HOUSTON – You know what we could use in sports? One of those fact-checking services, the kind that evaluate those smarmy political campaign ads. That way, we could send off the outlandish quotes of coaches and athletes to see how badly they’re twisting the truth.
But since the experts are busy until Tuesday, I’m using my own service - sullifact.com - to examine some recent comments by second-year Bills linebacker Kelvin Sheppard.
Sheppard said “stat people” don’t really understand football. He said a true student of the game merely has to turn on the game film to know that this Buffalo defense is, to borrow a phrase from Chidi Ahanotu, on the verge of greatness.
“Just go turn it on,” Sheppard said. “You watch us, we play lights-out on defense, play in and play out. Then we give up an 80-yard run. You can play good on 10 plays and then on the 11th play you let him break an 80-yard run. The previous 10, no one see that.”
Pants on fire, Kelvin.
Yes, sullifact reviewed the 10 defensive plays that preceded Chris Johnson’s 83-yard run two weeks ago, and Sheppard’s story doesn’t hold water. The Titans’ 10 previous plays included a 9-play, 77-yard TD drive and an extra point. The last play from scrimmage before the 83-yarder was, in fact, a 16-yard TD by Johnson.
Lights out? Who fed him that line, Shawne Merriman, when they were passing time together on the sidelines? Sheppard is delusional. And really, if a young player can think this way, what does it say about what’s happening within the team?
Is Dave Wannstedt, the defensive coordinator, telling his guys they’re a play or two away from greatness? How about Kyle Williams, Nick Barnett and George Wilson? They’re honest guys, leaders. Are they deluded into thinking a defense that’s been historically bad for seven weeks is actually playing well?
There’s a pervasive lack of accountability here, a crisis of leadership. Today, the Bills begin a daunting two-game road trip that will test their competitive character and resolve. Someone needs to jolt them back to reality.
“The accountability factor is to each of them to each other,” said coach Chan Gailey. “That’s who they have to be accountable to. If our team is going to get to where we want to be, we’ve got to understand the accountability to each other. and I think they understand that.
“We’ve just got to continue to grasp that. Yes, you want your leaders to step up and understand where we are, and what we’ve got to get done.”
The head coach is a leader, too. On Wednesday, Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis challenged two of his top players, quarterback Andy Dalton and linebacker Rey Maualuga, to “grab the team by the back of the neck and let’s go.”
Lewis said Dalton and Maualuga needed to stop being such good guys and be tougher leaders. He said a leader needs to be a little bit of a jerk at times, although he didn’t use the word “jerk.”
What Lewis was suggesting, I suspect, was that his top players were a little soft. I wonder about the Bills, too. They’re a little too nice at times. In the Jim Kelly days, the players seemed more nasty, less settled in their professional skin. Today’s players don’t seem as passionate about winning and as accountable to each other as teammates and friends.
Maybe it’s the money. The big money comes much sooner today. Over the past two years, a lot of Bills have signed the contract of a lifetime: Kyle Williams, Stevie Johnson, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Fred Jackson, Mario Williams, of course. They’re all struggling to perform to a commensurate elite level.
When you’re not playing your best, it’s hard to get in the face of a teammate. Maybe some of the Bills have lost their hunger. There could be resentment over the Mario Williams deal. Deep down, they might realize this roster simply isn’t talented enough.
Chris Kelsay tried to shake them up a couple of weeks ago. It was good to see someone publicly call out their effort. Still, as Gailey said, the real accountability has to come from within, with guys challenging each other to play as if they’re afraid to let each other down.
There should be a sense of desperation, a recognition that jobs and reputations are on the line. Other NFL teams don’t hesitate to send the message. The Eagles fired their defensive coordinator and benched Mike Vick. The Panthers fired the general manager. Lewis called out his players.
The Bills’ geniuses haven’t done anything to shake things up. Buddy Nix’s three master strokes were trading for a backup quarterback who doesn’t even suit up, cutting the punter, and bringing back his pet, Merriman, for one more go-round. Nix said Gailey’s job is safe. He doesn’t want to be one of those teams that starts over every three years.
Gailey washes his hands of the defense, deferring to Wannstedt’s tired tactics. Wannstedt says there will be no big changes today, no attempt to mix things up and blitz more. He trusts his front four. Talk about denial.
It would help if the Bills got a signature road win soon. They haven’t had a truly significant road victory in this millennium. They’re 5-15 away from home under Gailey. In those 15 losses, they’ve allowed 530 points and been beaten by an average score of 35-16.
They are 2-2 on the road this season, which is something. Over the next two weeks, we’ll find out how they measure up against real contenders, teams with genuine Super Bowl aspirations. Last April, after signing Mario Williams, Nix said it was no secret. It was time for the Bills to step up and be relevant in the NFL.
Seven weeks in, the Bills are fading to irrelevancy. If they lose today, they’ll be 13-27 in the Nix-Gailey era – worse than the first 40 games of Tom Donahoe/Gregg Williams, or (Pick a GM)/Dick Jauron. Someone ought to be held accountable.
Lights out? Someone should turn on the lights, check the facts, and ask if this team is honestly going anywhere at all.