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Hackett’s critics are too nearsighted

Column as I see ’em, Week 8:

• It never surprises me when fans gripe about the Bills’ play calling. If you can hold a beer can in one hand and a TV remote in the other, you’re an expert on what to do on third-and-short. That’s why the offensive coordinator is the most unpopular man in town, including politicians.

But my God, listening to the critics after Sunday’s game, you’d have thought the Bills had lost by 20, instead of the other way around. What if they had lost to the Jets? Would people be calling for a public flogging of Nate Hackett outside City Hall?

I’ve been known to rip a coach now and then. Hackett has certainly had his weaker moments since taking over as OC last season. His strategy to ignore Sammy Watkins in the New England game seems even more puzzling after Watkins’s emergence in the two games since.

They did win for the first time ever at MetLife Stadium. They scored 43 points against a Rex Ryan defense. Kyle Orton threw four touchdown passes and should have had five. They got to the bye at 5-3 and got out of New Jersey with Orton in possession of his senses.

Hackett gets conservative at times. He calls a lot of runs inside the tackles, even when it’s not working. As the Bills evolve into more of a passing offense, he’ll need to be more assertive with the pass, especially on early downs.

Still, I get why the coaches would want to run the ball and mitigate the pressure from a top defensive front. Seeing Orton get blasted by two pass rushers early in the game might have jarred them into an even more conservative mindset.

They did throw two bombs from deep in their own territory in the second quarter. Orton threw 17 times for 238 yards. Maybe he could have thrown for 400 against that secondary. But why quibble when he’s the first Bills QB in 17 years to throw for 200 yards and win at the Jets?

It’s not as if Hackett is the only coordinator to coach that way. Frank Reich used the same game plan when San Diego played here in September.

The Chargers ran 37 times for 85 yards. Donald Brown, forced into a featured role by injuries to the top two running backs (same as the Bills), carried 31 times for 62 yards, a 2.0 average. That’s the same 2.0 that Anthony Dixon had against the Jets (22 for 44 yards).

Philip Rivers threw only 25 times and completed 18 for 256 yards. Orton threw 17 times for 238 yards at the Jets. The Chargers called 35 runs out of 63 plays, the Bills 31 runs in 53. Even when the Bills were stuffing the middle, the Chargers kept handing Brown the ball to keep the defense honest.

What did people say afterwards? That Reich was a genius. Buffalo fans were wishing the iconic ex-Bill would come here to run their offense, instead of Hackett.

So by all means, crush the coordinator.

There will be ample opportunity to rip Hackett, maybe against the Chiefs after the bye. But keep in mind, he’s not the only coach who ever played safe with a lead.

• The Bills are 5-3 at the midpoint, and there’s playoff fever in the air. But they have a rugged road ahead in a cluttered playoff race. The Bills are one of 11 AFC teams with winning records. They’re one of only two teams with losing records in conference (along with Baltimore).

So there are some big games coming in what promises to be a compelling second half. Six of the remaining eight games are against teams with winning records, five against AFC foes. They start with a home game against the Chiefs, then visit Miami on Thursday night.

They play three of the four highest-scoring teams in the NFL: At Denver and the Pats, home vs. the Packers. The Chiefs, who host the Jets this week, have allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL.

Beating the Chiefs would be huge. A loss would drop the Bills to 2-4 in the conference. The Chargers were the sixth AFC playoff team with a 9-7 overall record and 6-6 AFC slate last year. That won’t be good enough. It’ll likely take at least 10 wins and 7-5 in conference.

• Evidently, Marshawn Lynch has worn out his welcome with the Seahawks and probably won’t be back in Seattle next season.

Quoting sources, ESPN reporter Chris Mortensen said that the organization has “grown tired of his ways.” That reportedly included Lynch blowing off a White House Super Bowl ceremony, holding out of training camp, and, as Mortensen put it, his “contribution to locker-room distractions.”

Sources told ESPN that Seattle considered trading Lynch by today’s deadline, but those plans were scuttled by an injury to fullback Derrick Coleman, which necessitated moving backup Robert Turbin to fullback.

This is no shock to anyone who had to deal with Lynch’s sneering, anti-social act in Buffalo.

• Houston’s Arian Foster has rushed for 100 yards in six of the seven games he played this season. He missed the Giants game with a hamstring injury. Foster tried to play through the injury the next week against the Bills and ran eight times for 6 yards.

In his six healthy games, Foster is averaging 126.7 yards rushing and 5.5 a carry. That compares favorably with the guy across the state, the Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray, who entered Monday’s game with 913 yards rushing and an average of 130.4 a game. Murray was averaging 4.9 a carry.

Murray, who set an NFL record by rushing for 100 yards in the first seven games, is seen as a top candidate for MVP. But Foster, who has Ryan Fitzpatrick as his quarterback (not Tony Romo), has a case, too.

Dallas beat Houston in overtime a few weeks ago. Foster outrushed Murray that day, 157-136.

• Tight end Lee Smith was asked after Sunday’s win whether the Bills were motivated by being the first winning team in history to be an underdog against a 1-6 opponent. His response:

“We don’t care about point spread, but it’s kind of like somebody calling your wife ugly. You know she’s pretty, but it still” ticks “you off. So yeah, of course, as a team that has worked as hard as we’ve worked, won games against good teams, and to come in here after winning four games and being an underdog, of course we took it a little personal.”

• Tom Brady is washed up, all right. Since that brutal game in Kansas City, Brady has completed 100 of 144 passes for 1,268 yards, 14 TDs and no interceptions. He’s gone from 29th to fifth in passing rating in that stretch.

The Pats have won all four games and averaged 39.5 points. Rob Gronkowski’s return to health hasn’t hurt. Gronk has 27 catches for 411 yards and four touchdowns in his last four games.

• Last Friday, I heard a national analyst say the Cardinals were an average team. Maybe so, but Arizona is 6-1 and off to its best start since 1974, when Don Coryell was the coach and Jim Hart, Terry Metcalf and Mel Gray the stars.

The Cards are 13-3 in their last 16 games, a fair sample. They’re 4-0 with veteran Carson Palmer at quarterback. Palmer, who has battled a shoulder injury, has thrown for 1,136 yards and eight TDs, with one pick. Next up: Dallas.

• Ben Roethlisberger threw for 522 yards and Andrew Luck for 400 in the Steelers’ win over the Colts. It was the third game in NFL history with a 500- and 400-yard passer in the same game.

It happened a year ago, when Tony Romo threw for 506 yards and Peyton Manning 414 in Denver’s 51-48 win over Dallas. The other was Jan. 1, 2012, when Detroit’s Matthew Stafford threw for 520 and Green Bay’s Matt Flynn 480 in the Packers’ 45-41 win. The Matts’ 1,000 combined yards is a record.

• On a more dubious note, Geno Smith and Michael Vick became the first QB teammates to commit three turnovers apiece in one game in the Jets’ loss to the Bills.

• Leodis McKelvin’s 24-yard punt return was his longest since a 79-yard TD romp in a win over Miami here two years ago. I’ve given up saying he’s due to pop a long one.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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