They say nobody likes a second-guesser. I guess that’s why God created sports writers. But I’ll tell you what a few of us were thinking in the press box at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday afternoon, before the unthinkable occurred.
The Bills were leading the unbeaten Chiefs, 10-3, on their first possession of the second half. Fred Jackson had been stopped cold on first- and second-down runs from the K.C. 1-yard line. Now it was third-and-goal, and we suspected the worst.
“Don’t get cute here,” someone said.
They got cute. Nate Hackett, the offensive coordinator, sent in a play that gave Jeff Tuel the option to hand off or throw. Tuel saw the Chiefs in an all-out blitz formation and made up his mind. He took the shotgun snap, turned to his right and threw a slant for T.J. Graham.
Tuel failed to see that Sean Smith, the Chiefs’ cornerback had been frozen at the goal-line by Stevie Johnson, who was running free in the middle of the end zone. Tuel’s pass went straight to Smith, who picked it off and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown.
It was a crushing mistake, a potential 14-point swing, a play that resuscitated a staggering — and some would say overrated — Chiefs team that was on the verge of losing its first game of the NFL season.
Now we know the Chiefs weren’t as good as their record. But they’re a winning, opportunistic team that gladly gobbled up two gift TDs from the Bills offense and slipped out of town with a 23-13 victory, leaving its unblemished record intact.
This was a game the Bills had every right to win. They outgained the Chiefs, 470 yards to 210. They had 25 first downs. They had 241 yards rushing. C.J. Spiller gained a season-high 155 yards from scrimmage and outperformed his K.C. counterpart, Jamaal Charles.
I’ll admit, as the Bills marched down the field at the start of the second half, fanciful thoughts went through my mind. If they upset the Chiefs and get to 4-5, with the easy part of the schedule coming up, it puts them right back in the playoff hunt, with EJ Manuel due back soon.
They couldn’t close the deal. We’ve witnessed that more times than we can count over the years. But never has a game turned so dramatically on a single, fateful play. And the coaches brought it on themselves by asking Tuel to do too much.
“Situationally do you question the play call? No,” said coach Doug Marrone. “Do you question the execution of it? Yes.”
Hackett also said it was the right call for the situation. He said the Chiefs were showing all-out pressure, which made running the ball a shaky option and required the quarterback to get rid of the ball in a hurry.
“Somebody’s going to take a shot at you,” Hackett explained. “So we wanted to combine two things in one, and Jeff saw the all-out. He went to throw the ball to his first read and the guy just stopped, and just stood there. Jeff let it go. From what I could tell, he had a couple of other guys, but I think he was so into ‘Got to get it out, got to get it out.’”
That’s the key point. Tuel’s mind was racing. He was so obsessed with getting rid of the ball, he didn’t have time to think, or see that Johnson had broken open. As Hackett suggested, he had his coaches’ voices running through his head, telling him to get rid of the thing.
Marrone and Hackett contend it was the right call for the situation (though Marrone suggested they might need more work on it near the goal line). It’s the right call if you have a seasoned quarterback, someone who has executed that kind of split-second judgment in the past.
This was Tuel, an undrafted free agent making his first regular-season start against a defense that was leading the league in sacks and fewest points allowed. It was the wrong quarterback, the wrong opponent, the wrong spot on the field, the wrong time to get cute.
Marrone said earlier in the week that Tuel entered the game in Cleveland in the worst situation imaginable. He gave up on him as his backup after a quarter and a half. On Sunday, he and Hackett put Tuel in another situation that was too much for him at this stage of his career.
It’s difficult for established NFL quarterbacks to make those sort of snap decisions in the heat of a game. Practice doesn’t prepare a young QB for what it’s like down near the goal-line, where 21 other large, enormously gifted athletes are battling for control of tiny patches of turf.
That’s why the quarterback position is the hardest to play in sports, and why teams spend so much time and money trying to find a good one.
I can sympathize with Hackett, who called a good game overall and has done an admirable job with this offense under trying circumstances. The Bills have started three QBs this season, two rookies and a guy off the practice squad, and they’ve been in every game.
They’ve had to simplify the offense to accommodate the inexperience of the quarterbacks from the start of the season.
“It’s always a challenge,” Hackett said, “because you always want to protect” a rookie, “but you can’t just do one thing. We came in wanting to run the ball and we did that. We still had to take some chances up top. We were good on a couple and not good on a couple.
“We’ve had to do whatever we can to make them comfortable back there, and still make plays,” he said. “It’s frustrating, because you want to develop a guy. You want a guy to come in there and get better every week.”
Marrone and Hackett talk about having faith in their young quarterbacks. They don’t like to make excuses. This is the NFL. You prepare to win, and with the idea that your quarterback is good enough to execute whatever it takes to win.
But sometimes, they get a little carried away. Hackett has a tremendous belief in his ability to run an offense, but sometimes that belief exceeds the talent at hand. It was that way with Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose confidence was often too big for his ability.
That outsized belief can be a good thing. Some day, when the Bills have a veteran quarterback and an array of weapons, we’ll celebrate the fact that Marrone and Hackett have a big, bold vision for the offense.
But this time, a safer approach would have been more suitable. I would have run the ball on third down. If that failed, I’d have kicked the field goal, gone up by 10 points, and trusted that K.C. couldn’t score 10 against my inspired defense.
Instead, they put the game in the hands of a kid who had never started an NFL game. The got cute and committed the cardinal sin of coaching. They put a player in position to fail.