In the second quarter of the Buffalo Bills' 24-17 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday, defensive end Jerry Hughes picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct flag - his third such infraction on the season - that negated a third down stop and extended what eventually became a Broncos scoring drive to extend their lead to 14-3.
(It's worth pointing out that, had Hughes not picked up that penalty, a defensive pass interference call - yes, an iffy one - on Stephon Gilmore would have extended the drive, anyway.)
Anyone that watched the rest of the game from that point forward, in person or on television, noticed that Hughes' playing time dipped dramatically for the next two and a half quarters. After the game, when head coach Doug Marrone was asked about that personnel decision, he told reporters that Hughes had been removed from the game to "calm him down" following the penalty - and that he had not, in fact, been benched.
But he had been... sort of. By Marrone's own count, as relayed Monday by Jay Skurski of The Buffalo News, Hughes played just 12 of the Broncos' final 36 snaps in the game. In total, Hughes played 31 snaps, while backup Manny Lawson was in on 27. Compare that 31-27 split to the previous two games, when Hughes played 95 snaps to Lawson's 49, and you can see how dramatically Hughes' playing time was cut.
On Monday, then, Marrone was asked about the incident again, and came up with a different response: defensive line coach Pepper Johnson had cut Hughes' playing time without Marrone's knowledge. Marrone took responsibility for the lack of communication that, purportedly, allowed Hughes' absence in the game to continue.
"I trust our coaches to make the right decisions, and I back them up quite a bit when they make those decisions," Marrone said (via Skurski). "But that's a decision that needed to be brought to my attention which wasn't, and that falls on me as the head coach, our communication."
No matter which way you slice it, this situation has become one in which it's incredibly easy to criticize Buffalo's unpopular head coach. If he genuinely did not know that Hughes had been pulled back in the rotation, then not only should his game, coach, and player management skills be questioned, but so should his general power of observation. People watching on TV are blessed with a bird's-eye view of the action that Marrone is not, but he's also there in person, talking to assistants up in the box, and probably should have noticed, as the rest of us did, that his best pass rusher wasn't on the field in a game against Peyton Manning.
And, if Marrone did notice that Hughes had been pulled, then it's something he signed off on - and then, 24 hours after the game, partially laid at the feet of one of the more respected assistant coaches on his staff.
It's now Tuesday morning. Marrone's unpopularity with fans has never been higher, thanks largely to this dust-up. Radio hosts are asking, seriously, if the mishandling of Hughes is a fireable offense. A looming three-game stretch against two Super Bowl contenders (Green Bay and New England), plus a west coast trip against plucky Oakland, will give Marrone an opportunity to win another game or two and further improve on his first-year record of 6-10. One wonders, however, how much will be enough to earn a third season on the job with new owners perhaps ready to make organizational changes. The Hughes fiasco probably won't help matters there.