Itís a week away from the first Bills game of the season. After a long off season, the draft, free agency, mini camp, the Hall of Fame inductions, training camp and 5 preseason games, showtime is finally upon us. Living outside of western New York, I have my Sunday Ticket subscription ready to go along with my Bills jersey, hat, socks, beer mug, watch, stadium blanket, toenail clippers and lawn dart set. I also have my blood pressure medication and have left my wife and children fair warning about my anticipated behavior on Sunday afternoons for the next 4+ months. Youíd think Iíd be pumped up, but Iím not.
Like many Bills fans, I am passionate about my team. Sure it was great to see them dominate in the early 90s, but that was a long time ago. Although they havenít matched the feats of that dynasty, subsequent Bills teams only piqued my fervency when it came time to start the season. I donít know how it happened, but just when I though I couldnít get more excited for the start of another season I would Ė every year drew me in even more fanatically that the previous.
So why am I so subdued when it comes to the start of the 2009 Buffalo Bills season? Why is my heart not racing and my palms not sweating at a fresh slate of 16 games on the horizon? Sure, Iím excited, but excited is many stages below where I have been in early Septembers of years past. Iíve thought about it quite a bit Ė is it that Iím at a different stage of my life where family takes more of my energy and mindspace? Is it that Iíve been gone from western New York for a couple of decades? Is it chemically induced, the result of the blood pressure medication mellowing me out?
After much reflection, I am sad to report that my reduced level of fanaticism is a result of fatigue. Simply put, the continuing mediocrity of the Buffalo Bills and lack of real hope that brighter days are around the corner has worn me down. I never thought it would happen. And Iím not alone Ė I know more of you are out there.
Last year was the first year in a decade I didnít travel to the Bills home opener. At the time I justified it to myself as having started a new job and not being able to get time off, but if it was truly a priority I would have negotiated the time prior to accepting the position. I also happily justified my absence in Orchard Park with the money I saved Ė instead of driving 1000 miles roundtrip, paying for a hotel for 2 nights, buying a game ticket and covering my meals and drinks I paid for my Sunday Ticket subscription and still had money left over. When the Bills went 2-8 over their final 10 games I knew I had made the right decision.
This year Iíve made the same decision to stay home, but I feel a diminished need to justify my actions. Iím thankful that I have a job that pays me pretty well in these tough economic times Ė I could certainly take the time off and pay for the trip, yet I donít want to. For whatever reason, I know other Bills fans that arenít going, either. While nobodyís come right out and said it, I think they could be suffering the same fatigue as me.
So what of this fatigue Ė what is it and where did it come from? Here are my musings on a subject about which I thing frequently.
The Bills have not made the playoffs for the past decade and had only one winning season in that period. While other teams have risen and fallen, Buffalo has kept remarkably stable, generally winning between 5-8 games. Several times fans appeared to buy into the hope that the Bills were a season and a few personnel moves from being a real contender, but in hindsight we see that was never the case Ė Buffalo was never just a few puzzle pieces away from being a complete organization. Personnel in the front office and on the field have come and gone and still the Bills are firmly in neutral as an organization.
Maybe Iíve become too cynical or calloused, or maybe I just donít drink the Kool Aid as readily as I used to, but Iím not seeing where the 2009 Buffalo Bills are going to write a story any different than the teams of the last decade. History had shown the Bills are mediocre and with any fundamental changes I am comfortable predicting more of the same Ė itís not hard to predict another losing season and missing the playoffs again. If anything, given the relative improvement of our division opponents, Buffalo has lost ground over where they were in 2008. I think this team is looking at a 5 win season.
So what happened Ė WHY are we here? Why am I so coolly sitting here waiting for Week 1, one of the holiest dates on the NFL calendar? How did we get into this mess?
The say a fish rots from the head, and metaphorically Iím apt to embrace some of that when it comes to the Bills. Many fans want to lay the blame firmly at the feet of Ralph Wilson and his penny-pinching ways, but I think that oversimplifies the matter and unfairly besmirches his motives. I firmly believe Ralph Wilson wants to win Ė if he wasnít a competitive man he would have sold and/or moved the team long ago. I also donít think that Ralph Wilson is purposely cheap in all situations, trying to win on a shoestring budget.
Ralph Wilson is guilty of being a 90 year old corporate founder. He wants to run the organization he founded HIS way and run it as efficiently as possible. He wants HIS people doing HIS work Ė after all, HE signs the checks. Like most men his age, Wilson is not quick to embrace change, rock the boat or make a bold move. Heís not likely to hand too much power to someone who would do such things. As a result, things stay pretty much the same. When he did try and hand over control or the organization to Tom Donahoe and take a step back he didnít like the results and felt like the organization still needed his guiding hand, so Donahoe was gone and the experience written off as a failed experiment. Wilson has never paid a huge sum for front office or coaching staffs and heís been able to find some gems throughout the organizationís half century of history. Itís not that heís cheap when it comes to these personnel, itís just that Wilson feels he can and has found talent without breaking the bank or handing over the keys to the car. Wilson is comfortable with the status quo of the organization as a whole and without fundamental change thatís just what this organization will get Ė status quo.
The real problem with the past decade of the Bills has been the front office. Simply put, Buffalo is an organization devoid of football people in positions to make good decisions that translate into winning football. The impact of this is huge Ė without good football people, poor decisions are made on coaches and players. Wade Phillips was shown the door after 3 seasons without a losing record, only to be replaced by the likes of Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey and Dick Jauron. Marv Levy came in as General Manager and seemed to hire guys more on their academic and intellectual resumes rather than their football achievements. I think Russ Brandon is a great marketing guy who has done a great job of putting butts in seats and making money while expanding the franchise into southern Ontario, but heís not a football guy. Whoís at the wheel when it comes to making the best FOOTBALL decisions? Who is hiring coaches and talent evaluators? Whoís making decisions on who to draft, who to bring in via free agency and who to let walk out the door? In Buffalo it hasnít been a football guy with enough understanding and/or organizational clout to make a difference in many years.
A big part of football success for any team is talent evaluation. The good teams just seem to have a knack for finding great players through all rounds of the draft and via free agency. They donít overpay for mediocrity, nor do they let their own talent walk out the door for other opportunities. They avoid busts, and attract players who want o be part of something special. While certainly not the worst talent evaluators in the league, Buffalo is average at best when it comes to assembling on-field talent. In the past decade the Bills have spent 4 first round picks on guys who were busts (Erik Flowers, Mike Williams, JP Losman, John McCargo), 3 draft picks on guys who were well above average (Antoine Winfield, Nate Clements, Marshawn Lynch) and found 1 diamond in the rough (Jason Peters). When initial contracts were up both Winfield and Clements were allowed to go elsewhere without the Bills even in the bidding for their services at new market rates. The rest of the drafts have yielded guys who essentially played at their draft slot Ė some slightly better, some slightly worse. In free agency the Bills had far more Jeff Poseys than Sam Adams Ė even when they did pay someone decent money they generally failed to find impact players.
Here the Bills sit ready to start 2009. Dick Jauron amazingly has a job (more likely a result of a signed contract extension, a good rapport with management and an Ivy league education than real football coaching achievement), a no huddle offense that couldnít find the endzone with a map on its way to completely exhausting their defensive brethren, and a new offensive coordinator with almost no experience being asked to match wits with Bill Belichick. It took Dick Jauron and management until 10 days before the start of the season to see what most of us had known since early last season Ė the Bills offense doesnít work and needs major work to be competitive in todayís NFL. A little over a week before the season starts against a bitter division rival, the Bills are firing their offensive coordinator and meeting with their elderly owner in Detroit Ė can you say disarray? Given this and the history of the past 10 years is it any wonder my enthusiasm has waned a bit recently?
So fire up your AOL accounts and send off the e-mails telling me Iím too negative, that Iím not a real fan, that Bills Nation is better off without me and that I should go root for another team Ė I know Iím going to get them. Iíll get ready to file them into the categories of hopeless Buffalo homers/optimists, kids who havenít suffered through as many seasons as me, people who read my article and either didnít understand it or get it, people who feel that because Iím a fan and not a paid writer or ex-player/coach Iím not qualified to give my opinion, or people who feel writing letters critical of someone elseís opinion makes them more knowledgeable about football. If thatís what it takes to get you excited about football, so be it. For my part Iíll be sitting on the couch waiting for the start of the season, non-alcoholic beer in one hand, bowl of lukewarm oatmeal in the other Ė I am so psyched for another great season!