After their 23-10 win over Miami on Sunday, the Buffalo Bills doled out three game balls.
Cornerback Nate Clements, punter Brian Moorman and left tackle Jonas Jennings all deserved the honor. But they should have sent one down the hall of Pro Player Stadium to Ray Lucas, too.
Yes, Buffalo did everything required to win. Travis Henry pounded Miami's defense for 132 yards as Buffalo dominated the line of scrimmage. The defense slowed Ricky Williams. Drew Bledsoe hit only one big throw all day, but what a throw it was -- a perfect bomb over longtime Bills-killers Sam Madison and Brock Marion to Eric Moulds that turned into an 70-yard touchdown that put Buffalo in control.
None of which may have mattered a whole lot had Lucas been able to affect a reasonable impersonation of a National Football League quarterback. Miami's fill-in thrower, who spent most of Sunday afternoon enduring the boos of Miami Dolphins fans at Pro Player Stadium -- when he wasn't throwing interceptions or fumbling -- summed up his day pretty well.
"The way I played today was probably the worst in NFL history," Lucas said.
Those who recall the likes of such illustrious Buffalo passers as Gary Marangi and Vince Ferragamo would take exception to that. But for one day, at least, Lucas was more than bad enough for the Bills.
One of his interceptions gave Buffalo a lead it never lost. Two others killed decent Miami drives deep in Bills territory. A fourth ended any chance at a late rally.
Lucas' second-costliest blunder didn't even involve a pass. With Miami ahead 7-0 in the first quarter, an incredibly ill-conceived fake-punt attempt by Buffalo put the Dolphins at the Bills' 31-yard line and in prime position to turn the game into a blowout. Until Lucas fumbled on the next play.
After Buffalo tied it at 10 in the second quarter, Lucas hit a wide-open Nate Clements in full stride. Since Clements is employed by the Bills, Buffalo went into halftime with a seven-point lead.
"They should give that guy a Breathalyzer," scoffed one of the Buffalo loyalists on hand at the Dome Stadium in the City of Tonawanda.
If the game lacked the theatrics of Buffalo's first six outings, that was fine with the assemblage at the venerable, cavernous establishment. The usual hard-core Football Sunday crowd was diluted a bit, said barmaid Shelly, by the dozens who came to fete longtime manager Joe Calabrese.
Not that the gathering was oblivious to the game. Two men at the bar laid friendly wagers on just about every play, including which side of the 50-yard line the ball would wind up on to open the third quarter. And while the Bills Bandwagon won't start truly rolling until this week, jump-started by the win over the Dolphins, several men wore very expensive-looking Bledsoe replica jerseys.
Joe Cal, as he's known to several generations of locals, started running the place in 1979, when it was reincarnated as Cassata's Dome Stadium. Joe Cal's tenure began under the ownership of Rick Cassata, a three-sport star at Tonawanda High School who went on to play football at Syracuse with future Dolphins Hall-of-Famer Larry Csonka and spend nine years in the Canadian Football League, winning the 1973 Grey Cup with Ottawa. Last week, Cassata was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, along with a group that included legendary Niagara-Wheatfield football and wrestling coach Armand Cacciatore.
"We were just about the first true 'sports bar' around," Joe Cal said. "Back in the day, we'd draw from all over -- Niagara Falls, Buffalo, every place. This place was packed for just about every Bills game, especially during the Super Bowl years."
After two decades of working just about every day and night, Joe Cal steadily cut back his hours over the past few years, creating what regular customers jokingly called the "two-hour work week." On Sunday, Joe Cal officially hung up his bar rag.
And for a guy whose stint began in the midst of Miami's 20-game winning streak against Buffalo and endured four Super Bowl losses (three of them in person), the Bills provided a perfect send-off on Sunday.
With an assist from Lucas.
BILLS MVP: Finally, a defensive player earns this one.
Clements broke Buffalo's season-long interception drought in style. His three picks tied the team record and the mark would have been his alone had he held on to yet another Lucas misfire in the fourth quarter. And with fellow starting quarterback Antoine Winfield out with a knee injury, Clements set the tone for Buffalo early when he flipped the 230-pound Williams with a perfect low tackle.
THE OTHER GUYS' MVP: BillStuff was occasionally distracted when Miami had the ball by the presence of a patron who looked remarkably like Kenny Rogers. But there aren't a lot of options here. Williams ground out 97 yards on 25 bruising carries and would have gotten a lot more if Lucas' ineptitude hadn't put Miami in comeback mode for most of the second half.
MOST POORLY DESIGNED PLAY OF THE DAY (AND POSSIBLY THE CENTURY): Buffalo's bizarre fake punt attempt looked as if the players made it up in the huddle. Worse yet, the Bills ran the slow-developing, clumsily handled option play to the short side of the field.
WING REPORT: An extra bit of sweetness, almost a hint of tomato sauce, worked perfectly. Plus, they were part of a halftime buffet that covered all the football-watching bases -- pizza, succulent beef on weck, Italian sausage and baked ziti. Grade: An A for the wings, and the overall spread.
BILLS FAN OF THE WEEK: Joe Cal said he plans to travel with his fiancee, Pam Lawrence, but will likely still be found on game days at the Dome, now owned by Jim Ciracuse, or Cassata's present establishment, the Sawyer Creek Hotel. Anyone who survives nearly a quarter-century feeding and watering the locals while keeping the peace at a local institution more than deserves the recognition. And the time off.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||October 22 2002|