Close Doesn’t Count, But Beats The Alternative
by Dave Staba (@DavidStaba) - posted 2:01 pm, October 26, 2013
As pointed out by several readers — OK, one — after Buffalo’s four losses in seven games so far in 2013, there is no such thing as a moral victory, a concept with which crappy teams in every sport have long consoled themselves.
For those unfamiliar with sporting cliches, the supposed moral victory is earned by scoring fewer points or runs than the other team, but rationalizing the failure with the idea that you probably should have been beaten much, much worse.
There are, however, demoralizing defeats. And, with Doug Marrone’s first season as a professional head coach hitting the halfway point tomorrow in New Orleans, these Bills have yet to absorb one of those.
Every week, Buffalo has hit the two-minute warning possessing either a lead or the ball with a chance to tie or go ahead. Through seven games in which they have seen just about every one of their offensive weapons hobble off the field at least once and used three different quarterbacks, including two rookies and another with one previous NFL start, the Bills have yet to lose a game by 14 points or more.
Which happens to be We Want Marangi’s official definition of a blowout. That threshold may not be scientific — meaningless late touchdowns can be cosmetic in either direction — but over a full season, it’s a pretty fair indicator of a team’s level of competitiveness.
Extensive research (by which we mean scrolling through the Bills’ section of profootball-reference.com) reveals that only twice in franchise history has Buffalo gone an entire season without getting blown out.
The first instance is not terribly surprising. The 1964 Bills were the dominant team in the American Football League, and possibly the best in all of football. Vince Lombardi’s Packers were on a brief hiatus from laying waste to the pre-merger NFL, and Buffalo’s smothering run defense, which gave up just 65 yards per game, would have made for an intriguing matchup with Cleveland, which rode Jim Brown to the NFL championship.
The ’64 Bills went 12-2 before drilling San Diego 20-7 in the AFL title game, one of those not-as-close-as-the-score instances mentioned above. The two losses came by eight points to Boston and three to Oakland.
The only other time Buffalo had at least a whiff of every regular-season game was not, as you might suspect during the early ’90s (those Bills were good for at least one stinker per schedule, usually on Monday Night in Pittsburgh), but two decades earlier.
The 1974 Bills might be Buffalo’s least-remembered playoff team. A year after breaking the 2,000-yard barrier, O.J. Simpson was slowed by an ankle injury and finished with 1,125 yards. The defense was solid, though, and Joe Ferguson threw effectively enough (12 touchdown passes on the year, compared to four as a rookie in ’73) to get the Bills to 9-5 and into the postseason, despite dropping their last two games.
The worst of their five regular-season losses was by 12 points to Houston, though they did get throttled by the eventual Super Bowl-champion Steelers 32-14 in the first round of the playoffs.
But back to modern times.
Consistently keeping it close is something new for the Bills of the 21st Century. In each of the past four seasons, and five of the last six, Buffalo lost by at least 14 points five times, a trend that bridged the tenures of Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey, as well as J.P. Losman, Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick. In other words, the Bills got rolled in nearly half the 42 losses they compiled from 2009 to ’12.
The only worse four-season stretch was 1969-72, when 28 of Buffalo’s 42 defeats (an even more dismal total, given that each season was only 14 games long) were suffered by at least two touchdowns.
Keeping games close does not count for anything in the standings, but it has been a decent indicator of improvement. The ’79 Bills took only two whuppings (after five apiece in ’77 and ’78), and won the AFC East the following season. Following a pair of 2-14 seasons involving a dozen blowouts, the ’86 Bills lost just once by 14 or more during Jim Kelly’s rookie season, despite finishing 4-12.
None of which is going to help Buffalo keep its streak of competitiveness going in the Superdome on Sunday.
The 5-1 Saints are sixth in points scored and fourth in points allowed, compared to 12th and 12th for Buffalo. And it is hard to imagine a Bills secondary that couldn’t contain Geno Smith or Brandon Weeden presenting much of an inconvenience to Drew Brees, even with his primary target, Jimmy Graham, questionable with a foot injury.
With Thaddeus Lewis making his third start and C.J. Spiller listed as doubtful, the idea of the Bills keeping pace with Brees is not very appealing, either.
The oddsmakers certainly don’t see it happening, with the Saints favored by at least 11 points.
Covering the spread might even be considered one of those moral victories. If there were such a thing.