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Blame Abounds as Bills' Season Crashes In
by Dave Staba
It would be easy to blame the dispiriting end to Buffalo’s football season on Kyle Orton.
Throughout the Bills’ 26-24 loss in Oakland on Sunday, which brought talk of playoff scenarios to a jarring halt, all the flaws that marked Orton’s soon-to-be-forgotten stint as Buffalo’s starting quarterback were in vivid, high-definition display.
He threw high. He threw low. He froze in place as what little protection his perpetually overmatched blockers collapsed around him, unable to extend crucial plays by even a fraction of a second. And, at the worst possible moments, he threw to the wrong team.
But pinning the least explicable defeat of a season rife with missed opportunities on Orton alone absolves too many others who played major roles in Buffalo’s most complete team failure of a lost season, in a game the Bills desperately needed to win.
The defense that carried Buffalo to an 8-6 record, capped by one of the biggest upsets of the NFL season a week earlier against Green Bay, finally buckled under the weight of endless offensive misfires and coaching blunders, allowing a previously pitiful offense led by a rookie quarterback to take and keep control.
With the season at stake, the offensive line could not create openings for the running game, which averaged a single yard on each of just 13 attempts, or stifle the pass rush of a 2-12 team with absolutely nothing for which to play.
And with his team needing a single yard to stay in a game it desperately needed, Doug Marrone decided to punt.
Giving the ball up near midfield and turning things over to the defense down by two points with 8:13 left may have been playing the percentages, given that unit’s season-long excellence and the offense’s equally long-standing bumbling. It also betrayed the underlying philosophy shared by every Buffalo head coach over what is now 15 full playoff-free seasons—wait for the other guys to screw up.
And it almost worked. A holding penalty and two ineffectual passes left the Raiders facing a third-and-22 from their own 19. The seemingly inevitable punt would give the Bills the ball in good field position, a couple of first downs from providing their most reliable offensive weapon, kicker Dan Carpenter, with a chance to put them ahead.
Instead, Derek Carr scrambled away from the best pass rush in football and heaved a shot deep down the right sideline, where Andre Holmes out-jumped Buffalo cornerback Corey Graham, producing a 51-yard completion.
That’s the problem with relying so completely on one aspect of the game and counting so heavily on opposing incompetence. Sometimes, even the best defense breaks down and gives up a big play or two. And even the worst offense makes one.
Four plays later, Carr flipped a 1-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Jamize Olawale. Just like that, the game and Buffalo’s season effectively came to a close.
Yes, Orton still had time for the sort of frantic, closing-moment drive against a sagging, lead-protecting defense that artificially inflates statistics and makes games appear closer than they were in reality, along with one more badly thrown interception.
Just as in Denver two weeks earlier, Orton was highly ineffectual for much of the day, going 18-of-30 for just 135 yards up until Sebastian Janikowski’s fourth field goal put Oakland ahead 19-10 late in the third quarter. Forty-two of those yards came when Sammy Watkins made a terrifically athletic catch for a touchdown on Buffalo’s first drive, the only time the Bills reached the end zone when it really mattered.
For all his shortcomings, though, Orton can really pour it on once the opposing defense is willing to give up completions and yards as long as time keeps running off the clock. As he did against the Broncos, when he was 17-of-27 for 183 yards in the fourth quarter once the outcome was barely in doubt, Orton put up big, empty numbers—14-of-19 for 194—in the last 18 minutes.
And once again, all those completions and yards by the quarterback Marrone insists gives the Bills their “best chance to win” wound up not meaning much of anything.
So the Bills head into a now thoroughly perfunctory season finale in New England, then into an off-season very similar to the previous 15. Marrone’s decision to discard E.J. Manuel after 14 professional starts may or may not have meant another win or two this year, but it also created a gaping hole at the position.
Orton, quite obviously, is not the guy. Just as clearly, Marrone does not believe Manuel is, either. Due to Doug Whaley’s decision to give up two first-round picks for Watkins, Buffalo has no first-round pick in this year’s draft. Not that there is a potential franchise quarterback without a lengthy history of disturbing off-field behavior to be had, anyway.
As the rest of the weekend’s games turned out, beating Oakland may not have meant much beyond guaranteeing the Bills a winning record for the first time since 2004. Fourth-quarter comebacks by San Diego on Saturday night and Cincinnati on Monday meant they would have had to win at Gillette Stadium for the first time since it opened, while the Chargers and Baltimore each lose their finales. That scenario is particularly unlikely since it would require the Ravens to lose their second straight contest to a team operating with a third-string quarterback, this time at home.
The Bengals’ Monday-night rally against Denver guaranteed New England home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. That would have been a theoretical plus for Buffalo, since most teams would rest most of their starters in such a situation. The Patriots are not most teams. The only scenario in which Bill Belichick would allow his team to mail in the closer would be if he decided to let the Bills into the postseason in order to create the possibility of truly humiliating them on national television in the second round.
Sort of like inviting Carrie to the prom.
Given the for-amusement-purposes-only nature of Buffalo’s visit to Foxborough, along with next week’s annual hiatus for the print edition of Artvoice, it seems like a good time to dole out a few season-ending awards and dishonors:
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: After several misadventures through the spring and summer that raised more than a few calls for the franchise to cut ties with Marcell Dareus, the mammoth defensive tackle finally produced a season that justified his status as the third overall selection in the 2011 draft.
Besides posting career highs in sacks and runs stuffed behind the line, Dareus anchored quite possibly the best defensive line in football, providing a constant disruptive presence that helped Mario Williams have his most productive all-around season since coming to Buffalo and Jerry Hughes wreak havoc when he was not busy committing stupid penalties.
Dareus’s value was underscored against the Raiders, when the run defense fell apart after he injured his knee while tackling Oakland running back Latavius Murray early in the second quarter. To that point, Buffalo had allowed just 6 rushing yards and two first downs. Without Dareus, Buffalo allowed a team that had averaged a league-worst 73.7 rushing yards per game to roll up 134 the rest of the way, while sacking Carr just once.
LEAST VALUABLE PLAYER: While I’ve been beating up on Orton in this space since before he even took the field for Buffalo, there’s no satisfaction in doing so. I generally root for good stories, and a quarterback who had been found wanting by four NFL teams leading the fifth to the postseason would have been a great one. Especially since Orton does not fit the quarterback blueprint, either in aesthetics or personality.
That’s not what happened. After pulling off two last-minute comebacks largely made necessary by his own bumbling during the rest of the minutes against Detroit and Minnesota, Orton spent the rest of the season not making a positive difference. Even Jeff Tuel could have led the Bills to their two wins over the Jets, while Orton led the Bills to a single touchdown in their victory against Cleveland.
In all, Buffalo scored 13 offensive touchdowns in nine games against teams other than the Jets. Of those, just six came before the fourth quarter.
You could certainly argue that this citation could be shared by every member of the offensive line, which failed to provide adequate protection for Orton or openings for the running backs. Orton’s complete lack of mobility, though, exacerbated the pass-blocking problems and his inaccuracy, even when given time to throw, allowed defenses to commit more fully to stopping the run.
PLAY OF THE YEAR: Like Time’s Person of the Year, earning this title is not necessarily a good thing. Bryce Brown’s goal-line fumble against Kansas City sums up the season nicely—a flash of excellence undone by the same sort of brutal mistake that will force the Bills, and their fans, to spend a 15th straight postseason tournament as detached observers.
Dave Staba has been writing about the team, among other topics, for local and national publications since 1990. Follow him on artvoice.com and wewantmarangi.blogspot.com.blog comments powered by Disqus
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