EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Chan Gailey apologized in advance. He said he knew it was a cliche. But when you're a football coach, sometimes a cliche is all you have left in the holster.
"It's only one of 16 games," Gailey said. "If we win enough to get in the playoffs, this was a learning experience."
Coach, I'd love to go along with you on that. After all, I sort of predicted the Bills would win 10 games this season. But Sunday's 48-28 loss to the Jets didn't feel like one game. It felt like a big, steaming pile of games, like a highlight reel of losses from the team's recent, grisly past.
It wouldn't have been a shock to see them lose on the road to the Jets, who had beaten them five times in a row. There were lingering questions about the Bills' ability to stand toe-to-toe with Rex Ryan's team and win a tough, physical and, presumably, low-scoring NFL opener.
But no one expected this, least of all the hysterical New York fans who had watched Mark Sanchez and the first-team Jets offense fail to produce a single touchdown in a winless preseason. I hardly expected to be evaluating this as a candidate for my list of 10 ugliest road games of the millennium.
Learning experience? Maybe so. Maybe the Bills will quickly rebound from this embarrassment and prove they really are a playoff contender. On the other hand, we might be learning not to overestimate what it can mean to sign a big-ticket free agent and get some key players back from injuries.
It's too soon to panic, I know. They're only 0-1. But on Sunday, they seemed a lot like last year's team. Did anyone else have a flashback to last year's Dallas debacle? It was the same game, minus the huge video board. When they fell behind, 41-7, they were in danger of suffering their most one-sided opening day loss in history (a 27-3 loss at the New York Titans in their inaugural game in 1960).
Oh, they hung in there to the end. They scored a few garbage touchdowns after the Jets lost interest.
Fitzpatrick threw three TDs to massage his personal stat line. But aren't we past the point where you applaud them for not quitting? This isn't some cuddly little loser. The Bills were supposed to be a playoff team this season, performing to a higher standard.
Who buys that now? Maybe it's one game of 16, but it seems like a continuation of last year's collapse.
Here's who they are, until they prove otherwise: A team that has now lost nine of its last 10 regular-season games, 13 of 14 if you consider the preseason. Evidently, it does matter.
All of their acknowledged shortcomings were exposed in the opener. Their receiving corps is thin and can't get separation downfield. Their linebackers are suspect in coverage. Their cornerbacks couldn't cover a crock pot. Who thought they would miss Drayton Florence this much?
They didn't get a sniff of the embattled Mark Sanchez, who looked like Joe Montana. Is that why the Bills gave $100 million to Mario Williams, so they could finish the game without registering an official hit on the quarterback, never mind a sack? Williams whined about Jets right tackle Austin Howard smacking him in the face. Next time, Mario, swat him back with your checkbook.
Dave Wannstedt, the genius defensive coordinator, was supposed to unleash the pass rush this season.
Wannstedt sat back and waited for his front four to apply pressure on its own. It didn't happen. They allowed Sanchez to get into an early rhythm and complete quick timing passes all day long. They can't blame George Edwards this year.
"We're letting them run too wide open right now, and we're not getting enough pressure on the passer," Gailey said. "That's something we're going to address. Dave [Wannstedt] and I already had a conversation about how are we going to address that. We've got to change that. We understand where we are. We don't like it. It's ugly and it's my responsibility."
The coaches had an entire training camp to address the pass rush. This is what they came up with?
Gailey was also expected to find new, inventive ways to improve Fitzpatrick as a passer. That didn't work out too well, either. Fitz played like the rag-arm from Harvard again, exactly the way he did in the Bills' second-half collapse a year ago.
Fitz got picked off three times. All of them were awful throws. The third one was by Antonio Cromartie, who jumped David Nelson's route and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown. There was talk of a miscommunication there. People are always ready to share the blame with Fitz for his interceptions.
Gailey, whose faith in his QB is unwavering, said the Cromartie pick was his fault.
"There's generally a lot that goes into an interception," said center Eric Wood. "The nature of the quarterback position is you take a lot of blame and you get a lot of credit."
It gets tiresome, making excuses for Fitzpatrick. To his credit, he took blame for the picks. He's a good teammate that way, a leader. But when he plays this way, he deflates the entire team. The best quarterbacks have a way of lifting their teams and rising above the excuses. But it's been a long time since Fitz has done that.
This wasn't supposed to be the same team that lost eight of its last nine a year ago. But when the real bullets flew, the Bills looked like the team that lost its swagger last fall and never got it back. It takes more than opening the checkbook to free agents, and getting a couple of key players healthy, to change the competitive makeup of an NFL team.
Losing this way was a troubling sign. The Jets were supposed to be in disarray. But they have a way of finding themselves against the Bills. Last year, they came into town and physically dominated the Bills, starting them on a downward spiral. On Sunday, with the world expecting the Jets to fall, they beat the Bills for the sixth time in a row.
This was an utter humiliation. Fred Jackson and Nelson got hurt, weakening an already thin offense in the short term. C.J. Spiller was a revelation with 169 yards rushing. But if Fitzpatrick can't make plays down the field, opposing defenses will crowd the line of scrimmage and key on the Bills' running attack.
A dominant pass rush was supposed to make things easier for the offense by shutting down opponents and giving Fitzpatrick more favorable field position. This was not an encouraging beginning. If Sanchez could carve them up this way, what will happen against Tom Brady and his merry men? Gailey was asked if it was too soon to make the pass rush an issue.
"Yes," Gailey said. "It's too soon for that to be an issue. Let it go. We were awful today. I understand that. But don't kick the dirt on us yet."
I'll toss a small shovel full. This was their sixth straight loss in the AFC East. They've allowed 97 points in the last two, going back to the finale against the Pats. You can overreact to one game, true. You can also overreact to events that occur before you actually play one.