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Pitoniak: A win on a day of extreme emotions

Reported by Scott Pitoniak
                ORCHARD PARK – Doug Marrone shed tears in the locker room after the team presented him with a game ball to commemorate his first win as an NFL head coach. The Buffalo Bills coach’s emotions were understandable. After all, he had waited a lifetime for this moment, had worked years to get here. But Marrone wasn’t only crying tears of joy after watching his precocious rookie quarterback orchestrate a last-second touchdown drive to pull out a 24-23 victory against the Carolina Panthers. On this day at the Ralph, there also were tears of sadness for the loss of a close friend.

                Before the game, Marrone learned about the death of Rob Edson, a longtime assistant athletic director at Syracuse University who had died unexpectedly Saturday at age 45. Edson and his wife, Sue, SU’s sports information director, were close friends of Marrone’s from his days as the Orange head football coach.

                So, as the final two seconds of Sunday’s stirring comeback by quarterback EJ Manuel ticked off, Marrone’s thoughts drifted immediately to the Edsons and their two young kids. “I know that Rob was watching and I can’t stop thinking about that,” he said, choking up.

                He recalled how Rob “would always come in after the games and kind of cheer me up and pick me up and keep things in perspective.” And the Bills coach also remembers how Sue taught him that dealing with the media was an integral part of his job.

                Somehow he was able to hold his feelings in check and keep his focus on the game until the very end. “I think after the game was over, that’s when the emotion took over,’’ he said. “I think we all know we have a job to do and a responsibility. I know that sounds cold in a sense, but it’s more important for me to be there for the team and do that, and, then, now, afterwards, my thoughts went to Rob and his family. That’s what’s tough. I think we are all humans. My emotions are no different than anyone else’s in this room if that happened. It’s a tragedy. It really is.”

                For Manuel, the poised-beyond-his-years signal-caller, the emotions were difficult to control afterward, too. On a day when the Bills celebrated their past by bringing back 28 of their Wall-of-Famers, including the franchise’s greatest quarterback, Jim Kelly, Manuel gave us a glimpse of the future, by staging the first fourth quarter comeback of his pro career in just his second game.

                 Manuel finished the day 27-for-39 for 296 yards and a score. He also threw a costly interception and lost a fumble, but he remained unflappable, taking the Bills 80 yards with 1:38 remaining and no timeouts at his disposal. During the drive, he completed six-of-eight passes for 51 yards, capping the day with a two-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Stevie Johnson with two seconds remaining.

                In the locker room after the stirring victory, the normally composed QB could no longer hold back the tears. And neither could many of his teammates. “I don’t think  we would’ve cried if we just won by 14, but I think the fashion and the way that we won – no timeouts – I mean that’s how you draw it up when you’re outside playing with your buddies,’’ Manuel said. “You say, ‘three seconds left,’ and you want to have the game-winning catch with a throw or whatever. To have it happen in the NFL, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

                Manuel already has formed a bond with Kelly, who texted him words of encouragement during the week and was there to share a hug in the locker room after the victory. Manuel also hugged his coach and his father. Eric Manuel Sr. has followed his career since he was a six-year-old PeeWee League player. Through high school, through Florida State, to the NFL, his pops hasn’t missed a game. And what made this one even more special was that it occurred on his father’s birthday.

                “This football right here (is his gift),’’ EJ said afterward, holding up the game ball that was presented to him in the locker room by his teammates and coaches. “I didn’t have a gift for him. My dad’s not big on gifts anyways. I know he’ll definitely want to take this home. Even if I didn’t want to give it up to him, he’d be taking it home anyways.”

                And it was an emotional day, too, for Mario Williams, the enigmatic Bills defensive end who finally played like the $100-Million Man. Super Mario set a team record with 4.5 sacks against the elusive Cam Newton. It was his finest game as a Bill, and in his post-game press conference, Williams said he has found peace in his life. That is great news for him, and bad news for opponents assigned to block him.

                So, this wound up being a truly memorable day for many. A day in which tears of joy and sadness were shed. A day in which a rookie NFL coach and a rookie NFL quarterback and a veteran NFL defensive end may have given us a glimpse of the future.  

                  GRADES
                OFFENSE: Manuel missed on some open throws early and committed two costly turnovers, but he showed tremendous moxie at the end. CJ Spiller looked like the CJ of old, with 103 yards on 16 carries and another 26 yards on four catches. Stevie Johnson had eight receptions for 111 yards and rookie wideout Robert Woods, four catches for 68 yards. This against a defense that limited Seattle to 12 points last week. GRADE: B-plus
                DEFENSE: Mario Williams and Kyle Williams made life miserable for Cam Newton, who was sacked six times and forced to unload early on several other occasions. Linebacker Kiko Alonso picked up his first NFL interception and was quite active again. The “D” came up big in the end, holding the Panthers to field goals on two short-field possessions. Coordinator Mike Pettine continues to impress with his varied formations and constant blitzing. GRADE: B-plus.  
                SPECIAL TEAMS: Dan Carpenter missed 42-yard field goal attempt, but connected from 55, 20 and 48. Shaun Powell averaged 44.7 on his three punts with one inside the 20. No returns of note. Kickoff coverage was fair. GRADE: B
                OVERALL: Bills hurt themselves again with penalties and turnovers, but the defense came up big when it needed to, and Manuel overcame his mistakes to lead his team to victory when it counted. Buffalo was far from flawless, but a win in a close game can’t be discounted. GRADE: B-plus.
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