First impressions are often stressed as being very important, and though fans in Buffalo had become familiar with many of these names the past few years, there was a sense of newness as the team came onto the field Thursday evening.
You felt a palpable jolt of excitement run through the crowd as Mario Williams trotted onto the field in full Bills uniform for the first time. You could see a focused, watchful expectation on rookies like Stephon Gilmore (who we saw too little of) and T.J. Graham (who routinely ran right past the Redskins secondary... too often for nothing).
On a balmy, breezy, summer evening in Orchard Park that seemed just made for football, there was a fellowship of heightened expectation throughout the crowd, so much so that you almost didn't notice the dark, foreboding clouds hovering closer on the horizon. Granted, the storm never really broke, but it got close enough to worry those at Ralph Wilson Stadium that something worse could happen at any time, and I can't think of a better metaphor for what the Bills showed on the field.
Buffalo's first preseason game of 2012, a 7-6 loss, wasn't all bad, but it wasn't really very good either. Sure, with the NFL restrictions on padded, full contract drills in camp these days, the preseason has almost become more important as a gauge for how a team is progressing, but if that's true... well, the Bills aren't as far along as many wanted to believe.
But enough of the lead, here's a condensed (somewhat) good, bad, and ugly of what the Bills did, and largely didn't do, against Washington and RGIII. Bottom line, fans; there's still work to be done in Buffalo.
Honestly, a couple of things.
First, there was the defense, both the much hyped first string, and the nearly as talented second and even third stringers, especially on the defensive line. They held the supposed high octane Redskins offense to just 6-18 on third down conversions (3-10 at one point) and, apart from a neat balloon pass to Pierre Garcon across the middle for 20 and another 20 yard hook up for the only TD, they kept Griffin III pressured and contained most of the day, even if they didn't bring him down...
The fact that RG3 really didn't do anything extraordinary, going a neat 4-6 for 70 yds, a TD, and no rushing yards on one his one attempt, speaks quiet volumes for the front four.
The Bills defense as a whole hit the QB eight times, deflected 10 passes, and collected an INT (by rookie Ron Brooks... after a series of missed plays including a wide open INT miss and a couple of easy tackles that went for big gains).
It wasn't perfect, but Williams and company looked good, veteran Shawne Merriman and rookie Tank Carter looked promisingly beastly, and things appeared almost as good as advertised on that end.
Also, there was tight end Scott Chandler, who had one great catch in traffic that was nothing when compared to a spectacular, double-covered, over-the-head-of-the-defender grab from the heavens for 26 he made earlier. Steve Johnson also looked good, running crisp routes and getting one short grab that he took for 11. Backup runners Tashard Choice and Johnny White made some statement runs, too.
Speaking of runs, is it odd that we saw the Bills run 16 pass plays before their first run play? Sure, the Bills needed to see what kind of rhythm Fitz had with his receivers (a seemingly erratic one) and there was definite desire to see how Cordy Glenn would hold up in pass protection (not too well, actually, as the left side collapsed routinely), but though Fitzpatrick had a not horrible 6-14 day with 61 yards, the pass game wasn't all too impressive.
Ryan never handed the ball off once and threw a couple pretty bad misses that looked too much like the injured quarterback he was when he finished 2011.
It was, however, much worse when Tyler Thigpen and Vince Young were on the field. If you had to decide who was the number two QB in Buffalo based on Thursday's performance, you'd probably just junk them both and see if Brad Smith can do anything.
With Thigpen, he'd make a great throw, a tight spiral with no wobble for 11 yards, then follow it up with a hugely underthrown ball to a wide open TJ Graham streaking down the sideline, finishing a sad 3-8 for 38 with an INT.
When Young was in, it got more exciting, but looked no better when it came to passes, as it seemed that Tim Tebow and the 2011 Broncos had snuck into the Ralph. Vince ended up making big plays with his feet because of broken plays and horrible pass attempts (he was 5-12 with 50 yards and led the team with 37 on the ground, but was also sacked thrice for 25 yards lost).
Ron Brooks was also rough to watch, even with the pretty interception he grabbed. He seemed not only nervous and sloppy, but also looked to be the smallest guy on the field (he's 6'0", but that seems a stretch when you see him). Maybe he needs more polish and got his big minutes as a result, but I'd have liked to see more of Gilmore. Also, Aaron Williams look pretty bad a couple of times in coverage, especially when he slipped on the second play of Washington's second series on a Hankerson juke move that gained 12 yards off what should have been a loss.
And, it got pretty tiring watching DBs miss easy INTs... really tiring.
Oh, and get Cordy a lot more reps at left tackle. Like, a whole lot more.
You've got to point at the referees first here. Here's to the hope that these replacements are going to get some more training before the season, because there were just some horrible calls that were easily disproved by looking up at the replay on the screen.
Three plays stand out as fine examples of obvious miscalls against Buffalo, the first being the punt Ruvell Martin downed at the four yard line that was then marched to the 20 yard line, ruled a touchback. What was that about? Martin caught the ball and landed wholly on the green of the field, nowhere near the end zone. Of course, when Chan Gailey challenged it, the call was immediately reversed and the ball was place at the four, but it was head-scratching.
Then there was an illegal formation penalty that nullified a fine 20 yard TD pass into an eventual 3-point field goal because CJ Spiller had a foot in the wrong place (?). This was soon followed by an obvious pass interference push on Johnson that, though it was replayed to a chorus of disbelieving groans on the screen, was officially chalked up as "receiver fell".
That, however, is no excuse in the slightest for Buffalo's nauseatingly high 134 yards lost off of 14 penalties. It wasn't a sold out away crowd in a hostile dome, so what reason can there be for Thigpen's first series to include a span of three false start penalties in just four plays.
The Bills had the fifth fewest penalties in 2011 and this was the first preseason game with a lot of new faces on the field, but 134 yards? Coach Gailey tried to take the blame, saying, "That's just undisciplined and that's my fault when we play that undisciplined.", but these players were jumping for no reason and that's just sloppy.
It's just so frustrating to watch plays get called back, watch gains get erased, and constantly hear the frustrated moans (and more colorful expressions) of the fans when the laundry hits the field. Chan may be putting it on him, but these players should be ashamed and here's hoping they're still doing pushups in the morning.
Overall, the Bills were a quiet "meh" on the field during their first preseason game, with a down for every up. The defense seemed on the right path, the offense seemed all over the map. The protection would hold up, but then the pass would sail over or fall short of the receiver. You'd see an open man on the left, then watch the QB throw to a covered receiver on the right for an incompletion.
Yes, there's still work to be done in Buffalo, but this first preseason game showed that there's a base to work from and some talent that hasn't quite matured yet (especially on offense). Maybe it'll hit a growth spurt before the season, but getting your number one and number two runners more involved in the run game would be a good place to start.
Here's to being happy there's still three more games before the season