Sunday, December 27, 2015

Comic Relief

Getting slapped around FedEx Field for most of Sunday afternoon made it official—the Buffalo Bills’ season will end, as it has for each of the last 16 seasons, when the regular-season schedule concludes.
As local native, former colleague and stand-up comic Ernie Green put it, “The #Bills playoff drought is so old, you can legally have sex with it in 30 U.S. States.”
Green’s Tweet (you can find more of his material @RealErnieGreen, right after you follow @DavidStaba) nailed the bright side of the local football team’s unyielding futility. The Bills have found so many ways to raise, then snuff, expectations that you have to laugh. That, or work yourself into a froth and call a radio show and/or post poorly spelled online diatribes on your message board of choice.
You could also just try to ignore them.
That was the plan on Sunday, and it worked out pretty well.
Since Buffalo entered Sunday’s game at Washington with a 2.5 percent mathematical probability of qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since a few days before HBO debuted a mob-procedural series called The Sopranos, plans were made that did not involve a careful watching of the game.
My sister, Lori, visited from out of town for The First Annual Buffalo Musicians Christmas Party at the Sportsmen’s Tavern on Amherst Street (which was terrific, incidentally), and we decided warm up by meandering in from our headquarters at Gary Marangi Tower in downtown Darien, catching what we could of a thoroughly futile contest along the way.
We started at The Blue Dog Saloon in suburban Attica, so I could introduce Lori to the life-changing lasagna soup developed by the joint’s owner, Shannon. As we sat down, I looked at a television for the first time all day, just in time to see Kirk Cousins toss his second touchdown pass of the afternoon to Jordan Reed, putting Washington ahead 21-0 not even midway through the second quarter.
We had avoided seeing Rex Ryan’s increasingly permissive defense allowing three long touchdown drives on as many Washington touchdown drives, as well as Colton Schmidt’s badly botched, grass-cutting 17-yard punt. Ignoring the game to this point had clearly been the right decision.
The soup lived up to the hype I had given it on the way there (I’m pretty sure you could survive on nothing but—OK, you might need some water, too). Since we were kids, Lori has actively loathed football, so it was easy to not pay attention to the screen. The next time I looked up, the Bills were driving with a chance to cut the margin to two touchdowns by halftime.
Which looked like a sure thing, when they got to second-and-goal from Washington’s 1-yard line. But these are the rapidly disintegrating Bills we are talking about here. Even given an extra crack at it by a defensive offsides penalty, LeSean McCoy got stuffed three times before travelling the required 36 inches. Then, Tyrod Taylor—whom you would think would been a viable option on one of the previous three plays—sailed his fourth-down throw over the head of Sammy Watkins.
So Lori and I headed for Buffalo, full of lasagna soup and very confident we were not going to miss anything.
By the time we reached Hertel Avenue and settled in at M.T. Pockets about 45 minutes later, McCoy’s medial collateral ligament had been torn by a shot from Washington’s Mason Foster; his replacement, Mike Gillislee had run 60 yards for Buffalo’s first touchdown; and Taylor had accurately thrown a much deeper pass than the fourth-downer he botched to Watkins for a 48-yard score.
So, we missed a little. But, as it turned out, nothing that really mattered.
That was because, desperately needing a stop to have any hope of wiping out the rest of Washington’s  now-11-point lead and saving their spiraling season, the Bills promptly surrendered a 13-play, 80-yard drive, which included Cousins hitting Pierre Garcon for an 18-yard gain on third-and-16 and again for 5 yards, his fourth touchdown throw of the afternoon. Of course, Buffalo was glad to help with a pair of penalties worth 20 yards because, well, that’s what this team does.
Fortunately, our chicken wings were served shortly thereafter. I’ve long considered the wings at M.T. Pockets, particularly as prepared by Cheryl, our bartender on this and just about any Sunday afternoon, to be Buffalo’s finest. Perfectly crisp skin surrounding perfectly moist chicken, nicely sauced and drained of excess grease, Cheryl’s wings shame the offerings of some of the area’s more famous wing factories.
As we were finishing up our mediums (and a shared steak sandwich, which was also very, very good), Taylor directed the sort of late scoring drive that has been making Buffalo losses seem far more competitive than they actually are since the 20th century.
When Taylor connected with Watkins for a 20-yard touchdown, then ran it in himself for a two-point conversion that made the score 35-25 with 1:26 to play, our fellow patrons who were still paying attention issued the first real reaction I had heard all day, a louder cheer than seemed appropriate under the circumstances. Looking over, I realized most of them were laughing.
Which is about all there is left to do.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Deja Blue, Red and White

(Note: The editorial board at We Want Marangi was unable to muster the level of delusion necessary to treat Sunday's game at Washington as if it were part of a realistic playoff bid. Instead, let the wailing and gnashing of teeth over what 2015 might have been begin.)

This was the season it was all supposed to be different, but it turned out just the same in the end.

And make no mistake, Philadelphia’s 23-20 snipping of Buffalo last Sunday marked the end of the 2015 season for the Bills, as well as the continuation of the longest playoff-free run in the National Football League.

Yes, Buffalo could theoretically reach the postseason for the first time since the 1999 season. All it would take is for Rex Ryan And The Disappointments to win their final three in a row, something they have not yet managed through the first 13 games, while two of the AFC’s three hottest teams—Pittsburgh, Kansas City and, believe it or not, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s New York Jets—implode utterly and completely.

As an indication of how long it has been, the Bills’ most recent playoff appearance ended with their kickoff-coverage squad futilely chasing Tennessee’s Kevin Dyson into the end zone at the then-Adelphia Coliseum in Nashville after being thoroughly confused by the Titans’ physics-defying execution of a play known as Home Run Throwback.

Yes, Adelphia. The collapsed cable-television monolith was in the news this week when John Rigas (for all you kids out there, he was sort of a 20th-century Terry Pegula—a billionaire out of Pennsylvania whose money was going to save Buffalo sports, commerce and culture) requested an early end to his 12-year prison sentence on conspiracy and fraud convictions, citing a terminal cancer diagnosis. He is 91 years old.

So, yeah. It has been a while since the Bills made it to the National Football League’s postseason tournament.

The second-lengthiest droughts after Buffalo’s inevitable 16-year exile belong to the Cleveland Browns, who reached the playoffs in 2002, three years after the Bills last did so, and the Oakland Raiders, who got disemboweled by the Tampa Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII. For those who struggle with math, that was XIII years ago.

Which means Buffalo has been more inept for three seasons longer than Cleveland, a franchise run by a convicted felon which is apparently spending the final month of 2015 attempting to finally prove to itself that Johnny Manziel will never, ever be a starting quarterback in the NFL; and Oakland, which was micromanaged by a man operating under the belief that it was still 1968 until his death a few years back, when his only slightly more hep children took over.

Taking a longer-term view, only seven franchises have ever spent a longer time without qualifying for a playoff game: The Chicago/St. Louis (now Arizona) Cardinals (1948-73), Washington Redskins (1946-70), Pittsburgh Steelers (1948-71), New Orleans Saints (1967-86), New York Giants (1964-80), Philadelphia Eagles (1961-77), and Denver Broncos (1960-76).

All of those skids, save the Saints’, took place mostly or wholly in a time when reaching the playoffs was a much more impressive accomplishment. Until 1966, only two teams reached the NFL or AFL postseason, which consisted of only the championship game or, in a handful of seasons, a tiebreaker divisional playoff. After that, no more than eight teams reached the playoffs until 1978, when the number hit 10. Since 1989, 12 teams have extended their seasons annually.

So you could certainly make the argument that no tackle football team has been less successful for longer than your Buffalo Bills. The continuation of this distinction becomes particularly remarkable when you consider that the team was considered the undisputed champion of the 2015 offseason, at least in the socio-economic boundaries of Western New York.

It started in January, when Pegula and his wife Kim hired the sort of high-profile, big-salary head coach studiously avoided during the latter-day reign of the team’s founder and owner for its first 54 seasons, the posthumously beloved Ralph Wilson Jr.

Rex Ryan thoroughly dominated his introductory press conference and continued knocking it out of the park, from having beer and wings with Jim Kelly at the Big Tree Inn in the shadows of Ralph Wilson Jr. Stadium to buying a pickup truck splashed with the team colors and logo.

Then along came LeSean McCoy, a former league rushing leader acquired for promising, but injured, linebacker Kiko Alonso, to provide ground support to whoever emerged from a three-way quarterback competition.

With Ryan taking over a defense that had carried the Bills as close as they had gotten to the playoffs in more than a decade despite the unwatchable quarterbacking of E.J. Manuel, then Kyle Orton, the offense barely seemed to matter to fans who still believed winning games by scores like 6-3 and 13-7 was still a sustainable formula in the modern NFL.

As we all learned, it is not. So Rex and his team head toward yet another empty-feeling offseason wondering what is.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Tyrod's Tear

When Tyrod Taylor arced a perfect 53-yard throw to Sammy Watkins for the second time during last Sunday’s season-sustaining 30-21 win over Houston, a few questions came to mind:

1) Who was the last Buffalo quarterback to throw a better deep ball, or even one nearly as pretty on a consistent basis?

2) How nice is it to have questions about a Bills quarterback that do not amount to some variation on “How much does he suck?” or “When will the sucking start?”?

3) Is there really any good reason—beyond the utter futility at the position for lo these past 16 years and the pessimism it naturally engenders—to doubt whether Taylor is, if not a future superstar, a perfectly functional centerpiece to build around?

Let’s address those in order:

1) We’ll start by crossing every Bills thrower since Drew Bledsoe off the list. J.P. Losman had the strongest arm of anyone in the interim, but was as likely to fling the ball to an assistant coach as get it within 10 yards of a receiver.

Bledsoe could certainly chuck it, but did more of his damage on intermediate throws, with true bombs coming much less frequently, as compared to his total attempts. And most of his truly memorable performances came in the first eight games of 2002, the first of his three years in Buffalo.

Before that, you have the standard by which all Bills quarterbacks will be measured forevermore, Jim Kelly. For all his arm strength and gunslinger bravura, though, Kelly was hardly a mad bomber, with more of his big plays coming via the catch-and-run route with Andre Reed than deep strikes to Don Beebe or James Lofton.

What makes Taylor so effective at times is his ability to at once stretch a defense deep and force it to constantly account for his running ability up front. Bledsoe, by comparison, was a statue and Kelly, while slightly more mobile, forced approximately zero opposing defensive coordinators to worry about his speed or elusiveness.

None of this should be taken as a suggestion that Taylor is anywhere near as good as Kelly now, or will be over the long haul. Or even in the same class as Bledsoe, early 2002 edition, although maintaining his current level of play (and health) over this year’s final four regular season games would make that a reasonable conversation to have. But in his first season as a starter, Taylor has shown a blend of arm strength, accuracy and athleticism unseen around here since, well, ever?

2) It’s very nice. One reason I took a few seasons off from writing about the Bills, beginning in the late aughts, was the inability to conceive of finding new and different ways to describe either the ineptitude of the latest Buffalo quarterback or the signs of his inevitable demise, and finally, the unwillingness to even try.

When I got back into it in 2012, at least Ryan Fitzpatrick offered a different flavor of insufficiency. That, however, got pretty old pretty quick, too.

Instead, the talk about Taylor in the wake of his three-touchdown-pass, one-scoring-run, zero-times-body-slammed-by-J.J. Watt performance against the Texans centered on his deep strikes to Watkins, his franchise-record string of 187 straight passes without an interception, which dates to the loss to the New York Giants on October 4, and his sideline-avoidant 8-yard scoring run in the second quarter.

3) Other than perfectly understandable Losmanesque and Manuelian flashbacks, no.
There has been nothing fluky about Taylor’s performance. Instead of starting solidly and regressing, like so many before him, he has steadily improved as the season has progressed, particularly since returning after missing two games with a knee injury in October.

After back-to-back weeks with three touchdown passes, he has 17 on the season, with just four interceptions. And three of those came in Week 2 against New England. He ranks fourth in both the NFL’s passer-rating category and ESPN’s Total QBR, which grade quarterbacks using significantly different metrics. For a guy who threw all of 35 passes in his first four professional seasons, that borders on amazing.

A good friend of this column and its predecessors in various publications loved to rework the line by The Police, “Every girl I go out with becomes my mother in the end,” as “Every Bills quarterback becomes Rob Johnson in the end.”

That’s been true throughout the playoff drought. Bledsoe tore the league apart for half a season, then steadily devolved to the point that releasing him after the 2004 season, during which he led Buffalo as close to the playoffs as it has been this century, in favor of a thoroughly untested Losman seemed like a good idea at the time.

The Losman, Trent Edwards, Fitzpatrick and Manuel eras are still too annoying to rehash here, but they all followed the same spiral from early hope to utter resignation, with varying amounts of success in between.

I have written something positive about every Bills quarterback since Kelly, and they have usually responded by immediately, and successfully, proving me wrong. And Taylor could well start doing just that Sunday in Philadelphia.

Still, while not predicting the month-long winning streak that would be required to lead his team out of its playoff exile, I will say this much: Wherever Taylor goes from here, he has not shown any reason to believe he will become Rob Johnson in the end.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Rexual Inadequacy

It would be easy, maybe even fun, to spend the next few hundred—or thousand—words ripping Rex Ryan for the managerial inattention that led to going 0-for-5 in replay-challenge situations, which played a major role in Sunday’s gut-twisting loss to Kansas City.

As damaging as Rex’s red-flag issues were, though (and seeming to defer to the team’s chaplain at one decisive moment does not instill confidence in anyone), the disintegration of his defense—once universally considered Ryan’s area of unquestioned expertise—hurt a lot more.

A week after thoroughly flustering Tom Brady in perhaps their best overall effort of the season, Buffalo’s defenders allowed one of the National Football League’s less-explosive offenses to wipe out a double-digit deficit and score 17 straight points en route to a 30-22 win.

That collapse put these new-look Bills right where they have been for most of the past 16 years at this point in the season—likely needing to run the table while multiple upstairs neighbors in the standings falter.

Buffalo’s two-game losing streak, leaves them tied for fifth (with the less-than-fearsome Oakland Raiders) in the chase for the AFC’s two wild-card berths, while saddled with an apparent inability to make effective in-game adjustments.

The initial game plan could not have worked much better. For the game’s first 15 minutes, Tyrod Taylor and Sammy Watkins thoroughly flummoxed Kansas City’s defense, while Ryan’s injury-riddled defense looked very much like the unit promised since his hiring last January, with the Bills ending the opening quarter up 10-0.

Watkins continued to look like he just might justify the high cost the Bills paid to get him in the 2014 draft in the second, hooking up with Taylor—who showed little sign that the shoulder injury suffered a week earlier in New England was hampering him in any way—for their fourth deep connection and second touchdown of the game putting Buffalo ahead 16-7.

Then it all fell apart.

After Dan Carpenter missed his second extra point in three games, and third of the year, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith shattered the myth that he can’t, or won’t, throw long, lasering a 41-yard touchdown to Jeremy Maclin (whose 37-yard “catch” on one of Ryan’s replay blunders set up the first Kansas City touchdown) to make it a two-point game at the half.

Watkins, whose second score gave him six catches for 158 yards, never caught another pass, largely because Taylor threw just one more his way.

Buffalo’s defense, which had yielded a single first down on the first three Kansas City possessions, surrendered points on six of the next seven, with a 54-yard field goal attempt hitting the crossbar as time expired in the first half marking the closest thing Ryan’s crew managed to a stop until Smith kneeled away the game’s final seconds.

In the process, the Bills somehow made the much-maligned Smith look better than Tom Brady had a week earlier, while also allowing someone named Spencer Ware to run for 114 yards.

Things were no better for the offense, with Taylor—who was 16-of-24 for 236 yards and those two touchdowns to Watkins in the first half—hitting on just five of 14 throws for 55 yards after intermission, while looking very much like the career backup he was until this year in the process.

Through it all, Ryan and his coaching staff appeared as overwhelmed as a fact-checker at a Republican presidential debate. Not to mention completely overmatched by Andy Reid’s staff on the opposite sideline, unable to cope in any meaningful way as another highly winnable game slipped away.

All of which leaves Buffalo needing at least four wins in its final five games, and quite possibly five straight, to have a shot at ending the franchise’s playoff-free millennium. This is especially troubling for a team that has not been able to win three in a row all season. And one with a coach whose shortcomings in the areas of clock management, in-game strategy, and now replay-review competency have made a difference in several galling defeats.

Say this much for Rex—his team seems to be committing fewer stupid penalties at crucial moments, though it still managed nine slightly smarter infractions to gift the Chiefs with an extra 91 yards.

That’s kind of a lot of problems to fix during the season’s final month. On the bright side, none of the remaining five opponents presents a Patriots-style mismatch.

The best of the bunch, Houston (one of the four teams Buffalo trails by one game in the chase), visits Orchard Park on Sunday. Another contender now at 6-5, the New York Jets, comes to town for the season finale on Jan. 3, 2016.

For that potential play-in game against Rex’s former team to matter, though, his Bills have to get by the Texans, followed by trips to Philadelphia and Washington and a post-Christmas visit from Dallas (as quarterbacked, most likely, by Matt Cassel).

And they have to do so while operating with almost no margin for error, as they try to save a season in which they, and their coach, have made way too many of them already.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Terrific Tom Tortures Bills Once Again

(Note: The following should have been published last week, but was not, due largely to ongoing conflict between management and labor in the We Want Marangi offices. But, please, join us as we journey back to the gentler days before Rex Ryan lost his grip on the vagaries of the National Football League's replay system.)

The Buffalo Bills beat the crap out of Tom Brady on Monday night.

And still, he found a way to get the better of them.

Buffalo’s defense produced its best overall game of the season. Though the Bills only sacked Brady once, they pounded on him all night, reducing him to throwing the ball into the Gillette Stadium turf and spiking his helmet in frustration on the sideline.

Brady narrowly out-performed Tyrod Taylor statistically, completing barely half his passes (20-of-39) for 277 yards, while his counterpart in white went 20-for-36 for 233.

“I was pretty agitated all night,” Brady told a Boston radio station Tuesday morning. “For three hours and 20 minutes, I was pretty agitated.”

At the same time, Rex Ryan’s game plan and the players who executed it snuffed New England’s running game, such as it was, keeping LaGarrette Blount and the rest under four yards per carry and allowing just four first downs by way of the run.

Buffalo even neutralized Rob Gronkowski, limiting the least-stoppable tight end since Kellen Winslow Sr. to two catches for 37 yards.

Yet it wasn’t enough. For all of that, the Patriots still came out with their 10th win in as many starts this season, taking a 20-13 decision that ended any pretense of a race for the AFC East title, as well as hamstringing Buffalo’s hope of reaching the playoffs since Johnson-or-Flutie was still a thing.

Brady got the necessary people focused on at least two plays—a 20-yard touchdown pass to James White with 13 seconds left in the first half, and a 41-yard catch-and-run hookup with Danny Amendola that set up White’s 6-yard touchdown run that put New England ahead to stay.

Both plays were made possible by shoddy tackling from the Bills, with Corey Graham getting stiff-armed on White’s touchdown catch and Duke Williams (to the surprise of absolutely no one) whiffing on Amendola’s big play.

And by Brady’s greatest strength—the ability to impose his will not only on the opposing defense, but on his own teammates.

“You see things, and you want to try to create some urgency, and see if we can get into the game and start to tighten things up,” Brady said of his sideline intensity. “You’ve got to figure out, when things aren’t going well, how to rally. When things don’t seem to be going well, how are you going to find that rhythm? And just making sure everyone’s focused, and letting them know I’m focused, and they need to be focused, and that we can all be more focused together.”

And that was really about it. Other than those two breakdowns (and another excruciating kick-return fumble by Leodis McKelvin), the Bills outplayed and outhit their longtime dominators, doing everything they needed to do—harassing Brady, swarming his receivers on their trademark short routes, and running the ball efficiently, especially when lining LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams up on either side of Taylor.

Still, none of it really mattered.

Because—and no qualifiers or hedging should be needed any more—they were facing the greatest quarterback to ever play the game of tackle football.

That debate ended—or should have, at least among reasonable folk—when he rallied his team from the largest fourth-quarter deficit in Super Bowl history, against game’s best defense and using the most closely monitored footballs in National Football League history, to win XLIXth edition last February.

Monday night was not Brady’s best game of the season, or even his top performance against the Bills in 2015. For most of the evening, he barely resembled the guy who filleted Buffalo for 466 yards and three touchdowns while completing 38 of his 59 throws in September’s 40-32 win in Orchard Park, successfully demonstrating that it is not, contrary to commonly held knuckle-dragging belief, necessary to even try to run the football in order to win.

The Bills flustered and hurried Brady on almost every drop-back, but he was still able to come up with as many pinpoint throws as the Patriots needed to win the game.

Just like he always does.

Meanwhile, all the physicality and emotion displayed by Buffalo puts the Bills at 5-5. That’s the exact record they had a year ago 10 games into the 2014 season, with Doug Marrone coaching, Kyle Orton quarterbacking (to use the word loosely) and the same bunch of guys playing defense.

The Bills did not embarrass themselves on Monday. If anything, they emerge from the defeat looking more like a legitimate wild-card contender than they did going in. Their performance makes winning the at least four, and probably five, victories they need in their final six games seem feasible. If, that is, the obvious shoulder injury Taylor incurred Monday does not put their playoff hopes in the highly erratic hands of E.J. Manuel.

The first of those six, on Sunday in Kansas City against the suddenly streaking Chiefs, serves as a test of whether the team that came up just short in Foxborough was the real thing, or if Monday night was little more than the ultimately disappointing (and horrifically officiated) high-water mark of yet another lost season.

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