This won’t come as a great shock, but it turns out I have the mind of a 9-year-old. I asked Doug Marrone a question about regret after Sunday’s win. The Bills coach told me that his son, Mack, had beaten me to it.
“Same exact question you’re asking me,” Marrone said after his team’s 19-0 win over Miami at The Ralph. “Do you look back and say woulda, shoulda? I told him ‘No, in life you can’t do that.’ ”
Actually, my precise question had to do with the Buffalo defense, which set a franchise sack record for a season and limited the woeful Dolphins offense to just 103 total yards, the fewest the Bills have allowed in a game since a rout of the Browns nine years earlier.
Considering that his defense has set the sack record, and that at least half a dozen players on the unit were having career years, did Marrone feel a certain regret that the Bills still have a losing record? Did he feel that his team had wasted some great defense this season?
“No,” he said, “because we’re going to build on that, and we’re going to get after it next year. So I don’t look at it that way.”
It’s a valid sentiment. Marrone has said all along that these last games were critical, that he wanted the Bills to finish strong and lay a strong foundation for next season. Crushing the Dolphins and winning two in a row for the first time all year is a good way to start.
But I can’t blame Bills fans for feeling a tad ambivalent about this victory. Sure, it was fun and convincing, but it was like so many times when they rose up late in losing seasons around this time:
The blowout of Tim Tebow and Denver on Christmas Eve here two years ago, which also lifted them to 6-9; an upset win at Denver in 2008, making them 7-8; a 21-0 win over the Dolphins here in ’07, hiking the record to 7-7; the Christmas Eve stunner at Cincinnati in ’05.
This season is supposed to feel different, but wouldn’t it be nice if one of these rousing late-season wins actually meant something? The Bills haven’t entered a late-season home game with a winning record since 2004.
Doesn’t it get a little tiresome, finding comfort in games that mean so little? After awhile, these Christmas week wins feel like consolation prizes, like finding a bike under the tree when you were really hoping for a car.
Look, I don’t mean to detract from a nice win, but Mack Marrone has a point. How do you not look back at this season with regret? How do you not look back at all those narrow defeats and squandered opportunities and not wonder what could have been?
The Dolphins were supposedly a playoff contender. The Bills beat them twice. They blew out the Jets here, too. They’re 3-2 in the division. They beat the Ravens and the Panthers. And what did it get them?
Marrone can’t lie, certainly not to his own kid. He did tell Mack that the time for regret would come later. “I said, ‘After the season’s over you’re going to look at things and kick yourself in the butt again.’ ”
Go ahead and kick yourself. At least half a dozen of their defensive players had career years. They lead the NFL with 56 sacks and they’re third in the league in interceptions. They lead the AFC in rushing. But they’re 6-9, out of the playoffs for a 14th straight season.
Don’t let the defense off the hook. They played badly at times, especially on the road. They let a lot of marginal running backs have big games against them. They were horrible on third-and-long. Too often, they play like frontrunners.
But this game, and the win over the Jets five weeks earlier, showed how devastating Mike Pettine’s defense can be when the Bills are attacking and playing responsibly at the same time, when they’re containing the longer runs and getting after the quarterback.
For all its shortcomings, that defense has enough overall talent to be in the playoffs.
“That will be our lament to this year,” said defensive coordinator Pettine, “that we wound up out of the playoffs when we felt we were capable, that we were a playoff team.”
They did waste some good defense. What it tells you is that in the NFL, it’s all about quarterback play, about the passing game. That’s the one constant in this sad chronicle of 6-10 and 7-9 seasons. If you don’t get the quarterback right, the rest probably won’t matter.
Ask the Panthers how important it is to have a franchise QB. Carolina had a sensational defensive performance against the Saints on Sunday in a game that decided the NFC South. But Cam Newton, who has come of age in his third NFL season, had to make the big throws in the final minute to win it.
So on a day when EJ Manuel didn’t play, you felt his presence. They still don’t have a proven franchise quarterback. No offense to Thad Lewis, who has beaten Miami twice, but they’re marking time until Manuel develops.
It would have been nice for EJ to be part of this victory. He’d have wins over Geno Smith and Ryan Tannehill, the young QBs who are also hoping to become the top guy in the AFC East when Tom Brady retires. It could have given Manuel his first two-game winning streak.
Again, it was an encouraging win. Marrone has kept his team motivated, despite their record. He’s convinced them it’s important to finish strong and have a winning record in the division for the first time since 2007. That means something.
The Bills can build on a strong finish, but only if Manuel develops along with them. They have some promising young players on that defense. Doug Whaley made some fine acquisitions, getting Jerry Hughes, Manny Lawson and Nickell Robey, who has been a real find.
“We have to just keep building,” said Hughes, who had his 10th sack. “What people forget is that it is our first year in this system. We have a lot to grow; we still have a lot to learn.”
Presumably, the defense will be even better next year in its second year under Pettine. The players and Pettine all say they’ll be sorry to see the season end. They feel themselves evolving as a unit.
That will put even more pressure on Manuel next season. During his worst performances (all on the road), he seemed to drag the defense down. They bore their share of the blame, but a struggling quarterback makes circumstances that much tougher.
If the defense raises its play next season, it will be vital for Manuel to do the same. Patience is fine for a rookie. But if the veterans believe their young QB is holding them back – as they did with J.P. Losman in 2005 – there could be problems.
Sorry if I’m not sufficiently enthusiastic about the big win, but when you’ve been through 14 years of this, you learn to be skeptical. I’ve seen enough of these heroic wins before Christmas, and they never seem to amount to much in the end.
Bills fans have suffered enough. They deserve the new car.