Welcome to Shameville – population: me. I’m not alone – I’m pretty sure this place has an abundance of Bills fans.
You know this place – you’ve been here before. This is place where you hang your head in shame for being a Bills fan. A place where the affection you show for your team is its own punishment. Few people bother to take a shot at you – they know your team sucks ad instead of stating the obvious they’re more likely to take some measure of pity on you.
Embarrassing – there’s really no other word for it. The Bills are downright embarrassing. They are not an NFL caliber team right now. Worse, after so many years of being bad the quality of the organization as a whole must be seriously questioned.
Sure it’s embarrassing that the Bills have now lost 6 games in a row- it was Halloween when we last celebrated a win and we are now almost at Christmas. Sadly, it pales in comparison to the larger historical picture. With Sunday’s loss the Bills have now fallen out of post season contention for the 12th consecutive season. The loss also guarantees the Bills will not finish with a winning record for the 11th time in 12 years. In a cyclical NFL world embarrassing hardly seems like a strong enough word.
So how did I arrive at such a lowly, dismal place? I refer to my journey as the Arc of Shame, a trajectory with which many Bills fans are all too familiar.
The Arc of Shame starts at week 1 with the Bills at 0-0. Being a pessimist, I did not have high expectations for the Bills in 2011 and was not optimistic about an opening day matchup at Arrowhead Stadium, one of the hardest places for opponents to play in the entire NFL. But the Bills got off to a great start and absolutely destroyed the Chiefs 41-7. Trajectory upwards – sharply.
In week 2 the Bills pulled out an exciting win at home against a surprisingly difficult Raiders team. A young Bills team has now shown they can handily beat an opponent or gut out a close one when needed – very encouraging, but hardly proof that the Bills could compete with elite teams.
Week 3 was a highlight of the Bills season – beating the New England Patriots for the first time in 15 games. The monkey on the Bills’ back had grown into a silverback gorilla and it was finally gone. The Bills proved they could hang with and defeat an elite team. The experience was like walking on air and trajectory was skyward – the Bills were hot and even cynics like me started to allow themselves to believe they could do something special after so many years of futility. Bust out the Bills gear and sport it proudly, friends – yeah, that says Buffalo Bills – the best damn team in the AFC East.
Over the next 3 games the Bills lost 2 close games to decent teams – the Bengals and Giants, but we all knew the Bills were weren’t going 16-0. They were sandwiched around a win over the Eagles, a team many figured could be one of the best in the NFC. The Bills and their fans were still flying high.
The day before Halloween the Bills once again dominated an opponent- this time is was the Washington Redskins in Toronto, a “home” game at a place that hasn’t provided any home field advantage in the past. At 5-2 the journey was at its peak – the Bills were the talk of the national media and pessimists like me started thinking the playoffs were within reach - a winning season was a pretty good bet.
Along the way Fred Jackson lead the NFL in rushing and turned in a Pro Bowl season – he was electrifying in his slipperiness and ability to take the right angles away from defenders. Ryan Fitzpatrick was hyped as The Amish Rifle and Fitzmagic – the quarterback the Bills could build around for the future.
For reasons unknown, the Bills front office decided they had seen enough – Fitzpatrick was their man of the future and was duly rewarded with a $60 million contract extension. That move made me nervous – really nervous – it smacked of the same impatience with which they extended Dick Jauron in 2008 after showing he could win 5 games. In the bottom-dwelling world of the Buffalo Bills it seems that winning 5 games elevates one to greatness worthy of a large, in-season contract extension lest you take said greatness to another organization.
They say the higher you are when you start to fall the more damaging the impact will be when you finally hit bottom – nobody knows this better than Bills fans. In week 9 the Bills faced a big test against the New York Jets – if they were going to challenge for a playoff seat they would have to defeat rivals like Rex Ryan’s gang. The Bills failed the test – miserably – at home and red flags started going up. Jim Mora’s “Playoffs? Playoffs?” echoed in my head – the descent had begun.
Descent? Did I say descent? What I really meant was free fall into a gut-wrenching death spiral. With breakneck speed Buffalo fell from the ranks of the upper echelon to irrelevancy and finally utter shame. The ride up was as fun as the ride down was depressing. With 3 games left the Bills are likely not done falling – losing their final 9 games of the season is a distinct possibility.
The remaining games of 2011 hardly matter. Once again it’s December in Bills Nation and attention is being focused on the draft. How said is it that every year at this time many fans are actively rooting for the Bills to lose as an improved draft position in April is the only prize left on the table? If the Bills finish 5-11 they could have a top 10 draft pick but may likely lose out on the player they would most covet – as in years past, help always seems just out of grasp.
So how did the Bills get here – really – how could this happen? Injuries play a major role in the misfortune of the Bills. At this writing the team has 14 players on injured reserve, 8 of whom either started or saw significant playing time. The key injury was obviously Jackson who accounted for roughly one third of the Bills offense when healthy. The loss of Kyle Williams further eroded a defensive front with exceptionally bad pass rushing ability. Heck, even the Bills kicker, Rian Lindell, was placed on IR with a non-leg injury – are you kidding me? What’s next, the head of the Bills grounds crew gone for the year due to restless leg syndrome? Snakebit doesn’t even begin to describe how unlucky the Bills have been in recent years when it comes to injury.
Injury, unfortunately, exposes a lack of depth and talent on the team. The Bills starters are late round picks and undrafted free agents so you have to wonder what’s behind them. Looking at the team right now you might think the Bills were trying to field some sort of strike year scab team. Save for Jackson, the Bills really have nobody worthy of Pro Bowl consideration. What they have is an abundance of young guys who will likely never be starters in their short NFL careers. How many of these players would be playing for other NFL teams? How many would even be ON other NFL teams?
Thin talent and injuries are a recipe for disaster – just look at the Bills. Logic says the Bills have little control over injuries, but statistics hint that the high number of players on injured reserve over the past few seasons suggest there must be other factors – can it really just be bad luck? Without hard evidence I’m willing to let the Bills slide on the injuries, but the lack of talent and depth falls squarely on the organization.
It’s no secret that the Bills drafts have been dismal, including the first draft with Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey calling the shots. Year after year the Bills continue to insist that they know better than the other teams in the league and draft players with hidden upside that never materializes. The result? Picks like Aaron Maybin, Donte Whitner, Leodis McKelvin and C.J. Spiller. Throw in refusal to spend money in free agency and what you have on the field is nowhere close to being able to contend against teams serious about winning.
Lack of talent isn’t limited to just the players. Look at some of the coaches the Bills have had and you find a pattern – guys who are tied to a specific system regardless of the players they have at their disposal. George Edwards at defensive coordinator is in way over his head and has fielded one of the worst Bills defenses in the history of the organization (and that’s saying something). Spencer Johnson and Chris Kelsay as outside linebackers – really? Edwards can’t be fired fast enough, but the damage is done – in a best case scenario the Bills will have yet another new coordinator next season and can start over.
I’ve always been cautious not to get down on Nix and Gailey too soon, but their record so far is dismal. Todd Healey and Tony Sparano were fired for having similar records this season and their teams arguably had more upside than the Bills do right now. Despite losing 6 in a row and not being able to instill any confidence in his team on the field, Gailey does not appear to be on the hot seat – there seems to be no urgency in the organization to win – there could be many more losing seasons before the Bills are ready to rotate in a new coach and/or GM and start over – again.
So here I sit at the bottom of the arc of shame – it’s been a hell of a painful ride. I don’t know why I continue to root for the Bills, but I do. It’s illogical, and downright embarrassing. I can only imagine how much worse it’ll be if JP Losman comes into Buffalo and beats up on the Bills next week – I may have to go into the witness protection program – or a metal hospital in Uzbekistan, far away from friends, family and football on TV.