CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Never mind the play that was called, the pattern that was run, the throw that was made or any other excruciating detail about the Buffalo Bills' failed last-gasp effort to steal a win Sunday.
You want to know what happened? All you had to do was take a good look at Zay Jones' face.
The puffy eyes that were working overtime not to spill more tears in front of all of the cameras and microphones crowded around him as he stood in front of his dressing cubicle in the visitors' dressing room at Bank of America Stadium. The empty expression the rookie receiver wore as reporters asked him to relive the most painful moment of his two-game NFL career. The body language that was a mixture of humiliation, disappointment and anger.
"I let my team down," Jones said, quietly, after the Bills' 9-3 loss against the Carolina Panthers. "I didn't get the job done today."
That was where Jones was wrong.
No one on the Bills' offense got anything done on a day when the unit produced all of 176 yards and a field goal that, consistent with the theme of nothing coming easy, bounced off the right upright before going through. The defense did its part by sacking Cam Newton six times and holding the Panthers to 2.8 yards per rush, but Bills' offense? A big no-show. LeSean McCoy's 9 yards on 12 carries pretty much summarize the futility.
It just so happened that, after nearly four full quarters of ineptitude, the Bills' offense found itself in position to make its first significant play of the game. And Jones found himself with a leading role in it, along with quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
Fourth and 11. Fourteen seconds on the clock. Bills at the Panthers' 33-yard-line. From shotgun formation, Taylor got the snap, backpedaled as he searched for the best available target, stepped up, then fired to his right. Jones, who had lined up in the slot to Taylor's right, faked to the inside before turning to the outside. He was wide open.
As the ball dropped from the sky, Jones had to twist all the way around to his right while jumping and falling backward to have a shot at grabbing it. One moment, the ball was in his outstretched hands. The next, it wasn't.
The lasting image of defeat was Jones on the ground, flat on his facemask, at the Panthers' 1 with nine seconds left as "Sweet Caroline" began blaring over the loudspeakers to start the home crowd's celebration.
"It was a great call by our coaching staff, a good thrown ball by Tyrod," Jones said. "I just didn't make the play to help my team win this game."
OK, but what about the fact that you had to make such an awkward turn toward the ball?
"You know, it's a catch I've made a thousand times before, so I'm not going to make an excuse for myself just because I had to turn a different way to catch the football," Jones said. "Ultimately, it hit my hands and I've just got to make that catch to help my team."
Reliable hands were his trademark at East Carolina, where he established himself as the NCAA Division I all-time leader in career receptions with 399. Jones said his only responsibility on the play was to "catch the football," vaguely recalling that he was supposed to run an out pattern. Taylor wouldn't offer any specifics about where the throw was intended to go. "We didn't execute the play that was called, point blank," he said.
Taylor assumed none of the blame. Instead, he joined the chorus of veterans doing their best to protect their young teammate. The quarterback was among the first to try to console Jones and others followed suit on the field and in the dressing room.
"There are a lot of plays that are going to be made, a lot not going to be made, and the main thing is to learn from it and continue to move forward," said Taylor, who completed 17 of 25 passes for 125 yards.
After the media moved on from Jones, running back Mike Tolbert, formerly of the Panthers, walked up to the rookie to give him more encouragement.
"He's going to be a hell of a player in this league," Tolbert said. "Everybody is going to make mistakes during plays. Look at me. I fumbled in a Super Bowl. You've got to come back from it and respond."
The fact is, the Bills have bigger concerns than a drop that might have cost them the chance to win a game they were expected to lose.
Their 21-12 season-opening victory against the New York Jets was viewed with a good deal of cynicism, given that the Jets are widely believed to be tanking. The dominance of the Bills' running game had the potential to create a false sense of optimism, considering the team has led the NFL in rushing the past two years.
But opponents can focus on taking away the run, because the Bills' passing game, as it demonstrated for the second week in a row, poses almost no threat. Their receivers struggled all day to get separation.
Coach Sean McDermott, the Panthers' defensive coordinator the past six seasons, was at a loss for answers about that. The best he could offer was the old, "We've got to look at the tape."
The tape will show that at least one receiver got open at the most critical point of the game, but failed to come up with the reception.
Before he left for the buses that would take the Bills to the airport, Jones was coming to grips with the circumstances.
"You make a spectacular catch, you've got to move on, you've got to play the next week," he said. "You drop a game-winning catch, you've got to move on, you've got to play the next week."