Sullivan: Cliff Robinson, Western New York's forgotten star

Jerry Sullivan

The best tweet of the day came at the very end, after an ugly and interminable fourth quarter reached a merciful conclusion:

“Thank you for the W, @nyjets. Sincerely, #BillsMafia.”

Look, I’d hate to take away from a rousing home victory in the NFL season opener. You beat the teams in front of you, and the Bills don’t need to apologize for knocking off the Jets, 27-17, no matter the low quality of the opponent or the way they staggered to finish it.

But the Mafioso had a point. The Bills should be grateful that a team like the Jets was sitting in the first slot on their 2020 schedule. Adam Gase’s team was weak to begin with, and a siege of summer injuries had left them with arguably the worst opening week roster in the NFL.

The Bills did some very good things, it’s true. Josh Allen set a career high in passing yards with 312, becoming the first Bill quarterback to throw for 300 since Tyrod Taylor on Christmas Eve, 2016 — and the first to pass for 300 yards in regulation since Kyle Orton in 2014.

Allen was 33 of 46 passing, a career high in completions. He ran 14 times for 57 yards, most of it when the Bills were taking control early. He was a one-man show in the first half, which included two customary lost fumbles to extinguish a scoring drive.

Stefon Diggs had eight catches for 86 yards in his debut and looked like the Bills’ most dynamic wideout since Eric Moulds. That’s no offense to John Brown, who was terrific with Diggs taking away attention from him and should have had two touchdown grabs.

The defense was as good as advertised, save for one ghastly missed tackle by Tremaine Edmonds that let Jamison Crowder free for a 69-yard TD. Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, who didn’t make a significant downfield throw in two games against the Bills last year, was wretched again and lucky for garbage time.

But as that tweet acknowledges, this was the Jets. The Bills were supposed to throttle Gang Green. That’s what comes with the burden of high expectations. It’s no longer sufficient to beat these bottom-feeders; you have to step on their necks and crush them.

So despite the stats and the dominant start, you can’t go overboard about this one. Expectations are high in Year 4 of the McDermott-Beane administration. In a poll on the Channel 4 pre-game show, 61% of respondents said they expect the Bills to make it at least as far as the AFC championship game.

The standard is higher, and that’s a good thing. When was the last time a majority of Bills fans expected them to reach the title game? In the latter stages of the Jim Kelly era, or at the height of Flutiemania?

With that in mind, Sunday’s win felt like so many in recent years — inconclusive. Sure, it’s silly to draw conclusions from one game, but you can bet fans would be in soft panic mode if the Bills had lost. Considering expectations and the opponent, it would have been the worst opening loss in years, maybe ever. 

Seriously, I had never heard of some of those Jets defensive backs. They’re still giving Frank Gore carries, and throwing to Chris Hogan. Crowder had his usual solid game, thanks partly to Edmonds whiffing on a tackle. But otherwise, that Jet offense is a train wreck.

When the Bills went up 21-0 in the second quarter, they seemed ready to bury an inferior foe, the way contenders do. But when they let the Jets hang around, you wondered what might happen against sterner opposition — and there’s a lot of it on their remaining schedule.

They seemed to lose a little focus after halftime. Maybe the absence of the 12th Man made it hard to recharge their batteries in an apparent blowout. But when the Jets closed to 21-10, the memory of last year’s playoff loss in Houston — when they led by 16 late in the third quarter — should have shaken them back to reality. 

Give them credit for gathering themselves and taking control of the game. Early in the fourth, the Jets were driving, down 21-10. But Jordan Poyer jarred the ball loose from Chris Herndon on a short pass and Jerry Hughes recovered — after a long, bizarre officials’ review.

Allen then led the Bills on a 10-play drive that led to the first NFL field goal by rookie Tyler Bass — who missed twice earlier and looms as a big question mark. The defense stuffed the Jets on a 3-and-out and it was over. The Jets accumulated 86 garbage yards on a late TD drive. That was more than a third of their 254 total yards. 

Again, there’s ample room for optimism. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is clearly happy with his expanded weaponry and a more experienced Allen. He showed the full offensive array, including an efficient screen game and a good mix of throws for his talented receiving corps.

But the running backs struggled, albeit against a run defense that was second in the NFL a year ago. Devin Singletary and rookie Zack Moss combined for 41 rushing yards on 18 carries. Moss had 11 yards on nine carries; it’s hard to see how he has earned equal status with Singletary.

Allen was the rushing attack in the first half. It’s great when he's dodging defenders and scoring touchdowns. But the fumbles are a major concern. So are injuries. Scrambles are one thing, but are all the designed read options a good idea in the long run? If Allen carries the ball 12 to 15 times a game, isn’t he likely to get hurt?

Speaking of injuries, both starting linebackers went out. Matt Milano left in the second quarter with a hamstring injury. Edmonds injured his shoulder on the Crowder TD. It’s a reminder that the Bills were lucky with injuries last season, and that an NFL team’s long-term health is necessarily fragile. Two of their backup linebackers got hurt, too.

Of course, it generally gets back to Allen. He was very good for most of the day and looked like a quarterback who could lead a team on a deep playoff run. But at other times, he brought back grim memories of the Houston playoff loss, when he played well before reverting to Hero Ball in the game’s most critical moments.

If it seems like nitpicking — again, the standard is higher. The two fumbles were alarming. There was also a sequence in the fourth quarter when he missed a wide-open Brown in the end zone and then heaved up a pass at the goal-line that could have been picked off.

You take the good and bad with Allen, but we’ve reached the point where the good has to obliterate the bad. If you’re expecting to contend for the NFL’s ultimate prize, you need to have the better quarterback in most games. The Bills faced historically weak opposing QBs last season.

Allen and Darnold were picked in the same draft, and they’ll always be compared. But it’s no longer enough to be better than Darnold. As BillsMafia said, he can be thankful for a nice opening win over the Jets, but that was a truly dreadful team they feasted on Sunday.

The standard is higher now, and the opposition will get a lot tougher, starting in Miami next week. It was a nice beginning, and a personal milestone for Allen, but they have miles to go before they can justify the lofty expectations of a legitimate championship contender.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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