Tigers seem to be in the news all over the place recently. Saturday morning I awoke to read a story that Roy Horn, of the famous Siegfried and Roy magic act in Las Vegas, had been mauled by a tiger and dragged offstage by the neck in front of a crowd of over 1000 horrified onlookers. Shortly thereafter, news broke of some nut in New York who had been sharing his apartment with a 400+ pound tiger he had raised as a pet (Brian Fellows of SNL eat your heart out). It seems this ďpetĒ got a bit tired of being cramped up in a New York apartment and turned on his owner. The tiger was discovered when this fool went to the hospital for treatment, claiming he had been attacked by a dog. Fortunately, the emergency room doctors knew the difference between a dog bite and a tiger mauling and alerted the authorities.
Indeed, this was the weekend of the tiger mauling - everybody was doing it. Everyone that is, except the Buffalo Bills. The Bills managed to escape Sunday afternoonís contest against the Cincinnati Bengals with a sprained ankle, a pulled groin and a bruised ego. Hurt yes, mauled no. Rather than happening in front of a theater crowd in Las Vegas or an entire neighborhood in New York, the Bills were wounded in front of a sellout crowd of 72,615 in Orchard Park and countless thousands more via television.
Thankfully, Roy Horn is expected to survive. Perhaps not so thankfully, the seriously misguided Cat Fancy reader in New York also survived (yet another strike against Darwinís theory of Natural Selection). A Bills loss at home, to a team without a winning season in more than a dozen years, without their best player, at home, would have been terminal for the Bills - they would not have recovered.
As Iíve said before, Iím a pessimist. Iíll admit that Iím a nattering nabob of negativity. I am growing tired of writing the same thing week after week, but this team isnít giving me much of a choice. Forgive me if I seem like a broken record, but until this team shows some tangible sign of life Iím just going to continue to call Ďem like I see Ďem, and thatís been pretty ugly recently.
Miami was supposed to be a ďmust-winĒ game to show that lopsided wins over New England and Jacksonville were not just flukes. The Bills got blown out by their divisional rival. Against Philadelphia the team was supposed to take on a struggling Eagles squad at home and show that they simply had a down day against the Dolphins. The team failed to show up and Donovan McNabb and company came away with a decisive win. On a two game slide, the Bills were supposed to absolutely dominate Cincinnati to show they were in a different class. The Bills came away with an overtime win as empty as a taco with no fillings.
Five weeks into the regular season and the Bills have more questions than answers. Is the defense really any better than average? Where is the offensive line? Is there a running game screaming to be let out? Will the Bills even come close to holding a time of possession advantage? Are the Bills capable of winning against quality opposition? Are the playoffs anymore than a pipe dream?
The defense has not played any better than average during the recent slump. This may be a chicken and egg situation. Are the Bills doing poorly because they canít seem to get off the field, or is it because they canít get off the field that they are playing poorly? The defensive unit continues to lack the killer instinct we saw in the first two weeks - they canít seem to get their opponents off the field on third down. The Bills rank 25th in allowing opponents to convert on third down (41.4%) and 24th in allowing 4th down conversions (60%). Add to that some drive-extending penalties like Coy Wireís running into the kicker flag on Sunday and you can see why this defense hasnít lived up to its potential recently. The pass rush is woeful given the talent on the team, and thatís allowed many opposing quarterbacks to look a whole lot better than they really are. Jon Kitna, hardly the scrambler to beat you with his feet, was sacked only once on Sunday. This despite the large number of blitzes the Bills threw at the Bengals.
Sunday saw the continuation of the Bills ďmilk cartonĒ offense - it was lost and nobody could find it. The Bills had seven offensive possessions in the first half. Only two drives lasted more than three plays, and one of those was by virtue of running a play on fourth down that was unsuccessful. By the time the team went to the locker room they had amassed only four first downs (all on the same drive), 60 yards of total offense and four penalties. Drew Bledsoe was a horrific 5 of 17 for 45 yards passing. 28 plays had yielded a pitiful three points. Once again the time of possession was heavily skewed towards the opposition - the Bills held the ball for 11:04 while the Bengals had possession for 18:56. Clearly the team had fallen back into its sleepwalking ways.
While the 2003 Bengals are a better team than they have been in years past, they are far from being a good or even mediocre team. Going into Sundayís contest, the Bengals ranked 25th against the run. Why then did the Bills only run ten times for a total of 25 yards? If you take out Travis Henryís run of 14 yards, the stats are even worse - 9 attempts for 11 yards.
There is a sort of chicken and egg dilemma to the Bills running game, or more accurately, lack thereof. Do the Bills give up on the run because it is not working, or is it not working because the Bills give up on it too soon?
Through the Bills recent slump (Miami, Philadelphia, first half of the Cincinnati game), the Bills have thrown almost twice as often as they have run. Unless youíre down on the scoreboard by a large margin, there is no reason to have this type of ratio. The Bills have been behind when it comes to points, but they have yet to be completely out of it with any measure of time left on the clock. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has to take a truckload of blame for the failure of the running game - heís abandoned it faster than the hosts on ESPNís Sunday Countdown abandoned Rush Limbaugh.
The offensive line has done little to make a case for Gilbrideís pass-happy ways. You certainly need to run the ball enough to get into some sort of rhythm, but the big guys up front have played very poorly. To put it bluntly, this unit has done squat when it comes to opening up any running lanes. Big Mike Williams, signed to a huge contract to match his first round stature, was supposed to open the holes for the likes of Henry. Instead heís busy getting beat on blitzes and giving up sacks - a terrible season so far. Even with one of the best run blocking fullbacks in the game in Sam Gash, the line has nothing to show. In addition to the lack of run blocking, the unit gave up four sacks to the Bengals on Sunday.
If you want to know why the Bills have struggled running the ball and have been soundly manhandled in time of possession you have to look no farther than the offensive line. By extension, when the line struggles the offense struggles and the defense gets tired. When the offense isnít producing and the defense is too tired to get the job done you can see what happens to the team as a whole. Call it a gross oversimplification, but they say that football is won and lost in the trenches. The Bills are getting beat in the trenches.
Iím not overly optimistic that Iíll be writing a much different story next week after facing the Jets in New York. Like the Bengals, the Jets are not a very good team. Also like the Bengals, they are without one of their best offensive players as Chad Pennington recovers from a broken hand. A number of factors makes this game more challenging than the Bengals game: The Jets are fresh off their bye week (see also Eagles, Philadelphia), the game is in enemy territory (see also Dolphins, Miami) and they are likely without one of their top offensive weapons as Eric Moulds is doubtful with a groin injury (see also Henry, Travis, week 4).
I think this Bills team is causing my health to suffer. Watching games proves to require far too much Maalox than it should. Instead of enjoying an offensive and defensive show being put on at the hands of the hapless Bengals Iím doubled over in pain as my bleeding stomach ulcer tries to eat my entire digestive tract (thank me for the visual later, but I know some of you out there felt this on Sunday). I also seem to have developed some bizarre form of Tourettes Syndrome that leaves me yelling out obscenities at the television at random time quite beyond my control.
Maybe my pessimism is getting the best of me, but I donít see the Bills as any better than average right now - perhaps even worse than average. Facing quality opposition they are not up to the task. I think the playoffs are well out of reach at this point. All of this can change if this team suddenly gets back the fire it had in weeks one and two, but they have to show me something (anything!) before I change my tune.
This may have been the week of the tiger mauling, but for the sake of all in Bills Nation I hope we donít go down in a plane crash this week as we face the Jets.