Prior to the Patriots game last Sunday a co-worker of mine sent me a joke graphic about keys to the game for each team. On the Buffalo side the keys were to keep a balanced attack and utilize C.J. Spiller, take advantage of a weak New England secondary and put pressure on Tom Brady and make him uncomfortable. On the New England side there was one simple key – show up.
It would be cute if it weren’t so true, but all you need to do is look at Buffalo’s record against New England, especially in Foxboro and you just have to laugh – absurd as it is, it is true – if New England shows up to the game the Bills will do the rest and find a way to lose. Such was last Sunday’s game – a game where Buffalo fared well statistically and had a legitimate shot to win up until they blew it. After so many years of the same outcome you probably expected it anyway.
Thursday night’s contest against Miami went much better for the Bills. After being swept by their southern rival twice last year, the Bills took the first meeting of the series this year. At the beginning of the season when hopes were high, I believe most Bills fans had this down on the schedule as a win, but Miami with their thin roster and rookie quarterback have exceeded expectations as much as Buffalo has failed to live up to them. If you saw the NFL Network pre-game show on Thursday night they talked far more about Reggie Bush and Miami than they did about Spiller and Buffalo – strange considering the game was in Buffalo, in cold weather, and Spiller leads the league in yards per carry where Bush was actually benched the week prior – my guess is that Buffalo’s poor divisional record of late was a big factor in this.
For one of the first times this season I actually liked quite a bit of what I saw from the Bills, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The Bills completely dominated the Dolphins statistically for the entire first half, holding Ryan Tannehill to 50 yards of offense and only 2 first downs. The Bills went to the locker room up 19-7 and it looked like the game was going to be fairly lopsided.
As a Bills fan I suppose you learn to never get too excited too early – just look at the first New England game and the performance of Buffalo’s defense this season and you’ll know that almost no lead is insurmountable for Buffalo’s opponents. A 12 point lead was nice, but the reality was that they were 2 big plays away from being down on the scoreboard.
For all that I liked about Buffalo’s performance on Thursday, there was a whole lot that made me want to scream. Chief amongst these was Buffalo’s inability to convert in the red zone – 4 trips inside their opponent’s 20-yard line produced only 4 field goals. That’s right – in 4 shots the Bills came away with exactly zero touchdowns. Call me a negative Nancy or a Chicken Little, but that’s the type of stat that comes back to bite you – hard. The number of games Buffalo has lost because they were forced to settle for a field goal rather than a touchdown is boggling, and Thursday looked as if it might be no different.
Many things factored into Buffalo's red zone failures, but in my mind they all point back to the same route cause – coaching.
On Buffalo’s first failed red zone drive they opted to pass the ball out of a spread formation on third down and 3 despite the fact that Spiller had been running very well all night – Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a pass that would have had to have been a fantastic catch by Donald Jones – it wasn’t so Rian Lindell came out and booted a 32 yard field goal.
Buffalo’s second trip to the red zone had a familiar ring to it – a failed pass attempt on third and short instead of a run and Buffalo was settling for 3 rather than a touchdown again – you had to wonder how failing to put the game out of reach was going to hurt the Bills.
The third red zone trip had me screaming at the TV. As Buffalo got to the 20 yard line, Spiller was inexplicably removed in favor of Tashard Choice. Choice ran for 3 yards on second down, then on third and short they attempted to throw the ball and Fitzpatrick was sacked. On the ensuing field goal try Kraig Urbik was called for a false start, forcing Lindell to kick from 42 yards.
This series was, for me, the quintessential series in the game – all the dumb things Buffalo does to lose games rolled up into one. Despite Spiller’s fantastic ability, and his threat to score each and every time he touches the ball, I understand he can’t be on the field for every play of the game. But to pull Spiller at a key time – in the red zone when you need to score or at least keep the drive going, I have no idea why the kid from Clemson is standing on the sidelines wearing a parka instead of being out on the field moving the ball like he’s done all night. Then you have the insistence on passing for the third down conversion in short yardage and giving up the sack – two things you don’t do in the red zone is turn the ball over and go backwards and the sack did one and almost both. Lastly, you have the undisciplined line play that has killed the Bills in the last two games – Urbik’s penalty moved the Bills back again and could have moved the ball beyond Lindell limited range. In short, that was a terrible drive and one I put on the coach for bad personnel decisions, bad play calling, and allowing sloppy play to continue.
Buffalo’s final red zone trip in the half again showed brutal incompetence and resulted in a field goal rather than a touchdown. With the clock running out, the Bills were forced to pass the ball, and ended up getting a pass interference call which put them on the 1 yard line with six seconds to go. With one shot left, the Bills got the matchup the wanted – Scott Chandler in single coverage lined up all alone on the left – you knew that’s where the Bills would be going. Instead of throwing the ball high and allowing the 6’7” Chandler to go up for it, the play actually saw Chandler try and make a quick inward cut in front of the defender with the ball thrown at waist height. At the snap Chandler fails to cut in front of the defender, the ball is thrown and knocked away and yet another field goal. I sat there dumbfounded – how do you not throw the ball up to the tallest guy on the field?
And so we got the end of the game we should have never had to endure – sitting on pins and needles wondering whether all those field goals were going to come back to haunt the Bills. My stomach was in knots and even a late interception didn’t put it away. When the game finally ended I was in no position to fall into bed even though work beckoned early Friday morning – thanks to the Bills I was amped up and ready to stare at the bedroom ceiling for quite some time before managing to get some shuteye.
Thursday’s game really drove home to me how little faith I have in Chan Gailey’s ability to do something with this team. For weeks people have been screaming that Spiller needs to touch the ball more, and when he finally gets the chance to carry the load Gailey pulls him at critical times in favor of a guy who will never be more than a third string running back. I don’t get it – I really don’t. Spiller isn’t a rookie, his pass protection is actually pretty good and turning over the ball has not been a major issue for him – what excuse is there for pulling him in key situations? Spiller should get 20+ touches per game, and when he does need to come out and take a breather or they need to changeup the backfield Fred Jackson should be the guy. I understand Jackson was out on Thursday, but something tells me when he returns to the lineup it’ll be as an equal to Spiller rather than a relief man and that Spiller will be back to 10 carries a game or less.
Play calling has also been terrible. For a head coach who has completely abdicated his defensive responsibilities in favor of running the offense, Chan sure has come up with some head scratching plays of late. From the ineffective wildcat plays to the abandonment of the running game to the unwillingness to take advantage of individual matchups against the defense, you have to wonder how many games the Bills could have had in the win column with better plays.
Lastly, the Bills seem to have become mighty undisciplined recently with regards to the number of penalties they are being called for. This is not a group of rookies, nor is this week 1 of the season. You have veteran players more than halfway through the season that simply aren’t showing the discipline you’d expect to see on a quality team – what gives? This was a huge problem against New England and was still an issue against Miami – is it going to get cleaned up or is it going to cost the Bills a game this season?
Today I’ll kick back and watch some other teams play and enjoy the latest Bills win, but I’ve come to the realization that I think further organizational changes are going to need to be made if the Bills are going to ever go anywhere. I understand how much continually cycling in new coaches can interrupt the progress of a team, but at this point I’m starting to feel that Gailey should not be retained simply because you don’t want to go through the process again – keeping a bad coach for continuity reasons does nobody any favors.