CLEVELAND — So much for that encouraging start ... to the season and the game.
The Buffalo Bills, who seemed set to get off to an unexpectedly encouraging beginning under new coach Doug Marrone, delivered a depressing reminder of who they are on Thursday night at FirstEnergy Stadium.
And the fallout could well undermine the rest of the season.
There they were, up 10-0 barely nine minutes into their prime-time meeting with the Cleveland Browns, when the Bills reminded us why they have a live streak of 13 straight seasons without a playoff berth ... worst in the NFL.
Before you could say Bobby April ... or Bruce DeHaven, coach Danny Crossman’s special teams weren’t up to level of those coached by his two immediate predecessors.
Twice Buffalo’s punt coverage team gave up the edge to Browns speedster Travis Benjamin, the first going for 57 yards that left Cleveland to travel a mere 19 yards for a TD.
The offense wasn’t even needed on the second as Benjamin roared 79 yards for a score that sent the Browns to intermission with a 17-10 lead.
BY THEN, Cleveland was down to maligned backup quarterback Brandon Weeden, who lost his job to third-stringer Brian Hoyer.
Hoyer lasted a mere seven plays when he slid awkwardly and left with a sprained knee.
That put the game in Weeden’s hands.
However, that wasn’t the last knee sprain suffered by a quarterback in this star-crossed game.
Buffalo’s EJ Manuel, trying to direct his team to the lead touchdown in the third quarter, took off on a 14-yard run to convert a 3rd-and-8 but suffered the same injury as Hoyer on a big hit at the sideline by Browns’ safety Taushaun Gipson.
Thus, the Bills’ offense fell to undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel, whose running game got him the last 13 yards for the touchdown that put Buffalo up 24-17.
Suddenly it was a battle of backup quarterbacks ... but the advantage swung back to Cleveland.
“Weeden had played (the first two games this season),” Marrone said, “so he was sort of used to it.
“Jeff hadn’t played at all ... and with this being a short week, he hardly got any reps (n practice).”
And while Weeden produced a touchdown — 37-yard connection with wide receiver Josh Gordon — and two field goals to give the Browns a 30-24 lead, Tuel, after Fred Jackson scored his second 1-yard TD, looked every bit the wide-eyed first-year player on national TV.
He ran 26 plays for 56 yards — including four three-and-outs — and 38 of those yards came on Buffalo’s final possession with the Browns up 13 and playing soft.
Then, of course, there was the game-deciding pick-six by Cleveland safety T.J. Ward, who went 44-untouched yards.
STILL, TUEL willingly took the blame.
“”Impossible is not the right word,” he said of the position into which he was thrust. “It’s the situation of any backup quarterback in the league ... you have to be ready to go when your number is called and perform at a high level.”
When asked about replacing Manuel for as long as he might be out, Tuel added, “I’ll be ready to go. They called on me, possibly in Week 1 if EJ wasn’t ready to go. I took all the reps and felt really comfortable.
“I know what that role is like so it won’t be the first time for me. I’m ready to step in there and do whatever I need to do to help this football team.”
Of the critical interception, the game’s only turnover, Tuel added, “(It was) just a misread on my part. I didn’t see the safety flying down ... just a screw-up on my part.”
But at least Tuel had an excuse: lack of experience and preparation.
THERE WAS no such explanation for the Bills’ horrendous punt coverage which ultimately cost them the game.
Second-year pro Shawn Powell was perfectly awful, averaging 46 yards on his kicks, but with a horrible net of 23.
Several of his punts were easily-returned low line drives.
And once the ball was in Benjamin’s hands, the coverage unit couldn’t stop him from getting the corner.
He broke Eric Metcalf’s club record for punt return yards in a game (160), and nearly had it by halftime (142). His 179 yards translated to nearly 26 yards for seven returns.
And while Marrone was discouraged with the coverage, it was clear he was more aggravated with Powell.
“It starts at the beginning,” he said, “direction and hang time. We didn’t get it done.”
Still, that might be a one-week aberration.
Buffalo’s real problem is at quarterback.
Manuel is likely out for at least a game or two, and that leaves Tuel and practice squadder Thaddeus Lewis, the trade acquisition from Detroit.
Don’t be surprised, pending Manuel’s prognosis, if the Bills are looking at quarterbacks and punters this week.
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)