Kids Day needed an “R” rating.
The Buffalo Bills’ starting offense put on a horror show Saturday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers inside the newly renovated Ralph Wilson Stadium.
On eight possessions in the first half, the Bills turned the ball over three times, punted four others and saw time mercifully expire in the first half as a sold-out crowd showered them with boos heading to the locker room trailing, 24-0. The Buccaneers went on to a 27-14 win in front of 66,764 frustrated members of Bills Nation.
“I don’t think any of us are happy,” coach Doug Marrone said. “When you play poorly, you should get booed. It starts with me. Our coaches – I told them offensively – we need to do a better job.”
Think of something that could go wrong in one half of football, and the Bills probably did it Saturday. A sampling of the worst from 30 minutes of forgettable football: 2 of 7 on third downs (29 percent), 82 net yards and seven penalties against for 53 yards.
Turnovers have a particular way of gnawing at Marrone, and the Bills were particularly egregious in that regard. Two of their first three possessions ended that way, first when EJ Manuel was intercepted on Buffalo’s first drive (tight end Scott Chandler fell down on his route), then when C.J. Spiller coughed up a fumble that was recovered by Buccaneers linebacker Mason Foster.
The Bills’ defense did its best to keep the team in the game early, forcing a three and out on the Buccaneers’ first possession, then getting an interception from safety Da’Norris Searcy to end Tampa Bay’s second drive.
But eventually the turnovers caught up to the Bills. After Spiller’s fumble, which was forced by Tampa Bay star linebacker Lavonte David, the Buccaneers went on a five-play, 39-yard drive punctuated by a 1-yard touchdown run from Doug Martin.
Things went from bad to worse in the second quarter when Manuel was sacked and fumbled at the Bills’ 17-yard line. The ball was picked up by Tampa Bay defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, and he rumbled in for a touchdown and a 17-0 Bucs lead.
After the Bills went three and out on their next possession, running back Fred Jackson had seen enough. He huddled the offense on the sideline to deliver a stern message.
“I was just telling everyone to calm down,” Jackson said. “There were a lot of people that just weren’t on the same page. We’ve got turnovers, we’ve got penalties, things like that that’s not going to allow us to win football games.”
By the end of the first half, the Bills’ starting offense had gone 18 preseason possessions without reaching the end zone.
“We’re frustrated and we have to work through this adversity because it’s going to hit us,” Marrone said. “It’s going to be out there. We know we haven’t scored. That’s the truth and how we respond to that, how we practice are the things I’m looking at. That’s more important to me.”
While he wasn’t the only culprit, Manuel’s performance will naturally fall under the microscope – and the findings weren’t pretty. He went 9 of 18 for 67 yards and one interception, was sacked twice for a loss of 10 yards and averaged 3.7 yards per attempt in the first half.
“He tries to pinpoint the ball and really focus on just trying to get it there and that’s really just difficult to do,” Marrone said. “Overall we have to do a good job around him.”
Perhaps sensing the need for some sort of confidence booster, Marrone played his starting offense through the third quarter.
“I was going to play into the third quarter, but then I said, ‘Hey, we need the practice, we need the work,’ ” he said.
The results were better but came with the caveat of coming against the Bucs’ second-team defense. Manuel completed all 10 of his passes in the third quarter, leading touchdown drives of 85 and 60 yards.
“It’s execution for us. You know, hey, is that a start? It’s a better start than going out there and not having scored, so yeah, we need to build on it and press ahead,” Marrone said.
“I take a lot out of it,” Manuel said. “You know, I don’t care who you’re playing against – I think it’s a matter of just having some pride about yourself and having pride as an offense.”
Publicly, at least, the Bills aren’t admitting to any worry – despite the restlessness of their fans – either about their starting quarterback, or the ugly defeat in a game that traditionally serves as a dress rehearsal for the regular season.
“EJ’s fine. I’m not worried about EJ. We all got to come out ready to play, and I feel like we weren’t ready from the get go,” safety Aaron Williams said.
But not everyone was in the mood to talk. Center Eric Wood – a team captain – left the locker room with his shoes in his hands.
Jackson, a fellow team captain, said the team can’t let an exhibition game linger.
“We’ve got a team that’s full of resilient guys, and we can’t let this define who we are,” he said. “We have to continue to focus, not pay attention to the outside noise and do our job.”
The Bills close the preseason at home against the Detroit Lions on Thursday, and Marrone said the starters can be expected to play.