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

Jerry Sullivan

My reaction at the end? Man, it’s too bad the fans couldn’t have been there to experience it — though you have to wonder if the lack of the 12th Man had more than a little to do with a visiting Rams team not losing heart after falling behind by 25 points. 

But yeah, it would have been sweet for Bills Mafia to be in that stadium, to fret and fume and finally exult when Josh Allen made another improbable comeback to turn a crushing loss into a 35-32 win, one of the amazing and memorable in team history.

It was the most exhilarating home win since a 34-31 upset of the Patriots early in the 2011 season. That ended a long losing streak to Tom Brady. The crowd didn’t want to leave that day. I remember how Fred Jackson stayed out on the field and soaked in the love and joy of fans in the Ralph. 

Buffalo fans deserved that sort of moment. But in this strange season, one we weren’t even sure would happen because of the pandemic, it was another socially distanced day for fans to treasure.

Look, there was a lot to criticize in Sunday’s victory. They played a very good Rams team that’s two years removed from a Super Bowl trip. This is the NFL. Look around. There are more ebbs and flows than ever. No lead is safe in this league. 

In fact, the Bills were on the brink of the worst collapse in franchise history, and the fourth-worst blown lead in the annals of the NFL. But really, has it ever been easy with this bunch? Is any game complete without them torturing their fans in some way? 

Halfway through the third quarter, when they were ahead 28-3 and dominating on both sides of the ball, I was already preparing my remarks on how they’d arrived as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, a team that was seizing the attention of the nation.

A 28-3 lead in the second half? Hey, they’d trailed 28-3 at halftime in the famous Houston comeback game. Ha ha! You never know what could happen, right? Never did I imagine that the Bills would go to pieces and be trailing the game late in the fourth.

But it happened. The defense got trampled in the second half by a resilient Rams offense that stayed true to its running identity. They rushed for 167 yards and Jared Goff threw for 321 more and they averaged 7.2 yards a play. You can bet upcoming defensive coaches will be studying that film. 

Allen and the offense came a bit unglued, too. You'd think Allen would be beyond these sorts of learning experiences, but there he was on that final drive, running around like a crazed drunk and flipping laterals out of bounds while fans had flashbacks to the Texans playoff loss.

But they won, and they’re 3-0, and tell me you’re not looking forward to the rest of the schedule — to watch Allen hook up against Patrick Mahomes and Kyler Murray and Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. It’s going to be a show, which is what you get when you finally have a modern, dynamic NFL passing attack.

This is the best Bills offense since the Super Bowl days. Sure, Drew Bledsoe had a couple of nice months, but he was in decline. This is happening with a young franchise quarterback who is growing up in front of our eyes and making clutch, winning throws.

It wasn’t always easy in the Super Bowl days, either. They were plenty of times when Bills defenses gave up chunks of points and yards, and the offense bailed them out. Sure, you’d like to believe Sean McDermott still has a top defense, but it’s nice to know the offense can carry you over the finish line on a rough afternoon.

For the second week in a row, Allen saved them. It wasn’t elegant. He was called for unsportsmanlike conduct. Then he got whistled for grabbing a facemask. I’m not sure in more than 30 years I’ve ever seen a quarterback called for a facemark penalty.

There were times on that final drive when it was like driving past an accident on the highway. The refs should have put out cones and flashers. You didn’t know whether to avert your eyes. 

But Allen made the plays. On a third-and-22, he fired a dart to Cole Beasley for 22 yards (just like his 24-yard catch when they needed 24 against Miami). Soon, Allen was back in third-and 25 and wired a 17-yard completion to Stefon Diggs in traffic.

On fourth-and 8 from the 13, Allen threw for rookie Gabriel Davis (how good is this kid?) on a slant for the end zone. Darius Williams was called for a dubious interference. Of course, Allen’s only interception of the season came on an even weaker call earlier, so maybe the officials owed them one. 

Anyway, Allen then hit wide-open Tyler Kroft for his second touchdown of the day to give them the victory. Imagine what it would have sounded like with a real crowd at that point.

Allen was 24 for 33 for 311 yards and four TDs. Through three games, he is 81 of 114 (71%) for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns. So the kid makes some hair-raising plays. It’s part of the package, and even more palatable when he’s completing over 70% for 300 yards in a win. 

How about that spin move on his option keeper, by the way? I’d have mentioned it sooner if all hell hadn’t broken loose in the second half. But it was another of those audacious Josh runs that made Bills fans embrace him in his first two seasons. 

No team is perfect in today’s NFL, but this Bills team has more depth and a greater margin of error. You’re supposed to have that sort of team when your general manager knows how to find talent and you have young stars in their first contracts. 

When your franchise quarterback and young stud linebackers haven’t cashed in yet, you have the salary cap room to rotate a bunch of defensive linemen, and to sign a top wideout like Stefon Diggs. You have to go for it when the window is open, and it’s wide open for this Bills team right now. 

They lost John Brown to a calf injury in the second half, and Davis and Beasley rode to the rescue. Rookie Zack Moss missed the game and T.J. Yeldon chipped in some useful runs. They had depth guys contributing everywhere.

The defense wore down, and that’s a troubling sign, one that McDermott will need to address. But they now have the kind of offense that can throw fear into opponents. The Rams went for it on fourth-and-4 at midfield in the third quarter. It seemed they were afraid to give the ball back to Allen. 

The defense doesn’t have to be elite. It’s been common for teams with great offenses and average defenses to make the Super Bowl. All the top quarterbacks have done it. 

Bill Polian built his teams on the premise that a top offense could carry an average D, that it was about the quarterback in the end. Look at the Chiefs under Andy Reid. 

So there could be more harrowing finishes and entertaining games ahead, and I’m talking the next decade or so. The Bills were trying to make a statement Sunday. It was mixed. They told the football world they’d arrived ... then they announced that maybe they’re not quite there yet. 

But they’re on the way, and it’ll be a show. Allen can be a high-wire act, but it’s amazing how often he makes it across the wire. It’s just too bad that the circus is back in town and no one could come out to see it live. But for now, I’m sure Bills fans will take it.

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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