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We Want Marangi: One More Time, With Feeling?

ej-marrone-update-bengals-storyIt’s not easy to have a good feeling about this.

The Buffalo Bills open their 2014 season in Chicago today, and the vibe is uncomfortably similar to the 14 preceding playoff-free campaigns.

Maybe it’s the lifeless month of exhibition games in which E.J. Manuel, whose rookie year was interrupted and abbreviated by injuries, looked like, well, a rookie.

Maybe it’s the dread lingering in any discussion of the team’s future following the death of founder Ralph Wilson, resulting from the franchise’s recent history of failing to get much of anything right—this doesn’t help—combined with the economic realities of doing business in Western New York, that results in visions of the Bills playing in a different city with a new name and uniforms.

Maybe it’s the result of a spring and summer in which Jon Bon Jovi was a more common topic of discussion than C.J. Spiller or Mario Williams.

Or maybe the Bills, as ever, just are not very good.

That last, simplest explanation seems to be the consensus of the national football press. Before training camps opened, the Bills were viewed as one the teams poised to make the jump from mediocrity to contention this year.

The defense should build on last year’s showing.

Manuel should be better with a full training camp and a supporting cast bolstered by rookie receiver Sammy Watkins, so beloved by Buffalo management that they gladly gave up two first-round picks to land him.

And, at long last, it should finally be the Bills’ turn to catch a break.

Such optimism did not survive the summer. Or even much longer than it took news of Kiko Alonso’s season-ending knee injury to spread.

In his series of NFL preview articles, Bill Barnwell of Grantland grouped Buffalo in with “The Cellar Dwellers,” the eight teams he believes will vie for the right to the first pick in next April’s draft. Or, in the case of the Bills, the right to send that top choice to Cleveland.

“The Bills are somehow simultaneously rebuilding and hopeless, a franchise both in transition and going nowhere,” Barnwell concludes, after using two forms of the word “bizarre” to describe the front office’s decision-making in trading away a pick the team will desperately need if Manuel fails to prove himself the long-term answer at quarterback, as well as the failure to sign anyone to replace Alonso or departed safety Jairus Byrd.

Drew Magary summed up the malaise blanketing the new season in the Buffalo installment of his Deadspin series “Why Your Team Sucks 2014:”

This was a team left to rot as Wilson grew older, and you can see it in both the roster and the fanbase. I can barely tell the difference between a Bills tailgate and a 1970s Manchester coal-plant union protest. There is decay and unhappiness pretty much everywhere you look.  That’s a high-quality put-down right there. But the staff at We Want Marangi is nothing but optimistic. Each season for the last 14, in various media outlets, we have managed to come up with some basis to predict, if half-heartedly, a change in fortunes for the Bills—new coach, new quarterback, another new coach, another new quarterback, the occasional incredibly expensive free agent, a big-name receiver whose best years came five years and three teams earlier.

Of course, such dismal predictions are often based on mistakes of the past like Dick Jauron and J.P. Losman and cruel—if well-earned—stereotypes about Buffalo. Or, in the case of Barnwell, exhaustive statistical analysis and film study.

None of the number-crunching and assumption-jumping that comprise preseason predictions matter much once the real games start, so the WWM editorial board decided against making any this year. 

Instead, we took the Bruce Smith approach to training camp—thinking about football very occasionally while feigning injury in order to avoid excessive sweatiness until it matters. This phenomenon can now accurately be called the Kyle Orton approach.

For all the uncertainty surrounding the high-profile positions of quarterback, coach and owner, there are more positives about these Bills than previous editions which opened with much higher expectations among media types and fans.

Manuel’s rookie year wasn’t nearly as bad as some seem to recall, with a half-dozen decent-or-better performances, three stinkers and a truncated good night among his 10 starts.

He’ll have the support of a reinforced running game, with veterans Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon adding inside power to Spiller’s breakaway speed and Fred Jackson’s all-around intensity.

Watkins is the real thing—if low-resolution cell-phone training-camp videos are any indication. If he can keep his ribcage from getting pulverized, he gives Manuel the sort of disruptive receiving force Buffalo has lacked since Eric Moulds’ peak more than a decade ago. At least.

It is tough to imagine the defense somehow being better without Alonso and Byrd, but a full season from Stephon Gilmore should improve coverage in the secondary, an especially important asset while facing receivers like Chicago’s Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall.

And here’s something everyone should be able to get behind: Marrone belatedly came to the conclusion that Jeff Tuel has no business touching a football during an NFL game. That it took two full off- and preseasons and a pair of disastrous regular-season demonstrations to arrive at that conclusion does not exactly instill confidence in either Marrone or the team’s personnel department, but at least they got there eventually.

If Orton, signed barely a week before the opener, still likes to play football (no sure thing, after the way he relaxed his way out of Dallas), he provides a relatively viable option if gets hurt or regresses. Orton’s signing also suggests something of a humbling for Marrone, who apparently entered his first head-coaching job at the professional level believing his offensive system could work with even Tuel or Thaddeus Lewis at the controls.

The Bills quickly shot down the above-linked report that Marrone had to be separated from Bills CEO Russ Brandon during an argument over personnel issues last month, which means one of two things. Either there is serious dissension over the team’s direction at the worst possible time, or an anonymous someone in the organization really, really dislikes Marrone.

Through it all, the Bills have been aimlessly drifting along, soaking up the big television money afforded every NFL team and playing before mostly capacity crowds at home without any real incentive to win. And let’s face it. That has been true not just since Wilson passed, but since John Butler left town after the 2000 season. It is not a coincidence that that season was the first year of the league’s longest playoff drought.

Opening Day brings with it the chance to change all that, or at least create the perception that it is changing.

For all Manuel’s struggles, a big day against Chicago’s aging secondary and feeble pass rush, or even a competent showing, will ease doubts about Buffalo’s first pick in the 2013 draft. If that involves Watkins making a few of those spectacular plays in games that count against defenders wearing an opposing team’s uniform, Doug Whaley’s decisions regarding the ’14 and ’15 drafts start looking a lot better, too.

A win against the Bears also quiets the noise about Marrone’s future for a week or so.

And makes it much easier to feel good about a season that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the previous 14 before it has even begun.


Stevie Stripped In Toronto

Don’t know about you, but We Want Marangi has seen enough of Stevie Johnson.

You can live with a receiver who drops the occasional pass. Happens to the best of them.

To Johnson’s credit, he eliminated the dumb celebration penalties that marked his first couple seasons as a starter. Of course, he’s hasn’t caused a lot of celebrations recently, either.

The periodic grousing over his role in the offense, the state of the Bills or whatever else is bothering him aren’t all that unusual for a game-breaking receiver.

If, that is, he’s breaking games the right way.

But if you’re going to require the head coach to sit you down for a heart-to-heart chat after your team’s most impressive win of the season, it’s pretty lousy form to fumble the next one away.

Which is exactly what Johnson did on Sunday in Toronto.

Yes, there were other pivotal plays in Buffalo’s wrenching 34-31 overtime loss to Atlanta.

Scott Chandler’s fumble on E.J. Manuel’s next completed pass put the Falcons within a few yards of the winning field goal. Nickell Robey’s jersey grab put Atlanta three feet from the tying touchdown.

But neither of those plays would have all but guaranteed a Buffalo win had they gone the other way.

Chandler gave up the ball at least 20 yards from field-goal range.

The flag on Robey was equally the result of Harry Douglass slipping on the crappy makeshift field in Toronto’s crappy makeshift football stadium. And given Buffalo’s lack of so much as a slow-down corner to cover Roddy White, coming up with a stop on fourth-and-16 was no sure thing, either.

Johnson, though, caught E.J. Manuel’s third-and-1 toss at Atlanta’s 38-yard line, turned upfield, and within a few steps was well within Dan Carpenter’s range. All he had to do was not fumble.

You would think a guy in his sixth NFL season would have wrapped both arms around the ball and, unless he had an unobstructed path to the sideline, charged straight ahead until tackled.

Johnson did not have to get out of bounds, since Buffalo had a timeout remaining.

He did not have to struggle for additional yardage. If Johnson were tackled where he fumbled, Carpenter would have faced a 48-yard attempt. He has made 20 of 21 from less than 50 yards out this year.

All he had to do was not fumble.

Maybe Johnson did not realize where he was on the field. Or maybe he had visions of sprinting into the end zone for the winning points himself, exorcising the frustrations of a season plagued by injuries, both his own and those endured by Buffalo’s rotating cast of quarterbacks.

Either way, he should have known better. He had to know better. For all his good qualities as a receiver, the ability to run routes, get himself open and make difficult receptions, breaking big plays after the catch is not one of them. We’re not talking about Andre Reed here.

All he had to do was not fumble.

But because he did, the Bills are two games out of the playoff chase with four remaining and six teams ahead of them for the final spot. The competitive portion of their season is over.

The same can not be said of Johnson’s career in Buffalo, due to the five-year contract he signed before last season. Johnson accounts for $8.5 million against the salary cap if he’s on the team in 2014 and $8.475 million if the Bills were to release him.

That’s not going to happen. Getting him to agree to re-work his deal or finding a trade partner willing to take on that contract for a decent possession receiver isn’t much more likely.

For all the problems the Bills had with coverage and tackling, they also had two long runs by C.J. Spiller, two touchdowns from Fred Jackson, two more — and zero turnovers — from Manuel, and six sacks from the most productive pass rush they’ve had since the prime of Bruce Smith.

It should have added up to a victory, even in front of the feeblest “home” crowd for a game since the two-man-wave days of the mid-1980s.

All he had to do was not fumble.

****

 

On a lighter note, Rob Ford, Toronto’s sort-of-mayor, did show up, and did so wearing a somewhat oversized Fred Jackson jersey.

He allegedly did not smoke any crack, or otherwise bring shame to his city or amusement to the rest of the world. Other than a Canadian musician’s claim that Ford stole his seat, and the photo above, it was a real letdown.

But thanks to Buffalo’s increasingly mystifying commitment to our friends to the north, there’s always next year.

David Staba has written about the Buffalo Bills, among other topics, since 1990 for a variety of outlets, including We Want Marangi since way back in 2012.


We Want Marangi Wonders: WWRFD (What Will Rob Ford Do)?

Amid this week’s panic-inducing (at least for the easily panicked) reports that Jon Bon Jovi plans to smuggle the Bills across the border, and the prospect of sitting through Buffalo’s traditionally awkward neutral-site game at Rogers Centre, there is some good news.

Rob Ford will be there.

Toronto’s mayor-in-name-only has been disappointingly quiet since bull-rushing a city councillor a couple weeks back.

No new videos causing Ford to issue another, “What do you expect? I was hammered!”explanation.

No intimate discussions of his married life.

Nothing, really, but a few interviews in which he offers his unique thoughts on leadership.

Ford has remained in the Toronto headlines, kicking off a 2014 re-election campaign that, despite everything, seems to have some supporters. But he has not produced the sort of did-he-really-do-that moment that scores interviews on American news networks and inspires Saturday Night Live sketches in a while now.

This can mean only one thing.

The man is due.

Maybe Ford will crash the Fox broadcast booth and regale Dick Stockton and Ronde Barber with details of the coup being orchestrated against him.

Maybe he will run onto the field before the opening kickoff, grab the ball off the tee and pretend to be a quarterback before collapsing.

Or maybe he’ll demonstrate his ability to retain his faculties while intoxicated by sliding down a rail in the upper deck.

Whether Ford chooses one of the above, or, more likely, comes up with something no one could have possibly predicted, We Want Marangi fervently hopes that he does so wearing a form-fitting Bills jersey. The CFL’s Toronto Argonauts have suggested — in typically restrained Canadian tones — that they might prefer he not wear their gear during his escapades.

But it seems that during one of the publicity tours for the annual Toronto trip, someone must have provided the mayor with a Bills sweater (as our Canadian friends call it). Preferably, one of the gruesome multiple-shades-of-blue, gray, red and white numbers they modeled through the 2000s.

Please, Mayor Ford — don’t let us down.

***

The game itself features two teams that appear headed in diametrically opposed directions. For this week, at least.

The Bills return from their bye as healthy as they’ve been all season, with Kyle Williams’ late-week back problem the only source of concern on the injury list, looking to build on theirrather comprehensive thumping of the New York Jets against one of the NFL’s biggest disappointments. Winning two in a row for the first time this year would put Buffalo at 5-7, one game out of the second wild-card spot in the crashingly mediocre AFC with one quarter of the season remaining.

Atlanta, coming off a 13-3 record and tight loss to San Francisco in the NFC title game last year, was supposed to be jockeying for home-field advantage in the playoffs. Instead, the Falcons have lost five straight, along with any semblance of a running game (31st in the NFL) or run defense (29th), and find themselves tied with Jacksonville and Houston in the race for the first pick in next spring’s draft.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has shown a propensity for being sacked and intercepted, while Buffalo is tied for second in the former category and first in the latter.

E.J. Manuel, meanwhile, faces an Atlanta defense that has produced just six interceptions, a big reason the Falcons are at minus-12 in giveaway/takeaway. C.J. Spiller should have every opportunity to finally break loose, as well.

If the Bills are to sustain or improve their mathematical chances at that last playoff spot, a win of any sort will do nicely. To make a real run at separating themselves from the Ravens-Dolphins-Jets-Titans-Steelers-Chargers mess in the middle of the AFC standings, the Falcons are the sort of struggling team on which they need to drop the hammer.

 David Staba has written about the Buffalo Bills, among other topics, since 1990 for a variety of outlets, including We Want Marangi since way back in 2012.


‘Come On In, Let’s Huddle Up, Talk About The Buffalo Bills’

We’ll be honest — we haven’t watched a moment of New York Jets football since the rather heinous Week 3 game in New Jersey.

So We Want Marangi asked the greatest Jet of all to break down today’s rematch at Ralph Wilson Stadium for us (and by “asked,” we mean “found this clip on YouTube”).

 
OK, so Joe doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know — New York would like to run the ball, newly signed Ed Reed will probably play, and coming off a bye week lets players rest and heal.

But it’s worth watching for Broadway Joe’s animated enthusiasm, which survives despite his recent strained relationship with the franchise he led to one of the great upsets in sports history, as well as the array of screen caps from his other ventures into the realm of online video.

He does not mention a Jets defensive line that keys the NFL’s top run defense, as well as a pass rush that sacked E.J. Manuel eight times in September.

New York picked up Reed after he was waived by Houston to help a secondary that has not been nearly as dominant. Any chance of Buffalo exploiting that relative weakness relies on Manuel remaining upright, a group of receivers missing starters Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods getting open, and Manuel overcoming the forecast wind and rain to get them the ball.

Interestingly, the greatest quarterback ever to wear the green and white (and there really is no No. 2), does not mention Manuel or the second quarterback taken in last spring’s draft, Geno Smith.

Thanks to New York’s defense and revived running game, which carried the Jets to a 26-20 upset of New Orleans in their last game before their bye, Smith hasn’t had to do a whole lot. And he hasn’t, going 8-of-19 for 115 yards against New Orleans.

Manuel was even less effective in his first game back after missing a month, and the Jets don’t figure to make things any easier, especially with starting wideouts Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods sidelined, leaving the pass-catching to an array of rookies and underachievers.

So while the Manuel-Smith rematch might be the most obvious story line going in, the outcome will probably depend on a bunch of factors neither of them can control (especially if the Jets match Pittsburgh’s success in keeping Spiller and Jackson from getting loose).

Which, given Buffalo’s matchup problems today — explored in greater detail here by Niagara Falls native, former WWM colleague and Gang Green devotee Lyle Fitzsimmons — might be the Bills’ best-case scenario.


E.J. Returns For Bills’ Turning Point

 

This could be really good.

The Buffalo Bills visit Pittsburgh today with their first pick from each of the past two drafts, their most explosive offensive weapon and their highest-paid defensive player ever all operating at full strength — or as close to it as possible in Week 10 — for the first time in 2013.

Now the Bills get a shot at the staggering Steelers, whose resemblance to the team that won two Super Bowls in The Aughts extends only as far as the presence of Ben Roethlisberger, their historically scary uniforms and the hair sticking out from under Troy Polamalu’s helmet (at least until Monday).

This could be terrible.

Buffalo has not won a game in Pittsburgh since the week after The Comeback — 20 years and 10 months ago — and the 2-6 Steelers figure to be desperate to salvage their season and atone for the worst statistical defensive performance in the franchises 81-season history.

It’s Sunday morning, so let’s look at the bright side first.

After a month of hoping for anything but complete disaster every time one of the quarterbacks nobody else wanted takes a snap, the development of E.J. Manuel resumesjust as C.J. Spiller seems to finally be finding his stride. That’s especially helpful with Pittsburgh’s run defense ranking as the league’s second-most-permissive and showing anuncharacteristic knack for yielding big plays.

The Steelers haven’t been able to run much themselves, averaging just 73.6 yards per game on the ground. So they are left to rely completely on Roethlisberger, a strategy that has produced just two wins against six losses. In the last two weeks, he has thrown four interceptions and been sacked 10 times in losses to Oakland and New England.

And they haven’t been particularly valiant in defeat. It’s one thing to get torched by New England. That happens to everyone. Giving up a 93-yard run to Terrelle Pryor and getting smacked around by the likes of Chicago (at home, no less) and Minnesota (anywhere with a yellow sun) really could not be less Steeler-like.

Meanwhile, Buffalo beat division rival Miami with Thaddeus Lewis at quarterback and dominated the NFL’s last unbeaten team everywhere but on the scoreboard despite Jeff Tuel. So Manuel’s return — along with the Buffalo secondary gelling around a healthy Stephon Gilmore and behind a pass rush led by a full-value Mario Williams — means the Bills start converting all those widely loathed moral victories into real ones.

Right?

Let’s check ourselves here for a moment.

As promising as Manuel looked at times, his two regular-season road games as a professional resulted in a performance that bordered on the Losmanesque against the Jets and a sprained knee in Cleveland. Manuel has yet to show that he’s capable of going into an environment as hostile as Pittsburgh and remain ambulatory, much less win. It can’t help that Robert Woods’ ankle injury not only means Manuel’s emerging favorite target will probably not be on the field, but also that emerging bust T.J. Graham probably will.

And as good as Buffalo’s healthy defense looked against Kansas City’s no-risk offense, Roethlisberger will give the Bills more opportunities to make big plays — and to give them up.

Losing today negates much of the good, and good will, created through the first nine games of Doug Marrone’s tenure, when each of the three wins were cause for mini-celebration and the six losses could be explained away one way or another, if you try hard enough.

A win in Pittsburgh, though, puts Buffalo at 4-6. Then it’s the Jets (1-3 on the road) at Orchard Park, the bye week, the flailing Falcons in Toronto, a swing through Florida to face the equally winless Jaguars and Buccaneers, and back home for a rematch with the Dolphins — who, you might have heard, have some issues of their own — before traveling to New England for the season finale.

The first five remaining games look highly winnable, and given the state of the AFC East, there’s a good chance the Patriots won’t have much, if anything, to play for in the sixth.

Yes, expecting a team that hasn’t reached the postseason since 1999, or even had a whiff in nine years, to go on a run like that is an exercise in nearly delusional optimism.

A loss to the Steelers, though, means it is time to start talking about next year, nearly three weeks before Thanksgiving.

And that can’t be good.

David Staba has written about the Buffalo Bills, among other topics, since 1990 for a variety of outlets, including We Want Marangi since way back in 2012.