Last Wednesday, Eric Wood and I were talking about the Bills’ bad injury karma in recent years. We reflected on the 2011 season, when the team got off to a great start and then lost a succession of top players, including Fred Jackson, Kyle Williams and Wood himself.
“Karma owes the Bills a lot,” Wood said.
Well, the fates aren’t cooperating just yet. The injury bug is ravaging the Bills again. A dozen members of the active roster are nursing a variety of hurts. During Sunday’s loss at the Jets, a half-dozen starters left the game with injuries at one point or another.
The Bills learned Monday that defensive lineman Alex Carrington was gone for the season with a torn quadriceps. Leodis McKelvin was still uncertain with a hamstring injury. The good news was that Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and C.J. Spiller should be ready for the Ravens on Sunday.
Spiller, who missed most of the second half after tweaking a knee, shuffled into the locker room Monday morning, confident about his prospects for the Ravens but concerned about the health of the Bills’ offense.
The Bills were nursing their wounded pride after getting embarrassed by Rex Ryan’s defense at the Meadowlands, 27-20. The offense was under siege all day and played a lot worse than the final score would suggest.
EJ Manuel was skittish and off target for most of the day. The rookie quarterback completed just 19-of-42 passes and was sacked eight times. Aside from a 59-yard run by Fred Jackson, the running game was atrocious. Spiller had just 9 yards on 10 carries before leaving.
Come Monday, their frustration was showing. T.J. Graham, who had one catch for 5 yards, said he was open at times but didn’t get the ball. Spiller suggested things won’t get any easier until Manuel starts hitting more throws downfield.
“They pretty much put a lot of people in the box and dared our passing game to beat them,” Spiller said.
Someone asked Spiller if he expected that to be the model for opposing defenses going forward. He laughed before responding.
“I mean, that’s gonna be the model,” Spiller said. “If I’m a defensive coordinator, that’d be my biggest thing too, is to stop our run and pretty much make our rookie quarterback beat us.”
Spiller, a modest sort who rarely says anything remotely critical, quickly tempered his remarks.
“I have all the confidence in EJ,” he said. “He’s gonna be a great player and teams are gonna force him. They’ll try him and see how he handles it. I think he’s gonna do a great job at it.
“And once we do start making those plays and guys start backing up out of it, then everything else will open up.”
That’s the idea. If teams play extra men near the line of scrimmage and go after the quarterback, he needs to make them pay by finding open receivers down the field. It’s simple NFL arithmetic. Defenses will add people in the “box” and clog the run lanes until you force them to back off.
It’s hardly a novel concept. Teams have been challenging the Bills’ quarterbacks to stretch the field for years. That was the big issue with Ryan Fitzpatrick, who acked the arm strength and accuracy to exploit teams that cheated toward the line.
Sunday’s loss was reminiscent of last year’s debacle in Houston, when Chan Gailey gave up on the run because the Texans put eight in the box. Manuel threw 42 times against the Jets. He got sacked eight times. That’s 50 dropbacks, not counting scrambles and penalties. The Bills struggled to establish the run early, then went away from it when they fell behind and Spiller left the field.
Manuel is the future. He’s a much better athlete than Fitzpatrick. But opposing defenses won’t respect him until he stands in and makes the throws. Until Manuel proves he can make the accurate throws down the field, he’s Fitz with more mobility and a bigger arm.
The running game was supposed to help Manuel. But it cuts both ways. Spiller made it sound as if the passing attack was holding back the ground game. He said he looked at the game film and it was “one of those games where I could have got like, one or two yards.”
Spiller said it could be the same against the Ravens, a game where he has to settle for those 1- and 2-yard runs and hope to pop a long one here or there. It’s not a very encouraging assessment, coming from a back who averaged 6 yards a carry last season.
Any team breaking in a rookie quarterback is going to suffer growing pains. We’re miles from a repeat of 2005, when J.P. Losman struggled as the starter and there was a minor revolt among the veterans in the locker room.
But when a rookie QB struggles, it can create unease within a team. If it becomes a trend, the stats of the other skill players will suffer. People need to be patient with Manuel. But where player egos are involved, production always becomes an issue at some point.
From the time he was drafted, we’ve heard about Manuel’s poise and presence. His teammates said he carried himself like a veteran. One bad game and the star running back was referring to him as “our rookie quarterback.”
Call it a healthy dose of reality. Welcome to the league, kid.