Still think that Buffalo’s one of the better teams in the AFC?
Still think they have a defense that’s going to take them to the playoffs?
Still think Ryan Fitzpatrick’s an underrated quarterback who can win?
Still think Mario Williams is a difference maker? A $100 million difference maker?
If you answered yes to any of these questions you’re a more optimistic or delusional soul than I am – by far.
Sunday’s game against New England was a test – a big test and the Bills failed miserably. Yeah, OK – there was no guarantee that they would win, but the display they put on was downright pitiful. It always hurts to lose to New England (especially when you live in New England), but this loss seems worse than most because it showed just how far the Bills are from where they need to be to take the next step.
For the second time since the season began, the Bills faced a divisional opponent who completely outclassed them in every facet of the game – offense, defense, special teams, coaching. Beating quality opponents, particularly divisional opponents is a must if you want to make the playoff for the first time this millennium – the last time the Bills were in the playoffs we were all breathing a sigh of relief that society hadn’t come to a screeching halt as the clock struck the terrifying hour of Y2K a few days before.
Two big tests, two miserable failures. What’s more, the failures both exposed weakness in areas of perceived strength, making them all the worse.
Much attention has been given to the improved Bills defense this season, particularly the defensive line. Marcel Dareus, the #3 overall pick from 2011, the return of Pro-Bowler Kyle Williams, the free agent addition of Patriots to sack man Mark Anderson and the centerpiece, the addition of “Super” Mario, the best young defensive player available in free agency in a long time. Put this front 4 out there and look out – they are going to be dominating.
Through a quarter of the season Buffalo’s has 25 tackles and 8 sacks – impressed? If you filter out a home game against Kansas City and a trip to Cleveland to take on a rookie-lead Browns squad (Buffalo’s only 2 wins, by the way), you’ll see that the group has posted 2 sacks while allowing 606 passing yards and 6 passing touchdowns – not exactly statistics that show much pressure in the pocket.
After ranking almost dead last in sacks last year, Buffalo knew they had to get more pressure up front – that’s why they built the line the way they did. Not only was this group going to create pressure, but they were going to do it on their own, without blitzing. With a front four like Buffalo’s, opponents couldn’t double team everybody, leaving plenty of one on one matchups to exploit – presto – pressure. Match these guys up against rookies, unproven players or backups and mayhem in the backfield was sure to ensue – this is how the Bills would finally beat Tom Brady – by putting a guy in his face all the time without having to blitz and leave a man open.
It sounded good in theory – fans and the national media alike hyped it. Heck – I’ll admit I was pretty excited. When Mario signed after a multi-day siege in Buffalo, you’d have thought the hand of God had reached down and selected Buffalo as the Chosen Land, complete with sunshine, warmth, rainbows and “deers” for Mario to hunt.
To be fair, Sunday’s debacle cannot be laid solely at the feet of the defensive line. The Bills lost the battle of the trenches on the offensive side as well, letting the New England defenders create pressure and stuff the running game. Fitzpatrick was, well, Fitzpatrick – at times his passes looked sharp and he made some plays with his feet, and at other times he threw a ball that made you shake your head – 4 interceptions and some wide open misses. Tackling was terrible – it was like watching drunken hillbillies try and tackle a greased pig at times – falling everywhere and sliding right off someone when it looked as if they would put him down.
The sad thing in all of this is that it was so predictable. Sure the Bills were up by 2 touchdowns in the third quarter, but if you felt comfortable with that lead you haven’t watched much Bills football lately. Sure enough, after going up by 14 points the Bills rolled over and let the Patriots march down the field like a hot knife through butter. Then the offense went dead – 3 and out and you knew the game was going to come to a disgusting end – it was a classic Buffalo swoon where everyone blows it at the same time.
Alas, like the Claymation Bills commercial in 2006, it seems as if the sun has stopped shining and they gray of life as a Bills fan has returned.
Bills fans today are asking themselves what happened – why was this loss so bad? Why did the Bills give up 45 second half points, something nobody has done in 40 years? How did they go from being up by a pair of touchdowns to allowing 28 unanswered points in less than a quarter of football? Is it lack of talent? Lack of coaching? Lack of desire? If we know what it is we know how to fix it, right?
The Bills certainly have talent, but to what extent? CJ Spiller has looked very good, as has Fred Jackson, but neither did much on Sunday when needed (both actually turned the ball over). Anderson and Mario Williams have done almost nothing statistically this season, especially in the big games against the Jets and Patriots. Stevie Johnson is plenty talented, but his numbers this season are terrible – he’s 54th in receiving yards with 197 through 4 games. Is it possible that as fans we see Bills players with rose colored glasses and they aren’t as talented as we think they are?
Coaching certainly has to be questioned when looking at the Bills failures. You need look no further than Sunday’s performance and the lack of defensive adjustments made to start wondering whether bad coaching was hurting the team. No blitzes? No changes to stop the run which was giving up yards a dozen at a time? On the offensive side of the ball, why not try and pound the run game a bit more, especially when the Bills have proven themselves as a top rushing team and should have been looking to keep the ball out of New England’s hands as much as they could after going up by a few scores. Yeah, I know – everyone’s a coach with better ideas on Monday – guilty as charged – but some of it really makes you scratch your head.
So, is it lack of desire? It’s always hard to tell how motivated someone is – you can never really know what someone else feels. Regardless, the Bills do not appear to have players that get fired up by losing. Can you imagine what Ray Lewis would have said after a performance like that on Sunday? Or Takeo Spikes? We didn’t see that – instead we saw Mario Williams explain that “it is what it is” (wow – I hate that cliché) and that the Bills are still 2-2 – not time to panic – lots of football left. Maybe he did feel terrible about Sunday’s game. He may be a great player but I don’t get the sense he’s got a fiery personality – he seems somewhat shy and unassuming. It may be unfair, but when they give you $100 million, people want to see you take the losses as they do as fans, not just shrug it off and show optimism for the future – yell, use foul language, throw something – prove that you find it as unacceptable as the rest of us. We never seem to see that with the Bills and it does make one wonder whether some guys care about winning or losing as long as they’re living the NFL dream. Mario and company collected huge paychecks, got into their sports cars and drove home to their huge houses – I drove into the office and had to face fat-headed gloating Pats fans who alternately teased and pitied me.
Sadly, the causes of Buffalo’s ills aren’t so neatly defined, and I don’t believe any remedy is available to salvage the season. Yeah – I’m a pessimist, but with this team showing so little against any quality opponent I don’t feel good at all about upcoming games in San Francisco, in Arizona, in Houston and in New England. By the time the Bills play opponents better suited to them any shot at the playoffs will be long gone – they could be 3-6 by the time they get Miami at home in mid-November. I’d say that probably adds up to yet another disappointing season without the playoffs and another offseason trying to close the gap with division opponents with a draft pick in the 10-15 range. I’ve seen this movie before – I’m getting tired of it. If you could distribute $100 million to the fans that might make things better – it might enable me to take a vacation the Monday after the next New England game.