Bills take step backward in Sunshine State

TAMPA, Fla. -- Well, at least it was a nice trip to sunny Florida.

For the impressive amount of Buffalo Bills fans who traveled to watch Sunday's 27-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that was their solace -- because what they witnessed sure wasn't pretty.

Falling to 4-9, the Bills now risk stumbling through the final month of the season, which would all but erase any of the promise they had built up since training camp.

Yes, this is a "rebuilding" season for coach Doug Marrone, a first-year coach, and EJ Manuel, his rookie quarterback. But to "build" a team requires progress, something that even Marrone admitted wasn't evident Sunday.

"We let down ownership. We let down the fans. Hell, we had a bunch of fans down here. We really did," Marrone said after the game. "It's important for us. Sometimes it's very difficult for those fans to see, on the outside, of what's progression and what's not progression. And that's a difficult thing.

"I have to give them things that they can visibly see on the field to make sure that they understand that we will be going and we are working towards heading in the right direction."

There were positive signs earlier this season. The Bills nearly knocked off the New England Patriots in their season opener. They had an edge-of-your-seat comeback win over the Carolina Panthers. They took down the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, and they played an undefeated Kansas City Chiefs team tight.

But now there is evidence of regression. Marrone spoke about "battling adversity" in the early going, when it seemed like the Bills were fending off injuries at nearly every position. But this team is now healthy. This is the roster that general manager Doug Whaley assembled in the offseason and it's one that will stay mostly intact into next season.

It's troubling, then, that the Bills were defeated in resounding fashion Sunday with the coach and players they hope will produce a contender.

"We got a lot of guys that are going to be back next year. We need to learn to win with this group. We got the talent," center Eric Wood said. "We just got to learn each week to come out and prepare and come out to win the ballgame. That's all that matters. That will be stressed moving forward."

The breakdowns against the Buccaneers must have hit home for Marrone late in the third quarter. After he successfully challenged to overturn an incompletion to Robert Woods, the Bills gave the 9 yards gained by the catch right back to Tampa when Wood and tackle Erik Pears were called for back-to-back false starts.

Marrone, a former NFL lineman, came up through the ranks coaching offensive lines. So if there's any position where you wouldn't expect costly penalties and the seven sacks it allowed Sunday, it would be the offensive line.

In the preseason, the Bills had a notable penalty problem. They were the NFL's most-flagged team through their first two contests, which was understandable. It was a new coaching staff, a new scheme, with young players. But being penalized 11 times for 114 yards Sunday was a flashback the Bills didn't want to have at this point.

The question now is, how will the Bills respond to their latest stumble? After Sunday's loss, Marrone turned the locker room over to his players, few of whom have experience playing for winning teams. The three team captains -- Wood, Fred Jackson and Kyle Williams -- have spent their entire careers in Buffalo. None has ever played in a playoff game.

When Wood said the following about the offensive line's performance, a red flag went up: "[It was] bad, but you show me any offensive line that played good when you're down 21 points in the second quarter. I'd love to see it."

That's an attitude that will keep the Bills' wheels stuck in the mud and one that Marrone, who experienced winning in New Orleans, and Whaley, who had been with several winning teams in Pittsburgh, need to snuff out.

Up next for the Bills is another trip to Florida next weekend. Their opponent will be the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have won four of their past five games and will be primed to push the Bills to another season with double-digit losses.

"I'm sure fans are going to start throwing in the towel and saying we're the same old, same old Bills. They have every right to do that. That's fine," Jackson said. "That's what they have the right to do. We're going to keep working. This thing is far from over for us. We still have a lot to play for this season and we're going to continue to do that."

That's the way the Bills need to approach their final three games. But Marrone has a saying plastered on the walls of the Bills' practice facility that reads, "Don't confuse effort with results." So if the 2013 Bills want to be known as a resilient team, it will have to show on the field.

"I learned that we have a long way to go," Marrone said. "I learned that we have to take more accountability, when you start trying to find the good things and mitigate feeling [bad]. I can't stand up here and make excuses. I can only promise you that we're going to work harder. We're going to get this thing fixed."

Until it's fixed, the Bills faithful will have little more than the sunshine to enjoy when they travel to watch their team play.