Sunday, October 16, 2016

Living In Distant Past Fueling Bills Revival

It's been a while.

Last week, the Buffalo Bills' 30-19 win over the Los Angeles Rams (thanks, Rams, for moving homemarked the first time they've managed the modest achievement of three straight victories since 2011. Since then, they've labored under three head coaches and four starting quarterbacks.

Today, with the San Francisco 49ers in town, they have a chance to make it four in a row for the first time since 2008, which they accomplished shortly before the world economy collapsed as George W. Bush finished his second term.

Neither of those streaks went anywhere. The '11 Bills, helmed by Chan Gailey, collapsed shortly after Ryan Fitzpatrick signed a contract extension, with the lovable-but-inevitably-inept quarterback demonstrating the form that forced five franchises to give up on him during his first 10 NFL seasons and presently has him leading the league in interceptions for what will be very soon be the sixth. They wound up 6-10, one of five times they've done so during the ongoing 16-season string of not making the playoffs.

The high hopes generated by the 4-0 opening in '08 disappeared along with Trent Edwards' consciousness and confidence moments into the season's fifth game, courtesy of unblocked Arizona blitzer Adrian Wilson. Those Bills staggered to their third straight 7-9 finish under Dick Jauron.

Of course, this is a different Buffalo coach, with Tyrod Taylor not having yet shown definitively that he is or isn't a viable starting quarterback for the long-term, and Rex Ryan still offering at least a glimmer that the high point of his coaching career might not have taken place six years ago.

If nothing else, Rex has his team playing in his preferred style, executing game plans transported in a time machine from the early 1970s. Big-play defense and a LeSean McCoy-heavy offense with enough of Taylor's passing to keep opponents from swarming the line has been enough. To revive what was looking like a lost season five days in over the last three weeks, at least, and probably this one.

The Bills and 49ers are certainly playing like their ancestors from 1972 (pictured above), coming into the day with the NFL's least- and second-least productive passing offenses, respectively. Each averages a shade more than half the passing yards per game being put up by league-leading Atlanta.

They're not the only ones. Whether it's a product of evolving defenses, crappy quarterbacking (most the superstars of the past few years spent most or all of the season's first third suspended, retired, injured or getting their brains beat in) or coaching that hasn't adjusted to either, plenty of games have been unwatchable throughout the league during the first five weeks.

Unless your team is winning.

Beating the 49ers won't prove a whole lot, beyond reinforcing the idea that Ryan's defense can smother offenses led by a quarterback who is either completely immobile (like Arizona's Carson Palmer), painfully inexperienced (Jacoby Brissett of New England) or wholly unqualified (the Rams' Case Keenum).

San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, who gets his first start of the season due more to Blaine Gabbert's Blaine Gabbertness than anything the former Super Bowl starter has accomplished on the field since that Super Bowl start, doesn't fall into the first two categories. But he may still wind up in the third, given his regression since his electrifying tear through the playoffs following the 2013 season.

Buffalo's pass rush, led by the league's most unlikely breakout of 2016, Lorenzo Alexander, has finally started looking like the dominating wave promised by Ryan when he arrived in Buffalo 21 months ago.

Aided by a crowd whose hostility level may approach the ongoing slog toward Election Day, given Kaepernick's polarizing expression of his political views, Rex's throwbacks had better be able to bludgeon another feeble offense at home, and do the same next week against the backsliding Dolphins in South Florida.

After that, one of the NFL's few teams living in the 21st Century comes to town. And they'll have that Brady guy this time.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Bills, Patriots Head Into The Unknown

Let's be honest here.

I've got no frigging idea what's going to happen when Buffalo takes the field in Foxborough on Sunday for what has become, for the most part, an annual humiliation by the New England Patriots.

That's no surprise to anyone familiar with the sort of speculation published by We Want Marangi and its predecessors over the years, or even just last week. But neither do you. And neither does anyone else, with the possible exception of Bill Belichick.

The Bills' offense and defense -- aided and abetted by the decision-making of Rex Ryan and other former and current coaches -- took turns handing over achievable wins against Baltimore and the New York Jets in the season's first two weeks, only to put together a close-to-complete game in mashing Arizona, an NFC finalist a season ago, in Week 3.

The Patriots, meanwhile, have run off three straight wins without Tom Brady, a development that's really only surprising if you haven't been paying much attention through Belichick's reign in New England.

On Friday, Sammy Watkins' absence for this Sunday -- and at least seven more after that -- was assured when the Bills placed him on injured reserve, meaning he has to sit out eight games before becoming eligible to return.

While Watkins' injury leaves Tyrod Taylor without his most threatening target, at least Buffalo knows for sure who will be throwing the ball.

The Patriots know Brady is out, serving the final game of the silliest suspension in NFL history. Backup Jimmy Garoppolo did a reasonable Brady imitation for six quarters before departing with a shoulder injury, while third-stringer Jacoby Brissett handed off and ran efficiently enough for the Patriots to slog the pathetic-when-it-matters Texans, despite breaking a thumb in the process.

Both substitute quarterbacks took snaps this week. Wide receiver Julian Edelman (pictured above), who hasn't played quarterback in a game since college, is the emergency option if one can't go, or keep going.

Under most circumstances, most teams facing an opponent with such disarray at the game's most important position would have to feel pretty good about their chances.

But these are the Bills. And those are the Patriots.

Would it really surprise anyone if Edelman started, if only so Belichick could prove his evil genius in yet another way, and threw for a couple of scores and ran for another in an offense that looks something like this?

Or Garappolo lit Buffalo up for 300 yards, popping his shoulder back into the socket between completions?

Or Brissett, operating with one hand, was still able to successfully transfer the ball about 40 times to LeGarrette Blount, who continued to gash the Bills even though they knew it was coming? Without Brady, these Patriots have simply decided to lead the league in rushing through the first thee games.

Then again, it's altogether possible, given the circumstances, that the Bills could produce that rarest of accomplishments by a Ryan-coached team -- a dominant performance with and without the ball.

A theoretically high-pressure defense like the one Ryan has promised since arriving in Buffalo, but only occasionally delivered, should swarm an inexperienced passer like  Garoppolo or Bissett, and quickly bury a non-quarterback such as Edelman.

New England's run defense ranks in the NFL's Top 10, as it did in 2015, but hasn't been so dominant that new offensive coordinator shouldn't be able to come up with a game plan at least nearly as effective as the one that tore up the Cardinals. A heavy dose of LeSean McCoy seems in order, with some relief from Mike Gillislee. Maybe Lynn can come up with a constructive use for Reggie Bush, who has not touched the ball from scrimmage since three carries in the opener moved the Bills back a total of four yards.

And you would think that, at some point, Taylor has to throw the ball over the middle, maybe even incorporating Charles Clay into the passing game, at long last.

Given the uncertainty for both teams, this one figures to come down to coaching. This does not benefit the Bills.

Oddsmakers seem to agree. Even without knowing who will quarterback the Patriots, or if they'll actually field a quarterback, New England was a consensus 7.5-point favorite at press time.

Playing at home is generally worth about three points, so the people setting the lines see Belichick being worth close to a touchdown, in comparison to Ryan. Which is probably pretty generous to Rex, given their histories. Belichick's Patriots are 11-4 all-time against Ryan-coached teams, with three of the losses coming in Rex's first two seasons with the Jets.

Reverse that trend, and Ryan and the Bills pump new life into a season that looked lost after getting shredded by Ryan Fitzpatrick -- who followed up the game of his life by Fitzing away six interceptions in Kansas City last Sunday -- just 16 days ago.

Lose to a team without a healthy professional quarterback, though, and the future of the team, and its coach, is as uncertain as Sunday's outcome.

Rex Wins Another Media Day Recalling First-Round Fizzle

Since taking over as the Buffalo Bills' frontman, his teams have won nine games and lost 10 heading into Sunday's trip to New England, which has served as an annual death march for the franchise throughout the millennium.

With his previous group, the New York Jets, Ryan's teams went 46-50 in the regular season and 4-2 in the playoffs, with all the postseason activity taking place within his first two years.

Add it up, and Ryan is 59-62 as a head coach in the National Football League.

In a business dominated by coach-speak, excessive praise of opponents and pour-mouthing one's own team, though, Rex is the undisputed champion of press conferences.

His enthusiasm and lack of the filter that makes most of his colleagues painful to listen to (his opposite number on Sunday, Bill Belichick occasionally ranks as an exception, having raised use of the cliches inherent in the system to an art form) provided the basis for most of the enthusiasm that surrounded his hiring by the Bills in January 2015. It didn't hurt that he was following Doug Marrone, who anonymous sources tell We Want Marangi had his personality surgically removed as a teenager.

Once his Bills took the field, however, they quickly reinforced the reality that led to his ouster in New York: Winning big on Media Day doesn't mean much on Sunday afternoon.

With the 2015 season teetering as the Bills prepared to hit the quarter-pole, though, Ryan defended his title on Wednesday.

Ryan's choice of a fake name to butt in on the area media's conference call with Julian Edelman, who may or may not wind up playing quarterback for the first time since college, raises an important question, especially for anyone under 50.

Who is Walt Patulski?

Until the first-round selections of Mike Williams in 2002 and Aaron Maybin in 2009, Patulski was the easy call for a generation of Bills fans as the franchise's worst pick ever.

Unlike Williams or Maybin -- or Booker Moore (1981), Perry Tuttle (1982), or other underachieving top choices throughout Buffalo's sordid draft history -- Patulski was the first overall selection in the NFL draft, earning him more notoriety -- fairly or not -- than anything he would accomplish in uniform during a five-year professional career.

Looking back, it was almost a no-brainer pick going into the 1972 NFL draft.

Patulski was a 6-foot-6, 258-pound defensive end from Notre Dame. As a senior, he not only won the Lombardi Trophy as the nation's best defensive lineman, but was so dominant that he finished ninth in the Heisman Trophy balloting, the lone defender in the Top 10 (no defensive player won the award until Charles Woodson in 1997).

The marketing angle didn't hurt for a franchise coming off a 1-13 season and still struggling to find an effective way to use its first overall pick from 1969, an injury-plagued running back named O.J. Simpson. Patulski was Polish, grew up in Syracuse and went to Notre Dame.

Had his performance as a professional matched his collegiate pedigree and demographic appeal, he would have provided Buffalo with a defensive superstar to pair with Simpson in a Bills Golden Age to rival the AFL champions of a decade earlier, or the Super Bowl teams of almost 20 years later.

That never came close to happening, though. Patulski had his moments -- though sacks were not yet an official statistic, he was credited with 21.5 in his four seasons with the Bills.

And considering this is the same franchise that drafted Al Cowlings in the first round two years earlier on the basis of his friendship with O.J. Simpson, Patulski wasn't even Buffalo's worst choice of the 1970s.

Given the expectations surrounding him, though, he would have needed to record twice as many sacks to avoid the scorn of fans who never saw their team win a playoff game during his Buffalo career, despite Simpson's five-year run as the NFL's dominant runner.

It didn't help that the coach who chose him didn't like him much, at least as a player.

"In tough situations, he would take the easy way out," Lou Saban told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times in 1993. "To be aggressive, it just wasn't him."

The same knock plagued Williams and Maybin during their short Buffalo careers. The variety of injuries he endured plagued him later in life, he went on to a career in banking back home in the Syracuse area. He told Plaschke that business success had not yet blotted out his NFL washout.

"I will go to my grave feeling that I didn't do all I could," Patulski said in 1993.

Now 66, Patulski was aware of his legacy, fair or not. The coach who name-checked him is running out of time to improve his.