At what point does a Buffalo Bills fan just call it a day?
How many more hard fought, but ultimately fruitless losses can a region take before they just throw their hands up and declare themselves uninterested in a team that seems all pain, no pleasure the last decade?
For God's sake, we Bills' loyal wore Zubaz for you once. Zubaz!
You see, this latest loss at New England, a place Buffalo hasn't won at since before the Brady era, was a game that most local sports pundits will try and provide excuses for to make fans feel better. In the last 24 hours, the 37-31 loss has been called one of those games fans should "feel good about", a "moral victory" if you will, a sign the Bills are getting "more competitive" against their divisional big brother. I mean, Buffalo's surely not out of it yet, for as the wise and bearded guru of the Bills, Coach Chan Gailey, stated in his post-game press conference "an 8-8 team won it all last year".
It's a loss, the same result Buffalo has posted 20 of the last 22 contests against the Patriots and the sixth in 2012. It drops the Bills to a lowly 3-6, gives them an 0-3 record in the AFC East, and though they are heading into the "easy part" of their schedule now, shows no sign of the life that seemed to radiate out of training camp.
Where's the passion? Where's the dominance? Where's the talent?
Where are the damned wins we were promised?
There comes a time when you have to start wondering if football can really be called escapism if it's filled with the same disappointments and lack of glory found in everyday life. What's worse, the Bills don't seem to know what's wrong themselves, as they may actually be more talented on offense this year than even the most diehard fan was willing to believe.
Some stats from Sunday's game to consider:
Ryan Fitzpatrick had his best game of the season, capably commanding the field on a day he went 27-40 with 337 yards and two TDs. It was his highest completion percentage on the year (67.5%), his second highest fantasy total of the year (the highest was the first Patriots game earlier this season), and even saw him go deep on several plays (not deep deep, but in the 20-25 yard range, something sorely missing from his game this season). However, Fitz was once more a pass short, throwing his only interception of the day on his last attempt of the day... in the endzone... on the game winning drive... with :23 seconds left on the clock...
Fred Jackson ran for 80 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries and caught four balls for 35 yards, but fumbled on the one yard line early in the fourth quarter and got a concussion that prevented him from contributing to that last drive. Meanwhile, CJ Spiller took nine carries for 70 yards, maintaining that NFL best yards per attempt, and caught four for 61 yards, making for his highest combined total yards ever against New England, but he just couldn't get into the endzone and those encouragingly explosive, exciting runs (7.8/carry) weren't seen nearly as much as fans would have liked.
The Buffalo defense managed to hold Tom Brady and the NFL's top ranked offense to just 230 yards passing and 111 rushing, keeping their team in the game with an injured and undermanned defensive backfield, as well as without either defensive end Mark Anderson or his replacement, Chris Kelsay. However, they allowed scores on four of five Patriots red zone trips, only got one sack on the day, and had no turnovers, missing out on two easy interceptions (especially Bryan Scott's pop up misplay in the first quarter... they don't get much easier than that).
Then there's the Buffalo offense, putting up some monster numbers Sunday, abusing both New England's lowly pass defense (ranked 29th) and their top ten rush defense (only allowing 96.8/game) seemingly at will. The Bills' 35 first downs were their highest mark ever, as well as the most the Patriots have ever allowed, and they amassed 481 total yards (134 more than New England) along with a 33:50 time of possession (a +7:40 over the Patriots).
That was the good, but the Bills also turned the ball over three times, gave up three sacks for 18 yards (though the line played fantastically down the stretch), and squandered early red zone trips, ending up 4-7 inside the 20.
As a team, the Bills looked like they had the anger and talent to take down the Patriots on their home turf for the first time since an overtime win November 5... 2000. However, when that same team commits 14 penalties for 148 yards, all the swagger in the NFL can't save you.
Face it, the defense may be a little softer than expected (or a lot), but the Buffalo Bills are actually loaded with as much talent as was advertised in the offseason, maybe more. This team shouldn't be struggling for purchase in 2012, but should be leading the way behind a top ten running game and a passing game getting more dangerous by the week (Donald Jones had six catches for 74 yards and a score, Steve Johnson 6 for 86). Perhaps if they were playing with the lead more often, that soft defense would be able to start making some headway as well.
In the last 24 hours, the blame for this latest loss, though couched in patronizing jargon about how Buffalo's level of competition should be praised, has been largely surrounding the refs and Fitzpatrick. That seems wrong.
Sure, Fitz threw another late INT, but TJ Graham has admitted to being in the wrong spot on that route and it was honestly the only real mistake made all day in the passing game. Yes, the referees were being a wee liberal with the laundry Sunday, especially on first half pass interference calls, but the Bills were still in it the whole way, stayed within striking distance until the end.
What's this team's big problem then?
Mental mistakes, my friends, and that comes down to coaching.
With so much real talent on display weekly in Buffalo, it's time to stop blaming players and start wondering why the coaching staff can't get it together to win. Maybe Dave Wannstedt has lost a step the last decade and just can't seem to find the passion and fire up in the booth he used to display on the field. Perhaps Chan Gailey just isn't a head coach (he is 31-42 for his career, 13-28 in Buffalo) and would be better suited to just being a coordinator again, because he just can't seem to rule a team effectively.
Though GM Buddy Nix has come out promising that Gailey will still be the coach in 2013, maybe that's the problem, this blind faith the their coaching choice will somehow start turning things around. It's starting to become no longer about "when", but more about "how", as in "how can a coach who has no idea what's wrong with a loaded team that should be winning fix things?".
In the end, Wannstedt's failings with the defense in 2012 wouldn't be that big a deal if Buffalo had a coach that had some notion of how to help on that side of the ball, but that's one of the biggest problems with Coach Gailey: limitations.
First off, Gailey has no insight into defense, trusting completely in his staff to take care of it. Though he does seem to be an accomplished play caller on offense, his ability to adjust to teams has been suspect his whole career and when a team starts outplaying the Bills, he tends to either over-react (as he did when he abandoned the run in Houston last week), or not adjust at all, bulling ahead with the same gameplan (see the first loss to New England and the following week at the 49ers).
What's worse, the mistakes the players are making don't seem to be getting better week to week. The Bills are a -10 in turnovers this season, have 21 total giveaways on the season, and have coughed it up two or more times in six games this year. For the love of Levy, the Bills have nine turnovers against the Patriots alone this year.
Also, there's things like Graham being in the wrong spot Sunday and causing an INT to end the last chance for Buffalo to take the game. Sure, he's a rookie and was playing in relief of an injured Jones, but if you coach players more effectively, with a firmer hand, mental miscues like that don't happen.
Then there are the penalties, which come down to mental mistakes and miscues that have to fall on the shoulders of the coaching staff. The Buffalo defense has allowed 14 first downs by penalty, have amassed a staggering 59 penalties for 473 lost yards, and set their worst mark of the year this past Sunday, meaning they aren't improving. Sure, pass interference miscalls are one thing, but when your offense gets two false starts and a hold on three consecutive plays their first drive, you've got to blame more than just crowd noise.
While Coach Gailey may not need to be fired this week, the fact that he can't handle this team or an NFL head coaching gig for that matter is becoming more obvious by the week. His laid back, southern-style of coaching may have worked adequately at Georgia Tech, but in the NFL, sometimes you have to do some actual coaching and Gailey just hasn't shown that he can handle an NFL team.
Let's face it Western New York, the Bills are better than 3-6 and could be great with the right guidance. This is a top ten offense and a defense that looks so front-loaded with talent that it's still surprising to see them ranked in the bottom of so many categories this season. Every week though it just seems that this roster that looked so stacked with potential just can't seem to find a way to rise to the acknowledged level of expectation and that comes down to coaching. Blame Fitzpatrick for not being "the guy" late in games this year, or blame the over-hyped defensive line that has only eked out 20 sacks through nine games, but without some sort of structure and guidance, talent is worthless, especially on an NFL team.
There's just four days this week for Buffalo to practice, to examine the film of yet another almost-win before they have to trot out onto the field at Ralph Wilson for a Thursday night game against the Dolphins. How can fans expect to see something change on a short week when Gailey hasn't been able to figure out this puzzle over nine weeks in 2012?
It's time to step up and take control of the team, Coach. It's not about questioning ability anymore, but about using the ability on display to win games, not just feel good about competing. Last season, the Bills went to 5-2 based on scrappy play by a bunch of guys with the fire to win games and a coach who seemed able to take them there, but while the fire seems to still be burning in many of those same names in 2012, that coaching has become suspect and, if things don't improve soon, may spell the end of Chan's time in the Queen City, no matter what Nix has to say.
I mean, Ralph Wilson only has so many years left, so it may be safe to say that his patience is just about out. As for the fans, the patience is long gone.