Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Tyrod Terrific As Bills Gut Dolphins

Around the time Tyrod Taylor feathered the ball into the hands of a fairly well-covered Sammy Watkins down the left sideline midway through the first quarter of Buffalo’s 41-14 win over Miami on Sunday, it was hard not to think that this guy might not suck.

That inkling got stronger six snaps later, when he lasered a 10-yard touchdown to LeSean McCoy, his second scoring pass of the day, giving the Bills a 14-0 lead.

Hey, this Taylor character might actually be pretty good!

Be honest. When was the last time your expectations for a Buffalo quarterback were anything more than, "Well, maybe he won't be as shitty as the last one?"

Granted, the bar is pretty low around here. Most of the last 15 years have been spent hoping – usually quite wishfully – for someone remotely decent, capable of upholding the delusions fostered about the rest of the roster.

"Maybe Kyle Orton/E.J. Manuel/Ryan Fitzpatrick/Trent Edwards/J.P. Losman/Kelly Holcomb could do enough to win," the thinking went, bolstered by whatever hope the franchise was selling that year -- the awesomeness of the defense/running attack/change in coaching philosophy/Terrell Owens. Those delusions surfaced after each mediocre-or-better performance, only to be shattered within a week or two.

But this, this was a different feeling altogether.

As he had against New England a week earlier, Taylor flawlessly led Buffalo to a touchdown on its opening drive in Miami, punctuated by his 25-yard collaboration with former Dolphins tight end Charles Clay.

But where things fell apart quickly, as they do for most teams, against the Patriots, Taylor kept rolling in Miami, making what was rated as one of the National Football League’s better defenses heading into the season look like the University of Tennessee-Martin trying to keep up with Ole Miss.

The throws to Watkins and McCoy, and later to Chris Hogan for Taylor's third touchdown, all would have been singular high points for any 21st-century Buffalo quarterback, with the exception of early-2002 vintage Drew Bledsoe. On Sunday, they were just part of a highly impressive body of work.

By the time it was over, and Taylor had led Buffalo to its biggest margin of victory in Miami since the Bills’ first visit ever to South Florida, a 29-0 trouncing in 1966, you could even be excused for thinking that their long slog through the quarterback wasteland might finally be at an end. Taylor completed 21 of 29 throws for 277 yards and three scores.

Factor in 12 rushing yards on three scrambles, and Taylor posted a QBR (the fancy analytical system used by ESPN for rating quarterbacks) of 95.3 -- the NFL's highest in Week 3. For the season, Taylor ranks eighth at 74.7, despite compiling a dismal 33.6 against New England.

In case you were wondering, Orton put up a 44.3 last season, while Manuel was at 42.6 as a rookie and 30.9 before being benched in 2014, while Fitzpatrick never rated above 45.2 during his four years in Buffalo. Edwards managed a 48.0 in '08 (the highest ever by a Buffalo starter since the system was devised in 2006)b , while Losman peaked at 38.9 during his lone full season two years earlier.

Of course, Miami looked more like a team playing out the final weeks of a lost season than a popular preseason pick to challenge New England for AFC East supremacy. Joe Philbin’s jittery fourth-down decisions alone were enough to justify a firing on Monday morning, if not at halftime, moments after gifting the Bills with a shot at the Dan Carpenter field goal that made it 27-0.

Not that immaculate game management by Miami’s head-coach-for-now, or an adequate performance by Ryan Tannehill, the recipient of a remarkable amount of patience (and cash) from Dolphins management, would have made much difference. Not paired with a defense that performed as if its Gatorade buckets had been spiked with influenza.

And with the home crowd showing its disdain in creative ways before ceding control of Sun Life Stadium to their blue-and-red-clad peers after intermission, Taylor didn’t have to worry about the noise that disorients most visiting  NFL quarterbacks, particularly inexperienced ones.

But a win on the road is a win on the road, particularly against a division foe in your first start away from home as a professional.

A week earlier, Taylor looked more than a little panicky during most of the first three quarters of a cosmetically close loss to the Patriots in which he absorbed eight sacks and flung three interceptions. Sunday, though, he never flinched. Nor was he dumped or picked.

He hit tough throws and easy ones, giving himself extra time with a few quick steps on the infrequent occasions Miami’s vaunted pass rush got anywhere near him. Unlike most of his predecessors, as well as the departed Matt Cassell, he put his passes where his receivers could not only catch them, but also turn upfield and accelerate.

Yes, Orton and Manuel and Fitzpatrick and Edwards and Losman and Holcomb each had moments of adequacy before getting hurt or yanked (whether on merit or by a craven coach). And Taylor could yet come undone when faced with a defense that lives up to its reputation, or a road game in a stadium full of people who actually want to be there.

But besides accuracy and mobility, Taylor has already shown qualities largely lacking in those who came before him – resiliency and adaptability.

While the Depressing Half-Dozen tended to crumble quickly after their moments of competence, Taylor came back from the New England mess with a markedly more impressive day against Miami than he had against the Colts.

With the 1-2 New York Giants coming to town for the first of six straight winnable games before the rematch with New England, the Bills find themselves better positioned at quarterback than they have been since Bledsoe's aforementioned tear in the first half of 2002.

Given the vagaries of the NFL, Taylor probably won’t look great every week during that stretch. But with a defense that didn’t surrender a point while the game was in doubt against Indianapolis or Miami, a running game that appears to be finding its rhythm (particularly when Karlos Williams has the ball), free-agent pickups Clay and Percy Harvin providing him with downfield targets while Watkins works through his latest injury, and Rex Ryan whipping everybody into a froth (within reason), he doesn’t have to be.

Given the team around him, pretty good should be good enough.

(Note: You, too, can be one of the cool kids following @DavidStaba on the Twitter. Follow-backs guaranteed.)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Bills-Dolphins Flashback: From Kelly-Marino To Losman-Rosenfels, And Beyond

Since last week's pre-game attempt at abject homerism went south pretty quickly, a different approach seems in order with Buffalo visiting Miami late this afternoon.

As a kid, the Dolphins were to the Bills what the Patriots are today -- the omnipotent, evil tormentors of the valiant good guys, who quite possibly used nefarious means to maintain their dominance.

No one ever accused Miami overlord Don Shula of blatant Belichick-esque cheating, but his presence on the National Football League's Competition Committee (and resulting presumptive control over every official's call that went against the Bills) was a popular talking point through much of the Dolphins' 20-game winning streak -- a whole decade of Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris running wild, while Bob Griese completed infuriatingly dinky play-action passes and Joe Ferguson threw interceptions.

I witnessed that run nearly end at 18. A second-half monsoon in Orchard Park helped keep the opening game of 1979 close, and a botched snap on a Miami punt in the final minutes put Buffalo in range for a seemingly point-blank field goal.

Tom Dempsey, who had held the record for the longest field goal ever at 63 yards for nearly a decade, wasn't so good at the short ones. I can still see his kick floating, floating, floating, drifting just outside of the goalpost directly in front of us, at the tunnel end of Rich Stadium.

The original Wide Right.

Joe Ferguson, Joe Cribbs and The Bermuda Triangle finally broke Miami's spell a year later, and the teams reversed roles later in the '80s, after Marv Levy Jim Kelly arrived and started getting the better of Shula and Dan Marino in just about every game that mattered, and most that didn't.

Not only did Buffalo bear primary responsibility for keeping the Hall-of-Fame glove pimp from making it to a second Super Bowl, the Bills ended Shula's coaching career with a pair of beat-downs, the second in the playoffs, in Orchard Park in 1995.

The last truly epic Bills-Dolphins meeting came a few years later in a first-round playoff game, when Doug Flutie held the ball too long after leading Buffalo within 5 yards of forcing overtime and got splattered by Trace Armstrong, fumbling away what was shaping up as the most magical moment of his comeback 1998 season.

Since then, both franchises have cycled through coaches and quarterbacks while aspiring to league-wide relevancy. Instead of Shula and Marino v. Levy and Kelly, we've been treated to such epic pairings as Cam Cameron and Cleo Lemon v. Dick Jauron and Trent Edwards.

In the interim, as the New England Patriots established unprecedented supremacy in the AFC East, Miami has reached the postseason four times -- the next three years, and 2008, which, not coincidentally, Tom Brady missed with a knee injury. Buffalo, of course, has been back to the playoffs just once, the year following Flutie's fumble.

No game better embodies what the Buffalo-Miami rivalry has become than their meeting in South Florida 10 years ago. The Bills were staggering through the second and final season of the Mike Mularkey era, while the Dolphins were beginning to get the idea that Nick Saban was probably much better suited to the college game.

The erstwhile rivals each came in at 4-7. J.P. Losman had recently reclaimed his lost starting job from Kelly Holcomb, and opened the game as if he had finally figured out this quarterback thing, throwing three touchdown passes to Lee Evans, all in the first quarter.

Things didn't go so well from there.

In the interest of providing a little perspective following last week's rather, well, deflating 40-32 loss to New England, We Want Marangi goes into the archives for the following account of that December 2005 game in Miami.

With both teams coming in at 1-1, today could be a turning point for one, a launching pad out of mediocrity and toward that elusive postseason. Or it could be more of the same.

No matter how Tyrod Taylor and Rex Ryan perform later today in their first road game as the distant successors to Losman and Mularkey, things can't get more soul-crushing than getting beaten by Sage Rosenfels.



by David Staba

According to published reports and common sense, Tom Donahoe's job security was ebbing weekly even before Buffalo's annual trip to South Florida.

This isn't going to help.

The Bills Donahoe built disintegrated in spectacular fashion Sunday, matching the biggest come-from-ahead loss in franchise history with a true team effort -- everybody stunk equally over the final 20 minutes of game time, as Buffalo violently backslid from the verge of a blowout to the depths of humiliation.

There's so much blame to go around, you hardly know where to start.

You can point to the moment that Miami quarterback Gus Frerotte left the game after becoming concussed on the safety-producing sack by London Fletcher that gave Buffalo a 23-3 lead with a little more than 10 minutes left in the third quarter, since that brought Sage Rosenfels -- the career scrub whom the Bills promptly turned into an All-Pro, if only for a few moments -- into the game.

Rosenfels' epiphany wouldn't have mattered much, though, if the Bills hadn't done so much enabling immediately thereafter.

Buffalo took the free kick following the safety and drove to Miami's 3-yard line. It wasn't hard to figure what was coming next. Pound Willis McGahee into the sagging Dolphins defense until he traversed those 9 feet, and take a 30-3 lead.

But no. This is Mike Mularkey's offense, devised by the highest-paid coach in team history to trick and baffle, shock and amaze.

It sort of worked. A collective gasp rose from the assemblage at Culbert's Hotel on Buffalo Avenue in the LaSalle neighborhood of Niagara Falls as J.P. Losman, who had thrown three touchdown passes to Lee Evans in the first quarter and not much since, drifted back from the line. When he threw the riskiest pass possible, with the possible exception of turning his back to the line and blindly lobbing it over his shoulder, you knew somebody wearing the wrong colors would catch it.

Miami cornerback Sam Madison obliged and the game started slipping away. No one wearing Bills colors had any idea how to stop it.

Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray couldn't find a way to get his pass rush anywhere near Rosenfels, even though Miami threw on 37 of the 42 plays after he entered the game. 

Despite knowing exactly what was coming, Gray's defense couldn't do anything about it. Rosenfels completed 22 of those throws and wasn't sacked once.

Nate Clements saw his 2006 salary, whoever winds up paying it, take another serious hit after watching Chris Chambers deliver the most prolific performance ever by a Miami receiver -- 15 catches for 238 yards and the winning touchdown with six seconds left. 

Clements helped set up the game-winner by letting Chambers get behind him and turn Rosenfels' third-and-10 flutterball into a 57-yard gain that resurrected the Dolphins yet again.

Of course, you can't blame "The Playmaker" for the kill shot, since the free-agent-to-be was on the other side of the field, leaving the immortal Jabari Greer in single coverage on a red-hot receiver. The Dolphins scrambled to the line to get the play off and caught the Bills out of position.

It would have been nice if Buffalo still had a timeout to make sure the defense was ready for the most important play of the game, but all three had long since been frittered away.

The Dolphins wouldn't have been in position to even think about a last-second win had Buffalo been able to run out the clock like most grown-up football teams. Again, though, Mularkey's love of quaint play-calling won out.

Ahead 21-0 in the second quarter, Mularkey put rookie wide receiver Roscoe Parrish in the shotgun and had him flutter a screen pass that fooled no one to Lee Evans. Fortunately, it didn't get intercepted, but that's an awfully long way to go to gain 3 yards.

The Bills moved to within 15 yards of a 28-0 lead, but cuteness again interfered. After a first-down incompletion, Losman got sacked and fumbled on second.

"(Expletive deleted) it, we could have put them away," agonized Jim Dokey, who spent the afternoon pacing through the bar at Kelly's Korner, a block from Culbert's, where the BillStuff coverage team took in the first three quarters.

Dokey's worrying seemed excessive, to say the least. Not only did Buffalo lead by three touchdowns, the Dolphins looked like they would have rather been just about any place but on a football field for most of the day.

The Miami defense got torched for those three first-quarter Losman-to-Evans touchdowns. The offensive line got flagged for six false starts, including four in the second quarter and three on consecutive plays. Fullback Darian Barnes sort of fell to the side on one running play, rather than block Buffalo linebacker Angelo Crowell, allowing tailback Ronnie Brown to get creamed.

"I thought the Bills would run for the bus," said one impressed-for-the-moment Kelly's Korner patron after Evans' third score.

"I guess the Dolphins were already on it," came a response.

By halftime, serious discussion had begun among the faithful about beating New England next week and the potentially intense stretch run that would ensue.

From the looks of it, Buffalo fans weren't the only ones prematurely gloating and looking ahead. The defensive collapse that ensued was galling enough. The offensive hibernation for the final three quarters was beyond comprehension.

When Mularkey wasn't getting cute by calling first-down passes, it looked like he was calling the same running play over and over -- McGahee up the middle, where the entire Miami defense appeared to have amassed. The offensive line couldn't make a dent and Mularkey and his assistants again proved incapable of even the slightest adjustment.

It all comes back to Donahoe. Much was made of the responsibility given him by Ralph Wilson when he came to town in 2001 and was named not only general manager, but team president.

That represented a degree of power the owner had never afforded any other football executive. Not Lou Saban, not Chuck Knox, not Bill Polian and not John Butler -- all men with records of success that Donahoe can only envy.

And look what he did with it.

BILLS MVP: Hey, how about that Lee Evans? Too bad nobody's going to remember those three touchdowns because of what came after.

THE OTHER GUYS' MVP: Look at everything Rosenfels had to overcome. Being named "Sage," for starters.

KARMA REPORT: BillStuff regrets to admit that, if the superstitions to which the coverage team's members adhered as kids mean anything, we may have been somewhat responsible for this one.

After an announcer mentioned that a sore thumb might have been hampering Frerotte's throws in the first half, I cracked, "Well, you know what they say. Gus Frerotte at 80 percent is still better than Sage Rosenfels, ever."

Not content with having thusly jinxed things, even after Frerotte's concussion forced Sage into the game, we left Kelly's Korner at the end of the third quarter for Culbert's, almost daring the gods to smite the hometown team.

And smite they did.

WING REPORT: Fortunately, we didn't leave until after consuming a variety of mediums, honey-garlics and "Jay's Hot-Hot-Hots."

The first two were excellent, well-cooked and flavorful, and well-deserving of a collective A-minus. The third earned the first pure A of the year from Tim, our senior wing analyst and a notoriously stingy grader.

"Spicy, without being overpowering," Tim ruled. "A flavor you can savor."

BS FAN OF THE WEEK: Jim Dokey has become something of an institution at Kelly's since returning from Texas, particularly on game days. Thoroughly clad in Bills gear, he delivered high-fives from one end of the bar to the other after each Buffalo score and big defensive play, delivering a running commentary that was by turns joyous and agonizing.

"We tried to get rid of him, but it didn't work," said Joe, the bartender.

If there was an upside to our potentially momentum-shifting departure, it was that we weren't around when Chambers caught that last pass.

(NOTE: Join us for more great memories and semi-informed commentary during today's renewal of the Bills-Dolphins rivalry on the Twitter @DavidStaba.)

Thursday, September 24, 2015

New Bills Splattered By Same Old Patriots

They may have a new coach, quarterback, running back, two-fifths of a new offensive line and a new attitude in all phases of the game.
The New England Patriots.
Rex Ryan’s Bills looked ready to blast away the indignities of the 21st-century portion of their rivalry Sunday, to use the word very loosely, with the widely loathed Patriots – for about six-and-a-half minutes of game time.
In his first start against the Patriots, Tyrod Taylor overcame the entrancing defensive schemes of Bill Belichick to throw for two touchdowns and run for a third in less than a quarter. Unfortunately, that quarter was the fourth, by which time New England had run up a 24-point lead.
The span between Buffalo’s strong opening and furious finish, though, provided a rather terrifying football flashback.
After Taylor smartly directed an 11-play, 80-yard drive to Karlos Williams’ 2-yard touchdown run and an early 7-0 lead, and the Buffalo defense forced Tom Brady into a quick three-and-out, the Patriots offered Buffalo its annual in-home demonstration of their physical and strategic (if not moral) superiority.
From that point through Stephen Gostkowski’s 50-yard field goal with 28 seconds left in the third quarter, New England hammered the Bills 37-6. Over that same 37:58 of game time, the perennial AFC East tyrants piled up 407 yards to Buffalo’s 70.
And that doesn’t include the penalties. Oh, the incredibly stupid penalties. But we will get to those later.
The vast majority of New England’s earned yards flowed from, surprise, Brady’s 38-year-old arm. Either unfazed or inspired by the never-ending Deflategate silliness and the accompanying pre-game venom and in-stadium ruckus produced by Bills fans, Brady threw for 466 yards on Sunday. That’s more than any quarterback has compiled against any Buffalo defense in the franchise’s 55-plus seasons. Even that milestone only begins to hint at how good he was Sunday.
He completed 38 of 59 passes to nine different receivers, with four of them (Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Dion Lewis and Aaron Dobson) each grabbing at least six worth 87 yards or more. On the rare occasions Buffalo’s strangely passive secondary managed to keep the coverage tight, Brady simply placed the ball where only his targets could get their hands on it.
The NFL’s best quarterback tore through a defense that mashed his supposed heir apparent, Andrew Luck, a week earlier with such ease that his team ran the ball by design only a dozen times. Not one of those planned carries occurred after New England was up 37-13, a strategic haughtiness that enabled Buffalo’s successful effort to make the 40-32 final far closer than the game itself.
Throwing on every down, and even going for it on fourth-and-1, are not things a team leading by multiple touchdowns does if its coach believes there is any chance of a beaten foe somehow coming all the way back. This is what Bill Belichick -- he of the field goal at the two-minute warning when leading by 21 and scores like 56-10 and 52-28 -- does when he wants to make sure that opponent, particularly when its players and coach have been a little mouthy during the week, fully understands with whom they are dealing.
In the interest of maintaining the positivity that routinely permeates this space, we’re not going to dwell on the myriad ways New England once again proved Belichick’s point. Instead, let’s look at the bright spots Buffalo can carry into the next 14 contests:
TAYLOR FUMBLES ACCURATELY: Aside from throwing three interceptions, the last ending any hope of the unlikeliest comeback imaginable, Buffalo’s new quarterback put the ball on the ground on back-to-back plays in the third quarter. But the first bounced right back to him, while LeSean McCoy picked up the second and advanced it 6 yards. That’s 19 yards more than the Bills netted on their second, third and fourth drives of the game combined.
NO SPECIAL-TEAMER WAS CHARGED WITH A FELONY: Although perhaps the authorities should have gotten involved at some point. Like when both Corey Graham and Duke Williams got flagged for unnecessary roughness AFTER Buffalo surrendered a 28-yard Danny Amendola punt return with the game tied at seven. Two plays later, the Patriots took the lead for good.
Or maybe legal intervention was in order when Aaron Williams (whose miserable day ended when he got carted off in an ambulance after riding Edelman into the end zone on New England’s final touchdown) induced a taunting flag. That’s never good form, but to do so on the extra point after falling behind should be criminal.
THEY DON’T PLAY THOSE GUYS AGAIN UNTIL NOVEMBER 23: If you are going to lose, at least lose to the best. Buffalo’s opponents leading up to their Sunday-nighter at Gillette Stadium: Miami (twice, the first coming this Sunday at 4:25 p.m.), the Giants and Jets, Tennessee, Cincinnati and Jacksonville (in London). None of them are close to the best in anything.
(NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure and to avoid accusations of self-plagiarization, a couple of items above first appeared on the Twitter at @DavidStaba. I set up the account at the same time wewantmarangi.blogspot.com launched, then almost immediately forgot about it. But I have been looking for new ways to share opinions completely stripped of context or nuance with friends, family and total strangers, and the 140-character limit seems ideal.
So you are urged to give a guy a follow (again, that’s @DavidStaba). I will respond in kind and will not fill your feed with updates on my lunch, kids or other personal awesomeness – that’s what Facebook is for.
In the first week since reactivation, the number of followers tripled -- from nine to 27. If that pace keeps up, I should get to a million right around Thanksgiving. At which point, if I understand the new-media economy at all, I can retire.)

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Screw History -- And The Patriots, Too

History, backed by reason and analysis, strongly suggests that New England’s visit to Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday should be approached with, at best, cautious optimism.

Well, screw history. To hell with reason and analysis, too, while we’re at it.

A first-place showdown between two unbeaten teams (yes, yes, after one week – but remember, we’re dispensing with reason here) embodies the whole purpose of being a fan. The anticipation of taking apart a hated, and quite possibly evil, rival on your home turf is at least as great as the satisfaction of actually doing it.

While media new and old has been filled this week with both alleged experts and craven fans cautioning about getting “too excited” over Buffalo’s thoroughly dominant season-opening performance against Indianapolis, the editorial board of We Want Marangi firmly believes that it is not possible to be excessively enthused about this contest.

The Bills themselves seem to be in the proper spirit, from Rex Ryan’s press-conference tweaking to Marcell Dareus saying what almost everyone in the region thinks: “Don’t nobody like the Patriots.” (In the interest of full disclosure, all the Deflategate hubbub, best summarized by Cartman’s dream sequence during this week’s South Park, somehow makes me like them a little more. But that’s something probably best discussed with a professional.)

Retail outlets from gas stations to the official team store reinforced Dareus' thesis with air pump promotions.

Yes, the Patriots, when quarterbacked by Tom Brady, as we’ve been reminded repeatedly over the past week, have beaten Buffalo 23 of the last 25 games in which the National Football League’s most successful – and reviled – team of the century has actually been trying. That’s not counting the embarrassing-in-retrospect losses to the Matt Cassell-led Patriots in 2008, or the exhibition game masquerading as last year’s finale.

And, sure, Bill Belichick’s defensive scheming has gotten the better of quarterbacks from Jim Kelly to Russell Wilson, making a complete stifling of a novice like Tyrod Taylor seem like the most likely outcome.

And it’s true that few teams raise expectations more quickly, only to shatter them even faster, than the Bills.

But so what?

The Buffalo teams that compiled such a wretched recent history against Belichick, Brady and whoever else fills out the New England roster share little beyond uniform colors with the current edition. There is a different coach, different quarterback, different running backs, different receivers, different offensive linemen and different approaches on both sides of the ball, with Rex Ryan’s attack-oriented defensive approach seemingly perfectly suited to one of the NFL’s most talented units.

Of course, all of that could add up to a painfully similar outcome on Sunday, but why worry about that now?

Instead, WWM strongly endorses the following approach, whether you’re watching the game with 73,000 like-minded individuals in Orchard Park, in the privacy of your own home or somewhere in between:

--- Dig out your most superstition-laden apparel, be it a jersey, hat, 1993-vintage Zubaz, Bills-colored thong, or all of the above, and put it/them on. Now. Sleep in the outfit. On Sunday morning, wear it to mow the lawn, to church if you’re so inclined, or to your tailgate party of choice.

--- Watch this YouTube clip of the 2003 season opener, which closely resembles a Bills fan’s ideal outcome for Sunday. You should probably try to forget the ugliest uniforms in franchise history, though, as well as the Limp-Bizkity soundtrack. Also try to forget that this was supposedly the game that ended the Patriots’ dominance of the Bills. Twelve years ago.

--- Make proper arrangements for a game-time batch of wings. Don’t fight the cliché – live it.

--- Yell at Brady and Belichick. Constantly, if you’re at Ralph Wilson Stadium, or any time they appear onscreen anywhere else. Edit yourself according to your surroundings. Or not. Your choice. If you need extra motivation to find the right words for Tom, remember this:

--- Don’t give up. If there’s anything better than stomping a deeply loathed opponent, it’s coming back to do so.

--- Enjoy the moment. The Bills haven’t provided many like this in the last 15 years, so bask in it while it lasts.

(Note: The We Want Marangi marketing department strongly suggests, and politely requests, that you follow @DavidStaba on the Twitter.)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Can Bills Sustain Opener’s Rexiness Against Patriots?

Now we know what Rex Ryan’s Bills can do when just about everything goes their way.

As for how things might go when confronted with adversity, which was in remarkably short supply for the home team Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium, well, we’ll get to that in a bit. First, let’s take a moment to appreciate Buffalo’s most comprehensively dominant Week 1 performance against a quality opponent in nearly as long as the franchise has avoided the National Football League playoffs.

The first game of Ryan’s tenure as Buffalo’s head coach and football spokesman, which ended with the score a deceivingly close 27-14 over Indianapolis, went about as well as anyone could have hoped.

Tyrod Taylor clearly showed himself to be the correct choice as starting quarterback, even if Matt Cassel took the first snap, with Taylor split out wide on one of those tricky play that no National Football League team has fallen for in a very long time. Indianapolis certainly didn’t, dumping LeSean McCoy – also making his Buffalo debut – for a 6-yard loss.

Not much else went wrong while the game’s outcome was still in doubt.

Taylor hit almost every one of his throws, completing 14 of his first 16 attempts, including a 51-yard strike to Percy Harvin, who Rex brought with him from the New York Jets. It was a throw that Cassel could only imagine making if he were using a control pad while playing Madden 16, giving the Bills a first-quarter lead they never relinquished.

Taylor nimbly avoided the rush on the occasions the Colts were able to mount one, not taking so much as a hit, much less a sack. He showed his speed on a 31-yard sprint to convert a third-and-4, setting up rookie Karlos Williams’ 26-yard touchdown run just before halftime.

Given an early lead to protect by Taylor’s bomb to Harvin, Ryan’s defense took over. After setting up that first touchdown with rookie cornerback Ronald Darby’s first career interception of an underthrow by Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, the Bills blitzed Indianapolis into submission from there.

Even without Pro Bowl tackle Marcell Dareus, who was serving his one-week suspension stemming from a May 2014 arrest for possession of synthetic marijuana, Buffalo swarmed Luck for most of the first three quarters. While the Bills only sacked Luck twice, they kept him from establishing any sort of rhythm until things were pretty well out of hand, while brutalizing his receivers when they did get their hands on the ball.

Darby’s interception started the rout, with another by safety Aaron Williams closing it out.

The rain helped, as did deafening noise from an understandably hyped sell-out crowd. The combination kept Indy off the scoreboard until Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman largely called off the blitz after taking a 24-0 lead on Boobie Dixon’s 1-yard touchdown run to cap an 11-play, 80-yard scoring drive early in the third quarter.

The defense’s performance was not a surprise, given the success of the same group of players under former defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz in 2014. Taylor’s offense, though, surpassed the most optimistic expectations.

And that was with McCoy, who cost Buffalo the services of linebacker Kiko Alonso, managing just 41 yards on 17 carries. Shady did contribute 46 yards on three catches, though, including a 22-yard catch-and-run to spark that third-quarter touchdown drive, having a 12-yard touchdown run of his own called back by a holding penalty three plays before Dixon took it in. Williams found the holes McCoy could not, leading all rushers with 55 yards on just six carries in his first game as a professional.

Besides Harvin’s team-high five catches for 79 yards, Buffalo’s other offensive free-agent pickups also chipped in. Tight end Charles Clay caught four of Taylor’s throws, including a 26-yarder down the seam that led to Dan Carpenter’s 41-yard field goal in the second quarter. And Richie Incognito showed why the Bills were willing to bring him back, despite the locker-room unpleasantness in Miami that kept him out of football for a season-and-a-half, with both his run-blocking and pass protection.

Buffalo’s special teams also did their part. Second-year linebacker Randell Johnson recovered a fumbled punt-return, helping snuff the Colts’ faint comeback hopes in the fourth quarter. Four plays later, beleaguered kicker Dan Carpenter’s 45-yard field goal put Buffalo up by 19 points with 8:14 remaining.

All of the above took place amidst a roaring din that began before kickoff, reaching a crescendo each time Indianapolis took possession, with the crowd drawing praise from Ryan and several players for its contribution.

Now, about this Sunday, when New England pays its annual visit to Orchard Park …

Indianapolis entered the season as one of the top contenders to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 50 (the first NFL championship game to eschew the traditional Roman numerals, for marketing reasons) largely because the Colts reached the conference title game last year.

Where they were demolished by the Patriots, in a game remembered less for New England’s complete domination than the skullduggery involving the inflation level of the footballs, which led to an investigation more intensive and well-publicized than most murder inquiries, as well as an international proliferation of testicle jokes.

But 45-7 is 45-7, and there is little reason to think the Patriots have suffered much, if any, drop off since last winter. Especially since Tom Brady will still be throwing what figure to be very closely monitored footballs after a judge overturned NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s attempted four-game suspension last month.

And if there is any one thing that characterizes New England’s 14-year reign over the AFC East under Brady and Bill Belichick, it is the ability to force opponents to face the sort of adversity the Bills avoided against Indianapolis. The Patriots could try to pressure Taylor with one of Belichick’s dastardly rush schemes, or they could strive to confuse him with a variety of complex coverage packages. Most likely, they will bring a combination of both.

For his part, Brady has shown a knack for quieting the loudest Buffalo crowds with short passes thrown before the rush arrives and long scoring drives that sap even the most well-lubricated enthusiasm.

Since Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe in 2001, his teams have won 11 of 13 road games against Buffalo (Cassel was at quarterback for New England’s 13-0 win in 2008), with eight of the victories coming by at least two touchdowns.

Beating Indianapolis, particularly in the fashion they did, was a nearly perfect way for Buffalo to start the season, and a new era.

Taking out the defending champions would show that the opener probably was not a fluke, and that Ryan and his Bills might really be on to something.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Rex, Tyrod, Shady Make It A Whole New Ballgame

Admit it. You have no idea what to expect from the Buffalo Bills when they open the 2015 season  (and the Rex Ryan Era) against Indianapolis this afternoon, and neither do I.

Tyrod Taylor could be a revelation at quarterback, throwing over and running through a traditionally shaky Colts defense. Or he could be overwhelmed by facing a defense that's really trying, and has spent time planning to counter his strengths and attack his weaknesses, for the first time as a professional.

LeSean McCoy could be recovered from the hamstring injury that sidelined him most of the summer and start proving himself well worth what he cost the Bills (Kiko Alonso and a massive contract), looking like the NFL-leading runner he was two years ago. Or he could spend the afternoon demonstrating that last year's drop off of 1.4 yards per carry for the Eagles was not an accident, and that Buffalo got completely fleeced in the deal. Or he could tweak that hammy and limp off after a carry or two.

Sammy Watkins was at least the third-best rookie receiver last year, and that was with largely dismal quarterbacks throwing the ball in his general direction. If the Taylor thing works out, he could be unstoppable. If not, he could be running around all day waving a hand and yelling, "Hey! I'm open!"

Buffalo's new starting guards, rookie John Miller and often-less-than-ideal-teammate Richie Incognito, could lead a revitalized offensive line that blasts holes in the Colts' defense for McCoy, while providing Taylor with an ample comfort zone. Or the unit could produce a mixture of whiffs and flags that causes suspended offensive line coach Aaron Kromer to pace around his living room until he has to go looking for a kid to punch.

You would think the one lock would be the debut of the full package of Ryan's acclaimed defensive schemes as executed by one of the league's most talented units. But doing anything for the first time can get a little sloppy, especially with a rookie starting at cornerback, a Pro Bowl tackle sitting out a one-game suspension and the AFC's best young quarterback ready to spot and exploit any breakdowns. So Andrew Luck could look like Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers did against Buffalo last season, or he could look like he did against just about everyone.

Even Dan Carpenter, Buffalo's most reliable scoring threat over the last couple years, could be a missed field goal away from unemployment after an uncharacteristically shaky summer.

Starting a season with a new coach, new quarterback and new primary running back all at the same time since John Rauch, James Harris and O.J. Simpson in 1969 makes you think that, whatever else happens at Ralph Wilson Stadium this afternoon, they couldn't look like the same old Bills that have been the only NFL team to somehow keep themselves out of the playoffs for the last decade and a half.

But as you know if you've watched this team for any length of time, that could happen, too.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

C’mon, Rex – And Thank You, Fred

Oh, Rex. You almost had me.
I would have been OK with bringing Matt Cassel back -- as your third-string quarterback, in case terrible things happen to new starter Tyrod Taylor and No. 2-for-a-week E.J. Manuel.
The prospect of your otherwise-stacked Buffalo Bills being one fragile bone or stretchy ligament away from being quarterbacked by the same sort of guy who hasn’t been nearly good enough for way too much of the last 15 years, though, is pretty hard to take. But we’ll get back to that decision in a bit.
Up until that moment, I liked just about everything you had done, or at least been intrigued to see how it will work out.
The smiling bluster during your introductory press conference and through just about every public appearance since brings a refreshing change from the self-important coach-speak by Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey and Doug Marrone, as well as the crashing dullness of Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey (though, to be fair, the last two at least seemed like genuinely decent guys).
The thought of one of the best defenses in football in 2014 – the very best by the measure of EPA (expected points added), a fancy analytic system used by ESPN that takes into account down-and-distance and field position, rather than just raw yardage allowed – operating under Ryan’s hyper-aggressive blitz and coverage packages would have been more than enough to make this the easiest-to-anticipate Bills season since people were arguing about Flutie and Johnson.
Trading linebacker Kiko Alsonso to Philadelphia for LeSean McCoy -- while it may prove to be an excessively extravagant move, given the league-wide consensus on the replaceability of running backs, demonstrated a flair long missing from the franchise’s organizational DNA. Likewise with splurging on tight end Charles Clay. As for signing the troubled-yet-talented Percy Harvin and Richie Incognito, who had been banished from the league for more than a year for being a jerk, well, those moves are downright Rexy.
Cutting Cassel in favor of Taylor and Manuel fully won me over, whether Tyrod and/or EJ provide enough net positives to avoid wasting another spectacular defensive performance. Even the potentially Rexiest move of all, signing Tim Tebow – who you spurned with the Jets – to serve as a disaster option started to make a twisted sort of sense to me.
Finally, here you were, a coach willing to take a calculated gamble, even if it meant an increased potential for getting ripped by media and fans, one who valued upside over safety.
Or so it seemed. Bringing Cassel back was not, in itself, a horrible move. You need a third quarterback these days, especially when one of the first two is totally unproven, the other has proven to be prone to injury and both are capable of getting out of the pocket to make throws on the move, or even tuck it and run when needed. And getting a veteran third-stringer at a bargain, relative to his original salary, was certainly preferable to recycling Jeff Tuel or an equivalent no-hoper.
But making Cassel No. 2? Oh, Rex. You didn't quietly hire Jauron as a consultant or anything, did you?
I’ve seen more than enough of Matt Cassel since the last time Buffalo reached the playoffs. Except he was named Kyle Orton. Or Ryan Fitzpatrick. Or Kelly Holcomb.
Rex, you have had a close-up view of the type during your travels through the National Football League – a quarterback who has proven himself not nearly good enough in multiple cities, yet somehow morphs from hapless wash-out to savvy veteran after enough stops.
To be fair, Cassel proved himself a decent stop-gap -- all the way back in 2008, when Tom Brady’s knee shredded in New England’s season opener – and had a solid season as Kansas City’s starter in 2010.
Since then, when he wasn’t toggling between getting hurt and getting benched, Cassel has been worse than dismal, turning the ball over 47 times in parts of 30 games with the Chiefs and Minnesota, while completing less than 60 percent of his passes – the bare minimum for the low-expectation “game manager” people keep mistakenly thinking he is.
If Taylor flounders or gets hurt, Manuel would seem the logical replacement, given their relative similarity in style. Cassel is another species entirely. While he proved during the preseason that he can turn a 9-yard sack into a 6-yard sack, and connect on 5-yard buttonhooks and other patterns that end with the receiver facing him, instead of the opposing goal line, the thought of No. 16 (ah, the memories I don’t have of Dennis Shaw, who managed to go 8-27-2 in three years as Buffalo’s starter in the early 1970s, despite having O.J. Simpson behind him in the Bills backfield) taking meaningful snaps triggers rather virulent Orton flashbacks.
Maybe it won’t matter, with Taylor turning out to be a revelation and keeping Cassel in his natural habitat – on the sideline, wearing a baseball cap and holding a clipboard.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not calling for your firing or anything. Yet.
And, of course, I have known to be wrong, like the time I thought Marv Levy might turn out to be as inspired a hire as general manager as he had been as head coach a couple of decades earlier. So maybe if something happens to Taylor, Cassel will step in and deliver the sort of mistake-free leadership that has repeatedly been expected, but rarely delivered.
Here’s hoping we never have to find out, Rex.

On a personal note, I’m going to miss Fred Jackson.
Not as much as those who make empty vows to stop buying tickets or watching games due to the unceremonious dismissal of the third-leading rusher in Bills history. And not because he is irreplaceable. Let’s face it – Buffalo had one winning season and zero playoff appearances during his eight-year stint as the face of a faceless franchise.
But he did provide me with a couple great memories, neither of which had much to do with his ability as a runner, receiver, blocker or kick returner.
During Jackson’s rookie year of 2007, my oldest son (who also happens to be named Jackson), would wander through the living room, paying about as much attention to the televised game as most 4-year-olds. Which is to say, almost none. But he seemed to be around every time No. 22 touched the ball, forcing the announcers to mention him.
“Jackson?!?! That’s MY name,” he would announce proudly, as if hearing it for the first time.
Six years later, the novelty long since worn off, my younger son developed an extremely ambitious snowman-building program one typically dismal winter afternoon. Oscar decided one of our creations should be a football player. I had an enormous rusty metal helmet – either a former grill top or an archaeological relic from a lost race of titans – to put on his head, but needed a little something more to complete the desired look.
So I sent my Jackson inside to fetch the authentic-y white No. 22 jersey I’d gotten him for Christmas a couple of years before, and we tacked it to the sculpture’s chest. Like any good parent, I snapped a picture of Oscar standing next to it, captioned the image “SnowFredJackson,” and posted it to The Facepage.
Whereupon a friend more conversant in the ways of The Twitter sent it to the real Fred Jackson, who retweeted it after adding “HAHA … Good job Oscar!!”
That kind of interaction – and being one of the few 21st-century Bills good enough to stick around and contribute for more than a few seasons – made Jackson (the football player) one of the most popular Bills never to play in a Super Bowl.

So thank you, and good job, Fred.