The NFL preseason is officially over, and the regular season begins on Thursday night. Players and coaches in every NFL city will talk about how ready they are for the games to begin, perhaps none more than those employed by the Buffalo Bills.
They have to be feeling like they’ve waited longer than anyone, through the bumps and bruises of the wackiest offseason for an NFL team since last year’s San Francisco 49ers, who set a bar that seemed like it couldn’t be matched.
The Bills have at least come close, maybe not in collateral damage to the franchise but at least in terms of the time and reach of their chaos. It’s been a ride filled with one pothole after another, and in the time it took to write it all down, right tackle Seantrel Henderson has been suspended four games for substance abuse — because of the medication he was taking to battle Crohn’s disease.
Some of it has been just this seemingly well-intentioned, such as when Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland fell to them in the second round. He appeared to be an ideal fit for coach Rex Ryan’s 3-4 scheme — only to tear an ACL in training camp. He’ll join first-round outside linebacker Shaq Lawson in the trainer’s room for much of the year, as Lawson recovers from a shoulder surgery the Bills knew was coming before the draft.
Buffalo entered the offseason with all hopes of it being a timid and uneventful one, even if a coaching staff that would add a second Ryan brother had very little chance of that actually playing out. With just $4.5 million in cap space available, even after the release of embattled defensive end Mario Williams, the Bills weren’t in a position to add to a roster that went 8-8 in Ryan’s first season in town, and they pretty much didn’t — not even through the draft, thanks to the injuries.
They’ve instead seen some of the talent they did have whittle away, largely by its own accord. Four-game suspensions for substance abuse came the way of Pro Bowl defensive end Marcell Dareus and running back Karlos Williams. Williams also ballooned to a poor playing weight in the offseason, which led the Bills to show him the door.
The Bills certainly tried desperately to hold onto the foundation they did have, that smash-mouthed running approach that’s going out of style these days. They nailed down extensions for left tackle Cordy Glenn, left guard Richie Incognito and quarterback Tyrod Taylor, making sure their identity at least wouldn’t slip away with everything else.
They have watched some of it teeter dangerously. Running back LeSean McCoy was involved in a brawl outside a Philadelphia nightclub that had him under the threat of criminal charges and league suspension before the city dropped the case. It’s a good thing, considering his backup is gone and the team’s fifth-round pick, former Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams, was arrested on a DUI charge this offseason.
Had something more happened with McCoy, the Bills might have been hard pressed to sustain at the part of their game they’re counting on to succeed more than any other. That’s sometimes where things can get worse, such as when Ryan showed support for Donald Trump at a local rally, only for his ownership to distance itself from the idea, or when general manager Doug Whaley said in a radio interview that humans weren’t meant to play football, the game he employs humans to play.
So the Bills can be thankful the season is here and that the AFC East appears more vulnerable than it has been in quite some time. All their opponents have lost something valuable. The Jets lost overpowering nose tackle Damon Harrison, long-time left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and 1,000-yard running back Chris Ivory. The Dolphins lost defensive end Olivier Vernon and running back Lamar Miller, both rising stars. The Patriots lost a court case, and with it, four games for quarterback Tom Brady. And yet, none of them can rival the total net loss of what the Bills have experienced in just a few months.
Soon enough, they’ll get to talk about battles in the trenches rather than brawls in the street. They’ll lose games on a football field rather than players at the NFL commissioner’s office. It’ll all feel real for once, rather than the bad dream they’re still trying to escape.