ORCHARD PARK – I’m not ready to call off the Bills’ head-coaching search.
I’m not ready to remove the “interim’’ tag from the front of Perry Fewell’s title after just two games.
But I do like what I see from the new guy so far.
And apparently so do his players, who rapidly have become a reflection of their new coach.
Just as the Bills of the past three-years-and-change took on Dick Jauron’s play-not-to-lose, ultra-conservative personality, the Bills of the past two weeks have wholeheartedly adopted Fewell’s enthusiastic, let’s-play-to-win personality.
It didn’t quite work out for them in their fourth-quarter fade last Sunday against Jacksonville, but it worked out marvelously in Sunday’s 31-14 victory against the Miami Dolphins at the Ralph.
This win – which was iced with a 24-0 finishing kick in the final 15 minutes – emphatically, underscored the stark contrast between Fewell and his predecessor.
With 3:35 to go and the score knotted at 14, Fewell rolled the dice. Eschewing the punt (the safe decision; the one that Jauron would have made), Fewell sent in Rian Lindell to attempt a 56-yard field goal. He had missed a 44-yarder earlier in the game, but his coach had faith. And, yes, he knew the repercussions of a miss – the Dolphins would have new life and the ball on their 48-yard-line.
“It was on the cusp of his range,’’ Fewell explained. “He had missed the one earlier and I said to him, ‘Rian, we’re going to need you again.’ It was a gut feeling. I had confidence in him.’’
Confidence no doubt bolstered by watching Lindell connect consistently from that distance in pre-game warm-ups.
Lindell rewarded his coach’s faith with the longest field goal of his career.
“I knew the ramifications,’’ Fewell said. “But I thought at that point in time we could turn the tide.’’
That wasn’t the end of Fewell’s risk-taking.
On the Dolphins next possession, Bills cornerback Drayton Florence intercepted a Chad Henne pass returning it seven yards to Buffalo’s 49 with 2:31 remaining. Most coaches would have run the ball in an attempt to milk the clock. Not Fewell. He had preached aggressiveness all week to his players. If there was an opportunity to make a big play, he wanted them to take it.
On the first play following Florence’s pick, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick noticed that Terrell Owens was being single-covered. Fitzpatrick immediately audibled and lofted a 51-yard touchdown pass down the right sidelines to T.O.
Buffalo 24, Miami 14.
Donte Whitner picked off another Henne pass on the Dolphins next possession, and the Bills added a seven-yard touchdown run by Fred Jackson to complete the scoring, but the knockout blow clearly was Fitzpatrick’s bomb to Owens.
“I loved it,’’ Fewell said. “I told (Ryan) you have some big gonads, and I told him as long as he keeps hitting them, keep throwing them.’’
Fewell, 47, spent 29 years focusing on defense. He played defensive back in college and has coached on that side of the ball during his 13 seasons at the college level and his 12 seasons in the NFL, the past five with Buffalo.
So, you might expect him to play it close to the vest offensively, so as not to put his injury-riddled defense in tough situations. But Fewell has proven to have some big, um, guts, too, when it comes to going for it. And although his specialty is defense, he realizes as the head guy, he needs to coach the entire team, not just part of it.
“I told those guys (on offense) that I have confidence in them,’’ he said. “I’ve been over there in the huddle with them in practice. I look them in the eye. I believe in them, and so we’re just working together right now. I think we have good skilled players on the outside (T.O. and fellow wide receiver Lee Evans) and I think that if we get our playmakers the ball then we have the opportunity to score points, so that’s what we’re doing right now.’’
It’s no coincidence that T.O. has 14 catches for 293 yards and two long scores in the past two games after making just 26 receptions for 366 yards and 1 touchdown in his first 9 games.
T.O.’s revival has much to do with the change at quarterback and the change in philosophy – each attributable to the new head coach.
Fitzpatrick isn’t the Bills quarterback of the future, but he is a noticeable improvement over the skittish Trent Edwards. The guy from Harvard completed 17-of-26 passes for 246 yards and a score, and also gained 50 yards on seven carries, one of his totes resulting in a 31-yard touchdown, the longest TD ramble ever by a Bills QB. And don’t forget, Fitzpatrick achieved this playing behind a patch-work offensive line that did a weak job protecting him – yielding six sacks and numerous pressures.
Fewell also deserves credit for the decision to make Jackson, not Marshawn Lynch, the featured back. Like Lindell, T.O., Fitzpatrick and a bunch of other Bills, Jackson rewarded his coach’s belief in him with a solid all-around game Sunday – 15 carries, 73 yards, 2 scores; 5 receptions, 43 yards, and 20.3 yards on three kickoff returns.
Again, I’m not calling for Ralph Wilson to cancel the search. I’d still like to see the Bills owner bring in a head coach with a proven track record.
But I’m beginning to think that Fewell may have the leadership skills and the intestinal fortitude necessary to be a head coach in this league. And that’s “head coach” without the interim tag.
A nationally recognized sports columnist and best-selling author, Scott Pitoniak is pursuing new challenges after 35 years in the newspaper business. He hopes one day to write the great American novel and hit a baseball over the wall at Yankee Stadium. In the meantime, he runs his own website – ScottPitoniak.com – and blogs about sports and life’s other adventures.
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