During a timeout before the Titans’ last play from scrimmage, Stevie Johnson jumped off the sideline to offer a few words of encouragement. It had been a trying game in a trying season for his teammates on the other side of the ball. Standing before them was a chance to turn back Tennessee and turn back their critics.
Make one play, and the Bills go into the bye week with a respectable 4-3 record that would have ensured them a tie atop the AFC East. Make one play, and embarrassing games against New England and San Francisco are forgotten along with the humiliating first half against Tennessee that put Buffalo in this position in the first place.
Just make a play.
Johnson, with the tassel bouncing from his pink knit hat, circled his teammates huddling near the sideline and tapped all 11 defensive players on their helmets. He explained later that it was his way of covering the bases. He didn’t want to look back, if they failed to make one play, and say he should have raced onto the field. A few moments later, Johnson stood helplessly while watching the play unfold, giving him the direct opposite result of what he had hoped. Aging backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck converted a fourth-and-9 play with a 15-yard touchdown strike to receiver Nate Washington for the winning score in a 35-34 victory over the Bills.
“It didn’t work,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I can’t do nothing but laugh right now, man, but it’s tough. I gotta do something. Maybe I should get aggressive with those big, bulky guys. I need to push them around. They would probably respond better to that.”
Johnson was only kidding, of course. Stevie, what a card. Seriously, the defense has been pushed around all season and hasn’t responded at all. The Bills had good intentions, like Johnson did Sunday, and watched them backfire, like Johnson’s did Sunday.
The Bills signed Mario Williams to boost the defense, and it’s worse than it was before he signed a $100 million contract. The Defensive Diva was invisible again in another uninspiring afternoon in which he was credited with two tackles. He complained about injuries afterward before admitting he hasn’t met his own standards. If he’s that hurt, he doesn’t belong on the field. And if he’s that bad, he doesn’t belong in the NFL.
“I need to play better. I need to get healthy, No. 1,” Williams said. “I can say this, and you can take it however you want to take it. It really don’t matter to me. I don’t care what you think.”
It’s better that way because I think Williams, through six games this season, has been the biggest waste of money since the Bills drafted offensive tackle Mike Williams. Williams isn’t even the best Williams on the roster, although Kyle Williams also needs to play better if the Bills are going anywhere.
Buffalo intended to upgrade its punting when it waived reliable veteran Brian Moorman, but rookie Shawn Powell’s weekly shank helped give the Titans better field position and enough hope in the fourth quarter. The Bills had every intention of slowing down Chris Johnson and watched him run wild in the first half en route to 195 yards rushing.
If the Bills intend to crawl into the same hemisphere as the playoffs, if Chan Gailey intends to remain the head coach for the foreseeable future and Dave Wannstedt intends to remain the defensive coordinator, their players need to start putting up some results. Based on the first seven games, their intention of making the playoffs is a fantasy.
Let’s face the facts, folks. Buffalo entered the game with a 3-3 record while masquerading as a .500 team. The overtime win over Arizona wasn’t a sign of them turning around the season, as they wanted you to believe. It was a brief interruption. Tennessee had the worst running game in the NFL but turned into New England and San Francisco against Buffalo.
“It’s embarrassing,” said defensive end Chris Kelsay, who is well-versed in explaining away losses in Buffalo. “Our offense came out and scored some points, definitely enough to win the ballgame. We got gashed. We didn’t tackle. We just weren’t accountable to each other on defense.”
In the first half Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Bills stayed true to form. Johnson was held to fewer than 25 yards four times in six games this year, but he had 103 yards in the first quarter and 139 before halftime. He popped free for an 83-yard touchdown run, untouched, for his second TD in the first quarter.
Take away the big play, which players do when rationalizing their shortcomings, and Johnson still had 112 yards on 17 carries, or 6.5 yards per clip. Feel better? The 11 men on the Bills’ defense were the only people in the stadium who looked surprised when he ripped off 27 yards just before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter.
“When you’re not playing the defense that you’re in properly, when you’re not doing your job — whoever that may be, all of us — guys like that can hurt you and make plays,” Kyle Williams said. “The guy goes 85 yards or whatever it was, untouched. It was as basic a counter-kick play as it gets. That happened a lot of times. That can’t happen. That’s ridiculous.”
Johnson has 480 yards rushing and six TDs in three games against Buffalo. No wonder why the Bills admitted they were frightened of him last week. He took the ball to the 16-yard line. Four plays later, after safety George Wilson dropped an interception, Hasselbeck spotted inexperienced cornerback Justin Rogers in single coverage on Washington and made a good throw.
All this in a game in which the Bills’ offense was effective against the Titans, who were equally terrible on defense. Ryan Fitzpatrick stayed within himself. He could have thrown a majority of passes with his left arm. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller combined for 141 yards rushing and 14 catches for 81 yards.
Fitzpatrick’s performance epitomized the Bills’ season. If we’re painting by numbers, the portrait looks like a Picasso. Fitz completed 27 of 35 passes for 225 yards and three touchdowns. The picture grows ugly when adding his latest gaffe, an atrocious pass intended for Donald Jones that fell short and was intercepted with 3:03 left.
It was one play, one among many in the game.
After the game, Fitzpatrick retreated to the stool in front of his locker and buried his head in his hands. Wilson stared into his stall, as if the answers were hanging up next to his pants. Rogers looked like he was near tears. A glance around the locker room revealed a team that lost, a team that looked lost.
Stevie Johnson couldn’t help but laugh.
If he didn’t, he might have cried.