Niagara Gazette

October 4, 2013

MEILER: Buckle up, Bills fans. It gets rough from here

By Mike Meiler
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — "Worst case scenario" doesn't begin to describe the Buffalo Bills' Thursday night loss to the Cleveland Browns.

It's not the 'L' in the standings that hurts the most, either. While no one in the organization would admit it, wins and losses were never the measuring sticks this year.

There's no way to quantify what would've been a successful 2013 season for the Bills, but losing their first-round rookie quarterback for 4-8 weeks, as has been reported, certainly wasn't part of the plan. This season was supposed to be about watching the development of EJ Manuel, and in one avoidable play, it was gone.

This isn't meant to argue whether or not Manuel handled himself correctly on the play he was injured; I'm not one to debate what's in the past. But that single play derailed Buffalo's entire season.

Here's a look at Buffalo's schedule in the time Manuel's expected to miss: Oct. 13 vs. Cincinnati; Oct. 20 at Miami; Oct. 27 at New Orleans; Nov. 3 vs. Kansas City; Nov. 10 at Pittsburgh; Nov. 17 vs. New York Jets; Dec. 1 vs. Atlanta (in Toronto).

That's a tough enough slate of games with Manuel, let alone with a backup under center. Even if Manuel only misses four games, it's hard to imagine Jeff Tuel putting up points at home against the Bengals or Chiefs, more so at Miami or in the Superdome.

And what about a free agent QB? A move is going to be made, because no right-minded NFL team would go into a game with Jeff Tuel and Thaddeus Lewis as it's only two passers. But you're still expecting an also-ran — be it Josh Freeman or anybody else — to learn a playbook and get comfortable with receivers in one week before facing a series of above-average defenses.

Don't forget the injuries to Stevie Johnson, CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson, either. Just because guys are playing doesn't mean they're 100 percent, and 80 percent of a star player isn't a star player.

On the bright side, the Buffalo defense is finally getting healthy, and head coach Doug Marrone said he expects Jairus Byrd, Stephon Gilmore and Ron Brooks back this week. The unit has kept the team in games so far this season, and the addition of Byrd and Gilmore in particular could push it toward dominance.

That's about all there'll be to watch for the next few weeks, though, outside of Kiko Alonso's ever-strengthening Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign.

Let's say the Bills get lucky and Andy Dalton comes into Ralph Wilson Stadium and does his best Joe Flacco impersonation, allowing the Buffalo 'D' to carry the team to a victory. Even a 1-3 record in the next four games leaves the Bills at 3-6 when Manuel might come back, and at that point the team would essentially be playing out the rest of its games.

If Manuel misses more time and the team tanks to the point where a top college QB — say Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater — is available high in the draft, suddenly evaluating Manuel on less than half a season becomes a franchise-altering process.

So brace yourselves, Bills fans. It's going to be a bumpy ride.