BALTIMORE – What was all the fuss about again? You’re telling me this Bills offense was going to be the scourge of the AFC, a supremely gifted unit that would finish in the top 10 in the NFL for the first time in 12 years? Really?
Quarterback Tyrod Taylor was poised to emerge as a leader and build on the promise of last year. The offensive line, hefty new contracts in tow, was back intact and ready to unleash a potent running attack. With LeSean McCoy and Sammy Watkins (supposedly) refreshed and ready to go, there would be no stopping this bunch.
Maybe it’s a good idea to leave the country and ignore the preseason. That way, you don’t get sucked in by all the happy talk. You wait until all the talking stops and Rex Ryan gets finished winning the offseason and judge them by the actual games.
The first game is in the books, and it was worse than a skeptic could have imagined. The offense began its season of high promise with its worst performance in a decade, mustering 160 total yards in an embarrassing and unsightly 13-7 loss to the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.
Bills fans had to be distressed by a performance reminiscent of so many road losses of the millennium, like a dusty relic from the Dick Jauron era. A terrific defensive effort goes to naught because the offense can’t get out of its own way? Was that Trent Edwards at quarterback? J.P. Losman? A geriatric Drew Bledsoe?
No, it was Taylor, who bet on himself over the summer by signing a contract with a five-year, $90 million extension that the Bills can void if he fails to prove himself as a pocket passer who can lift his team in late-game situations.
Doug Whaley can put a check mark on the wrong side of the ledger after this one. Whaley said he needs to see more fourth-quarter comebacks from Taylor. This makes four straight games, all on the road, where Taylor fell on his face with the Bills within a TD or less in the fourth quarter.
“It was a bad day,” said LeSean McCoy, who accounted for 70 of the Bills’ total yards. “We couldn’t get anything established. We had one long drive and that was it. We couldn’t find our rhythm on a consistent basis.”
How bad were they? Let us count the ways:
• The 160 offensive yards were Buffalo’s fewest since Oct. 8, 2006, a 40-7 loss to the Bears in Jauron’s return to Chicago, four days before the October Surprise snowstorm. Call this the “September Surprise.”
• The Ravens hadn’t allowed as few as 160 yards since they held Ryan’s Jets team to 150 yards on Oct. 12, 2011. The Bills’ 11 first downs were their fewest since a 38-7 loss in the 2010 finale against – yes – Ryan’s Jets.
• Taylor completed two passes of 10 yards or more, one when he made a remarkable escape from a sack and made a 33-yard throw to Charles Clay, which set up the Bills’ only score and was essentially the offensive highlight of the day.
• After the first quarter, Taylor had four completions for 4 yards. The Bill had six negative plays, not counting sacks, that lost 19 yards. They averaged 3.3 yards an offensive play.
It was a near-replica of last year’s Tennessee game, when Taylor failed to complete a pass until midway through the second quarter, then pulled the Bills out of a 10-0 hole by making some remarkable plays with his legs. The difference was, he made a big throw in the fourth quarter to set up an ugly 14-13 victory.
This year, there were no such heroics. A game that was going to resume the elevation of Taylor as a franchise quarterback was his worst game in the NFL, a reminder that the other teams do useful work in the offseason, too.
“They came after us,” said Taylor, who completed 15 of 22 passes for 111 yards and rushed five times for 11 yards. “They showed us things we hadn’t seen before, on third down especially. They brought a lot of pressure and they were very effective.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh has won a Super Bowl and made it to the playoffs six times in eight years. He outcoached Ryan and his staff Sunday. It wasn’t a novel defensive approach. The Ravens crowded the run box, came after Taylor and dared him to beat them downfield.
He wasn’t up to the task. For much of the day, he was content to dump off to the flats. What happened to Greg Roman’s grand plan to have Taylor throw more over the middle of the field, to unleash him as a pocket passer?
“Well, I think we did lead the league in vertical passes last year,” Ryan said. “So we’re trying to do that. But you got to have protection. It starts with protection and quite honestly, they got after us pretty good in those situations.”
The offensive line was poor. It hurt losing Cordy Glenn to an ankle injury late in the second quarter. But they were bad with Glenn. The O line is average in pass protection, one reason Taylor set a club record for rushing yards by a QB last year and the Bills led the league on the ground.
Guard Richie Incognito had no idea why the offense was so bad and said that he needed to watch the tape. He couldn’t say if the Bills failed to make the Ravens pay for crowding the line of scrimmage.
“I’m a left guard,” Incognito said. “I don’t see the entire field. I don’t see the box. I’m not sitting up in a press box. I can’t see the entire field. I have to watch the tape. Thank you.”
Maybe Incognito should reconsider. It would be like rewatching one of those Halloween movies. All the familiar scary things are in there – the eight accepted penalties, the unsportsmanlike conducts, the waste of timeouts, the conservative play calling, Dan Carpenter missing a field goal …
Asked about failing in the fourth quarter, Taylor said he didn’t have many chances. He did miss on three third downs in the fourth. On one, he hit Clay a yard short of the first down. On another, he came up 4 yards short on a scramble, after wasting a timeout. On the third down, they were in an illegal formation, which was declined.
On their final possession, they took a delay penalty on second and 10. They were too late in the huddle, perhaps because the play came in late (speaking of recurring horrors). Taylor took a 12-yard sack on third and 6.
The Bills squandered two timeouts in each half. They let the clock run out at the end of the second quarter, rather than force the Ravens to punt from their 44 with 46 seconds left. One of those decisions that makes Ryan’s reputation as a gambler seem like a myth.
Well, it’s only one game, and Ryan’s defense played much better than expected. Maybe this was a one-game blip by the offense and the emergence lies ahead. But it’s hard to feel confident, especially after an ESPN report before the game that Watkins is still bothered by the broken foot and might need further surgery.
A skeptic wonders if defenses are better prepared for Taylor, and if last year was as good as it gets. Talk is great, but little seems to have changed since last year. Ryan and Taylor made the usual excuses about great defense and taking what they give you, but that was an uninspiring and conservative game plan.
It was only one game, but a stinging reminder that it’s winning the actual games – and not the offseason – that really matters.