Myriad shortcomings on the Buffalo Bills were exposed last Sunday on that fateful play at the end, which killed their chance at victory at New England.
Drafting, coaching, playcalling, quarterbacking, receiving – all failed in tragic synchronicity on this one play.
The situation: The Bills trail the Patriots 31-27 with 28 seconds remaining, but they have the ball on the New England 15-yard line – with no timeouts left.
Bills head coach Chan Gailey – who calls the plays on offence and is the de facto offensive coordinator – usually likes to spread the field with four or five wide receivers upon advancing deep into the red zone. It’s what he does.
In their past three games, the Bills have been woeful at scoring touchdowns in the red zone, usually from such formations.
Regardless, on this play Gailey decides to go with another five-wide empty backfield. See Photo 1 up top. Dynamic running back C.J. Spiller (28) is flanked outside left, and star wide receiver Stevie Johnson (13) in the slot left. Gailey does this ostensibly in the hope of getting Spiller into space, or Johnson covered by a (much less agile and slower) linebacker.
To Fitzpatrick’s right are tight end Scott Chandler (84) and wide receiver Donald Jones (19) as slots, and speedy wideout T.J. Graham (11) flanked outside.
The Patriots go with a nickel package (five defensive backs), including two deep safeties. The playcall on defence is for the lone middle linebacker, Jerod Mayo, to line up deep then, on the snap, to quickly drop even further – to the goal line to become the middle safety of sorts in a three-deep zone.
Up at the scrimmage line, the other two Patriots linebackers align against the innermost receivers – with Brandon Spikes on Johnson, and Tracy White on the tight end Chandler. A cornerback faces each of the three wideouts.
So what happens? Spiller gets into wide-open space, but doesn’t get the ball.
In Photo 1, you can see by the arrows that Johnson clears out and takes both Spikes and cornerback Kyle Arrington with him, either in intended double coverage or blown coverage.
Spiller waits for Johnson to clear, then cuts hard across at the 12 – and no one picks him up. (See Photo 2, above.)
If Fitz zips a pass to him now, Spiller can turn it up and get at least to the five-yard line. With his agility, speed and ability to make tacklers miss, he might even be able to score.
But the playcall is to pass to the right. At the snap, Fitz looks left to feign throwing there, but only briefly. He then he looks right – before Spiller has had time to break across, free.
Fitz is looking all the way at Graham, running a post (that is, toward the post). The inside slots on the right both run “out” patterns, at different depths.
The play as called can still work, because the cornerback on Graham – rookie Alfonzo Dennard – lets Graham go at about the five, probably because he realizes no would be there to cover Jones on his out should Fitz throw to him.
The crucial moment: Graham – himself a rookie, and a raw one as first-year wide receivers go – screws up. Big time.
He chooses to break his route BEHIND the safety on that side, Devin McCourty. Fitz thinks Graham is going to cut IN FRONT of McCourty (see the dotted red line in Photo 3, below), and throws it accordingly.
McCourty, with Graham well behind him, then makes the world’s easiest interception, as Fitz throws it right to him. (See Photo 4 below, taken from the reverse angle.)
Afterward, Graham owned up to his gaffe. But a few days later, Johnson informed reporters that Graham shouldn’t be blamed for the error because he’d not only never run the play in a game, he’d never run it even in a practice. (!)
That’s on Gailey and his offensive coaches. Mainly Gailey. Why have Graham run the most important route of the season – to decide who wins at arch-rival New England?
Boggles the mind.
The front office’s culpability is that it knew after last season the team was desperately short of solid wide receivers. Obviously, it still is – no matter how good Graham might become. Until a few weeks ago, Gailey had been saying for months that Graham, while fast and talented, wasn’t ready to contribute.
Fitzpatrick’s culpability on the play is in proceeding with the Graham option. Presuming he never would have thrown to the blanketed Johnson, Graham was by far the most dangerous of Fitz’s other four options. Both outs on the right were available, and of course Spiller had acres of room coming across from the left.
Fails across the board.
This is what teams do that haven’t seen the playoffs in years, even with binoculars.