All right, I know some of you took it hard. For awhile last evening, you were thinking of tossing yourself off the nearest bridge. You’ve seen this movie too many times before. You saw it as an extension of countless past horrors, too many of them against the hated Patriots.
But then you gathered yourself, took a deep breath, and put the whole thing into perspective. That’s what this season is all about, remember?
Perspective. Patience. Progress. The three P’s of NFL rebuilding. Sure they blew a game they could have won. The Patriots were begging to go down. Tom Brady was off his game. His rookie receivers looked lost out there. The Bills led in the fourth quarter and let it slip away, losing the opener of the M&M (Doug Marrone and EJ Manuel) Era, 23-21.
Go ahead and gripe about the 13 penalties, or the dubious decision to stay in no-huddle instead of burning clock on their last possesion before the Patriots’ winning drive. Throw Stevie Johnson under the bus for that crucial drop. Send Mario Williams with him for being a virtual non-factor.
Just keep in mind that there’s a larger objective here, one that goes beyond a single game or even a season. Manuel played pretty well. It’s only one game, but it was the kid’s first game. The franchise quarterback looked the part. For 50 minutes, he outplayed Brady.
That’s what truly matters, not the fact that the Bills are alone in last place in the AFC East after one week. If you were delusional enough to expect them to challenge for the playoffs, this loss will eat away at you for awhile. The more rational fans might see it as encouraging.
Manuel didn’t set the league on fire. Operating with a conservative game plan, he went 18 for 27 for 150 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t complete a pass of more than 19 yards. But he didn’t get sacked and he didn’t turn the ball over.
“I thought he managed the game well,” said center Eric Wood. “We faced a lot of adversity early, but he did a great job of keeping his cool. One play at a time and not trying to do too much, trying to get us back in one play. Because that’s not how it works.”
My expectations were modest for Manuel early in his career. Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett, the offensive coordinator, weren’t asking for the world, either. They put in a fairly conservative game plan, heavy on the running game, as if they were looking to protect the kid from Bill Belichick.
“I was very calm,” Manuel said. “I was very confident in the game plan we had going into the game. I knew it was my first time out there. I felt the energy of the crowd. It was a great crowd. We just wanted to go out and win. But we didn’t. We’ve just got to move on to next week.”
For all the talk of speed and the vertical passing attack, they called a lot of safe, underneath stuff. They never used the vaunted read option attack, maybe because they didn’t want a strong Patriots defensive front seven to take extra shots at his knee.
Half of Manuel’s completions went to running backs, four to tight end Scott Chandler. Manuel misfired on his only two deep balls, one to rookie Robert Woods. Marquise Goodwin, the other rookie wideout, fumbled away his only catch, then left with an injury. I’m still awaiting the emergence of T.J. Graham.
The stats looked suspiciously like last year’s, like a coaching staff managing a quarterback’s limitations. If Ryan Fitzpatrick had played that game, critics would be screaming that he can’t make the big throws down the field. But again, this isn’t a 30-year-old NFL veteran, but a rookie.
Manuel, the first rookie quarterback to start for the Bills in the opener in 40 years (Joe Ferguson, 1973), made enough plays to win. The Bills picked off Brady with a little over a minute left in the first half. Manuel made a nice throw to Chandler for 19 over the middle. On the next play, he found Woods open in the right corner of the end zone and hit him for an 18-yard score.
That drive cut the Pats’ lead to 17-14 and seemed to propel the Bills, who took the second-half kickoff and marched 80 yards to the go-ahead score.
The Bills ran the ball five plays in a row out of their no-huddle, getting a couple of first down rushes from Fred Jackson, who was terrific. Manuel scrambled for 19 yards. On third and 6, he zipped an 11-yard pass to Jackson for a first down.
Two plays later, he lofted an 18-yard TD pass to Stevie Johnson in the left corner of the end zone – showing the sort of velvet touch that we rarely saw from Fitzpatrick down near the opposing goal-line.
“He’s played in big games before,” Wood said of Manuel. “He was excited before the game, but not too excited, not nervous or antsy. He was excited and ready to play today. I thought we could have done a better job as an offense of getting him in a rhythm early. Penalties kind of affected that, and turnovers. But I like what I saw from him.”
Wood had a good point about the offensive rhythm. It’s hard to find a consistent rhythm when your skill players are fumbling the ball, or when veteran linemen are being whistled for illegal blocks or hands to the face.
The coaches held Manuel back at times, too. The Bills had second-and-2 a couple of times in the first half. When you have a rookie quarterback and want to establish a vertical passing game, those are good times to let him loose. They ran both times. They ran on a second-and-3, too.
You figured playing fast could be an issue, especially against New England. The Pats ran 89 plays and held the ball for 37:43. The Bills had only 61 plays. It’s fine to have an attacking identity, but sometimes you need to adjust to the circumstances.
The Bills took over at their own 20 after a punt with 5:51 left, clinging to a one-point lead. It would have been a good idea to slow down at that point and take more time off the play clock. You want to give Brady as little time as possible to lead a late drive.
Instead, they ran three plays fast, and went three-and-out, taking just 1:20 off the clock. Marrone said he wanted to score again. Fine, but if you’re that worried about Brady, you have to take more time off the clock.
But there I go, finding fault. Marrone showed too much faith in his no-huddle. It was his first game, too. He’ll get better as he goes along, same as Manuel. At some point, he’ll remove the kid’s shackles and let him throw the ball down the field more, too.
There are no moral victories, I know. It would have been nice to beat the Pats to begin the new era. But if you look closely, you can see the cracks in the Patriot dynasty, and envision a future when Brady is near the end and Manuel is the best QB in the division.
Now, don’t you feel better?