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.

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