Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Strange Times In Bills Country

Well, this is weird.

Buffalo's 43-23 mockery of the New York Jets on Sunday puts the Bills in the best position they have occupied midway through a season since 2002 -- with a 5-3 record and on a winning streak.

OK. It's a two-game winning streak. And the Jets are clearly not very good at playing football.

But it certainly beats the alternative. Outscoring an opponent that turns the ball over six times and imagines that it possesses the power of invisibility may not have a lot of predictive value, but it does set the 2014 Bills apart from the 14 also-rans that came before.

All of which causes a great deal of confusion here at the We Want Marangi offices. This is the point in the season where discussion of the local football team usually starts to involve firing the coach and/or general manager, benching the quarterback or figuring out which college players might be available when Buffalo makes its first pick in the following spring's draft.

Some fans seem similarly bewildered, judging from such forums for rational, contemplative discussion as radio talk shows and Twitter, where Buffalo's highest single-game point total in four years and Kyle Orton's second four-touchdown passing performance ever provide the intellectual foundation for arguing that offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett should be fired immediately.

One caller to WGR 550 on Monday afternoon went a step farther, making the case that the Bills should fire head coach Doug Marrone, apparently to ensure that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz -- who managed to compile a 29-52 overall record in Detroit despite having Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh at his disposal -- is not snatched up for the top job somewhere else.

Or something.

Again, these are strange times, so it's understandable if everyone is a little off-kilter at the moment.

So let's just make fun of the Jets for a while.

It seems worth asking, given his previous trouble keeping his schedule straight: Geno Smith did know there was a game Sunday, right?

The next quarterback selected after E.J. Manuel in the 2013 NFL Draft looked like someone whom the Jets kidnapped and forced into a uniform and onto the field. On his first throw of the day, Smith misfired on a quick slant to Eric Decker. It may have been his best play of the day.

Two of Smith's three interceptions were badly overthrown. On the other, he either somehow did not see Preston Brown between him and his presumed target, tight end Jeff Cumberland, or convinced himself that the Buffalo linebacker would fall down, or perhaps mysteriously disappear, before the ball arrived.

Smith's 10-minute cameo, during which he completed two of his eight passes to his teammates and three to the Bills, produced a 0.0 quarterback rating, guaranteeing him at least a share of an NFL standard that can never be taken away from him.

It says quite a bit about the Jets that Smith's meltdown was not the most embarrassing thing to happen to them on Sunday. That would be the kickoff immediately following Dan Carpenter's second field goal, which put Buffalo ahead 27-17 with 6:29 gone in the third quarter.

It would be easy to rip the Jets for trying a gimmick that relied completely on T.J. Graham making himself invisible, but let's be fair -- he did pull it off quite regularly during his time in Buffalo.

The humiliation did not end Sunday. John Izdik, New York's general manager, went on and on about something or other for 19 minutes during a Monday press conference, delivering a State of the Jets Address that inspired Dom Cosentino of to put together a list of shorter speeches, including the first inaugural addresses delivered by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, as well as the Gettysburg Address.
Before he took questions at his midseason State of the Jets press conference on Monday, general manager John Idzik spoke. And spoke and spoke and spoke. For all anyone knows, he still might be talking to somebody, somewhere.
Izdik's ramblings inspired a far less conciliatory monologue from noted radio ranter Mike Francesca, who appears ready to bite someone at several points during his seven-minute tirade.

OK. That felt more familiar. So back to the Bills.

What does actively participating in the Jets' self-immolation really mean for Buffalo?

Quite a bit, starting with the standings.

The Bills have gotten to 5-3 on three previous occasions during their post-playoff era, but were already backsliding by the time they reached that modest achievement in 2008 and '11.

Trent Edwards and the '08 Bills reached 5-3 with a 26-17 home loss to the Jets, their second of four in a row and eight of their last 10. Getting ripped 27-11 at home, also by the Jets, launched Ryan Fitzpatrick and friends on a seven-game skid that wiped out any good that had been accomplished during a hot start to the '11 season.

You have to go back to Drew Bledsoe's first season in Buffalo, when the Bills topped Detroit 24-17 to win their third straight and pull within a half-game of New England for the division lead, to find a campaign that offered this much cause for optimism at the halfway point.

Of course, the good feelings of 2002 ended the following week in New England, where the Brady-Belichick Patriots delivered the first of what would become annual reality checks for the Bills, who ultimately reversed their first-half record to finish 8-8.

These Bills face their first serious test of the season's second half when they return from this weekend's bye to host Kansas City. The Chiefs have won four of five, including a 41-14 walloping of the Patriots and a 23-20 win at San Diego to get to 4-3.

After that, Buffalo travels to Miami (also presently 4-3) for a Thursday nighter before hosting the Jets  (1-7) and Browns (4-3) to close out November.

December is even tougher, with road games at Denver (6-1) and New England (6-2) bookending visits from Green Bay (4-3) and Oakland (0-7).

Pasting the Jets so thoroughly sends Buffalo into that run of six decent-or-better foes in eight weeks with a boost in a few key areas:

--- Orton's performance -- 23.8 yards per completion, four touchdowns (he should really be credited with 4.95 touchdown throws, as he was in no way responsible for the timing of Sammy Watkins' pre-goal-line celebration) and a 142.8 quarterback rating -- eliminates any doubt that Doug Marrone made the right move by swapping him for Manuel a month ago. At least for the moment.

His turnovers against Detroit and Minnesota made the late dramatics necessary, and they pretty well squelched any chance the Bills had to take control against New England.

In New Jersey, though, Orton made the required throws and, just as significantly, made it through the afternoon without throwing or fumbling the ball away.

Getting sacked 17 times in four starts is a problem, one attributable to both offensive line woes and Orton's complete lack of mobility.

--- Orton's feet are not going to suddenly get quicker, but his protection almost has to get better. Offensive lines, no matter how untalented, usually get better given both continuity and time. Kraig Urbik's return to the starting front and the extra week off should help there, if there is something to Marrone's background in that area.

Any improvement up front would help the short-handed ground game. I'm not sure what anyone was expecting from a pair of career backups in their first game replacing the injured C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, but hammering away at the Jets showed the coaching staff's confidence in both the Boobie Dixon/Bryce Brown combo and their blocking.

Given how well the defense has played all season, save the second half against New England and third downs against San Diego, a persistent, if not terribly productive, running attack may be all Buffalo needs.

--- Six turnovers and four sacks would have been a good month's work for some of the Jauron/Gailey defenses, Putting a floundering opponent away after letting the battered Lions and pitiful Vikings hang around is another step forward,which should help when Buffalo starts facing actual NFL offenses again.

Looking at the rest of the schedule, it is no stretch to imagine the Bills finding a way to lose all of them, or continuing to improve and winning every one (OK, beating the Broncos and Patriots on the road might be a little bit of a stretch).

A 3-1 November is a realistic hope and would send Buffalo into the season's final month with more than a mathematical chance at finally ending a postseason drought approaching a decade-and-a-half.

Now that would really be weird.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Futility, From Flutie To Fitzpatrick (And Beyond)

Welcome to New Jersey, where the Bills face the Jets on Sunday. And where even remotely promising Buffalo football seasons go to die.

Road wins in the National Football League rarely come easily. For the Bills, they have been impossible to attain against the New York Jets since before the playoffs became a source of nostalgia.

The Meadowlands Stadium big-game futility began not with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chan Gailey or J.P. Losman and Dick Jauron or even Rob Johnson and Gregggggg Williams, but Doug Flutie and Wade Phillips.

The Bills arrived in East Rutherford in early November of 1998 on a five-game winning streak, with four of them coming after Flutie replaced an injured Johnson in Indianapolis. Each team came in with a 5-3 record and a great comeback story at quarterback, as Vinny Testaverde had replaced Glenn Foley after New York's 0-2 start.

There was absolutely no magic from Flutie or anyone else in a Bills uniform that day. Testaverde shredded Buffalo's secondary, throwing for three touchdowns in a 34-12 whomping. Flutie turned in his worst game to date for the Bills, finishing 12-of-30 for 154 yards and two interceptions, one of which came 19 seconds before halftime and set up a New York field goal, the other leaving the Jets with less than a half a field to cover to score the game's final points.

Reverse the result (or New York's 17-10 win in Orchard Park the following month) and the '98 Bills open the postseason at home as AFC East champions, instead of traveling to Miami to lose to Jimmy Johnson and Dan Marino in a wild-card game.

A year later, Buffalo was 7-3 when the annual New Jersey trip came around, and the Jets were stumbling along at 4-6 with Ray Lucas subbing for Testaverde, who was lost for the season on Opening Day.

Flutie was badly outplayed by Lucas, who would start all of 15 games in seven season with the Jets and Dolphins. The decisive play in New York's 17-7 win came early in the second quarter, three snaps after Lucas connected with Dedric Ward for a 7-0 lead.

Facing third-and-8 from his own 5-yard line, Flutie failed to pick up a blind-side rush, got sacked in the end zone by Ray Mickens and fumbled, with Eric Ogbogu falling on the loose ball for a 14-0 New York advantage.

(Note: Less than two months later, Flutie diehards would cite Johnson's inability to avoid a safety in an identical situation as proof that their man should have started the playoff game in Tennessee. Even though their man had not only failed to escape the Jets rush, but failed to hold on to the ball under the same circumstances. But that's probably another column altogether.)

And those were the good times. Buffalo still reached the playoffs in '98 and '99. The Bills and Jets have played 14 times in New Jersey since Flutie's end-zone fumble, with Buffalo winning just four. And all of those proved meaningless for Buffalo.

The first was one of Alex Van Pelt's three wins as a Bills starter, a 14-9 thriller that improved Buffalo's 2001 record to 3-12.

After going 0-for-Drew Bledsoe-and-Kelly Holcomb against the Jets on the road, the '06 Bills and J.P. Losman pulled to 6-7 with a 31-13 win that kept their faint playoff hopes alive, only to drop their last two for a 7-9 finish that would become the standard under first-year coach Jauron.

They did it again a year later, sort of. Losman replaced Edwards with the score tied at a field goal each in the fourth quarter, with one of his three completions going for 85 yards to Lee Evans to seal a 13-3 win. The Bills, of course, finished 7-9 again.

Losman more than made up for it the following season, in perhaps the most heinous loss in the rivalry's history.

Having completely dissipated a 4-0 start under Trent Edwards, the 5-7 Bills somehow took the lead when Losman completed four straight to set up Fred Jackson's 11-yard touchdown run with 5:39 left. After Buffalo's defense forced Brett Favre and the Jets to go three-and-out, Losman faced a second-and-5 from his own 27 with 2:06 remaining.

Marshawn Lynch had already run for 127 yards, Jackson for another 31. So someone thought it would be a good idea for Losman to pass, and he decided the best option was to scramble back toward his own goal line. There, he was stripped of the ball by Abram Elam, with Shaun Ellis scooping up the loose ball and trotting in for the winning touchdown.

You guessed it -- the Bills went on to finish 7-9, as was their wont under Jauron.

Buffalo's most recent New Jersey victory came a year later, in another game most witnesses would like to forget. Steve Christie's field goal with 2:49 left in overtime, set up by Mark Sanchez's fifth interception of the day, gave the Bills a 16-13 edge on a day when they allowed New York to run for 318 yards, 210 of them by Thomas Jones, and Fitzpatrick replaced a concussed Trent Edwards at quarterback.

Fitz, E.J. Manuel and the legendary Brian Brohm all played their part in Buffalo's four Meadowlands losses since, though few quarterbacks deserve more credit for defeat than Fitzpatrick in the '12 season opener.

So now Kyle Orton gets his chance. Once again, the Bills need a win, this time to reach the season's midway point at 5-3 and as part of a reasonable playoff discussion.

Yes, the Jets are 1-6. They have also lost five of those games to teams that currently have winning records, and four of them by a single score or less. Most recently, they lost by two on the road to New England, and will have had 10 days to rest and prepare when they take the field Sunday.

New York's strength is centered in the middle of its defensive line, which happens to match up quite well with the disaster area which is Buffalo's offensive interior.

Geno Smith played well in New England, but would figure to be fresh meat for Buffalo's pass rush. But then, the Bills allowed Teddy Bridgewater to keep the Vikings ahead until the game's final snap last Sunday.

At this point, predicting what these Bills will do based on their recent performances, or those of their opponents, is futile. Almost as much so as playing a game that matters in New Jersey.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Bills Overcome Themselves, Outlast Vikings

Too bad somebody had to win.

Yes, Buffalo did finally lull Minnesota into a 17-16 final on Sunday, keeping them in second place in the AFC East for at least one more week.

And, yes, for the second time in three starts since replacing E.J. Manuel, Kyle Orton directed the Bills to the decisive points in the final seconds.

But, geez. If ever a tie would have been the just and proper outcome of a football game, this was it. I've seen or heard just about every Bills game since 1975, and I can't remember one in which they played worse for longer, and still won.

Even the final Buffalo possession -- it feels wrong to call a series involving two sacks and two offensive penalties a "drive" -- looked like something patched together at the end of an exhibition game.

Somehow, thanks to Orton catching the Vikings in disarray on fourth-and-20, along with redemptive efforts by Scott Carpenter and Chris Hogan, as well as the emerging brilliance of Sammy Watkins, the Bills managed to cover the 105 yards they required of themselves.

Before the last three minutes, Buffalo's biggest offensive play ended with C.J. Spiller writhing in agony, his collarbone broken and his season, along with his Bills career, likely over.

Before the last three minutes, facing a defense ranked in the NFL's bottom half against both the run and pass, the Bills could not keep the ball for more than six plays at a time, with four possessions ending in turnovers.

Before the last three minutes, Orton had completed 23 of 31 passes, but for just 183 yards -- a highly non-threatening 7.9 yards per completion. Even with those 105 yards at the end, the Bills averaged 5.2 per pass play when factoring in sack yardage. For the season, the Jets rank last in that category -- at 5.8 per attempt

Before the last three minutes, disarray along Buffalo's offensive line -- compounded by the absence of Fred Jackson, lost with a groin injury three series before Spiller went down -- led to four sacks of Orton.

(Note: It does not help that the 10-year veteran shows a faint awareness of the pass rush and no ability to escape it when he does notice. I'm trying to think of a less-mobile Buffalo quarterback. Jim Kelly in his final season? Vince Ferragamo?)

On the scoreboard and in the standings, of course, those final 180 seconds of game time are all that really matter. As for the rest of the schedule, the Bills have plenty of problems to fix in order to keep the next 10 weeks from looking remarkably like the last 14 years.

As Doug Marrone said of his team's mistakes during an appropriately glum post-game press conference, "The list goes on and on."

--- Buffalo's run defense, the league's stingiest entering the day, gave up 158 yards -- more than double its previous average. Even more troubling, Minnesota's Jerick McKinnon gained more than half his game-high 103 yards after bouncing off the first Bills defender to hit him.

--- Even the least-talented offensive lines tend to get better over time, with improving unit cohesiveness compensating for a lack of individual dominance. Not so with Buffalo. Besides collapsing repeatedly around Orton, the Bills did not exactly shred Minnesota on the ground. Otherwise-banished wide receiver Mike Williams delivered the key block on Spiller's 53-yard run. Buffalo's runners managed all of 65 yards on 18 attempts. Not to belabor the point, but this was against the Vikings.

--- The Bills committed four turnovers and permitted six sacks in total, the first time they have won despite hitting those milestones since a 37-35 win against Indianapolis in 1997. (OK, now I recall a game in which they played as badly as they did Sunday and still won. The Todd Collins-era Bills fell behind 26-0 at home to the pre-Manning Colts, then staged perhaps the least-riveting comeback in NFL history.)

--- So other than blocking and tackling, protecting the football and avoiding penalties (getting nabbed with 12 men on the field is never recommended, but doing so on fourth-and-1 is an especially bad look), the Bills looked terrific.

Of course, there were enough positives to produce one more point than a team whose quarterback looked to be about 12 years old while wearing a purple toque during second-half sideline shots.

The passing-game plan finally centered around Watkins, whose nine-catch, 122-yard, both-Buffalo-touchdowns performance showed why general manager Doug Whaley was willing to spend two first-round picks to land him. Watkins' break-out day helped create space on the final drive for Scott Chandler, whose grab on fourth-and-20 atoned for a drop on the previous play, and Hogan, who made up for his first-quarter fumble with the catch that made Watkins' game-winner possible.

The defensive line was again the best unit put on the field by either team, with three of the four starters recording sacks, led by two from Marcell Dareus and 1.5 by Jerry Hughes. The biggest came early in the fourth quarter, when each got to rookie Teddy Bridgewater on consecutive plays after the Vikings had earned a first down at Buffalo's 7-yard line, limiting Minnesota to a field goal that kept it a one-score game.

Orton's late-game antics (again, "heroics" seems way too strong a word here) have Buffalo at 4-3 heading into Sunday's trip to to play the 1-6 Jets.

The Bills have attained such mediocrity four times during their 14-year playoff-free skid, getting to 4-3 or better at this point during the 2002, '03, '08 and '11 seasons. Having conjured visions of potential postseason runs, those four teams promptly disintegrated, going a combined 6-28 from their respective high-water marks.

This edition looks perfectly capable of doing the same, even with the second of six straight games against teams possessing worse records ahead Sunday in New Jersey. Winning by scoring 17 points, which Buffalo has managed twice in three weeks, is not a sustainable route to success in today's NFL (last season's four conference finalists won a total of two games while posting 17 or fewer).

Of course, it is also possible that succeeding despite themselves for the second time in three weeks will imbue Orton -- who has now been in Buffalo for nearly two months and will be making his fourth start in New Jersey -- and the rest of the Bills with improved self-esteem, and that Watkins' emergence as a game-changing force will offset the loss of Jackson and Spiller, while the defense and special teams continue to do their parts.

In the historically unlikely event all of that happens, it may even start to look and feel like they deserve their victories.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Accommodating Vikings May Be Perfect Guest

After a week spent attempting to heal from another torching by Tom Brady while trying to figure out whether their last-string wide receiver wants to be traded or not and how to get C.J. Spiller past the line of scrimmage with the ball in his hands, the National Football League schedule provides the Buffalo Bills with a reminder that things could always be worse.

The Minnesota Vikings arrive in town fresh off two comprehensive defeats by NFC Central opponents, having lost to Green Bay and Detroit by a combined 59-13. If that's not demoralizing enough, all Minnesota's points in those two games came in the fourth quarter, after the offenses of the Packers and Lions were done scoring for the day.

Despite putting up 558 total yards -- 317 of them through the air by Teddy Bridgewater in his first NFL start -- in an inexplicable-in-retrospect 41-28 upset of Atlanta in Week 4, the Vikings rank 28th in total offense and 30th in passing.

Even their No. 13 ranking in rushing offense is deceptive, since 241 yards came against the Falcons, who apparently forgot they had a game that day. They compiled another 185 during their only other win, a 34-6 runaway in St. Louis on Opening Day.

Of that total, 67 came on a reverse by Cordarrelle Patterson, who has done nothing of substance since. Adrian Peterson had another 75 in his only game before his parenting techniques became public.

Arithmetic tells us that means the Vikings have averaged 73.3 rushing yards in their four losses, or a shade more than Buffalo's top-ranked run defense has given up.

Of course, that status is a bit misleading, too. San Diego and New England did not need to run the ball to overwhelm the Bills, given the liberties Philip Rivers and Brady took with Buffalo's secondary.

Not that the Bills don't haven't posted misleading stats of their own. The pass rush has piled up 19 sacks, the second-highest total in the league, but had no impact in the second half of the losses to the Chargers and Patriots.

Buffalo figures to make the sack numbers more gaudy on Sunday, as Detroit dumped Bridgewater eight times in last week's 17-3 grinding of the Vikings.

If those match-up trends continue and the weather forecast calling for a cool, windy afternoon in Orchard Park plays out, the Bills could dominate to a level that renders their offense just about irrelevant.

Which, given its performance for all but a quarter here and there, would be Buffalo's best-case scenario. Just as Minnesota's offensive problems present a perfect fit for the Bills' defensive strengths, the Vikings defense offer Kyle Orton an ideal opportunity to dissuade the thought that Doug Whaley should be searching in quiet desperation for any other ambulatory quarterback before the Oct. 28 trade deadline.

The Bills are 1-1 since Doug Marrone replaced E.J. Manuel with Orton. They would be 0-2 if, two weeks ago, Detroit had employed even the second-worst kicker in the league.

On Sunday, they host a team with no discernible strengths, one playing with a rookie quarterback making his second professional start and without their best player.

The Bills, of course, have a few problems of their own. The 37-22 beating by the Patriots was their third loss in four games, a stretch during which they have looked more like a team that is unraveling than one getting its act together. This week's turmoil, centering around who, exactly wants Mike Williams traded and who decides whether Spiller and Mario Williams are on the field, and when, does not help.

After Manuel's rather sudden benching and the seeming lack of any mid-game adjustments against New England, Whaley and Marrone have plenty of explaining to do about their team's direction, even with a if a 3-3 mark second in a pretty crummy AFC East for the moment.

Minnesota's visit opens a string of six straight games against highly mediocre opponents, with four of them at home.

Before anybody starts thinking about winning streaks or Buffalo's record heading into a Dec. 7 game at Denver, though, they have to prove they can put together a complete game against the likes of the Vikings.

Otherwise, a season that started out so promisingly turns out just like the previous 14. And it will be time to start wondering if both, or either, of the Dougs will be around to see the end of it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Forty-one Questions The Bills' New Owner Should Ask Their Coach And General Manager

With all the pageantry of his first weekend as the second-ever owner of the Buffalo Bills out of the way, Terry Pegula finds himself settling into the less-glamorous reality of owning the Buffalo Bills this week.

It only makes sense that one of the first orders of business would be holding a meeting with the company's top executives, especially the guys who run the football team itself, general manager Doug Whaley and head coach Doug Marrone. Particularly after their creation managed to look an awful lot like a Buddy Nix-Chan Gailey production during Sunday's biannual flogging by the New England Patriots.

Pegula is historically more of a hockey guy and appears most comfortable working from a script (and we do not just say this because Kim Pegula seemed to be mouthing the words to Terry's midfield remarks before Sunday's 37-22 loss to New England along with her husband, evoking images of the couple running through his lines at the breakfast table). So We Want Marangi respectfully offers the following pertinent questions:

--- So, you two do have some sort of plan, right?

--- Did that plan involve Kyle Orton playing quarterback?

--- Had you ever watched him play quarterback before?

--- Kim and I have been busy running the Sabres, so I could be wrong, but doesn't he play a lot like that guy with the beard who was the quarterback a couple of years ago?

--- I keep hearing you say he gives us (use of finger quotes recommended, but not absolutely necessary with the right voice inflection) "the best chance to win." How so?

--- There were a couple of plays Sunday when Orton stood perfectly still while a Patriots player ran at him as fast as he could. Was that intentional? Like he thought the pass rusher might think the whistle had blown if he didn't try to get away, or become transfixed by his eerie calm -- which could be mistaken for obliviousness -- while under duress and run right by him?

--- Why didn't you draft somebody better?

--- I see. With the very first pick you made after getting hired, you say? Well, I know the rest of the team hasn't been very good in a while, either. Why didn't you draft somebody to give the poor kid some help?

--- Ah. And where was this Watkins fellow on Sunday?

--- Wait a minute. You're saying that if the other team assigns its best player to guard our best player, we just sort of give up on getting the ball to him?

--- Even Kim and I knew the Patriots like to throw to that Gronkowski character, but they still did it an awful lot, didn't they?

--- Anyway, my hockey people tell me that by losing a lot, we can get a really good player in the next draft. And they're doing a great job at that. So at least we can get another quarterback come spring if this Orton thing doesn't work out, right?

--- What do you mean, we don't have a first-round pick? Doesn't everybody get one? That doesn't sound right. Hold on while I call Bob Kraft and see why we ...

--- Oh. Let me make sure I'm keeping up here. So you spent your first first-round draft choice on a quarterback, then the next two on a receiver to help him out. But we've already ditched the quarterback for somebody that four other teams told to hit the bricks and we don't throw to the receiver when other teams think we're going to do that. Have I got this straight?

--- But you do have a plan, you say?

--- What about that other receiver, the one you got for a sixth-round draft choice? Where was he on Sunday?

--- That's right. I remember seeing something about that on the Twitter. Seems like a bit of a jerk. Didn't you throw him off your team in college?

--- But then you traded for him?

--- I see he wants to be traded again already. What can we get for him?

--- Well, let's not get bogged down on one side of the ball. I keep hearing that we have a great defense. Do great defenses usually give up 37 points at home?

--- Yes, Tom Brady is very good. But I noticed that after we got within a touchdown in the fourth quarter, and absolutely had to stop New England to have a chance to tie it up, Mario Williams wasn't on the field. How much am I paying him again?

--- So why wasn't he, or that No. 55 who had sacked Brady twice, on the field for the most important series of the season?

--- Rotation? Isn't that a baseball thing?

--- Yes, everyone needs rest to be at their best. Even I like a nap once in a while. But in a spot like that, don't you want our best players out there?

--- It sure did seem like a running situation. But haven't the Patriots been throwing in spots like that since Brady has been Brady?

--- So you're telling me that one of your assistants makes those decisions?

--- The guy who asked his players to carry him off the field in Detroit?

--- Isn't that kind of like throwing a birthday party for yourself?

--- Who is this Duke Williams person?

--- Is he an actual duke?

--- That's too bad. Has anyone told him that he is allowed to turn around while he's covering a receiver?

--- Are you sure he knows that he can try to catch the ball, or bat it away, or do something besides shove the receiver with both hands?

--- And that when an opposing receiver runs by our cornerback, like on that last New England touchdown, he is supposed to cover that receiver, instead of sort of standing there, then half-heartedly chasing him into the end zone?

--- Who do you have to check with? Schwartz? Is that the birthday-party guy?

--- Back to the offense for a minute. On that play where C.J. Spiller gets the ball and runs out of bounds behind the line, is that the way it's supposed to work?

--- I didn't think so. Why don't you try some other things, like throwing to him down the field a little?

--- I know he's not much of a blocker -- I saw him almost get Orton killed in Detroit. But Fred Jackson's pretty good at protection. Why not use them both at the same time more, and split Spiller out or something?

--- So you're telling me we're better off having another first-round pick on the bench and a guy you traded for in street clothes while that No. 15, who nobody drafted, plays. What's his name again?

--- Ha! Hogan's Heroes always cracked me up. Is that still on in re-runs anywhere?

--- But seriously. You're absolutely sure you have a plan?

--- Well, we've covered a lot of ground here. Good talk. Just one more thing before we wrap up. So did you guys buy houses around here, or are you renting?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Not A Typo: Bills Should Beat Patriots

Buffalo hosts New England today, with sole possession of first place in the AFC East at stake, as a three-point underdog. Given the way the Patriots have toyed with the Bills for lo these past 13 years, it feels weird to even think this, but the Bills should be favored by at least as much.

The Bills are better at every position except one, and the Patriots' singular advantage, while glaringly obvious, should be negated by their deficiencies.

Buffalo enters the first-place showdown tied for the NFL lead in quarterback sacks and second only to Super Bowl champion Seattle in run defense. The defensive line has been the foundation for those lofty rankings and should overwhelm New England's shuffling offensive line, which bears primary responsibility for Tom Brady looking so crappy through the season's first quarter.

The Bills' front wall should only improve with the expected return of Kyle Williams, who missed the dominant performance in Detroit with a knee injury. Brady has traditionally struggled most against opponents whose front four has been able to decimate the pocket, as in both Super Bowl losses to New York. Williams and Marcell Dareus, who registered three of Buffalo's six sacks against Detroit, should rupture Brady's protection, either burying him themselves or forcing him into the perilous rush lanes occupied by Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes.

What with the league's official approval of the sale of the team to Terry and Kim Pegula, along with the game's early-season importance and a forecast conducive to high-intensity tailgating, a raucous crowd should amplify the talent gap up front. Sufficiently disruptive noise from the home fans should scramble the visitors' timing on offense, particularly when that offense relies heavily on play calls and blocking schemes being adjusted at the line. That's what happened a couple weeks ago in Kansas City, when New England got rolled 41-14 and the hopeful started talking about the end of the Patriots' divisional dominance.

After several weeks of struggle, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller should be able to find some running room against New England's defense, which rates 18th in the league against the run. The Chiefs' two-back approach yielded 107 rushing yards from Knile Davis and 92 more by Jamaal Charles.

Any degree of success from a running game that has struggled since Buffalo's 29-10 win over Miami in Week 2 should create some space for Sammy Watkins, who does not seem to need much, and the rest of the Bills receivers, as well as provide cover for Kyle Orton, who historically needs all he can get.

This may also sound historically inaccurate, but Watkins, Robert Woods and Mike Williams should give Orton a set of targets superior to Brady, who has little beyond Rob Gronkowski and a bunch of failed Wes Welker impersonators from which to choose.

OK. That is a whole lot of shoulds. And, as the Bills have demonstrated repeatedly over the past 15 years or so, should does not mean a whole lot once the game begins.

New England, as demonstrated throughout last Sunday night's 43-17 wipeout of previously unbeaten Cincinnati, is far from finished. And for a guy who pundits had on his way out of Foxborough, Brady looked a lot like the guy who guided the Patriots to 11 of the last 13 divisional titles, five Super Bowl berths and three Lombardi Trophies against the Bengals.

Bill Belichick has shown a knack for finding new ways to torment the Bills over the years, dating back to the two-man line that Jim Kelly never quite figured out how to exploit in Super Bowl XXV. Futility against the Patriots has been a constant through Buffalo's era of revolving quarterbacks, so the less asked of Orton, the better.

New England's anti-Bills innovations have not been limited to defense, either. You might recall New England's visit two years ago, when the Patriots limped into Buffalo with a 1-2 record and a struggling running game that shredded the 2-1 Bills for 247 yards on the way to 45 unanswered points and a 52-21 humiliation.

Besides signalling the end of any hope Buffalo might accomplish much of anything with Ryan Fitzpatrick quarterbacking and Chan Gailey coaching, that game inspired Brady to vocalize his feelings about Bills fans, as GIF-ed above.

This year's renewal provides a similar crossroads for Orton and Doug Marrone, as well as general manager Doug Whaley and the rest of Buffalo management.

Beating New England does not necessarily mean a shift in the balance of divisional power. After their only two wins over Belichick and Brady, in 2003 and 2011, the Bills went on to finish 6-10.

If they can not beat these Patriots under these circumstances, though, there is little reason to hope Buffalo will wind up in any better shape this time around.

And if that happens, the Pegulas should start thinking about who they want managing their $1.4 billion investment.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

First Place, For Now

It took the longest game-winning field goal in Buffalo's football history, made possible by one of the worst days ever by any modern National Football League kicker.

And another stifling performance by the best run defense the Bills have mounted since the last time they made the playoffs, 15 years ago, an effort eased by an opponent lacking its top three running backs for most of the day.

And the team's first quarterback to take the field wearing a pure mustache since this blog's namesake spending much of his debut producing results remarkably similar to his immediate predecessors before hitting on a few big throws at the end.

Each element was required for an improbable 17-14 win over Detroit that leaves Buffalo in an uncustomary position -- sharing first place in the AFC East with their co-occupants coming to town on Sunday.

(Facial-hair note: Ryan Fitzpatrick wore an increasingly full beard through most of his stint in Buffalo. Early 1980s backup David Humm had upper-lip growth appropriate to the era, but thankfully never started a game for the Bills. You have to go back to We Want Marangi's patron saint to find the last Bills starting quarterback to take the field looking like he just stepped out a men's clothing ad from 1974 before Orton on Sunday. And since Gary Marangi was 0-for-7 as Buffalo's starter, you could certainly make the case that Orton is already the greatest mustachioed quarterback the Bills have ever had.)

Dan Carpenter's 58-yard field goal with four seconds remaining capped the slow-motion comeback, giving the Bills their only lead of the day, as well as a 3-2 record with New England due for its annual visit to Orchard Park.

Carpenter's game-winner was the second-longest in franchise history to Steve Christie's first-half-ending 59-yarder in 1993. He probably never would have had the chance if his Lions counterpart, Alex Henery, could have managed to make even one of the three shorter kicks he botched, the last just 40 seconds earlier.

The single biggest play came on the snap following what may well be Henery's final attempt as a professional (he was cut by the Lions on Monday), when new Buffalo quarterback Kyle Orton -- in his first outing since replacing E.J. Manuel -- threw a little too quickly and slightly behind Sammy Watkins. The rookie showed that he may well be worth at least one of the two first-round picks the Bills gave up to get him by doing this:

Watkins' freakish catch set up Carpenter's winner, which keeps the Bills atop the AFC East for at least another week.

Besides Henery, primary responsibility for that lofty position belongs to Buffalo's defense.

Through most of a playoff drought that dates to the first days of the millenium, the Bills were guilty of providing comfort, if not aid, to opposing running backs, as well as quarterbacks facing third-down situations. Suddenly, they're among the NFL's elite in both areas, allowing the second-fewest rushing yards per game and the lowest percentage of third-down conversions.

In Detroit, two other former first-round picks made the crawl-back possible.

The Lions were already ahead 14-0 -- thanks to Orton's downright Manuelesque scoring throw to Detroit's Rashean Mathis -- and moving toward an even bigger lead early in the second quarter. Then Stephon Gilmore, taken with the No. 10 pick of the 2012 draft, staged his version of the one-man tip drill, reversing what looked like a long march to a blowout loss and leading to the first of Carpenter's three successful field goals.

The Lions would reach Buffalo's end of the field just twice more the rest of the way, thanks to a Buffalo defense anchored by Marcell Dareus, the third overall pick in 2011. Despite the absence of Kyle Williams at the other tackle, the mammoth tackle terrorized the Lions by sacking Matthew Stafford three times, snuffing two runs behind the line and generally disrupting whatever game plan Detroit had in mind.

Future Hall of Fame wide receiver Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush both departed after early injuries, leaving Stafford with Golden Tate as his only viable weapon. That was almost enough, as they connected seven times for 134 yards, including a 55-yard catch-and-run with a minute left to set up Henery's game-loser.

The rest of the Lions produced a total of 129 yards, while succeeding just once on third down in 11 tries.

With Orton looking very much like a quarterback who took the spring and summer off before signing with Buffalo days before the regular season opener, the Bills weren't any better for the first three quarters.

C.J. Spiller's trademark lateral moves against the league's top-ranked defense yielded all of seven yards on nine carries, and his whiff on blitzing linebacker Ashlee Palmer nearly got Orton hospitalized on Buffalo's second series.

Fred Jackson could not do much more in the first half, but picked up 25 yards on five third-quarter touches as the Bills moved into field-goal range twice. Carpenter bonked an upright from 50 yards out on the first try, but hit from 25 with a minute to go in the third to pull Buffalo within a touchdown and two-point conversion.

To that point, Orton had shown little to justify the switch from Manuel. Besides locking in on Watkins on Mathis's touchdown pick, his completions had been almost exclusively the sort of check-down dumps that got Buffalo's top pick in 2013 benched and Ryan Fitzpatrick and his old-timey beard exiled to Tennessee, then Houston. After the Bills failed to get a snap off before the play clock expired in the first quarter, the television camera panned to Manuel, whose expression read, "I could do that."

One of the biggest knocks on Manuel had been his ineffectiveness on third down, with the Bills going 5-for-16 in his last start, the previous week's 23-17 loss in Houston. Through three quarters in Detroit, Orton's offense was 2-for-11.

Just when Doug Marrone's quarterbacking decision was looking increasingly irrelevant, though, Orton warmed up. He delivered a third-and-6 toss to Watkins, who twisted just beyond the marker. After hitting Robert Woods down the middle for 17 yards, Orton went for it all on third-and-10 and almost got it, dropping the ball perfectly into the hands of Marquise Goodwin for 42 yards.

After a flip to wide-open backup tight end Chris Gragg for Buffalo's lone touchdown, Orton audibled out of a pass call, allowing Jackson to tie it up with a two-point conversion run through the middle.

The tenuous nature of the victory suggests one of two possibilities for Buffalo's upcoming first-place showdown with New England, whose 43-17 evisceration of Cincinnati on Sunday night should put to rest any thought that the Patriots are not still the team to beat in the division.

Having beaten a playoff contender on the road, regardless of the aesthetics involved, could give Orton and the offense confidence that they are at least competent enough to avoid wasting dominant efforts by what is shaping up as a very special defense.

Or it will turn out to be as fluky as it looked and, despite everything that is new about these Bills, nothing has really changed.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Counterpoint: Orton Might Not Suck!

As discussed at length earlier this week, We Want Marangi has pretty serious doubts about Kyle Orton.

The veteran of 10 NFL seasons and four teams who found him wanting did not do much to alleviate those doubts by acting like an entitled superstar at his first news conference since replacing E.J. Manuel as Buffalo's starting quarterback.

Especially since this is a guy who was such a good teammate that Denver dumped him in mid-season after replacing him with Tim Tebow, rather than keep him around to provide the veteran leadership the Bills now expect. And who got his release from Dallas by convincing the Cowboys he did not really like playing football any more.

In the interest of fairness, however, we offer this counterpoint, courtesy of Grantland's Robert Mays.

Using the latest new-fangled football statistics, Mays argues that, with Doug Marrone's decision to swap in Orton for Manuel, the rest of the Buffalo Bills are good enough to not just reach the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, but to earn the franchise's first division title since 1995 -- Jim Kelly's penultimate season as their quarterback.
Having to abandon a first-round quarterback 14 starts into his career would be a concession for most teams, but Marrone’s choice to hand the ball to Kyle Orton isn’t the Bills’ version of waving the white flag. It’s actually their way of bearing down.
Mays bases his case primarily on Buffalo's defense, particularly its dominance against the run, while expecting at least some offensive improvement.
Manuel’s brand of bad was particularly maddening because of the group the Bills have put together around him. We were about a week away from an “Is Sammy Watkins open?” Tumblr site. Here’s a hint: Sammy Watkins is always open. Going back and watching the tape of Buffalo’s game against the Texans was brutal. Every time Watkins streaked across the middle of the field, the ball seemed to hit him in the knee, or ricochet off the fingertips of an outstretched hand.
All of which goes back to one of WWM's reservations about the move. Lost in the animus directed at Manuel for his maddening inaccuracy has been the inability of his receivers -- including Watkins -- to hold on to numerous throws that were catchable.

It may be true that Watkins is always open. Through four games, though, he does not always make the sort of catches you would expect from someone who cost your team two first-round draft picks.

An instinct for self-preservation is understandable, especially after seeing teammates get detonated by opposing defenders while leaping and stretching for Manuel's errant throws. It would be a big help, though, if the guy whose spectacular training-camp catches made him the greatest receiver in Vine history could replicate those grabs when it counts.

As Mays notes, the move to Orton puts pressure on Watkins and the rest of the Bills to live up to their analytic statistics and big-play potential. If they need an additional challenge, making their Orton-led debut in Detroit against the 3-1 Lions. Doing a better job containing Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh than they did at preventing J.J. Watt from roaming free in their backfield would be an excellent place to start.

Like his team, Marrone lost his easy excuse when he benched Manuel. Like his young quarterback, Marrone has shown occasional flashes of competence through his first season-and-a-quarter, but little to suggest that he deserves a third. Desperately turning to a quarterback who has been with the team for barely a month and had one week of practice is either a brilliant move, or a clear sign that general manager Doug Whaley made as big a mistake hiring Marrone as he did drafting Manuel.

Between Sunday's game in Detroit and a visit by staggering New England seven days later, it won't take long to find out which it is.