Bills brass are now all in with Kyle Orton after quarterback EJ Manuel benched

BILLS

After just 16 months and 14 unpromising starts, the Buffalo Bills are moving on from EJ Manuel. (My photo, above)

Head coach Doug Marrone has seen enough. On Monday afternoon he announced that veteran Kyle Orton — whom the club hastily signed in late August — will start at quarterback for the Bills on Sunday in Detroit.

The move is understandable, if somewhat of a surprise this early in the season, given that Marrone and GM Doug Whaley tried to convince the world all winter, spring and summer that EJ was Their Man.

BILLSIt remains to be seen whether the less mobile if better-armed Orton (my photo accompanying), who’s 31 and was out of football for most of the spring and summer, can function any better behind that patchwork Bills offensive line.

Maybe Orton on Sunday would have been hit fewer than the nine times Manuel was by the league’s premier passer-pulverizer, J.J. Watt. Or maybe Watt would have plastered Orton even more.

There is no denying Manuel struggled mightily in Buffalo’s last two games, losses to San Diego and at Houston.

“We need to get better production out of that position,” Marrone told reporters Monday at One Bills Drive in Orchard Park,  N.Y. “We have to make adjustments. We’ve got to make some changes because we can’t keep going in the direction that we’re going.”

In 10 starts last season, and in four to start this one, Manuel appeared incapable of ever leading the Bills to victory when either the run game was shut down, or the defence was porous. When both occurred, you got what happened two Sundays ago against the Chargers: enriched uglium.

Buffalo won its opener in Chicago on Sept. 7 mainly because the Bills rushed for 193 yards, and because Bears QB Jay Cutler was careless with the football. Manuel completed some clutch passes, yes, but he wasn’t relied on much — the club’s expressed if fragile aim in 2014. Manuel, for instance, threw but once on the Bills’ seven-play, 69-yard, game-winning drive at Soldier Field.

Buffalo beat Miami in Week 2 because the Bills’ pass rush tormented a flustered Ryan Tannehill, the Buffalo running game provided one huge play, special teams were fantastic and the Dolphins secondary unwisely ignored star Buffalo rookie wideout Sammy Watkins. Manuel can do enough to succeed, and did, in those glowing conditions.

The last two defences to face the Bills, however, took notice of the Watkins threat and calibrated accordingly. The Chargers and Texans stacked the box to stop the run AND made better efforts to take Watkins away.

Bingo. The winning formula.

Bills coaches had no antidote, probably because at this point in Manuel’s young career, there isn’t one.

Against the Chargers, the Bills’ dynamic running-back duo of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller rushed for just 59 yards total, Watkins caught only two of eight balls Manuel threw his way and the Bills got crunched 22-10. Manuel connected with a wide receiver on only one completion longer than 10 yards, and was awful in every way.

Against the Texans, the Bills inexplicably did not bother trying to establish much of a running game, even when they were ahead throughout the first half. Jackson and Spiller totalled 93 yards by game’s end, and Manuel threw a whopping 44 times, completing only 21. Again, he and Watkins misconnected more times than not (5-of-9).

That Manuel could not remotely keep up with San Diego’s Phil Rivers in an aerial shootout at the Ralph, you can understand. And Marrone apparently could accept.

That Manuel fared just as badly head-to-head against Houston’s Ryan Fitzpatrick — the belittled journeyman the Bills dumped so they could draft a first-round quarterback last year, who turned out to be Manuel — apparently was unstomachable for a franchise so desperate to avoid a 15th consecutive season out of the playoffs.

BILLS“Kyle Orton is our starting quarterback right now,” said Marrone (my photo, accompanying). “We’re going to give him an opportunity to go in there and play.”

So, is it all Manuel’s fault? And is he all that bad?

Answers: no, and maybe not.

On the latter point, Manuel himself admitted in a training-camp interview that he was aware of mechanical issues he had to work on. Such as shortening his stride and making sure always to push off his back foot. Some long-time league observers believe it was worse than that, that Manuel’s mechanics top to bottom are a mess. Perhaps.

I’ll say this. His stance is too open, too often, which affects both his accuracy and ability to drive the ball on demand. And his hesitance to step into throws and just rip it was another big issue, which might have everything to do with what offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett told me 10 days ago — that Manuel lacks “comfort” with a substantial chunk of the Bills playbook.

Manuel often imbued hesitance.

But on some plays, such as his quick-slant touchdown throw to Watkins on Sunday, his comfort radiated, and he’d fully look the part. Why such comfort escaped Manuel most of the time is perplexing.

And not his fault alone.

The Bills front office needs to shoulder a sizeable portion of the blame here. Not just former GM Buddy Nix, current GM Whaley and their scouting staff for selecting Manuel in the first place — widely seen even then as an over-reach at No. 16 overall, in what was gauged as a down year for quarterbacks.

The culpability also rises right up to president/CEO Russ Brandon. He was the one in January 2013 who signed off on this plan:

Hire a rookie NFL head coach; let him bring his young, new-to-the-NFL offensive coordinator with him from Syracuse University (Hackett); don’t hire a quarterbacks coach, even though the club’s plan was to go all-in with a new rookie quarterback in the coming May draft; then allow a rookie GM-in-waiting to take big risks to upgrade the offensive roster around that new quarterback.

BILLSWhaley (again, that’s my photo) now admits that not hiring a quarterbacks coach last year was a huge error, even if the plan had been to place Manuel under the wing of a knowledgeable veteran, Kevin Kolb. But the team knew Kolb was only one concussion away from having to retire and, sure enough, Kolb never made it out of training camp.

That Manuel never fully grasped or felt comfortable in Hackett’s offence is not all on Manuel.

At times Hackett would call plays for Manuel that were too college-y. Such as some of the read-option stuff, and those rollouts or bootlegs in the red zone, which usually work in college but not in the grown-man’s league, where speedy defenders rush up and rub out quarterbacks in an eye-blink.

Listen, the Bills might well make the playoffs now with Orton — this year and for years to come. Monday’s move might prove to be one of the shrewdest and boldest in club history: admit the error quickly, take your lumps, and move on before yet another season’s chances wither fast away.

But here’s the ultimate takeaway from Monday.

If the above principals weren’t all in with EJ before, they sure as hell have to be now with Orton. With no first-round draft pick next year (or fourth-rounder either, for that matter) — thanks to Whaley’s enormous draft-day gamble in May to trade up to get Watkins — Orton absolutely must work out.

Otherwise, Manuel will merely wind up the first of several 2013 rookies in the Bills organization to be told, some day soon, that he wasn’t good enough.

Scrutiny of the bounty: rating the NFL’s youngest quarterbacks

greenSorry if this is corny.

While trying to think of a catch-all metaphor for gauging the growth of all those young quarterbacks on NFL rosters nowadays, an idea finally jumped out of my back window.

From my latest sad excuse of a vegetable garden.

Right! Harvest time!

With two rookie quarterbacks set to start for the first time on Sunday — Blake Bortles for the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Teddy Bridgewater for the Minnesota Vikings — it’s as good a time as any to weigh in on the last four crops of NFL rookie QBs.

Forty-two passers with less than five years of experience are on either a 53-man roster or practice squad: 11 rookies, 11 from the 2013 class, 11 from 2012 and nine from 2011. Cheap labour, baby!

Here’s how I rate them, grouped and labelled by typical, yummy Kryk-garden produce:

 

 

SWEET CORN

When the &%*$#!  squirrels don’t get to them first, they’re the prize of the garden. Peel back, admire and enjoy.

SEAHAWKSAndrew Luck, Colts (2012, 1stRound, 1stOverall): He was worth it. 35 starts, 55 TDs, 3 playoff games already. Sky’s the limit.

Russell Wilson, Seahawks (2012, 3rdR, 75thO): After a wobbly end to ’13, took Seattle to the Super Bowl, was super in it, and is still super. (My photo, accompanying)

Nick Foles, Eagles (2012, 3rdR, 88thO): You keep wanting to doubt his stats. Yet there they are: 33 TD passes, 4 INTs under Chip Kelly. Wow.

 

 

CUCUMBERS

Prolific beyond expectations, pleasing and so good for you! But suddenly, at some point, growth and production slowed right down. Which rightly concerns you.

SKINSRobert Griffin III, Redskins (2012, 1stR, 2ndO): Since his amazing first 3 months in the NFL, injuries have fussed with his delivery and confidence. (My photos, accompanying.)

Colin Kaepernick, 49ers (2011, 2ndR, 36thO): One pass from winning a Super Bowl two seasons ago, seems far less assured and dangerous now.

Cam Newton, Panthers (2011, 1stR, 1stO): After breaking all those rookie records, regressed in Year 2. Rebounding now after strong 2013.

Andy Dalton, Bengals (2011, 2ndR, 35thO): Mr. September. Mr. October. Mr. November. Mr. December. Misses in January.

 

 

STRING BEANS

They sprout up strong and fast, show promise, but don’t produce as much as you’d like — and have the annoying knack of locking on to the first thing they see. Rip ’em out or keep letting ’em grow?

SKINSKirk Cousins, Redskins (2012, 4thR, 102ndO): Has a winning NFL QB’s talents. Must stop thinking and playing like RG3’s temp. (My photo accompanying)

Mike Glennon, Buccaneers (2013, 3rdR, 73rdO): Despite Schiano turmoil had an OK rookie year. And, hey, he’s a string-bean!!!

Austin Davis, Rams (2012, undrafted): Practice-squad guy hasn’t been bad in emergency relief this month. Can he keep it going?

 

 

HALF-RIPENED PUMPKINS

Stuck in the transition between raw green and mature orange. At this point you’re really unsure if they’ll ever make it all the way to orange. But they’d better, and fast — before the patch is ploughed in anticipation of next year’s crop.

BILLSJake Locker, Titans (2011, 1stR, 8thO): People keep forgetting how inaccurate he is, if only because he’s injured so often. Last chance is now.

Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins (2012, 1stR, 8thO): Struggling in new offence. Averaging just 86 passing yards in first halves in ’14. Hesitant, seems lost. (My photo, accompanying)

EJ Manuel, Bills (2013, 1stR, 16thO): Plays carefully enough to not lose you a game. But cannot win you a game yet with just his arm. Plays uptight.

Geno Smith (2013, 2ndR, 39thO): His problem is the opposite of Manuel’s. Is far too careless, reckless. And Michael Vick’s hot on his heels.

 

 

FROST-RUINED TOMATOES

Some appeared destined to become colourful, flavourful salad-toppers. But frost bit them and they wound up blotched, bruised and shrivelled — destined for the composter.

VIKINGSChristian Ponder, Vikings (2011, 1stR, 12thO): His last chance was last year. Well, unless Bridgewater gets hurt. (My photo accompanying)

Blaine Gabbert, 49ers (2011, 1stR, 10thO): Jax had enough of him after 3 years, trading him to the Niners in March. Backs up Kap.

Brandon Weeden, Cowboys (2012, 1stR, 22ndO): The Browns gave up on him before the 1st month of his 2nd season was over. Eesh.

Ryan Lindley, Chargers (2012, 6thR, 185th): Got starts late in his rookie season in Arizona. As accurate as a wobbly canon.

B.J. Daniels, Seahawks (2013, 7thR, 247thO): Is on Seattle practice squad. Niners, Packers already have said seeya to him.

Case Keenum, Rams (2012, undrafted): Started the last half of last year for the Texans, and proved he ain’t the answer, y’alls.

Matt McGloin, Raiders (2013, undrafted): See Keenum, Case.

Jeff Tuel, Bills (2013, undrafted): Finished one game in ’13, started another. Showed almost nothing. Then disappointed in ’14 camp.

 

 

GREEN CHERRY TOMATOES

Never turned red and never got picked, for whatever reason. Might yet ripen, but now you have serious doubts. It’s getting late.

PATRIOTST.J. Yates, Falcons (2011, 5thR, 152ndO): Got a handful of starts late in rookie season in Houston. Meh. Mostly shelved since.

Tyrod Taylor, Ravens (2011, 6thR, 180thO): Has barely played behind ironman Joe Flacco. Might be NFL’s most anonymous backup.

Ryan Mallett, Texans (2011, 3rdR, 74thO): What’s more likely to get you playing time: backing up Tom Brady or Ryan Fitzpatrick? Right. (My photo accompanying)

 

 

CARROTS

Unknowns till ya pick ’em. They all look pretty much the same above ground: promising! Long, healthy, vibrant green tops, without exception. But few ever produce what you want: straight, long carrots. Yet you never think THIS carrot will be the stubby, twisted or bitter-tasting one.

SRBOWLDerek Carr, Raiders (2014, 2ndR, 36thO): 3 starts under his belt. Tough gig in talent-starved Oakland, though. (My photo from Senior Bowl, accompanying)

Blake Bortles, Jaguars (2014, 1stR, 3rdO): 1st start on Sunday! At San Diego. Yikes.

Teddy Bridgewater, Vikings (2014, 1stR, 32ndO): 1st start on Sunday! Against the Falcons.

Johnny Manziel, Browns (2014, 1stR, 22ndO): Learn to love the pocket, Johnny Football.

Jimmy Garoppolo, Patriots (2014, 2ndR, 62ndO): Great, snappy delivery, good promise.

Logan Thomas, Cardinals (2014, 4thR, 120thO): Canon for an arm. Footwork determines accuracy determines fate.

Tom Savage, Texans (2014, 4thR, 135thO): If Texans tank, could get his chance this year.

Aaron Murray, Chiefs (2014, 5thR, 163rdO): Under Andy Reid could blossom. Underrated.

A.J. McCarron, Bengals (2014, 5thR, 164thO): Might warm the bench here for years.

Zach Mettenberger, Titans (2014, 6thR, 178thO): Keep that arm of yours limber, son.

David Fales, Bears (2014, 6thR, 183rdO): Accurate, but only short. Has popgun arm.

EAGLESMatt Barkley, Eagles (2013, 4thR, 98thO): Still a wrong fit for Chip Kelly. (My photo accompanying)

Ryan Nassib, Giants (2013, 4thR, 110thO): Until late in ’14camp looked like a total bust.

Landry Jones, Steelers (2013, 4thR, 115thO): Seeing Big Ben throw every day must be humbling.

Zac Dysert, Broncos (2013, 7thR, 234thO): Some draftniks still think a lot of him.

Sean Renfree, Falcons (2013, 7thR, 249thO): Behind Matty Ice and Yates, won’t play.

Brock Osweiler, Broncos (2012, 2ndR, 57thO): Tall, strong, but growing stale behind Peyton.

 

Bills offensive coordinator Hackett explains why he never panicked in August

BILLS

Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett isn’t recognized very often in Western New York. (My photo of him, above, from June mini-camp.)

Such anonymity allowed him to see just how low expectations had sunk for his offence’s prospects in 2014, after five putrid preseason performances.

“It’s funny, people had their heads down,” Hackett said in a phone interview on Friday, “and they were all upset, going, ‘Oh man, you’ve got your Bills gear on.’ I mean, all kinds of people.

“And no one would know who I am or anything, and I’d just smile and tell them, ‘Hey, just believe. Just believe. We’ll be fine.

“Then they’d be like, ‘I don’t know. They look so bad.’ And I said, ‘Hey, it’s preseason. Don’t worry about it … I think we’ll be good.”

It was funny to Hackett because he knew better. The Bills offence wouldn’t be bad, he was sure.

Here we are now, in Week 3, and the Bills are 2-0 — one of only seven undefeated teams left in the league. In part, that’s thanks to an offence which — if not prolific or even consistently good yet — has been good enough, often enough, to bag a pair of wins.

On Sunday the Bills play host to the 1-1 San Diego Chargers, fresh off a convincing victory against the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks (1 p.m. EDT, CTV Ontario).

Hackett said he’s not surprised his offence has helped win games, and will interrupt you if you so much as begin to suggest his unit was, well, putrid in the preseason.

“No, no, I didn’t think there was anything to that stuff,” he said. “Preseason, it’s just a time to evaluate, a time to get better, a time to correct things. You don’t really game-plan. You get to work through the kinks, get to see everything.

“In the real games the players have done a nice job of executing the game plans so far.”

Probably only his baldness keeps Hackett from looking even younger than his 34 years. It’s only his second year of coaching in the NFL, after he followed head coach Doug Marrone to Buffalo from Syracuse University.

Before explaining what went right in victories against Chicago (23-20 in overtime) and Miami (29-10), Hackett wanted to explain why those preseason extrapolations were unfair and inaccurate. Especially regarding the Tampa Bay game.

“People have to understand, you really don’t want to show anything in the preseason,” Hackett said. “You don’t want anybody to see a anything cool that you’re going to do, especially if you’re playing a team that’s so much like one of your early opponents.”

Hackett referred specifically to the first-team Buffalo offence’s scoreless opening half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ first-team defence. Quarterback EJ Manuel and Co. scrounged but 82 yards of offence in seven possessions.

“The Bucs play the same defence as (Week 1 opponent) Chicago,” Hackett said. “We knew that Chicago was going to watch that game. So for us, we said, hey, let’s just run our basest of base stuff — our most vanilla stuff.”

Believe it or not, Hackett said the coaches learned a “ton” of things from that awful half of football, especially which of their base packages would work best against such a Tampa-2 defence.

One wrinkle Hackett kept under wraps until the Bears game, for instance, was the “fullhouse pistol” formation, used most extensively in the NFL over the past two seasons by the San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins.

In it, the quarterback stands at pistol depth with the halfback directly behind him, as usual, but flanked on either side by two others, usually a tight end and a fullback.

On the second snap of the season, Hackett unveiled it at Soldier Stadium. C.J. Spiller ran for two yards. Later in the first quarter Hackett had Manuel throw out of it, off play-action.

Hackett kept that pistol package holstered against the Dolphins.

“We’d love to have more execution out of those (formations) in the preseason,” Hackett said. “But in August I just want to hide everybody and everything.”

The Bills attack showed its diversity in its season-opening wins. Against Chicago, an inside running attack featuring Fred Jackson gained 193 yards, and Manuel threw a lot of dumpoffs. Against Miami, perimeter running featuring Spiller worked better, and a more aggressive downfield passing attack outgained the run nearly 2-1, and it featured star rookie wideout Sammy Watkins, who caught eight balls for 117 yards and a touchdown.

“This offence has a bunch of different personalities,” Hackett said. “C.J. Spiller is a much different running back than Fred Jackson. Everybody does things that are unique from others at their positions.

“That’s what’s exciting from my standpoint. It’s not any one-man show. It’s a team show. That’s what we’re trying to do here. Like the New Orleans Saints or Green Bay Packers … It’s just a matter of quickly finding out who the defence is trying to take away, then attacking with the other guys.

“There are always things that a defence will give you. It’s our job to say, ‘We’ve got all these plays, now what do our players do well? Who do things best for the plays that will work?’”

Being able to switch his offence’s personalities on command is an ideal to which Hackett aspires. But he knows what his attack is based on, and it’s no secret.

“No doubt. When you look at the Denver Broncos, you’ve got to stop the pass,” he said. “And when you look at the Buffalo Bills, you’re going to want to stop the run.

“So for us, we’ve got to have plays to get people open down the field against the defences you’re going to face. And the good thing is, when you do go against defences trying to stop the run, that typically does leave some good pass opportunities. We’ve got to keep calling those when they give us those opportunities.”

 

 

Hackett: Manuel’s 6-6 start ‘impressive’

If you think Nathaniel Hackett is upbeat about his offence, you should hear the Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator gush about his second-year quarterback.

Well, his rookie quarterback. No, his second-year quarterback.

Huh?

EJ Manuel in fact is two games into his second year in the NFL, but Hackett said he doesn’t look at it that way.

“I always tell him, ‘Hey, buddy, you’re only 12 games old. You’re still in your rookie season in my mind,’” Hackett said Friday in a telephone interview.

BILLSManuel has guided the Bills to victory in their first two games of 2014, after going 4-6 as a starter in his rookie season, which was interrupted three times by minor knee injuries.

In all seriousness, Hackett said Manuel doesn’t get enough credit for what he already has accomplished as a pro.

“For any quarterback to go 6-6 in his first 12 NFL games, that’s impressive,” Hackett said. “He did a very good job last year, and he just has to keep on that upswing.”

Most observers believe the Bills, with their powerful running game and strong defence, can be a legit playoff contender as long as their perceived weak link, Manuel, does not let them down.

His uncertain, scattershot performances in the preseason did not appear to bode well.

“I understand what people were seeing,” Hackett said. “But I’ll tell ya, I think a lot of people forget about where he was going in the beginning of last season — how good he was in the New England game, how good he was in the Carolina game, how good he was in the Baltimore game.”

Then, in his fifth start at Cleveland, Manuel sprained the LCL in his right knee while leading the Bills on an eventual go-ahead touchdown drive in the third quarter. With Manuel knocked out, the Bills lost.

He missed more than a month. He returned to win two of his last four starts, and in one of the losses — to Atlanta in Toronto — he passed the Bills into range for a game-winning field goal before wideout Stevie Johnson fumbled.

“When you look at the big picture of what EJ’s doing, and where he’s going, he just has to keep improving,” Hackett said. “And if he takes a step back, he’s just got to learn from that and find out how to move forward again.”

Through two weeks this season, Manuel ranked 12th in the NFL in yards per attempt, 11th in passer rating and 14th in efficiency.

If there’s one thing Hackett would like to see Manuel improve on the most, it’s not anything to do with statistics, nor his delivery, nor even his read progressions.

“I would say it’s just getting comfortable with certain plays,” Hackett said. “As a coach, it’s hard for me because I always want to keep putting in new wrinkles, on this and that. But as a young quarterback he’s still getting familiar with the original plays we have, plus the new stuff we put in.

“When he’s comfortable with something, he’s as good as there is. He’s awesome. He can throw the ball down the field, or short — all kinds of different things. So I think the goal for me and the staff is how fast, and how many different plays, can we get him to feel that way with? The faster he can do that, the better he’s going to be and the more plays we can call.”

 

Chargers offence nicked up

The San Diego Chargers offence won’t be at full strength on Sunday at Buffalo.

Starting running back Ryan Mathews is out. He sprained the MCL in his right knee late in the Chargers’ upset win against Seattle last Sunday.

Speedy smurf Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown figure to get Mathews’ snaps.

What’s more, emerging second-year wideout Keenan Allen was limited in practice this week with a groin injury and is questionable, while tight end Antonio Gates — who teamed up with quarterback Phil Rivers to burn the Seahawks for three touchdowns — has a hamstring injury that him from practising fully until Friday.

 

 

1st-place Bills win again — this time with Clemson flash on offence, not the smash

BILLSORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Last week the Buffalo Bills offence won with slow-moving smash. This week, with fast-flying flash.

Clemson flash, to be specific. Courtesy of two former Clemson University Tigers: C.J. Spiller and Sammy Watkins (my pregame photos, accompanying).

That duo’s big plays, in combo with another strong defensive effort and a nightmare of a day for the Miami Dolphins special teams, led the surprising Buffalo Bills to an easy 29-10 win on Sunday at raucous Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The Bills improved to 2-0 and sit alone in first place in the AFC East for the first time in three years. The Dolphins dropped to 1-1. The New York Jets and New England Patriots also are 1-1.

“We ran for almost 200 yards last week,” said Bills running back Fred Jackson, a plough horse in Buffalo’s 23-20 overtime win in Chicago. “Any team is going to focus on stopping that this week. When they do, we’ve got guys in our receiver corps who can make plays and have big games themselves.”

Well, one guy anyway: Watkins.

In his first regular-season home game, the fleet, sure-handed rookie lived up to his ballyhooed promise as the fourth overall draft pick in May.

Watkins caught eight passes from improving second-year quarterback EJ Manuel, for 117 yards and one touchdown — to become the first Bills first-year receiver since Lee Evans in 2004 to amass 100+ receiving yards in a game.

“He’s going to be a great talent in the NFL. That’s really it,” veteran Dolphins cornerback Cortland Finnegan said of Watkins. “He had a good day. Kudos to him.”

Spiller had a quiet first half, as did the entire Bills rushing attack in taking a 9-0 lead into locker room. After Miami opened the third quarter with a field-goal drive, Spiller grabbed the ensuing kickoff two yards deep in his end zone — and was gone. Touchdown.

Why is Spiller returning kickoffs this season for the first time since 2010, his rookie year? Because the coaches asked him to. Duh.

And not a problem, Spiller said.

“I just had to get back into the groove of catching it, making great decisions and after that it’s pretty much just a matter of trusting your eyes. Just try to hit (the hole) a hundred miles per hour. I mean, there’s really no magic about (it).”

Three plays after Miami narrowed Buffalo’s lead to 16-10, Spiller showed off his top-grade speed and elusiveness again, bursting off left tackle and weaving 47 yards to the Miami 16.

Two plays later Manuel hit Watkins on a crosser, and as the rookie dived to the corner he slammed the ball down on the pylon for his first NFL touchdown — to the delight of 69,954 fans on a sunny but cool late-summer day.

“It was amazing,” Watkins said of the crowd’s reaction.

Buffalo’s Dan Carpenter, cut by the Dolphins a year ago, added his fourth and fifth field goals to round out the scoring.

Between his kickoff returns, rushes and catches, Spiller finished with 200 all-purpose yards, on 15 touches.

“I told C.J. before going out today, ‘You have an opportunity every time you touch the ball to change the game,’” Jackson said. “When he gets the ball in his hands, all you can do is hold your breath and see what happens.”

BILLSIn both Buffalo victories, Manuel has played smart, efficient football, if not often dynamic or quite accurate enough. But that’s all the Bills need him to be in this run-based attack, which also relies heavily on a stubborn, talented defence to tee them up with good field position.

Manuel was 16-of-26 for 202 yards and was not intercepted.

“He’s progressing well,” Bills head coach Doug Marrone said. “That’s two good games for him now.”

Tannehill, meantime, performed miserably for the third time in as many starts at the Ralph.

BILLSIf he and his head coach Joe Philbin are around next year for a fourth game here, they might want to try figuring out how to start faster. In his three first halves in Buffalo, Tannehill is a combined 22-of-39 (56%) for just 155 yards and no touchdowns, while being sacked eight times. And overall he has engineered just two touchdown drives.

“We just didn’t play well,” Tannehill said. “We didn’t get first downs, we didn’t rush the ball, we didn’t throw the ball, we didn’t catch the ball — we didn’t do anything well.”

Even worse than the offence were Miami’s special teams. Get this: two shanked punts, one blocked punt, the kickoff-return touchdown allowed and a muffed punt (lost to Buffalo) inside the 20.

Philbin had no explanation for all those less-than-special gaffes.

Before the game, most fans took their seats earlier than usual — to celebrate two things.

BILLSFirst, the legacy of founding club owner Ralph Wilson, who died in March after 55 years of proudly refusing ever to sell the club to pushy out-of-town buyers. Second, the fact the team will not be moving to Toronto or anywhere, after Terry and Kim Pegula agreed Tuesday to buy the team from the Wilson estate for $1.4 billion, pending NFL approval.

In honouring Wilson before the game, Bills Hall of Fame legend Jim Kelly — fresh off announcing he has defeated cranial cancer for the second time in a year — had to wait to speak. Fans refused to stop cheering for two minutes.

“I’ve seen this stadium rock a lot of times,” club president Russ Brandon said of Kelly’s ovation, “but I’ve never felt it like that today. It was awesome.” (That’s Brandon, above, with an emotional Mary Wilson, Ralph’s widow.)

The Bills try to improve to 3-0 next Sunday at the Ralph against the 1-1 San Diego Chargers.

- – -

 

Gruesome elbow injury sidelines Dolphins’ Moreno

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Yes, running back Knowshon Moreno really can be a special player this season for the Dolphins, a Miami beat writer was saying just before kickoff on Sunday.

Then the scribe applied an ominous asterisk: “You know, as long as he can stay healthy.”

Well that did it.

Less than 11 minutes into Miami’s 29-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Moreno gruesomely dislocated his left elbow as he was being tackled. He put his left hand on the ground, and that arm bent backward at the elbow — um, the wrong way — when Bills linebacker Nigel Bradham fell on it.

Ayyyyyouch.

Moreno clutched his left arm while being helped to the locker room. He did not return.

Reports say he’ll miss four weeks.

The sixth-year player last year helped to make the Denver Broncos offence lethal, both as a runner and receiver. But in part because of his perennially bum left knee, the Broncos did not retain him.

Moreno signed with the Dolphins as a free agent in the spring, then underwent yet another round of arthroscopic surgery on the bum knee in early summer.

Moreno healed in time to play a pivotal role last week in Miami’s 33-20 upset of the New England Patriots, rushing for 134 yards.

“Obviously we would love to have him, but (injuries) pop up in football,” Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin said. “So it didn’t really impact the game plan a whole lot.

“If a guy gets injured you can’t really totally alter things.”

They should have. Except on one third-quarter drive, the Miami offence was anaemic all day.

Exclusive: Bon Jovi and Toronto partners never promised to keep Bills in Buffalo beyond lease, and here’s exact wording of their submitted non-relocation ‘pledge’

Promises, promises.

In formal written submissions, rocker Jon Bon Jovi and his bid partners always stopped short of promising the Ralph Wilson trust they would not move the Buffalo Bills to Toronto.

So says a Sun Media source closely involved in the now completed sale process.

The source backed up that contention by revealing the group’s best attempt at a written non-relocation pledge, sent last month to Morgan Stanley, the trust’s investment bank that conducted the sale.

But first things first. Asked if the rocker ever signed a waiver pledging to keep the NFL team long-term in Western New York, the source said:

“Absolutely not. He did not sign any such document.

“At most, he would have only signed a pledge that he would not move the team until 2020 or 2023, when the lease terms are up. Never would he have signed something saying he wouldn’t move the team after the lease term.”

The Bills are in Year 2 of a virtually unbreakable 10-year lease of Ralph Wilson Stadium. There is an out in 2020 for $28.4 million.

While the Bills sale process ended Tuesday when Terry and Kim Pegula bought the club (pending league approval Oct. 8), the process swam in melodrama all summer long. Bon Jovi’s group kept canon-balling into the deep-end of it, always over the non-relocation issue.

Only when backed to the wall did the rocker and his high rollers — MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum and Edward Rogers, representing his family’s financial interests — provide even an insufficient promise to keep the Bills in Buffalo.

It happened in early August, days after the trio learned their non-binding offer for the Bills of $800 million to $900 million (that specific range) was deemed uncompetitive. Morgan Stanley allowed the trio to resubmit with a more lucrative offer. The caveat: also provide a more convincing written assurance they would not move the NFL team to Toronto.

In their resubmission dated Tuesday, Aug. 4, the three principals upped their non-binding offer range to $1.0 billion to $1.1 billion, and wrote the following as their non-relocation pledge, as passed along by the source:

 

“We remain committed to working collaboratively to finance and build a new stadium in the Buffalo area in order to develop a long-range stadium solution for the Buffalo fans and Buffalo community.

“After purchasing the team, we intend to work with the state, city, county, business community and the New Stadium Working Group to identify a site and develop a plan to finance and build a new stadium in Buffalo.”

 

The words are similar to what Bon Jovi had penned in a letter to Bills fans, published just two days earlier in the Buffalo News.

On cursory read, the above pledge might seem to suffice. But parse it out and you see the clever, subtly evasive language. When you go no further in a legal document than to state you are “committed” to doing something, or merely “intend” to “work” on doing something, you are deliberately leaving yourself ample room to wiggle out and never follow through.

The trust, Morgan Stanley and the trust’s law firm Proskauer Rose immediately deduced as much, and demanded a more clearly expressed long-term commitment to Buffalo.

The group did not provide one. Morgan Stanley threatened to not advance the group to the final phase, as Sun Media reported at the time. But because no other plausible bidder then had stepped forward to threaten the Pegulas (behind the scenes it was understood the NFL never would approve Donald Trump, the only other finalist), the trust on Aug. 9-10 weekend had little choice but to grudgingly move Bon Jovi’s group along.

The group never provided any further non-relocation assurance, the source said.

If Bon Jovi and his partners truly wanted to convince the trust and its legal team that their about-face was in earnest, they could have furthermore written, “We promise not to move the Bills from Western New York beyond the current lease,” or some such thing.

Many observers still wonder why the trio did not do just that: simply lie and communicate the words everyone in Western New York wanted to hear — needed to hear — in order to believe them.

After all, not doing so destroyed the trio’s chances of winning the bid, and probably would have done so even if the group had possessed the wherewithal to offer $1.5 billion. (As it was, the group submitted a binding bid on Monday of $1.05 billion.)

One source insisted the three men are too honourable to even consider such a dishonest business tactic. Another source described it as a case of pre-emptive legal butt-covering. That is, if their relocation bid had ever wound up in front of a judge, having used unequivocally false language to cloak their real intentions would not have gone over well.

So in the end the trio chose to “twist themselves into knots,” as one source put it, with their hedged pledge.

Such pretzel logic proved a tough swallow — for everyone. Even them.