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Forward progress seems out of reach for Bills

Doug Marrone says it’s important to win games in the preseason. If that’s the case, I wonder if the Bills’ head coach delivered a rousing locker-room speech before Thursday night’s preseason clash against the Lions.

The Bills had not fared well in the annual finale against Detroit. I don’t imagine most fans keep track of such esoteric details, but heading into the game at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Bills had lost the preseason wrapup to the Lions six years in a row.

Even by preseason standards, it has been dubious entertainment, especially when they play it here. Consider this: In the five previous preseason home finales against the Lions, the Bills had not scored a single first-half touchdown.

So the preseason isn’t entirely meaningless. History shows the final run-through can be a pretty accurate barometer of the Bills’ offense, which has been reliably mediocre for more than a decade now.

Marrone wanted to end this one on a high note. His starting offense hadn’t scored a touchdown against a first-team defense. Embattled quarterback EJ Manuel had been booed off the field at halftime the week before.

But once again, things went badly. The Bills got shut out, 23-0. That makes six straight preseason home finales against Detroit without a single first-half touchdown. Maybe it’s time to kill the series.

Manuel played the first quarter and went 3 for 7 passing for 56 yards. He was sacked twice. Manuel had two 20-yard completions – on a dump-off to Fred Jackson and a pass that deflected to Robert Woods off a defender.

On his one really difficult throw, Manuel had Woods open on a third-down crossing pattern 20 yards downfield and missed him. As usual, Manuel took the most optimistic view of his performance.

“Pretty good,” was his assessment. “Had a couple drops on third down.”

Just once, you’d like to hear Manuel admit he wasn’t good enough, if only to act the role of a franchise quarterback and team leader.

Early in the week, Marrone had said he planned to play most of his offensive starters, some of whom hadn’t had enough time to play together. That included rookie wideout Sammy Watkins, who missed the previous game with bruised ribs and hadn’t played since early against Pittsburgh.

That plan went awry. Watkins reinjured his left ribs when Lions linebacker Ashlee Palmer drilled him with his left forearm breaking up a slant from Manuel on the Bills’ second offensive possession. Watkins walked off the field and didn’t return.

Marrone wouldn’t speculate on Watkins’ injury afterward, or whether it would affect his availability for the opener. He has been reluctant to speak in any depth about injuries since declaring that he was 110 percent certain Manuel would be ready for the season finale last year.

Watkins is quickly learning that the NFL game is a lot more physical than college – as Bill Polian warned in a recent interview. Defenders are going to jolt and jostle the kid and make him earn every inch of space. It’ll be interesting to see how his body holds up over a full season.

A lot of players’ health could be compromised if the offensive line doesn’t improve. Manuel takes a lot of heat, much of it warranted, but the guys in front of him aren’t making it easier.

The O-line did little for anyone’s confidence Thursday. On the first possession alone, Manuel was sacked twice and chased out of the pocket on two other plays. And the Lions were playing without four defensive starters.

Marrone was looking for positive signs. He can’t have been pleased. It’s hard to find fault with Jordan Palmer, the latest contender at backup quarterback. Palmer had been with the team for two days and it showed. He threw an interception and essentially drove the team backwards in the second quarter.

Jeff Tuel did not play. Marrone was asked if that meant he was comfortable with Tuel as his No. 2 QB.

“No,” Marrone said. “I wouldn’t say that’s the situation.” He said the organization would still consider bringing in another quarterback.

The first half ended in embarrassing fashion, with Palmer desperately trying to make throws from his end zone. It was 17-0 at halftime. For the second week in a row, the fans in The Ralph booed them off the field.

You’d boo too, if you paid for this wretched a product. In the last three home preseason games – going back to last year’s loss to the Lions – the Bills have been outscored in the first half, 76-3.

There’s no excuse for that, regardless of when the games are played. When a young, evolving team finishes the preseason this way, you bet it matters. Good teams don’t perform this way and turn it around in one week.

It’s probably for the best that they open on the road. If fans booed in the preseason, there’s no telling how they’ll react if it’s this bad when the games count.


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