Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Snow Angels

(NOTE: I had held off writing about the Buffalo Bills for most of the season, mostly because the idea of putting new names in the same basic columns for an 18th straight season seemed slightly more appealing than removing my own teeth with a claw hammer.

Sunday’s 13-7 run-off victory against Indianapolis, the most surreal game of Buffalo’s 17-plus years in exile from the National Football League's postseason exile, though, seems as good a place to start as any.)

Almost a year ago, I wrote that Rex Ryan deserved to be fired for punting on fourth down with a little more than four minutes left in overtime against Miami, dooming Buffalo's 2016 season.

On Sunday, Sean McDermott chose to punt on fourth down with a little more than four minutes left in overtime against Indianapolis, keeping the Bills in the midst of the playoff race for at least another week.

McDermott's call worked, while Rex's blew up in his face. Which, as usual, was the difference between brilliance and idiocy.
There were a few key differences, of course.

Ryan put his confidence in a defense that hadn't stopped anybody all year, over an offense in the midst of a team record-setting day led by Tyrod Taylor, who was delivering his best professional performance.

McDermott’s sudden-death quarterback was Joe Webb III, who had not, until Sunday, completed a regular-season pass since 2011. Webb was only allowed to touch the football due to injuries to Taylor’s knee and Nathan Peterman's brain, and because the Bills were legally required to do something between Colton Schmidt's punts.

Then there was the snow. And the snow. And the snow.

For most of the first half, little of which could be seen clearly even on television through the lake-effect band that settled in less than an hour before kickoff, the Bills and Colts appeared more concerned with remaining upright than attempting to advance toward the opposing end zone.
Visibility was almost non-existent. Punts burrowed in the growing pile blanketing New Era Field and stayed there. And the handful of passes attempted by Peterman and his Colts counterpart, Jacoby Brissett, generally also wound up being dug out of the drifts.

Then came the most unlikely hurry-up drive I’ve ever seen, given the conditions.
The Bills took over with 1:42 left before halftime.

LeSean McCoy managed to keep his feet while teammates and defenders around him were losing theirs, twice, for gains of more than 20 yards. Peterman then heaved a pair of throws toward Kelvin Benjamin. The 6-foot-6 trade-deadline acquisition somehow saw the ball and came down with it both times, the second in the end zone.

For most of the afternoon, it looked like that would be it. With neither offense doing anything, I envisioned a column that read something like this:

“It snowed (repeated 241 times).

Then LeSean McCoy made a couple nice runs and Kelvin Benjamin came up with a couple sweet catches.

And it snowed some more (repeated another 100 times).”

Instead, the Colts got the ball at their own 23 with 9:53 left in the fourth quarter. And embarked on the most unlikely drive I’ve ever seen, period, given the conditions.
Brissett, who last year was unable to lead the New England Damn Patriots to a single point against the Bills (the lone shutout of Ryan’s Buffalo tenure), suddenly put it all together. He completed six passes, one more than he would the rest of the day. One connection with T.Y. Hilton converted a fourth-down situation, with Brissett scrambling for another.

After Brissett threw to Jack Doyle for a touchdown on the 19th play of the march, then again for an apparent two-point conversion to give the Colts an 8-7 lead, it looked like the Bills were going down in the Billsiest of possible ways – falling to a terrible team quarterbacked by a fill-in during a the sort of storm that stereotypes Buffalo for the rest of the world.

Then came the flag. The offensive pass interference call was questionable, at best. But no doubt, it saved Buffalo's season.

Adam Vinatieri somehow made the ensuing 43-yard extra point, though he missed a field goal from the same distance after Webb threw one of the ugliest interceptions you will see this side of Peterman’s debut in Los Angeles a few weeks back.

All of which set up McDermott's big choice in overtime. His decision cost the Bills 24 yards in field position and nearly two minutes of a dwindling clock.
But his defense held (thanks in part to three straight passes by the Colts).
His quarterback, mainly known as a special-teams guy until Peterman left with a concussion in the the third quarter, hit Deonte Thompson, who joined the Bills in late October, with a 35-yard bomb that would have been unthinkable for most of the day.

Three plays later, McCoy shot up the middle for 21 yards, making his team a winner and his coach a relative genius.
With three games left (one in New England and two against the Dolphins, who stunned the Patriots on Monday night) the Bills are tied for the final playoff spot.

Stranger things have happened. Not sure the same can be said of what went on Sunday in Orchard Park.

(As always, readers are mildly encouraged to follow @David Staba on the Twitter for more semi-informed commentary and random cheap shots, mostly related to football.)

Sunday, October 1, 2017

On Quarterbacks, Presidents and Generals

(Editor's note: In case you are wondering why there is a picture of Marvin Gaye at the top of a column about football and related topics, the editorial board of We Want Marangi firmly believes this whole Star Spangled Banner mess could be alleviated by simply replacing all live performances before sporting events with video of Marvin absolutely killing it before the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. Everyone would be too busy grooving, or trying not to, to argue. Watch for yourself.)

I walked into a gin mill out in the country shortly before the Buffalo Bills kicked off the 2016 season against the Baltimore Ravens.

It was a different world then.

You could still still hope that Rex Ryan could direct the Bills to victory as often as he won press conferences.

O.J. Simpson was still in prison.

And the thought of a reality-television star with a proven disinterest in serving his country, as well as a well-documented history of saying and doing things that suggested a less-than-enlightened view of race relations and a highly creepy view of roughly half the American citizenry seemed like little more than a brand-building goof. Even to the reality-television star himself.

A couple weeks earlier, a backup quarterback for San Francisco, previously best known for leading the 49ers to a surprising Super Bowl run following the 2013 season, sat during the National Anthem before an exhibition game. Colin Kaepernick made the motivation for his demonstration pretty clear at the time.

Neither major-party candidate for president made an issue of Kaepernick's protest. After all, this is America, the land of the free, right?

Of course, this also being America, the home of the easily outraged, there were those who were pissed off about Kaepernick's stance -- or, more accurately, lack thereof.

So, with the real season starting, I wanted to hear what fans had to say. And what they did.

There were about a half-dozen locals sitting at the bar, all but one wearing baseball caps. Let's just say more than one noted Kaepernick's race during the discussion. As the barmaid served me, the television issued the traditional directive to "Please rise for the playing of our National Anthem."

I was already standing, as I prefer to do in such settings. I took off my baseball cap and set it on the bar.

No one else in the joint stood, or doffed.

Which wasn't a big deal. Hypocrisy is also a very American tradition. The Bills set about boring everyone watching into submission, grinding out a 13-7 defeat by the Ravens.

We all know how things went from there.

Ryan never did get it right, or even last the entire season, getting canned with a week left in the season, after failing to make sure his defense had enough players on the field for what turned out to be the decisive play in an overtime loss to Miami.

As of this morning, The Juice is loose.

And the reality-television star is the President of the United States.

Having spent the majority of my adult life making something approximating a living writing about both sports and politics, among other things, I really, really like to keep the two separate whenever possible.

The president's demand for compulsory Anthem-standing (made immediately after calling for more brain damage in the National Football League, it has to be noted) detonated that particular wall, though.

I am not kick-starting this little bit of vanity journalism in order to engage in the same kind of pointless arguments you can find in just about any corner of the internet (plus, that's why we have Twitter). I believe what I believe, you what you believe, and there is an infinitely minuscule chance we are going to change each other's mind.

Whatever you believe, though, it would be a good idea to read what Gen. Michael Hayden, who served in the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, had to say about the whole mess.

Gen. Hayden's op-ed, published by The Hill, has not gotten nearly as much attention as you would have expected in more normal times. Probably because he looks at both sides of the issue and takes all perspectives into account, neither of which draws many clicks on either side of any topic these days.

The 39-year veteran of the United States Air Force did not like Kaepernick's protest when it began, but argues that the president's effort to suppress it poses a much greater, and much more un-American, danger:
As a 39-year military veteran, I think I know something about the flag, the anthem, patriotism, and I think I know why we fight. It’s not to allow the president to divide us by wrapping himself in the national banner. I never imagined myself saying this before Friday, but if now forced to choose in this dispute, put me down with Kaepernick.
(In case you missed the link to Gen. Hayden's op-ed above, here it is again. Do yourself a favor and give it a click.)


In another under-reported matter, this blog's patron saint was mentioned in a national forum. As usual, it unfairly centered on the unfortunate statistics Gary Marangi compiled in his half-season as Buffalo's starting quarterback.

The always-excellent -- and incredibly thorough -- Bill Barnwell mentioned our namesake while looking at quarterbacks under the age of 30 who threw more than 200 passes in a season, then never played in another regular-season game.

Consider that Marangi went 0-7 as a starter and set a still-standing league record for lowest career completion percentage. The Packers still tried to trade for him, only to be rebuffed when Marangi failed a physical. The Browns signed Marangi anyway.

(Editor's note: As always, readers are strongly encouraged to follow @DavidStaba on the Twitter for semi-informed commentary and random cheap shots, mostly related to football.)

Sunday, February 5, 2017

'The Precision Jack-Hammer Attack': A Hunter S. Thompson Super Bowl Reader, Again

(It's Super Bowl Sunday, so the staff at We Want Marangi is taking a break from taking a break that lasted for most of the 2016 season, and once again re-posting our look at Hunter S. Thompson's thoughts on one of the most uniquely American institutions. The following was first posted here in February 2013, thereby explaining the Ray Lewis and Harbaugh Brothers reference in the introduction.)

Hunter S. Thompson wrote about a lot of things -- bikers, bluegrass, police corruption, high-powered weaponry and horse racing, to name a few.

Mostly, and most successfully, though, he wrote about politics and football. At his best, both at the same time.

In particular, presidential elections and Super Bowls were his twin inspirations, regularly scheduled events that embodied what he hated and loved about America and Americans. Even his suicide note was entitled "Football Season is Over."

I'm not going to try to write about his writing here, because doing so would be an exercise in ego and pointlessness, other than to introduce a few of my favorite passages you can enjoy while, or instead of, sitting through the four-hour pre-game show leading up to the epic struggle between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers. It's got to beat getting force-fed yet another fond farewell to Ray Lewis and further exploration of the brotherly love shared by the Harbaughs.

As a recovering sportswriter, I've never read an analysis that captures the profession's spirit, or lack thereof, as this bit from Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, a collection of Thompson's Rolling Stone articles on Richard M. Nixon's final run for office:

There is a dangerous kind of simple-minded Power/Precision worship at the root of the massive fascination with pro football in this country, and sportswriters are mainly responsible for it. With a few rare exceptions like Bob Lypstye of The New York Times and Tom Quinn of the (now-defunct) Washington Daily News, sportswriters are a kind of rude and brainless subculture of fascist drunks whose only real function is to publicize & sell whatever the sports editor sends them out to cover. . .

Which is a nice way to make a living, because it keeps a man busy and requires no thought at all. The two keys to success as a sportswriter are: (1) A blind willingness to believe anything you're told by the coaches, flacks, hustlers, and other "official spokesmen" for the team-owners who provide the free booze. . . and: (2) A Roget's Thesaurus, in order to avoid using the same verbs and adjectives twice in the same paragraph.

Even a sports editor, for instance, might notice something wrong with a lead that said: "The precision-jackhammer attack of the Miami Dolphins stomped the balls off the Washington Redskins today by stomping and hammering with one precise jackthrust after another up the middle, mixed with pinpoint precision passes into the flat and numerous hammer-jack stomps around both ends. . ."

Right. And there was the genius of Grantland Rice. He carried a pocket thesaurus, so that "The thundering hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen" never echoed more than once in the same paragraph, and the "Granite-grey sky" in his lead was a "cold dark dusk" in the last lonely line of his heart-rending, nerve-ripping stories. . .

There was a time, about ten years ago, when I could write like Grantland Rice. Not necessarily because I believed all that sporty bullshit, but because sportswriting was the only thing I could do that anybody was willing to pay for.

A few paragraphs earlier, Thompson served up a brutal parody of every hack who ever filed a game story (present company included):

They came together on a hot afternoon in Los Angeles, howling and clawing at each other like wild beasts in heat. Under a brown California sky, the fierceness of their struggle brought tears to the eyes of 90,000 God-fearing fans.

They were twenty-two men who were somehow more than men.

They were giants, idols, titans. . .


They stood for everything Good and True and Right in the American Spirit.

Because they had guts.

And they yearned for the Ultimate Glory, the Great Prize, the Final Fruits of a long and vicious campaign.

Victory in the Super Bowl: $15,000 each.

They were hungry for it. They were thirsty. For twenty long weeks, from August through December, they had struggled to reach this Pinnacle. . . and when dawn lit the beaches of Southern California on that fateful Sunday morning in January, they were ready.

To seize the Final Fruit.

They could almost taste it. The smell was stronger than a ton of rotten mangoes.

Their nerves burned like open sores on a dog's neck. White knuckles. Wild eyes. Strange fluid welled up in their throats, with a taste far sharper than bile.


Those who went early said the pre-game tension was almost unbearable. By noon, many fans were weeping openly, for no apparent reason. Others wrung their hands or gnawed on the necks of pop bottles, trying to stay calm. Many fist-fights were reported in the public urinals. Nervous ushers roamed up and down the aisles, confiscating alcoholic beverages and occasionally grappling with drunkards. Gangs of Seconal-crazed teenagers prowled through the parking lot outside the stadium, beating the mortal shit out of luckless stragglers. . .

A year later, Thompson referred back to the 'The precision-jackhamer attack of the Miami Dolphins ...' lede in a lengthy Rolling Stone piece entitled "Fear And Loathing At The Super Bowl: No Rest For The Wretched." Gonzo Journalism at its finest, Thompson blends his thoughts on Watergate, labor relations and fortune-telling with a mini-profile of Oakland Raiders strongman Al Davis, trademark accounts of substance abuse and a pre-dawn sermon based on Revelations 20:15 from the 20th-floor balcony of his hotel.

As in the best of Thompson's work, he cuts the psychedelia and free-form association with some remarkably precise description of the physical and psychic impact of Miami wide receiver Paul Warfield:

This was what happened in Houston with the Dolphins' Paul Warfield, widely regarded as "the most dangerous pass receiver in pro football." Warfield is a game-breaker, a man who commands double-coverage at all times because of his antelope running style, twin magnets for hands, and a weird kind of adrenaline instinct that feeds on tension and high pressure. There is no more beautiful sight in football than watching Paul Warfield float out of the backfield on a sort of angle-streak pattern right into the heart of a "perfect" zone defense and take a softly thrown pass on his hip, without even seeming to notice the arrival of the ball, and then float another 60 yards into the end zone, with none of the frustrated defensive backs ever touching him.

There is an eerie kind of certainty about Warfield's style that is far more demoralizing than just another six points on the Scoreboard. About half the time he looks bored and lazy -- but even the best pass defenders in the league know, in some nervous corner of their hearts, that when the deal goes down Warfield is capable of streaking right past them like they didn't exist. . .

Unless he's hurt; playing with some kind of injury that might or might not be serious enough to either slow him down or gimp the fiendish concentration that makes him so dangerous. . . and this was the possibility that Dolphin coach Don Shula raised on Wednesday when he announced that Warfield had pulled a leg muscle in practice that afternoon and might not play on Sunday.

This news caused instant action in gambling circles. Even big-time bookies, whose underground information on these things is usually as good as Pete Rozelle's, took Shula's announcement seriously enough to cut the spread down from seven to six-- a decision worth many millions of betting dollars if the game turned out to be close.

Even the rumor of an injury to Warfield was worth one point (and even two, with some bookies I was never able to locate). . . and if Shula had announced on Saturday that Paul was definitely not going to play, the spread would probably have dropped to four, or even three. . . Because the guaranteed absence of Warfield would have taken a great psychological load off the minds of Minnesota's defensive backs.

Without the ever-present likelihood of a game-breaking "bomb" at any moment, they could focus down much tighter on stopping Miami's brutal running game -- which eventually destroyed them, just as it had destroyed Oakland's nut-cutting defense two weeks earlier, and one of the main reasons why the Vikings failed to stop the Dolphins on the ground was the constant presence of Paul Warfield in his customary wide-receiver's spot.

He played almost the whole game, never showing any sign of injury; and although he caught only one pass, he neutralized two Minnesota defensive backs on every play. . . and two extra tacklers on the line of scrimmage might have made a hell of a difference in that embarrassingly decisive first quarter when Miami twice drove what might as well have been the whole length of the field to score 14 quick points and crack the Vikings' confidence just as harshly as they had cracked the Redskins out in Los Angeles a year earlier.

The above represents Thompson at the peak of his powers, the writer who produced Hells AngelsFear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved." Over the three decades before his suicide (for which I remain pissed at him), his genius unraveled, whether due to fame, wealth, drugs, the internal victory of cynicism over hope for his country, or a swirl of all four.

But the Super Bowl remained his personal Holy Day, and he could still reach back and find the groove when writing about it.

Whoops. Strike that. Leeches are not rodents. They are blood-sucking members of the Hirudinea family, a sub-species of the hermaphroditic sucker-worm that is frequently applied to headache-victims and other human wounds. Leeches used in human treatment range in size from three inches to 13 inches when fully bloated. They have two ugly mouths, one on each end, filled with tiny, razor-sharp teeth by which they attach themselves firmly to the flesh, prior to sucking. The leech has many eyes.

The Oakland Raiders are the only team in football that still routinely uses leeches for treatment of serious injuries. It is an old-timey medicine, deriving no doubt from the team's Bay Area roots, with its powerful Italian community and its many neighborhood grocery stores and exotic foreign delicacies, along with sausage, fresh fish and leeches ... I have many fond memories of hanging out in North Beach at elegant Italian restaurants with Raiders players in the good old days of yesteryear, when the silver-and-black dynasty was just getting started, long before they turned into the gigantic, high-powered winning machine that they are today.

Things were different in those years, but they were never dull. Every game was a terrifying adventure, win or lose, and the Raiders of the '70s usually won -- except in Pittsburgh, where cruel things happened and many dreams died horribly. You could see the early beginnings of what would evolve into the massive Raider Nation, which is beyond doubt the sleaziest and rudest and most sinister mob of thugs and whackos ever assembled in such numbers under a single "roof," so to speak, anywhere in the English-speaking world. No doubt there are other profoundly disagreeable cults that meet from time to time in most of the 50 states ...

But so what? There is nothing more to say. I have obviously made my decision about the Raiders. They are simply a better football team than the Buccaneers, and they will win. A realistic line for this game would be 10 or 11, but right now it is hovering around 5 or 6.

For all Thompson's gifts, football prognostication was not one of them. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers stomped the balls off the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, 48-21.

(NOTE: If, for some reason, you do not already own The Great Shark Hunt, an anthology of the first and best two decades of Thompson's writing career which includes the full articles from which the first two passages above are lifted, you can do so here. For only $11.87, for God's sake. Or, if you are a lazy and/or cheap bastard, you can get the whole thing in .pdf form here.)

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Rex's Reign Ends In Ruin, Scarring Teen

For whatever other lousy traits I may have passed on to my sons, Bills fandom has not been one. At least until Christmas Eve.

My 13-year-old has always been more into baseball, with his 10-year-old brother mainly considering Buffalo football games as three-plus hours that the Xbox and/or Playstation are unavailable.

As far as their football loyalties go, Jackson (the 13-year-old) has always been something of a Patriots kid -- due to his maternal ancestry, which lends itself to Boston-centric thinking -- and an instinctively contrarian nature, which I guess is one of those aforementioned lousy traits passed down from his old man. His younger brother, Oscar, also a bit on the contrary side, loves animals, including the marine variety. So, he considers himself a Dolphins fan, as far as that goes.

None of which usually leads to much football talk on game days, with the exception of the occasional, "Is it almost over?"

Last Saturday, though, the three of us wound up watching the Bills-Dolphins fiasco, or at least the second half and overtime, when things got interesting. It was the first time I think that has ever happened -- at least since both were fully ambulatory and able to focus on anything more than a few feet away for more than a couple of minutes.

During the fourth quarter, as Tyrod Taylor was having the game of his career while bringing Buffalo back from what had been a two-touchdown deficit as recently as midway through the third, I noticed something different about Jackson.

He was getting into it,  reacting viscerally to each big play and arguing with his brother about whether Oscar was allowed, as a kid who grew up within half an hour of the stadium in which the game was being played, to cheer for Miami (for the record, he is).

There were even high-fives after Taylor connected with Charles Clay for the touchdown that put Buffalo ahead with 1:20 remaining.

Having been a Bills fan since I was way too young to know better, and despite having my own loyalties tempered by years of writing about the team (first due to the semblance of objectivity required of a beat reporter during my stint in that gig in the 1990s, then the soul-sucking grind of finding new things to write about during the past 17 playoff-free seasons), my emotions while seeing this transformation were mixed, at best.

It was good to see him getting passionate about something relatively new to him but long important to me, the way I felt earlier in the fall when Oscar asked for his own copy of Quadrophenia after hearing The Who's vintage rock opera for the first time.

But it also felt like seeing the first tell-tale signs that your offspring is coming down with something, like the runny nose that turns into a nasty cold, or the simultaneously pale-and-flushed sweats that turn into the flu.

Hoping to nip the illness early, I explained that one minutes and 20 seconds was way too much time remaining to celebrate too much, particularly when the Bills are involved. Especially these Bills.

Sure enough, one long kickoff return and a couple completions by the immortal Matt Moore later, the Dolphins lined up to try the tying field goal.

Which Miami kicker Andrew Franks, of course, managed to push between the uprights.

He would have been forced to do it twice in a row had Rex Ryan been able to manage what pretty much ever other professional and college head coach has done routinely in similar situations for the last decade or two -- get a timeout called before the snap.

The recently deposed Buffalo coach can complain all he wants that he was ignored by the official (and Corey White was frantically making the universally accepted hand signal well before the snap), but the sideline replay sure looked like Rex was waiting for the last possible second, then somehow allowed the snap to take him by surprise.

After Dan Carpenter missed yet another field goal to end Buffalo's first possession in overtime, Jackson got up from the couch and announced, with sad fatalism, "I'm going in the other room. I can't watch this."

Which is when I made perhaps my biggest mistake as a father.

"And if they win, you'll miss it," I said. "And if they lose, they'll lose whether you're watching it or not."

He sat back down.

I am sorry, Jackson.

I could have spared you perhaps the single dumbest decision I have ever seen a Bills coach make. And I have lived through the wisdom of Lou Saban, Jim Ringo, Chuck Knox, Kay Stephenson, Hank Bullough, Marv Levy, Wade Phillips, Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey, Dick Jauron, Perry Fewell, Chan Gailey, Doug Marrone and Rex.

But this. This was pretty spectacular, even by Buffalo standards.

On fourth-and-2 with four minutes left in overtime, needing a win to keep his team's slim playoff hopes from vanishing altogether, on a day when Taylor's offense had already set a franchise single-game record for yardage and his own wildly over-hyped defense couldn't solve Matt Fucking Moore, Rex decided to punt.

Maybe he thought the defense that had spent much of the previous three-and-a-half hours getting shredded had a better chance of forcing a quick three-and-out than his single-game-record-setting-offense had of advancing the football six feet.

Or, maybe Rex simply didn't know that a tie would officially snuff his team's season. Given that he apparently did not remember that he was allowed, but not forced, to field 11 defensive players at the same time on THE VERY NEXT PLAY, the latter seems a lot more feasible.

I've never been much for calling for a coach's firing in print, mainly because I don't much like the idea of someone demanding that I lose my job. But as the ball left Colton Schmidt's foot, I said, "That's it. Rex has to go."

Forget the blown icing attempt, and the 10-man thing, and the failure to instill anything resembling a two-minute offense until the final game of his tenure, and all the botched replay challenges, and keeping Carpenter around no matter how many kicks he missed, and everything else that added up to equal the two most disappointing consecutive Bills seasons I can remember.

Punting in that situation showed that, at the end, Ryan was completely oblivious to what was required to get his team into the playoffs, that he though there was some advantage to finishing 8-7-1 as opposed to 8-8 or 7-9. After all, then he could brag about being the first Bills coach since Marv Levy with a career mark above .500, thanks to the scintillating 8-8 season he produced in 2015.

"This is so ... Billsy," Jackson said, correctly.

"You don't have to watch the rest of this," I told him, knowing we'd just seen Rex keep the playoff drought alive.

He got up off the couch and headed for the kitchen. So at least he missed Jay Ajayi running free through Buffalo's undermanned defense and down the sideline for 57 yards, setting up Franks' game-winner.

At least if I have, in fact, infected my son with this chronic regional malady, he's going into the battle without any illusions. I've already explained to him how the front office's mishandling of Taylor's benching has all but ensured the team's search for a quarterback will continue unabated.

And later today, he and his brother will experience another Buffalo tradition -- watching the Bills run for the proverbial bus.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Rexual Inadequacy, Season 2

While trying earlier this week to come up with something interesting to say about Buffalo's come-from-ahead, probably playoff-exile-sustaining disintegration in Oakland last Sunday, it was hard to shake the feeling I'd written it all before.

Didn't have to dive too deeply into We Want Marangi's archives to realize that I had done exactly that, about a year to the day earlier.

Rather than risk accusations of self-plagiarization, and still have time to finally get started on Christmas shopping, the WWM Editorial Board has decided rerun a post from Dec. 6, 2015. All you really need to do to fully enjoy it at home is substitute the words "Oakland" and "Raiders" for "Kansas City" and "Chiefs" and "end-of-half clock management" for "replay-challenge situations."

Most of the rest still stands up, including Tyrod Taylor coming undone after a strong start, a Buffalo defense that has never performed well enough for long enough under Rex Ryan to even qualify as overrated getting shredded while giving up a double-digit-lead and Ryan and his coaching staff again failing to remember than in-game-adjustments to the game plan are, in fact, perfectly permissible in the National Football League.

If there is a single hallmark of Ryan's 28 games since buying that blue, white and red pickup truck, it is the weekly failure to effectively counter opposing strategy shifts. If Buffalo's initial game plan works on either side of the ball, the Bills are in great shape as long as the other team doesn't make any adjustments.

They almost always do, however, at which point Ryan and his staff appear stunned that such strategic shiftiness is not only allowed, but encouraged. Instead, they and the players they coach showed all the flexibility of the electric football players pictured above.

Similarly, Taylor and the rest of the offense again showed that there does not seem to be any institutional understanding that the game changes as the clock winds down at the end of each half. No one should be especially surprised about Buffalo's failure to even try adding to its then-eight-point lead just before intermission, as the Bills have not demonstrated much sense of urgency at the end of games since Taylor and Ryan arrived, either.

Like Ryan's first-season production, these Bills are still technically alive for the postseason. All they have to do The simplest route is winning their final four games, starting Sunday against Pittsburgh in what could wind up sounding like a Steelers home game, even though it's being played at New Era Field (quite possibly the most misleading stadium name in the history of corporate sponsorships), while the four teams above them in the race for the two AFC Wild Card slots (eight if you count the four division leaders), simultaneously collapse.

Hashing out such improbable scenarios has become a holiday tradition in these parts, much like authoring Facebook posts blaming Elf On The Shelf for the death of the American Dream and dangerous levels of exposure to Trans-Siberian Railroad, or Grand Funk Orchestra, or whatever that bunch is called.

It's not like a loss to Pittsburgh puts an end to such contortions, since Buffalo's official elimination can't occur until next week, when Cleveland brings its quest to become the second team to go 0-16 to Orchard Park.

In the meantime, enjoy the following evidence that, even in a year as chaotic as this one, some things never really change.

Rexual Inadequacy

It would be easy, maybe even fun, to spend the next few hundred—or thousand—words ripping Rex Ryan for the managerial inattention that led to going 0-for-5 in replay-challenge situations, which played a major role in Sunday’s gut-twisting loss to Kansas City.

As damaging as Rex’s red-flag issues were, though (and seeming to defer to the team’s chaplain at one decisive moment does not instill confidence in anyone), the disintegration of his defense—once universally considered Ryan’s area of unquestioned expertise—hurt a lot more.

A week after thoroughly flustering Tom Brady in perhaps their best overall effort of the season, Buffalo’s defenders allowed one of the National Football League’s less-explosive offenses to wipe out a double-digit deficit and score 17 straight points en route to a 30-22 win.

That collapse put these new-look Bills right where they have been for most of the past 16 years at this point in the season—likely needing to run the table while multiple upstairs neighbors in the standings falter.

Buffalo’s two-game losing streak, leaves them tied for fifth (with the less-than-fearsome Oakland Raiders) in the chase for the AFC’s two wild-card berths, while saddled with an apparent inability to make effective in-game adjustments.

The initial game plan could not have worked much better. For the game’s first 15 minutes, Tyrod Taylor and Sammy Watkins thoroughly flummoxed Kansas City’s defense, while Ryan’s injury-riddled defense looked very much like the unit promised since his hiring last January, with the Bills ending the opening quarter up 10-0.

Watkins continued to look like he just might justify the high cost the Bills paid to get him in the 2014 draft in the second, hooking up with Taylor—who showed little sign that the shoulder injury suffered a week earlier in New England was hampering him in any way—for their fourth deep connection and second touchdown of the game putting Buffalo ahead 16-7.

Then it all fell apart.

After Dan Carpenter missed his second extra point in three games, and third of the year, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith shattered the myth that he can’t, or won’t, throw long, lasering a 41-yard touchdown to Jeremy Maclin (whose 37-yard “catch” on one of Ryan’s replay blunders set up the first Kansas City touchdown) to make it a two-point game at the half.

Watkins, whose second score gave him six catches for 158 yards, never caught another pass, largely because Taylor threw just one more his way.

Buffalo’s defense, which had yielded a single first down on the first three Kansas City possessions, surrendered points on six of the next seven, with a 54-yard field goal attempt hitting the crossbar as time expired in the first half marking the closest thing Ryan’s crew managed to a stop until Smith kneeled away the game’s final seconds.

In the process, the Bills somehow made the much-maligned Smith look better than Tom Brady had a week earlier, while also allowing someone named Spencer Ware to run for 114 yards.

Things were no better for the offense, with Taylor—who was 16-of-24 for 236 yards and those two touchdowns to Watkins in the first half—hitting on just five of 14 throws for 55 yards after intermission, while looking very much like the career backup he was until this year in the process.

Through it all, Ryan and his coaching staff appeared as overwhelmed as a fact-checker at a Republican presidential debate. Not to mention completely overmatched by Andy Reid’s staff on the opposite sideline, unable to cope in any meaningful way as another highly winnable game slipped away.

All of which leaves Buffalo needing at least four wins in its final five games, and quite possibly five straight, to have a shot at ending the franchise’s playoff-free millennium. This is especially troubling for a team that has not been able to win three in a row all season. And one with a coach whose shortcomings in the areas of clock management, in-game strategy, and now replay-review competency have made a difference in several galling defeats.

Say this much for Rex—his team seems to be committing fewer stupid penalties at crucial moments, though it still managed nine slightly smarter infractions to gift the Chiefs with an extra 91 yards.

That’s kind of a lot of problems to fix during the season’s final month. On the bright side, none of the remaining five opponents presents a Patriots-style mismatch.

The best of the bunch, Houston (one of the four teams Buffalo trails by one game in the chase), visits Orchard Park on Sunday. Another contender now at 6-5, the New York Jets, comes to town for the season finale on Jan. 3, 2016.

For that potential play-in game against Rex’s former team to matter, though, his Bills have to get by the Texans, followed by trips to Philadelphia and Washington and a post-Christmas visit from Dallas (as quarterbacked, most likely, by Matt Cassel).

And they have to do so while operating with almost no margin for error, as they try to save a season in which they, and their coach, have made way too many of them already.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Bills Try Authoring Different Ending To Same Old Story

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The editorial staff of We Want Marangi has been been busy for much of the fall promoting the campaign of its favored presidential candidate and coming to terms with that candidate's shocking loss on Election Day. Time to get back to work.)

Please, stop me if you've heard this one before.

The Buffalo Bills may not have participated in an actual playoff game since Frank Wycheck launched that alleged lateral nearly 17 years ago, but this afternoon's contest in Oakland serves essentially the same purpose.

Upset the 9-2 Raiders, the AFC's biggest surprise so far, and the competitive portion of the 2016 season continues for at least another week. Lose a crucial December road game, as the Bills have been wont to do through the Phillips/Williams/Mularkey/Jauron/Gailey/Marrone/Ryan Era, and everyone can start looking forward to the draft and trying to find someone willing to pay anything for tickets to that Christmas Eve game against the Dolphins.

At 7-5, the Bills would come home for three winnable games at New Era Field, followed by the season finale on New Year's Day, 2017, in New Jersey against the smoldering ruins of the New York Jets.

OK, you've definitely heard this one before. Like nearly every year since Home Run Throwback, save the handful of truly execrable seasons in which the Bills spared everyone the torturous math required to see a path to the postseason and eliminated themselves by Thanksgiving, or before.

But this is where we are, and this is what we do around here.

It's not all that tough to talk yourself into a win over the Raiders, either. Oakland's run defense ranks 26th in the NFL and will be missing three regulars up front. The pass defense has been better, rating an impressive-looking fifth, but will be without cornerback D.J. Hayden, their primary slot defender in pass coverage.

Given Tyrod Taylor's inability or unwillingness to throw the ball over the middle, the absence of Hayden might not mean much. But the battered line should further weaken a pass rush that has managed an NFL-low 17 sacks.

Buffalo won't be especially well-equipped to exploit holes in coverage, with Robert Woods out and Charles Clay missing the trip in order to be present for the birth of his child (as a side note, if you have a problem with the tight end's decision, you either don't have any children or shouldn't).

The Bills' three primary playmakers -- LeSean McCoy, Sammy Watkins and Taylor -- are all healthy, though, or at least as uninjured as anyone can be at this point in the season. This is the sort of situation where seven-figure contracts are earned.

It is also where coaching reputations are bolstered. Or debunked. Derek Carr has produced most of Oakland's offense, carrying the Raiders to their last two wins despite a marginal running game and, last week in a wild 35-32 win over Carolina, a mangled hand.

Carr's dislocated pinky is reportedly fine, but if Rex Ryan's defense can take away the run, it makes it easier to pressure a quarterback who has been sacked an NFL-low 12 times.

At this point, it doesn't much matter how the Bills win, just that they find a way to pull one out in the stadium where their 2014 playoff hopes imploded against a relatively feeble opponent.

Otherwise, this season starts to feel even more like most of the 16 that came before it.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Living In Distant Past Fueling Bills Revival

It's been a while.

Last week, the Buffalo Bills' 30-19 win over the Los Angeles Rams (thanks, Rams, for moving homemarked the first time they've managed the modest achievement of three straight victories since 2011. Since then, they've labored under three head coaches and four starting quarterbacks.

Today, with the San Francisco 49ers in town, they have a chance to make it four in a row for the first time since 2008, which they accomplished shortly before the world economy collapsed as George W. Bush finished his second term.

Neither of those streaks went anywhere. The '11 Bills, helmed by Chan Gailey, collapsed shortly after Ryan Fitzpatrick signed a contract extension, with the lovable-but-inevitably-inept quarterback demonstrating the form that forced five franchises to give up on him during his first 10 NFL seasons and presently has him leading the league in interceptions for what will be very soon be the sixth. They wound up 6-10, one of five times they've done so during the ongoing 16-season string of not making the playoffs.

The high hopes generated by the 4-0 opening in '08 disappeared along with Trent Edwards' consciousness and confidence moments into the season's fifth game, courtesy of unblocked Arizona blitzer Adrian Wilson. Those Bills staggered to their third straight 7-9 finish under Dick Jauron.

Of course, this is a different Buffalo coach, with Tyrod Taylor not having yet shown definitively that he is or isn't a viable starting quarterback for the long-term, and Rex Ryan still offering at least a glimmer that the high point of his coaching career might not have taken place six years ago.

If nothing else, Rex has his team playing in his preferred style, executing game plans transported in a time machine from the early 1970s. Big-play defense and a LeSean McCoy-heavy offense with enough of Taylor's passing to keep opponents from swarming the line has been enough. To revive what was looking like a lost season five days in over the last three weeks, at least, and probably this one.

The Bills and 49ers are certainly playing like their ancestors from 1972 (pictured above), coming into the day with the NFL's least- and second-least productive passing offenses, respectively. Each averages a shade more than half the passing yards per game being put up by league-leading Atlanta.

They're not the only ones. Whether it's a product of evolving defenses, crappy quarterbacking (most the superstars of the past few years spent most or all of the season's first third suspended, retired, injured or getting their brains beat in) or coaching that hasn't adjusted to either, plenty of games have been unwatchable throughout the league during the first five weeks.

Unless your team is winning.

Beating the 49ers won't prove a whole lot, beyond reinforcing the idea that Ryan's defense can smother offenses led by a quarterback who is either completely immobile (like Arizona's Carson Palmer), painfully inexperienced (Jacoby Brissett of New England) or wholly unqualified (the Rams' Case Keenum).

San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, who gets his first start of the season due more to Blaine Gabbert's Blaine Gabbertness than anything the former Super Bowl starter has accomplished on the field since that Super Bowl start, doesn't fall into the first two categories. But he may still wind up in the third, given his regression since his electrifying tear through the playoffs following the 2013 season.

Buffalo's pass rush, led by the league's most unlikely breakout of 2016, Lorenzo Alexander, has finally started looking like the dominating wave promised by Ryan when he arrived in Buffalo 21 months ago.

Aided by a crowd whose hostility level may approach the ongoing slog toward Election Day, given Kaepernick's polarizing expression of his political views, Rex's throwbacks had better be able to bludgeon another feeble offense at home, and do the same next week against the backsliding Dolphins in South Florida.

After that, one of the NFL's few teams living in the 21st Century comes to town. And they'll have that Brady guy this time.