Well, that’s different than what we’re used to.
If you claim confidence the Buffalo Bills would go 80 yards, down six points with under 1:40 to go and no timeouts, I’ll have a difficult time believing you. After all, this is precisely the type of game the Bills have lost for years…and years… and years.
But perhaps these really aren’t the Buffalo Bills we’ve begrudgingly become accustomed to since the era of many celebrated alumni on hand halftime Sunday for a Wall of Fame tribute. The rookie head coach, along with his rookie quarterback throwing to a key rookie receiver on plays called from a rookie offensive coordinator in the press box, to players evaluated by their rookie general manager are shifting the culture of this team. The Bills damn near upended the New England Patriots last week and this time against Carolina, they got the job done.
Don’t get me wrong— The stat sheet was largely dominated by guys that have been a factor in Buffalo before 2013. C.J. Spiller ran for 103 yards on 16 carries. Stevie Johnson caught eight passes for 111 yards and a score. Kyle Williams was a beast and Mario Williams recorded four and a half sacks—a personal and franchise record.
But it’s the new blood sturdily contributing to the team that finally appears poised to turn a decade-plus of futility around. E.J. Manuel completed 27-of-39 passes for 296 yards and the game-winning touchdown. Robert Woods caught four balls for 68 yards and hauled in a difficult catch on a two point conversion in the third quarter that proved huge. Kiko Alonso had 10 tackles, an interception and a sack.
That’s what you call critical rookie offerings.
I’m not ready to anoint this team a legitimate playoff contender quite yet. I suspect we’ll learn plenty more about this team next week when they take to the road for the first time this season, traveling to New Jersey to face the Jets in a winnable contest featuring fellow rookie quarterback Geno Smith.
Based on today, here’s a list of items I feel like I learned about the Bills:
♦ I learned that while it’s harebrained to anoint any crop after just two regular season NFL games, we could potentially be looking at the Bills best draft class in over a quarter-century. Manuel looks almost alarmingly poised and patient at quarterback. He’s sure to get better. Woods runs routes and catches the ball like he’s been in the league for four years at wide receiver. But the rookie who is impressing me most is second-round linebacker Alonso. Alonso had a beautiful interception on Cam Newton to end Carolina’s opening drive, added a sack and nearly had two others. He’s an aggressive, every down linebacker with a motor that doesn’t turn off. If he stays healthy, he’s going to evolve into one of the league’s better defenders. I’ll admit at the time I preferred Buffalo drafting Jon Bostic or Arthur Brown when they were on the board instead of Alonso.—oops.
I’m not even counting third-round rookie Marquise Goodwin, out with a hand injury or Duke Williams, who may do big things down the road. I’m nearly overwhelmed with this collection of rookies in what was Buddy Nix’s farewell performance.
♦ While this youth infused roster appears more talented than recent years, I’ve learned the same Buffalo brand of incredibly stupid penalties is continuing. The Bills committed fouls that nine out of 10 times Sunday ends with the team losing. Lee Smith committed a holding penalty on a defender who had no chance of making a play on Spiller and negated a long run. That was tame compared to a pair of other ridiculous infractions. First, fullback Frank Summers committed a holding penalty on a punt, before the ball was kicked to give Carolina posssesion back. The miscue ultimately resulted in a Panthers touchdown that at the time put them up by eight. A short time later, the Bills had Carolina stopped on a third-and-long but again perpetrated an absurd penalty when Aaron Wiliams drilled Brandon LaFell out of a bounds following a pass that sailed way over his head. It’s arguably the dumbest penalty I’ve ever seen at the Ralph—and there’s been plenty to choose from in recent years.
♦ I’ve learned for at least one afternoon, Bills brass has to feel like signing Mario Williams was a bargain for all those millions. There’s not much to say about Williams Sunday other than he was utterly dominant all afternoon. Lining up on both sides Williams took turns abusing Jordan Gross or Bryon Bell and was a thorn to Newton. Williams finished with a franchise record 4.5 sacks and that actually could’ve been more. It’s foolish to expect this production every Sunday, but a domineering Williams obviously translates to a defense that can make more plays.
♦ I’ve learned that overall this Mike Pettine defense is legit, which makes me loathe the Dave Wannstedt era even more, considering plenty of personnel is the same as last year. Buffalo forced the Panthers into six sacks, and that number could’ve been significantly higher if it weren’t for the heroic efforts of Newton, who spent most of the afternoon running for his life. That’s eight sacks in two games for Buffalo. The pressure is immensely helping the pass defense, which has given up 502 net passing yards in two games against a pair of excellent quarterbacks in Newton and Tom Brady. That’s not a bad number, especially considering the best half of their secondary, Stephon Gilmore and Jairus Byrd have yet to take the field.
♦ I’ve learned that I’m developing a soft spot in my heart for defensive back Nickell Robey, which is quite the change from a few weeks ago when I mocked him making the final roster.
♦ I’ve learned that if you were silly enough to write off Spiller based on the season opener, you probably should stop watching football. Spiller was back in form against Carolina; rushing for 103 yards on 16 carries, including a 46-yard scamper in the second half. He would’ve tacked on another 28 yards, but Lee Smith’s boneheaded holding penalty negated a fine run. Spiller looked more decisive in hitting lanes than he did in New England. Perhaps he’s getting snug with the new offense, which doesn’t bode well for opposing defenses.
♦ I’ve learned that I haven’t discussed tackles Cordy Glenn and Erik Pears much during post-game rants, which typically means they’re doing a good job at tackle. I’ll have to re-watch with a focus on them to confirm, but I haven’t seen much by way of mistakes two weeks running.
♦ I’ve learned the Bills are showing signs of being able to overcome turnovers. Buffalo gave the ball away twice to the Panthers… but it only led to six points. Obviously that was a huge factor in their victory.
♦ I’ve learned to look at the seemingly little things that turn out huge, and nothing was bigger for the Bills than Fred Jackson intentionally dropping a pass. With a first down at the Carolina 46 yard line and just 46 seconds to go, Manuel chucked a dump off to Jackson, who was blanketed on the play. Rather than catch the ball, get tackled and run off valuable seconds (Buffalo had no time outs) Jackson was sharp enough drop the ball and just six seconds evaporated. A few plays later Johnson drew a pass interference penalty that put the Bills in position to win. The savvy intellect of Jackson can’t be understated in this sequence.
♦ Last and not least, I learned to not jump to conclusions with Manuel. I’m not going to lie—I was in the midst of stating Manuel read the Trent Edwards blueprint for running a fourth quarter two minute offense. I was stewing at him dumping the ball off during the game-deciding drive with 1:38 remaining, 80 yards to go and no timeouts. Manuel’s first seven passes were all basically Edwards-style check downs before going for broke on a 20-yard pass down the middle for Johnson that was intercepted. Fortunately for Buffalo it resulted in a pass interference penalty, and the Bills won the game two players later.
Anyway, the kid seems to have that “it” factor; even if it’s evident he’s got a long way to go. He’s taking the typical rookie lumps that come with the job while minimizing mistakes (one interception, one fumble in two starts) and earning high praise from teammates that for me, sounds sincere.
I’m higher on this kid than I’ve been for any Bill in long time.