If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? A classic metaphysical argument worthy of great thought, discussion and argument. That’s a pretty deep topic, and one I am not prepared to discuss – I must admit, I didn’t take much philosophy in college and conversations like this usually fell to those desired to be philosophers (seriously – how do make a living as a philosopher?) or to folks who celebrated 4:20 each afternoon or had some sort of bizarre patchouli fetish.
Not to dismiss a great exercise in metaphysics or those who undertake such an exercise, but to me the question was always better expressed as, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody there to hear it, does it matter?” In my case the answer was always a resounding no – frankly I don’t care whether falling trees make a sound – I wish one would fall on the woodchuck digging up my yard.
OK, so I’m not a philosopher, but I am wrestling with a weighty issue – one many Bills fans are similarly battling. If the Buffalo Bills continue to win games despite its defense giving up huge volumes of yards and points, does it really matter?
Undoubtedly this is a tough question and I am torn. After a decade of futility it is hard for me to embrace the euphoria in Bills Nation at being 4-1. We’ve been down this road at least once before in recent history – a fast start and great fanfare followed by a crushing losing streak, despair and a high draft pick. It’s hard for me to let go, celebrate and start thinking about great things like playoffs and championships when such thoughts have been pounded out of me year after year. Deep in me there lies this gnawing feeling that the minute I break out the Bills jacket and start Talkin’ Proud my team will become the laughingstock of the league again – the punchline to a joke about how the Bills never win.
In 2008 the Bills started off quickly and slowly went bust. On the surface it looked pretty – 5-1 at the bye, the Bills had finally turned it around. Underneath, the foundation of the team just wasn’t there and the Bills were exposed as pretenders. Sure they started 5-1, but they beat 5 teams that ended the season at or below .500 and were soundly defeated by the only playoff team they faced in that stretch. Ultimately the Bills finished 7-9 meaning they lost 7 of their final 10 games – ugly and painful to watch when hopes were so high. The Bills offense finished 25th in the league in total yards per game on offense and had 3 games where they failed to make the end zone.
Is 2011 a replay of 2008? I don’t think so. Offense has not been a problem. The Bills finally beat the Patriots, and despite how much you may hate them, they are undoubtedly one of the best teams in the NFL. For as much as everything has gone right for the Bills, everything has gone wrong for the Eagles. They may have stumbled at the start but it is doubtful that they will be picking in the top 10 of the NFL draft in April. Regardless of the Bills’ final place in the standings you won’t be able to say that they didn’t beat anyone of consequence.
All of this doesn’t mean that the Bills are any more fundamentally sound than their 2008 counterparts. If you’ve seen the last four Bills contests you’ve been treated to some great cardiac and gastrointestinal stress – do you expect any less from this organization? Whether coming from behind or hanging on for a win, it’s been pretty thrilling – you definitely know you’re alive when watching the Bills this season. The best part, or course, is that the Bills are winning. Instead of asking “how did we blow that game?” we are asking “how did we win that game?” Be honest – does anyone actually WIN a game using the old hard-count-draw-them-offsides play? Heck, that’s a way by which even the Bills haven’t figured out how to lose in the past 10 years (and they’ve perfected most methods of losing).
The truth is that the Bills could easily be 1-4 at this point and once again the Bills would be but an afterthought in this league we call the NFL. And there would be good reason to be 1-4. The Bills are currently 29th in total defense based on yards allowed per game, giving up a whopping 421 yards on average. If you subtract out the drubbing of the Kansas City Chiefs in the opening week, the Bills are yielding 474 yards per game – 40 yards a game worse than the current last place team. To put that in perspective, in the past 5 seasons only one team has given up more than 400 yards a game on average on defense – the 2008 Detroit Lions. For a team that attempted to retool the defense this offseason, that is an eye-popping statistic.
To be fair, there’s must be something in the Gatorade the teams are drinking this year – have you ever seen so many games where teams are putting up such huge yardage totals on offense? Remember when a 400 yard passer was a fairly uncommon occurrence? This year there have already been 10 400+ yard performances including two by rookie Cam Newton and one by the future Hall of Famer Chad Henne. Offensive performances are up – no doubt about it.
Also up is the number of Bills interceptions – with 12 picks so far the Bills have already surpassed their entire season total from 2010. In years past you’d wonder how a guy DIDN’T come up with a ball thrown right to him – this year you have to wonder how many times the Bills are going to get a ball that falls incomplete but bounces oddly off a fallen player’s feet and into the arms of a defensive back. For all the close games the Bills have lost in the past they certainly are getting the breaks this year and its fun to watch.
OK – I know the most euphoric and optimistic fans are screaming at me by this point. It’s not luck – good teams make their own luck and the Bills are a good team. Yeah they’ve had a lot of interceptions and that has directly lead to victories, but that’s what good teams do. Yeah, they give up lots of yards but look at who is dead last in the same category – the New England Patriots – think they’re a bottom feeder team not going anywhere? The Bills barely lost to Cincinnati, but guess what – they have the #1 defense in the league.
Most of you know, I’m a pessimist when it comes to the Bills. For all the reasons you tell me the Bills are a fundamentally good team I can point to a stat that shows them to be fundamentally deficient. We can argue back and forth like barstool philosophers, but it will ultimately lead us back to the fundamental question – if the Bills keep getting wins does it matter?
And now I’m back to my original conundrum – whether to care about statistics beyond the win-loss column. As the late Al Davis said, just win, baby! And that’s what the Bills are doing – winning. Arguing that they could or should be losing based on the stats is the same as arguing that the Bills should have finished with 6 more wins last season based on stats – it doesn’t matter. Stats are stats and wins are wins. You don’t get to the playoffs based on stats. The Bills are doing what I’ve been begging for – win, I don’t care how.
So I’m proceeding with cautious optimism. I see some big warning signs or underlying trouble with this team, but I also see results and that’s hard to argue with. For now I’m going to leave the arguing to the philosophers while I sneak into the forest – If I’m really quiet and nobody knows I’m there maybe I’ll hear a tree fall – I just hope it doesn’t land on me.