Nate Hackett said he wasn’t aware of all the criticism out there. Hackett spends too many hours in the coordinator’s coaching cocoon to hear what’s being said on social media or sports radio, or at the corner bar.
But he can imagine how it sounded. Too young. Too callow and inexperienced, at 33, to run an offense at this level of football.
“I’ve heard that before,” Hackett said Sunday after the Bills beat the Ravens, 23-20, at The Ralph. “I heard it when Coach Marrone gave me an opportunity at Syracuse. You have to believe in where you want to go.
“It’s a new system, a new group, and you have to see everybody getting better,” he said. “And if they’re doing that, it’s all about December. That’s when you want to be hitting your stride.”
I don’t know about December. But as we wrap up the first September of the New Age Bills, you have to be at least faintly optimistic about where the new regime is headed. Too young, too new, too thin, too many injuries … but 2-2 at the quarter pole.
That’s a lot better than most critics expected after the debacle at the Jets the week before. After watching EJ Manuel come unglued in his first road test, the more hysterical fans launched into their favorite pastime: throwing the offensive coordinator under the bus.
Hackett and Doug Marrone went back to work. They tweaked the offense, making a greater commitment to their running game and looking for ways to unleash Manuel while limiting his chances to make mistakes.
It wasn’t perfect, by any means. But for the first time in 17 years, the Bills beat the reigning Super Bowl champions. On a day when they were expected to get manhandled, the Bills made a physical offensive statement against the mighty Baltimore defense.
Too conservative? Fine. Hackett’s unit ran the ball 55 times for 203 yards. They became the first team in five years to rush for 200 yards in a win over the Ravens. The Bills scored two touchdowns in the first half against a defense that hadn’t allowed a TD in its previous two games.
So they sputtered at times in the second half. They barely held on and had seasoned Bills fans shielding their eyes, unable to bear what might be another harrowing last-minute loss.
But they won, and for all the stumbles it was the best game yet for Hackett and the rookies – Manuel, receiver Robert Woods and linebacker Kiko Alonso. Hackett had a sound game plan that combined a relentless run game with enough timely deep throws and gimmicky plays to keep the Ravens defense at bay.
Manuel’s numbers (10 of 22, 167 yards, one TD, two INTs) don’t reflect it, but it was a nice bounceback from the Jets game. He threw a gorgeous 42-yard TD bomb to Woods in the second quarter. He had another apparent TD pass to Woods overturned when it was ruled Woods didn’t have control of the ball.
A perfect sideline throw to Scott Chandler was nullified because Chandler didn’t get a second foot down. Hackett called a play that had tight end Lee Smith open for a sure TD – except Smith fell down. The Bills ran two reverses, one for 14 yards and another for 13. Manuel ran more read option than in previous weeks.
“We showed today that given the right circumstances, this can be a really diverse and dynamic offense,” said Eric Wood.
No one was complaining about the pace of the offense. The Bills held the ball for 36:26. They didn’t operate at their typically furious pace, partly because they were doing a lot of substituting. They even huddled at times. They easily could have scored more than 30.
It helped that the defense was fabulous. Ray Rice had the same number of carries (five) as Joe Flacco had interceptions. The Bills’ front seven made life miserable for the Super Bowl MVP. In a battle of depleted units, the Bills secondary was clearly superior to the Ravens’ receivers.
Baltimore had 50 pass plays and nine runs; the Bills 22 passes and 55 runs. It was as if the franchises had swapped identities for a day. Aren’t the Ravens the AFC’s model power franchise, the team that dictates physical terms to the opposition?
“We especially wanted to commit to the run,” Hackett said. “That’s critical whenever you’re in an uptempo offense and you’re in the no-huddle. You can’t lose sight of that. I think that protects everybody and creates a mentality. You want to be tough and challenge the offensive line.”
Back in minicamps, Hackett said he wanted to emphasize the running game. Aggressive and uptempo don’t necessarily mean pass. He knew that with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, running back was his best position.
Jackson and Spiller both suffered injuries Sunday. Spiller said it’ll be tough to come back Thursday. He had another rough day against the Ravens. But the Bills kept hammering away at the Ravens’ front, keeping them off Manuel and softening them up for a deep strike.
It came midway through the second quarter. The Bills had run on eight straight plays over two possessions. They had second and 2 at the Ravens’ 42. This was the moment Hackett was waiting for.
“Yes, I was,” Hackett said with a laugh. “There were a lot of things I was trying to set up. When you have a play-calling mentality that you’re going to run first, you have to look at all the counters you want to set up.”
Hackett called for Manuel to run a play-action fake. The Ravens blitzed and Woods was matched up one-one-one against Buffalo native Corey Graham, who was at cornerback because of an injury to starter Lardarius Webb.
“That was something we had set up,” Hackett said. “We had worked all week on it. It was something EJ felt comfortable with and we kind of got that one ready to rock.”
Manuel faked the handoff to Tashard Choice and fired a deep strike to Woods in stride for a 42-yard touchdown. It was a dazzling play, rookie to rookie, the kind that Bills fans envisioned when Manuel and Woods were chosen in the first and second round of last April’s draft.
“We were running the ball great,” Manuel said. “The safeties and linebackers are jumping up, so we did play-action. I just came around and set my feet and let it go. Woody ran a great route and was wide open.”
That TD put the Bills ahead to stay. Manuel completed only 10 passes, but they went for 167 yards. The roller-coaster ride continues. First NFL win, disastrous first road test, now he beats Flacco, the $20 million Super Bowl MVP.
Manuel promises to get better every game. He and Woods are developing a chemistry. They’re only rookies.
“They’re rookies?” Hackett joked. “They both have to get a lot better, and that’s what you have to focus on. You can’t get too high or too low or listen to what everyone is saying. Everything is still new. We’re four weeks into the season. It’s all growing together and learning to win games together.”
Let the skeptics howl. It doesn’t matter if the offensive coordinator is 33 or 63 or 13. He’s the most criticized and analyzed man in town. It comes with the territory. Too young, too conservative, too aggressive, it’s too early to say.
Keep in mind, he’s a rookie, too.