• The Bills are not tanking—the players have made that clear—but as the Panthers showed on Sunday, Buffalo will not win games if their offensive star is effectively shut down.
By Jonathan Jones
September 19, 2017

LeSean McCoy was more than willing to put the Bills’ first loss of 2017 squarely on his shoulders.

Even though the Buffalo held Cam Newton and the re-tooled Panthers to just three field goals and zero touchdowns, it wasn’t enough to keep Buffalo undefeated for another week. Rookie receiver Zay Jones had the ball in his hands before dropping the potential game-winning touchdown, and McCoy, the two-time All Pro and five-time Pro Bowler, had 12 carries for nine yards in his worst rushing performance since 2010. 

“I just… I didn’t play good. Simple as that. I played like a bum today,” McCoy told The MMQB at his locker. “Credit to them because they did a good job. But this team relies on me to get it going on offense. I’m a big playmaker and I did nothing today.”

Through two games this season, the Panthers’ defense has given up the fewest amount of yards in the league, and they’re the first team in seven years to not allow a touchdown through Week 2. Still, McCoy’s lack of effectiveness was jarring given his history—and especially when compared to the previous week’s 110-yard show against the Jets.

“We all have to do better but he’s a guy, how do I put it, he’s a guy who puts a lot of himself,” teammate Mike Tolbert says. “He is the guy. He’s the star running back. He’s the guy that when the running game looks bad or the offense looks bad, he puts it on himself. It’s not his fault that we didn’t execute today, but at the same time I get it and I understand it.”

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These Bills are not constructed to win without a big day from McCoy. Since the start of the 2015 season, when Philadelphia traded McCoy in exchange for linebacker Kiko Alonso, the Bills have won 15 games. Only four of those wins have come when McCoy didn’t reach 100 yards rushing.

Though McCoy did grab six passes for 34 yards, his disappearance in the run game doomed a Buffalo team dealing with a limited passing attack. His longest rush went for seven yards, and six of his 12 carries gained zero or negative yardage.

On top of that, the schedule shouldn’t inspire optimism in the next two weeks. The Bills get the Broncos (who just held Ezekiel Elliott to nine rushes for eight yards) next week followed by the Falcons (who bottled up Ty Montgomery Sunday night for 35 yards).

Should the odds play out, the Bills will be 1–3 after that, which is about where prognosticators had them in a season many have dubbed a rebuilding year.

“As players, we play. It’s their job to put the team together. We’ve got a lot of veterans on this team, so I wouldn’t call us as much of a rebuild as people may think,” McCoy says. “Some may think it is but I don’t think so. We have enough guys in here who get it done.”

Since trading away Sammy Watkins in August, many assumed this season would be a rebuild for Buffalo. With a first-year (and first-time) head coach, a first-year (and first-time) general manager, a quarterback in whom no one seems invested and a promise of patience from the owner, that seems to be coming true. The team’s biggest star is a 29-year-old former rushing title holder.

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The idea of a rebuild is intertwined with the notion of tanking—that a team can’t successfully build for the future if they don’t hit rock bottom first. We have seen it in the NBA with the 76ers, saw it for the past two seasons with the Browns and will be treated to it for 14 more Sundays with the Jets.

That doesn’t seem to be the case with these Bills, though. McCoy, Lorenzo Alexander, Richie Incognito and Kyle Williams all made the Pro Bowl last year, and center Eric Wood is one year separated from the honor. They traded a name in cornerback Ronald Darby for a better fit in E.J. Gaines, and safety Jordan Poyer has been one of the best at his position in the league through two weeks.

“That’s the weirdest thing. Yeah it’s a rebuild. What’s that mean, that we’re tanking? That’s part of what a GM does is look to future and current. That’s what his role is. I don’t understand what the issue is,” Alexander says.

“Tanking is so disrespectful for the guys in this locker room. ... I want to go out and represent my name on my back and my family, people and teammates. I’m not going out there to lose a game. It’s a silly concept that people even bring up. Especially when we have people like Kyle Williams, E. Wood, Richie, vets in this league who haven’t won a championship, and now we’re trying to figure out a way to lose to have a draft pick in the future?”

There should be no accusations of tanking in Buffalo, but clearly this rebuilding team has only one star on offense. And if McCoy can’t produce, they’ll be heading for that high draft pick in the future.

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