"I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are going wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock. But I'll know about it, and I'll be happy."
George”The Gipper” Gipp 1920
On Sunday the Buffalo Bills found themselves in their own “Gipper Moment”. With critically injured tight end Kevin Everett lying in a hospital ICU more than 500 miles away, the team traveled to Pittsburgh to take on one of the AFC’s strongest teams, the Steelers. The stage was set for Buffalo, the heavy underdogs, to rise to the occasion and defeat the heavily favored Steelers while riding the crest of an emotional wave. Just as Notre Dame defeated a superior Army team in 1920 as a tribute to a sick teammate, the Bills could just as surely win one for a teammate nearly killed a week earlier.
Unfortunately, last Sunday was not a Ronald Reagan movie. There is debate about whether George Gipp ever asked Knute Rockne to ask the team to win on his behalf, or if Rockne ever truly gave such a speech to motivate his players. What is known is that George Gipp died in 1920 of strep throat. Knute Rockne died in a fiery plane crash in 1931. Ronald Reagan died of Alzheimers in 2004. Notre Dame has started the season 0-3, losing 38-0 against Michigan. That a lot of bad mojo surrounding an uplifting sports moment, isn’t it?
Indeed, what happened in Pittsburgh more closely resembles the harsh reality than the fictional event. The Bills had one of their worst showings in recent memory as they were pounded 26-3 by a Steelers team that could have made the score even more lopsided but for their own failings in the red zone.
The Bills were absolutely dominated on both sides of the ball. Offensively, the Bills were completely flat recording only 10 first downs and racking up 223 yards of total offense. Defensively the team gave up 420 yards and allowed Pittsburgh to convert 11 third down opportunities.
The reasons for the loss sound like the broken record that’s played over and over again over the recent history of the Bills. The offense was conservative and lacked any sort of spark whatsoever. Defensively the Bills couldn’t make the stop and get off the field, eventually wearing down from exhaustion.
The offense failed to move the chains and put together any sort of sustained drive – their longest possession of the first half lasted 5 plays and ate 2:39 of clock. J.P. Losman looked downright terrible – too hesitant to throw the ball many times and off the mark often when he did get it away. Although a bit early for Halloween, Losman appeared to be wearing a Rob Johnson costume as he held onto the ball rather than throwing it away. When he did throw the ball away he didn’t throw it out of bounds, resulting in a near interception.
The play calling was once again very questionable, failing to take advantage of Losman’s mobility and Lee Evans’ ability to go downfield. The Bills refuse to roll Losman out of the pocket or use his feet to beat defenders. They are possibly the only team in the NFL who don’t seem to have any sort of bootleg or rollout for their mobile quarterback in short yardage situations. The only experienced offensive star on the team, Evans has not been a part of the gameplan save for the 1 or two times the Bills attempt to go deep.
We all knew the defense was going to have their troubles this season, but watching this unit on Sundays has been painful. Simply put, the Bills can’t seem to string together enough solid defensive plays to put a halt to opposing teams’ drives. They certainly have made plays, but making a stop on first and second down and then giving up the third down conversion doesn’t get the ball out of your opponent’s hands. Giving up big plays is a back breaker – 4 separate receives had plays longer than 20 yards and running back Willie Parker had numerous long runs. Due to injury the Bills defensive backs have resembled the long list of Drummers from Spinal Tap – each guy coming in for an injured player also seems to be lost to injury.
What makes Sunday’s loss even worse is the reaction of the players and the fans. Losman failed to take the blame for his poor play on Sunday, instead he openly questioned the game plan of his offensive coordinator. Note to Losman – when you’re Peyton Manning you can question the play calling and imply that you can do a better job – when you’re a second year starter who isn’t even guaranteed to be at the helm for the entire season its best to shut your mouth and if you have the nuggets to question the coaches you do so in private, not at the press conference podium.
Evans showed he also could behave badly in the face of a frustrating situation. Evans was called for 2 consecutive 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, the second coming after he shot his mouth off to a ref about the lack of a pass interference flag.
For their parts, some of the fans are starting to fall off the Losman bandwagon and it appears it won’t be long before there is real debate in Bills Nation about whether Trent Edwards should be the man behind center. Funny how there were legions of fans thinking the Bills could go 10-6 just a few short weeks ago and now there is talking about ending the Losman era and moving on to greener pastures. Can an all out quarterback controversy be but a few more soul crushing losses away?
In order to be successful things need to change. While I don’t agree with Losman’s methods, I do agree that the offensive game plan should be adjusted. You have to work with what you have and play to the strengths of your team – I don’t think that is being done right now. You have to take more shots down the field. You have to move Losman around in the pocket. You have to keep running Lynch. You have to get Evans the ball more, even if its not always on deep routes. You have to give up the game plan of having Losman not lose and let the defense win. The defense isn’t good enough to win the game – Losman’s going to have to be asked to lead the team to some wins.
It’s not entirely fair to judge Losman on performances against Denver, Pittsburgh and New England (seriously, I’ll be writing another article about an ugly loss next week) – these are very good teams who should all be in or near the tops of their respective divisions in December and certainly have more talent than a young and injury riddled Bills squad at this point in time. I understand that the fans have grown excessively tired of hearing that they need to be patient and that success is just around the corner, but give J.P. a few more games against more evenly matched opponents to decide if Edwards should take over the reins later in the season. In the mean time, the young players need to grow up a bit and learn how to handle themselves better under adversity.
Defensively I believe the Bills need to get more talent in order to be effective. This unit was suspect to begin with, but with multiple injuries they just can’t compete against the better teams in the league. To be sure, Buffalo will draft defense next season and will also probably invest some money in free agents for that side of the ball – we all knew that they weren’t great last year and probably got worse with some key personnel losses but would have to make do this season.
So the rest of the year could be rough for Bills fans, particularly if you were convinced that the Bills were better than they were last season and could make the playoffs. But then again, if you were predicting 10-6 you probably also thought the Bills were going to win one for the Gipper in Pittsburgh. Remember – Knute Rokne is dead.