Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bills-Pats A Good Bet For A Bad Beat

I’m sitting in a sports bar in downtown Las Vegas (the gambling mecca’s smaller, seedier, much cooler tourist district, relative to the more popularly gaudy Strip), watching the Buffalo Bills take on the dreaded New England Patriots in a Sunday-night game with my brother-in-law.

It’s the evening before Halloween 2005. The Patriots have won the last two Super Bowls and three of the most-recent four, but are not yet the unstoppable offensive power they would become a couple years later.

A season earlier, the Bills came as close as they have come since Home Run Throwback to reaching the playoffs, going 9-7 but losing to Pittsburgh’s third- and fourth-stringers in the season finale. So, being the Bills, they released Drew Bledsoe after the near-miss, handing the veteran’s job to thoroughly untested J.P. Losman, who promptly lost it to journeyman Kelly Holcomb.

Buffalo is somehow only a game behind the 4-3 Patriots heading into the Sunday nighter. I wrote a weekly column picking games against the spread for various newspapers through the 1990s and early 2000s, but, beyond the occasional whim-based parlay card of the type sold in your less-reputable gin mills, had never bet real money on football games until this first trip to Vegas.

Emboldened by coming out ahead on the daytime contests, as well as Saturday’s college-football action at $5 or $10 per bet, I decide to go a little bigger on the Sunday-night game. I figure that if there is such a thing as an absolute lock in the National Football League, it is New England stomping Buffalo in Foxboro in prime time (the same situation the present-day 5-4 Bills find themselves in on Monday). So I put a $100 on the Patriots, considering the relatively small seven-point spread a bargain for such a sure thing.

So, of course, Buffalo dominates the first three quarters, with Holcomb excelling at handing the ball to Willis McGahee again and again, helping keep the ball away from Tom Brady for 35 of the first 50 minutes. Holcomb even manages to hit a big one, his 55-yard touchdown pass to Eric Moulds putting the Bills ahead 10-7 early in the third quarter.

Buffalo’s defense does its part, keeping New England’s running game, then the dominant factor in its offense, in check, while sacking Brady three times back when such an accomplishment was feasible.

Aaron Schobel gets two of those three sacks, the second coming early in the fourth quarter, jarring the ball loose to be recovered by the immortal Lavale Sape. That sets up Rian Lindell’s second field goal of the quarter, giving the Bills a nine-point lead with 10 minutes to play.

My bet virtually doomed, as the Patriots would need 17 points to cover the spread, I felt the karma incurred by betting against the hometown team filling the crowded bar.

“Watch,” I says to my brother-in-law. “The Bills are going to find a way to lose the game AND the Patriots are going to lose my bet.

Adam, a devout Steelers fan, cackles and nods.

“You’re probably right. These are the Bills.”

I am. And they are.

Brady immediately hits his longest throw of the night, a 37-yarder to Deion Branch to set up a 1-yard Corey Dillon run, cutting Buffalo’s lead to two.

Two plays later, inevitability kicks in. Holcomb is sacked and fumbles.

Patriots ball. Brady throws to Branch for 22. Dillon rolls into the end zone again.

In a minute-and-a-half of game time, a nine-point Buffalo lead turns into a five-point deficit. This being in the time before Brady and Bill Belichick began choking out vanquished opponents well after the competitive portion of a game had ended, that leaves me hoping for Holcomb to throw a pick-six.

Which he does not. Bills lose. I lose.

There have been other agonizing Buffalo defeats in Foxboro over the past couple decades. There was Leodis McKelvin’s fumbled kickoff return in 2009, which gave the Patriots a win in a game Buffalo led by 11 points with five minutes remaining. And the first game of the Dick Jauron era, in which the Bills led the 2006 opener by 10 at halftime, yet wound up losing by two, with an end-zone sack of J.P. Losman providing the final margin. And Ryan Fitzpatrick’s comeback-snuffing fourth-quarter interceptions in 2010 and ‘12 (it should probably be noted that in between, on New Year’s Day 2012, in the 2011 season finale, Fitz threw two touchdown passes as Buffalo jumped out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead, then tossed up four interceptions as the Patriots scored 49 unanswered points).

There could well be another coming on Monday. The 2015 Patriots are unbeaten, but no longer torching the league as they were during the season’s first month, with three of their last five wins coming by a touchdown or less, including last Sunday’s one-point escape in New Jersey against the Giants.

Their two biggest weapons not named Brady or Rob Gronkowski in their 40-32 win over Buffalo in Week 2—running back Dion Lewis and wide receiver Julian Edelman—are out with injuries, while their offensive line and secondary are banged up to varying degrees.

So the possibility of an upset exists, particularly if Rex Ryan can find a way to get the most expensive defensive line in football history to make the investment worthwhile. The Giants’ blueprint for beating New England both times the teams have met in the Super Bowl has been pressuring Brady up the middle, preventing him from stepping into his throws, and Buffalo’s defensive front should be capable of doing that to some degree.

After the way he shredded the Bills’ pass-defense schemes in Week 2 (38-of-59 for 466 yards and three scores, in case you’ve forgotten), it’s also very possible Brady will adjust to the loss of Edelman as well as he did against New York, throwing even more to Gronkowski and Danny Amendola. Shifting to a run-heavy game plan featuring LaGarrette Blount would also be a very Belichick-y thing to do.

The most likely scenario would be Brady, Belichick and the various wounded and previously anonymous Patriots toying with the Bills for a while, even spotting them a sizeable lead, before pulling things out in a morally and/or legally questionable manner.

New England is, at press time, a seven-point favorite, just as it was on that Sunday night 10 years ago. While I won’t be betting on the game (and, of course, strongly discourage illegal gambling in any form), if I were, it would be tough not to play it the exact same way.

(Editor's Note: You, too, can follow @DavidStaba on the Twitter. Come on. You know you want to.)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Rex's Homecoming Key To Ending Playoff Exile

Heading into Rex Ryan's first season in Buffalo, the big question was whether he would instill a new culture in the Bills, one that would finally end a 15-year run of watching the playoffs on television, or if he is little more than a blowhard who talks a great game, but rarely produces one.

As Ryan's new team opens the second half of its schedule with a Thursday-night visit to his old one, the answer is no clearer than it was two months ago.

The first eight games produced three victories that lived up to all the Rex hype -- the opener against Indianapolis and the sweep of Miami, completed with last weekend's 33-17 trouncing.

In all three, Ryan's Bills performed largely as advertised, with his trademark stifling defense augmented by an offense performing better than the most optimistic could have expected, highlighted by Tyrod Taylor's revelatory playmaking.

The most recent thumping of the Dolphins, whose new-coach muscles have clearly worn off since winning big in their first two outings following Gentle Joe Philbin's replacement with uber-bro Dan Campbell, snapped a three-game losing streak at Ralph Wilson Stadium that exposed every one of Buffalo's weaknesses.

New England, the New York Giants and Cincinnati each blunted Ryan's renowned pass-rush schemes with quick throws delivered by veteran quarterbacks, while Taylor struggled in the manner to be expected of someone who spent the previous four seasons holding a clipboard.

In the other win, Taylor floundered against Tennessee before producing a comeback win made possible by the defense limiting the Titans to 13 points.

As for the other defeat, well, the less said, the better about the meltdowns by E.J. Manuel early and the defense and officials late that combined for the mystifying debacle in London.

A 4-4 record reflects the season to date pretty accurately. And thanks to the extremely stratified AFC, which includes the unbeaten Patriots and Bengals and recently undefeated Denver at the top, Jaguars, Titans, Cleveland, Baltimore and San Diego at the bottom, that .500 record had Buffalo in the midst of the wild-card race heading into Thursday night's game in New Jersey.

The matchup with Rex's old team, the 5-3 Jets should be a pretty good indicator whether his new one stays in the postseason derby for long.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, who got yet another starting opportunity (the sixth of his NFL career and third since being dumped by the Bills following the 2012 season) when current Bills backup defensive end and temporary coin-toss caller I.K. Enemkpali busted Geno Smith's jaw with a training-camp punch, has been a big reason for the Jets' surprising start. He is also exactly the kind of quarterback Ryan's defenses traditionally feast upon, his propensity for key mistakes heightened by a damaged thumb that has him scheduled for surgery Friday morning.

The Jets defense has been markedly better than Buffalo's to date, allowing the fewest rushing yards in the league and ranking ahead of Rex's trademark in just about every major category under his replacement, Todd Bowles. But New York's secondary has shown cracks the last few weeks. It broke down late against Tom Brady, just like every other defensive backfield in football, but also yielded more big plays than you would expect from Oakland's Derek Carr and Jacksonville's Blake Bortles, who gave E.J. Manuel a pretty good run for the title of Worst Quarterback On the Field until the closing moments in London.

A win over the Jets would put the Bills in at least a tie for a wild-card spot with seven games remaining, with a tiebreaker edge and a home game against New York remaining.

After a 10-day break, Buffalo travels to New England, where things don't figure to be very pretty. From there, though, the Bills travel to Kansas City (3-5), host the Texans (2-6), travel to face wildly erratic Philadelphia (4-4) and increasingly feeble Washington (3-5) before closing with the disintegrating Cowboys (2-6) and the Jets again, both at home.

Other than the Patriots, who are again performing in a fashion that makes any suggestion that air pressure had anything to do with last year's championship run look pretty silly, every remaining contest presents a highly beatable opponent, with only the Cowboys possessing a better-than-average quarterback (if Tony Romo is healthy and playing what figures to be a meaningless game for Dallas).

Of course, that scenario presumes a team that has yet to win consecutive games stringing together consistently strong performances, something no Ryan-coached team has managed since his first two seasons with the Jets. With their defensive array of talent seeming to settle into Rex's system against Miami and Taylor returning from a knee injury with the most statistically efficient passing performance in franchise history, such a run is far more plausible than it was a week ago.

Rex's Bills have also shown themselves capable of losing to any or all of their remaining opponents. If the Jaguars can beat you, anyone can -- no matter who is throwing your interceptions.

Beating the Jets in what promises to be the most headache-inducing telecast in modern football history, with the visitors wearing all-red uniforms for the first time ever and the home team clad in all green, would give these Bills two straight wins to build on the rest of the way, even if – OK, when – that modest streak ends in New England.
Dropping to 4-5 with Patriots waiting in Foxboro, though, raises the prospect of the sort of long, ugly slog to the end of yet another lost season to which we’ve all become accustomed. And another winter, spring and summer trying to answer the same old questions.

(You too can follow David Staba on the Twitter at @DavidStaba.)

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Goodbye, Manuel: E.J.'s Starting Dreams Vanish In London Horror Show

(Editor's Note: The following was published elsewhere in a more timely fashion last week, but never made it to the pages of WWM, for some reason. Those responsible have been sacked.But with the Bills returning from their bye week today with Tyrod Taylor reportedly fully healed for the annual visit from the Miami Dolphins, a painful look back seems in order.)

I turned on the television Sunday morning with low expectations for Buffalo's game in London against Jacksonville.

The Bills somehow managed to fall well short of them.

With a backup quarterback throwing to backup receivers while operating behind backup linemen, while operating against the National Football League's most pitiful franchise, a Jaguars team able to reduce any contest to the quality of the second half of an exhibition game, it was impossible to anticipate a dominant showing from Rex Ryan's purported bullies. Or even a mildly aesthetically pleasing one.

But, my God.

E.J. Manuel's steady disintegration in the first half was unlike anything I've ever seen in 40 years of watching the Bills and a quarter-century of writing about them.

The first sign that things were about to go horribly wrong came late in the first quarter. Manuel had some shaky moments on Buffalo's early possessions, but managed to pick up a couple first downs on the opening drive and get his team in position for a field goal during the second.

The third time Buffalo had the ball, though, Manuel froze and got sacked for a 9-yard loss on second down, despite his gum-and-string line giving him plenty of time initially.

On third-and-14, he locked in on LeSean McCoy circling out of the backfield. One of his linemen was tied up with Jaguars defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks, the two struggling directly between the quarterback and his target.

Manuel could have looked downfield for another receiver. He could have lobbed one over the scrum to McCoy, who was positioned to take the ball at least close to the first-down marker. Or he could have tucked the ball and taken off, using what seems to be his most consistent area of ability.

Manuel did none of those things.

Either he did not see the two 300-pound men grappling a few feet in front of them, or he engaged in the sort of magical thinking that makes a toddler believe that riding a tricycle down a flight of stairs will not result in broken bones or, at the very least, significant head trauma.

He threw the ball exactly as he might have if the blocker and blockee were not there. Marks simply reached up, and batted down the pass. Didn't even have to jump.

Manuel’s egregious second-quarter bumbling, which spurred Jacksonville to a 27-point spree in less than six minutes of game time, has been well documented and ridiculed elsewhere, so let's spare ourselves rehashing the horror here.

It got so bad that, following the three consecutive pass plays that ended with a trio of turnovers and a pair of defensive touchdowns by the Jaguars, it came as a welcome relief when Manuel merely one-hopped a 10-yard throw to a wide-open Robert Woods.

But it was well before that, after Marks snuffed what should have been one of the simplest throws Manuel will ever have to make, that I finally gave up. I've made the case a number of times over the past couple years that Buffalo's first-round pick in the 2013 draft had yet to prove that he might not develop into a reasonably decent NFL quarterback, given a reasonable opportunity to develop.

Whether or not he got that chance under Doug Marrone's stewardship remains in question. But the answer to that question no longer matters.

This is not to say there is not a spot on a roster for him somewhere -- even in Buffalo. After all, he did stabilize enough to get the Bills back in the game, and even the lead, before defensive breakdowns, mystifying officiating and the weekly suite of dumb penalties and questionable coaching gave the Jaguars a game that neither team was worthy of winning.

At the moment, fully two-thirds of the league’s starting quarterbacks suck more often than they do not. And those are the first-stringers. Until Jacksonville's penalty-aided game-winning drive, Blake Bortles -- the third overall pick a year after Manuel was taken at No. 16 -- stunk Wembley Stadium up badly enough that there was a legitimate argument to be made that E.J. was, despite the second-quarter implosion, the best quarterback on the field.

It's tough to make an argument that there are many, or even any, better backup passers than Manuel. His predecessor at No. 2 on the depth chart behind Tyrod Taylor, Matt Cassel, was horrid in his own way in Dallas' loss to the New York Giants later on Sunday.

All of which leaves the Bills hoping their badly needed bye week gives Taylor's medial collateral ligament enough time to heal, allowing him to be fully healthy when Miami visits on Sunday, and that all his other tendons and joints remain intact the rest of the way.

Not to say that Taylor, who has started all of five NFL games, has proven himself good enough to save a season that's quickly slipping away. But on Sunday, Manuel left Buffalo with no other option.

(You, too, can follow @DavidStaba on the Twitter.)

Careful What You Chant For: The We Want Marangi Origin Story

I’m seven years old, sitting in the lower bowl of Rich Stadium, along the visitors’ sideline, attending my first professional football game with my father.

It will have been 40 years ago on Monday (Nov. 9, 1975). The Buffalo Bills, led by superstar running back, widely beloved advertising pitch-man and aspiring movie star O.J. Simpson, mercilessly slash away at the Baltimore Colts for much of the first half. Simpson, two years removed from his national-headline-making 2,003-yard season and the midst of breaking the National Football League’s single-season touchdown record, hits the end zone three times in little more than a quarter, once on a run and twice with passes thrown by Joe Ferguson.

Buffalo leads 28-7 early in the second quarter, appearing to an easily impressionable boy to be perhaps the greatest football team in history, cheered on by the loudest crowd I had ever been in. For a few minutes, at least, until Bert Jones starts shredding a Bills secondary decimated by injuries, with an 89-yard bomb to Roger Carr cutting the margin to a single touchdown by halftime.

Now some of the fans around us, mostly young, very loud men, shift from joyously cheering on Simpson’s heroics to angrily belittling the defense and Ferguson, often using language I only heard my father use when he was at work or trying to fix something.

A few start chanting, “We want Marangi! We want Marangi!”

Buffalo’s backup quarterback, Gary Marangi, had won the undying love of Bills fans a year earlier, when as a rookie, he replaced an injured Ferguson and threw two late touchdown passes in Miami. The Dolphins, as they always did in the 1970s, won rather easily, but Marangi’s modest, if meaningless, accomplishment was enough for those who, for some reason, loathed Ferguson.

All I know is that Ferguson throws a beautiful spiral, a skill I am struggling to perfect with a small rubber football when playing catch with Dad. As I learn the game, I realize he also has a strong arm and excellent control of his throws—except on the occasions he throws one to the other team.

Then, and this is a big reason there are those who boo him at every opportunity, he jogs off the field with his head down, looking at the ground. That simple bit of body language is enough to enrage the faithful, turning a fair number of them into Marangi partisans.

At seven, I don’t understand any of this. All I know is that people are yelling obscenities at their favorite team, and demanding the replacement of one of their best, and most important, players.

“We Want Marangi” spreads throughout the stadium as the Bills struggle to move the ball in the third quarter, reaching a crescendo after the Colts tie the game early in the fourth and Ferguson throws an interception, leaving the field in the manner which is his wont.

“Why do they want Marangi?” I ask Dad, who played six-man football in the mid-1950s at the small rural school I attend.

He shakes his head.
“They’ve had too much to drink,” he says.

The Colts score to take a 35-28 lead. Ferguson gets knocked cold by Baltimore’s pass rush and the drinkers get their wish.

Whereupon their hero immediately throws another interception, this one setting up another easy touchdown that gives the Colts a 14-point lead with a few minutes left.

Marangi winds up completing only two of his 10 throws, but one produces another meaningless touchdown, and I hear one of the chanters blame the loss on the failure to get Ferguson out of the game earlier.

Ferguson returns the next week, but midway through the next season, suffers a season-ending back injury, and, at last, Marangi is truly The Man.

He proceeds to lead the Bills to seven straight losses, despite Simpson leading the league in rushing. For the season, Marangi completes 35.3 percent of his passes, finishing with a 30.4 passer rating. No regular quarterback has come close to undercutting either figure since.

Ferguson would return in 1977, and after a couple more tough seasons, lead the Bills to back-to-back playoff appearances. Simpson’s Buffalo career ended with a knee injury in ’77, and he later proved, at the very least, to not be nearly the all-around good guy we seemed to think at the time. Marangi was out of football a year after his historically awful ’76 season, but went on to become a highly successful educator and football coach in Medford, N.Y.

And three seasons ago, when I decided to start writing about the Bills and their fans again after a four-year hiatus, I couldn’t think of a name that better summarizes our sometimes-misguided passion, and how little we actually know than We Want Marangi.

To the surprise of absolutely no one outside Dallas, the signing of convicted woman-beater and all-purpose misanthrope Greg Hardy didn’t take long to show how much teams are willing to overlook if someone can sack a quarterback.

Hardy, who was convicted of choking a woman and throwing her onto a couch covered with assault weapons, but went unpunished by North Carolina’s hillbilly justice system, has compiled the following stat line through three games with the Cowboys: 12 tackles, three sacks, one interception, one sideline shoving match with a teammate, and one attempted assault on a coach.

On Friday, Deadspin released a rather disgusting series of photographs displaying the damage done to Hardy's ex, accompanied by an equally disturbing written account of the evening in question. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, whose own history with women is a little sketchy, issued a predictably tone-deaf statement, assuring the world that Hardy will be free to continue his history of violence on national television Sunday night against Philadelphia quarterback Sam Bradford, and whomever else irks him.

Hardy’s inglorious return is a shining example of the macho bullshit that permeates sports in general, and the NFL in particular. With women now serving as the sole or co-owner of five of the NFL’s 32 teams, including Buffalo’s Kim Pegula, maybe the league that so desperately courts the female demographic will start culling sociopaths like Hardy from its ranks.

And maybe E.J. Manuel will lead the Bills to the Super Bowl.