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

Jerry Sullivan

You’ll have to indulge me here. Any of the old-timers, the ones who are old enough to remember the Jim Kelly era, will certainly understand.

About five minutes into the fourth quarter Sunday afternoon, the Bills fell behind a determined Dolphins team, 20-17. The defense was exhausted and reeling. The offense had struggled in the second half after a spectacular first 30 minutes by Josh Allen.

That was when it flashed through my mind: The Kelly comeback game in the opener in Miami in 1989.

There are certain games that are fixed in your memory, moments that represented a pivot point in the fortunes of a star player and a contending team. That day, Kelly led the Bills back in the fourth quarter and dove into the end zone with two seconds to play to give Buffalo a 27-24 win.

This was Allen’s chance, his Kelly moment. Sure, he had made strides in his second season, as Kelly had in ‘88. But sometimes, a quarterback comes of age in a crisis on the road, when circumstances are stacked against his team and his critics are wondering if he’s up to the moment. 

It was a test that Allen had failed last season in Houston, when he came unraveled late in his first playoff game. Now it was time to find out if he and the rest of the Bills were truly worthy of their reputation as a team on the rise, a squad ready to compete for the Super Bowl. 

Allen was ready. The entire offense, constructed for the moment by general manager Brandon Beane and orchestrated by coordinator Brian Daboll, was ready to seize this game and show that this is not the sorry Buffalo offense of the past, that it’s finally capable of competing with the very best teams in the NFL.

They didn’t waste any time. On the first play, Allen stepped up and wired a 47-yard throw to Stefon Diggs, who was brilliant on Sunday. After a penalty — there must be adversity, after all — Allen threw a perfect pass over the middle to Cole Beasley on second-and-24, for 24 yards.

Then, on a crucial third-and-goal from the 6-yard line, Allen rolled right and threw a dart toward rookie Gabriel Davis, who laid out and made a sensational catch in the end zone, somehow grabbing the ball in his outstretched hands and cradling it under his chest before he hit the ground.

That made it 24-20. But you can’t sit on a lead when you have what appears to be one of the league’s elite offenses, not with Ryan Fitzpatrick on the other side.

After a punt, Allen made a terrific throw to Diggs at the right sideline for 21 yards. On a second-and-9 at the Miami 46, he missed John Brown, throwing the ball over Brown’s head on an apparent miscommunication. No worries. On the very next play, Allen went right back to Brown for a 46-yard touchdown.

That was essentially it, in an entertaining and bizarre game that was delayed by 36 minutes by lightning. This after a power outage caused CBS to lose the broadcast, forcing Buffalo fans to watch the Steelers-Broncos game for about half an hour.

It was that sort of day, but it came down to one basic reality, the single overriding issue since the Bills drafted Allen as the long-awaited heir to Kelly as the franchise quarterback and savior. Allen was spectacular, and Sunday’s performance should put to rest any questions about whether he’s worthy of the title.

Allen was 24 of 35 passing for 417 yards and four TDs. The 417 yards tied Drew Bledsoe for the third-best passing game in Bills history. Bledsoe set the record of 463 in an overtime win in Minnesota in 2002. Joe Ferguson had 419 against Miami in 1983. Kelly threw for 400 once, when he went for 403 in the famous no-punt game at San Francisco in 1992.

This came a week after Allen had the first 300-yard game of his career in the season opener against the Jets. Two weeks into the season, he has completed 70% of his passes for 729 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions. Lest we forget, he’s also a pretty nifty runner.

Bills fans must pinch themselves at the prospect of having an honest-to-goodness passing offense in the modern NFL. They’ve been a remedial passing team for a generation. From 2003-19, they never finished above 15th in passing yards (they were 15th in Fitz’s big year in 2011). They were in the bottom quarter (25th or worse) 13 times. They threw the fewest passes of any team in the league in that stretch.

It was as if they were playing a different sport, trying to pass off the likes of Tyrod Taylor as the answer. Well, they’re at the big boy table now. Suddenly, opposing defensive coordinators have to lie awake worrying not just about Allen running but making accurate throws to one of the best receiving corps in the league.

Daboll has to be salivating. Brown and Beasley were a solid tandem a year ago, much better than the marginal wideouts the Bills employed in the first two years of Sean McDermott. But adding Diggs makes it a formidable passing attack. He’s the missing piece, the way James Lofton was when Bill Polian acquired him in 1989.

Beane knew he needed another wideout after watching Duke Williams be the prime target in the playoff loss. He had the roster currency, too. With Allen and some of other young talents early in their contracts, the Bills had the luxury of adding a high-priced receiver to help put them over the top. Diggs, who is on a four-year, $47.5 million contract, has been more than worth the money so far.

Diggs had eight catches for 153 yards against Miami. A week earlier, he had eight for 86. He’s the Bills’ best wideout since Eric Moulds, and at this rate he’ll shatter Moulds’ team records for catches (100 in 2002) and yards (1,368 in ’98) in a season.

He makes everyone around him better, starting with Allen, of course. It’s reassuring to have an elite wideout who runs precise routes and has a surgeon’s hands. Diggs draws attention from Brown and Beasley, who had an efficient five catches for 70 yards on Sunday.

I know it’s early, but at this pace Diggs, Brown and Beasley would all have at least 70 catches for the season. As it is, the Bills are the only NFL team with three wideouts who had at least 50 receptions a year ago (Diggs did it with the Vikings). I can’t forget Isaiah McKenzie, the resilient little wideout who had a 46-yard catch, or Davis, a gem of a fourth-round draft pick.

Oh, and how about a passing attack that can actually set up the running game, the way modern NFL teams have done for years? After a rough opener against the Jets, Devin Singletary and rookie Zack Moss combined to average better than 5 yards a pop.

The offensive line was pretty solid for most of the day. They look better when Allen is hanging in the pocket, making smart reads and not taking off at the first sign of crisis. He’s getting better at going through his reads and waiting for options to clear, like Beasley on more than one occasion on Sunday.

It’s not perfect, of course. Daboll makes some ill-advised moves. But at least it derives from having so many possibilities, so many avenues for offensive creativity. Allen still misses throws, but it’s forgivable when he’s this dynamic. During a stretch of 7:02 in the fourth quarter, he threw for 152 yards and took the game over.

This is Allen’s team now. There’s no question. The Bills were missing their top two linebackers, Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano. You knew it would hurt them at some point. The Dolphins gashed the defense for much of the second half and had 410 yards of offense. The defense did have a fine goal-line stand, but the unit looked soft at times.

The Bills still have a strong defense, but it’s hard to sustain great D over multiple seasons. It’s the teams with the elite quarterbacks that win big over extended periods of time. They look like a legitimate contender, but the main issue is still how Allen develops as the franchise quarterback, the man of the future.

There was a lightning warning in Miami on Sunday. For Bills fans, the real lighting bolt was the one that told them Allen, and an exciting new era of passing offense, had finally arrived.

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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