One week ago, I left for vacation as the Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears met in a preseason game. The Bears played some key starters. The Bills did not. Buffalo came out on top in convincing fashion, winning 41-15. The result means absolutely nothing. What does matter, though, is that the Bills suffered plenty of injury concerns in that contest.
Of Buffalo’s 11 presumed offensive starters (I’m counting the “11” package—three wideouts, one tight end, one running back—as the starting group), only five played: Dawson Knox, Dion Dawkins, Jon Feliciano, Cody Ford, and Devin Singletary. (If you’d like, you can say that Zack Moss played as well and that he might start.) Of the presumed starters on defense, only one—Ed Oliver—played in the game.
For two games, head coach Sean McDermott kept most of his top-end starters like quarterback Josh Allen, wide receivers Stefon Diggs, Emmanuel Sanders, and Cole Beasley, linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds, and the entire starting secondary on the shelf.
“We agree,” I thought. “Since these games mean absolutely nothing, it is absolutely worthless to play your best players in them, even for one snap.”
Then, while I was stuck somewhere on the Garden State Parkway, an alert came across my phone:
In that moment, I could only wonder why McDermott decided to do this. What is the purpose of playing your best players in a meaningless game? The preseason, we’re told, gives players a chance to ramp up for the season. It gives fringe roster players a chance to prove themselves worthy of a roster spot. It gives teams a chance to let players battle for starting jobs.
Why, then, would you put the guys who you know are your best in harm’s way?
The Bills went without a preseason game in 2020. They had a new weapon in Diggs to show off, and a third-year quarterback who had little game experience and loads of question marks after a promising, though inconsistent, second year. Did they show any rust in September of 2020? Were they any worse for wear in the early going last season?
The Bills came out firing, scoring an average of 30.8 points per game in the season’s first quarter. Allen completed 71 percent of his passes for 1,326 yards, 12 touchdowns, and one interception en route to winning AFC Offensive Player of the Month honors for September. No preseason. No “ramp-up.” Just a healthy offense running wild over its first four opponents.
Maybe your argument is that the team needs quality reps together prior to the season beginning in order to “work out the kinks.” Nope, sorry, can’t agree with it. The Bills had zero of those “quality” preseason reps last year on their way to posting the best offensive season in team history. They scored 501 points in 16 regular season games. They didn’t need those reps then, and they certainly don’t need them now, as they return ten of their 11 offensive starters from 2020.
Perhaps you may think that, since everyone was in the same boat last year, not playing your starters in the preseason this year would give the Bills a competitive disadvantage. Since other teams have allowed their starters to see “real bullets flying,” as the cliché goes, Buffalo would look a step slow coming into the first game against the Pittsburgh Steelers without the same kind of competition.
I could grant you that point, but with a caveat: the Bills’ offense practices against one of the league’s best defenses. Every. Single. Day. Josh Allen is squeezing throws in to receivers covered by Tre’Davious White while guys nicknamed Groot, Boogie, and Bam are bearing down on him—and those last three guys probably won’t even start on this team this year!
Ask yourself a question: Who has a better defense, Buffalo or Green Bay? The Packers had a fantastic defensive season last year, ranking No. 13 in points allowed, No. 9 in total yards allowed, and No. 7 in passing yards allowed. They had 41 sacks last year. All of those totals were better than the 2020 Buffalo Bills. Do I think the Packers’ defense is going to be better than Buffalo’s this year? No, I don’t. Are the Packers going to show anything that they intend to run in the regular season in this exhibition game? Absolutely not.
I also don’t think that we learn anything from this game. We’re not worried about Allen’s abilities. We know that Diggs is a stud. We know that Beasley is the best slot receiver in football. We know that Sanders does everything that John Brown can do and more. We know that this defense is a shell of itself without Edmunds and Milano. When the foremost goal is to make sure that you escape the day without any major injuries, it makes playing these top-flight players an even more questionable decision.
Maybe I’m soft. No team wins without creating a culture of winning, so the Bills have to come out and show everyone that they aren’t afraid. While both of those statements might be true, the Bills have already established a culture of winning. Sean McDermott has 38 wins and 26 losses as Buffalo’s head coach. Last year, he joined Lou Saban and Marv Levy as the only head coaches in franchise history to win multiple playoff games with the team. The franchise’s arrow is pointing “up” with or without preseason reps.
Speaking of Marv Levy, he had a habit of barely playing his starters during the preseason. In his tenure as head coach, the Bills only had a winning preseason record once—in 1994. That year, the Bills finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs. The preseason means nothing. The defenses are as bland as plain yogurt. Nathan Peterman looks like an adequate quarterback in these games, for goodness sake.
It’s not the ‘60s anymore. The players aren’t coming back from their offseason jobs needing to work into shape while they’re smoking Pall Malls in the huddle. These guys are fine-tuned professionals who are going to be ready to go when the real games start. There is zero reason to play Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Emmanuel Sanders, Mitch Morse, Dion Dawkins, Jon Feliciano, Cody Ford, Daryl Williams, Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison, Star Lotulelei, Ed Oliver, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Taron Johnson, Tre’Davious White, Levi Wallace, Micah Hyde, or Jordan Poyer in this game.
Hell, you could make the argument that we shouldn’t even see Devin Singletary, or Zack Moss, or Gabriel Davis, or Greg Rousseau, or A.J. Epenesa, or plenty of other guys who are poised to contribute to a Super Bowl-contending team. I won’t fight you. Maybe it’s my overall disdain for the preseason boiling over, but the on-field product was just fine without these exhibition games last year.
So look, Coach McDermott, from one Gaelic John to another, let me speak plainly: this is not a good decision. Let Josh wear his bucket hat on the sidelines while Jake Fromm throws 38 passes. Let Joe Giles-Harris make as many tackles as he can while Tremaine cheers him on. And wouldn’t it be nice to see Mike Love working in harmony with his fellow defensive linemen? There is no reason to play the starters. Let them focus on the main goal, which is beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1 on the way to chasing a Super Bowl Championship.
I’ll be watching the game like all of you on Saturday. And, like always, I’ll be hoping that the Bills escape with no injuries. In a season full of promise, that’s all one can do before the games actually count.