ORCHARD PARK — Some cynics have dubbed it the “Tank Bowl.”
And while both the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets deny it, there’s no question that both their rosters are dramatically altered as the two AFC East rivals open their National Football League seasons this afternoon at New Era Field (1 o’clock, WIVB-TV, WROC-TV, 95.7 FM, 100.1 FM, 101.9 FM, 550 AM).
The “tank” talk – accepting losing to enhance draft position – has been attached to the Jets, coming off a 5-11 season, because six high-profile players have been dispatched (traded or waived): defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, arguably the team’s top performer, cornerback Darrelle Revis, wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, linebacker David Harris and center Nick Mangold.
Then, too, New York’s a mess at quarterback with 38-year-old journeyman Josh McCown getting the start today.
With the 2018 draft seen as the most productive lottery for quarterbacks since 1983 in which six were taken in the first round – three of them (John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly) Hall of Famers – the Jets desperately want the earliest possible pick.
Of course the Bills, in the midst of a 17-year playoff drought, have a similar need. Tyrod Taylor hasn’t convinced most Buffalo fans that he’s the franchise QB to end the streak. The Bills, in 2018, have two picks each in the first, second and third rounds, giving them plenty of collateral to move up in the draft to take the quarterback they covet.
What’s fueled the tanking rumor for Buffalo, though, is the major roster overhaul undertaken by new coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane.
Last season, 68 players spent at least some time on the Bills’ 53-man roster and only 25 remain.
BUT McDERMOTT has sold his team on the concept that while the team is planning for its future, it’s still looking to win now.
“We have 16 games to prove what type of team the 2017 Bills are … this is the first step,” veteran guard Richie Incognito said of today’s game. “We’re going to come out of the gates red hot. We have a lot to prove to ourselves, and that’s all that matters. We’ve been working hard, we’ve been doing all the right things, and now it’s time to test it against a quality division opponent.”
And he’s delighted Taylor has returned from a preseason concussion to lead the way.
“It’s like the band’s getting back together, we’re all coming back at the right time, getting this thing going,” Incognito said. “It’s exciting … we’re excited to get this thing started … really start proving to ourselves what type of team we’re going to be this year.”
And while Incognito is starting his 11th season, for eight Bills rookies, it’s their initial game as pros.
Wide receiver Zay Jones, Buffalo’s second-round draft pick, admitted, “It will be different, first NFL game, but it’s football. I’ve been doing this since I was little, I have a great group of guys around me that’ll help prepare me, a great group of coaches, so it’s exciting. It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be a packed house, it’s going to be a great time, I’m ready to enjoy it.
“It never goes quite how you expect it, honestly. What’s the atmosphere going to feel like, the catches. It’s going to come to me, it’s going to come to us, so just go out and play our game.”
Running back LeSean McCoy, at age 29, played in three postseason games in his six seasons with the Eagles (all losses), but he understands the pressure of the Bills having missed the playoffs since 1999.
“I’m anxious to get out there just to see how good we are as an offense,” he said. “You put things on tape for preseason that you can work on, that you can study and learn from. We’re going to go out here, (today), execute the gameplan and see how well we do.”
And he, too, welcomes Taylor’s return.
“He’s our leader, he makes a lot of plays with his arm and his feet (and) you bring that combination to our offense, where you have to stop us in multiple ways. He’s a big threat, (we’re) happy to have him back healthy, ready to go,” McCoy said.
He’s also aware most experts expect nothing from the Bills and Jets this season.
“I hope my friends wouldn’t say that … (but) everybody’s entitled to their own opinion,” McCoy said. “Some teams, people may feel like it’s a rebuilding year or whatever. But the way we prepare, the way I prepare, the way I practice, the way I come to every game, you know I wanna win now.
“I wanna play well, I wanna give my team a chance to win. (Some) people have their opinion that we’re rebuilding. My sense is the guys I’m playing with and for, we’re trying to win now.”