Sunday, December 29, 2013

Coulda Been A Pretender


(NOTE: In an effort to stave off the inevitable onset of carpel tunnel syndrome, as well as avoid burning off potentially useful analyses, memories or gratuitous cheap shots on meaningless football games, We Want Marangi has taken its cue from Doug Marrone's cautious handling of E.J. Manuel and remained on the sidelines in street clothes the last few weeks.

During our hiatus, the Bills squelched the annual regional debate over winning games vs. securing better draft position by winning two straight, one each with Manuel and Thaddeus Lewis behind center. Lewis is starting today in New England, but WWM forges on, anyway.)

The last Sunday of 2013 -- both the calendar year and the NFL regular season -- feels like a good time to look back on what might have been.

Buffalo heads into Foxborough with a chance to a chance to match the franchise's best record of the last nine seasons (yes, by finishing 7-9, but still) and deny longtime tormentor New England a chance at a first-round bye and a longer shot at home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs.

Rather grotesque losses in New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Tampa make such a suggestion sound rather goofy, but there could have, maybe even should have, been a lot more at stake.

Looking back at a campaign every bit as erratic as you would expect from a team with a rookie general manager, coach, quarterback, middle linebacker and No. 2 wide receiver, it's not a stretch to see more than half of Buffalo's nine losses as victories left dangling from the jaws of defeat. Particularly if you suffer from the sort of viral delusion required to convince yourself to buy season tickets every year, or even block off three Sunday-afternoon hours 16 times per annum.

The Saints, Steelers and Bucs kicked the Bills around. No discussion worth having there.

But the season opener against the Patriots, the overtime loss to Cincinnati, the Jeff Tuel Game against then-undefeated Kansas City and the Foreign Fumble Festival in Toronto were all a single play from going the other way.

As bad as Manuel -- and everyone else wearing a football uniform looked in New Jersey, he had the ball in his hands, down by a touchdown, with two minutes left.

And he led them into position to take the lead in Cleveland before absorbing one of the several knee injuries that rendered his long-term viability as The Man impossible to evaluate.

Flip any two of those six results, and Buffalo is 8-7, in a four-way tie with Miami, Baltimore and San Diego in pursuit of the final AFC playoff berth. Make it three, and the Bills face Tom Brady today in control their own destiny (one of my favorite sports cliches, as it implies that the eternal fate of everyone employed by the franchise rests on earning the right to get blown out in a road playoff game).

This is not to say the Bills necessarily deserve such an opportunity, or that any of the half-dozen tough losses enumerated above were in any way unjust.

But if Manuel's performance this year rates as maddeningly incomplete, the same can't be said of Marrone. His team goes into the finale playing its best football of his first NFL-head-coaching season, with a chance to severely damage the postseason outlook of a division rival for a second straight week. And they're doing so with what has quietly turned into a dominant pass rush, the foundation for a defense built on making the sort of plays largely absent for most of Buffalo's 14-year playoff abstention.

So, whether today ends with the the vengeful satisfaction of finally winning a game at Gillette Stadium or by getting run out of it, there's that, and the knowledge that it's almost next year. Again.

Vintage program cover illustration lifted from the excellent repository of historical Bills images at a Facebook page called War Memorial Stadium. If you haven't checked it out, you should.












Saturday, December 14, 2013

Keep The Faith, Or Go In The Tank?


Last Sunday’s ceaselessly putrid performance in Tampa -- a 27-6 drubbing of the Bills by the Buccaneers, for those with mercifully short memories -- did a number of things:

--All but guaranteed that Buffalo’s football season will end before the NFL playoffs begin for the 14th straight season (the general crappiness of the AFC this season means that only the 2-11 Houston Texans have been officially eliminated, but there's no way we're doing the mental gymnastics on that).

--Assured that, for the 13th time in that span, the Bills will not finish with a winning record or even, for the 11th time, manage to win even half their games.


As a result of No. 3, above, We Want Marangi will cease even attempting to draw any sort of long-term conclusions from Buffalo’s most recent performance, nor will we try to guess at how they will fare going forward.

At least until Monday.

In the meantime, there is still plenty to discuss. Such as, is it more noble to hope for a victory over the Jaguars that can do absolutely nothing to end a playoff drought that dates to the first week of the 2000s, or to pull for the Bills to lose Sunday, and again at home a week later to Miami, and then again in New England in the season finale?

A season-ending five-game losing streak would finalize Buffalo’s record at 4-12. A look at the standings shows that would make the Bills a much stronger contender for a top-five draft pick in the 2014 draft than they have been for a playoff berth at any point in the last couple months. There are those who find this idea appealing. In some parts, this is known as fantanking.

In other words, thanks to Stevie Johnson’s fumble in Toronto and the entire roster’s sudden inability to play football in Tampa, we get to have the same conversation that has dominated mid- to late-December discussion of the Bills every year but one, the shameful tease that turned out to be 2004, out of the last 14.


We Want Marangi has a few thoughts on the topic, most ofwhich were expressed beyond our capabilities by Deadspin’s Drew Magary (as ever, masterful use of profanity abounds, beginning with the headline).

Read the whole thing if you're thinking it might be fun to cheer for failure on the next three Sundays, but these three grafs, in particular, nail why it's such a shitty thing to do:

At its best, your love of a sports team is an unconditional love. You love them when they suck. You love them when they fuck you out of ticket money. You love them when half the defense gets busted hosting an orgy at the local YWCA. And the way that your team pays you back for that love—when they deign to—is by winning, by offering you a fleeting moment of glory in between all that dreck. So you better enjoy those wins when they bother to pick up a few, instead of rooting for them to lose game after game after game just so you can have 15 minutes in the sun while watching the goddamn draft.
Because the more often your team loses, the more likely it is that it will fuck up that draft pick anyway. I'm not gonna dismiss the drama of a three-hour regular season game just so my team will make an even more egregious drafting error. My team—the Vikings—are a franchise that has drafted two All-Pro players (Kevin Williams and Bryant McKinnie) after FORGETTING to draft where they were fucking supposed to. They drafted McKinnie even though they wanted to take Ryan Sims, who turned out to be a huge bust. That's where fantanking gets you: a higher draft pick that ends up sucking and leading you to more fantanking. Last Sunday's game was one of three remarkable games featuring teams (Vikings, Browns, Steelers) who were all but out of playoff contention, and those games were only remarkable if you gave a shit.
And trust me: It's more fun to give a shit, even if the team loses. It's more fun to maintain the bullshit "sense of duty" to your team, so that you can Lord it over casual fans and become emotionally invested—EXCITED!—by whatever game you happen to be watching. The Super Bowl cannot be the only goal of a fan. You will drive yourself out of your mind if that's all you care about because most teams don't win the thing.
If you find the whole topic depressing, read this -- a wrenching look at two men who never made it home from the Bills-Dolphins Thursday night game in November 2012 -- before kickoff. WWM guarantees an afternoon watching the Bills and Jaguars, no matter how thorough their ineptitude, will be positively uplifting by comparison.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Little Perspective, Please


Yes, Buffalo is 4-8 with one quarter of the season remaining, clinging to only the most delusional of playoff hopes, thanks to that ulcerating overtime giveaway in Toronto last Sunday.

Contrary to myriad social-media wails and drunken sports-talk calls, however, a look at recent history suggests these are not the same old Bills.

E.J. Manuel rebounded from the worst performance of his rookie year in Pittsburgh with a pair of outings that showed why Buffalo made him the first quarterback drafted last spring and heads into today's game in Tampa with an interception percentage equal to Tom Brady's.

Buffalo's young defense leads the NFL in sacks and ranks No. 2 in interceptions -- both of which have been painfully infrequent during a playoff drought on pace to reach 14 seasons in a few weeks.

C.J. Spiller's ankle has healed to the point where he's a threat to break one every time he touches the ball, with Fred Jackson as productive as ever behind an offensive line that appears to be gelling after a lousy day in Pittsburgh.

Robert Woods -- another rookie -- leads a group of receivers whose weakest link is its only proven veteran. Not to keep beating up on Stevie Johnson, or anything.

Manuel, Woods and linebacker Kiko Alonso lead Buffalo's most impressive draft class since ... when? Maybe 1985?

A pair of off-field rookies, Dougs Whaley and Marrone, get a lot of the credit there, as well as for keeping the Bills out what has been their annual late-season death spiral.

To help those with understandably short memories, We Want Marangi offers the following look at Buffalo's recent football history, replete with the Bills' record after 12 games, what happened from there, and their outlook heading into the offseason.

2012 (5-7): The Bills, C.J. Spiller in particular, ran all over Jacksonville in their 12th game. They built on that win with a sloppy loss to St. Louis (at home, no less), a humiliation against Seattle in Toronto and a lifeless road loss in Miami, before closing things out with a win over a Jets team playing out the string on the Mark Sanchez era.

By the end of a 6-10 campaign, the departures of Chan Gailey and Ryan Fitzpatrick were foregone conclusions. And it was tough to get too jazzed about the prospect of Buddy Nix overseeing yet another rebuilding project.

2011 (5-7): A 23-17 loss at home to Tennessee was the fifth of what would become seven straight defeats after a 5-2 start built almost entirely on turnovers and other fortunate bounces. Buffalo's only win after that promising beginning would come on Christmas Eve, thanks to Tim Tebow's rather stunning display of ineptitude.

The first two months, illusory as they may have been, were enough to convince the front office that Buffalo could go somewhere with Gailey and Fitzpatrick leading the way, despite the 6-10 finish. As seen below, the Bills have been much better at clinging to that sort of baseless optimism than at playing football over the past 14 years.

2010 (2-10): The Vikings hammered Buffalo 38-14, even though Tarvaris Jackson threw three interceptions for Minnesota, thanks to four lost fumbles by the Bills and three touchdowns from Adrian Peterson.

It was Gailey's first season and not being Dick Jauron was still enough to curry goodwill with the locals, despite starting out 0-8. "Hey, we played .500 ball in the second half!"

2009 (4-8): The Jets ran all over Buffalo in another putrid Toronto game. The defense gave up 249 rushing yards, while Fitzpatrick lit up the Rogers Centre with a 98-yard passing day. Somehow, the score was only 19-13.

Jauron had finally been fired after a 3-6 start, a couple weeks after giving up on Trent Edwards, providing some basis for optimism on both counts. Those relatively good feelings were based on the notion that Ralph Wilson, still making the final decision on such matters, would find a coach and quarterback that any other team might want. He hired Gailey and settled for Fitzpatrick.

2008 (6-6): A putrid 10-3 loss to San Francisco completed the fall to .500 after a 5-1 start. Edwards and J.P. Losman split the game at quarterback, thanks to the former's lingering groin injury, despite Buffalo outgaining the 49ers 350-195.

It was the beginning of a 1-4 season-closing skid during which the Bills failed to score a touchdown three times, sealing their third 7-9 record in as many seasons under Jauron.

2007 (6-6): The Bills, who had started out 1-4, reached .500 with perhaps the most laborious comeback in franchise history -- four straight Rian Lindell field goals overcame a 16-5 deficit -- thanks to Washington coach Joe Gibbs thoroughly outsmarting himself.

A week after that 17-16 road victory, Edwards threw four touchdown passes, while Fred Jackson (who made his first career start against Washington) and Marshawn Lynch each ran for more than 100 yards, as Buffalo put themselves in prime position for a wild-card berth with a 38-17 win over Miami.

The Bills responded to the opportunity by getting shut out in a Cleveland blizzard, then meekly dropping two their last two to finish 7-9. But they had apparently found a quarterback after a promising rookie season from Edwards, a pair of productive young running backs in Jackson and Lynch, so, hey, next year, right?

We would keep going, but you get the idea.

Hoping for Buffalo's first playoff berth since 1999 requires contortions of reason which WWM is not prepared to perform at this time. But denying that the Bills are in better shape than they've been in almost as long amounts to an even greater denial of reality.








Monday, December 2, 2013

Stevie Stripped In Toronto

Don't know about you, but We Want Marangi has seen enough of Stevie Johnson.

You can live with a receiver who drops the occasional pass. Happens to the best of them.


To Johnson's credit, he eliminated the dumb celebration penalties that marked his first couple seasons as a starter. Of course, he's hasn't caused a lot of celebrations recently, either.

The periodic grousing over his role in the offense, the state of the Bills or whatever else is bothering him aren't all that unusual for a game-breaking receiver.

If, that is, he's breaking games the right way.

But if you're going to require the head coach to sit you down for a heart-to-heart chat after your team's most impressive win of the season, it's pretty lousy form to fumble the next one away.

Which is exactly what Johnson did on Sunday in Toronto.



Yes, there were other pivotal plays in Buffalo's wrenching 34-31 overtime loss to Atlanta.

Scott Chandler's fumble on E.J. Manuel's next completed pass put the Falcons within a few yards of the winning field goal. Nickell Robey's jersey grab put Atlanta three feet from the tying touchdown.

But neither of those plays would have all but guaranteed a Buffalo win had they gone the other way.

Chandler gave up the ball at least 20 yards from field-goal range.

The flag on Robey was equally the result of Harry Douglass slipping on the crappy makeshift field in Toronto's crappy makeshift football stadium. And given Buffalo's lack of so much as a slow-down corner to cover Roddy White, coming up with a stop on fourth-and-16 was no sure thing, either.

Johnson, though, caught E.J. Manuel's third-and-1 toss at Atlanta's 38-yard line, turned upfield, and within a few steps was well within Dan Carpenter's range. All he had to do was not fumble.

You would think a guy in his sixth NFL season would have wrapped both arms around the ball and, unless he had an unobstructed path to the sideline, charged straight ahead until tackled.

Johnson did not have to get out of bounds, since Buffalo had a timeout remaining.

He did not have to struggle for additional yardage. If Johnson were tackled where he fumbled, Carpenter would have faced a 48-yard attempt. He has made 20 of 21 from less than 50 yards out this year.

All he had to do was not fumble.

Maybe Johnson did not realize where he was on the field. Or maybe he had visions of sprinting into the end zone for the winning points himself, exorcising the frustrations of a season plagued by injuries, both his own and those endured by Buffalo's rotating cast of quarterbacks.

Either way, he should have known better. He had to know better. For all his good qualities as a receiver, the ability to run routes, get himself open and make difficult receptions, breaking big plays after the catch is not one of them. We're not talking about Andre Reed here.

All he had to do was not fumble.

But because he did, the Bills are two games out of the playoff chase with four remaining and six teams ahead of them for the final spot. The competitive portion of their season is over.

The same can not be said of Johnson's career in Buffalo, due to the five-year contract he signed before last season. Johnson accounts for $8.5 million against the salary cap if he's on the team in 2014 and $8.475 million if the Bills were to release him.

That's not going to happen. Getting him to agree to re-work his deal or finding a trade partner willing to take on that contract for a decent possession receiver isn't much more likely.

For all the problems the Bills had with coverage and tackling, they also had two long runs by C.J. Spiller, two touchdowns from Fred Jackson, two more -- and zero turnovers -- from Manuel, and six sacks from the most productive pass rush they've had since the prime of Bruce Smith.

It should have added up to a victory, even in front of the feeblest "home" crowd for a game since the two-man-wave days of the mid-1980s.

All he had to do was not fumble.

****


On a lighter note, Rob Ford, Toronto's sort-of-mayor, did show up, and did so wearing a somewhat oversized Fred Jackson jersey.

He allegedly did not smoke any crack, or otherwise bring shame to his city or amusement to the rest of the world. Other than a Canadian musician's claim that Ford stole his seat, and the photo above, it was a real letdown.

But thanks to Buffalo's increasingly mystifying commitment to our friends to the north, there's always next year.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

WWM Wonders WWRFD (What Will Rob Ford Do?)

Amid this week's panic-inducing (at least for the easily panicked) reports that Jon Bon Jovi plans to smuggle the Bills across the border, and the prospect of sitting through Buffalo's traditionally awkward neutral-site game at Rogers Centre, there is some good news.

Rob Ford will be there.

Toronto's mayor-in-name-only has been disappointingly quiet since bull-rushing a city councillor a couple weeks back.


No new videos causing Ford to issue another, "What do you expect? I was hammered!" explanation.

No intimate discussions of his married life.

Nothing, really, but a few interviews in which he offers his unique thoughts on leadership.

Ford has remained in the Toronto headlines, kicking off a 2014 re-election campaign that, despite everything, seems to have some supporters. But he has not produced the sort of did-he-really-do-that moment that scores interviews on American news networks and inspires Saturday Night Live sketches in a while now.

This can mean only one thing.

The man is due.

Maybe Ford will crash the Fox broadcast booth and regale Dick Stockton and Ronde Barber with details of the coup being orchestrated against him.

Maybe he will run onto the field before the opening kickoff, grab the ball off the tee and pretend to be a quarterback before collapsing.



Or maybe he'll demonstrate his ability to retain his faculties while intoxicated by sliding down a rail in the upper deck.

Whether Ford chooses one of the above, or, more likely, comes up with something no one could have possibly predicted, We Want Marangi fervently hopes that he does so wearing a form-fitting Bills jersey. The CFL's Toronto Argonauts have suggested -- in typically restrained Canadian tones -- that they might prefer he not wear their gear during his escapades.

But it seems that during one of the publicity tours for the annual Toronto trip, someone must have provided the mayor with a Bills sweater (as our Canadian friends call it). Preferably, one of the gruesome multiple-shades-of-blue, gray, red and white numbers they modeled through the 2000s.

Please, Mayor Ford -- don't let us down.

***

The game itself features two teams that appear headed in diametrically opposed directions. For this week, at least.

The Bills return from their bye as healthy as they've been all season, with Kyle Williams' late-week back problem the only source of concern on the injury list, looking to build on their rather comprehensive thumping of the New York Jets against one of the NFL's biggest disappointments. Winning two in a row for the first time this year would put Buffalo at 5-7, one game out of the second wild-card spot in the crashingly mediocre AFC with one quarter of the season remaining.

Atlanta, coming off a 13-3 record and tight loss to San Francisco in the NFC title game last year, was supposed to be jockeying for home-field advantage in the playoffs. Instead, the Falcons have lost five straight, along with any semblance of a running game (31st in the NFL) or run defense (29th), and find themselves tied with Jacksonville and Houston in the race for the first pick in next spring's draft.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has shown a propensity for being sacked and intercepted, while Buffalo is tied for second in the former category and first in the latter.

E.J. Manuel, meanwhile, faces an Atlanta defense that has produced just six interceptions, a big reason the Falcons are at minus-12 in giveaway/takeaway. C.J. Spiller should have every opportunity to finally break loose, as well.

If the Bills are to sustain or improve their mathematical chances at that last playoff spot, a win of any sort will do nicely. To make a real run at separating themselves from the Ravens-Dolphins-Jets-Titans-Steelers-Chargers mess in the middle of the AFC standings, the Falcons are the sort of struggling team on which they need to drop the hammer.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Another WWM Holiday Classic: Thanksgiving, Marangi Style


(Originally posted Nov. 22, 2012)

Chris Brown of buffalobills.com looks at five of the team's most memorable Thanksgiving performances, not including the 1968 game in Oakland we explored earlier.

Pete Gogolak (pictured) starred in two of the featured games. And this blog's namesake played a prominent role in No. 5, Detroit's 27-14 win over the Bills in 1976 at the Pontiac Superdome, when O.J. Simpson broke his own NFL single-game record by running for 273 yards.

Thanks to the bizarre workings of my brain, I remember watching that game. Even though I was eight, I remember thinking, "They're not even trying to stop O.J."

That was because the Lions led 20-0 in the third quarter and had absolutely no worries about Gary Marangi leading a comeback through the air. The one-time fan favorite did nothing to shake their confidence, completing four of his 21 passes for all of 29 yards.

So the Lions sat back in a prevent defense and let O.J. eat up the yards and the clock. Head coach Jim Ringo apparently decided to give up on trying to win and focused on getting the purely superficial record for Simpson, who never had a problem putting himself ahead of the team. Either that, or Ringo, who had taken over when Lou Saban quit earlier in the season, could not bear to watch Marangi try to throw any longer.

I was really hoping to find the NFL Films highlights of this game, largely to see Marangi in action. No such luck, but the WWM research department will keep looking.

WWM Holiday Classic: Thanksgiving 1968


(Originally posted Nov. 22, 2012)

The Bills haven't played on Thanksgiving Day since 1994, but they were once an after-dinner staple.

Back in the American Football League days, the Bills made an annual late-season swing to the West Coast. This was partly to save on travel costs, and partly to avoid Buffalo weather in late November and December. Three straight AFL Championship Game appearances in the mid-1960s made the Bills attractive to network programmers, as well.

So it was that Buffalo took part in five Thanksgiving games over a six-year span. In 1968, the Bills took a miserable 1-10-1 record into Oakland, where the Raiders were rolling towards the playoffs and a shot at defending the AFL title they had won in 1967 behind Daryle Lamonica.

Having traded away Lamonica and with Jack Kemp and every other quarterback still on the roster sidelined with injuries, the Bills were left with Ed Rutkowski at quarterback.

We have written about this dark period in Bills history before, but it's worth revisiting for a couple reasons.

For one, an extended highlight originally embedded in this post before someone got all copyright-y and had it yanked from YouTube, provided a nice taste of 1968, from the jazzy soundtrack to the shots of people dressed like grown-ups in the stands.

It also showed that, as much as times and fashions change, the Buffalo Bills do not. You can imagine your turkey-and-Genesee-laden ancestors settling in front of their 19-inch Philco and seeing the underdogs outplay the ominous Raiders for much of the afternoon.

Then they fall behind, only to rally to the brink of a stunning, nationally televised upset.

Finally, just six feet away from victory, they blow it, with their would-be hero fumbling the game away.

The defeat did help the Bills secure the draft rights to USC running back O.J. Simpson. And despite the fumble, leading Buffalo to a hollow moral victory with most of the area watching on television helped Rutkowski to a long career in local politics.

Since it's a holiday, we'll leave you to come up with your own cynical remarks about all that.




Tuesday, November 19, 2013

'We Just Lost To The (Expletive Deleted) Buffalo Bills'


Mrs. We Want Marangi was stunned upon returning from a quick Sunday-afternoon trip to the store.

"Holy crap," she said after seeing that what had been Buffalo's field-goal lead over the New York Jets when she left had mushroomed into a blowout in progress.

After managing all of 16 points over the previous two weeks as their season seemed to slip into the sub-mediocrity all too familiar in these parts, the Bills put up 17 in less than three minutes, wiping away the futility of outplaying Kansas City in every phase of the game except activating the scoreboard, then coming up short in every area in Pittsburgh.

Holy crap, indeed.

Buffalo's second-quarter outburst included T.J. Graham finally demonstrating that he does have some awareness of what is going on around him on a football field, Kyle Williams nearly severing the hand of Geno Smith, Frank Summers showing an ability to accomplish something other than illegally blocking on kick returns and Jairus Byrd justifying his stated desire to be one of the game's highest-paid safeties.

The avalanche was triggered not by a Buffalo big play, but an incredibly ill-timed Jets mistake.

Looking to build on that 3-0 edge, E.J. Manuel had guided the Bills to a third-and-4 at New York's 36-yard line when Sheldon Richardson, Kiko Alonso's main competition for the NFL's top defensive rookie honors, stuffed a screen pass to Fred Jackson for a 1-yard loss.

A promising drive ending in a punt made it appear Buffalo would have all of six points to show for Manuel's first six quarters since returning from the knee injury that kept him out for a month. And a defensive breakdown of the sort that doomed the Bills in each of their three straight losses would prove a direct route to a fourth.

Not that the increasingly demoralizing defeats to the Saints, Chiefs and Steelers had created a pessimistic air around the WWM offices, or anything.

It was perfectly naturally, however, for anyone who has watched Buffalo play football over the past 13.6 seasons to expect a game-breaking punt return from the Jets. Or, failing that, a wind-aided bomb from Smith to Santonio Holmes, whom the Bills secondary has shown a severe aversion to covering.

Either way, the anticipation of New York finding its way to a halftime lead or tie that would negate all Buffalo's good works to that point grew as the punting unit lined up.

Then Leger Douzable jumped.

As referee Bill Levy emphasized while making the call, the Jets defensive lineman's neutral-zone infraction did not result in a Buffalo first down. It did, however, make it fourth-and-1 from New York's 33.

The down, distance and field position may have triggered unpleasant memories of coaching decisions past. You would have expected Chan Gailey, Mike Mularkey or, especially, Gregg Williams to send out the punt team. Dick Jauron might have taken an intentional delay-of-game to give back the five yards before punting.

Doug Marrone's Bills, though, not only went for it, but dusted off the near-forgotten -- in these parts, at least -- quarterback sneak.

For the second time on the drive.

And it worked. By half a football, but it worked.

Two plays later, Manuel lofted one down the left sideline, into a gusting wind to create a twisting pop-up that thoroughly flummoxed Jets rookie Dee Milliner, just as it had Stephon Gilmore on a Smith lob to Holmes in the first quarter. And, for once, T.J. Graham DID know where the ball was, coming back to grab it and angle into the end zone for a 10-0 Buffalo lead.

Buffalo's first touchdown carried a fluky flavor, but the rest of Manuel's day did not. He was accurate on his short throws early, when the Jets' coverage dared him to throw short, and on deep balls after New York tightened things up and challenged him to go long -- particularly the 43-yard strike to Marquies Goodwin that made it 27-7 and effectively ended the competitive portion of the contest.

Even the running game did its part, despite a rather gruesome stat line: 38 attempts for 68 yards, or 1.8 yards per try. Buffalo's persistence kept the Jets stacked to stop the run, leaving the secondary exposed for Manuel to exploit.

The defense made it possible for that offensive patience, with turnovers forced by Kyle Williams and Byrd fueling that 17-point outburst and Da'Norris Searcy's leaping, twisting interception producing the final Buffalo touchdown in a 37-14 runaway, the first of Marrone's tenure.

By that point, Smith looked thoroughly lost, thanks to a pass rush that posted four sacks, as well as a disorienting hit by Marcell Dareus on his first attempt.

The Jets on the whole were pretty flustered during, and after, the game.

"Right now, we just lost to the (expletive deleted) Buffalo Bills," said a dismayed Willie Colon in response to a question about New York's playoff prospects after falling to 5-5.

The 4-7 Bills, meanwhile, head into their bye week with Manuel (who outplayed Smith by a significantly larger margin than Smith bested him in New Jersey in September), Graham and Goodwin coming off their best days as professionals, and Byrd (two interceptions and a sack) having made his biggest impact since returning from his holdout and seemingly overcoming a nagging case of plantar fasciitis.

After that, they return to complete a schedule that includes Atlanta (in Toronto, where WWM fervently hopes Mayor Rob Ford makes an appearance, perhaps running across the field clad only in a very large l'Unifolie), Tampa Bay and Jacksonville -- the top contenders for next spring's first overall draft pick -- and a home game against the wildly inconsistent Dolphins.

Two days later, Buffalo's complete reversal of form against the Jets is no less remarkable, even if it has gotten buried by a thoroughly fabricated non-story about what visitors did the night before the game and how some genius managed to somehow not kill himself and an unsuspecting fan below.

We're a couple of more wins away -- by a team that has not won two straight since the second and third weeks of 2012 -- from even contemplating playoff scenarios. But with a week off after a game in which the punter dropping a wind-blown snap was their most serious mistake, the final third of the Bills' season is suddenly a lot more interesting than it appeared a week ago.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

'Come On In, Let's Huddle Up, Talk About The Buffalo Bills'


We'll be honest -- we haven't watched a moment of New York Jets football since the rather heinous Week 3 game in New Jersey.

So We Want Marangi asked the greatest Jet of all to break down today's rematch at Ralph Wilson Stadium for us (and by "asked," we mean "found this clip on YouTube").


OK, so Joe doesn't really tell us anything we don't already know -- New York would like to run the ball, newly signed Ed Reed will probably play, and coming off a bye week lets players rest and heal.

But it's worth watching for Broadway Joe's animated enthusiasm, which survives despite his recent strained relationship with the franchise he led to one of the great upsets in sports history, as well as the array of screen caps from his other ventures into the realm of online video.

He does not mention a Jets defensive line that keys the NFL's top run defense, as well as a pass rush that sacked E.J. Manuel eight times in September.

New York picked up Reed after he was waived by Houston to help a secondary that has not been nearly as dominant. Any chance of Buffalo exploiting that relative weakness relies on Manuel remaining upright, a group of receivers missing starters Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods getting open, and Manuel overcoming the forecast wind and rain to get them the ball.

Interestingly, the greatest quarterback ever to wear the green and white (and there really is no No. 2), does not mention Manuel or the second quarterback taken in last spring's draft, Geno Smith.

Thanks to New York's defense and revived running game, which carried the Jets to a 26-20 upset of New Orleans in their last game before their bye, Smith hasn't had to do a whole lot. And he hasn't, going 8-of-19 for 115 yards against New Orleans.

Manuel was even less effective in his first game back after missing a month, and the Jets don't figure to make things any easier, especially with starting wideouts Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods sidelined, leaving the pass-catching to an array of rookies and underachievers.

So while the Manuel-Smith rematch might be the most obvious story line going in, the outcome will probably depend on a bunch of factors neither of them can control (especially if the Jets match Pittsburgh's success in keeping Spiller and Jackson from getting loose).

Which, given Buffalo's matchup problems today -- explored in greater detail here by Niagara Falls native, former WWM colleague and Gang Green devotee Lyle Fitzsimmons -- might be the Bills' best-case scenario.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Manuel's Inglorious Return


After spending a good part of the last three days trying to come up with a simple explanation for what went wrong for the Bills in general, and E.J. Manuel in particular, on Sunday in Pittsburgh, We Want Marangi's investigative team has reached an inescapable conclusion.

There isn't one.

There are a number of reasons that Manuel, making his sixth professional start after missing a month with the second significant injury of his rookie year, was not ready to mentally digest and physically react to the defensive schemes devised by Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator for the better part of the last two decades. (Jeremy White of WGR offers a breakdown of the various looks LeBeau threw at Manuel, as well as the generally grim results, using the coaches' film now available at NFL.com to members of the general public with way too much time to spend on such things.)

Aside from LeBeau's strategizing, there were the cold, windy conditions at Heinz Field, generally a pretty brutal place for much more accomplished quarterbacks and teams to get much of anything done offensively.

And a battered receiving corps that, after Stevie Johnson hobbled off with a sore groin, offered Manuel the following array of targets for much of the fourth quarter: wide receivers Marques Goodwin (eight NFL regular-season receptions before Sunday), Chris Hogan (three) and Marcus Easley (zero), as well as tight end Chris Gragg (also zero).

Not to mention a running game that never got going, even with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson the healthiest they have both been at the same time in a couple of months.

A defense that got worn down by a previously feeble Steelers running game and had trouble getting off the field (the Steelers were 6-of-9 on third-down conversions in the first half as they took a 10-3 lead, as well as physical control of the game) did not help, either, putting additional pressure on an already-shaky Manuel.

This being the internet, where even the most reasonable of explanations for just about anything get summarily dismissed as excuses, it is easy to forget all those other factors when Manuel looked as bad as he did.

No question, Sunday was Manuel's worst day since arriving in Buffalo. He missed badly on a fade to Johnson from the 1-yard line, turning Jairus Byrd's 57-yard interception return into a field goal that felt like a turnover. He also missed low and wide at various times, and too many of his completions required the receiver to reach back or come to a dead stop, negating any chance of breaking free after the catch.

As noted by Doug Marrone after the game, Manuel's footwork was a big part of the problem. Rather than setting his feet in the pocket, he appeared to be running in place from the time he took the snap until making a throw, robbing his passes of accuracy and zip, both particularly crucial given the blustery conditions and diverse coverage schemes they had to travel through.

Those issues are especially troubling with the New York Jets coming to town Sunday. The Jets, you may recall, sacked Manuel eight times while harassing him into his previous worst day as a pro when the teams met in New Jersey.

If there's any consolation to a display that triggered memories of departed Buffalo quarterbacks we would rather not mention, it's that several of his more acclaimed and/or experienced peers had pretty lousy Week 10s, as well.

Neither reigning Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco of Baltimore or Ryan Tannehill, in his second full season as Miami's starter, completed a pass that traveled more than 15 yards downfield.

Last year's other Super Bowl quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, didn't hit on a throw more than 10 yards past the line and got sacked six times (stats on the collective futility of Flacco, Tannehill and Kaepernick gleaned from ESPN's weekly power rankings) in San Francisco's 10-9 loss to Carolina. At home.

Even Andrew Luck, the 2012 first overall pick with a 17-7 record as a starter heading into Week 10, threw four interceptions and took three sacks in Indy's 38-8 loss to the Rams. Also at home. (Yes, Luck also completed 31-of-52 passes for 421 yards, which proves only how empty passing statistics can be when compiled while trailing hopelessly.)

None of which is meant to rationalize Manuel's struggles. But even the best quarterbacks have terrible days J.P. Losman had some pretty good ones, while Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick put together extended early-season stretches -- in 2008 and '11, respectively -- strong enough to make you think the Bills finally might have had the position figured out, before reality set in.

When you consider Manuel has yet to take first-team reps for more than a month straight as a professional, it would be pretty short-sighted to think Sunday is as good as he is going to get, or that there is any point in discussing any other options in the immediate or longer-term future.

Marrone -- who might want to talk to offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett about designing some goal-line pass plays that don't so obviously look like pass plays before the snap -- seems ready to give Manuel every possible chance. The rookie coach chose to stick with his rookie quarterback with the outcome still in doubt in the third quarter, rather than give relative veteran Thaddeus Lewis a shot at sustaining Buffalo's already wishful playoff hopes.

Either Manuel, Marrone and Hackett will work things out, or not. If they don't, it won't be for lack of opportunity, and that decision won't be made until at least a year from now.

NFL.com's Marc Sessler offered a list of 12 teams that will or could be looking for a new starting quarterback in the offseason. The Bills, having invested so heavily in Manuel, were not among them.

Unless Manuel experiences a career-threatening injury, change of heart over his career choice or alien abduction, they won't be in that market any time soon. No matter how ugly things get Sunday against the Jets.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

E.J. Returns For Bills' Turning Point


This could be really good.

The Buffalo Bills visit Pittsburgh today with their first pick from each of the past two drafts, their most explosive offensive weapon and their highest-paid defensive player ever all operating at full strength -- or as close to it as possible in Week 10 -- for the first time in 2013.

Now the Bills get a shot at the staggering Steelers, whose resemblance to the team that won two Super Bowls in The Aughts extends only as far as the presence of Ben Roethlisberger, their historically scary uniforms and the hair sticking out from under Troy Polamalu's helmet (at least until Monday).

This could be terrible.

Buffalo has not won a game in Pittsburgh since the week after The Comeback -- 20 years and 10 months ago -- and the 2-6 Steelers figure to be desperate to salvage their season and atone for the worst statistical defensive performance in the franchises 81-season history.

It's Sunday morning, so let's look at the bright side first.

After a month of hoping for anything but complete disaster every time one of the quarterbacks nobody else wanted takes a snap, the development of E.J. Manuel resumes just as C.J. Spiller seems to finally be finding his stride. That's especially helpful with Pittsburgh's run defense ranking as the league's second-most-permissive and showing an uncharacteristic knack for yielding big plays.

The Steelers haven't been able to run much themselves, averaging just 73.6 yards per game on the ground. So they are left to rely completely on Roethlisberger, a strategy that has produced just two wins against six losses. In the last two weeks, he has thrown four interceptions and been sacked 10 times in losses to Oakland and New England.

And they haven't been particularly valiant in defeat. It's one thing to get torched by New England. That happens to everyone. Giving up a 93-yard run to Terrelle Pryor and getting smacked around by the likes of Chicago (at home, no less) and Minnesota (anywhere with a yellow sun) really could not be less Steeler-like.

Meanwhile, Buffalo beat division rival Miami with Thaddeus Lewis at quarterback and dominated the NFL's last unbeaten team everywhere but on the scoreboard despite Jeff Tuel. So Manuel's return -- along with the Buffalo secondary gelling around a healthy Stephon Gilmore and behind a pass rush led by a full-value Mario Williams -- means the Bills start converting all those widely loathed moral victories into real ones.

Right?

Let's check ourselves here for a moment.

As promising as Manuel looked at times, his two regular-season road games as a professional resulted in a performance that bordered on the Losmanesque against the Jets and a sprained knee in Cleveland. Manuel has yet to show that he's capable of going into an environment as hostile as Pittsburgh and remain ambulatory, much less win. It can't help that Robert Woods' ankle injury not only means Manuel's emerging favorite target will probably not be on the field, but also that emerging bust T.J. Graham probably will.

And as good as Buffalo's healthy defense looked against Kansas City's no-risk offense, Roethlisberger will give the Bills more opportunities to make big plays -- and to give them up.

Losing today negates much of the good, and good will, created through the first nine games of Doug Marrone's tenure, when each of the three wins were cause for mini-celebration and the six losses could be explained away one way or another, if you try hard enough.

A win in Pittsburgh, though, puts Buffalo at 4-6. Then it's the Jets (1-3 on the road) at Orchard Park, the bye week, the flailing Falcons in Toronto, a swing through Florida to face the equally winless Jaguars and Buccaneers, and back home for a rematch with the Dolphins -- who, you might have heard, have some issues of their own -- before traveling to New England for the season finale.

The first five remaining games look highly winnable, and given the state of the AFC East, there's a good chance the Patriots won't have much, if anything, to play for in the sixth.

Yes, expecting a team that hasn't reached the postseason since 1999, or even had a whiff in nine years, to go on a run like that is an exercise in nearly delusional optimism.

A loss to the Steelers, though, means it is time to start talking about next year, nearly three weeks before Thanksgiving.

And that can't be good.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Kiko For Everything



In case you can't read the fine print in the write-in spaces, a Buffalo man looked at the candidates offered up for election by the local political bosses yesterday and said, "No. I can do better."

Instead, he wrote in Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso for every office, from State Supreme Court to the Mayor of Buffalo. Seems like the rookie has been everywhere for the Bills this season, making a team-high 81 tackles and leading the NFL with four interceptions, so maybe he could handle some additional civic duties, as well.

Given the quality of candidates available in most races, he couldn't do much worse.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Stay Classy, Incognito


(Note: Monday's news that E.J. Manuel has been cleared to play next weekend in Pittsburgh invalidated much of We Want Marangi's planned post on Sunday's rather bizarre loss to Kansas City. So here's a little something to tide you over in the meantime.)

In these divisive times, when formerly mundane topics like the weather, health insurance and whether or not to run the ball on third-and-goal are fodder for unyielding debate and contrarian punditry, we thank the National Football League for giving us something we can all agree upon:

Richie Incognito is an asshole.

So's his old man, it seems.

Incognito's indefinite suspension by Miami after the revelation that he sent racist, threatening voice and text messages to teammate Jonathan Martin gave credence to the rumors of serial harassment swirling around the Dolphins since Martin left the team last week.

Dolphins officials released a statement tacitly defending Incognito early Sunday, but reversed themselves after learning of a voicemail that has been transcribed as follows in numerous reports:
“Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of [expletive] . . . I saw you on Twitter, you been training ten weeks. [I want to] [expletive] in your [expletive] mouth. [I'm going to] slap your [expletive] mouth. [I'm going to] slap your real mother across the face (laughter). [Expletive] you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”
Kind of speaks for itself, doesn't it? We're not going to chronicle Incognito's previous crimes against sportsmanship and basic human decency, since that has been taken care of elsewhere.

Interestingly, the only stop in his professional and collegiate football career in which his behavior did not make the news was Buffalo. That could be due to the brevity of his time with the Bills, who signed him for the final three games of the 2009 season -- after he had been waived by St. Louis after he was penalized for head-butting twice in the same game.

Incognito started at guard in all three games with Buffalo, including Fred Jackson's 212-yard eruption against Indianapolis in the season finale. But when he became a restricted free agent a few months later, Buffalo did not even try to keep him by making a qualifying offer, allowing him to sign with Miami.

That's right. The 2009-10 Bills, at one of the lowest points of the franchises's post-postseason era and desperately in need of help on the offensive line (and everywhere else), decided Incognito was not worth the trouble.

It took three-and-a-half seasons, but his treament of Martin -- or, to be accurate, the fact his treatment of Martin became public knowledge -- forced the Dolphins to reach the same inescapable conclusion. It also forced the NFL to launch an investigation into the workplace environment fostered by coach Joe Philbin and general manager Jeff Ireland, for whom character is such an important issue in player evaluation that he infamously asked soon-to-be-first-round-draft-choice Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute a few years back.

Perhaps Ireland should include something like, "Is your father, in fact, an asshole?" in future player interviews.

The piece linked above builds a pretty convincing case that the elder Incognito spent at least part of the weekend defending his little boy on a Miami fan message board, rolling out the incredibly weak "BUT RAPPERS SAY THAT WORD!" defense to justify the use of racial slurs while accusing Martin of being a drug addict and wishing death by AIDS on Miami's coach and general manager.

And you thought your parents were embarrassing you on the Internet.

After landing in Miami, it seemed Incognito may have mellowed slightly, tweeting a school picture of himself in a pink turtleneck a few weeks back (which, as you can see for yourself below, is pretty sweet) and winning some award that the Dolphins media gives out in an apparent effort to kiss the behinds of the players it covers even more lovingly.


His messages to Martin suggest plenty of darkness remained, though. Incognito talked about his inner turmoil and attempts to quell it through medication -- prescribed and otherwise -- in an NFL.com feature story, and also discussed the value of therapy.

The piece offers a gauzy view of Incognito, which is contrasted by a video released yesterday by TMZ, recorded around the time the league's official online outlet was reporting on his maturation and attainment of inner peace.



I'm probably not qualified to dispense psychiatric advice, but it looks like Richie may want to give therapy another shot.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Get Well Really Soon, Thaddeus


Due to circumstances beyond our control, We Want Marangi officially retracts our rather mealy-mouthed prediction that the Kansas City Chiefs will cease to be the NFL's last unbeaten team Sunday in Orchard Park.

The news that Thad Lewis was unable to throw in practice Wednesday, due to having his ribs all but crushed last week in New Orleans, broke about an hour after we made that wildly optimistic call.

When Lewis still could not throw on Friday, that Bills downgraded Lewis' status to doubtful, which in NFL parlance means there is a 25 percent chance he plays Sunday.
Lewis returned to practice on Friday on a limited basis. He participated in drop backs with his fellow quarterbacks during the portion of practice open to the media but did not throw any passes. 
"It's a point of the soreness of the ribs, really just being able to turn and throw and that's the one thing that's holding him back," Bills coach Doug Marrone said. "If he can get by that, then he'll be able to play."
That leaves a 75 percent likelihood that rookie free agent Jeff Tuel, last seen in Cleveland, looking thoroughly lost, makes his first professional regular-season start against the Chiefs, who happen to lead the league in sacks, one of the main reasons they have allowed the fewest points through eight weeks.

A schedule that has included Jacksonville, Oakland, the New York Giants and Tennessee (Ryan Fitzpatrick Edition) has not hurt either, but it is tough to argue the Bills will be any more dangerous with Tuel or the frequently released Matt Flynn flinging the ball around.

To be fair, there are a couple of things working in Tuel's favor.

With Lewis out, Tuel took the majority of snaps in practice this week, meaning he should be much better prepared, or at least appear less terrified, than when he was forced into action against the Browns after E.J. Manuel went down with the knee injury that has kept him out since.

And, although the Weather.com forecast suggests the predicted early-morning snow and wind will subside by kickoff, the accuracy of meteorological prognostication ranks somewhere below Tuel's completion percentage. So there's an outside shot at an impromptu mini-blizzard disrupting all passing by anyone, leaving the outcome thoroughly to chance.

Then there's the slimming possibility that Lewis' rib muscles heal enough and/or he is legally provided with enough painkillers to keep Tuel and Flynn sidelined.

With a 3-5 record at the halfway point, that's what this Bills season has come to -- hoping a guy with his fourth NFL team who was on the practice squad a month ago can play if he takes the needle, or an unexpected snowstorm on Nov. 3.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

IT'S AN OUTRAGE! (Marshawn Lynch Edition)


While discussing who is going to play quarterback on Sunday after learning that Thaddeus Lewis sat out Wednesday's practice while trying to recover from the pounding he suffered in New Orleans, the We Want Marangi editorial board came to a shocking realization (thanks to the keen eye of Mrs. WWM).

It has been a while since a national figure or media outlet said, published or broadcast anything less than effusively glowing about the wonders of the City of Buffalo and the surrounding area. As a result, the local citizenry has been denied a key source of manufactured outrage.

Fortunately, Deadspin, ESPN and former Bills running back Marshawn Lynch are here to help.

Yesterday, Deadspin published a pair of clips dealing with Lynch's time in Buffalo. The first was from an ESPN E:60 profile of Lynch that ran earlier this week in which he discovered that he might have been well-served by paying closer attention to his geography schooling.
I just knew I was going to New York. I thought I was going to be out there with Jay-Z ... and then when I finally landed in Buffalo, it was like slush on the ground, it just finished snowing. I didn't know nothing about no snow.
In the second, the dryly offbeat Kenny Mayne accompanies Lynch on a tour of his favorite nightspots in an effort to investigate his predecessor's disdainful analysis of Buffalo nightlife. So, of course, they go to Applebee's and Dave and Buster's. Right there is some selective reporting, since Lynch became uncomfortably familiar with the local bar districts during his stint with the Bills.

(NOTE: You could go watch them for yourself, or watch the entire E:60 profile below. But if you enjoy getting yourself all worked up about such things, don't bother -- context can really ruin a good harrumph.)

There's an awful lot here to get bunched up about. Not once does Lynch say a word about architecture, or mention any of the following: Radial street layout. Super-hep pockets of gentrification. Low cost of living, particularly in the city's eastern, southern, and western areas. Taxpayer-subsidized development. Syracuse gets more snow! Grain elevators! FRANK LLOYD TACO TRUCK!


We will get back to that whole quarterback thing once it becomes more clear whether Lewis will really be able to play, and Doug Marrone is sandbagging the Kansas City Chiefs, or if there is any real possibility of Jeff Tuel or Matt Flynn starting against the NFL's last unbeaten team.

In the meantime, get your righteous indignation on.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Blowout Bills Can Build On


The Buffalo Bills were exposed Sunday in New Orleans as a raw team whose inexperience is compounded by basic physical inadequacies.

So it stands to reason they should beat the NFL's lone unbeaten team later this week.

A double-digit underdog to the Saints, Buffalo confounded one of the league's most explosive aerial attacks for most of the first half, while scraping together enough offense to take a 10-7 lead on a Dan Carpenter field goal with less than five minutes remaining before intermission.

Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine's blend of coverages and blitzes had created enough pressure to discombobulate Drew Brees, limiting the Saints to 32 net passing yards in the game's first 25 minutes. Gum and string only hold up for just so long, though, and Brees inevitably found the weak spot.

Two snaps after Carpenter's field goal, Brees saw Jerry Hughes in coverage on wide receiver Kenny Stills. After freezing the Buffalo linebacker, who is far better on the blitz than in coverage, with a play-action fake, Brees hit an obscenely open Stills for a 69-yard touchdown and the pummeling commenced.

Brees spent the rest of the game resembling a video-game quarterback, zipping perfect throws all over the field. Brees exploited another coverage mismatch on Stills for the last of his five touchdown passes, when the rookie was able to box out Nickell Robey in the end zone midway through the fourth quarter.

Robey, generously listed at 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, made the 6-foot, 194-pound Stills look like an NBA power forward on the play that capped the 35-17 New Orleans win. He also got beat on the first New Orleans touchdown, when he mistimed a swipe on Brees' 15-yard throw to Lance Moore.

Robey is aggressive and smart, with a knack for being in the right place, having sparked the win over Miami a week earlier with a 19-yard interception return for the opening score. On Sunday, he blew up a Saints screen pass for a 6-yard loss to stop the Saints' first series.

His size strips him of any margin for error, though, as shown on both touchdowns he gave up.

Keeping up with the Saints required near-perfection from the Buffalo offense, too. With their most explosive player sidelined and Thaddeus Lewis making his third start four weeks after joining the active roster, the Bills' offensive flaws glared.

The Chiefs, unbeaten though they may be in their first year under longtime Eagles coach Andy Reid, are far from perfect.

San Francisco exile Alex Smith is the ideal quarterback for the low-risk offense Reid has installed, and has a couple of top-level weapons to work with in running back Jamaal Charles and receivers Dexter McCluster, Donnie Avery and Dwayne Bowe, but none have shown the touchdown-on-any-play capability displayed by just about every Saints receiver.

In compiling that 8-0 mark, the Chiefs have beaten seven lousy teams and one sporadically OK one, with that better-quality win against Dallas coming at home in Week 2 by a single point. Sunday will be Kansas City's first road game after three straight at home.

Buffalo, meanwhile, comes off its worst loss of the season, falling into We Want Marangi's thoroughly arbitrary blowout zone for the first time. The Bills may have been blown out, but they were not knocked out by the Saints.

Credit for that competitiveness has to be spread among the coaches and roster, but no players gets more than Thaddeus Lewis. As you may have noticed if you have been watching the last few weeks, that guy is pretty tough.

For someone who started the season as nobody's last-string quarterback, Lewis has absorbed blind-side hits, as well as shots he saw coming but lacked time to do much about.

Against Miami, he even had his helmet knocked off, and still completed a key pass. In New Orleans, he appeared to get knocked out on the game's first snap, but somehow shook it off to make it all the way through, despite pulling himself off the turf after seemingly every pass he threw.

That resilience has been infectious, with Doug Marrone sounding almost giddy about facing the unbeaten Chiefs at his Monday press conference. Suggesting the Bills have a good shot at an upset is hardly a unique WWM insight, and if the predictions already dotting social media are any indication of the public level of optimism, the crowd at Ralph Wilson Stadium should be at full roar by kickoff.

No doubt, Kansas City has improved immensely from last year's 2-14 disaster. But the Chiefs, who have feasted on feeble opposition through a home-heavy first half of the schedule, while ranking in the middle of the pack or lower in just about every statistical category, are not a 9-0 team.

After Sunday, they won't be.









Sunday, October 27, 2013

WWM Flashback: Garbage Time In New Orleans And Bud's Birds


The last time the Bills visited New Orleans, they were headed for the playoffs. And their hosts were trying to prove they were not a joke, despite years of evidence to the contrary.

Doug Flutie's first and best season in Buffalo had already yielded a postseason berth, so he sat out the 1998 finale in the Superdome in order to rest a sore knee for the following weekend's Wildcard Game. In his place, Rob Johnson threw for three touchdowns and ran for a fourth, adding fuel the quarterback controversy that would last through the rest of Wade Phillips' coaching tenure.

Mike Ditka's second season with the Saints had not gone any better than the first. So he had spent the previous couple months giving Kerry Collins, who had been released by Carolina less than two years after taking the Panthers to the NFC title game, an audition at quarterback.

It did not last much longer.


The Bills sacked Collins a couple times, one ending with a near-touchdown by Bruce Smith (the first highlight in the clip above) and threw an interception. So Ditka pulled him before the first quarter ended with Buffalo up 21-0, having scored the football equivalent of a first-round knockout.

It remains the quickest hook I have ever seen in an NFL game. From the press box, I kept an eye on Ditka and Collins, wondering if the volcanic coach might slug the already-battered quarterback, or at least make him turn in his uniform right on the sideline.

Collins had clearly bombed the audition, ending his time with the Saints and, I figured, the NFL. At the time, they had managed four winning seasons out of 32 since joining the league as an expansion team and New Orleans had never celebrated a playoff win. If you couldn't make it there, you couldn't make it anywhere.

Shows what I know. Two years later, Collins started for the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. By 2008, the guy with a reputation as a drunken racist quitter was the calm, grizzled veteran who took over for the talented-but-troubled Vince Young and led Tennessee to a 13-3 record.

As for the Bills-Saints game, Johnson's 1-yard flip to Sam Gash put Buffalo ahead 28-0 early in the second quarter, leading to almost three full quarters of garbage time. Collins' replacement, Billy Joe Tolliver, threw on just about every down and Buffalo's defense, primarily concerned with remaining healthy, let him, resulting in a wildly deceptive 45-33 final.

A week later, Flutie started in Miami and the Bills lost 24-17, a defeat sealed when Flutie was sacked and fumbled at the 5-yard line in the closing moments.

But that's another flashback entirely.

*****


A few days after former Houston and New Orleans coach Bum Phillips died last week, the man who fired him after guiding the Oilers to three straight playoff berths also left this world.

Adams' death leaves Ralph Wilson as the only remaining owner from "The Foolish Club," the group of eight wealthy men who founded the American Football League in 1960. Adams moved the Oilers to Tennessee in 1997, where they became the Titans a couple years later.

Adams' Oilers and Wilson's Bills combined to win four of the first six AFL titles. Neither franchise has celebrated a league championship since.

Like Wilson, Adams paid $25,000 for a franchise now valued at near $1 billion. Such financial success did not mellow the man, last seen by most Bills fans celebrating Tennessee's 41-17 win over Buffalo in 2009 thusly:



At the time, I figured he was still bitter about The Comeback. But judging from the Google results for "Bud Adams double bird," expressing himself with his middle fingers was something of a hobby.

At least that's how We Want Marangi, and more than a few people in Houston, will choose to remember him.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Close Doesn't Count, But Beats The Alternative


As pointed out by several readers -- OK, one -- after Buffalo's four losses in seven games so far in 2013, there is no such thing as a moral victory, a concept with which crappy teams in every sport have long consoled themselves.

For those unfamiliar with sporting cliches, the supposed moral victory is earned by scoring fewer points or runs than the other team, but rationalizing the failure with the idea that you probably should have been beaten much, much worse.

There are, however, demoralizing defeats. And, with Doug Marrone's first season as a professional head coach hitting the halfway point tomorrow in New Orleans, these Bills have yet to absorb one of those.

Every week, Buffalo has hit the two-minute warning possessing either a lead or the ball with a chance to tie or go ahead. Through seven games in which they have seen just about every one of their offensive weapons hobble off the field at least once and used three different quarterbacks, including two rookies and another with one previous NFL start, the Bills have yet to lose a game by 14 points or more.

Which happens to be We Want Marangi's official definition of a blowout. That threshold may not be scientific -- meaningless late touchdowns can be cosmetic in either direction -- but over a full season, it's a pretty fair indicator of a team's level of competitiveness.

Extensive research (by which we mean scrolling through the Bills' section of profootball-reference.com) reveals that only twice in franchise history has Buffalo gone an entire season without getting blown out.

The first instance is not terribly surprising. The 1964 Bills were the dominant team in the American Football League, and possibly the best in all of football. Vince Lombardi's Packers were on a brief hiatus from laying waste to the pre-merger NFL, and Buffalo's smothering run defense, which gave up just 65 yards per game, would have made for an intriguing matchup with Cleveland, which rode Jim Brown to the NFL championship.

The '64 Bills went 12-2 before drilling San Diego 20-7 in the AFL title game, one of those not-as-close-as-the-score instances mentioned above. The two losses came by eight points to Boston and three to Oakland.

The only other time Buffalo had at least a whiff of every regular-season game was not, as you might suspect during the early '90s (those Bills were good for at least one stinker per schedule, usually on Monday Night in Pittsburgh), but two decades earlier.

The 1974 Bills might be Buffalo's least-remembered playoff team. A year after breaking the 2,000-yard barrier, O.J. Simpson was slowed by an ankle injury and finished with 1,125 yards. The defense was solid, though, and Joe Ferguson threw effectively enough (12 touchdown passes on the year, compared to four as a rookie in '73) to get the Bills to 9-5 and into the postseason, despite dropping their last two games.

The worst of their five regular-season losses was by 12 points to Houston, though they did get throttled by the eventual Super Bowl-champion Steelers 32-14 in the first round of the playoffs.

But back to modern times.

Consistently keeping it close is something new for the Bills of the 21st Century. In each of the past four seasons, and five of the last six, Buffalo lost by at least 14 points five times, a trend that bridged the tenures of Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey, as well as J.P. Losman, Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick. In other words, the Bills got rolled in nearly half the 42 losses they compiled from 2009 to '12.

The only worse four-season stretch was 1969-72, when 28 of Buffalo's 42 defeats (an even more dismal total, given that each season was only 14 games long) were suffered by at least two touchdowns.

Keeping games close does not count for anything in the standings, but it has been a decent indicator of improvement. The '79 Bills took only two whuppings (after five apiece in '77 and '78), and won the AFC East the following season. Following a pair of 2-14 seasons involving a dozen blowouts, the '86 Bills lost just once by 14 or more during Jim Kelly's rookie season, despite finishing 4-12.

None of which is going to help Buffalo keep its streak of competitiveness going in the Superdome on Sunday.

The 5-1 Saints are sixth in points scored and fourth in points allowed, compared to 12th and 12th for Buffalo. And it is hard to imagine a Bills secondary that couldn't contain Geno Smith or Brandon Weeden presenting much of an inconvenience to Drew Brees, even with his primary target, Jimmy Graham, questionable with a foot injury.

With Thaddeus Lewis making his third start and C.J. Spiller listed as doubtful, the idea of the Bills keeping pace with Brees is not very appealing, either.

The oddsmakers certainly don't see it happening, with the Saints favored by at least 11 points.

Covering the spread might even be considered one of those moral victories. If there were such a thing.