LONDON – In the solemn aftermath, as the players dressed in stunned disbelief and equipment men gathered the bags for a swift departure out of the country, Rex Ryan reminded us that one man is never responsible for winning or losing an NFL game.
“It wasn’t just on EJ,” Ryan said after the Bills’ 34-31 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday at Wembley Stadium. “I don’t know if it’s fair to place it all on him.”
The head coach has a point. There are 60 minutes in an NFL game, and nearly as many ways in which a team can lose it. The Bills have trained us well over the past decade and a half. In any loss, no matter how astonishing, there are penalties, turnovers, missed tackles, dropped passes, more penalties, a defense that lets you down when you need it most.
In every epic, maddening loss, there always seems to be a single bad call that fans can point to, even in a season when the Bills are on pace to break the NFL record for penalties. In this case, it is a dubious pass interference call on nickel back Nickell Robey on the Jags’ game-winning drive with 3:04 left in the game.
But as harsh as it might sound, it wasn’t difficult to point the accusing finger at one man after the Bills’ devastating loss to the lowly Jaguars, a defeat that dropped them to 3-4 on the season, alone in last place in the AFC East as they stagger into a desperately needed bye week.
A week ago, I wouldn’t lay the blame at the feet of EJ Manuel. This week, it’s on the quarterback. I’m sorry, Manuel cost them the game. And if you want to slide someone else’s chip forward on the big board of blame, try General Manager Doug Whaley, whose ill-advised trade of Matt Cassel put EJ in a position to lose it.
As this strange game unfolded in the second half and the Bills stormed from behind to an improbable late lead, it became clear that the Jaguars were ready to be beaten, that they might in fact be the worst team in the entire league.
But luckily for the Jags, they had been gifted 20 free points in a stunning slice of the second quarter. During one of the most wretched stretches of play you’ll ever see from an NFL quarterback, Manuel turned the ball over three times in a four-minute span, twice leading directly to Jacksonville touchdowns.
First, Manuel coughed up a sack-fumble for a TD by Jags defensive end Chris Clemons, putting the Bills behind, 14-3. On their very next play from scrimmage, Manuel apparently mistook linebacker Telvin Smith for one of his injured wideouts and threw the ball right to him. Smith brought it back for a 26-yard touchdown.
Manuel’s next pass came four plays into the Bills’ ensuing possession. It was picked off by our old friend, former Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny. The Buffalo defense, seemingly paralyzed by Manuel’s stream of incompetence, allowed T.J. Yeldon to break loose for a 28-yard TD run three plays later.
At that point, the Jags led, 27-3. They had scored four touchdowns in a run of only 5:35 of the second quarter. How amazing is that? Well, in the Bills’ historic comeback wild-card win over the Oilers in January 1993, the Bills scored four TDs in just 6:52. When you top that scoring binge, you’ve done something, folks.
“It wasn’t the best time for him,” Ryan said of Manuel, “but we kept encouraging him and believing in him. We knew we could come back! And we did. Man, I really thought that game was going to be ours. I really did.”
Sure, they came back. This was Jacksonville, a bad team that apparently felt it could go through the motions with a 24-point lead. It was inevitable that the defense would make a few stands, that Manuel would find a few open receivers and that Blake Bortles would make his weekly boneheaded throw.
As Manuel said later, it’s a 60-minute game. He and the Bills deserve credit for hanging in and coming back to take the lead. “Courage” was Ryan’s word. But in any sports, events that occur early in a game can be decisive. How many times do you see a team leave a bunch of men on in baseball and learn to regret it later?
This was a game the Bills should have won, despite all their injuries. Ryan said as much before the game, and he was right. If Manuel hadn’t melted down early, they would have taken control of the game and won it going away by 10 points or more.
“It’s definitely a game we felt we should have won,” said Manuel, who finished 24 for 42 for 298 yards, two TDs, two interceptions and the lost fumble. He also fumbled and recovered for a 1-yard loss on a crucial quarterback sneak on the futile, final drive. Let’s not get into his many simple, off-target throws.
“I take a lot on my shoulders, to be honest,” he added. “I’m not going to stand up here and say, ‘It’s a team game and this and that.’ I feel like I have to do a better job as a quarterback. You take things and learn from them. You watch the tape. You’re a man about it. But for me personally, it’s going to be tough.”
It was admirable for him to say. Manuel is a good guy, someone to root for. He’s not a good NFL quarterback, that’s all. Ryan talked about how great he was in practice during the week. EJ talked about needing to think less and “just play.” Greg Roman talked about him being well-prepared to play “without a conscience.”
For five fateful minutes Sunday, he played without a clue. Ryan can dodge the issue all he likes. Manuel killed them. He’s not a reliable NFL player, and that’s why the coaches didn’t trust him enough to make him the backup ahead of Matt Cassel.
Cassel started for the Cowboys on Sunday against the Giants. I don’t care how he played. He was the backup that the Bills coaches wanted, a steady veteran who could get them through a two- or three-week stretch. I feel confident in asserting that Cassel would not have handed the Jaguars 20 points in four minutes.
The Bills, a team with a reputedly elite defense, didn’t need a No. 2 quarterback who could win games, but a steady hand who wouldn’t lose them. Manuel isn’t going to win the game on his own, but he showed Sunday that he’s capable of losing it.
He might lose his general manager his job, too. I don’t imagine this is what Whaley had in mind when he traded Cassel to accelerate Manuel’s development.