Seconds after the final gun on Sunday, a single voice resounded through the rear of the Bills press box. It was Nathaniel Hackett, the offensive coordinator, hustling to the elevator with the other assistant coaches from their station high above the field.
“That’s what I’m talking about!” Hackett yelled. “It’s a new age, baby!”
You could excuse Hackett for his exuberant outburst. He’s only 33, a first-time NFL coordinator, and he had just helped engineer an improbable late-minute drive that delivered the first victory of the Doug Marrone/EJ Manuel era.
New era, new age, call it what you will. Everyone wants to believe there’s something fresh and promising in the air. Watching the Bills drive 80 yards in 98 seconds to a winning TD, with a rookie quarterback and coordinator calling the shots, can only heighten that belief.
It’s only one game. I’m the guy who picked them for 3-13. But this does feel different from the teases of the past. It starts with Manuel, of course.
But he’s not the only reason to believe this Bills team could be coming of age before its time. Careers aren’t made in two weeks, but it looks as if the Bills nailed the first three picks of last year’s draft. Manuel, wide receiver Robert Woods and Kiko Alonso aren’t simply prospects two weeks into their rookie seasons. They’re already starters and major contributors.
Manuel will struggle at times. He seems a little unsure of himself on throws down the field. He’s too willing to check down, a la Trent Edwards. The coaches appeared to be coddling him some in his first two games, perhaps because they’re still worried about his knee.
Coach Doug Marrone expects more from Manuel. He praised Manuel for the winning drive on Monday, but was critical of his rookie and said it’s not as if the kid has arrived because of one game.
“My conversations with him today, there’s a lot of things that we have to clean up with him,” Marrone said. “There are a lot of mistakes that are out there that he committed that we don’t expect him to make.”
Still, you can’t fake the poise and command that Manuel has demonstrated early in his first season. It takes a special talent to lead a winning drive under enormous pressure. He’s quickly winning the confidence of his teammates and lifting the sense of belief within the team.
Woods, the 41st overall pick last spring, has settled in nicely as the No. 2 wideout. He caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Manuel in the opener. Woods had four catches for 68 yards vs. Carolina. He had grabs of 15 and 28 yards on consecutive plays on the drive that the second-half drive that led to a field goal.
Late in the third quarter, Woods made a diving catch of Manuel’s throw on a slant for a two-point conversion that tied the game. He and Manuel are quickly developing a chemistry. There’s a lot to be said for a rookie QB and receiver on the same NFL learning curve.
Before the draft, Woods was viewed as the receiver with the most potential to step right into the NFL. He hasn’t disappointed. He played 95 percent of the offensive snaps against Carolina. Marrone was asked Monday if he was surprised by how swiftly Woods has adapted to the league.
“Yes, I really am,” Marrone said.
Alonso hasn’t been so much of a surprise. Marrone and his defensive staff felt all along the Alonso was talented enough to be a three-down middle linebacker and to call the defensive signals as a rookie.
The Bills did a masterful job to get Alonso on draft day. They traded the eighth overall pick to the Rams, who picked wideout Tavon Austin. The Bills got the 16th pick, which they used on Manuel. They also got the Rams’ second-round pick (No. 46) and used that to grab Alonso.
The Oregon product has been a revelation, a sideline-to-sideline dervish. Alonso is all football player. He never stops moving. In camp, the fitness staff installed monitors on players’ shoulder pads to check how far they ran in a day. They had to rest Alonso because he moved so often.
“There’s still things that we have to improve on” with Alonso, Marrone said. “Here as a young player, his communication to the rest of the defense is extremely important in what he’s saying, … I think that’s something that will just get better each week.”
Alonso can fill up a stat sheet. Against the Panthers, he had 10 tackles, a sack, a quarterback hurry, an interception and a defended pass. He recovered Tom Brady’s goal-line fumble in the opener.
He’s a disruptive presence, one of the main reasons for the defense’s startling turnaround. Alonso has played every defensive snap in the first two games, a remarkable undertaking for a rookie ‘backer.
As Marrone says, there’s plenty to clean up with the rookies. But their rapid emergence is an encouraging sign.
You win in the NFL by stacking strong draft classes. You need a core of quality starters in their first contracts, surrounded by more highly paid veterans and free agents to fill in the holes.
When you whiff on a series of drafts, as the Bills did in earlier years, you compromise your chances of assembling a contender. Trying to make up for picks like Mike Williams, James Hardy and Aaron Maybin is like chasing your tail.
If Manuel, Woods and Alonso are as good as they look, the Bills could be a contender a lot sooner than people expected. Last year’s No. 1 pick, Stephon Gilmore, looks like a home run. Cordy Glenn, the second-round pick in 2012, is settling in at left tackle.
Hackett is a rookie, too. His play calls have been a tad conservative at times. But the Bills have scored 45 points, which is ahead of last year’s pace. Manuel is the first rookie quarterback since 1960 with a passer rating of 89 or better in his first two games. Hackett must be doing something right.
In both games, the Bills took the second-half kickoff and marched down the field to score. They drove 80 yards to a TD against New England and 78 yards to a field goal against Carolina. Somebody in that locker room must have been making adjustments at halftime.
Hackett worked fullback Frank Summers into the offense with good results. He kept feeding C.J. Spiller until he broke loose. The Panthers hadn’t allowed more than 70 yards rushing in their last five games dating back to last season. The Bills rushed for 149 yards.
They’re young; there will be growing pains. But with awkward youth comes infinite promise. That’s what Hackett was talking about.
The New Age Bills. You must admit, it has a ring to it.