Toughness is supposed to be coach Rex Ryan’s calling card.
He’s the coach who wanted to “build a bully” when he came to the Buffalo Bills. In some ways, he’s done that. Nobody would ever accuse players like Richie Incognito or Kyle Williams of not being tough, or playing a finesse brand of football.
Toughness, however, can take multiple forms. One of those is of the mental variety – the ability to properly handle the adversity that is sure to hit in the course of any NFL game. In that sense, the Bills were a very weak team during a 38-24 loss to the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
“When something bad happens, I feel like in this league you’ve got to have a short-term memory,” cornerback Stephon Gilmore said. “You’ve got to put it behind you and bounce back and make plays. And we didn’t do that.”
The snowball started its roll into an avalanche after the Bills went up, 24-9, in the third quarter. The Buffalo defense allowed four plays of 14-plus yards on Oakland’s ensuing drive, which ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass from Derek Carr to Michael Crabtree.
After the Bills got the ball back, offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn curiously called two straight Wildcat plays, which gained a total of 6 yards. On third down, quarterback Tyrod Taylor threw incomplete intended for Sammy Watkins, leading to a punt.
Right about that time, the collective air started to leave the Bills’ sideline.
“I think that’s when we had problems,” Watkins said. “When a team makes their surge, or whatever it is, we’ve got to keep our composure. I don’t think we handle that well in any game. … We always get riled up, and yelling.”
After the Raiders got the ball back following a poor punt by Colton Schmidt, they needed just five plays to reach the end zone again.
“We couldn’t right the ship because both sides of the ball and even special teams tanked at the same time,” Ryan said. “We couldn’t overcome it against a good football team. That’s hard to witness, but that’s what happened.”
With the Raiders back within a point, the Bills again went three and out. Watkins got his hands on two passes, but wasn’t able to complete either catch, and LeSean McCoy was stopped for no gain on a second-down carry.
“I got to do better with that,” Watkins said, “staying in tune with the game. Don’t let one play dictate the outcome of the whole game.
“Second half, for some reason, we came out flat. We drove the ball down the field one time, and after that I don’t know if it got into our heads that the game is over.”
Ryan attributed players openly questioning the team’s mental toughness to “frustration.”
“Obviously, we’re up that many points, you expect to win the game,” he said. “We’re all frustrated in the fact that we didn’t. In those types of situations, we have to play better and there’s no question. I think this team’s got heart. I think it’s tough, I think it’s resilient, and I think that gives us an opportunity to win.”
Opportunities are like winning scratch-off tickets, though. They’re worthless if you don’t cash them in.
So if it’s mental toughness that the Bills are missing, where do they find it with just four games left in the season?
“I hope it starts with me,” Ryan said. “I know I’m mentally tough. If this team and every person in that room was like me, then I promise you we’re mentally tough enough. We’ve just got to find a way. That’s it. The way to do it is to be committed to what you’re doing.”
After another mediocre punt by Schmidt early in the fourth quarter, the Raiders again needed just five plays to reach the end zone, with quarterback Derek Carr completing a 22-yard pass on third and 10 to tight end Mychal Rivera, then hitting Amari Cooper for a 37-yard touchdown.
"It comes to being inconsistent,” outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “That’s been our tale the whole year. I can’t tell you why it’s like that. We either have a strong first half or a strong second half, and I can’t tell you what mentally is going on with guys or us collectively that’s saying why we can’t put four quarters together.”
"That’s something that we’ve addressed, talked about, but at some point you have to do. That’s what it comes down to, and we’re not doing that. If I could bottle it up and have everybody drink it, I would. Because we have great leadership, we have great coaching, we have the talent, we just got to man up and fight through things mentally and overcome. We’re going to have adversity. It’s all about how you respond."
With four games remaining and the margin of error at zero, the reality of the situation looks bleak.
“We’re an average team,” Alexander said. “And that’s really the difference between and average team and a team like the Raiders. They were down 24-9 and they could’ve easily packed it in but they didn’t. … That’s what we have to figure out. How can we rally our guys, get them on the same page to withhold those type of charges? Because if we want to find ourselves in the playoffs moving forward – not only this year but next year – and changing the culture around here, we have to be able to stand up as men and collectively rally together."
A common thread Sunday was that when the Bills most needed to do just that, none of their best players could come through with a momentum-changing play.
“It just kind of felt like we imploded,” Ryan said. “I mean, in all areas.”