WHY NOT STARTERS ON SPECIAL TEAMS?
Way back in January, head coach Doug Marrone talked about the need for the Bills to identify and sign some "core" special teams players to beef up the roster. I don't think any of us expected those "core" players come from the ranks of offensive and defensive starters.
But Sunday's win over the Dolphins highlighted the important role of starters on the Bills special teams units.
It starts with C.J. Spiller's spectacular 102-yard kickoff return. When Marrone put Spiller back on kick return duty in the preseason, it opened some eyes. But I liked it right from the start. And C.J. told me Monday he embraces the special teams role.
"Coaches made the decision they wanted me to return and I was all for it," he said. "It was something I did my whole life, I just hadn't done it since my rookie year. It's all about getting back into the groove, and I still am getting back into the groove—making sure I field the ball, making great decisions, trusting what my eyes see and trusting the other guys."
Spiller acknowledges the higher risk of injury that accompanies the return work. But he's not going to worry about it. "You can't go out there hoping not to get hurt," he said. "When you play like that- that's usually when you get hurt. "
With the limited number of kickoff returns these days in the NFL, Spiller's exposure to possible injury is reduced. And with the preseason questions about how effective the Bills offense might be, it's understandable why Marrone would want to give his offense the chance for a shorter field by using a dynamic return man like Spiller.
And it's not just C.J. who's been contributing on special teams through two games. Leodis McKelvin continues to return punts. Robert Woods made a huge hit covering a kickoff in the third quarter against Miami. And Brandon Spikes provided a key block on Spiller's big return.
"We do have starters on most teams, at least one phase of it," Marrone said the day after the Dolphins game. "For Robert Woods to go down there and make that play, which was a great play, we pointed that out to the team. Brandon Spikes blocked for CJ Spiller. We pointed that out. Leodis coming from 50-something yards downfield to be in the mix for the blocked punt. I think that just goes to show the type of effort that our starters are giving on special teams, which I think is important."
DOES PACE STILL MATTER?
It's only two games, but the Bills offense has operated at a much slower pace this year than it did last season. Buffalo is averaging 57.5 offensive plays per game after two weeks. Last year, the team averaged 69.8 offensive plays per game, 14 more plays per game.
The 2014 numbers are skewed, thanks mostly to the third quarter in the Dolphins game, when the Bills only ran 6 plays on offense (scoring 14 points in the quarter, however). And competitive considerations--a desire to keep Chicago's high powered offense off the field, kept the Buffalo offense in low gear in week one.
Nevertheless, I know the Bills have another gear to shift into it when the situation calls for it. Their fast-paced offensive attack is still part of their arsenal and I expect we'll see it sooner rather than later.
PROGRESS FOR EJ
I had a long, extensive conversation with former Bills GM Bill Polian on the field Sunday morning before the Bills-Dolphins game. Polian was in town reporting for ESPN, and to pay his respects to the Bills family during the weekend celebration of Ralph Wilson's legacy.
While we watched the teams warm up, the six-time NFL Executive of the Year told me he saw Sunday's game as a battle between two young quarterbacks, the Bills EJ Manuel and Miami's Ryan Tannehill. In Polian's view, there are plenty of questions about both quarterbacks going into the game. And he said the quarterback of the team that wins the game could lay claim to taking the next step in his professional development.
There's no question Manuel outplayed Tannehill. In fact, I would argue Manuel has outplayed both quarterbacks the Bills have gone up against this year in Tannehill and Jay Cutler. With a big assist from an offensive line that has allowed Manuel to be sacked just once through two games, and some smart coaching from the sidelines, I believe we are witnessing EJ's progress up the quarterback ladder. The agonizing, play-by-play, throw-by-throw analysis of the Bills second year quarterback that dominated media discussion during training camp and preseason has faded into the past. Now he's just the quarterback of a 2-0 team.
If you weren't in Ralph Wilson Stadium Sunday, it's hard to appreciate just how loud the crowd was. I first noticed it on the field before kickoff, while I emceed the pregame ceremony to honor Ralph Wilson. When I introduced Jim Kelly to the crowd, the 90-second thundering ovation just about brought the house down. With tears filling all of our eyes on the field, I turned to Hall of Famer Joe Delameilleure next to me on the field and shouted "Wow." That's just about all that could be understood over the din.
Up in the broadcast booth during the game, we wear headphones with the microphone attached. Seconds after Spiller's scoring kickoff return, while my partner Mark Kelso was recapping the run, I took my headset off just to hear what the crowd noise sounded like. I was stunned. To my left, four feet away, Mark Kelso's lips were moving, but I could not hear anything but crowd noise. Without the headphones, I wouldn't have heard anything but crowd noise all day long.
Give yourselves a pat on the back, Bills fans. You did your part in the big win over the Dolphins.