Tuesday, September 30, 2014

'Hi. I'm Your Best Chance To Win!'

We Want Marangi is not here to debate the decision to bench E.J. Manuel, but simply to say this:

If you are depending on Kyle Orton to save your job, or your favorite team's season, you are in very, very deep shit.

Which is where Buffalo general manager Doug Whaley and head coach Doug Marrone find themselves a month into their second, and almost certainly last, seasons in their present positions -- in over their heads.

No question, four games into Manuel's first injury-free season, the 16th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft has regressed more quickly than even the most optimistic Bills fan could have thought he might improve.

A week ago in San Diego, he dumped the ball off with receivers running free in the secondary. On Sunday in Houston, visually unnerved by the destructive presence of Texans wrecking machine J.J. Watt, he looked beyond open targets to spray downfield throws that his receivers could not (or, in the case of Sammy Watkins on at least one seemingly catchable ball, would not) get near.

When Manuel did get the ball to a check-down receiver, they inevitably had to reach up or back for the ball, ensuring a minimal gain. The only guy he hit in full stride all day was Watt, whose 79-yard return of the most disastrous swing pass in Bills history put Houston ahead to stay just after halftime.

Manuel did make a couple of nice plays. There was the strike to Watkins for Buffalo's first touchdown. He also gets credit for escaping the Houston rush in the fourth quarter, seeing Mike Williams running free and not throwing it 10 yards over the Buffalo native's head.

But on a day when Buffalo's defense completely eradicated Houston's running game and forced three turnovers, while Ryan Fitzpatrick showed no reason to regret cutting him loose last spring, Manuel still managed to get his team beat.

Manuel's overthrown final pass finalized a come-from-ahead loss that pivoted on his first interception. Watt's touchdown (which you can watch again and again below, if you like) displayed the hyper-awareness and stunning athletic ability that make him the NFL's premier defensive player, but could not have happened without the dumbest throw by a Bills quarterback since Jeff Tuel's horrific goal-line decision against Kansas City last year.

The desperation on display from Marrone and Whaley is understandable, with the Pegulas poised to assume ownership of the Bills as early as next week. A 15th straight miss of the postseason would almost certainly mean a complete tear-down of the front office and coaching staff. Terry and Kim may have stuck with Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff too long after buying the Sabres, but at least their resumes included a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals and another to the semis.

Benching Manuel, though, serves as an admission by Whaley and Marrone that they not only botched their first No. 1 draft choice, but also squandered what would be their third top pick next spring by trading it away to get in position to take Watkins with their second. That decision only makes sense if they had accurately assessed Manuel's potential and progress. Which, quite clearly, they did not.

Nor did they manage to come up with a viable Plan B. Only lucking out with Thaddeus Lewis after whiffing on Kevin Kolb and Matt Leinart kept last season's 6-10 mark from being even worse. Not that the Buffalo hierarchy learned anything from the experience, as they failed to draft or sign another potential backup until picking up Orton days before the regular season opened.

Instead, they convinced themselves that Manuel would stay healthy AND blossom into a playoff-level quarterback and, if something were to go wrong there, that Lewis could replicate his brief flash of competence AND that Tuel belongs anywhere near an NFL roster.

Wrong again, guys. And again. And again.

Marrone's insistence he only shared his decision on Manuel with his boss after making it does not suggest the strongest of working relationships, either. Power struggles usually take place when one or both parties have at least minimal credibility, which this moves strips from both men.

Which brings us to Orton, who, like Fitzpatrick, is on his fifth chance as a professional.

"I went to Doug, I said, 'Look, this gives us the best opportunity to win,'" Marrone said while announcing his decision on Monday.

Lovie Smith, Josh McDaniel, Todd Haley, Romeo Crennel and Jason Garrett have all come to a different conclusion at some point during Orton's 10-year NFL odyssey.

To be fair, Orton did start 15 games for Smith in Chicago as a rookie, but was so unimpressive that Lovie benched him once the Bears reached the playoffs thanks almost entirely to the league's stingiest scoring defense and five returns of turnovers or kicks for touchdowns.

Orton mostly sat behind Rex Grossman and Brian Griese for the next couple years, not throwing a single pass in 2006, when Chicago reached the Super Bowl.

In 2008, Orton had his best season to date, starting 15 games as Chicago went 9-7, but lost the finale to a Houston team with nothing to play for and missed the postseason. The Orton-led Bears ranked 26th in total yards and 27th in yards per pass attempt.

By that point, the Bears were so eager to get rid of Orton that they sent him with two first-round picks and a third-rounder to get Jay Cutler. It looked like a great deal for Denver when the Broncos started out 6-0. Orton went on to join Daunte Culpepper as the only starting quarterbacks since 1990 whose teams managed to miss the playoffs after opening with six straight wins.

A year later, Orton -- saddled with an historically awful defense and non-existent running game -- was benched in favor of Tim Tebow with three games remaining in a 4-12 season.

An injured Orton was replaced by Tebow again early in 2012 and subsequently traded to Kansas City, where he started the last three games of the season, winning two. His performance did not help Crennell, who took over as interim coach when the Chiefs fired Haley the week before Orton's debut.

Orton's only significant action in two years in Dallas came in last season's finale. With the Cowboys needing a win against Philadelphia on Sunday Night Football to reach the playoffs and Tony Romo sidelined with a back injury, Orton put up one of the best statistical games of his career, going 30-of-46 for 358 yards and two scores.

Then, with nearly two minutes left and his team down by two points, he did this.

So, in nine NFL seasons, Orton has been found wanting by four other franchises, proven himself as the only professional quarterback who could not keep Tim Tebow on the bench and misfired, badly, on the biggest throw of his career. Then he quit, or at least pretended to in order to get out of his contract in Dallas, failing to show up for offseason workouts or much of anything else related to the Cowboys until they released him. He signed with Buffalo a month later, missing any chance to get practice time with the first-team offense during training camp.

Yet, according to Marrone, he gives the Bills their "best chance to win," a notion shared by a fair portion of the populace, judging from social media and talk radio. That improvement seems to stem from a belief that Orton is significantly more accurate and/or less mistake-prone than Manuel, neither of which is borne out by the historical record, either. In 75 career appearances, Orton has completed 58.5 percent of his passes to his teammates, with 2.6 percent going to the other guys. Manuel's numbers in the same categories: 58.6 and 2.7.

In his defense, Orton does seem like a fun guy. He was an inaugural member of the Deadspin Hall of Fame, thanks to a propensity for partying around people willing to take and publish photographs of the proceedings and their aftermath.

He is also, according to the WWM Research Department, the only quarterback in National Football League history of whom a picture exists involving him pretending to perform oral sex in a limousine. (Editor's note: We will let you use your favorite search engine to find that one, as well as a seemingly infinite array of Orton enjoying his time off on your own, if you wish.)

We will not hold Orton's past off-field conduct against him. After all, Jim Kelly liked to cut loose once in a while, too, though he was fortunate enough to do so before such modern marvels as Deadspin, TMZ and Twitter came along.

So Orton does immediately give the Bills an improved social media presence, even if the most popular Twitter presence bearing his name, which we will also allow you to locate yourself, is a parody account playing off the hard-drinking frat-boy image of his early years with the Bears.

The idea that Orton gives Buffalo a "better chance to win," though, can not be based on anything other than forced optimism, a strategic Hail Mary by a coach frantically trying to avoid the shortest non-interim Buffalo coaching tenure since Mike Mularkey's.

On behalf of everyone else dreading the thought of spending the next three months watching a less-mobile version of Fitzpatrick flummox his new team to another 5-11 finish, followed by another front-office demolition, I hope that I am wrong about Orton. But I can't come up with a single reason to think that I am.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

More Needed From Manuel To Avoid Fitz Flashback

It's been nearly a week since an NFL player has been accused of attacking, "disciplining" or trying to kill anyone, so We Want Marangi can fully focus on a truly important issue -- is it time to turn on E.J. Manuel?

No one, other than some perpetually aggrieved internet commenters, has started calling for Kyle Orton yet.

But if Manuel, who has turned in two solid performances and one abysmal outing as the Buffalo Bills got off to a parallel 2-1 start, wants to prevent that near-inevitability, out-playing the guy who he replaced would help.

Buffalo faces the sixth-greatest quarterback in its franchise history in Houston on Sunday. In his first three starts for his fifth professional team, Fitzpatrick has followed the familiar pattern that eventually led the first four to move on -- a couple efficient, if unspectacular efforts followed by a thorough meltdown.

Bills fans would have recognized the Fitzpatrick of Week 3 immediately. With the Texans looking to go 3-0 against the winless and previously hapless New York Giants, Fitzpatrick crushed any such hopes with a pair of first-half interceptions, one of which set up a point-blank New York touchdown to put his team down 14-0. That might sound familiar to anyone who recalls Buffalo's' 48-28 loss to the Jets a little more than two years ago:
Fitzpatrick did not merely throw three interceptions. He threw three horrendous interceptions, misfires that were either incredibly poor reads that misjudged both the Jets’ coverage schemes and the abilities of the interceptors or miserably off-target throws. Or both. Each was thrown in the general direction of a receiver running an out pattern, one of the most basic passes expected of a minimally competent NFL quarterback. 
The timing of the interceptions could not have been worse, either. The first negated Buffalo safety Bryan Scott’s pick of a misguided heave by Mark Sanchez and gave the Jets good field position for their first touchdown drive. The second ended what started as a decent drive, ceding New York an even shorter field for the game’s second score. The third handed Jets corner Antonio Cromartie a 40-yard touchdown that pushed it to 34-7 little more than a minute into the second half, effectively ending the game’s competitive portion.
Like Manuel against San Diego a week ago, or himself incessantly through his Buffalo career, Fitzpatrick made his stat line in a 30-17 loss to the Giants look a little better with a bunch of short completions when they no longer mattered.

At his best, Fitzpatrick embodies the cliche of a quarterbacking "game manager," doing enough to keep his team from getting embarrassed. At less than his best, he causes columnists to write like this:
A team with a franchise quarterback can win with a suspect defense, but the 1985 Bears' D would be lucky to win eight games with Fitzpatrick as their quarterback.
Of course, you will hear more talk like that about Manuel if he looks lousy again against the Texans. Houston's pass rush, missing rookie Jedeveon Clowney, has been average so far, but J.J. Watt is capable of keeping Manuel throwing rushed, high passes and looking to dump the ball to Fred Jackson if the Bills let him.

Fitzpatrick's position is more tenuous. The Texans picked up longtime Patriots backup Ryan Mallett this summer, so a switch would give them the opportunity to see if they need to draft a quarterback next spring and a better shot at a weak AFC South.

Orton has not ever been anyone's quarterback of the future. In a best-case scenario, he gives the Bills what the Texans want from Fitzpatrick -- efficiency without mistakes. But like Fitzpatrick, he has never provided either to multiple franchises for any substantial period of time. Turning to him at any point would amount to surrendering on both Manuel and the season.

Manuel has avoided fatal errors so far this year, and did the same through most of his abbreviated rookie season. But he has not consistently been the playmaker the Bills used the 16th pick in the 2013 draft to select, either.

Beating the Texans, even with a career game, will not signal Manuel's arrival as a playoff-quality quarterback. It should, however, keep anyone from deluding themselves into thinking Orton is an option.

At least for another week.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Bills Shed Little Light In Loss

The rain and thunder forecast for mid-day Sunday never materialized, at least in the area surrounding Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Pre-game festivities throughout the various parking areas took place under skies that darkened every few minutes. But just when the wind picked up and a downpour felt inevitable, out came the sun.

Each time, Gary -- a frequent We Want Marangi contributor and our gracious host for the Week 3 meeting between Buffalo and San Diego -- donned his sunglasses. And had to take them off again just as quickly when the next wave of clouds blotted out the light.

The Bills were just as intermittent through a 22-10 loss, their first of the season, with flashes of the form that produced wins over Chicago and Miami quickly giving way to the gloom that has encased the last decade-and-a-half.

A week after the Pegula-Kelly-Wilson love-fest fueled a three-hour roar that helped overwhelm the Dolphins in the home opener, the crowd seemed ready for a repeat performance. Andre Reed got his Hall of Fame ring. Niagara County native J.B. Aaron demonstrated why he won a contest to sing the national anthem, with his rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner earning an enthusiastic ovation. Everything felt ready for another afternoon of disorienting noise and resultant infractions by the visitors.

Then the game started.

A three-and-out by the Bills on the game's first possession did not keep the crowd from reaching a crescendo and its feet once San Diego got the ball. The Chargers' second play set the tone for the rest of the day, as Malcolm Floyd got loose in the secondary, taking a deep throw from Rivers for 49 yards.

Everyone sat down. And mostly stayed there the rest of the day.

Five plays later, Rivers flipped a 3-yard touchdown pass to Eddie Royal, giving the Chargers a lead they never seemed in danger of surrendering the rest of the afternoon.

The Bills showed little interest in taking it away, either. When a penalty-aided drive stalled after moving into San Diego territory, Doug Marrone eschewed a defensive offsides call that would have set up a fourth-and-1 at the Chargers' 43-yard line in favor of a hold on the return team that pinned them inside their 10.

Which, given the defensive performance of a week earlier, was a solid, if traditionally conservative, move. As long as your defense does not then give up a 17-play, 89-yard march -- extended twice on third downs by defensive penalties -- that eats half a quarter of game time.

That Buffalo's defense finally made a stop at its own 2-yard line, forcing a field goal, would prove meaningless. Two plays after Nick Novak's 19-yard kick made it 10-0, C.J. Spiller got loose for a 29-yard run, which would have put Buffalo in position to get back in the game if Scott Carpenter had not wiped it out with a holding penalty.

Not that a touchdown, or even a field goal, would have been a sure thing, the way E.J. Manuel played. The second-year quarterback struggled to find any sort of connection with his wide receivers, completing just one-third of his 21 throws aimed at anyone but Spiller, Chandler or Fred Jackson.

Rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins, he of the eight catches for 117 yards and a touchdown against Miami, did nothing of consequence Sunday, with both his receptions coming in the fourth quarter. It did not help that he seemed to pull up on a couple of throws, but after seeing Marquise Goodwin get bludgeoned by Chargers safety Eric Weddle on a poorly thrown ball, it's tough to fault a little instinctive hesitancy.

About the best you could say for Manuel was that he did not turn the ball over. Even that requires a little hedging, though, since his misguided throw out of the end zone with 3:28 remaining caused at least as much damage as most fumbles or interceptions, causing a safety that gave San Diego a 12-point lead and the ball. Manuel's pure numbers were not that bad, until you consider that nearly a third of his 238 passing yards came on Buffalo's final, all-but-meaningless drive.

Buffalo's defense did not play well enough to win, either. Yes, San Diego's depleted running game managed just 2.3 yards per carry, and despite all appearances, the Bills had a slightly better third-down success rate.

The Bills smothered the Chargers' ground game, knocking starting running back Danny Woodhead out early -- for the season, as it turns out -- and limiting his replacement, Donald Brown, to an average of two yards per carry. Making the opposing offense one-dimensional, though, does not do much good if you have no answer for that one dimension.

Despite keeping San Diego in favorable down-and-distance situations, Buffalo could not stop Rivers and his receivers when it mattered. After Buffalo managed a field goal late in the second quarter to cut the margin to seven, he hit Floyd for another 49-yard strike to set up another Novak kick. After finishing the first half 12-of-15 passing for 183 yards and two scores, Rivers orchestrated another half-quarter-eating possession on the opening drive of the second half, finishing it with his second scoring throw to Royal.

In all, San Diego held the ball for more than 21 minutes on its four scoring drives, barely 10 on the rest of its possessions combined.

Such sporadic efficiency was more than the Bills could muster, though. They were soundly beaten by a better team coming off a win against the defending Super Bowl champions. Still, after three weeks, Buffalo is still tied for first in a rather ragged-looking AFC East.

Division co-leader New England needed a last-minute end zone interception to scrape by the pitiful Raiders -- at home, no less.

Miami responded to its 19-point road loss to the Bills with a 19-point home loss to previously winless Kansas City, and heads to London amid doubts about Ryan Tannehill's future.

And on Monday night, Manuel's draft classmate, Geno Smith, doomed the Jets with an intercepted screen pass returned for a touchdown on his first throw of the night, then killed a third-quarter drive with an end-zone interception.

So, despite the first loss of the year, the Bills are in pretty decent shape.

Should they drop their second in a row Sunday in Houston, to a team quarterbacked by Ryan Fitzpatrick, who they dumped to make room for Manuel, though, and things get pretty dark, pretty fast.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

An Alternative To Pre-Game Preachiness

If you like hypocritical hand-wringing, you should love this week's pre-game shows on the various networks that broadcast National Football League games.

(Note: The editorial board of We Want Marangi insisted on avoidance of the word "cover" in the sentence above, since that verb carries implications of digging up new information not made readily available by the league and its teams, as opposed to the combination of myth-making and mispronounced gibberish served up by these programs.)

Unless you enjoy watching former players, coaches and alleged journalists attempting to out-sensitive each other on a topic about which none of them had any interest in commenting until left with absolutely no other choice, you might want to join WWM in giving them a miss.

This should not be taken to suggest that attacking women or children is acceptable in any context, particularly when the attackers are among the world's most physically powerful humans. Or that the problem -- and when almost 90 of your star performers have been accused of some form of domestic violence over a 14-year period, there is no other way to describe it -- should be rationalized or excused, as Roger Goodell, the rest of the NFL front office and the Baltimore Ravens tried to do over the spring and summer.

It's just that I have no interest in hearing what Emmitt Smith, Mike Ditka or Peter King -- all of whom are beholden to the great and powerful NFL for their continued gainful employment -- think about it.

At the same time, talking -- or writing about -- anything involving the present NFL at this moment in time without mentioning the actions of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Ray Washington, Greg Hardy and Jonathan Dwyer feels pretty disingenuous, too.

So, as a public service, WWM travels back to a simpler time for professional football, a journey made possible by YouTube's laissez-faire attitude toward copyright law.

Buffalo hosts San Diego this week in the latest renewal of a rivalry that was one of the old American Football League's most significant. The Chargers played in five of the AFL's first six championship games, while the Bills made it to three straight from 1964 to '66, smothering San Diego twice.

In 2009, Showtime aired a five-part documentary on the upstart league to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the AFL's founding. Like many, I completely missed "Full Color Football: The History of the American Football League" at the time, in no small part because it was on Showtime.

The second episode (which you can watch by clicking here), "Times They Are A Changin'," focuses on the years 1963 to '65, a span when both the Bills and Chargers won the only championships of any sort in either franchise's history to date.

Coached by Sid Gillman, the Chargers helped create the image of the AFL as a wide-open, deep-passing league, with the Chargers continuing to win while cycling through Jack Kemp, Tobin Rote and John Hadl at quarterback.

The Bills, under Lou Saban, stuck to a more traditional approach, emphasizing defense and power running, particularly as demonstrated by Cookie Gilchrist. Kemp's acquisition, thanks to a rare miscalculation by Gillman, balanced Buffalo's offense and provided the Bills with their first clear on-field leader. As the documentary explains, Kemp's burgeoning political skills led directly to Buffalo's 1964 championship by helping keep Gilchrist on the team after the 250-pound fullback staged a one-man strike during a loss to the then-Boston Patriots.

A few other highlights from the episode:

--- The most extensive footage of Gilchrist in action I have seen in one place. The AFL was not as exhaustively filmed as its rival league, which had NFL Films documenting every game from 1964 on. The grudge between Gilchrist and Ralph Wilson, which both men took to their graves, probably did not help, either.

While Gilchrist was a mercurial enough presence that the Bills traded him to Denver after the 1964 title game, he was as destructive an offensive force as the team has ever possessed. While defenders have gotten much bigger since the mid-1960s, its hard to imagine them having much luck against him, either.

As an added bonus, the segment on Gilchrist includes one of my favorite football stories ever, told by the late Buffalo News sports editor and columnist Larry Felser, which ends with one of the great gentlemen I have had the pleasure to know using the word "motherfuckers."

--- Video evidence that Bill Belichick may, in fact, be a human being and not simply the practice-taping, MILF-hunting, media-snubbing cyborg we have all assumed him to be for the last few decades. Get him talking about Gillman's offensive brilliance, and the guy actually smiles.

--- A closing segment on the 1965 AFL All-Star game, the only instance of players in a major American sport boycotting an event, due to racial discrimination experienced by black athletes in New Orleans.

So, as Larry would say, do yourself a favor and check it out. Unless you really need to know what the likes of Chris Berman have to say about the NFL's present-day disgrace.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Bills Provide Distraction From Football

Normally, We Want Marangi is not the sort of sporadically published, narrowly read sports blog to go around saying, "I told you so."


The Buffalo Bills capped their best week in a couple of decades by gutting the Miami Dolphins, with the 29-10 final masking the true level of competitiveness. In the process, they produced one of the few causes for good feelings during one of the ugliest weeks in National Football League history.

Between the charges of off-field violence that supplanted ISIS beheadings as the primary source of social-media outrage and the latest grim statistics on the long-term impact of in-game collisions, the NFL has made itself pretty easy to hate lately.

"The Shield," as the league likes to be known (and giving yourself a nickname is generally a sign of some pretty deep-seeded issues), spent the spring and summer first botching its handling of the assault charges against former Baltimore running back Ray Rice, while ignoring a couple equally revolting, though video-free, cases against Carolina's Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald of San Francisco, then attempting to obfuscate its way out of the self-created mess.

Roger Goodell's descent from sanctimonious crusader to bumbling ass-coverer was so complete and so swift, he became the first NFL commissioner to face widespread public and media demand for his dismissal. On a positive note, the Ginger Hammer's arrogant ineptitude did give the independent aviation industry a boost, with small prop planes tugging "Goodell Must Go" banners over several sold-out stadiums on Sunday.

Ralph Wilson Stadium was not one of them. Which was fitting, since the newly remodeled, yet still-somehow-inadequate-according-to-Goodell structure was one of the few spots in the sport where the firestorm -- given fresh fuel by the indictment on Friday of the game's top running back, Adrian Peterson of Minnesota, on child-abuse charges -- could be forgotten. At least for a few hours.

Over a span of three-and-a-half hours on Sunday, the Bills demonstrated why the sport, for all its increasingly public flaws, inspires such unnatural behavior as face-painting, boycotts of faded, otherwise-irrelevant pop stars and radio-talk-show-calling.

First, the Bills honored their late owner and stadium namesake with an emotional pre-game ceremony featuring their greatest quarterback, who was making his first large-scale public appearance since being declared cancer-free by his doctors. The ceremony inspired thunderous ovations from a crowd already giddy from last week's news that the home team is not going anywhere for the foreseeable future.

Then, the Bills kept it loud by overwhelming the unnerved Miami Dolphins in every imaginable phase of the game.

In the first half, Buffalo's defense delivered its most dominant performance since shutting out New England in the 2003 season opener, sacking Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill three times and dumping his receivers in the backfield twice and yielding just 13 passing yards before intermission.

Amidst the defensive carnage, free-agent pickup Anthony Dixon (who will heretofore be referred to in this space by his nickname, "Boobie") blocked a punt to set up a Dan Carpenter field goal on the way to a 9-0 Buffalo lead after two quarters.

On their first third-quarter possession, the Dolphins kept Tannehill on his feet long enough to move into position for a field goal of its own, introducing the day's first element of anxiety. That feeling lasted for as long as it took C.J. Spiller to sprint past the first line of Miami's kickoff coverage team and down the sideline for a 102-yard touchdown and all the points Buffalo would need.

Miami did tense things up a bit with its subsequent touchdown drive, at least until Spiller shot through the left side of the line for a 47-yard run. Three plays later, E.J. Manuel -- whose failure to put the Buffalo offense in the end zone had been the lone worrisome aspect of the first three quarters -- gave Sammy Watkins a chance to demonstrate why the Bills gave up two first-round picks to get him with twisting, pylon-whacking leap into the end zone.

Up by two touchdowns, Buffalo's defense resumed chasing Tannehill around the field. In the fourth quarter, Tannehill got sacked again, stuffed on a ill-designed fourth-down keeper and finally intercepted in the final seconds, while failing to complete any pass long enough to cause much concern.

The good feelings around here should last until at least Sunday, when San Diego arrives in town fresh off a dominant (or, as Bill Cowher said on the CBS halftime show about the Bills' performance, 'domilant') win over the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks. Even as more ugliness oozes out elsewhere, underscoring the hypocrisy of a corporate culture that bans pot smokers for months, or longer, while strenuously ignoring, or making excuses for, alleged men who beat women and children.

A few other items worth briefly noting:

--- That Watkins kid is pretty good. Eight catches, 117 yards and one of the most athletic touchdown dives you will see, all while visibly hampered by the rib injury sustained, then aggravated, during the exhibition season. Watkins has already become the focal point of Buffalo's passing game, with Manuel targeting him a team-high 11 times on 26 throws.

The Bills paid a steep price for Watkins, but WWM can not recall a game in which any two Buffalo first-round picks played as decisive a role.

--- Hopefully, a 2-0 start means the networks will send less excruciating announcing teams to cover the next few games.

Tom McCarthy's play-by-play was riddled with misidentified players (like confusing defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Stefan Charles, who really could not look less alike), incorrect down-and-distance announcements and wildly inaccurate ball spots -- in one case misplacing the line of scrimmage by 34 yards.

Then there was analyst Adam Archuleta. whose analysis was limited to saying very obvious things with a tone that suggested an epiphany. When Miami could not beat the play clock early in the second quarter, Archuleta declared, "The crowd noise may have had something to do with that," sounding very much as if the thought had never occurred to him, or anyone else, before.

The din probably had something to do with the Dolphins' breakdowns on the offensive line and the failure by the punt team to prevent Dixon from a free shot at their punter, too, but noting such subtleties is probably a little much to ask from CBS' last-string broadcast pairing.

--- Archuleta also failed to comment on the dumbest call of the game, which is sort of what you would want from the supposed expert in the booth: Miami's decision to run a read-zone option on fourth-and-1 early in the fourth quarter. A slow-developing run play against a defense shooting through every gap on the line is a lousy choice even if your quarterback is Colin Kaepernick or Johnny Football (assuming the Browns ever give him more than one snap a game). Tannehill may has well have taken a knee.

--- Mary Wilson, Ralph's widow, must have been thrilled with the camera lingering on her while she ate her halftime meal. Twice. Nobody looks good while they eat.

--- If your biggest concern is a quarterback who, in his 11th and 12th professional starts, completed two-thirds of his passes, had a hand in three touchdowns and turned the ball over once, while outplaying counterparts in their eighth and third full seasons as starters, well, then, your football team is in pretty good shape.

(Photo by Tim Saracki.)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Pegula Fever Dooms Dolphins

If I had a bookie, or any trust in the security of the online betting options out there, I would put down a few dollars on the Buffalo today.

As you might have heard, there was some pretty big news regarding the home team this week. The locals are generally riled up for the home opener, even during the most hopeless of times.

This year, the Bills and the visiting Dolphins are each 1-0 for the first real game at Ralph Wilson Stadium. A pre-game tribute to the only owner the franchise has ever known and the cancer-free return of its greatest quarterback were already planned before both Jon Bon Jovi and Donald Trump were eliminated from local football discussions. So things would have gotten pretty loud, anyway.

The news that Buffalo Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula will -- pending approval from the NFL next month -- become the second owners in the football team's 55-year history should inspire outright lunacy.

On paper (if anyone puts such things on paper any more), it's a pretty even match-up. The betting lines rate the game a toss-up, or at most, favor the Bills by a point.

Clearly, none of the oddsmakers have ever been present in Orchard Park for a game like this.

The sort of noise that will start sometime before 1 p.m. and, barring a complete Buffalo meltdown, will continue until around 4 p.m., makes it nearly impossible to focus, or even hear, for the visitors. Particularly if things go the home team's way early on.

I was sitting in the end zone during what may have been the most comparable previous situation, the AFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Raiders on Jan. 20, 1991. A steady roar began well before kickoff, got more intense as the Bills raced out to a 21-3 lead after less than 12 minutes of game time and reached a crescendo when the teams left the field at halftime with the score 41-3, Buffalo.

It would end 51-3, but the rest barely seemed to matter, with much of the crowd occupying itself through the second half with festive songs about the imagined fetishes of Raiders quarterback Jay Schroeder, sung to the tune of "Camptown Races."

Of course, those Bills were at least a little better than this edition. But those Raiders were on a different level than these Dolphins, too, and they never had a chance. Barring a complete meltdown by E.J. Manuel, or someone spiking Buffalo's Gatorade buckets with a debilitating hallucinogenic, neither does Miami.

The decisive noise will be less an exhortation of the franchise's current players in a single game than a collective howl of relief, issued by about 70,000 people who have faced the prospect of losing their team since shortly after the annual Super Bowl trips ended.

Wilson's death in March at age 95 made possible the nightmare scenario for Bills fans -- billionaire vultures carrying the team off to a place where people who could not possibly care as much about it would pay twice as much for tickets, while the sort of huge corporations that abandoned the region decades ago bought up the high-priced luxury seating that the stadium that bears Wilson's name lacks.

The vultures did circle through the spring and summer. Bon Jovi's denials that he and his partners would move the Bills to Toronto at the first possible opportunity led to widespread hooting. Trump's bid was taken as seriously as his periodic threats to run for public office.

There is plenty to dislike about professional football at the moment, between the NFL's shameful handling of the Ray Rice case and other ongoing domestic violence cases, child-abuse charges against one of its biggest stars, and the latest grim news about the sport's long-term impact on the health of its players.

Locally, the jubilation surrounding the acceptance of the Pegulas' bid has largely drowned out questions about whether they will have more immediate success -- in terms of wins and losses -- than they have with the Sabres, or if it makes sense for the region to build a new stadium for $1 billion or more right after spending more than $100 million fixing up the old one.

For a few hours this afternoon, those problems and questions will wait. For most in the largely intoxicated gathering at Ralph Wilson Stadium, it will be too loud to think about much besides the game on the field.

And, if they were smart, collecting their winnings.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Bills Are Staying in Buffalo - So Now What?

The battle for the Buffalo Bills ended up as a blowout.

Vanquishing Jon Bon Jovi and Donald Trump was the easy part. Turning around what has been the National Football League’s most inept franchise for a decade-and-half presents a much greater challenge for Terry and Kim Pegula.

Turns out nobody ever really needed to worry about Bon Jovi or Trump, after all.

The Pegulas’ bid so impressed the members of the trust selling the Buffalo Bills on behalf of Ralph C. Wilson Jr.’s estate that barely a full day passed from the submission of final offers to the announcement that the Sabres’ owner had won the selection process.

It was not just that his $1.4 billion came in higher than the other finalists. The Pegulas probably could have saved a couple hundred million and still landed the Bills precisely because they are not Bon Jovi or Trump.

The billionaires’ club known as the National Football League does have some standards, after all—even if Washington’s Dan Snyder, who spends more effort defending an increasingly reviled trademark than building a competent football team, and Jerry Jones, who stands accused of carrying around waivers for potential sexual-assault victims to sign, are among its members.

The half-hearted attempts by Bon Jovi and his Toronto partners to convince the league and the team’s fans that they would not move the Bills across the border at the first possible opportunity failed miserably.

The 2020 buyout window in the Bills’ latest lease created the chance of a carpet-bagging ownership group letting the team rot for nearly six seasons in order to suppress ticket sales, as well as political pressure to stop such a move. 

The virulent backlash to Bon Jovi’s potential ownership would not have helped overall stadium revenue, either, meaning every visiting owner would take a hit. There is no way that scenario would have gotten the approval of 24 of the league’s 31 owners, who would presumably like to eventually expand internationally on their own terms.

It’s hard to believe even Donald Trump took his own bid seriously. The NFL does not like its owners to do or say anything remotely controversial, and Trump does not seem to like to do anything else. Roger Goodell has enough public-relations problems at the moment without dealing with media questions about Trump’s latest Twitter war. Then there was the defunct USFL’s lawsuit against the NFL nearly three decades ago, which Trump forced when he owned the New Jersey Generals.

The proposals themselves had other problems. Bon Jovi was the face of the Toronto bid, but the majority of the cash was coming from Larry Tannenbaum, CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and Edward Rogers III, heir to the eponymous Canadian communications giant. The NFL prefers one owner to three (unless that one’s name is Trump).

NFL owners do not declare bankruptcy, a key tool in Trump’s empire-building kit, and his business deals tend to involve ornate financing arrangements. The NFL likes cash.

Pegula brings no such issues to the league, and it’s hard to imagine him falling short of the 24 votes required at the owners’ meeting next month.

Fallout from the mishandling of Ray Rice’s brutal attack on the future Mrs. Rice in an Atlantic City casino elevator has Goodell under heavy fire, and the sordid details of the lawsuit against Jones do not figure to help the NFL’s image vis a vis gender relations. That should douse any effort to strong-arm the Buffalo area into committing to a new stadium before approving the sale.

Kim Pegula’s potentially significant role in running the Bills should be another plus in gaining the needed votes. Likewise with the family’s investment in the area surrounding First Niagara Center, the most logical site for the new Buffalo football stadium the NFL would really, really like to see.

Now comes the hard part.

After going through an ugly break-up with team president Tom Donahoe following the 2005 season, Wilson turned over control of the team to a series of familiar faces—Marv Levy, Buddy Nix and Russ Brandon. None have been able to break the cycle of mediocrity that has kept the Bills out of the playoffs for the last 14 seasons, the longest such skid in the league.

Brandon took the first step back toward modernity by replacing the retiring Nix as general manager with Doug Whaley, whose background as part of Pittsburgh’s far more successful front office made him a choice both qualified and convenient.

The pending sale puts increased heat on Whaley and coach Doug Marrone, each one game into their second season in charge. The trade that brought wide receiver Sammy Watkins to town, while costing the Bills their first-round draft choice next year, means they need to get to the playoffs or come awfully close for Whaley and Marrone to keep their jobs.

After buying the Sabres, Pegula kept the longtime management/coaching team of Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff in place. As the losing intensified, though, Ruff got whacked during Pegula’s second season, followed by Regier early in the third, going outside the organization to replace the latter with Tim Murray.

The Sabres have yet to make the playoffs under Pegula, and the focus of his fourth season appears to be securing the National Hockey League’s worst record for the second straight season. Such futility would increase the chances of landing Connor McDavid, the most widely acclaimed prospect to come along in years.

Pegula has shown he will not hesitate to blow things up and start over. After staying the course with Ruff and Regier helped take the Sabres to the depths of the NHL, it seems unlikely he will wait as long to reboot the Bills if the season just underway does not continue as successfully as it started last Sunday in Chicago.

Ruff and Regier each got more than a year to prove they could not get things turned around. Whaley and Marrone have four months.

Despite all the losing, Sabres fans have largely been patient with the rebuilding process. That might have something to do with a business owner who is willing to reach into his own pocket to buy a franchise or spearhead the sort of waterfront development that has languished for decades.

Vanquishing the specter of the Bills leaving town should lead to similar patience among a fan base whose best memories date back 20 years.

A couple of predictions for this Sunday, when the Bills host the Dolphins in the first game in their 55-season history under an owner other than Ralph C. Wilson Jr. (or his estate):

It will get loud in Orchard Park. Quite loud.

And the game itself will be more competitive than the ownership derby ever was.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Bills Overcome Bears, Buzz

Heading into Sunday's season opener in Chicago, the narrative went, the Buffalo Bills were a franchise floating toward another painfully below-average season, without an owner and with a coach and quarterback who, entering their second seasons, appeared increasingly lacking in the skill sets required for their respective jobs.

So the Bills produced big plays in all three phases of the game to knock off a consensus contender in the NFC, looking like anything but a team on the verge of open mutiny or early surrender.

Buffalo's 23-20 overtime win does not guarantee anything. The Bills produced five first-Sunday victories over the previous 14 years, and none served as a springboard to anywhere. It did, however, clearly demonstrate the foolishness of relying on the legions of alleged NFL Insiders for anything but entertainment purposes.

Before the game, the team knocked down -- or successfully spun, depending on your level of cynicism -- a national report that coach Doug Marrone, CEO Russ Brandon and personnel director Jim Monos and/or general manager Doug Whaley loudly went at it during an August practice. Just highly competitive middle-aged men being highly competitive middle-aged men, went the official version of events.

The original report led to all manner of hand-wringing among the locals, with at least one Rochester radio pundit and any number of talk-show callers and internet commenters loudly wailing that Marrone had lost the team, whatever that means, and should be fired on the eve of his second season in Buffalo.

If the Bills are lost, confused or dispirited as a result of all the yelling, they certainly did a good job of hiding it on Sunday.

Things started out in the fashion to which Buffalo fans have become accustomed: A three-and-out on the Bills' first drive, followed by a quick Chicago drive to a touchdown less than four minutes in.

Which is where things figured to come apart completely, given the widely reported fragile mental state of the visitors.

Instead, E.J. Manuel started looking like a first-round draft pick, hitting Robert Woods deep to convert one third down and Sammy Watkins short for another, then gliding in himself for Buffalo's first touchdown.

The defense caused turnovers that the offense turned into a 10-point halftime lead. After the Bears wiped out that deficit and appeared set to take over completely, defensive tackle Kyle Williams played Jay Cutler as deftly as safety Corey Graham had in the first half. Williams' first career pick set up Dan Carpenter's 33-yard field goal, which gave Buffalo a 20-17 lead with 4:02 left.

That would normally be more than enough time for the Bills to give up the winning touchdown, but this time, they stopped the Bears twice (though home team's decision to eschew giving the ball to Matt Forte, who piled up 169 total yards from scrimmage, on third-and-1 with victory just 19 yards away, has led to much irrationality in Chicago).

Then, on the only drive Buffalo would need in overtime, Mike Williams sandwiched a terrific catch between C.J. Spiller's best run of the day and perhaps Fred Jackson's best run ever (seen above), and the Bills are 1-0 for the first time since 2011.

Of course, Buffalo started out 5-2 in those days of FitzMagic, only to drop eight of their last nine and finish at a painfully familiar 6-10. So we'll hold off on proclaiming the arrival of Marrone, Manuel or anybody else in the blue, white and red as legitimate NFL anything.

For this week, though, grim recent history means little. Miami, coming off an upset of longtime AFC East tyrant New England, arrives in town this weekend for the biggest Bills-Dolphins game since Drew Bledsoe was Buffalo's franchise quarterback.

Which is all a key part of the NFL's genius, evil or otherwise. Saturation coverage of the sport, by way of the traditional networks, the internet, even the league-sanctioned cable channel devoted to nothing but The Shield, has created a legion of experts -- at least in their own minds. During each offseason and every week of the regular schedule, a consensus forms and is widely disseminated. Then the games itself blow it up.

That league-wide randomness feeds ratings, attendance and the hype machine. The illusion of access by the media has also helped the NFL manage potential off-field problems like diversity in front-office and coaching hires, longstanding issues with drugs, both performance-enhancing and recreational, and the vexing existence of Richie Incognito.

Monday's release of video showing of Ray Rice's horrific punches to the head of his then-fiance in an Atlantic City casino elevator showed that the NFL's media strategy is not foolproof. Across the internet, longtime league shills reacted angrily to the realization they had been duped, convinced by Roger Goodell's misinformation and their own shoddy reporting that Janay Palmer had somehow left the poor Ravens running back with no option but to render her unconscious.

The video shattered that story line, leaving the NFL looking at best indifferent to domestic violence wrought by its employees, and at worst serving as a cynical enabler.

The Bills and Dolphins have no such public-relations crises to manage at this early point in the season. Only a football game on Sunday which, to the surprise of just about everyone who claims to be in the know, actually means something.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

One More Time, With Feeling?

It's not easy to have a good feeling about this.

The Buffalo Bills open their 2014 season in Chicago tomorrow, and the vibe is uncomfortably similar to the 14 preceding playoff-free campaigns.

Maybe it's the lifeless month of exhibition games in which E.J. Manuel, whose rookie year was interrupted and abbreviated by injuries, looked like, well, a rookie.

Maybe it's the dread lingering in any discussion of the team's future following the death of founder Ralph Wilson, resulting from the franchise's recent history of failing to get much of anything right --this doesn't help -- combined with the economic realities of doing business in Western New York, that results in visions of the Bills playing in a different city with a new name and uniforms.

Maybe it's the result of a spring and summer in which Jon Bon Jovi was a more common topic of discussion than C.J. Spiller or Mario Williams.

Or maybe the Bills, as ever, just are not very good.

That last, simplest explanation seems to be the consensus of the national football press. Before training camps opened, the Bills were viewed  as one the teams poised to make the jump from mediocrity to contention this year.

The defense should build on last year's showing.

Manuel should be better with a full training camp and a supporting cast bolstered by rookie receiver Sammy Watkins, so beloved by Buffalo management that they gladly gave up two first-round picks to land him.

And, at long last, it should finally be the Bills' turn to catch a break.

Such optimism did not survive the summer. Or even much longer than it took news of Kiko Alonso's season-ending knee injury to spread.

In his series of NFL preview articles, Bill Barnwell of Grantland grouped Buffalo in with "The Cellar Dwellers," the eight teams he believes will vie for the right to the first pick in next April's draft. Or, in the case of the Bills, the right to send that top choice to Cleveland.

"The Bills are somehow simultaneously rebuilding and hopeless, a franchise both in transition and going nowhere," Barnwell concludes, after using two forms of the word "bizarre" to describe the front office's decision-making in trading away a pick the team will desperately need if Manuel fails to prove himself the long-term answer at quarterback, as well as the failure to sign anyone to replace Alonso or departed safety Jairus Byrd.

Drew Magary summed up the malaise blanketing the new season in the Buffalo installment of his Deadspin series "Why Your Team Sucks 2014:"
This was a team left to rot as Wilson grew older, and you can see it in both the roster and the fanbase. I can barely tell the difference between a Bills tailgate and a 1970s Manchester coal-plant union protest. There is decay and unhappiness pretty much everywhere you look. 
That's a high-quality put-down right there. But the staff at We Want Marangi is nothing but optimistic. Each season for the last 14, in various media outlets, we have managed to come up with some basis to predict, if half-heartedly, a change in fortunes for the Bills -- new coach, new quarterback, another new coach, another new quarterback, the occasional incredibly expensive free agent, a big-name receiver whose best years came five years and three teams earlier.

Of course, such dismal predictions are often based on mistakes of the past like Dick Jauron and J.P. Losman and cruel – if well-earned – stereotypes about Buffalo. Or, in the case of Barnwell, exhaustive statistical analysis and film study.

None of the number-crunching and assumption-jumping that comprise preseason predictions matter much once the real games start, so the WWM editorial board decided against making any this year. 

Instead, we took the Bruce Smith approach to training camp – thinking about football very occasionally while feigning injury in order to avoid excessive sweatiness until it matters. This phenomenon can now accurately be called the Kyle Orton approach.

For all the uncertainty surrounding the high-profile positions of quarterback, coach and owner, there are more positives about these Bills than previous editions which opened with much higher expectations among media types and fans.

Manuel’s rookie year wasn’t nearly as bad as some seem to recall, with a half-dozen decent-or-better performances, three stinkers and a truncated good night among his 10 starts.

He’ll have the support of a reinforced running game, with veterans Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon adding inside power to Spiller’s breakaway speed and Fred Jackson’s all-around intensity.
Watkins is the real thing – if low-resolution cell-phone training-camp videos are any indication. If he can keep his ribcage from getting pulverized, he gives Manuel the sort of disruptive receiving force Buffalo has lacked since Eric Moulds’ peak more than a decade ago. At least.

It is tough to imagine the defense somehow being better without Alonso and Byrd, but a full season from Stephon Gilmore should improve coverage in the secondary, an especially important asset while facing receivers like Chicago’s Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall.

And here’s something everyone should be able to get behind: Marrone belatedly came to the conclusion that Jeff Tuel has no business touching a football during an NFL game. That it took two full off- and preseasons and a pair of disastrous regular-season demonstrations to arrive at that conclusion does not exactly instill confidence in either Marrone or the team’s personnel department, but at least they got there eventually.

If Orton, signed barely a week before the opener, still likes to play football (no sure thing, after the way he relaxed his way out of Dallas), he provides a relatively viable option if gets hurt or regresses. Orton’s signing also suggests something of a humbling for Marrone, who apparently entered his first head-coaching job at the professional level believing his offensive system could work with even Tuel or Thaddeus Lewis at the controls.

The Bills quickly shot down the above-linked report that Marrone had to be separated from Bills CEO Russ Brandon during an argument over personnel issues last month, which means one of two things. Either there is serious dissension over the team’s direction at the worst possible time, or an anonymous someone in the organization really, really dislikes Marrone.

Through it all, the Bills have been aimlessly drifting along, soaking up the big television money afforded every NFL team and playing before mostly capacity crowds at home without any real incentive to win. And let's face it. That has been true not just since Wilson passed, but since John Butler left town after the 2000 season. It is not a coincidence that that season was the first year of the league's longest playoff drought.

Opening Day brings with it the chance to change all that, or at least create the perception that it is changing.

For all Manuel's struggles, a big day against Chicago's aging secondary and feeble pass rush, or even a competent showing, will ease doubts about Buffalo's first pick in the 2013 draft. If that involves Watkins making a few of those spectacular plays in games that count against defenders wearing an opposing team's uniform, Doug Whaley's decisions regarding the '14 and '15 drafts start looking a lot better, too.

A win against the Bears also quiets the noise about Marrone's future for a week or so.

And makes it much easier to feel good about a season that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the previous 14 before it has even begun.