TAMPA, Fla. — One month ago, the Buccaneers and Jaguars were both 0-8, two floundering Florida franchises expected to vie for the first overall pick in the NFL draft.
If the Bills lose to the Bucs here this afternoon, they’ll be tied with both of them at 4-9. That’s not what I would characterize as progress.
Here we are again, searching for hope and perspective as the Bills enter the last quarter of a disappointing season. Bills fans must feel a numbing sense of familiarity, as if they’ve wandered around in a blizzard and arrived back at the same spot.
This is the 13th year in a row that the Bills weren’t over .500 entering the final four games. They’ve had between four and six wins at this point in 11 of the last 13 seasons. Try putting a fresh new spin on that, friends. It ain’t easy.
Here’s some interesting history: The last time the Bills were over .500 at this point was in 2000. They were 7-5, but coming off a crushing, 31-17 loss here in Tampa where they outgained the Bucs by 253 yards and lost Sam Cowart to a season-ending injury.
So in a way, you can trace the Bills’ 13-year playoff drought back to that fateful day here in Florida, which was the beginning of the end for Wade Phillips and the Bills as playoff contenders.
Some day, maybe we’ll see today’s visit to Raymond James Stadium as the start of a new ascent, the day EJ Manuel won his first NFL road game and the Bills asserted themselves as a young team that refused to be beaten down by difficult circumstances.
They were a disspirited bunch after the loss in Toronto. It was mainly because they had let Atlanta off the hook, but also, I suspect, because their own organization had propped up a weakened opponent by letting them play a neutral game inside a dome.
The question now is, how they will bounce back? Technically, they’re still alive for the playoffs. But at the risk of channeling ol’ Wade, they’re out of it. They’re playing now for pride and jobs, and to lay a foundation for the future.
There’s always a case to be made for losing out and getting a higher draft pick. But not this year. They need to finish strong in the first year of the Manuel/Doug Marrone era and gain separation from failed Bills teams of the past.
“How we perform, and how we move forward, is extremely important to building a foundation,” Marrone said.
“Now, I’m going to tell you this because some of you guys are going to remember what I just said. I do believe that you don’t start where you left off, but I do believe in a foundation and philosophy that need to be in place, which we will have after year one.”
The foundation will seem a lot sturdier if Manuel can raise his game on the road in the final stretch of his rookie season. Manuel has played in three road games this season. He had his worst games in two (Jets, Pittsburgh) and got hurt in the other (Cleveland).
Manuel had been fine in his five homes games (including Toronto). At home, he is completing 62.8 percentage of his passes for 7.2 yards a throw. The NFL average is 61.8 percent and 7.2. So despite criticisms of his accuracy and ability to throw long, Manuel has been almost exactly equivalent to an average QB at home.
The road has been a different story. In the three road games, he has completed 51.8 percent for a paltry 5.2 yards an attempt.
Manuel has played only eight games, half a season. It’s too early to judge him as a franchise guy. But he’s supposed to improve in the second half of his rookie year. There’s a tendency to patronize him, but people need to see more in these last four games.
“We’ve just got to win, plain and simple,” Manuel said. “Whether it’s here in the Ralph or somewhere else, we need to win. We’re 4-8, so we have to have a huge sense of urgency.”
Winning would be nice, but it’s even more vital for Manuel to lay the foundation as a reliable road quarterback, a guy who lifts his team and doesn’t need to be coddled by his coaches.
“Sometimes it’s almost like he wants to do too much,” said offensive coordinator Nate Hackett, “because he’s starting to really understand it.”
Manuel has thrown only four interceptions, good for a rookie. The Bucs lead the league with 17 interceptions. So be it. The Bills should open it up and take chances, let Manuel take shots downfield, the way he did at home in the wind against the Jets.
The Bucs will stack the box and come after Manuel, daring him to make the throws down the field. Go ahead and do it. If the Bills are going to be a real contender, they will need Manuel to make opposing defenses pay – especially in hostile road environs.
Manuel will be opposed by Mike Glennon, the third QB taken (73rd overall) after EJ and the Jets’ Geno Smith. Glennon, who took over for Josh Freeman in the fourth game, has completed 62.8 percent of his passes for 6.77 a throw for 13 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Glennon might be saving the job of coach Greg Schiano, who seemed like a goner after the 0-8 start and a flap over his treatment of Freeman. There’s talk that Schiano’s job is more secure, though a loss to the Bills could send him spiraling back into danger.
In his first NFL road game, Manuel was soundly outplayed by Smith. If he loses to another rookie, the howling from critics will resume, especially if he’s as skittish in the pocket and wayward with his throws as he was against the Jets and Steelers.
This isn’t all about Manuel, of course. It would help if the defense had a dominant road game. There’s talk about four of the front seven being Pro Bowl candidates. But how do you explain that, outside Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Bills have allowed 30 points a game this season?
As Marrone said, a strong finish doesn’t necessarily carry over to the next season. But if this truly is a new era, the Bills have to prove it – to the league, to their fans and to themselves – by playing with renewed competitive fire over the last four weeks.
Fans are sick of manufacturing hope heading into the last month. Still, many believe this team is laying the foundation for better things. But until the new franchise quarterback wins a road game, they’re stuck on the ground floor.