2020 AFC East Preview: Winds of Change

When Tom Brady signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason the winds of change swept through the AFC East. The stranglehold Bill Belichick and Brady had was finally broken and teams began anew with dreams of storming the Patriots castle. Most notably the Buffalo Bills who were in the playoffs for the 2nd time in 3 years.

The Bills arrive with the NFL’s #3 ranked defense and added former Viking wideout Stefon Diggs to bolster the offense.  Josh Allen has the keys to the offense and RB Devin Singletary is the engine that powers this team forward. Will they emerge as division champions as many pundits believe?

2020 AFC East Predictions

  1. New England Patriots 11-5*
  2. Buffalo Bills 10-6**
  3. Miami Dolphins 6-10
  4. New York Jets 5-11

Not so fast as the Patriots will become a surprise division champion as Belichick and Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels will coax a turnaround season from Cam Newton. The former NFL MVP allows New England a solid weapon in the running game and will be able to work in a more traditional offense and some two tight ends. He has a spectacular young wideout in former ASU star N’Keal Harry and an underrated Jakobi Meyers. These two 2nd year players will benefit from Julian Edelman still in the slot to move the chains.

Singletary should have a 1,200 yard season in 2020.

In upstate New York the Bills have to get more out of Josh Allen as a downfield passer. He has to show the ability to get through his progressions and revert to running as a 3rd option in a make or break season. His fight or flight mechanics were highlighted in last year’s wild card loss. He has to get the ball into the endzone and not rely on field goals and get his defense a cushion.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, right, hands off the ball to Bills running back Zack Moss during an NFL football training camp in Orchard Park, N.Y., Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (James P. McCoy/The Buffalo News via AP, Pool)

One of the issues is the Bills didn’t step up and take one of the games against New England last year.  Each were in reach and they just couldn’t seize it. That came back to haunt them in why the Bills gave up a 16-0 lead in the wildcard game and couldn’t maintain it. They can’t assume they will win the division just because Brady is gone. The Bills have to learn to seize the opportunity and not expect to default into a division championship.

This team also lost a lot of leadership with the retirement of LB Lorenzo Alexander, RB Frank Gore, and DE Shaq Lawson. New leaders have to emerge for Buffalo to take that next step and why they will be in a wildcard slot again.

Aug 26, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) attempts a pass during training camp at Baptist Health Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Dolphins are building on the momentum of their 3-2 finish which included a win in New England in the finale. The future looks bright with the drafting of QB Tua Tagovailoa.  The team has brought in RB Matt Breida, and RB Jordan Howard to keep Ryan Fitzpatrick upright as well. He just doesn’t have the tools to move the ball downfield. The team drafted mostly defense to be better prepared to have a defense minded team when Tagovailoa takes over later in the year. Its only a matter of time.

Never underestimate Belichick and the NFL’s #1 defense as he is the best teacher of situational football in league history. He will coax another division championship in New England and Cam will be NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

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Legends of The Fall: When Auburn Running Backs Ruled the NFL

In the annals of college football there was a time where USC had earned the moniker “Tailback U”. Then in the late 80s Oklahoma St churned out back to back Pro Football Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders. Yet go back another decade and you’ll have a hard time topping the talent Auburn sent to the NFL over a 10 year period.

From 1979 -1989 William Andrews, Joe Cribbs, James Brooks, Lionel “Litte Train” James, and Bo Jackson took the NFL by storm. While each touched a level of greatness during this era none would make it to the hallowed halls of Canton. Although injuries derailed 2 of these promising careers right at their zenith.

Of this list most think of Bo Jackson as the leading ground gainer who lost his prime to an injury. Not true the 1st of our super backs who had their career cut short was the punishing William Andrews. He’s the man that began this era of excellence unexpectedly as a 3rd round pick by the Atlanta Falcons in the ’79 draft.

To offer some context consider Andrews was the powerful fullback blocking for the shifty and elusive Joe Cribbs and James Brooks. In ’78 Cribbs led the Tigers with 1,278 yards while Brooks spelled him gaining 514 more. Andrews was the 3rd choice with the fewest carries at 72.

He exploded onto the NFL scene rushing for 1,023 yards in his rookie campaign in ’79. Then followed it up with back to back 1,300 yards seasons in ’80 & ’81 yet came to be known as the running back who once knocked out Hall of Fame hitter Ronnie Lott. We don’t have that hit but we do have one encounter on a Monday Night fans everywhere remember during that era…

By 1983 Andrews had supplanted Hall of Fame Member Earl Campbell as the NFL’s premier power back. His ’83 rushing total of 1,567 yards stood as a team record until Jamal Anderson broke it in 1998. He was 2nd in the league in rushing to another Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson. It was the 2nd time Andrews gained over 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 3 years. Yet he was derailed with a knee injury that shortened a potential trip to Canton.

Take a look at how lethal he was both running and receiving from 79-83.

  • 79 – 239 car. 1,023 yds 3TDs / 39 rec. 309 yds 2TDs
  • 80 – 265 car. 1,308 yds 4TDs / 51 rec. 456yds 1TD
  • 81 – 287 car. 1,301 yds 10TDs / 81 rec. 735 yds 2 TDs
  • 82 – 139 car. 573 yds 2TDs (strike shortened year)
  • 83 – 331 car. 1,562 yds 7 TDs / 59 rec. 609 yds 4TDs

Andrews was either 1st or 2nd team All Pro 4 straight years and was in the Pro Bowl as well from 80-83. Guess who joined him in Hawaii for 3 of those Pro Bowls in ’80, ’81 and ’83?? Former “War Eagle” backfield mate Joe Cribbs. Do you realize in 1980 these former backfield mates wound up the #4 (Andrews 1,308 yds) and #6 (Cribbs 1,185 yds) rushers in the NFL??

In ’80 Cribbs blossomed into the AFC’s Rookie of the Year as he was the sparkplug in the Bills 1st division championship dating back to 1966. Cribbs juked his way to 1,185 yards rushing 11 TDs while gaining another 415 yards on 52 receptions. Quite simply he was Thurman Thomas before Thurman Thomas as he was a threat out of the backfield. He tortured linebackers trying to cover him.

Check out the move on the 1st vid at the 2:32 mark when he rushes for a 16 yard TD against New England. He makes 4 unblocked Patriots miss in a phone booth… just sick…

While being a Bills fan up close, it’s hard to choose between his rookie year or his 2nd year as his best. Both years the Bills were in the playoffs and in ’81 he rushed for 1,097 yards and only 3 TDs but made up for it with 7 TD receptions and another 603 yards on 40 receptions. He flashed on big play after big play as a the Bills rose to prominence challenging the NFL’s elite.

Amazingly Cribbs and Andrews were rarely used as receivers at Auburn and they’re game fully maturing on the NFL level is what elevated both. Auburn in ’78 completed just 5 passes a game in a run heavy offense.

Ironically this was the role James Brooks also found himself as the 3rd down back in his rookie season with “Air Coryell” in ’81. Chuck Muncie was the feature back and he scored an NFL record 19TDs rushing. Brooks was the change of pace scatback who recorded 46 receptions for 329 yards and 3 TDs and had to fit in where he could. He only ran the ball 109 times for 525 yards but had a whopping 4.8 yard average.

He was the AFC’s leading punt returner in 1981 and led the NFL in kickoff return yardage in 1982… so of course you’re asking “How is that dominant at the pro level?”

With a potential contract dispute looming, he was traded to the Cincinnati Bengals in 1984. His 2nd season in the Queen City saw him improve with 929 yards rushing and 7 TDs. Out of the backfield he caught 55 aerials for 576 yards and crossed the goal line 5 more times.

Over the next 5 seasons Brooks would make the Pro Bowl as a runner 4 times while being selcted All Pro in the same seasons. He had 3 1,000 yard season and in 1988 finished with 931 yards. Had he gained another 69 he and Ickey Woods (1,066) would have been just the 4th set of 1,000 yard rushers in the same backfield in a season. Brooks and Woods powered the #1 offense to Super Bowl XXIII that year.

His 1989 season of 1,239 yards rushing was the most in Bengals history up to that point. Corey Dillon broke it in 2000. Try this vignette:

So if you’re keeping score, between 1980 and 1990, these 3 running backs accounted for 11 Pro Bowls, 11 All Pro selections, a Super Bowl appearance (Brooks XXIII) and 10 – 1,000 yard campaigns. Each saw success as the Bills and Falcons twice made it to the divisional round of the playoffs and 1 trip to the AFC Championship Game with Brooks in ’81.

While these men were killing it on the NFL level, Bo Jackson and Lionel “train” James were the new set of Auburn backs to make names for themselves. James was thought of to be too small for the NFL standing at 5’6 and 171 lbs soaking wet. Yet he would have to make a name on special teams and spot duty in the backfield.

As a rookie in ’84 James led the NFL in kick returns (49) and kick return yards (949) to prove he belonged. Of course you’re asking “How is that dominating in the NFL?” Well…then came 1985…

In a season where Roger Craig became the first 1,000/1,000 yard performer both rushing and receiving & led the NFL with 92 receptions out of the backfield. Guess who was 3rd with 86 receptions 1,027 yards and 6 TDs? “Little Train” James. He actually outgained the more celebrated Craig in yardage 1,027 – 1,016. This was an NFL record for receiving yards out of the backfield.

However by the time you add James 516 yds on 105 carries & 949 yards on 43 kickoffs, he set an NFL All Purpose Yardage record with 2,535 yards. This didn’t count another 205 yards on punt returns!

His reception yardage record didn’t fall until 1999 when Marshall Faulk broke it with 1,048. His all purpose yardage mark stood until 2000 when Derrick Mason of the Titans broke it. Do you realize James’ ’85 season still ranks 4th in history?? He’s been gone from the NFL 31 years. His last season with the Chargers was 1988.

His best game ever?? His 345 yard performance against the LA Raiders where he won it in overtime:

By the way… that was the 2nd most all purpose yardage in a game in NFL/AFL history. In a brief 5 year career… James could fly. His 1985 was so dominant that it changed the Pro Bowl voting as the following year special team kick returner was added to the vote. In 1986 Bobby Joe Edmonds of Seattle became the 1st voted in but we know who’s play created that spot. Lionel James!

Bo powering past perennial all pro Cornelius Bennett of Buffalo.

Then we finish with the Heisman winning Bo Jackson. He was so great that 30 years later we’re still watching Bo Knows in a 30 for 30 documentary of what could have been. He shocked the world when he didn’t play for Tampa who drafted him in ’85 and we know of his baseball and football exploits. When he came back to “take on another hobby” in ’87 with the Raiders, it didnt sit well with a young Chancellor. It seemed arrogant and then we saw what happened on the Monday Night in Seattle:

Yikes! Bo can do whatever the hell he wants. To watch him just dust Hall of Famer Kenny Easley who had the angle on him… I was done. Apparently so was the rest of America. For the next 4 years every football season began with “When is Bo coming over from baseball?” He had other great games but not as electric as that Monday Night.

In 1990 Bo Jackson became the 1st backup to ever make the Pro Bowl as he ran for just 698 yards and 5 TDs. League wide respect poured out over what he could do if he turned to football full time. He was an adonis with sprinter speed that made the best athletes in the world view his exploits in awe.

But alas … we never saw Bo get to full potential as he went out with a fractured and dislocated hip in a 1990 AFC divisional playoff against Cincinnati. He never played again.

“Little Train” James had knee injries slow a once promising career that lasted just 5 seasons.

None of these men will make the Pro Football Hall of Fame but each left an indelible mark on the NFL of the 1980s. They arrived on the scene and turned lesser than franchises into teams that contended for championships. What was remarkable was how complete these backs were catching the ball out of the backfield when they rarely exhibited this in college.

This was one of the great runs from one school in NFL history. Even USC’s best was really OJ Simpson and Marcus Allen. Two Hall of Famers that came out 12 years apart in ’68 and ’81 respectively. Not a series of game changing backs.

To think that 3 players out of the same ’78 Auburn Tiger backfield, Andrews, Brooks, & Cribbs would go on to produce 27,771 yards from scimmage and 162 TDs in the NFL is nothing short of brilliant. Especially with Andrews and Cribbs having brief careers.

An era of dominance to be remembered for all time.

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SUPER BOWL XXVIII RUNNER UP 1993 BUFFALO BILLS

The jewel for 4th AFC Championship ….after beating Kansas City with Joe Montana, Marcus Allen, Neil Smith, and the late Derrick Thomas 30-13 to make it to Super Bowl XXVIII.

xxviiibRemember the chant going around Rich Stadium “Piss ’em off and go for 4??” It brings back goose bumps.  It was on T-Shirts, Jim Kelly said it on the air…was a great rallying cry.  USA Today had a headline please don’t let the Bills make it to the Super Bowl…etc…

xxviiib1I remember they asked Stephen Hawking right before Super Bowl XXVIII to calculate how long would it be for a team to make it to 4 Super Bowls in a row again.  He gave his explanation with the current (then) landscape of 28 teams and projected free agency, it wouldn’t happen again for another 46 years.  I wonder how that number is skewed now with 32 teams with the advent of the Texans, Ravens, Jaguars, and Panthers.

xxviii3Still its a feat to be celebrated.  I wish we would have brought home the BIG ring but my boyz were still a team to be lauded for their resilient effort.  Isn’t that the essence of sports and life?  Once you get knocked down get back up and go after it again…that’s the axiom!  Of course you’d like to win but its your effort that’s celebrated.

xxviiib2One final look back takes us to Jim Kelly’s debut back in 1986. His inspiring fans to think of a brighter future for long suffering Bills fans.

In a strange way its because MY Buffalo Bills kept getting up and going after it is why I remember them with such reverence even more so had they just gone to 1 and won it.

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SUPER BOWL XXVII RUNNER UP 1992 BUFFALO BILLS

Now that is a nice AFC Championship ring for the 3rd AFC Championship…

Man I should have been at Super Bowl XXVII in Pasadena.  Got robbed in a sales contest at the dealership I worked in…had the tickets and airfare right there and.. Phukk Aaron…yet I digress.

 

xxvii23The Greatest comeback in history a few weeks before in the wildcard..41-38 over Houston.  Then bested Pittsburgh 24-3 in Bill Cowher’s first playoff game as Steelers coach.  Then beat the arch rival Dolphins, in Miami, for the AFC Championship game 29-10! I can remember many Bills fans torn about who should we start at quarterback: Frank Reich, who orchestrated those first 2 playoff wins or Jim Kelly!  I was torn myself thinking maybe go with Reich to shake things up a bit since we lost two Super Bowls prior and Dallas would have limited film to study..hmmmm what if?

Yet one of the strongest Bills team ever and I know I’m not alone in celebrating how euphoric it was winning that greatest comeback in history 41-38 over Houston. Celebrating that as a fan was like we had won a SuperBowl. Marv Levy was quoted in ’92 “Where it feels surreal and is this really happening? Most of the time when you’re making history you don’t realize it at the time. In this instance we did.”  I must have watched that game 10 times that week. That was the most uplifting game ever..work was great for the next few weeks, my girlfriend kissed better..etc…I don’t think you could find a Bills fan that didn’t feel that way also.

xxvii2Back to back Super Bowl losses had many fans and pundits writing off the Bills. How would they recover?? Yet all these players were in their prime and led by unsung leaders like LB Darryl Talley, they dusted themselves off and came right back in 1992. During this season they were 4-0 against the NFC west including a 38-35 win in San Francisco vs. the 49ers who went 14-2. Good enough for homefield advantage in the NFC. Going into the final week the Bills were ready to clinch homefield in the AFC for a 3rd straight year when:

So in 6 quarters the Oilers had outscored the Bills 62-6 before the comeback if you included the previous week.The Bills were playing with house money the rest of that postseason. The 52-17 loss to the Cowboys was painful but the euphoric high all Bills had been on for the previous month tempered the pain.  No one shared what we had felt because no other team had ever come from that far down when it looked like the season was over.  It left all Bills fans optimistic going into 1993.

That wildcard win was a gift from the football gods.

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SUPER BOWL XXVI RUNNER UP 1991 BUFFALO BILLS

Man was I nervous going into Super Bowl XXVI…I remembered the last game of 1990 (the year before) when Buffalo rested many starters yet were manhandled on the line of scrimmage in a loss to the Redskins 29-14 in old RFK Stadium. It was surrrreal with the Super Bowl in freezing Minneapolis the following season.

 

xxviThe Buffalo Bills were the scourge of the AFC, with NFL MVP and Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas. 1991 was an excercise in getting back to the SuperBowl.  Fellow Hall of Famer Jim Kelly and the “K-Gun” was operating at full speed with Hall of Famer James Lofton, and soon to be H.O.F. Andre Reed this was the “Greatest Show on Turf” before the “Greatest Show on Turf”.  Kelly threw for nearly 4,000 yds and 33 TDs, while Thomas led the NFL with 1407 yds rushing and led the NFL with total yards from scrimmage on his way to leading in that category 4 yrs in a row to break Jim Brown’s record of 3 straight.  Add to that 2 different 1,000 yd receivers and this team was scoring like Madden football on rookie.

super-bowl-logo-1991The Bills were second to only Washington in scoring which was perfect since Bruce Smith was injured most of the year with a bad knee (missing 11 games). Without the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year the defense dropped to no. 19 in total defense yet still posted a  13-3 record.  Cornelius Bennett and Darryl Talley picked up much of the slack with each having All Pro seasons. The 1991 season saw the AFC take steps to catch the fast paced Bills but couldnt’ do it as the Chiefs and Broncos fell during the playoffs.  The Bills lost SS Leonard Smith with a knee injury before SuperBowl XXVI just as Bruce Smith was returning from his.

Alas the defense couldn’t hold up against the Hogs and the Redskins top scoring offense and fell 37-24 in Minneapolis. Coming up short in back to back Super Bowls normally sees a team descend quickly from the elite. Buffalo would be different. This championship ring was the jewel earned for that stellar, almost super season.

SUPER BOWL XXV RUNNER UP 1990 BUFFALO BILLS

As the 90’s dawned we had a few teams that had been playoff staples during the 80’s and a few new teams coming of age. In the Buffalo Bills you had a team come of age as blue chip talent had been stockpiled in recent years. In the pre-free agent era you had to build a team through the draft. Just like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys of the 1970’s, the Bills sought to construct a champion brick by brick.

sb xxv2Defensive End Bruce Smith and WR Andre Reed came aboard in 1985. Jim Kelly agreed to terms after the USFL dissolved in 1986. Linebackers Shane Conlan and Cornelius Bennett were added along with CB Nate Odomes joined ranks in ’87. Aggressive veteran SS  Leonard Smith came in with 2nd round RB Thurman Thomas in ’88 as the Bills made the playoffs for the 1st time in 7 years.

The ’88 season saw a 12-4 Bills team with the NFL’s #4 defense make it to the AFC Championship Game. Although they lost 21-10 to Cincinnati, they were definitely a team on the rise. Yet injuries and infighting nearly brought the team down in ’89 as they became known as the “Bickering Bills”. They only finished with a 9-7 record and lost 34-30 to Cleveland in an amazing divisional playoff game.

sb25gnts2However a light went on for the ultra conservative Bills offensively. In week 3 they fell behind big in Houston. Kelly brought the Bills back with a 5 TD performance, a 47-41 win. In his USFL days, Kelly ran a Run & Shoot with the Houston Gamblers and looked most comfortable playing this style with a No Huddle offense. They unveiled it late in the season and won the AFC East before falling to Cleveland.

Kelly threw for 405 yards and 4 TDs. Thomas had come of age in the playoff loss with a record 13 receptions for 150 yards and 2 TDs. It capped a breakout year that saw Thomas run for 1,244 yards and 6 TDs. In 1990, several vets were let go and Darryl Talley, Kelly, Smith, Reed, Thomas, Lofton, and Bennett would have to take on leadership roles for the departed DE Art Stills, NT Fred Smerlas, OT Joe Devlin, then RBs Robb Riddick and Larry Kinnebrew. Would their new “No Huddle” K-Gun keep scoring at will?? After a 13-3 record secured home field advantage:

Alas Scott Norwood’s field goal sailed wide right and the best team the AFC had in years fell 20-19. The only team to lose the NFL championship by 1 point. However the Bills were a young team in their prime and they would be back. They would go on to be one of the league’s most galvanized teams. The infighting of ’89 was in the distant past.

me-thurman-hof.jpgHead Coach Marv Levy, GM Bill Polian, QB Jim Kelly, RB Thurman Thomas, WR Andre Reed, WR James Lofton, and DE Bruce Smith all made the Pro Football Hall of Fame

chancellor.lofton (2)Epilogue: When a long sought after quarterback finally joined the Bills in 1986, starved fans chanted for Jim Kelly to take the lowly Bills to the Super Bowl.

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