Week 5 – Buffalo @ Detroit: From the Rockpile to the Ralph

In August 1959, Ralph Wilson was an insurance and trucking executive from Detroit who held a minority interest in the Detroit Lions. Lamar Hunt was gathering interest in the new American Football League and Mr Wilson’s curiosity was piqued.

Unfortunately for Wilson, Hunt already had a Detroit franchise sewn up. Wilson was offered Miami but that fell through due to lack of interest in Miami. Wilson was then offered the pick of other cities including Cincinnati, St Louis, Louisville and Buffalo. Fortunately for western New York, a business associate nudged Wilson towards Buffalo.

He didn’t know the area and was a reluctant convert to its attractions. The editor of the Buffalo Evening News played a significant part in convincing him that Buffalo was a viable location. Contracts were signed and the Buffalo Bills came into existence.

On July 30 1960, Buffalo played its and the AFL’s, inaugural game against the Boston Patriots at War Memorial Stadium, affectionately known as “The Rockpile.”

Fittingly, on October 5 2014, Buffalo played its last game under Wilson Family stewardship in Detroit.

I’m all but certain Ralph Wilson’s spirit attended both games and enjoyed the latter game much more.

Buffalo, coming off two losses and having benched its “franchise” quarterback, went to Detroit hoping to get the season back on track. Their new quarterback had yet to take a competitive snap, had only been with the team for four weeks and was now facing, statistically, the best defense in football.

Kyle Orton was faced with the challenging task of being competent. Although listening to the chatter of the fans, they were seeking a savior. Having accumulated only two first downs and seven points for the opposition (via a pick 6) I was reminded of Marvin the Martian “Where’s the kaboom, there should be a big kaboom.”

All the talk regarding EJ Manuel’s benching has concentrated on what occurred post snap. Mainly inaccuracy, reliance on check downs and getting the ball deep to the wide receivers. Change quarterbacks and problem fixed, but Orton was inaccurate at times. He relied heavily on passes to Fred Jackson and other short routes. He got the ball downfield late in the game but then again Manuel’s last touchdown pass was for 80 yards.

So what had really changed? Presence. The calmness and composure to command the respect of the huddle, control the whole pre-snap routine and also convey the impression to the rest of the team that “it’s okay, the quarterback’s got this.” This is the crucial trait that, at least for now, Manuel was missing. Presence is a powerful thing, it evidently helps wide receivers catch footballs, even the badly thrown ones.

For all Buffalo’s struggles they were still in the game because of Detroit’s inability to find any offensive fluency. Detroit amassed only 263 yards on the day, 134 of them to Golden Tate – demonstrating a possible missing piece in Seattle’s puzzle this year.

The Lions were 1/11 on third down and conceded six sacks of which Marcell Dareus claimed three. Dareus was omnipresent, occupying multiple blockers in the run game and providing constant pressure on passing downs. Stafford could never be comfortable in a pocket that Dareus continually collapsed from the front, while Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams boxed in from the sides.

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz threw a curve ball early in the game, opting for a 3-3 nickel set to stall Stafford, then playing his stereotypical four lineman in the second half to smother the run. The old dog flashed a few tricks and his unit rewarded him by chairing him from the field.

After watching the whole of the game there were nearly as many times this week as last, where the Bills’ quarterback was off target with the pass. The difference was Orton never appeared rattled, a defense could never decide it was automatic that he was going to the check down.

This trait didn’t appear to have any effect until the fourth quarter was reached. The changing of the guard was represented by the completion to Goodwin for 42 yards. Facing a one-score deficit with 10 minutes remaining, ball security would likely have been uppermost in a Manuel-led offense.

Orton made his read and correctly identified his speedster one-on-one streaking to the end zone, barely open, an opportunity was presented, one that Manuel is by now petrified of taking.

Orton stood tall in the pocket and took the chance, fitting the ball into a window that was so small I’m sure it was louvred. Goodwin took the over-the-shoulder catch and Buffalo evened the scores with the next play and two-point conversion.

The conversion provided Orton’s exclamation mark. The play was sent in as a pass, but in the huddle Orton reportedly prepared his cohorts for an audible to a run. He read a pass defeating zone, audibled to the run and Jackson scored easily.

Orton, like a politician glad-handing his constituents, used ten separate receivers to put the Bills in a position to win; they finally did so thanks to a gloriously misfiring Lions Kicker. Alex Henery missed three field goals in all, the longest of which was 50 yards. These are statistics that will ensure he is looking for a new employer this week.

In fact, for the Lions it’s even worse that that. They have now missed eight field goals this year and are 1 from 9 outside 40 yards. There are 10 teams with fewer than eight field goals attempted and the Lions are kicking at 33%; the next worst is Cincinnati with 62%.

Which brings us to the denouement. Having spurned the last of those three attempts, the Lions handed the ball back to Buffalo on the Detroit 40 with 21 seconds remaining. The target would have been to reach the 32-yard line so Carpenter could attempt a 50 yarder.

Orton then proceeded to throw both behind and above Watkins coming out of the slot on an in or post route. Watkins made a circus catch, sticking up a hand to knock the ball in front of him and take in stride with two hands. He was then downed at the 40 with 14 seconds remaining.

The Bills ran another pass play, this time incomplete. With no timeouts remaining and only nine seconds left, Marrone decided to send out the kicking unit to attempt the improbable 58-yarder.

Carpenter had hit the upright from 50 yards in the third quarter, a kick that if accurate would have been good from 51 yards. Someone in the analytics department can calculate the win probabilities of this against one more pass play.

Carpenter proceeded to nail the kick.

There are two explanations for this. Either this is clear evidence as to why kickers are the highest paid players in the game and receive multi-year contracts with money up front or Ralph Wilson summoned a gale from the Rockpile.

The Wilson family’s Buffalo Bills have returned to western New York and will re-emerge next Sunday, October 12, 2014 at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Buffalo for their inaugural game as Pegula’s Bills against the New England Patriots.

Oct 5
Ford Field, Detroit MI (62,775)

Buffalo 0 3 3 11 – 17
Detroit 7 7 0 0 – 14

Passing: Kyle Orton (BUF), 308 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Fred Jackson (BUF), 10 car, 49 yds
Receiving: Golden Tate (DET), 7 rec, 134 yds, 1 TD
Pigskin Almanac “Ralph” award: Marcell Dareus (BUF)


Sean Walsh grew up in Regional Victoria at a time when only two sports existed, Australian Football in Winter and Cricket in Summer. Boarding school and University opened his eyes to a wider world of sport. A Buffalo Bills fan since 1991 thanks to Don Lane and his NFL highlights.


  1. Hugh O'Brien says:

    Thanks for a great write-up of the Bills-Lions game.
    I really appreciate your research and the fascinating info about Ralph Wilson originally coming from Detroit.
    Wonderful line – “Ralph Wilson summoned a gale from the Rockpile.”
    Well done.

    • Sean Walsh says:

      Glad you liked it Hugh. Got a book given to me for Chistmas last year called “Rockin the Rockpile” which examines the Bills’ AFL years. Has some great first hand accounts from players and coaches of the early years of the Bills. I love the irony that the Bills dn’t exist without the disinterest Miami citizens showed towards a prfesssional football team.

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