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.