The most poignant moment during EJ Manuel’s debut Sunday didn’t come after his first touchdown pass or after his first loss. It emerged at the end of the third quarter, when the rookie quarterback walked toward the sideline with a 21-17 lead over the Patriots and pleaded with a subdued crowd to provide a boost.
Manuel spread his arms wide, with his palms turned toward the heavens, waving his hands and urging reluctant fans to get involved. It was as if he begged them to forget about the past and fight through their fears, to climb aboard and join him in a new era that would be better than those in recent years.
Bills fans politely obliged with shallow enthusiasm, the way they do when players plead for support or the Jumbotron tells them it’s time to cheer. A few moments later, they returned to their natural thought process of wondering when and how – not if – Buffalo would blow another one to New England.
“This is my first year here,” Manuel said the other day during his weekly news conference, “so I’m not used to losing.”
You couldn’t help but appreciate his youthful innocence, but he obviously hadn’t been around long enough to understand the thinking in this town. Manuel thought fans were quiet going into the fourth quarter because they were being respectful of the Bills’ offense, which was on the field.
Actually, what he saw was 65,000 fans whose collective impulse was hoping for the best and bracing for the worst. The game was following a script all too familiar. Their restraint was part of a communal defense mechanism passed down for generations through years of disappointment.
How would Manuel have known?
He was in kindergarten the last time the Bills won a playoff game. He was in diapers when his godfather, Bruce Smith, and the Bills played in their first Super Bowl. Florida State had a 38-16 record and played in four bowl games during his college career while the Bills had a 22-42 record and played no postseason games over that span.
In an informal Twitter poll during the game, with the Bills holding a lead, about two-thirds of the people who responded expected them to lose Sunday. It would have been interesting to find out how many players on their sideline – truth serum required, of course – had similar thoughts en route to an inevitable defeat.
Bills coach Doug Marrone has been trying to break through that barrier since he arrived at One Bills Drive. It’s not just with the fan base, either. Players who have been here long enough have been beaten up, knocked down and dragged around for so long that they’re practically planning for doom, too.
“I don’t think it’s just with the team; it’s with everyone in the organization,” Marrone said. “I know that Russ Brandon has worked hard on that. We all have. It’s kind of like the, ‘Woe is me, here we go again’ situation. That’s not what we want.”
The only way to change the collective attitude, of course, is by winning. It starts with doing the things required to win. If you check the play-by-play, you’ll find that Brandon didn’t take any penalties at critical times or drop any passes that were tougher than they appeared. Winning comes from players and coaches.
Danny Amendola was faced with a few difficult plays in the Pats’ final drive, but he found ways to catch passes in traffic. It was one reason New England won. It was hardly the only reason. They’re loaded with players and coaches who know how to handle every situation and never, ever think they’ll blow it in the end.
It’s the Patriots’ way.
That’s what Manuel and this collection of newbies need to develop as the Bills evolve under Marrone. They’re short on talent and depth but long on doubt, a fatal combination they need to overcome before anyone takes them seriously. Sometimes, especially with a young roster, one win can push a team in the right direction.
Marrone made a good point about the younger players on his roster. All have been successful throughout their careers, which is how they reached the NFL in the first place. Most have come from strong college programs. The Bills overhauled the roster. The woe-is-me mentality shouldn’t be imbedded in this team.
Manuel is one of many players who hasn’t been in Buffalo and doesn’t care about 13 seasons of failure that don’t include him. He is anxious to get the offense moving Sunday against Carolina. He’s ready to throw deep. He wants to generate genuine excitement that has been missing for far too long in Orchard Park.
It never really got loud Sunday.
If he wants loud, he should see what it’s like when the Bills get on a roll and make a run toward the playoffs. It has been so long that many fans have either forgotten or never experienced the feeling. He’ll know loud when the Bills have the ball in the fourth quarter, and he’s spreading his arms with his palms down, signaling for the crowd to be quiet.