Chan Gailey doesn’t put any stock in moral victories.
“None, zero,’’ the Bills coach blurted when the question was posed shortly after his team suffered a heart-breaking 37-34 overtime road loss to a Baltimore Ravens squad that entered the game as two-touchdown favorites.
Still, as disappointed as he and his players were to fumble and throw away a win that was in their grasp, the Bills – particularly their cerebral, blue-collar-tough quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick – came away believing this season won’t be a total loss.
There was much to like about the Bills effort Sunday. Unlike previous games, they didn’t fold at the first sign of adversity – they battled to the bitter end. And, they did so in entertaining fashion.
Several Ravens were said to wonder last week whether the Bills could beat a United Football League team, given their dearth of talent and putrid start. After gouging Baltimore’s supposedly impregnable defense for 506 yards, 34 points and 27 first downs, we assume that question was sufficiently answered and the snickers in Ravenland have ceased. Even Ray Lewis, the supremely talented Baltimore linebacker who told reporters Buffalo was going to be in trouble following the Ravens loss to New England last week, had to give the still win-less Bills their due.
Pressed about his team’s performance, Gailey did find some good things to reflect upon.
“I think we took a step forward in some respects – learning to fight until the end of a ball-game; not thinking we were going to lose,’’ he said. “When it went bad in the fourth quarter, still believing they could win, expecting to win the game – that was a positive.”
And so was Fitzpatrick.
No, he doesn’t have the howitzer desired for the position, but the Harvard guy has tons of moxie, and it’s apparently contagious. Against a Ravens “D” that ranked second in scoring defense and third in yardage allowed, Fitz completed 29-of-43 passes for 374 yards and four scores, and converted 11-of-17 third downs.
Clearly, he has developed some nice chemistry with Steve Johnson, who hauled in eight passes for 158 yards and his fifth touchdown of the season. The kid from Kentucky now has 25 receptions for 372 yards this fall and has emerged as the legitimate No. 2 receiver this offense has desperately needed.
Johnson’s presence also has taken extra coverage away from Lee Evans, allowing the Bills top target to finally re-emerge, as evidenced by his 105 receiving yards and three touchdown receptions against the Ravens.
But the only statistic that matters to Fitz and Gailey are “W’s.” And although the Bills may have won the stat sheet and produced more style points than Baltimore, they came up short for a sixth time in as many starts on the scoreboard, giving Gailey the dubious distinction of having the second worst coaching start in franchise history behind only Jim Ringo’s 0-9 beginning.
Turnovers did in the Bills, along with some questionable officiating that took away a brilliant end zone interception by Reggie Corner and let stand a fumble by tight end Shawn Nelson. C.J. Spiller’s fumbled kickoff with 56 seconds remaining in the first half led to a Ravens touchdown that slashed Buffalo’s lead from 11 points to just four. Then, Fitz was picked off by Ed Reed on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter and Baltimore took a 3-point lead.
Despite falling behind by 10 in the fourth quarter, the Bills fought back and thanks to a well-executed drive by Fitzpatrick, they were able to send the game into overtime on Rian Lindell’s 50-yarder.
After forcing the Ravens to punt on their first series of the extra period, Fitzpatrick had the Bills on the move again, but the march died when Lewis wrested the ball from Nelson. It appeared that a whistle should have sounded before Lewis’ thievery because Nelson’s forward progress had been stopped. But it didn’t sound until Lewis had secured the ball. Frustrated Bills center Geoff Hangartner only exacerbated things by removing his helmet while still on the field and slamming it against the turf for a 15-yard penalty. A few plays later, Billy Cundiff drilled a 38-yard field goal to secure the victory for the 5-2 Ravens.
Fitz’s performance ended the Bills streak of 59 games without a 300-yard passer, and Johnson and Evans became the first Buffalo receivers in a dozen games to crack the century mark in receiving yards.
In his four starts, Fitzpatrick has completed 81 of 128 passes for 969 yards and 11 touchdowns, and has been picked off four times. He and the offense have played well enough to win three of those starts, but the defense continues to be a sieve, yielding 34 or more points in five consecutive games for the first time in franchise history. And that’s why Buffalo remains the only win-less team in the NFL.
As much as I like the way Fitz is playing, I refuse to get carried away. I still believe the Bills need to draft a quarterback with their first pick this April. But I’d be comfortable with Fitz starting several games next season (if there is one) before turning over the reins to the new guy. And I think he would make a great back-up QB and mentor to Andrew Luck or whomever the Bills select with the first overall pick.
I also think the Bills will win a few games this season, given the way the offense has been playing. Of course, given the way the defense has been playing, Buffalo probably will have to win a shoot-out.