could wind up defining their year, for better or for worse. Now after Monday night, with yet another game featuring an uneven offensive performance, late-game play sequencing that felt slightly forced and as though they were flying by the seat of their pants and the lack of overall sharp quality necessary, Dorsey’s job status continues to be top of mind.
At this point, it isn’t a particularly new conversation. The simple fact is the team has not been happy with their offensive performance for 80 percent of their games this season, and maybe even more than that. The only signs of the offense reaching their true potential came in the second half against the Raiders in Week 2, and in the takedown of the Dolphins in Week 4. That win over Miami appears to be the mirage of the season, though, as the Bills have proved time and time again that something is missing. Whether it’s player execution, scheme or a lack of attention to detail, the Bills have been consistently inconsistent all year.
Josh Allen looks like a shell of himself at times this season, lacking the very dynamic and vibrant quality that made him one of the best quarterbacks in the league. There are no excuses. Allen is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, or at least he should be playing like one. The Bills have the best pass-protecting offensive line they’ve ever assembled in front of Allen. Stefon Diggs and Dalton Kincaid are two outstanding pass catchers, and they even got some production out of the run game. But with the inconsistency continuing, it all points back to Dorsey. Perhaps not everything, like drops, fumbles or poor throws are his direct fault. But a big part of the job is empowering the players and getting their peak performances out of them week in and out. Dorsey is failing at that, and the same goes for the predictability of his play calls.
Justin Simmons INT! The @Broncos defense has back-to-back takeaways.
— NFL (@NFL) November 14, 2023
Speaking of Allen, following the game, he looked a man lost at sea. He sat at the post-game press conference next to center Mitch Morse, who did most of the talking. During each Morse answer, Allen looked straight ahead, not looking at anything in particular. Once the press conference ended, Allen didn’t get back to his locker for a good while. When he finally arrived, still in full uniform, he bowled himself into his locker, slumped to the back wall and grabbed for his phone. But before the moment of pure dejection, one particular answer of his stood out when he was asked why he believed the offense could break out of a nearly season-long slump.
“Because we’ve done it before,” Allen said, alluding to their past successes. It’s been a familiar refrain from the quarterback for the better part of a year now.
But, notably, coach Sean McDermott had a different view of it.
“It’s been the better part of through 10 games now,” McDermott said when asked of the faith that they’d turn it around because of previous successes. “I’ve seen the inconsistencies through 10 games. And so, that’s really where, to me, the honest evaluation right now is.”
The frustration from McDermott following the game was palpable. If the tone after the Bengals game was firmer than it had been, his message after the Broncos game has been the strongest yet. At 5-5, McDermott likely senses the season is slipping out of their control and much of it has been self-inflicted. Time is running out, and there’s only so much he can change before they fall short of the playoffs. And you couldn’t help but hear the message through the words McDermott said Monday night.
He made multiple allusions to poor field position, turnovers, and the overall offensive picture being not good enough.
“I thought at times we moved the ball. Not enough though,” McDermott said of their performance outside of the turnovers. “I think it could have been better. I really do.”
And that’s where the conversation drifts back to Dorsey. The Bills are now 5-5, and despite a slew of injuries, the defense has not been the overwhelming problem. They’ve been starving for Allen and the offense to take over games against some beatable opponents, and they’ve failed to do so. With their season on the line over a gauntlet of games against the Jets, Eagles, Chiefs, Cowboys and Chargers, the only move McDermott may have to inject life into his, at times, listless offense is to move on from Dorsey. Even if Dorsey isn’t the whole problem, sometimes any kind of big change can be a catalyst for improved results, and, at the very least, a fresh perspective.
“I need a little bit of time. Obviously I’m not happy right now,” McDermott said when asked if drastic measures need to be taken to help the offense. “I’ll evaluate that over the next 24 hours and see where it takes us.”
Then when the coach was asked more directly about the confidence level in Dorsey, it varied from his response just a few weeks ago in New England when he succinctly replied that he was “very confident” in Dorsey moving forward.
“I’m confident, but I believe we can be better at the same time,” McDermott said.
This Broncos game was supposed to be the one for the Bills to get back on track. It’s the get-right game that has pushed them forward so many times in previous seasons. But just like McDermott’s lack of faith that the offense would improve just because the Bills had done it before, this is proving to be a far different season than their last four playoff years. And now, with a short week ahead of their Sunday afternoon game against the New York Jets, decision time may be upon the Bills. From the performances, the frustration level, how it’s looked and sounded and an underlying desire to save the season before it slips away, potentially moving on from Dorsey as the offensive coordinator feels as possible a scenario as it ever has.
“The tough conversations are going to be had because we’re not taking the field next Sunday here at 4 o’clock or 4:15, whenever it starts, without those tough conversations,” McDermott said. “That’s just not how I do things.”
Dorsey watch is on, and with the quick track to the Jets game, it could make for a very interesting next 24 hours in Orchard Park.
With McDermott’s consistent references to turnovers and fumbling the ball, second-year running back James Cook may have opened the door completely for someone to take his hold on the top job. Cook responded well to his early fumble, but once he put the ball on the ground again — with the fortune of it bouncing right back to him in running stride — McDermott made his feelings well known. The coach simply said they “can’t have it” and holding on to the ball is “part of the job description.” Cook already has some competition from 33-year-old Latavius Murray, who has struggled much of the season. However, the time for practice squad running back Leonard Fournette to debut may be quickly approaching. The 28-year-old Fournette already has two weeks of getting to know the playbook, and it wouldn’t be a surprise for him to be active against the Jets on Sunday. And given his blend of between-the-tackles, pass protection and pass-catching skills, Fournette could easily assume a prominent role given all the uneven results and fumbling issues.
New defensive wrinkle helped stymie the Broncos
The Bills defense deserves plenty of credit for how well they did without five usual defensive starters. They repeatedly faced shortened fields but stood up to the test, and kept giving the Bills offense chances to wake up. They’ve varied up their approach since the Matt Milano injury, but McDermott added a new wrinkle on Monday. On some obvious passing downs, the Bills subbed out one of their defensive tackles to go with just a three-man front, and subbed in linebacker Dorian Williams. This was in addition to their dime look with three safeties, three cornerbacks and middle linebacker Terrel Bernard. The Bills utilized this personnel grouping twice at the end of the first half and liked it so much that they used it nine more times in the second half. They were successful with it early, to the point that they made it their approach for the first handful of plays with the game on the line ahead 22-21. It may not have a long-lasting effect and could have been specific to only the Broncos, but it was another creative utilization of personnel in the face of all their injuries.
A telling barometer of Von Miller’s progress
The Bills have kept things realistic with 34-year-old pass rusher Von Miller in his return from a torn ACL. Many have said they see Miller is making strides every week to become the player he was before the injury, inspiring confidence within the building that he can find that return to form. But with the game on the line, and the Bills in obvious pass-rushing situations every snap while ahead 22-21, Miller was nowhere to be found on the field. The Bills instead went with a three-man rotation, using two of Leonard Floyd, Greg Rousseau and A.J. Epenesa on any given snap. Miller has not been an impactful pass rusher since his return to action, and in a specific game situation where in normal times he’d be expected to help close the game, he instead watched from the sidelines. The more weeks that this low-usage continues, the more concern mounts over his potential effectiveness once deemed at 100 percent.
Bills MVP: DE Leonard Floyd – He was everywhere for a defense that had every excuse to surrender more points than they did.
Bills LVP: The entire offense – The longer this continues, the more it feels like something needs to change.
Up Next: The Bills attempt to avoid dipping below .500 for the season, at home, against the very Jets team that beat them in Week 1.
(Top photo of Josh Allen: Mark Konezny / USA Today)