As corporate-branded stadium rechristenings go, has there ever been one more apt than New Era Field? Maybe it’s because the lovely summers up North have a way of charming everyone into a slap-happy mood, but for whatever reason it always feels like the beginning of an NFL season in Buffalo is an annual chance to believe in the start of something exciting, to imagine the dawn of something real, and to do so again and again and again.
Going into training camp this year, the Bills featured a fun quarterback with a starting season under his belt; both Ryan brothers; an intriguing defensive corps; and a Week 4 game against the Patriots sans Tom Brady. Now, just two weeks into the season, after a 37–31 Thursday night loss to an eminently beatable Jets team, the Bills are 0–2, with both falls coming inside the conference.
In the span of six or so weeks, the Bills went from being a popular sleeper pick to being without: newly drafted linebacker Reggie Ragland (torn ACL in training camp; out for the season), nose tackle Marcell Dareus (second failed marijuana test in mid-August; suspended for four games), and much confidence at all anymore in Rex and/or Rob Ryan (wasted timeout; a defense that gave up 37 points to Ryan Fitzpatrick; TBD). And that’s not to mention the lingering foot pain that noticeably slowed star receiver Sammy Watkins, or the last-second injury to speedy (like, former-Olympian-level speedy) Marquise Goodwin. Just like the Jets’ defensive line, life comes at the Bills fast.
Last season, when the stadium was still Ralph Wilson Stadium, the rush of the newly installed Rex Ryan and a good Week 1 road win over the Colts gave Buffalo’s Week 2 game against the New England Patriots a heady buzz. (The Guinness Book folks were even invited to come measure crowd noise, but Brady saw to it that no records were set.)
This year, the Bills’ opening game didn’t turn out quite so great; Buffalo’s offense mustered a lone touchdown in a 13–7 loss to Baltimore. Still, much of that was forgotten on Thursday night as soon as Tyrod Taylor aired out an 84-yard pass to Goodwin for a Bills touchdown on the third play of their first drive. The contrast between the Jets’ eight-plus-minute opening march, which featured a pair of fumbles and yielded only a field goal, and Taylor’s quick strike only gave Bills fans more reason to hope. That Goodwin smoked a deteriorating Darrelle Revis on the play was a bonus for Bills fans; but it was Sheldon Richardson’s post-touchdown taunting penalty against the Jets that elevated the play into the realm of the sublime.
Like any divisional matchup worth its salt, the game was a beautiful mess. It featured four lead changes and several strange coaching decisions. Brandon Marshall’s leg contorted in ways that a leg really shouldn’t, and somehow Marshall returned to the game anyway. The Jets were called for taunting again. The solemn phrase “the wrist is considered part of the hand” was announced by a walking set of biceps. The game was the first to be streamed on Twitter — although when it came to the social network, overshadowing the (truly impressive) live feed was Eric Decker’s wife’s tweet about her husband’s circulatory system.
Coming out of halftime trailing 20–10, the Bills went long again on their third play from scrimmage, with Taylor hitting Greg Salas on a 71-yard play near the sideline. On the Jets’ next possession, Buffalo recovered a fumble and took a 24–20 lead that would last until Matt Forte’s 3-yard run put the Jets back on top, 27–24. As time ticked down on the third quarter, Taylor was crunched between several players and briefly removed from the game, per the NFL’s new concussion protocol. A doctor that looked kind of like Bill Hader playing James Woods’s role on Any Given Sunday gesticulated at him for awhile before allowing him back on the field.
Midway through the fourth quarter, on a Bills fourth-and-1, Rex Ryan wasted a timeout that sure could have come in handy later on. That’s because the Jets were to counter with a bizarre call of their own: not going for two after a second Forte touchdown put them up by 12 points. (Checkmate!) Predictably, the Bills scored a touchdown to narrow the score to 37–31, but an attempted onside kick was unsuccessful. (Perhaps it might have helped if the Bills, the lone NFL team to devote a roster spot to a kickoff specialist, had dressed said specialist for the game.) Buffalo got one last shot, with 10 seconds left, to win the game, but the play fizzled out, and Goodwin was reduced to crawling off the field.
All is not lost for the Bills; an 0–2 start is not season-ending. But a Thursday night loss sure does give a once-giddy fan base a looooong time to sulk in the corner and think about what its team has done, and there’s no lack of conversational fodder in that way. Buffalo lost a winnable game to an AFC opponent, the second such game in two weeks. And, with even more players potentially injured, it doesn’t look too much brighter going forward.
Another season, a new stadium name, the same old, same old Bills. It can feel like a bad dream, the anxiety kind where your legs won’t let you run: The Buffalo Bills’ goalposts just keep moving, getting further and further away, that new era always just out of field goal range.