Sunday, September 30, 2012

Hi there, Buffalo: Your Bills-Patriots Open Thread

Heading out to a remote location for today's coverage. Please feel free to share your feelings on Mr. Brady, the game, or anything else within reason, in the comments below. I will be stopping by, technology permitting.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Your Bills-Patriots Preview: Role Reversal?

What’s all this, then?

New England coming to Orchard Park trying not to fall two games behind Buffalo in the AFC East?

Ryan Fitzpatrick with twice as many touchdown passes as Tom Brady?

The Bills seeming like they have shaken off the opening-week disaster in New Jersey, while the Patriots look as if they might finally be aging badly after more than a decade of league-wide dominance?

Sunday’s matchup is a little disorienting. A visit from New England is normally cause for anxiety based on the knowledge that Brady and Bill Belichick will find a way to make the Bills look like a rather shaky high-school team before the day is over. This time, though, Buffalo actually matches up pretty well.

The commonly accepted strategy for neutralizing New England’s high-efficiency passing game, as perfected by the New York Giants in two of the last five Super Bowls, relies on getting pressure on Brady with a four-man pass rush and belting his receivers as soon as they touch the ball.

For the first time since Buffalo’s 12-season playoff drought began, its front four has shown itself capable of living up to its end.

Whether the linebackers and secondary can come through, well, that’s another matter entirely. With Aaron Hernandez sidelined and Wes Welker having fallen into disfavor with Belichick for seeking a salary commensurate with his production over the past half-decade, though, the Patriots have looked less machine-like than at any time in recent memory.

They struggled badly on offense in their home opener, losing 20-18 to Arizona. The defense crumbled at the end last Sunday night in Baltimore, giving up 10 points in the final four minutes and falling 31-30 to the Ravens.

Do not kid yourself, however. Buffalo’s offensive strength over the past two weeks – the NFL’s most productive running game, comes up against a Patriots defense yielding just 81 yards per game. If Fred Jackson – who practiced this week and is expected to play – is less than fully recovered from the knee sprain that sidelined him for the last two games, the Bills will have to control the ball with Tashard Choice running and Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing short (ideally to his teammates).

Without an explosive, or even efficient, day from Jackson and Choice, it would be left to Fitzpatrick to try and shoot it out with Brady. That worked in Week 3 last year, thanks almost wholly to some big defensive plays and a couple very fortunate bounces. Counting on that sort of freakish luck is not a sound tactical approach.

Buffalo, of course, enjoys one advantage that does not show up in the stats (which you can peruse for yourself here) or game films. The crowd at Ralph Wilson Stadium should be in a frenzy by kickoff, with a forecast calling for rain and possible thunderstorms making for an even less Brady-friendly environment.

Conventional wisdom suggests the Patriots are angry -- about last year's come-from-ahead loss here, their slow start and last week's scab-induced screw job, which wound up with Belichick forking over $50,000 for grabbing one of the scabs after the game. Whether such rage means as much to players as it does to fans and media types, or if it exists at all, is open to speculation.

So Sunday could signal a shift in the AFC East’s axis. Or a return to normalcy.

More Bills-Patriots frivolity:

If you can’t wait until tomorrow to see the Bills jump ahead early only to lose on a controversial late touchdown pass, or hear inane commentary from Phil Simms, you can do so below.

The Patriots first visited Orchard Park in December 1973, when the Bills’ home field was known as Rich Stadium, Howard Cosell’s weekly highlight narration was a national obsession and O.J. Simpson was known only as the best running back in the game.

Former Patriots linebacker and Bills tormentor Tedy Bruschi likes the Bills by three. (Editor’s note: If you only follow one Bills-related blog, make it Tim Graham’s excellent Press Coverage at If you only follow two, well, modesty forbids suggesting a second.)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

As You Were

Well, that's over.

It took turning his league into an international joke, but NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell seems to have realized that the American people will only put up with just so much, coming to terms with unionized game officials in time to get them back on the field for tonight's Browns-Ravens game.

We have no problem subsidizing oil companies at the same time they earn record profits. We have come to accept that most candidates for public office, regardless of party affiliation, are completely full of shit and settle for basing our votes on which set of lies more closely conforms with our under-informed personal worldview, or at least which liar we find less personally loathsome.

As Goodell learned this week, though, you do not, under any circumstances, mess with our football.

Sure, there were a few contrarians who tried to defend Goodell's attempt, on behalf of his owner overlords, to strip away the pension plan enjoyed by the real officials. After all, the argument went, most people in the real world no longer have pensions and the league had already forced most of its off-field employees to accept putting their retirement nest-egg into the shell game of a 401k.

Those people, however, do not have a direct impact on the NFL's product or reputation.

Others claimed that the difference between the locked-out zebras and the scabs was minimal, that blown calls are part of every sport and that the fiasco that was the first three weeks of the regular season was some sort of media creation. Then there was the spurious claim that all the official incompetence somehow made the games more exciting, because you never knew what would happen next.

Anyone taking up either of those points, though, clearly was not actually watching the games.

The ceaseless post-play huddles stretched already-long games to infuriating lengths. Worse than the lack of flow to any contest -- already a problem for the sport -- was the sense that the scabs were not trying to make sure they were getting things right, but that they were trying, without much success, to figure out what the hell was going on.

That feeling was compounded by the growing number of post-whistle scuffles and blatant cheap shots. Someone was going to get seriously hurt, not because of the inherent danger of large, muscular men running into each other at high speeds and unpredictable angles, but because those who do the hitting were feeling increasingly empowered to operate lawlessly.

Such unease probably did not have a lot to do with finally settling this mess, at least from the owners' perspective. They have long since proven that player safety is little more than a talking point and public-relations tool. Players have always been, and will always be, thoroughly replaceable. If one superstar quarterback retires due to repeated concussions, his successor is waiting on the sidelines, or in college.

What Goodell had to know could not be so easily restored, though, was the NFL's image as the slickest, best-run entity in sports and maybe all of entertainment. To paraphrase Jack Woltz, the pedophile movie mogul from The Godfather, a league in the NFL's position cannot afford to be made to look ridiculous.

In less than a month, the scabs had done just that. So, to borrow again from the greatest movie ever made, you won't see them no more.

(In case you are already feeling nostalgic for the days when the NFL abandoned the rule of law, Deadspin -- whose coverage of the whole mess was free of the sort of subservience displayed by the large outlets beholden to the NFL -- which is just about all of them -- offers up this video montage of some of the most absurd moments of the past three weeks).

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Media Day: Picking On The Scabs

(Editor's note: The following contains justifiably profane language.)

The Buffalo Bills are 2-1, tied for first in the AFC East. C.J. Spiller is out for Sunday's visit by the stumbling New England Patriots. Fred Jackson might be back.

None of that mattered Tuesday, in Buffalo or around the football-centric world, thanks to what happened Monday night in Seattle.

If any good has come from the National Football League’s latest union-breaking effort, it is that the loathsomely hapless scab refs have supplanted awkward senior portraits, highly expressive cats and your least favorite presidential candidate atop the meme-fodder charts. At least for the moment.

Late Monday night, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson arched a throw into the end zone, which Green Bay defensive back M.D. Jennings, in the eyes of any responsible adult, intercepted. So, after much huddling, tape-watching and panic, the scabs  -- the guys masquerading as game officials while the men they are undercutting are locked out by the league -- awarded the Seahawks a touchdown.

And the football game.

Then the internet blew up.

I was not watching the game, as I had reached my weekly quota for tubby guys in striped shirts huddled in confusion by the end of the Bills-Browns game on Sunday, and first learned of the debacle in Seattle via social media. MySpace, I think.

After further review, Scott Norwood's field goal at Super Bowl XXV was good,” statused Pat Murray, a veteran Western New York sportswriter-turned-media relations at Lamar University in Texas.

By morning, the wisecrack had taken the form in which most meaningful sentiments are conveyed using the latest in digital technology – block letters superimposed on photographs.

Shortly after Golden Tate was awarded what quite possibly stands as the least-legitimate touchdown in the 93-year history of the NFL, Twitter was clogged with not only the predictable array of fan and media rants, but open hostility from players around the league. Minutes after the game, Packers tackle T.J. Lang fired off this broadside at the league, which Buzzfeed reported is on pace to become the most re-Tweeted message in the history of the platform.

There would be plenty of other scab-inspired creations floating around before Tuesday was over:

And then there was the unsocial media. While every sportswriter in America felt morally required to weigh in on the scabs (SPOILER ALERT: They’re bad!), Greg Bishop of the New York Times captured the moment and its aftermath with succinct precision.

In summary: the player who caught the winning score clearly pushed off to do so. He did not appear to really catch anything. One referee signaled a touchdown for the hometown Seahawks. Another seemingly signaled an interception for Green Bay.

For its part, the National Football League issued a bizarre statement that simultaneously said, "Oops!" and "Cram it."

While the ball is in the air, Tate can be seen shoving Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields to the ground. This should have been a penalty for offensive pass interference, which would have ended the game. It was not called and is not reviewable in instant replay. ...

Referee Wayne Elliott determined that no indisputable visual evidence existed to overturn the call on the field, and as a result, the on-field ruling of touchdown stood. The NFL Officiating Department reviewed the video today and supports the decision not to overturn the on-field ruling following the instant replay review.
The result of the game is final.

Then came the calls for the head and/or genitalia of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, blamed by the reasonable and unreasonable alike for creating this mess in the first place. As Drew Magary wrote on Deadspin (which provides a comprehensive rundown of its scab-ref coverage here):

He's presided over two consecutive primetime NFL games that stand among the greatest farces in the history of organized sports, if you don't count the other equally buttfucked 48 games this season. The final touchdown call last night wasn't even the worst call of the game, which is amazing because that was a fucking horrific call (look at the pictures from the catch; it'll tell you more about the play than watching the video). Goodell has somehow succeeded in making NFL games feel utterly meaningless, and I don't know how you can fuck things up any worse than that.

With no progress yet reported on ending the Goodell-imposed lockout of its real, remotely competent officials, the NFL appears bent on giving it its best shot at doing just that this weekend.

In the meantime, We Want Marangi eagerly awaits the creation of an angry cat/scab ref meme.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bye, Bye, Brian

The Buffalo Bills cut the best punter they have ever had on Tuesday.

By any measurable standard, Brian Moorman outkicked Chris Mohr and Paul Maguire, the only other  two Buffalo punters in the conversation, by a good distance.

Moorman was three games into his 12th season in Buffalo, putting him more than a year ahead of his predecessor, Mohr, on the Bills’ punting longevity chart. Moorman’s replacement, rookie  Shawn Powell, will be only Buffalo’s third punter since 1990.

He did not merely hang around, though. Moorman’s ability to kick long, high and to precise spots on the field made him Buffalo’s most valuable player in more than a few games, particularly during the depths of the Mularkey-Jauron years, which spanned the second half of the preceding decade.

While this says at least as much about the feebleness of those teams as it does about Mohr’s ability to kick a ball that he had just intentionally dropped before it hit the ground, he routinely provided a field-position advantage to teammates who desperately needed it.

Moorman’s value earned him a prominent place in a column I wrote long ago, and far away.

Back in August, while walking up to Ralph Wilson Stadium for the exhibition game against Cincinnati, I noticed that the ticket provided by Gary, BillStuff's gracious host for the evening, bore the image of Brian Moorman.

Usually, such high-profile placement is reserved for the quarterback, or running back, or a star defender. Not the guy who only gets to do his job when his teammates have failed at theirs.

"You know, putting your punter on the tickets doesn't exactly instill confidence," I said.

"No," Gary said. "No, it doesn't."

Moorman more than earned such recognition in the game I was writing about, Buffalo’s 16-6 win over Miami in September 2006. Five of his six punts landed inside the Dolphins’ 20-yard line, with four pinning them inside their own 10.

There were more than a few days like that. He also kicked with a consistency that kept him around for more than 11 years. He was also the greatest fake-field-goal holder the Bills have ever had, throwing a touchdown pass in 2008 and another in 2009, giving him a perfect passing rating of 158.3 for both seasons.

His off-field work with various local charities, particularly his own foundation to benefit children with cancer and other serious diseases, helped make him as popular as a punter could possibly hope.

This summer, he almost lost the punting job to Powell, a first-team All-American at Florida State last year, in training camp. Evidently, the Bills decided this week that Moorman had lost a few feet on his kicks, or could no longer place the ball exactly where it would be most beneficial to their coverage schemes.

The 6-foot-4, 248-pound Powell has a big leg, averaging 44.8 yards per kick in the preseason. Moorman’s value, though, came just as much from his consistency catching the ball, on punts and field goal attempts, and kicking it away quickly (just two blocked punts, nine years apart, blemish his statistical resume. Like Mohr before him, he thrived in the swirling winds and icy rain and snow of late fall in Western New York.

Can a guy who has done all of his big-game punting in the relatively balmy American Southeast bear up as well under the weather? The answer will be as important as the strength of Powell’s leg in determining whether he lasts nearly as long as the best punter in Buffalo’s football history.