ORCHARD PARK – It didn’t come easily this time, like it had so many times before, but Tom Brady was Tom Terrific when he had to be – with just under five minutes to go and his team trailing the Bills by a point at the raucous Ralph.
Despite playing without his top five pass-catchers from last season, including recuperating Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady managed to hold everything together and orchestrate the kind of grace-under-pressure drive with which Bills fans have become all too familiar.
He put Stephen Gostkowski in position to drill a 35-yard field goal with five seconds remaining for a 23-21 victory that spoiled the NFL debuts of Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel and first-year coach Doug Marrone.
Marrone was hoping to join Marv Levy as the only head coaches to win their Bills debut. Alas, it was not to be, and Buffalo head coaches are now a combined 1-16 in those contests.
Still, there were positives to be gleaned from this defeat. First and foremost, it appears that Buffalo might just have something in Manuel, the first-rounder from Florida State who looked calm and collected while becoming the first rookie quarterback to start for the team since Joe Ferguson four decades ago. EJ finished with a 105.5 quarterback rating after completing 18-of-27 passes for 150 yards and two scores and no interceptions. He also rushed three times for 23 yards, including a clutch 19-yard scramble that helped keep alive a scoring drive.
There remains, of course, much work to be done. Manuel still hasn’t shown us the ability to chuck it long effectively (he was almost picked off on his one deep throw), and this is going to become a necessity because the Patriots show that you can shut down electric running back C.J. Spiller if there is no fear you’re going to dial long distance in the passing game. But Manuel does appears cool beyond his years. He has pocket presence – something which Rob Johnson, J.P. Losman and Trent Edwards never had. So, there’s definitely something to build on here.
The second positive was the play of the defense and the play-calling of new coordinator Mike Pettine. The Rex Ryan disciple has brought the playbook filled with multiple formations and aggressive plays with him from the Jets. Unlike, his vanilla predecessor, Dave Wannstedt, Pettine is going to give you different looks on every play; he is going to buck predictability; he’s going to make you wonder what he’s going to throw at you next.
That’s not to say that this defense is suddenly the reincarnation of the Monsters of the Midway or the Purple People Eaters or the Steel Curtain. It yielded three of the highest point totals in Bills history the past three years, and the Patriots, with their new, inexperienced receiving corps, did rack up 446 yards in total offense against them Sunday. But I liked what I saw from rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso, free safety Da’Norris Searcy, defensive end Jerry Hughes and linebacker Manny Lawson. At least, we know that Pettine isn’t going to be afraid to make adjustments, something his predecessor wouldn’t do even when the Bills were being carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey.
As mentioned, Spiller didn’t have a sterling opening game. He rushed for just 41 yards on 17 carries – a paltry 2.4-yard-per-tote average – and his five receptions resulted in only 14 yards, a pathetic 2.8 average. Fortunately, Fred Jackson was there to salvage things. Steady Freddy rushed for 67 yards on 13 carries (5.2) and had four receptions for 41 yards (10.3). Marrone and new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett are going to have to work on ways to find Spiller some open territory, and, again, the superlative running backs could be greatly helped if Manuel could make some deep connections with Robert Woods and T.J. Graham.
The other big disappointments were the turnovers – a fumble led to a Pats touchdown – and the penalties – 10 in all, including a couple of drive-killers. The Bills aren’t good enough to overcome those mistakes, especially against good teams like New England.
All in all, it wasn’t a bad start. Believe me, I’ve seen much worse in my 29 seasons of covering this team. It’s going to be a season of transition, replete with many growing pains. But it appears there are some legitimate building blocks being put into place.
OFFENSE: Bad outing by Spiller, who failed to produce any big plays and lost a fumble that led to a Patriots touchdown. Manuel was solid, but not spectacular. This was a confidence booster and he should show more willingness to go deep as the season progresses. Penalties and turnovers proved costly. GRADE: B-minus
DEFENSE: Pettine’s unit was aggressive, as advertised, getting two sacks and some pressure on Brady and producing two turnovers, one which led to a touchdown. Alonso showed promise. New acquisitions Lawson and Hughes had their moments. Could be much improved once Jairus Byrd and Stephon Gilmore return. Defensive end Mario Williams isn’t the force he should be. He was handled one-on-one most of the day. GRADE: B-minus.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Arthur Moats’ facemask penalty on a return gave Pats great field position on one of their scoring drives. Return game was non-existent. Shaun Powell did a decent job punting with three inside the 20. GRADE: C-plus.
OVERALL: OK start against a team that has owned them, but it was still a loss. Marrone has work to do in eliminating costly penalties and Manuel needs to show more of his game, now that he has this debut out of the way. GRADE: C-plus.