ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- If there's one thing that Rex Ryan's arrival in Western New York promised, it was that his hurricane of a persona would give the wayward Buffalo Bills a very definitive identity.
So why is that, six weeks into the 2015 season, his club is still searching for one?
The Bills are currently 3-3, having countered each win with a loss in the following week. They have the Jacksonville Jaguars this week in London, then a bye, then three consecutive division games. Thus, in a conference where an eight- or nine-win team could well earn a wild card, things are very much salvageable.
But the little landmines the team stepped on over the last week are, at least, something to watch. And after Sunday's loss to a Cincinnati Bengals team that looks as complete as any in football, it was clear that the players are still trying to find themselves within the construct of the new coaches' program. The defense didn't just fail to sack Andy Dalton, they only hit him once. And that's with a quartet up front (Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Jerry Hughes) that pulls down an average of about $50 million per year to put quarterbacks on the ground.
"It's simple: Those four guys, no matter what else we do, y'all are going," Mario Williams told me on Sunday. "I know for a fact, and I'm not questioning anything, but I know for a fact, I drop a lot myself. And I think last week, watching the film, Kyle dropped six-, seven-plus (times). You can go down the line and say the same thing. Marcell typically doesn't, but Jerry does. You got guys that you're saying gotta be disruptive and get after the quarterback."
On offense, the issues are more explicable.
Thanks to the injury bug, the Bills' talented skill guys have been, in essence, taking turns in the training room. Last week, LeSean McCoy returned, but Percy Harvin didn't dress thanks to a hip injury. Additionally, Sammy Watkins was vocal about wanting to be more of a focal point in the offense. McCoy made it through the Cincy game OK, but Watkins is now on crutches, while Harvin didn't travel with the team to London because of a personal issue. Meanwhile, Tyrod Taylor is trying to make it back from a sprained MCL that landed EJ Manuel a cameo as a starter.
And really, it's been that way for the offense since the start of training camp.
So ... Ryan is still working to fit his scheme to his defensive personnel, while the offense can't stay healthy. This makes the results fairly predictable. The Bills have scored 30-plus twice, they've allowed 30-plus twice and they're a .500 team. As the players see it, they seem to score touchdowns or go three-and-out on offense, and alternately look dominant and defeated on defense. From a big-picture view, they're 17th in total defense, 27th in total offense, 16th in points against and eighth in points scored. They lead the league in penalty yards (583 yards), but are plus-3 in turnover ratio (tied for eighth in the league).
In other words, they're all over the map, making the one word a veteran Bill used to describe the team apt: "Inconsistent."
Back in January, Ryan made it abundantly clear what kind of team he wanted in his second chance as a head coach, a vision which wouldn't be much different than what he had his first few years in New York.
"We are going to build a bully," he said at his introductory news conference, "and we're gonna see if you want to play us for 60 minutes."
Eight months later, the night before the team's opener, he reiterated the sentiment to his players at a downtown hotel and challenged them to make the rest of the league feel their presence.
As it turns out, there was a bigger task in front of the team in the room that night.
These Bills needed to figure out, first, who they are as a group. And six weeks later, they still do.