Drought ends. Was it worth it?

January 10, 2018

They didn't tank.

They ended the playoff drought.

Now what?

I hope you got the most out of #PlayoffWeek. If you made the trek to Jacksonville, partied hard, celebrated the Bills' first playoff appearance of the century -- perhaps the first in your memory -- you stand a pretty good chance of coming away satisfied. You can reminisce for years about the last 10 days. I have friends that went and have been talking about it being an all-time great trip. "Even though we got no help from the Bills during the game," one said.

That's right. The Bills lost 10-3 to Jacksonville, their playoff journey ending the way a team entering the playoffs with a minus-57 point differential's should -- quickly. They got in, they went out.

For fans who made the trip, who celebrated the accomplishment fully, it's one thing. For the Bills themselves, was it worth it?

Ending the drought is significant. One thing I noticed last week is how the drought was a staple in national coverage about the Bills. I thought of the drought as more of a trivial curiosity to us; after all, on the topic of losing NFL franchises most of the terrain in the public discourse is owned by the Browns. Every report I saw last week seemed "17 years", "17 years", "17 years", and the game broadcast felt that way too. The videos of the Bills reacting to Cincinnati's miraculous Week 17 win were gripping, and the drought was a part of that how that story was told too. Had the Bills been in the playoffs, say, two years ago, is that reaction in the locker room much different? Maybe not.

The Bills not being in the playoffs for so long, they've put that story to bed. Next time they make it it won't seem so surprising. They may find value in that in their recruiting efforts; perhaps it isn't quite the same stretch to picture them winning big.

Fans celebrating and enjoying the accomplishment scored big, and in the near future the team may benefit in intangible ways.

But what else?

Now that the confetti has settled, we can take a cold look at their draft position with no hesitation (e.g., Why are you guys talking about this now?). The Bills own the 21st and 22nd picks in the first round -- theirs and the Chiefs'. Maybe the draft will play out in such a way that picking 21st is just fine for them to pick a worthy quarterback prospect. Odds are it won't. You can trade up but you'd rather not have to. Eventually the Bills will have to make a bet on all this without knowing what'll happen in the draft, just like we do: Take your chances by standing pat, or trade up.

Vegas put the 2017 Bills on 6.5 wins, which all along has seemed like the right number -- despite the Bills getting to nine victories. Buffalo's final point differential was worse than the Bears, 49ers and Buccaneers -- all teams that won six games or fewer. There's a stat called "Expected W-L", which calculates a team's "deserved" record based on point differential. The Bills' Expected W-L was 6.4-9.6.

That record is worth about the 12th pick. At 6-10, with the schedule they played, they'd be drafting ninth.

None of this is to assess what the Bills thought they had this year -- whether they should have "tanked" or not. This is merely about how well they played. They played like a 6- or 7-win team -- and had they been one, they'd be much better positioned to draft their quarterback, if not well-positioned.

Sean McDermott and, of course, just about every ex-player in the football media espouse the value of "culture", and last week in the spotlight gave every one of these people a forum to tell you how the Bills changed theirs. Great, sure, but instead of going through NFL history and looking up all the times where this was credited and in turn how these teams did in coming years, well, you might as well instead just stare at the sun. Doug Marrone had one culture here, Rex Ryan had another, and McDermott has another still -- all average teams. If you think the Bills' supposed culture change will make it easier for them to win in the future -- because that's the point, right? -- good for you. I may hold you to it.

There's no big conclusion waiting for you here. Was the Bills' 2017 season worthwhile? That's up to you. If you tailgated Sunday in the sun and bonded with Bills fans you knew and some you didn't, that's a wonderful experience that justifies why we follow sports at all. If you, however, find minimal value in 9-7 seasons followed by a wild-card loss, and live in the world of bigger dreams and victories, well, that can still appear to be a long way off.