Football’s winning formula has been altered over the years, thanks mostly to rule changes that were geared toward protecting skilled players on offense. Quarterbacks today are protected more than ever, and receivers no longer fear impending decapitation.
The NFL’s deep thinkers claimed continued tweaking the game in the name of player safety Fine, but that was only partially true. Passing is more entertaining than the 3 yards and a cloud of dust that come with a handoff. More passing leads to more points, more fans, more money.
Eight quarterbacks were on pace for 5,000 yards passing through four weeks. Touchdowns and passing touchdowns were on a record pace through four weeks. Television ratings also were on the rise, however slightly, after falling in the previous two seasons.
But with so many offensive geniuses bent on passing – and therefore defensive coordinators who want to stop the pass – it makes you wonder if old-school football still has a place in the new generation of football geniuses.
Can running and stopping the run still work?
Look no further than the Bills’ 13-12 victory over the Titans on Sunday at New Era Field. Buffalo was superb on defense, keeping Tennessee out of the end zone one week after seeing the Bills’ offense get shut out in Green Bay.
LeSean McCoy had 85 yards rushing on 24 carries, matching his season output and surpassing his carries going into the game. Chris Ivory helped bully the Bills into field-goal range for Stephen Hauschka, who drilled a 46-yarder as time expired for the win.
The Bills had been looking to establish an offensive identity through the first four weeks, and they may have inadvertently stumbled upon one Sunday. Buffalo made a conscious effort to run the ball with McCoy, who remains their top weapon despite a terrible start.
McCoy has been the centerpiece of their offense since he arrived from Philadelphia, and not much has changed. OK, so the Bills are playing a different quarterback in Josh Allen, who is younger and less experienced and less effective than the passers who preceded him.
No wonder why the Bills are intent on signing veteran quarterback Derek Anderson, a reliable player who understands how defenses work and can help guide Allen through his first season. The kid needs someone who has played in the league, someone who speaks the same language and understands the challenges ahead.
Allen is a rookie, and with rookies comes inconsistency. It was evident again Sunday. He completed only 10 of 19 passes for 82 yards and an interception Sunday. He misfired on several easy throws. The Bills are lacking talent at wide receiver, which didn’t help matters.
But there are two things the Bills can do that are all about attitude: Run the ball and play defense.
"That was the main focus," McCoy said. "Get the offensive line going, running the ball, throwing the ball to me, using Chris in there in different packages. Making the game a lot easier for Josh, easy reads, running the ball. ... That was kind of the game plan. Let the defense do their thing."
The most bewildering aspect of the Bills’ loss to the Packers last weekend wasn’t Allen throwing that mind-numbing pass that was intercepted before halftime or his receivers’ failure to get open. It was McCoy getting five carries against a Green Bay team that was vulnerable to the run.
Buffalo reached into the 1970s for its playbook Sunday to beat Tennessee. The Bills made a commitment to the running game and controlled the clock while the defense did the rest. They rushed for 144 yards on the day, including Allen’s 14-yard touchdown run.
"It starts up front," Bills coach Sean McDermott said. "Both backs, I thought, played extremely well. The combination of LeSean and Chris: I like the personality that Chris gives us in terms of physical style. It was a good 1-2 punch for us."
Allen hasn’t been around the NFL long enough to put the offense on his broad shoulders. He’s trying to learn on the fly. The Bills are better off bringing him along by placing him in suitable situations and not asking him to win games with his arm.
McCoy is 30 years old and closer to the end of his career to the beginning. But he can still be effective when given the time and space to wiggle around defenses. He’s making more than $8 million per year. If the Bills decide to trade him, they can show he’s still valuable.
Common sense suggests the Bills’ running attack should counter teams that spend their time and resources trying to stop better passing attacks across the NFL. Meanwhile, they can rely on their defense to keep them in games against teams that are built to stop the pass.
Sean McDermott has talked numerous times about building a culture, a collective mindset in which the Bills determine how games are going to be played in the coming years. They took the initiative Sunday by running the ball and playing aggressive, attacking defense.
The Bills don’t possess the talent across their roster to make the playoffs, which is something McDermott and GM Brandon Beane are trying to change before next season. If the Bills are going down this season, the least they could do is go down fighting.
The Titans aren’t exactly an elite team, but they had a 3-1 record after beating Jacksonville and Philadelphia in consecutive weeks. Many are picking the Jags to win the Super Bowl, which the Eagles won last season. Tennessee realized early Sunday that it was in for a tough game.
That, alone, would have been construed as a victory in itself for Buffalo considering the way the season started. The blowout loss to Baltimore seemed like a game of the distant past. Funny, but the Bills needed to reach into the distant past Sunday. And they won.
Guess what. it still works.