As Josh Allen wound up to heave a desperate pass to the end zone, two cities collectively held their breath. Trailing 21-17, with less than a minute left, on 4th and 11, the Buffalo Bills had no room for error, and the Miami Dolphins were trying to hold back an offense that had driven 60 (nearly 84) yards in 7 plays aiming for the comeback win. Allen threw, the camera panned to show a wide open Charles Clay, and every viewer saw their emotions swing sharply in one direction, only to rebound the other way as the ball squeezed between Clay’s outstretched hands.
If we really wanted to know, with a high degree of certainty, the responsible parties for Buffalo’s last-gasp defeat, we’ll need to (borrowing a phrase from Sean McDermott) take a look at the tape. In all honesty, the camera angles and real-time action provided on game day aren’t good enough to properly evaluate the outcome. Here’s what we can take away.
Incredible. #Bills should be celebrating their third-straight win. Josh Allen pulls a miracle out and Charles Clay drops it. #Dolphins win. pic.twitter.com/UExYELYUt4— Nick Wojton (@Nick_Wojton) December 2, 2018
The Bills, down four points, needed a touchdown to win. They entered the drive with no timeouts and just over two minutes remaining. In a span of three plays, Buffalo crossed from the Buffalo 10 to the Miami 29 yard line; a 27-yard pass to Robert Foster, an 11-yard pass to LeSean McCoy, and a 23-yard pass to Isaiah McKenzie. On first and ten, they advanced four yards with a pass to McCoy. Dion Dawkins triggered a loss of five (and a ten-second runoff) with a false start. On second and 11, Allen was nearly sacked, but threw the ball out of bounds.
The second-most pivotal play of the endgame was third and 11. Allen appeared to hit Zay Jones, who’d alternated between difficult catches and near misses all day, for a 24-yard gain that would’ve given the Bills four tries from the six-yard line. The referees saw the ball wobble against the ground, and overturned the call on the field.
That led to fourth and 11, with 1:05 left. There are two options at that point: Try to convert the down, or aim for the end zone. Either one requires deep routes and effective pass protection.
Buffalo lines up in a 3x1 shotgun formation. LeSean McCoy stays in to pass block before leaking out into the middle of the field, but Allen is disrupted before he can see McCoy, open for the first down.
We can’t see what route combinations are run, but they’re all deep, and eventually the play develops into a scramble drill with three players in the end zone. Charles Clay and Kelvin Benjamin seem to make a deep cross, but until we watch the film we can’t know what was scripted and what was improvisation.
Miami shows blitz, but backs off to three rushers and a QB spy. They run quarters coverage, with three linebackers in zone coverage past the sticks. Their goal is clearly “don’t get beat deep”.
Ryan Groy has trouble with his assignment off the snap. Wyatt Teller tries to help with a combo block, but ends up pushing the defender toward Allen, who’s stepped up in the pocket to avoid edge pressure from the right tackle. Allen flees the pocket and writes his cursive escape path, weaving around all three rushers and dropping backward nearly 20 yards to find an opening.
Allen rears back to throw, from the numbers at the 40-yard line. His throw lands on the far side of the numbers, at the goal line. It travels nearly 60 yards in the air. Clay, in the back of the end zone, runs forward to receive the ball, realizing too late that it’s shorter than he expected. He awkwardly falls forward, but the ball flies through his arms.
The scheme ended up being meaningless in this backyard football play. It came down to execution. Had the offensive line handled the pass rushers, Allen could’ve found McCoy and extended the drive. Had Allen’s pass been a little deeper, Clay would’ve been in better position for the catch. Had Clay run toward the goal line instead of staying near the back of the end zone, he would’ve had an easier catch attempt.
Both Allen and Clay took responsibility for the outcome.
"I was running around I was pretty doggone tired. It just didn't feel great coming out of the hand." -Josh Allen on the final pass of the game.— Dan Fetes (@danfetes) December 2, 2018
"I put this one on me"#GoBills @News_8 #Bills pic.twitter.com/EoPwdj0hMl
"I gotta make a play. That's on me. Everyone played good enough to win and in that situation I took it away from everybody. I just gotta be better in that situation," -Charles Clay#GoBills @News_8 #Bills pic.twitter.com/pZ59qY1Zxu— Dan Fetes (@danfetes) December 2, 2018
Ultimately, the difference between 5-7 and 4-8 doesn’t affect the trajectory of this season, but it’s rare to see the outcome of a game balanced on the head of a needle like this one was. Hopefully, the next time Allen and the Bills land in this situation, it tilts in their favor.