Wow – take a few weeks off to enjoy the holidays, take a vacation with the family and deal with sick kids and look what happens – the Bills go crazy with major news stories.
Over the past decade plus it’s been very difficult to put together a late season article about the Bills. By the time the season is over you’ve written just about everything one can possibly say about loss and disappointment – about what might have been and what wasn’t. You can talk about how much things stay the same with the organization and how little you see things changing. You can think about how the Bills might address numerous shortcomings in the offseason, and you think could happen when the Bills pick makes it to the podium in mid-April – pretty standard stuff. So standard I often feel tempted to pull some old articles out of the archives, blow off the dust, change a few names and resubmit them – who would know?
Fortunately, this has already been a different offseason and there is change in the air – or so long-suffering Bills fans would like to think.
If you read my work you know I’m pessimistic – I’m a fan like many of you who has stuck with the team year in and year out only to be emotionally crushed by their total stagnation. I’ve grown hardened – I’d like to think that I’m very slow to drink the Kool Aid – at this point you can’t just say things – you have to prove them. I think there are many of you like me, under various calloused layers.
For the first time in quite some time I have some optimism with recent events. While many of you probably think I’m alluding to the regime change and coaching vacancy, I’m not (but I’ll get to that soon enough). I’m actually quite optimistic over the Bills’ new lease extension that will keep them in Orchard Park in the near future.
Make no mistake about it – the lease renewal is a big deal. With a reported $400 million relocation fee (about half the estimated worth of the franchise), the Bills are all but assured to be in Western New York for the next 7 years. Knowing that Buffalo, only the 51st largest TV market in the country, a place that has never regained the vitality it had prior to the end of the steel manufacturing era and as hard hit as any in the recent recession, a place known more for its weather than its attractions and a place home to a football team owned by a man nearing the century mark would have some certainty of staying put for the next seven years is huge.
The next seven years will almost certainly see the team sold to a new owner or ownership group upon the passing of Ralph Wilson as well as the likely return of the NFL to Lost Angeles. Two colossal threats to the Bills staying in Buffalo, but now there’s very little threat that either will rob the region of one of its major league teams – a team for which the region lives and dies.
I’m not sure why it should make any difference to me if the Bills stay in Buffalo – I haven’t lived in Western New York in more than 25 years and I no longer even have close family there – but it does. I love Buffalo. Buffalo is still “home”. I still think the region and its people are the best – really – you can’t beat it. People put Buffalo down all the time and I always think, “if you only knew how great it was”. I think the soul of western New York is part of the Bills – take them out of Buffalo and they aren’t the same. When the Browns packed up and went to Baltimore the Ravens were not the Browns with a different name – they were a wholly different team. If the Bills moved from Buffalo they would be just another team – I’d no sooner identify with them than with any other team. So to have some stability going into a tumultuous future is a huge deal and one that gives me great optimism.
I can’t say that my optimism is much enhanced by the big changes in the management of the Bills. Russ Brandon is now calling all the shots in place of Ralph Wilson and Chan Gailey is gone. Buddy Nix remains as General Manager but it seems pretty apparent that he will transition that role to Doug Whaley sooner rather than later.
Despite all the change, I’m not seeing a whole lot that’s new and that scares me considering how consistently sub-par the Bills have been for 13 years. Ralph may not be calling the shots and Brandon may be half his age, but it still doesn’t mean that the team is being run by a football man. Russ Brandon has done a fantastic job marketing the Bills – they’ve truly been a tough sell – but they need more than a salesman to cure what ails them. Far from being new blood, Brandon has been in the front office for the past 16 years and for two of them was effectively the General Manager – that didn’t work out so well. I’m not at all convinced that the buck stopping with a non-football guy is going to be beneficial to an organization that screams for football acumen – at the very least it doesn’t greatly outweigh the guidance of an absentee owner – is the new boss bringing anything new?
As for coach I am very happy to see Chan Gailey go – it had to be done. I really worried a few weeks ago when the Bills started talking about continuity – it seemed pretty obvious that the thinking valued continuity over quality coaching and continuity for continuity’s sake. I’m glad it became clear that Chan wasn’t the main for the job, continuity be damned. I like Chan – I don’t wish him ill at all. I wanted him to succeed, but he didn’t – he was in over his head, abdicated all responsibility for half the team, seemed to be overwhelmed and said some really crazy things about being better but not showing it – he had to go.
Maybe it’s because the Bills have tried and failed so many times in the past to latch onto a good coach, but I don’t have huge expectations about suddenly having the next Bill Parcells on the sideline for the Bills next season. Sure, the Bills will talk to all sorts of candidates – former head coaches, coordinators, hotshot college coaches, but I don’t see a name out there that really excites me and quite a few who scare me. Perhaps the Bills will get lucky and find another Marv Levy – someone who really “gets” the Bills and makes the most out of the talent on the roster – we’ll have to wait and see.
Perhaps the biggest question mark to the Bills’ near-term success on the field is what will happen at the quarterback position in 2013. Sadly, there is no surefire answer to this problem. Finding an impactful quarterback to replace Ryan Fitzpatrick is going to be a tall order this offseason – the free agent market is extremely thin as is the draft, especially with the Bills picking 8th and several quarterback-needy teams picking ahead of them. Because the Bills had no backup plan for what to do if Fitzpatrick didn’t pan out, they are in a very tough situation now – likely to overpay for a rookie or a veteran who may be only marginally better than the man from Harvard. I’m not saying it’s impossible the Bills will have a very solid signal caller next season – one who really allows the offense of blossom, but I think the chances are far more likely we’ll be moaning about poor quarterback play holding the team back. I hope I’m wrong about that.
And so here we are as 2013 starts. One of the biggest challenges to the organization has been addressed in the new lease, but still significant challenges remain – it’s a long road to the playoffs and I think the Bills are further away than we’d like to think (it seems every year we say that all the pieces will be in place “next year”). At this point I’m just hoping for some forward progress – any sign that when the lease relocation fee goes away for a year it won’t mean it’s time to go because the Bills are in a good place and winning. Seems like such a fantasy – a winning team in Buffalo, but the New Year is always about hope for the future.