The Bills put in a workmanlike day on the job Sunday and beat the Lions 14-13 at New Era Field. It was, so far as the 2018 season is concerned, a meaningless game, and it had that feel. Both teams were out of the playoff picture and were evenly matched. Tough defenses and offenses that have struggled. For the fans and even, it seemed, the officials, it was just something to do for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon in December.
For the coaches and players, of course, it was serious business. How serious? How about Isaiah McKenzie, who cramped up so badly AND sprained his ankle that he had to be carted off the field to the locker room? McKenzie was back on the field fifteen minutes later, with heavily taped around his cleats, clearly pushing himself through the pain, returning punts so that Micah Hyde, also banged up, wouldn’t have to.
I’ve been so focused on Josh Allen this season that I’ve intentionally not thought all that much about Brandon Beane’s and Josh McDermott’s parade of young hopefuls. Well, McKenzie made me stop and take notice when he returned to the game.
It’s not that I hadn’t been aware of the plays McKenzie’s has been making over the past few weeks. The guy clearly has the talent to do damage in the NFL. But to be honest, it’s been easy to think of him for now as just another young, fast guy with some skills who might but probably won’t play well enough to be a long-term keeper. Bills fans have seen plenty of those.
Getting back on the field said something different about the guy. It’s not like he’s an unknown rookie in the fourth preseason game who desperately wants a chance to make one more play that might be the difference between making the roster and getting cut.
He’s put more than enough quality plays on tape this season, including against the Lions, to be at or near the top of the depth chart going into the 2019 off-season. No, this wasn’t about that. It was about heart and commitment to his coaches and his teammates. This was about winning, because there was nothing more important to him.
Count me in as a newly-minted McKenzie fan. And put another check mark in the plus column for Beane and McDermott, for fostering the kind of environment where guys with that kind of heart and commitment are driving the effort to get better.
And while we’re passing out kudos, how about a nod to Doug Whaley for signing Lorenzo Alexander in 2016? If ever there was a guy in a position to mail it in, it was Lorenzo Alexander on Sunday.
Here’s a guy probably at the end of his career, or at a minimum no longer playing for the next big-money, multi-year deal, playing for a team that is all about the future, a future that Alexander probably won’t be a part of.
Well, if the game he played on Sunday was what mailing it in looks like, I just became a fan of the U.S. Postal Service. Alexander was everywhere, making tackles, defending passes. He made a great effort trying to knock down a pass in the fourth quarter, diving and extending for a ball just out of his reach.
It was a spectacular game for Alexander. Who knows what his future is, but if he’s in the League next season, I hope it’s with the Bills, youth movement or not.
If you want to talk about mailing it in, let’s talk officiating. Two teams averaging a combined 13 penalties a game rack up a total of SEVEN? Were all the officials sleeping when Slay interfered with Zay Jones on the right sideline in the fourth quarter? Did they somehow wake up on the Bills’ very next play from scrimmage and call interference on a throw to Zay on the left sideline, a play that looked like pretty good defense?
And how about spotting the ball on Ford’s third-and-two run when the Bills were trying to run out the clock? The outcome of the game was hanging on that spot, and it seemed like the officials said to themselves, “oh, whatever. Let’s just give him the first down and get out of here.” It was fun to see a game without a lot of penalties, but I would have like it better if I had some confidence that the officials actually were watching the game.
The crowd more or less mailed it in, too. For December in Buffalo, it was a pretty nice day. Very little rain, temperature comfortably above freezing. Still, there were a lot of empty seats, and between the empty seats and the “we’re-out-of-the-playoffs-again” attitude, crowd noise was down considerably The end zone fans got into it pretty well when the defense needed a boost at either of the field, but the steady third-down roar that makes New Era special was missing for most of the game. Fans had a good time, they loved the win, but the usual intensity was missing.
Still, everything about the Bills is different this season, even the meaningless games, and it’s all about Josh Allen. For the first time in nearly two decades, the Bills are a threat to win any game, simply because they’re putting Josh Allen on the field.
Is he playing like a rookie? Yes, sometimes he is. Getting sacked out of field goal range is a classic rookie mistake. Holding the ball above his head and fumbling while he’s scrambling is a classic rookie mistake, although it may have a risk worth taking on fourth down. There are plenty of things that need work, some that fans see and plenty more that only coaches see.
All those things that need work are the reason Allen’s stats are as bad as they are. His season passer rating at 65.5 tells it all. He’s throwing more INTs than TDs, his completion percentage is below where it needs to be, he’s been sacked 27 times in little more than half a season.
It’s a classic rookie profile. (By the way, it’s the same profile Sam Darnold has, and the same profile Jared Goff had as a rookie in 2016.). Only Baker Mayfield among the rookies has stepped into the league playing like a keeper.
Since returning from his injury, Allen has looked good in two wins and looked bad, at least statistically, in two losses. Some commentators actually thought the losses to the Dolphins and Jets were two of his better games.
Despite the up-and-down nature of the Bills for the last several weeks, experts and fans around the country have begun to see that Allen has what it takes. He showed it all again on Sunday.
With Allen, there seems to be very little confusion in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage, at least no confusion that Allen doesn’t recognize and straighten out. That’s a great first step for a rookie, but there’s plenty more to learn.
Allen showed off another gutty run for a touchdown. A plus. Except that you want your QB to learn to find SOMEONE and throw it. In fact, he may have had Foster running the back of end zone. (Foster is a smart route runner and, like McKenzie, has punched his ticket to the top of the 2019 preseason depth charts.)
There were more than a handful of outstanding throws. The non-interference throw to Zay and the interference throw on the next play from scrimmage. The deep interference throw to Foster. The touchdown to Foster. Multiple throws over the middle.
Allen is getting nice protection on a lot of throws now, and when he stands in the pocket, he’s calm and comfortable, he knows where the play is going and he delivers the ball.
Perfect? Far from it. The deep ball off Thompson’s hands was spectacular, but that pass is a lot easier for receivers to handle if it’s thrown with a little more arc and a little less velocity. Similarly the next throw to Zay over the middle. Yes, both should have been caught, and Josh’s receivers will learn, but the great quarterbacks also learn to make life easier for their receivers.
To see how much Allen has to learn, all you had to do was watch the guy on the other side of the ball. I’m not a Matt Stafford fan, but, man, did he make a lot of nice throws! He played like a pro all day, and he was a botched extra point and a field goal miss away from the win. Still, I’ll take my guy. Allen is going places, and I’m ready.
Meaningless or not, it sure feels good to wake up Monday morning knowing the Bills won and the Jets, the Dolphins AND the Patriots lost. Even better, it’s great knowing the Bills have a future.
The Rockpile Review is written to share the passion we have for the Buffalo Bills. That passion was born in the Rockpile; its parents were everyday people of western New York who translated their dedication to a full day’s hard work and simple pleasures into love for a pro football team.
Editor’s babble: The game on Sunday might have been meaningless, but it was very entertaining. Watching Josh Allen grow into a franchise quarterback has especially fun to watch this season. All you have to do is watch a few of his Wyoming games to see how far he’s come. Thanks so much to Mark Korber for his contributions to our blog. You can’t find Mark on social media, but you can find him posting occasionally at twobillsdrive.com.