Doug Marrone was emotional afterward, as you might expect. He said he was proud of his team after its thrilling 24-23 victory over the Panthers.
He called them a bunch of good guys who believe in each other and never lost faith on a day when all seemed lost at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Then the Bills’ first-year coach paused and began searching for words.
“I’m having a difficult time,” Marrone said. He was crying, not because he had won a game but because he had lost a friend.
On Saturday, Marrone had learned that Rob Edson, the former associate AD at Syracuse, had died while mowing the lawn. Edson and Marrone had become close friends when Marrone was head coach at Syracuse. Edson’s wife, Sue, is assistant director of sports communications at SU. They have two children.
“When I was at Syracuse, Rob would always come in after games and kind of cheer me up and keep things in perspective,” Marrone said, sobbing. “I know Rob was watching and I can’t stop thinking about that. When that game was coming down to the end … My prayers just go out for him and his family.”
Marrone apologized. He said the real story was in the Bills locker room. But he needn’t have. It’s always helpful to get a little perspective, to be reminded that no matter how amazing and uplifting it might be, in the end it’s still only a game.
But what a game it was. Yes, it’s difficult to put this win in perspective, to sift through the emotional drama of a single September afternoon and figure out what it means for the long-term hopes of a franchise trying to reverse a decade of chronic failure.
We’ve been fooled before, right? The Bills have pulled out some remarkable wins in the past, leading fans to believe this might be the year when they get it right and get back to the playoffs – only to have it go to pieces later in the season.
This one feels a little different, though. I’m not saying they’re going to make a playoff run. The Bills still have plenty of issues. But we might look back on this as the day when the EJ Manuel era began, when he truly began to arrive as an NFL franchise quarterback.
From the moment Manuel was drafted last April, we’ve been hearing about his uncommon poise and presence. Stevie Johnson told anyone who would listen that Manuel didn’t behave like a rookie, that he carried himself like a guy who had been commanding an NFL huddle for years.
Manuel looked the part in training camp, and in the opening loss to the Patriots. But until a quarterback pulls his team back from the precipice of defeat, until he leads one of those improbable fourth-quarter comebacks that define all the great QBs, you never know for sure.
It didn’t seem like Manuel’s day for awhile there. On consecutive possessions straddling the third and fourth quarters, Manuel committed his first two turnovers of the season. He fumbled the ball away deep in his own territory, then locked in on a receiver and got intercepted by Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly.
On the Bills’ next possession, Manuel misread Fred Jackson’s route and missed badly on a third-down pass. So when the Bills got the ball back at their own 20-yard line with 1:38 left, trailing by 23-17, there wasn’t much reason to believe that Manuel was about to fashion a miracle.
Perspective? Cam Newton had outplayed Manuel to that point, which was to be expected. Newton is a former No. 1 overall pick. He’s in his third year. This looked like one of those harsh learning experiences for EJ.
Sure, it would be a shame to waste a sensational effort by Mario Williams and the defense. But I was prepared to remind everyone that it was Manuel’s second NFL game, and to cut him a break.
But Manuel had other ideas. Despite the turnovers, he remained confident. No matter the circumstances, he always tells Marrone he’s fine. Eighty yards to go in 1:38? No timeouts left? No problem.
“We knew the situation,” said Manuel, who was 27 of 39 for 296 yards. “I didn’t feel nervous or anything like that. We practiced it time and time again. I’ve been in too many situations like that before, not just in the NFL or in practice, but also in college. We won games like that before. You’ve just got to get out there and operate the offense.”
Manuel hit Johnson for 8 yards, then C.J. Spiller for 12 and Jackson for 14, using just 51 seconds of clock. He got a lucky break when a short dump-off to Jackson, which would have been stopped cold, was incomplete. He found Johnson, who ran out of bounds at the Carolina 35. He wriggled away from a sack and hit Spiller for 4 yards.
Twenty-one seconds left. Manuel’s deep pass down the middle was intercepted by Panthers safety Colin Jones. But Kuechly was called for interference, giving the Bills a first down at the 11, with 14 seconds left.
Manuel showed his speed and poise on the next play, scrambling around right end and diving out at the 2. Six seconds to play. On the Bills sideline, Marrone looked to the sky and thought about Rob Edson. Manuel took the shotgun snap from Eric Wood and saw a most astonishing sight.
Johnson was standing in the left corner of the end zone, wide open. Hardened cynics wondered what might possibly go wrong. A drop? A penalty? The ground opening up and swallowing Johnson? Manuel calmly tossed the football to Stevie for the touchdown. The next thing you knew, it was bedlam.
“I can’t even tell you how I felt,” Manuel said. “I started crying there. I’m not usually an emotional guy.”
Johnson, a very emotional guy, jumped into the stands and hugged his wife. Manuel knelt down on the field in prayer. Then he ran over to the bench, where his Bills teammates mobbed him while awaiting the formality of Dan Carpenter’s game-winning extra point.
After the clock ran out, Manuel went and found his father, Erik. They cried in each other’s arms. It was Erik’s birthday on Sunday. You can’t make this stuff up.
Manuel won’t have any trouble recalling the date of his first NFL victory and his first fourth-quarter comeback. Bills fans can call Sept. 15 the start of the Manuel & Marrone era, and maybe the start of something big.
It’s one game, I know. But the romantic in me loves a great story. It’s hard to beat the coach crying over the loss of a friend and the quarterback crying on his dad’s birthday on the day they won their first NFL game.
“My dad has been to all my games since I was 6 years old, so nothing’s changed,” Manuel said. “To see his face in there before the game was awesome.”
Manuel had the game ball in front of him on the lectern. I asked him what he got his father for his birthday.
“This football,” Manuel said, beaming. “I didn’t have a gift. My dad’s not big on gifts, anyways. I know he’ll definitely want to take this home.”