EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — For a moment there, I wondered if I might be writing about another remarkable comeback victory by EJ Manuel. Twice in his first three games as an NFL rookie, that would have stretched even my abilities for exaggeration.
It wasn’t meant to be. And frankly, it never really felt as if the Bills were going to pull this one out. Even when they tied the game after one of the improbable scoring drives imaginable, you still didn’t have the sense that they were going to steal another late, improbable win.
The fact is, they didn’t deserve to win. They battled to the end, which is more than you would have gotten from some past Bills teams. The final scoreboard read 27-20, Jets, but it felt worse than that. It felt like a lot of road games of the recent past, like a blowout.
The Jets did their best to give it away. Let’s face it, when a team commits 20 penalties for 168 yards – a Jets record, by the way – you’re supposed to win. You’re supposed to laugh all the way to the airport.
But the Bills didn’t play nearly well enough to win a road game, or any game, for that matter. On a day of wild and unpredictable NFL games, this might have been the most bizarre of all. In the end, though, it’s simply a loss, one that drops the Bills to 1-2 and 0-2 in the AFC East.
“At the end of the day, we weren’t able to make that play to get us over the hump,” said head coach Doug Marrone, “and they did. Credit to them. They went out there and won that game.”
So for all the talk of a promising new age, the Bills are still the worst team in the division. It’s a new age, but as yet an immature one. In the first road test of the Marrone-Manuel era, they drove the car into an embankment. They were outplayed on both sides of the ball.
Marrone and his coaches have done a lot of talk about attacking since taking charge. But it was Rex Ryan and the Jets who were the aggressor for much of Sunday’s game. Ryan’s defense hounded Manuel all day long, confounding the Bills with exotic looks and preventing them from finding an offensive rhythm for most of the day.
Offensively, the Jets attacked downfield and took full advantage of a depleted and inferior Bills secondary. The Jet offense, which was supposed to be among the worst in the league, piled up 513 yards of total offense, the most of any game in the five-year Ryan era. Rookie Geno Smith completed 16 passes for 331 yards and two long TDs, both on poor Justin Rogers.
People say Ryan has lost some of his bravado. But you wouldn’t have known it Sunday. His team played with a decided swagger, attacking the Bills and playing on the edge. They played on the edge of stupidity at times, committing all those penalties. But they made enough big plays to compensate – a lot like some of the bad-boy Raiders teams of yore.
Manuel, who showed uncommon poise in his first two NFL games, played like a raw rookie in his first road game. He completed 19-of-42 passes for 243 yards. He was sacked eight times and harried into countless poor throws.
Even when he had time, Manuel made some brutal throws that missed the mark by a wide margin. Oops, there goes another one out of bounds.
Marrone was asked if Manuel had played like a rookie. He wouldn’t go there.
“I don’t think so,” Marrone said. “It’s hard for me, because I have really, really high expecations for him. A lot of us, even some of our veteran players, including” the coaches, “we’re all continuing to get better. They’re a good defense. They’ve done a nice job. Did we miss some things out there? Could we have done a better job? Absolutely.”
It was thoughtful of him to include the coaches, because Ryan coached their pants off. Nate Hackett, the 33-year-old offensive coordinator, didn’t exactly shine in his first NFL road game, either. Hackett called a pretty conservative game in the early going and continues to coach as if he’s trying to protect Manuel from making too many challenging throws.
Playing a no-huddle doesn’t necessarily make you an attacking offense. Hackett ran C.J. Spiller on the first two downs of the opening series, again on the second series. He also ran Spiller on the first series of the second quarter after the Bills reached the Jets’ 21-yard line.
Those six runs gained a total of 7 yards. The Bills settled for a field goal on that drive. They got to the Jets’ 10-yard line a few minutes later and ran Fred Jackson into the line on first down. They settled for another field goal when Manuel couldn’t find a receiver on third down.
Why not call more passes for Manuel on first down, rather than put him in difficult down-and-distance situations. Yes, the Jets were swarming on defense and the Bills’ receivers weren’t getting much separation against man-to-man. The offense never got into much of a rhythm.
“It was a combination of things,” said Jackson. “We didn’t do our job, and they did some things to create some different looks and we didn’t pick it up. That’s on our offense, and we’ve got to do a better job.”
You can’t put it all on Manuel, as his coach said. The Jets made Tom Brady look bad in their second game. Ryan had 10 days to get ready for the Bills.
You figured he would be ready for a rookie in his first road start.
The defense has to take a big share of this loss. This was a step back for a unit that was trying to separate itself from last year’s horrid showing.
If you’d told me the Bills would score 20 points, I would have put this one in the win column. Instead, they reverted to last year’s form.
The Jets rushed for 182 yards. Bilal Powell had 149 yards on 27 carries, nearly twice his previous career high. I’ll have to add him to my chronicle of obscure backs who had their career day against the Bills.
Smith had a nice day, too. He threw two interceptions, but at times looked like Joe Namath, firing deep passes all over the lot. The Bills were seriously depleted at cornerback. Still, you expected the Bills to help the secondary with a pass rush, as they had against Cam Newton.
“It’s very disappointing,” said linebacker Arthur Moats. “Especially when we felt that was one thing we needed to exploit,” with Smith being a rookie. “At the same time, everything we did was self-inflicted. We gave up big plays. You can’t do that. It doesn’t matter what quarterback is out there. It’s the NFL.”
Yes, it’s the NFL, and that means injuries. They’re piling up already. Leodis McKelvin left early. Spiller went out. Kraig Urbik left long enough to expose the Bills’ glaring lack of depth at guard. Marcell Dareus went down. Mario Williams hurt his ankle and was seen limping badly in the hallway outside the locker room after the game.
It was only one game, just as the Carolina win was one game. When a team is trying to create a new era after years of dysfunction, it’s hard to keep things in perspective. But this loss was a quick dose of reality after the giddiness of last week’s comeback win.
Marrone was quick to temper the excitement of the Carolina win last Monday. He’s a coach, after all, and they’re always wary of short-term success.
Marrone seemed aware that his team was due for a humbling. They got one Sunday.
It’s a new age, but it took just one road game to be reminded how early it really is.