ORCHARD PARK – To paraphrase Hall of Fame catcher and philosopher Yogi Berra, it was déjà blue all over again.
Sadly, the Bills season-opening 15-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins at sold-out, breezy Ralph Wilson Stadium Sunday afternoon had a frustratingly familiar feel to it – like the mediocre history of the past 10 years is about to repeat itself.
Three snaps was all it took for the doubts about quarterback Trent Edwards and the Bills porous offensive line to resurface. On the first play, he was pressured and threw a terrible dump-off pass that Fred Jackson couldn’t snag. Second play, Miami’s nose tackle Randy Starks batted down his pass. Third play, linebacker Karlos Dansbury sacked Trent on a blind-side blitz. Fourth play – a play with which the Bills have become quite proficient at the past decade – Brian Moorman punted the ball away.
And so it went. This series of offensive ineptitude would repeat itself throughout the afternoon. The Bills would mount just one sustained series, a 10-play, 80-yard march that was capped by a 31-yard touchdown pass from Edwards to Roscoe Parrish with 5:13 remaining. Buffalo’s other 11 possessions combined produced three points, five first downs and 86 yards total. There were times during the Jim Kelly years when the Bills would dial up 166 yards in a single quarter.
Had the Bills cobbled together a few more drives they would have won because their defense turned in a solid performance, limiting the Dolphins vaunted running attack to 132 yards – a considerable improvement over last season when Miami sliced and diced the Bills for more than 400 rushing yards in two games.
“I think frustrating is a good word to use right now,’’ said Edwards, who finished 18-of-34 for 139 yards and one score. “It is obviously not the outcome we wanted. We have a lot of disappointed players in the locker room right now, including myself. There are plays out there to be made. I thought our defense fought for us. I thought our special teams did a great job and, offensively, we just have to start putting points on the board.’’
Given Buffalo’s offensive efficiency during the exhibition season, we had been duped into believing things might be different – that Trent might actually be turning the corner; that the Bills might be able to get by despite weaknesses and uncertainty at offensive tackle, and that coach Chan Gailey could work some magic, compensating for a dearth of talent with sound, creative strategy. But practice games are deceiving. Teams show only a small percentage of things they will use during the regular season. Once games begin for real, vanilla defenses give way to more flavors and toppings than Baskin Robbins. Things become much more complicated. Quarterbacks get confused.
Clearly, the fact the Bills engineered just one drive and converted only 21 percent (3-for-14) of their third downs wasn’t all Trent’s fault. He was sacked three times and pressured on numerous other occasions and had a long completion in the third quarter nullified by a drive-killing holding call against guard Andy Levitre.
And the Bills lack of any sort of run game didn’t help matters. Jackson, Marshawn Lynch and rookie C.J. Spiller combined for just 38 yards. Spiller learned quickly that he isn’t in college any more, managing just 6 yards on 7 carries and only 8 yards on four receptions. That’s 14 yards on 11 touches – not the kind of immediate impact you’d expect from a 10th overall pick. I still believe he’s going to be a very good player, but it might take more time than expected, given the deficiencies on the line and at quarterback.
There comes a time when good quarterbacks overcome the obstacles, make plays and elevate those around them. At the start of Trent’s fourth season, we’re still waiting to see that from him consistently. And there are serious questions we ever will.
The stat sheets don’t always tell the entire story. In Trent’s case, it said he didn’t throw an interception. What it didn’t tell you was that he threw four balls that almost were picked off, including three that would have been returned for touchdowns had the defender held on. Any more performances like this and it will be time to go to the bullpen and bring in Ryan Fitzpatick or Brian Brohm.
The Bills are at Green Bay next week and at New England the following week before coming home to host the New York Jets. Zero-and-four seems like a given. The season could be even longer than we originally thought.
Yesterday’s game looked like one the Bills could steal.
Instead, Buffalo reverted to the form of its recent putrid past.
Edwards said in the news conference that he still believes the Bills have the players and coaches to field a productive, exciting offense. He noted there are 15 games left and that he and everyone in the Bills locker room remains excited about the season.
We’ve heard similar talk so many times before. The words have been uttered so often that they no longer mean anything to Bills fans who have endured 10 years of losing. At this point, they seem to be nothing more than noise, about as hollow as the uprights at the Ralph.
SCOTT’S REPORT CARD
COACHING: The defensive strategy was sound as the Bills bottled up the Dolphins running attack, but it was off-set by the failure of Gailey’s play-calling to establish any sort of run game to take the heat off Trent Edwards and give the defense a breather. Grade: C
OFFENSE: You aren’t going to win many games when you have just 50 yards rushing, 139 passing and 9 first downs. Grade: D
DEFENSE: They held Ronnie Brown (65) and Ricky Williams (62) in check and did a decent job on receiving threat Brandon Marshall (8 catches, 53 yards). Grade: B
SPECIAL TEAMS: Rian Lindell booted a 51-yard field goal, Roscoe Parrish had a nifty 19-yard punt return and the Bills did a good job on coverage, limiting the Dolphins to just 13.5 yards per kickoff return and 4.5 yards per punt return. Grade: B
OVERALL: Team squandered a golden opportunity to beat a divisional opponent at home, being undone by a miserable offensive performance. Things only get tougher from here. Grade: C-
Award-winning columnist and author Scott Pitoniak has covered the Bills since 1985 and has written five books about the team, including the recently published, Buffalo Bills Football Vault: The First 50 Seasons, which is available at any book store, the Bills team stores and Amazon.com. You can read more by Scott at .