It’s OK to stop pretending now.
Stop pretending that the Buffalo Bills, as presently constructed, have a realistic chance to get anywhere near the playoffs.
Stop pretending that a coaching staff that appears incapable of making the slightest of in-game adjustments deserves another season to figure this NFL thing out.
Most of all, stop pretending that Kyle Orton is a viable starting quarterback.
Orton’s extended honeymoon with Bills fans and media — and, obviously, coaches — should have ended late Thursday night, after the veteran quarterback who ostensibly gives the Bills their “best opportunity to win” cost them the chance to do that in any way in the fourth quarter of a game his team desperately needed.
Doug Marrone is apparently sticking to his delusions of Orton’s grandeur, though, declaring his allegiance hours after Buffalo’s least-productive offensive performance of the season and second hope-crushing loss in four days.
In case you have already suppressed the memories, the Bills failed to score a touchdown in the final 114 minutes and 51 seconds, producing a total of 22 points in the pair of defeats. Of that total, zero came after Buffalo took 13-3 and 9-3 leads against Kansas City and Miami, respectively.
If you did not watch those games, you might want to claim defensive let-downs doomed the Bills. If you did, you saw a dominant unit that deserved near-total credit for both leads finally crack as the realization that it was completely on its own set in.
Or, if you are that type, you could gripe about the officiating during Miami’s 22-9 win on Thursday. Both the intentional grounding call on Orton and the interference flag thrown at Stephon Gilmore were questionable, at best.
But replays show that Gilmore did hit Mike Wallace before the ball arrived, if only by a fraction of a second.
The grounding call was even iffier, given Sammy Watkins’ proximity to the spot Orton’s heave hit the ground. But it made no difference in the final outcome, since the Bills were already trailing and never scored again, despite Miami’s Jarvis Landry fumbling away the ensuing free kick.
The play also lowlighted one of Orton’s biggest shortcomings — complete helplessness in the face of an NFL pass rush. Mobility was one of the sacrifices Marrone made by benching E.J. Manuel, but Orton has been unable to extend plays with even a single step in any direction, or to anticipate the rush in time to capitalize on a hot route.
On the rare occasions he has tried to escape, Orton runs as if both hamstrings have been severed. Before taking off on third-and-goal from Miami’s 6-yard line just before Dan Carpenter’s second field goal, he also missed an open Robert Woods cutting through the end zone from the right before stumbling forward for three yards.
And when Watkins got open for a should-have-been-touchdown that would have pulled Buffalo within three with 9:55 remaining, Orton fired it well over his head.
While much has been made of Marrone’s decision to punt on fourth-and-6 from Miami’s 47 two plays later, believing that the call cost Buffalo a chance at a comeback presumes Orton might have connected on a pass of six yards or more. Orton had completed just four of his 12 most recent passes, all of them dump-offs to Bryce Brown. At that point, you can’t really blame Marrone for thinking a punt bouncing off a return man and into the end zone was a more feasible route to a Bills touchdown.
Through four games after taking over, Orton was marginally better than Manuel looked through the first four and led late comebacks against Detroit and Minnesota (which were largely necessary because he could not get much of anything done until the final minutes of each game). It was natural to assume that he would continue to improve the more familiar he became with his teammates and offensive system, so an Orton-led run to the playoffs seemed plausible.
Not any more.
Whatever it is that he did well in his first four games, opposing defenses have figured out how to take it away. The Bills are left with a quarterback who is every bit as capable as Manuel of failing to read opposing defenses and missing open receivers when he does see them, like the four straight fatal fourth-quarter misfires against Kansas City.
At the risk of belaboring a point frequently made elsewhere, Buffalo’s defense deserves to be in the midst of the playoff chase. Through nearly six quarters against Kansas City and Miami, both fellow postseason aspirants, the Bills yielded a total of two field goals. Mario Williams delivered his best performance since coming to Buffalo against the Dolphins, piling up 3.5 sacks a week after Marcell Dareus delivered three.
In total, the league’s best pass rush through 10 games dumped Alex Smith and Ryan Tannehill a total of 11 times. Buffalo won the turnover battle against the Dolphins and Chiefs by a combined 5-1 and still managed to lose two of the precise sort of games in which Orton’s savvy and experience were supposed to make the difference.
The loss to Miami leaves Buffalo all alone in seventh place (at least until the 4-5 Texans visit Cleveland on Sunday) for the AFC’s two wild-card spots. The Chiefs and San Diego already own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Buffalo, and each of the six teams they’re chasing have better conference records, requiring the Bills to finish with a better record than all of them.
So, barring a half-dozen complete collapses by teams presently playing much better than they are, the Bills need to win out against a schedule that includes three of the NFL’s top teams, as well as the surprisingly competent Browns.
That is not going to happen.
Restoring Manuel to the starting spot would not necessarily improve Buffalo’s chances of reaching the postseason, or even finishing .500.
Manuel has, however, had seven healthy weeks of practice — the longest such stretch of his pro career — away from the spotlight and pressure that came with being the No. 16 pick in the 2013 draft. The possibility exists that he can still improve enough to be a decent NFL starter. That would be good to know, especially since the Watkins trade eliminated the 2015 first-rounder that might have otherwise been used on the next quarterback of the future.
The high point of the Orton Era to date, that 43-23 pasting of the reeling Jets, looks flukier with each passing game. In Orton’s other five starts, his offense has produced a total of five touchdowns and averaged a shade over 16 points, with barely a touchdown per game coming before halftime.
Looking at the whole season, the Bills lead the league in drives started in opposing territory, yet only seven teams have managed fewer points per game. Those seven — the Jets, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Oakland and Tennessee — are a combined 13-52. So while Buffalo’s defense (leading the league in sacks, tied for fourth in interceptions and No. 10 overall against the run) has performed at the level expected of a Super Bowl aspirant, the offense produces like a contender for the first overall draft pick.
Marrone isn’t going to save his job by making the playoffs after his second season. Finding out if Manuel might still be able to take Buffalo there in Year 3 is the coach’s best chance to still be around past January.
You can’t guarantee that Manuel will be better than Orton has been, even over the last two games.
But it’s tough to argue that he could be worse.
And there isn’t a single good non-delusional reason not to find out.