ORCHARD PARK —
Newly-minted Wall of Famer Phil Hansen spoke at halftime Sunday about how he knew he would never be considered one of the greatest Buffalo Bills of all time, but that he was proud to be remembered as a “consistent, dependable and accountable football player.”
The 2011 Bills are far less formidable than the Super Bowl shufflin’ teams Hansen labored for. But Sunday’s stirring comeback win over the Raiders showed this franchise is being rebuilt around a core of players that share Hansen’s values.
The obvious ones are offensive captains Ryan Fitzpatrick and Fred Jackson, clock-punchers who were destined to be career backups before they wrestled control of their own destinies. Stevie Johnson is putting himself that category now that he’s proved he can overcome extra attention from opposing defenses, not to mention a sore groin and muscle cramps. On defense, Kyle Williams embodies everything Phil Hansen aspired to be.
David Nelson is the newest member of the club.
The second-year receiver caught 10 passes Sunday, the last of which going for the game-winning score on a fourth-and-everything play. The touchdown was the easiest catch of the day for Nelson, who was left uncovered by an Oakland defense preoccupied by Buffalo’s tight end, a sure sign of the apocalypse. The Bills ran the same play earlier in the game, Nelson said, when Chandler made a first-down grab at the goalline.
Nelson is making his bones with the Bills by making the tough catches, in the teeth of the defense, on third and fourth downs and in the red zone. The kinds of catches Lee Evans never made. He emerged as a reliable possession receiver toward the end of last season, catching 11 of 17 passes for two touchdowns and five first downs on third down, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac, which named Nelson one of the NFL’s top 25 prospects.
At training camp, Nelson continued to find holes in the coverage and catch every ball within reach. After observing the first few practices, Wall of Famer Darryl Talley directed a Twitter message at Nelson, telling him he has “it.” When Evans was traded a week later, Talley tweeted that Nelson would emerge as a team leader and a Pro Bowler within two years.
Entrenched as a slot receiver, the sinewy Nelson was never viewed as a replacement for Evans on the outside, and thus, never considered to be the Bills’ “No. 2 receiver” after Johnson. He was also slotted below Roscoe Parrish on the depth chart. Doubtless, he went undrafted in your fantasy league and only the savviest waiver wire watchers picked him up after he caught all six balls thrown his way in the opener. The Raiders deemed Chandler to be a bigger threat. Nelson flew under the radar. That won’t be the case much longer.
“He’s a great player,” Fitzpatrick said. “I have a ton of confidence in that guy. He was good last year and is taking it to the next level this year.”
And Nelson is doing more than playing at a high level. While Hansen accepted his Hall of Fame ring, the Bills stewed in the locker room, down 21-3. Parrish had just been carted off the field with an ankle injury that may be season-ending. The other four receivers, Nelson, Johnson, Donald Jones and Ruvell Martin, huddled together.
Nelson recalled the conversation locker room conversation later. “Listen,” he said. “We have to put this team on our back. We’re the reason why we’re down 21-3. We felt that way. We had a couple drops and a couple penalties. We came in and put it on us to come out in the second half and dominate the game, take over the game and lead this team to victory.”
As a rookie, Nelson noted how Johnson made a name for himself in the NFL. Now, to borrow a phrase from “Stevie Styles” himself, Nelson is on his Stevie Johnson.
“He showed that it can be done,” Nelson said. “You can come from a seventh-round pick, or undrafted, or even a couple years in the league without doing things and all the sudden make plays. Last year, as a rookie, I was kind of in awe of the whole NFL thing. Now in my second year, he’s kind of taken me under his wing and we’re trying to make plays. With Lee and Roscoe gone, the guys have to step up.”
Nelson got choked up a couple times during his postgame press conference. I wondered if that’s his usual reaction after a monumental win?
“No,” he said. “Not to sound (over)confident, but you kind of expect to win. You never come in to a game expecting to lose and to be surprised when you win.
“But the way the game went, the way the guys fought back, the defense was swarming to the football, the offense was making plays in the second half, the guys didn’t fold, they believed in each other and the way it ended, with me catching the touchdown to go on top, it just got emotional. Just because of the gravity of the situation and the way we came back and won. Those kind of games don’t come around very often.”
Not without a good number of consistent, dependable and accountable football players.
Contact sports editor Jonah Bronstein at firstname.lastname@example.org