The Buffalo Bills rallied from a 23-6 deficit with three touchdowns in the final four minutes Thursday night to defeat the Minnesota Vikings, 27-23. The big finish completed the first undefeated exhibition season in Bills history. Of course, two months from now, nobody will remember the final score.
Here were top observations from the summer’s final exhibition game:
1. The most important news: Mitch Morse is back, and the Bills survived training camp and preseason in good health.
Morse has been removed from concussion protocol and is prepared to start at center for the opener against the New York Jets in nine days. Morse practiced only three days in training camp before suffering the concussion, but he returned to 11-on-11 practice with the Bills’ starters this week.
That means the Bills will enter the regular season without losing any starters to injury since the start of training camp. And they lost one since the start of spring workouts, tight end Tyler Kroft, who broke his foot in the spring.
However, general manager Brandon Beane said he’s hopeful the team would get clearance to put Kroft on the 53-man roster to start the season, rather than putting him on the physically unable to perform list for the first six games.
The only guys who were lost to injury who probably would have made the team were E.J. Gaines, LaAdrian Waddle and Mike Love. Gaines was in line to be the No. 4 cornerback. Waddle was going to be the No. 3 or 4 tackle. Love was in line to be the No. 4 or 5 defensive end.
That’s about as unscathed as a team can hope to be in summer football.
2. Corey Bojorquez probably is in trouble.
Bojorquez continued his inconsistency in his final chance to wrap up the punting job. His first punt was hooked way right and out of bounds for just 30 yards with a 3.9 seconds hang time. His second was better – a 39-yard net with a 4.36 hang time. Robert Foster made a hard tackle on the spot from the gunner position. The third punt by Bojorquez was an Aussie kick from the Vikings’ 44 that went too far and into the end zone for a touchback. The fourth was a 4.75-hang-time boomer for 66 yards.
How patient do the Bills want to be with Bojorquez?
Bojorquez has a live leg. But he was not consistent enough this summer. Way back in 2001, the Bills let Brian Moorman feel his way into the NFL as a rookie punter. He had some inconsistency, but the Bills knew he had elite leg speed. Moorman took a jump forward his second year, and his great career was off and running. But Moorman in his second season was much better than Bojorquez has looked this summer.
The Bills should look at the waiver wire this weekend. The best punter battle in the NFL probably is in Houston between Bryan Anger and Trevor Daniel. One of them will get cut. Daniel had a decent year last season, ranking 23rd in net punting. Anger has seven years of NFL punting experience. The Giants probably will cut backup punter Johnny Townsend, who punted for Oakland last season. He was 30th in net punting. Then there’s Hamburg’s Jake Schum, who spent 2015 and ’16 in the NFL.
3. Tyree Jackson enjoys a fun finish.
The quarterback from the University at Buffalo showed this summer he is a raw, long-range project for an NFL team. But Jackson had a fun preseason finale, completing 22 of 33 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for a TD.
The Bills were down, 23-6, when Jackson capped a 75-yard drive with a 6-yard TD run with 3:53 left. After a three-and-out Vikings series, Marcus Murphy returned a punt 79 yards for a TD to make it 23-20 with 3:21 left.
The Vikings punted again, and the Bills took over at their 43 with 1:01 left.
Jackson scrambled for 15 yards, hit Nick Easley on a 30-yard receiver screen pass, then capped the drive with an 8-yard pass to David Sills V in the middle of the end zone with 8 seconds left.
“Nick Easley made a great play,” Jackson said. “All camp he’s been killing it and doing a great job. It was good to see him make a play. It was all him. I barely threw it any yards. He caught it and made people miss.”
“Sills is a big body, so he kind of boxed the guy out and made a great catch,” Jackson said of the TD. “That was all him.”
The Bills tried to put Jackson in his comfort zone, letting him operate the entire game from the shotgun, rather than from under center. Jackson had a couple throws short into the turf but did an improved job of hitting short timing throws.
“It was fun to get out there early and kind of get your feet we and get into it,” Jackson said. “It was something I’ll remember for a long time, coming back and wining like that. It took the whole team.”
What are the odds Jackson never starts a regular-season game in the NFL? You’d have to say they’re good, right? Most undrafted rookie QBs never start a game. That’s why it’s a shame that he gave up the chance to play one more season of college football. But Jackson’s heart simply was in going back to college for a fifth year. The prediction here is the Bills put him on the practice squad.
4. Stephen Hauschka caps a big week.
The Bills’ place-kicker, a day after signing a two-year contract extension, booted a 54-yard field goal in the second quarter. That’s a good way for him to go into the regular season.
5. MVP of the finale.
The best Bills player on the field Thursday was third-year defensive end Eddie Yarbrough, who dominated Minnesota’s backup tackles and tight ends. Yarbrough had 10 tackles, two for loss. Other young players who flew around and had a good showing on defense were safety Jaquan Johnson, who had 12 tackles, and linebacker Tyrell Dodson, who had 11.
6. Spectator report.
Along with roughly 40,000 season ticket holders, those taking the night off included: Josh Allen, Matt Barkley, Cole Beasley, John Brown, Zay Jones, Andre Roberts, Frank Gore, Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde, Taron Johnson, LeSean McCoy, Captain Munnerlyn, Kurt Coleman, T.J. Yeldon, Senorise Perry, Kevin Johnson, Levi Wallace, Devin Singletary, Patrick DiMarco, Cam Lewis, Tremaine Edmunds, Julian Stanford, Jerry Hughes, Lorenzo Alexander, Matt Milano, Mitch Morse, Spencer Long, Quinton Spain, Jon Feliciano, Dion Dawkins, Cody Ford, Ty Nsekhe, Dawson Knox, Tommy Sweeney, Lee Smith, Shaq Lawson, Ed Oliver, Trent Murphy, Darryl Johnson, Jordan Phillips, Star Lotulelei and Harrison Phillips. Besides Morse, Perry also has been nursing an injury. Lewis still is in concussion protocol.
7. Starting lineups.
Buffalo offense: WR Duke Williams and Cam Phillips, TE Jason Croom, LT Jarron Jones, LG Ike Boettger, C Ryan Bates, RG Russell Bodine, RT Conor McDermott, QB Tyree Jackson, RB Marcus Murphy.
Buffalo defense: DE Eddie Yarbrough and Sam Acho, DT Kyle Peko and L.T. Walton, LB Corey Thompson, Tyrel Dodson and Maurice Alexander, CB Lafayette Pitts and Ryan Lewis, S Jaquan Johnson and Abraham Wallace.