Even Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump supporters would agree there would be no debate over which Buffalo Bills game so far this season would be worth watching twice: It was Sunday’s 33-18 victory over the Arizona Cardinals at New Era Field.
It was my annual game to attend with my older son, which meant it came with some joy and some dread.
The joy was being with him, the dread having to watch the game again to critique the telecast even if the Bills ruined my son’s day and played as most expected and were destroyed by the Cardinals.
The fear proved unfounded as the game offered further proof that the NFL can be one weird league. It was a very entertaining game in which one of Fox’ strongest announcing teams, play-by-play man Kenny Albert and analyst Daryl Johnston, performed about as well as the Bills secondary.
Albert had close to an error-free game and frequently set up Johnston. The analyst was sharp in frequently noting the contrast between the way the Bills secondary performed in a 37-31 loss to the New York Jets and how well it played the played the deep Carson Palmer pass Sunday.
“I think the biggest difference is the play of the secondary,” said Johnston late in the game. “They’ve competed when the football is in the air. And that was their Achilles Heel against the Jets.”
If there was one thing he could have emphasized more it was the post-game conversation about how often the Bills defensive strategy was to play seven defensive backs. Johnston mentioned it, but didn’t make a big deal out of it.
The announce team also displayed their sense of humor, with Johnston cracking out-loud after Tyrod Taylor’s 49-yard run broke the Bills record for a quarterback: ”Joe Ferguson didn’t have one longer than that? Jim Kelly? You sure?”
At least I think it was a joke. After all, nobody ever accused either of those quarterbacks with having running ability. It took a while, but eventually Albert explained that Taylor actually broke Ferguson’s record run of 41 yards. Who knew?
You notice a lot more things watching the game on television than in person but the experience had one thing in common. Fans in the stands were concerned the Bills would blow the game even with a 17-point fourth-quarter lead. Johnston was suggesting it was possible, too, even with about three minutes left. Perhaps that was because he is a Western New York native and knows the team’s history as well as any network announcer.
Here are some highs and lows of the Fox telecast and pregame show:
Pregame Love: Terry Bradshaw said he had taken his fair amount of shots at Bills Coach Rex Ryan but added that after he met him, “I fell in love with him. He’s lovable.” Howie Long didn’t give the Bills any love, picking an Arizona victory over the Bills as his lock in a picking segment.
Optimism Reigns: At game’s start, Fox sideline reporter Laura Okmin noted that the network announcers expected to see the dejected Bills team portrayed during the week (CBS’ Jason LaConfora said he was told the situation in the locker room was “very bleak”) but instead were told by the players that the wrong perception was out there.
The Rating: Despite all the negativity, Bills fans haven’t given up on their team either. The game had a 35.2 rating on WUTV, the local Fox affiliate. That was only down from a 36.4 for the season opening loss to Baltimore on WIVB-TV two weeks earlier.
Worst Prediction: Before the game, Johnston advised viewers “let’s keep an eye on (Bills tight end) Charles Clay today.” He didn’t catch a pass.
No Debate: Johnston heard fans loudly boo when Bills Coach Rex Ryan decided to kick a field goal in the first quarter with the ball on the Cardinal 1-yard line. “I agree with this call, get some early points,” said Johnston.
He’s Talking About Practice: Johnston said the player that stood out to him while attending a Bills practice was Kyle Williams, who tried to inspire teammates during a red zone drill. By game’s end, Johnston was deservedly singing Williams' praises for his work in the game, too.
Hilariously Weird: That’s what Albert said TV critics were calling the Fox comedy “Son of Zorn.” It also fit the description of Rex and Rob Ryan as the Bills coaches celebrated the 52-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown by safety Aaron Williams. Albert referred to them in that replay as "The Synchronized Ryans."
Challenging Moment: Johnston smartly noted that Cardinal Coach Bruce Arians should have challenged a catch by Bills receiver Robert Woods on a 24-yard gain in the first half because it appeared he never had possession. Replays supported that position and there was plenty of time for Arizona to see it. LeSean McCoy scored a touchdown on the next play. You had to wonder if Arians didn’t challenge it because the Bills would have had a first down anyway because a holding penalty was called on the Cardinals on the play. But that only would have been a five-yard penalty.
Johnston Was Not Alone: After the Cardinals only gained two yards in the first quarter, Johnston said: “I did not see this coming, I did not see this coming.” Either did Bills fans.
Best Series: Fox showed a quick package of plays in which the Bills secondary broke up several long Palmer passes.
The Prophet: When the Bills took a 17-0 lead, Johnston noted that Rex Ryan said firing offensive coordinator Greg Roman and replacing him with Anthony Lynn “was in the best interest of the team and his team is making him look prophetic at the start of this one.”
Official Statement: After a couple of possible pass interference calls weren’t made, Johnston noted it was “the second indication the officials are going to let these guys play.”
Snap Judgment: Johnston said the Cardinals’ botched field goal snap that led to a Bills touchdown was low when it clearly was high. It was one of his few mistakes of the game.
Timing Is Everything: Just as Johnston noted that the secondary coverage allowed the Bills to bring pressure on Palmer, the Cardinal quarterback was pressured into throwing an interception to Stephon Gilmore.
How Sweet: Okmin noted that Lynn wanted to take a minute in the coaching box earlier in the week to think about his journey that led to his new role as offensive coordinator.
Ryan Fitzpatrick Might Disagree: Albert said that Lynn told the announcers that working under coaching legend Bill Parcells in Dallas “is like going to Harvard.”
Watercooler Talk: Johnston noted that Bills lineman Jordan Mills’ recovery of a McCoy fumble before the end of the first half wouldn’t be talked about at the watercooler but it was a big play. A Cardinal recovery would have given them a chance to cut the lead to 17-14 at halftime.
Surprising Comment: After Johnston said he was surprised how well the Bills were defending Cardinals back David Johnson, Johnson quickly caught a pass and had a decent run and soon was scoring two touchdowns.
You Gotta Believe: Asked by Albert if he saw a difference in the offense under Lynn, Johnston said “it’s really a kind of belief” before adding that McCoy was running more in-between the tackles.
Good Pickup: While the New Era crowd was upset when the officials picked up a penalty flag against Arizona for a hit on Clay, Johnston said it was “a good pick up” because it was a legal hit.
Doing His Homework: After noting that Arians told him that Johnson had misread some passing routes in a previous game, Johnston speculated that a Palmer interception occurred because the Cardinals running back did it again.
Crazy Like a Fox: Johnston said everybody thought Rex Ryan was “crazy” for saying Arizona "was exactly the team the Bills needed to play" after an 0-2 start. When Albert noted at game’s end that the Bills face New England next Sunday, Johnston concluded they were “the team Rex would like to face.” The statement was weirdly hilarious.