CLEVELAND -- There’s a game that the Buffalo Bills’ brass must feel like they’re playing right about now, and it’s not just football.
The Bills have tried to navigate an early-season obstacle course of injuries, one that has taken key players out of the lineup on both sides of the ball.
The latest blow came Thursday night and struck EJ Manuel, whom Buffalo drafted in the first round this year to be their franchise quarterback. After scrambling for a first down in the third quarter, Manuel was hit in his right knee by Cleveland Browns safety Tashaun Gipson.
Manuel has a sprained knee, and with 10 days before the Bills’ next game, his prognosis is not immediately clear. But this much is obvious: The version of the Bills that finished Thursday’s game resembled something more like the squad that closed out preseason games.
Rookie Jeff Tuel -- the undrafted free agent from Washington State whom the Bills were ready to start in Week 1, if you need a reminder -- took over for Manuel and looked like, well, an undrafted rookie. He went 8-for-20 passing for 80 yards and threw a pick-six with less than two minutes remaining that ended any hopes of a Buffalo comeback.
The story would be much different, of course, if Tuel had been able to somehow pull out a victory on the road. But in an improbable scenario where both starting quarterbacks were knocked out with injuries Thursday night, nobody will blame Tuel for the Bills’ 37-24 loss.
In fact, it’s tough to place blame on anyone for the Bills’ 2-3 record thus far. This isn’t the team that general manager Doug Whaley and coach Doug Marrone, both in their first seasons, drew up.
Arriving from Syracuse, Marrone brought energetic 33-year-old offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett along to Buffalo and convinced defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to bring his aggressive scheme with him from the New York Jets. And at times, we’ve seen glimpses of the young, talented team that Whaley and his staff envisioned all spring and summer. This is far from the bottom-feeding roster that other so-called rebuilding teams must contend with.
It’s just not a healthy one.
The first signs of trouble came on the first day of training camp, when defensive end Mario Williams, one of the best at his position, showed up with a sore foot. Luckily for the Bills, he was able to shake that off.
That wasn’t the case with another Pro Bowl defender, Jairus Byrd, who signed his franchise-tag tender in late August and also arrived to camp with sore feet. Byrd has yet to play -- he was held out Thursday night on a coach’s decision -- and his presence as a back-end ball hawk has been missed.
As has cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who has been out with a fractured wrist since the preseason. Though only in his second season, the team believes Gilmore can become a top-tier NFL corner.
And on offense, the Bills have dealt with three significant injuries in recent weeks, even before Manuel went down. Their two-headed rushing attack of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson has been slowed by multiple ailments, while top receiver Stevie Johnson could not finish Thursday’s game after hurting his back.
It’s been one injury after another, after another.
For a while Thursday night, it looked like the Bills were finally starting to overcome their problem. Cornerback Leodis McKelvin returned to the lineup after missing almost two full games with a hamstring injury, a step toward the secondary getting back to health.
And then came what the Bills probably weren’t expecting: Spiller, on short rest and a bum ankle, broke open a 54-yard touchdown run on the third play of the second half.
Spiller trotted back to the bench with a limp, and after the game was seen in the locker room walking even more gingerly. But for one play, the Bills got what they needed out of him, as they did with Jackson, who has a sprained MCL. Jackson carried 17 times for 53 yards and two touchdowns.
“Two gutsy players,” Bills center Eric Wood said. “Having them out there was vital tonight. Credit them. It wasn’t easy for either of them, but they both fought back.”
For Buffalo, though, it just wasn’t enough. They were too banged up to pull this one out.
The Bills may get Manuel back for their next game, Byrd looks close to returning and the extra days of rest may do wonders for Spiller and Johnson.
But the way this young season has gone for the Bills, it seems like the next injury is lurking around the corner, ready to pop up its head.