Monday, September 30, 2013

Baltimore Gets Rookie Treatment

It only seemed like the ball hung in the air forever.

In reality, just a second or so passed between Buffalo safety Da'Norris Searcy tipping Joe Flacco's pass and Bills rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso somehow getting his hands under the falling ball and cradling it before it hit the turf, sealing a 23-20 win over Baltimore.

That was more than long enough for every crushing, come-from-ahead coulda/shoulda heartbreaker Buffalo has endured over the past, oh, half-century to flash through the brain of everyone watching.

If you prefer looking on the dark side of everything, particularly everything pertaining to the Bills, you might want to dismiss Alonso's second interception of the game -- the fourth of his young career -- as the last in a series of random breaks that added up to an upset of the reigning Super Bowl champions.

Watch the replay, though, and you see that there was absolutely nothing lucky about the play. Searcy tipped away a pass that, if completed, would have put the Ravens in position for a game-tying field goal -- albeit a long one.

Alonso displayed incredible athleticism and focus in gaining control of the ball before it hit the turf. His professional experience, or lack thereof, had nothing to do with making that play. You've either got it, or you ain't.

Alonso is what a lot of Buffalo fans desperately wanted (and, judging from the number of No. 51 jerseys still visible around town, still believe) Paul Posluszny to be -- an every-down middle linebacker capable of making game-changing plays against the run or pass.

It is tough not to feel pretty good about Alonso's fellow second-round pick, Robert Woods, too.

Woods got himself open repeatedly, most notably on a 42-yard touchdown strike from Buffalo's previously most notable rookie, E.J. Manuel.

The Bills' first two choices in the most recent draft already show the sort of connection that usually does result from experience. Manuel-to-Woods almost resulted in a second touchdown, but for a close-but-probably-correct replay reversal.

Aside from his route-running and hands, Woods, who finished with four catches for 80 yards, also showed his running ability on a 13-yard reverse.

Then there's Manuel.

It is not difficult to imagine what was going through his head as the ball, and seemingly the game -- along with a fair amount of the good will he has built up with the local fan base -- bounced away from him after a botched fake read-option handoff to Fred Jackson with 3:22 remaining as his team clung to a three-point lead.

Probably something like this:


You could almost see Terrell Suggs swooping in, snagging the ball in stride and fleeing to a go-ahead touchdown that would so rattle Manuel and the Bills, neither would be able to form a cohesive strategy for recovering.

But the J.P. Losman flashback ended as quickly as it started, when fate put Stevie Johnson in possession of the wayward ball with a truly lucky bounce, ensuring that Manuel would not have a worse day than another rookie quarterback who had outplayed him seven days earlier.

Manuel's passing numbers were not overwhelming, or even especially whelming -- 10-of-22 for 167 yards and the touchdown to Woods, which was countered by his first two-interception game as a professional. A week after getting sacked eight times by the New York Jets, the Ravens only got to him twice, although one resulted in a lost fumble.

The touchdown to Woods, though, came on the sort of deep throw not seen very often around these parts since, well, I have to mention that Losman character again. He also completed third-down throws on Buffalo's first two scoring drives. And two of his best throws of the day -- the non-touchdown to Woods and a perfectly floated deep sideline throw to Scott Chandler -- wound up hurting his completion percentage, after the replays were reviewed.

Plenty of more seasoned Bills also contributed, of course. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller repeatedly gouged Baltimore's run defense, which came in ranked fourth in the NFL, but gave up 203 yards on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Buffalo's run defense (third-from-worst before Sunday) stuffed Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce badly enough in the first half to convince the Ravens to give up on that line attack completely in the second.

Their complete inability to deal with Marcell Dareus might have had something to do with that. Bearing his strongest resemblance yet to a third-overall draft choice, Dareus was in on seven tackles and registered two sacks, capping his day by flinging the 6-foot-6, 245-pound Flacco to the ground with one arm on the second.

And then there was Aaron Williams, who was so lousy at corner through two professional seasons that the Bills made a safety out of him, only to put him back at his original spot out of injury-induced desperation. While his day was far from perfect, most notably when Torrey Smith torched him for a 74-yard gain midway through the fourth quarter. But he also accounted for two of the five picks of Flacco, with the second -- a remarkable, leaping grab -- saving a touchdown.

All of which sends the Bills to Cleveland, winners of two straight under former third-string quarterback Brian Hoyer, for a Thursday night game that suddenly looks like something of a crossroads for two teams who nobody expected to do much this year.

One-quarter of the way through the 2013 season, neither Buffalo nor the Browns could ask for much more.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Where Have You Gone, C.J. Spiller?

In three short weeks, C.J. Spiller has gone from one of the NFL's most electrifying runners of 2012 to the biggest disappointment of Buffalo's 1-2 start.

A year after averaging 6.0 yards per rushing attempt and 106.4 total yards per game, and following an offseason in which Buffalo's new offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, vowed to "give him the ball until he throws up," the former first-round draft choice has managed 3.6 yards per carry, 60.7 total yards a game and zero incidents of vomitus.

Remove Spiller's 46-yard breakaway against Carolina in Week 2, and he's gaining barely two-and-a-half yards on each run.

The lack of a breakaway running threat hasn't helped the development of E.J. Manuel, either. After two solid-or-better outings, the rookie quarterback looked very much like a rookie quarterback against the Jets last week.

Turns out there is a pretty good explanation for the drop-off, and it can be found in a most unexpected place.

Until recently, Bleacher Report was easily the hackiest outlet in online sports media, a seemingly unregulated, unedited pastiche of poorly researched listicles and cliche-ridden slideshows. Since Turner Broadcasting System proved quality has little to do with value, at least on the Internet, by paying $200 million for the site in August 2012, though, the addition of quality writers (like my former colleague, Lyle Fitzsimmons) has made B/R significantly less irritating. Even downright useful, sometimes.

The lack of innovative play-calling for Spiller by an offensive staff widely praised for its creativity is one factor cited in a piece full of photographic evidence and advanced statistics. Mostly, though, lousy blocking -- especially by Colin Brown, who replaced departed free agent Andy Levitre at left guard -- gets the blame:
Alas, the big Buffalo lineman has simply been an albatross to that offensive line and the running game. The Bills might get better blocking out of a tackling dummy than they have out of Brown.
With Baltimore bringing the NFL's fourth-stingiest run defense to Ralph Wilson Stadium this afternoon, the Bills need better production from Spiller (whose three fumbles in as many games matches his total from all of 2012) and Manuel, as well as Fred Jackson and everyone else who touches the ball on a regular basis. While the offensive line shouldn't get all the blame, it certainly hasn't helped.

If you're looking for a thorough breakdown of all facets of today's game, the Baltimore Sun has a pretty good one here.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Prey Pounces Hunter

Alexander beat Attica last night in a high-school football game.

This is no big deal to most of humanity. Unless you attended one of the two schools.

Especially Alexander.

Alexander and Attica are rivals, in the sense that the zebra and the lion are rivals. And last night, the zebra devoured the lion.

To the best of my knowledge, as well as everyone surveyed at last night's Homecoming game, the last time this freakish reversal occurred was 1992. The last time before that was 1984, preceded by 1977 and 1964.

And that's it.

The dominance is certainly not due to any sort of physical, moral or mental superiority, but a matter of numbers. According to, Attica has 513 students in grades 9-12. Alexander has 514 -- in grades 6-12.

So the rivalry is purely geographical. In more populous areas, schools do not play football against another school roughly half its size every single year, then act like pounding the little guy is some sort of great accomplishment.

But that's Attica for you.

I was on the sideline for the 1977 win by the Trojans (yes, this nickname led to many, many jokes by our opponents and their fans, including Attica students showing up for our meeting on their field in 1985, my senior year, wearing garbage bags and derisively chanting "Rubber Tech" at us), standing with my father. He played for Alexander in the 1950s, including two years of six-man football. The Blue Devils (leave it to Attica to have an even more ridiculous nickname than "Trojans") walloped Alexander 20-0 in 1957, when he was a senior.

I was a junior at Alexander for the '84 upset. This may or may not be a coincidence, but it was the only season I did not play football in high school, since I thought serving as student council president would take much more time and commitment than it actually did. Or at least than I actually put into it.

In any event, three other quasi-jocks and I joined the cheerleading squad for several home games, including the Attica contest. Not dressed as traditional male cheerleaders, mind you, doing relatively butch stuff like lifting the girls in the air and whatnot, but in skirts and sweaters, waving pom-poms and doing leg-kicks.

Anyway, I returned to the active varsity roster a year later, and we got our teeth kicked in by Attica in the aforementioned garbage-bag game -- 32-8, as I recall.

Last night, I watched much of the game with one of a couple of guys who wore football uniforms, rather than cheerleading garb, during that '84 victory -- first Steve Sojda, a star running back who is now a member of the school board, and then Dave Wozniak, a towering two-way tackle. Meanwhile, my son, Jackson, spent the evening with a bunch of other 10-year-olds, chasing each other around the hills leading down to the temporarily lit field.

The first half was rather familiar to anyone who attended Alexander, or who regularly watches the Buffalo Bills play the professional version of the sport. The Trojans bottled up Attica's star running back, Matt Perry -- who had scored 13 touchdowns in the Blue Devils' first three games -- while their offense moved the ball up and down the field.

But Alexander faltered near the goal line, Attica got a late touchdown, and it was 7-0 at intermission.

This is where the Trojans (at least the editions I was involved with) or the Bills would normally be expected to experience a crisis of confidence and proceed to get their teeth kicked in.

Not this time, though. Alexander scored three straight touchdowns -- two of them by its own star running back, Dylan Scharlau (the son of one of my basketball teammates at Alexander, pictured on a first-quarter carry) -- to take a 22-7 lead early in the fourth quarter.

"There's still a lot of time left," Dave said, expressing what I and every other person wearing green and/or gold was thinking.

But when Attica inevitably pulled within seven points on its next possession, the Trojans calmly added another touchdown to put the game away.

Zebra 30, Lion 15.

On behalf of everyone who was ever on the green-and-gold side when things went the other way, I have three simple words.

Eat it, Attica.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

'The Worst Stretch Of Football I Can Remember'

As still another yellow FLAG icon flashed at the top of the screen early in the fourth quarter of the New York Jets' 27-20 we-don't-really-want-to-win against Buffalo, Joe winced as if someone had just jammed a fork into the back of his hand.

"I've been watching this team for a very long time," said the lifelong Buffalonian, who traces his dysfunctional relationship with the local football team to the early 1970s, "and this is the worst stretch of football I can remember."

He was not lying.

And poor Maria. A South Florida native making her first visit to Buffalo, the recovering Dolphins fan is undergoing team-orientation conversion therapy.

"I'll still root for Miami, except for when they play Buffalo," she assured Andre, an ex-pat in town for last weekend's Music Is Art Festival who is overseeing the process.

Sunday's spectacle could not have done much to accelerate the transformation.

The final score suggests a reasonably competitive, perhaps even dramatic, football game between two relatively equal teams.

It was none of the above.

Joe, Andre, Maria and I had all invited ourselves to Nate's house for the game, and he graciously accepted. For more than a half, the game lent itself well to conversation. Very little happened that required more than a momentary reaction before returning to the subject at hand.

Around the time the Jets took over at their own 20-yard line a little more than a minute into the third quarter, though, things started to get weird.

The Jets did not so much march as stumble inexorably into Buffalo's end of the field. This, despite committing three of what would become a franchise-record 20 penalties, causing them to go 89 yards to set up a field goal.

Of course, almost half of those yards came on one play. On third-and-12, one snap after a replay review overruled an apparent Santonio Holmes fumble recovered by Buffalo linebacker Manny Lawson, Geno Smith (who some overly optimistic pundits suggested would be the lesser of the two rookie quarterbacks on display) connected with a painfully open Holmes for 40 yards over a mismatched Da'Norris Searcy.

Normally, a safety covering a wide receiver would look like a blatant mistake by someone, or a serious flaw in the coverage scheme. An injury to Leodis McKelvin left the Bills with the highly beatable Justin Rogers and two fellows named Brandon Burton and Johnny Adams (don't feel bad if you have never heard of them -- neither was on the active roster before Sept. 1) at corner and Searcy in a position to fail.

Which he did.

It would not do anyone any good to rehash the play-by-play of the final 25 minutes of game time, which felt like about five hours worth of real clock. If you missed it, consider yourself lucky.

We, on the other hand, got to witness:

---The Bills reach New York's 25-yard line, thanks largely to a 24-yard pass interference call on Jets corner Kyle Wilson, who had yet to completely lose his mind, only to settle for a field goal. At this point, since Buffalo scoring a touchdown was turning into a perverse fantasy, we started counting how many Dan Carpenter kicks would be necessary to overcome New York's lead.

---Kiko Alonso return an interception to the Jets' 13, so that the Bills could settle for another field goal, which cut the margin to three more of them.

---Rex Ryan throw away both his replay challenges (neither of which would have greatly altered the course of the game had they been successful) and two of his team's three timeouts -- within a three-snap sequence. So he did not have one available when a reversal would have mattered, on Manuel's non-fumble early in the fourth quarter.

---The Jets display remarkable generosity as they pushed Buffalo toward a tying touchdown the Bills showed little interest in scoring. The aforementioned Mr. Wilson experienced some sort of breakdown after getting into a shoving match with Stevie Johnson, an altercation resulting in offsetting penalties and wiping out what should have been a third-down misfire by Manuel.

Given another shot, Manuel threw another incompletion, only to get a new set of downs thanks to Wilson's continuing tantrum. After he committed two more personal fouls -- in a row -- Ryan finally pulled his disintegrating defensive back before he could pull a gun on someone.

After performing the seemingly impossible task of crossing New York's goal line (twice, once on Manuel's 33-yard catch-and-run hookup with Scott Chandler and then on a 2-point conversion throw to Johnson), the Bills appeared to set about falling behind again as quickly as possible.

---This they accomplished quite quickly, thanks to an interference penalty on Nickell Roby, who is slightly more skilled and much smaller than Buffalo's other novice corners, followed by the game's decisive play.

Much to his displeasure, Rogers found himself in single coverage on Holmes and did a nice job of staying with Holmes stride-for-stride. At least until Smith's pass traveled directly over his head and into Holmes' hands just inside Buffalo's 40, at which point Rogers appeared to suffer a spasm of some sort and fell face-first to the turf, allowing the receiver to prance into the end zone.

---The Jets tried to induce the Bills into tying things up again by committing three more defensive penalties, all on third down, with two of them pushing Buffalo's offense across the imaginary yellow line. Those conversions accounted for half of the successful third-down plays executed by Doug Marrone's offense (in 18 tries), with the other two achieved via Fred Jackson's running.

This would probably be a good place to point out that penalties accounted for eight of Buffalo's 18 first downs.

---So, a week after coolly guiding the Bills to a comeback win in the final seconds, Manuel was not able to produce a single third-down conversion all day, no matter how many extra chances the Jets gave him. He also had two shots on fourth down. The first ended in one of the eight sacks he would absorb. On the second, with 1:48 remaining, Manuel heaved one so far out of bounds, you would have thought he'd forgotten the down.

On Buffalo's last three drives, Manuel completed just six passes out of 18 attempts (two more incompletions were negated by New York penalties) and was sacked twice.

By the end, Manuel was unable to execute the second-simplest play asked of a professional quarterback, after the kneel-down, when he was unable to get the ball spiked before the clock finally, mercifully ran out.

---Manuel's rather deliberate decision-making and a struggling offensive line made a lousy combination. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson did not have much room to work with, either. Other than Jackson's 59-yard run (which led to, you got it, a field goal), the two combined for 22 yards on 17 carries.

---As bad as Manuel, and most of the rest of the offensive players not named Fred Jackson on that one run, looked against the Jets, Buffalo's defense may have been worse.

Jets running back Bilal Powell ran for 149 yards, 109 of them coming on 17 second-half carries, including a couple of runs during which it looked like at least half of the Bills defenders had found something better to do. Smith, whose for two weeks had made Manuel's Buffalo roll-out look brilliant by comparison, threw for 331 yards, including strikes of 69, 51, 45 and 40 yards.

The Jets rolled up 513 yards in all, to Buffalo's 328, enabling the Jets to overcome a 2-0 turnover disadvantage.

Poor Maria.

While watching the Bills get badly outplayed by a team of, at best, a similar talent level, yet still have a shot at winning before blowing it may not have been the ideal way for her to bond with her new team, it may have been the most honest beginning to the relationship.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Broadway Joe, The Juice And Some Bros

If you are killing time waiting for a rare late-afternoon Bills game (kickoff in New Jersey is slated for 4:25 p.m.), you can find just about every relevant statistic for today's game between Buffalo and the Jets here, as well as a lot that don't really mean anything.

You can also view the ongoing intelligent repartee between what appear to be very lonely men of a certain age by clicking the 'discuss' tab: 
Shane Verton ·  Top Commenter · Consultant at Sutherland Global ServicesGeno Smiths #1 receiver for week 3- Kiko Alonso
Reply · 28 · Like · Follow Post · September 18 at 1:04pmMax Menaker ·  Top Commenternope youre pretty stupid
Reply · 1 · Like · September 18 at 1:32pm
  • Shane Verton ·  Top Commenter · Consultant atSutherland Global ServicesMax Menaker You seem to have a very limited vocabulary based off your previous i will keep this simple enough for you to understand.
    Suck it. That is all.
    Reply · 38 · Like · September 18 at 1:33pm
Nate Chevrier ·  Top CommenterMax Menaker nope he's pretty much dead on. Gina can't read a defense.
Reply · 19 · Like · September 18 at 1:33pm

Once you tire of that -- and believe me, it happens pretty quickly -- enjoy these clips of past Week 3 contests between the Bills and Jets.

This 1970 game features Dennis Shaw's debut at quarterback for Buffalo and the sort of elusiveness that made O.J. Simpson a superstar (for the right reasons).

Then there's the 1974 clash at a water-logged Rich Stadium. Joe Namath and Joe Ferguson combined for two completions (both by Broadway Joe), the fewest successful passes in a game since 1942, when players wore leather helmets with no facemasks, had to play both offense and defense and were not allowed to touch the ball with their hands.

OK, I made that last part up. Aside from stunning passing futility, this game did feature a rare star turn from Jim Braxton, We Want Marangi's first, and probably still, favorite player.

Mascots Assist In Brainwashing Process

Yesterday, Oscar and I discovered the "Mascot Mash-Up" mode on EA Sports' NCAA Football '11, in which each university is represented by a full roster of their respective anthropomorphic, overstuffed and/or slightly racist symbols.

Pictured above, one of Oscar's Notre Dame leprechauns gets smoked by a Knight from the University of Central Florida, as played by his older brother, Jackson, on the Xbox 360.

Unfortunately, the mascots are interchangeable in their abilities. Might spice things up a little if the Knight could ward off tacklers with a broadsword, or the leprechaun could break open a whisky bottle while making an open-field tackle. Of course, this would probably place the teams with bear or big-cat avatars at an unfair advantage.

Judging from their interest level (they played through an entire game, with no encouragement from me, and despite the Knights, whose giant helmets give them a big aesthetic edge over the unarmored leprechauns, taking control in the second half of a 36-11 romp), this might be the hook that finally softens them up for their full indoctrination into the cult of football.

Hopefully, three-plus hours of the Bills and the Jets later this afternoon will not be enough to negate this bit of brilliance, and poison an 10-year-old and his almost-7-year-old brother to the sport forever.

So if you're reading this, Rex Ryan and Doug Marrone (and I know you are), a bit of your sport's future is on your shoulders.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Meanwhile, In New Jersey ...

You know we are living in strange and heady times when the Buffalo Bills are held up as an example of how to do, well, anything.

Like the Bills, the New York Jets enter Sunday's game in New Jersey with a rookie quarterback and no real alternative, since the veteran who was supposed to compete with the draft pick became debilitated in an exhibition game.

That's about it for similarities, though.

E.J. Manuel drew good reviews from the national football press despite a Week 1 loss to New England, then calmly guided the Bills to a final-second win against Carolina, earning NFL Rookie of the Week honors.

Manuel's green-clad counterpart, Geno Smith, has not enjoyed the last two weeks quite as much.

Like the Bills, the Jets are 1-1.

First, New York's second-round pick got the job despite playing like an undrafted free agent during the exhibition season. But thanks to Rex Ryan's misplaced preseason priorities, even the unpleasant option of replacing Smith with Mark Sanchez is unavailable to the soon-to-be-former Jets coach.

But for a remarkably dumb late-hit penalty on Tampa Bay's Lavonte David in the opener, the Jets would be 0-2. Smith posted decent numbers against the Bucs (24-of-38 for 256 yards, with one touchdown and one interception), but was horrific against New England, particularly during a three-interception fourth quarter.

New York being New York, there are already rumblings about replacing Smith with Matt Simms, whose main qualification is looking a lot like his Dad.

That is where the resemblance ends, however. An undrafted free agent who had a few moments of competence during the exhibition slate, Phil's son is basically Jeff Tuel, except Tuel's father did not win a Super Bowl more than a quarter-century ago in the same metropolitan area.

Impatience by fans and media aside, Manuel enjoys several other advantages over Smith.

His development is overseen by an all-new coaching staff, with a head coach and offensive coordinator whose up-tempo, diverse approach looks well-suited to his skills, as well as those of C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, Stevie Johnson and fellow rookie Robert Woods.

Under Ryan, the Jets lack an offensive philosophy beyond turning the ball over as often as possible. The "Ground and Pound" approach that masked Sanchez's flaws enough to get the Jets to the AFC title game in Rex's first two seasons has given way to new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's version of the West Coast Offense, which produced a 5-27 record in the two seasons he was the head coach in Detroit and helped get Andy Reid fired in Philadelphia last year.

Of course, when your primary offensive options are people named Bilal Powell and Stephen Hill, having an interception-prone rookie with accuracy issues fling it around doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

You know things are going poorly for the Jets when they make noted ESPN blowhard Stephen A. Smith sound reasonable:
Yet, it's the Buffalo Bills who are scheduled to saunter into town with a rookie quarterback, EJ Manuel, armed with the necessary structure, coaching and counsel Geno Smith should be enjoying with his team.
Such support would be particularly helpful in a nationally televised game against a division rival. But these are the Jets, after all.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Manuel Triggers Flutie Flashback

E.J. Manuel's two-yard toss to Stevie Johnson goes down as the winning score in the rookie quarterback's first triumphant moment in a Buffalo uniform.

His emotional embrace with his father at the stadium wall is the iconic moment of the Bills' 24-23 win over Carolina (assuming the younger Manuel in fact goes on to become an icon).

The play before the decisive touchdown, though, provided the most encouraging sign that, after a half-dozen misfires, the Bills may have finally found the quarterback they have been seeking since Jim Kelly got tired of rehabilitating after knee surgery.

On the snap after a pass interference call properly negated what would have been a fatal interception, Manuel rolled right, saw a lack of open receivers, and took off. After buying himself a couple of feet of space with a pump fake, he glided toward the point where the goal line meets the right sideline.

This is where you would have expected a rookie, or even a veteran, to make a heroic lunge for the winning touchdown. Or, if he misjudged the spatial relationship between himself, the end zone and the defenders trying to keep him out of it, a spot at the bottom of a pile as the clock ran out.

But, as throughout what would soon go in the books as an 80-yard, 98-second, zero-timeout drive, and most of his brief Buffalo career, Manuel knew exactly where he was, how much time was left and what was at stake. He angled for the corner, so that if he was stopped short, he would also be knocked out of bounds.

That left him with six seconds -- time for two plays, provided the first was a fairly quick incompletion -- to cover two yards. He and Johnson only needed one of those snaps, as it turned out.

Not once during the final drive did Manuel look panicky, or even especially concerned, whether he was dropping off short throws under Carolina's soft coverage or bouncing out of what would have been a near-fatal sack.

There was something faintly familiar about Manuel's conduct during the closing moments. Nothing from Buffalo's recent history, of course, which is clogged with opponents celebrating victories nearly as a dramatic (like, say, the Patriots seven days earlier).

No, the flashback triggered Sunday was nearly 15 years old.

Not exactly the same -- that 1998 drive against Jacksonville was 70 yards in 1:50 with one timeout. But it was Doug Flutie's second game after replacing an injured Rob Johnson. Flutie and Manuel each showed impressive patience, as well as mobility along the way. The winning touchdowns even wound up in the same place -- the left side of the end zone at the tunnel end of what was then known as Rich Stadium.

And both drives elicited the same emotional progression from an understandably skeptical crowd, from "Well, at least they've got a chance," to "He might just pull this off," to "Holy shit!"

The excitement level was such that whoever runs the team's Twitter account momentarily lost the ability to count.

Kelly himself was there to hug Manuel after the game, attending the game as part of a ceremony honoring the members of the franchise's Wall of Fame (except one guy, who had another commitment).

Yes, the Bills -- Manuel included -- spent much of the first 59:04 minutes of game time Sunday making sure the Panthers had every opportunity to slip out of Orchard Park with a win.

There were the two drive-sustaining penalties, one of which led to Carolina's second touchdown. And Manuel's first two professional turnovers, which came within a span of four snaps and set up a pair of fourth-quarter field goals by Panthers kicker Graham Gano.

Until that final drive got underway, it looked like what seems like a hundred games over the past decade-and-a-half. A lot of positives (not even counting the throwback standing-buffalo helmets, which Bills management should give serious consideration to sticking with), and just enough negatives to make the good parts totally irrelevant.

But we'll get to all that, including a pretty big day by Mario Williams, as the week goes on and Manuel's first road game, against the Jets and the second quarterback selected in last spring's draft, Geno Smith, approaches.

For now, enjoy what happened Sunday. These people at a Bills bar in Santa Monica certainly did.

The Thrill Of Victory

Yes, plenty of other stuff happened in Buffalo's 24-23 win over Carolina yesterday, the first victory with the Bills for both E.J. Manuel and Doug Marrone (and Kiko Alonso and Robert Woods and Nathaniel Hackett and ...).

We will discuss all that later. For now, though, just watch this a few times. Or over and over. It's OK. You've been waiting for quite a while.

(GIF stolen from courtesy of Black Sports Online.)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Bills, Panthers And Peaches

When you spend most of your working life as a journalist, planning for the future is crucial.

Like most of my colleagues in the writing, editing and photography fields, I've always kept my retirement strategy simple.

I'll just write a book that becomes a movie that becomes a franchise.

Or, if I don't ever quite find the time to come with an idea for that book, much less write it, adapt it as a screenplay and accept a few statuettes for the trouble, I figure I will probably go out in a fashion that is dramatic and leaves a robust corporate entity liable in the eyes of a jury. Maybe selflessly shoving a young mom and her blonde 4-year-old twins out of the path of Jason Aldean's tour bus.

Something like that.

But the prospect of spending my golden years making slightly sauced appearances on late-night talk shows between cameos in the latest movie based on one of my best-sellers is growing dimmer, what with technology and all.

So I've decided to diversify, by adding something more stable to the portfolio:

Fruit farming.

Staba Orchards launched earlier this summer with a single apple tree, albeit that yields three different kinds of apples. Maybe it was four. I should probably check on that.

That first planting is still alive, so today, I picked up a couple of peach trees (pictured above).

They were on sale for $12.88 each. Once we recoup that investment, it's all sweet, sweet profit.

Not that any of this has any bearing on today's meeting between the Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers, other than to show the lengths I will go to avoid the various pregame shows.

In my day, the network pre-game shows were 30 minutes long.

And they starred a possibly drunk gambler.

Yes, there are multiple story lines involved today -- Buffalo's still-suspect run defense against a Panthers' running game that averaged more than five yards a carry against Seattle and C.J. Spiller trying to get untracked against a Carolina defense that stuffed Marshawn Lynch, to name two.

Mostly, though, it's about the quarterbacks, with E.J. Manuel, in his second NFL start, needing to outplay Cam Newton, who has thrown for more yards in his first two season than any quarterback ever, for the Bills to avoid going 0-2.

If you want to know more than you need about the game, there's this:

As ever, your thoughts on Manuel v. Newton, the state of media, gambling and peach trees are welcome in the comments below.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

New York City, September 2001

(Note: As regular We Want Marangi readers -- both of you -- may recall, this post was originally published last year. The image above was originally published in the Sept. 18, 2001 edition of the Niagara Falls Reporter.)

Late in the afternoon of September 11, 2001, a bunch of us gathered at Faherty’s on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. As we watched CNN on the bar television, trying to absorb what had happened that morning in Manhattan and wishing there was something, anything we could do, my wife Josselyn encouraged me to get in our Prizm and go. So I did.

I thought maybe I could put the summers and Saturdays spent operating a blowtorch to use as a volunteer. By the time we got into Manhattan the next morning, all the volunteer work was pretty well tied up, so a guy who worked for Josselyn and had ridden along with me and I spent the next couple days looking for a way to help.

My friend Jennifer, who was riding the subway to her job near the World Trade Center when the first plane hit, had a friend who was a volunteer coordinator and got us a few hours helping to pile bags of donated clothes on trucks that took them to workers digging through what was left of the towers.

The rest of the time, we wandered around lower Manhattan and other parts of the city, trying to stay out of the way and taking it all in. The piece that follows, published in the Sept. 18 edition of the Niagara Falls Reporter, details what we saw.

By David Staba

Editor's note: In the aftermath of last week's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Sports Editor David Staba traveled to New York, where he spent time loading trucks for the relief effort. He filed the following report.

NEW YORK -- Just over 24 hours after the most devastating 103 minutes in American history, things are eerily normal on Manhattan's southeastern coast.

The sky is clear except for a single, albeit extremely large, cloud to the south. Two teenage boys sail by the intersection of 10th Avenue and 23rd Street on rollerblades. A pair of buff young men in short shorts and tight T-shirts stroll past, chattering amiably in nebulously European accents. A woman walks her border collie.

Then the first sign of what has happened about three miles away (other than that innocuous cloud) appears -- a man briskly passes by with a pile of towels higher than his head, trying to balance them while getting where he's going as quickly as possible. A few feet behind him are two monks in gray robes. Then a priest, leafing through a tiny, well-used bible, apparently searching for a verse appropriate to the moment.

All four head west, toward the Chelsea Piers. The privately-owned complex includes an 80,000-square-foot field house, a golf club, marinas, skating rinks, restaurants and movie studios. But after a pair of 767s pierced the twin towers of the World Trade Center, triggering the manmade earthquakes that killed thousands and reverberated across the globe, it became a donation and volunteer destination, as well as a makeshift triage center.

By Wednesday afternoon, there are few for the clergy to minister to at the Piers. Medical personnel stand ready, with a mobile surgical unit and 150 beds waiting for survivors who will never arrive. And despite an occasional ambulance carrying exhausted or distraught rescue workers, the cold realization settles in that there's no one who was at ground zero left to help.

Around the Piers and throughout Manhattan, people instead reach out to help each other. In a city where the first rule of personal safety has long been "avoid eye contact," strangers don't just look. They speak. They ask each other how they're doing and if they're OK. They sound like they mean it.

For all its diversity, New York normally prizes its individuality, whether based on race, religion or lifestyle. But the suicide missions aimed at tearing apart the city and sending its residents into a panic has the opposite effect, at least for a few days. These post-catastrophe New Yorkers introduce themselves to each other, almost always by first name.

Suddenly, the biggest city in the country has become the largest small town in the world.


Jennifer started her day like millions of others who live and work in New York. She emerged from the 14th Street subway station and basked momentarily in the exceptionally beautiful morning.

Until she noticed the people pointing. And saw what they were pointing at.
The World Trade Center's North Tower was on fire. The native of Darien headed toward her office at 41 East 11th St., unsure exactly what was going on.

"I heard people go 'Holy shit,' and looked to see an explosion on the left tower," Jennifer said. "I ran up to my office to get my camera. I heard on the radio that it was a plane and went back outside to check it out.

"There was no traffic, just people outside, standing in amazement, a few crying. One lady in the lobby of the building was crying over her friend who worked in the tower."

She returned to her building, numb and unsure of what was happening.

"We all crowded around a radio in the office, and heard about the Pentagon," she said. "Then we heard that the left tower had collapsed."


At the Chelsea Piers, guards screen the crowd trying to cross 12th Avenue, allowing only clergy, medical personnel and those with press credentials to pass.

"We can't take any more volunteers unless they're medical personnel," says a Hispanic man who looks almost too young for his New York Police Department badge. "You can't go any farther."

His partner at the checkpoint, an African-American woman, spots a man on a bicycle, holding a video camera.

"Get that out of here," she shouts. "This is not a show."

The rebuffed volunteers and would-be gawkers, fueled by false rumors that the Piers were serving as the disaster's morgue, head back up 23rd Street. A block away, most stop around a "Rent This Van For $19.95" van to listen to the radio blaring of out the open side-doors.
As the gathering grows to more than 100 people, a somber FBI spokesman refutes reports that arrests have already been made.

"But we have identified associates of the hijackers in the United States," the voice intones.

While the crowd listens for something, anything, that might explain what happened the day before, a parade of sustenance marches past. Volunteers from the Tibetan Association carry cases of bottled water and cola and dozens of pizzas toward the Piers, bound both for the people working there and those digging through the rubble.

"We are very, very sad," says Karma, vice-president of the Tibetan Association, struggling in vain to find more words.


Alfonso's Lounge is on 75th Street in Queens, about as far as you can get from the World Trade Center in Manhattan. But it was not far enough to escape talk of the bombing or not to run into someone who was there on Tuesday.

Take worked as a sushi chef at a restaurant about two blocks from what passed for hell on Tuesday morning. He was prepping for the day's lunch patrons, most of whom streamed in from the towers, when Flight 11 slammed into its target.

"I was at the restaurant, working in the kitchen and I heard the big explosion," Take said.
Dazed survivors of the initial blast started wandering into the basement restaurant, as well as the market above.

"Nobody said nothing," he said. "We didn't know what happened. Everyone was just covered in gray dirt."

Over the next hour-plus, as Flight 175 cleaved the South Tower and both colossi tumbled, bringing ash-covered survivors streaming in, the meaning of the sights and sounds became clear. "I just heard 'BOOM! BOOM!'" Take said. "I thought, it's a war."


In the grimy bowels of New York's subway system, it's easy to ignore the picture-window-sized advertisements plastered along the walls. Along with the faded yellow walls and mysterious black goop dotting the walkways, the ornate banners blend into the ambience, indistinguishable from each other (unless you have a particularly long wait for your train).

But in the aftermath of Sept. 11, what were conceived as eye-catching promotions looked wildly inappropriate.

One, promoting Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest would-be thriller, "Collateral Damage," features a glowering Ah-nuld, accompanied by newspaper headline text that reads, "Veteran Firefighter's Wife And Child Killed In Bomb Blast."

The movie was scheduled to arrive in theaters on Oct. 5, but a release dated Sept. 12 announced that it was being shelved indefinitely.

"Warner Bros. Pictures is making an immediate and complete effort to retrieve all outdoor advertising; to pull the Web site and all in-theater advertising, including trailers and posters; and cancel all radio and television advertising and promotions for this film," the release read.

Another subway wall banner highlights Steve Madden, a women's clothing chain with 10 New York City area locations. The chain's mascot (a photo/cartoon hybrid in tight jeans, crop top, leather jacket and spike heels with an outsized head, open mouth and purse trailing behind her as she rushes through her hectic life) hurries out of an airport terminal. She's oblivious to the jumbo jet that looms over her, occupying the top third of the picture.


Peter was almost across the Brooklyn Bridge when he felt the explosion and looked up.

"I saw the flames, and then the smoke everywhere," he said. "I thought, 'My God, they bombed the World Trade Center again.'"

But this bomb, unlike the exploding truck that killed six in 1993, was fueled by 20,000 gallons of jet fuel and would ultimately alter the Manhattan skyline, rather than just shaking it.

Traffic had already halted beyond the bridge, so Paul parked his car about 10 blocks away from the smoking structure and got out.

"I left the radio on and just stood there, watching," he said. "There must have been 50 other people doing the same thing I was -- staring and listening to people who didn't know what the hell was going on, either."

After 15 minutes of watching in silence, he saw the second plane hit.

"Then you knew the first one wasn't an accident," he said. "And a few people started to scream."

Most, though, kept watching the billowing smoke and the surrounding sky, wondering if there were more manned bombs on the way. Paul left the side of his car and started walking toward the World Trade Center.

He got as far as a hastily posted checkpoint a few blocks away, his thoughts caught in an endless loop as he watched flaming debris and the doomed, who chose to jump rather than burn, plummet dozens of stories to the asphalt below.

"I just kept thinking, 'Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.'"

Paul was watching the smoke billow from the South Tower when its twin started to fall. The enormous black cloud obscured both towers and sent onlookers into a panic.

"Everyone turned and ran," he said. "It was like the cloud was chasing us. I thought a bomb had gone off in the building, or another plane had slammed in."


Over the next two days, Paul and Jennifer join thousands of others from across the city, state and nation, heading toward the disaster area to help out.

Most are turned away. Only military personnel, firefighters and police officers from other communities and those with other needed skills, like construction and iron workers, are allowed to reach ground zero.

The rest make their way to the Chelsea Piers or the Jacob Javits Center, in an effort to find an outlet for their anger, grief and guilt.

"It was so frustrating yesterday, just standing and watching everything happen," says Paul, who, stranded in Manhattan by the closing of all bridges and tunnels to and from the island, spent the night at a friend's place. "At least here, I can do something."

Something ranges from sorting donated clothes and packing them into garbage bags, bound for rescue workers, to providing food and water to other volunteers. When the piles of full bags need to be moved from one part of the Piers to another, lines form to transfer them from sidewalk to vehicle to empty garage bay. Other groups load restaurant delivery vans and flatbed trucks with supplies headed to the war zone.

Volunteer coordinators issue softly worded commands and eager workers jump into line, some visibly trembling with anticipation. At times, there are more workers than the task requires, crowding the bucket brigade-like conveyers and slowing the process a bit.

"It just feels good to work," Paul says.

Others arrive at the Piers, bearing donations of clothing and food, as well as aspirin, paper towels and toiletries. One woman drops off a bag carrying the Ritz-Carlton logo, filled with shampoo, toothpaste and perfume.

By Thursday, donations cease and volunteers occupy themselves with transferring remaining donations to vans and trucks bound for an outpost at Stuyvesant High School, closer to the crash site.

Ann Marie, a very tired-looking volunteer coordinator, gathers Paul, Jennifer and about a dozen other volunteers around her.

"Thank you for all your help," she says. "Anyone who wants to can give me their phone number in case we need you in the days and weeks ahead. I'm sure we will. Otherwise, I'm releasing you for today."

"Ann Marie, are you firing us?" one man asks.

She laughs and closes her eyes.

"No, but thank you. I think that's the first time I laughed since Tuesday morning."


Shortly after the South Tower crumbled, Jennifer left her office and started walking.

"There was no subway, no buses and no cabs," she said. "So I didn't have much choice."

She started up Fifth Avenue, trudging along with hundreds of others who had also arrived via more modern transportation just a few hours earlier.

"Nobody was saying anything," Jennifer said. "It was the creepiest thing. Just people walking on the sidewalk, on the street. It was like everyone was in shock."

Many snapped out of their daze for long enough to stop at a shoe store, exchanging their business footwear for sneakers.

Jennifer crossed over to Broadway and continued north. Nearing Times Square, she noticed a departure from the business community's form.

"All the electronics stores were closed by noon," she said of the myriad shops, many of which are operated by their Arab owners. "They must have been afraid of looting."

The parade of refugees thinned out as they crossed 42nd Street and continued up Broadway all the way to her apartment on 112th Street.

After covering more than 100 blocks, she joined her roommates and much of the rest of the nation on the couch.

"We just sat there and watched the news on television," she said. "It still didn't seem like it was happening."


Desperate family members and friends wander through the streets of Manhattan, clinging to the narrowest hope that their missing loved ones made it out. That somehow, somewhere, their moms, dads, fiances and children walk, live and breathe.

Unconfirmed media reports of survivors that prove to be false (like the five firefighters supposedly found alive and well in a buried sports utility vehicle) and the inconceivable cruelty of Web sites that falsely list the missing as rescued, tease them and intensify their pain. If that's possible.

But they carry on.

Some, like Vanessa Kolpak's family, post flyers on garbage cans and lamp posts. Many of the pictures, like Kolpak's, aren't posed portraits but candid photos taken at happy events like weddings, parties or graduation ceremonies. With a mischievous white smile, sun-kissed blonde hair and freckled nose, she exuded life. It's easy to understand why her family wouldn't believe she was gone.

Other searchers take a more active approach, walking up to strangers and asking them to take a flyer. Still others let the milling crowds come to them, setting up checkpoints of their own, where you had to take a flyer in order to pass.

Roger Mark Rasweiler's family follow that route. His son and daughter and their two children each carry a thick stack of flyers printed on a home computer.

"We don't know for sure if he even made it in to work before it happened," his son says. "We're praying he's in the hospital unconscious, or wandering around somewhere."

His daughter simultaneously addresses another passer-by briefly before breaking down.

"He's such a good man," she manages between choked sobs, tears coursing down her cheeks. "If we only knew where he was. If we just knew."

Deep down, they have to know. With so many doctors and so many available beds for so few injured, the chances of a survivor lingering in the hospital without being identified become fainter and fainter by the hour.

But their vigil serves another purpose.

By taking to the streets in an active search for someone they logically know has been dead for days, they work off some of the unimaginable grief and earn a feeling of empowerment in a situation that renders them, and the rest of us, powerless.

And by showing those pictures to strangers, by putting them on television and the Internet, the families ensure that, in some small way, the victims will be remembered, that they were important human beings.

Especially since they were so much less than that to their murderers.


Peter was nowhere near the World Trade Center when flights 11 and 175 tore into it, but lower Manhattan, as it was before, remained clear in the lifelong New Yorker's mind, days after the billowing cloud replaced the towers in its skyline.

"I went there several times a month," the freelance editor said of the terrorist-torn region. "It's all still the same, as far as I'm concerned. What I've been seeing on television must be in another country, or on another planet."

Waiting for his next task while volunteering at the Chelsea Piers, Peter glanced at where the towers used to stand, but saw only smoke.

"It looks like a plain old weather cloud, doesn't it? And not a particularly threatening one, at that."

He said he spent most of Tuesday in a depressed funk, staring at the television in his uptown apartment, before forcing himself out into the streets.

"I just couldn't sit there any more. Coming down here and pitching in helped, but the thing that really made me feel better was just being with everyone else. I've never seen this city rally together like this. Of course, we've never had to before."


Riding the E train from Queens into Manhattan, a solemn middle-aged man with short salt-and-pepper hair, matching moustache and Arab-appearing features and coloring sits alone on a bench seat at the end of a car.

Dressed in a crisp yellow shirt and khaki slacks, he pulls a fingernail clipper from his pocket, opens the tiny blade and begins passing the ride by cleaning his fingernails. After a moment, he feels a half-dozen sets of wide eyes on him and glances at the Caucasian, African-American and Asian faces to his left.

He sighs lightly, closes the blade, slips the clippers back into his pocket and retrieves a stack of Post-It notes. He peels off the top one, meticulously folds it to create a hard point, and resumes his time-passing grooming.

Across the car, one bench down, an African-American student wearing headphones and a red windbreaker, holding a bookbag, takes in the scene. He subtly shakes his head and softly tsks, as if to say, "You poor bastard."

The man with the yellow shirt finishes his task, puts the folded paper back in his pocket and stares through watery eyes at a spot on the floor for the rest of the trip, looking very much as though he might never smile again.