Buffalo Bills

I always get a little tickled whenever I hear the sports pundits of my own generation talk about “the once-powerful Buffalo Bills.” The Bills being once-powerful has been a running narrative for a couple of decades now, but what many fans miss is the place of those great Bills teams in a much larger picture. The Buffalo Bills in history are more of a bad team that had one single excellent stretch, and whose biggest accomplishments get nullified by something equally garish.

The Bills are a “yeah, but…” team. Mention any of their big historical achievements and there’s always that yeah, but… They won titles in 1964 and 1965! Yeah, but those were AFL titles in the era from before the Super Bowl. They’re the only team to have ever played in four straight Super Bowls! Yeah, but they lost all four of them. Rex Ryan is their current coach! Yeah, but Rex Ryan is their current coach.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Buffalo was one of those weird football cities that had lots of fans and could attract professional football, but none of the teams formed for Buffalo could ever manage to stay. The city ran through teams at a machine gun rate, and leagues almost as quickly. There were the Buffalo All-Stars. Then the Buffalo Niagaras. Then the Prospects, All-Americans, Bisons – of course there was a team called the Bisons – and Rangers, all of which were in and out of Buffalo between 1915 and 1929. 1920 through 1929 even included a stint in the NFL, but those were the league’s crazy do-anything cousins years, when a professional football audience meant a cow and two chickens that kept wandering onto the middle of the field. After the NFL failed, the American Football League gave the city the Buffalo Indians before World War II caused the AFL to fold. Finally, the All-America Football Conference installed the Bisons in 1946. But the Bisons wanted to carve out an identity that belonged just to them, so they could stand out from the baseball and hockey teams also called the Buffalo Bisons. Therefore, they named themselves after famous poacher William Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill. While the AAFC Bills had a couple of good seasons and played in the league championship one year, they were left out when the AAFC folded and the NFL chose to admit the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and San Francisco 49ers over them. There was a lot of sentiment in merging the Bills into the NFL over the Colts, but it didn’t happen.

When the American Football League was stared to challenge the NFL in 1959, New York Titans owner Harry Wismer called insurance salesman and Detroit Lions minority owner Ralph Wilson to see if Wilson was interested in being THE MAN in a team for the upstart league. Wilson decided he wanted in, and Buffalo suddenly had a new team. They held a public contest in order to name them, and the name of the old AAFC squad proved to have quite a bit of staying power.

The early Buffalo Bills teams ran out screaming only to hit the locker room door with a thud. They won five games in their first season, and the next year, they lost an August exhibition game to the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats. It wasn’t until 1962 that things started to look up for the Bills. They grabbed quarterback Jack Kemp off waivers from the San Diego Chargers, reeled in a great running back from the CFL in Cookie Gilchrist, got a lot of others who knew how to play the game, and hired Lou Saban to coach. The Bills of 1964 and 1965 were the oddball team of the AFL. The AFL was starting to develop a reputation as the experimenter’s league, where the wackiest and kookiest tactics and formations allowed freethinking coordinators to see what kinds of gimmicks they could get away with, and a lot of that was on offense. The Bills played more like a traditional NFL team. They played a conservative offense and let their defense do the talking. It got them pretty far. In 1964 and 1965, the Bills won their only championships, dominating the Chargers both times. In 1966 the Bills played for the league championship again, this time against the Kansas City Chiefs. The 1966 AFL Championship is still a what if point among a lot of older Bills fans because of what was at stake: It was the first year where the AFL Champion would be playing one final all-for-keeps game against the NFL Champion which would determine what league was superior. That game is now written into the NFL archives as the first-ever Super Bowl, and the Bills were close to being the AFC’s representative in it. Of course, they would have gotten trashed by the Vince Lombardi/Bart Starr Green Bay Packers had they won, but you probably shouldn’t say that out loud if you ever make it to Buffalo.

The good times didn’t last. Kemp was injured in 1968, and the Bills were apparently so depth-deprived at quarterback that they tried to convert receiver Ed Rutkowski to play the position. And not just play the position, but be included in a rotation that also included Kay Stephenson and Dan Darragh. The experiment didn’t end well. The Bills finished with the worst record in the league, but as a silver lining, we all know what kinds of goodies come with bottom-feeder finishes: High draft picks!

The big prize in 1969 was a running back out of USC named OJ Simpson, and the Bills really liked the cut of Simpson’s jib. With Olympian speed and great power, Simpson could slice through any defensive barrier put up to stop him. And it was on the back of Simpson and his famed offensive line, nicknamed The Electric Company – because they “turned on The Juice” – that the Bills spent most of the 70’s on a wild freeway chase through the NFL! With Simpson, The Electric Company, and new quarterback Joe Ferguson, the 1973 Bills recorded their first winning season since 1966. Simpson became the first back to ever rush for over 2000 yards. Although the Bills were good for some of the 70’s, that’s pretty much all they were: Good and had a running back worth watching. While the Bills seemed to have their shit together for a few years, they weren’t packing a whole lot of talent, so they were capable of posting good-not-great records and losing in the first round of the playoffs. In fact, the Bills only posted three winning records throughout the decade and made the playoffs just once: 1974, when they were killed by the vastly superior Pittsburgh Steelers. By 1976, the Bills were falling apart again, and even though Simpson set a record by rushing for most rushing yards in a single game during a Thanksgiving game against the Detroit Lions, they still lost 14 games. Simpson was traded to the San Francisco 49ers after the 1977 season. Over two seasons in San Francisco, Simpson rushed 1053 yards and four touchdowns. Then, his body just about murdered during his career, he retired.

The 80’s started off on a high note. In 1980, the Bills started the season by defeating the Miami Dolphins, a team they lost 20 straight games to dating all the way back to 1970. They went on to win 11 games – their best record ever in the NFL – and the division crown, only to have their march stopped dead by the Chargers in the first round of the playoffs. 1981 brought a 10-win year and the Bills’ first playoff victory, over the New York Jets. The bad days came back in 1984, though, and the Bills won a grand total of eight games over the next three years. Part of that was due to the Bills being the Bills, but they were hurt by circumstances out of their control too: Coach Chuck Knox left to take an empty seat with the Seattle Seahawks, running back Joe Cribbs defected to the USFL, and their 1983 draft pick, Jim Kelly, wanted nothing to do with Buffalo and also went to the USFL. But that disaster resulted in the greatest era in the team’s history. When the USFL fell apart, the first person the Bills nabbed was general manager Bill Polian. The second was new head coach Marv Levy. The two of them were good at spotting talent, and they performed the miracle of talking people into coming to Buffalo. Kent Hull, Ray Bentley, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, and Jim Ritcher were among the players the two of them picked up. The fall of the USFL also caused Jim Kelly to come crawling back to the Bills, and thus they had a nucleus. After the traditional learn-what-we’re-doing years Polian and Levy endured, the Bills grabbed a second round running back in the 1988 draft named Thurman Thomas and introduced themselves to the NFL as a team that would spend the next decade and a half terrorizing the rest of the league. The Bills won 12 games in 1988 and ran all the way to the AFC Championship, which they lost when the opposing Cincinnati Bengals employed something called a no-huddle offense.

Levy hated the no-huddle offense and threatened to take actions to stop it if Bengals coach Sam Wyche ran it during the AFC Championship. But the AFC Championship came, Wyche ran the no-huddle, and Levy swallowed and took it without doing anything to interrupt the game. Levy, you see, wasn’t a dummy. He was a Harvard grad and turned down law school to coach football, and he came up with an approach to throwing a hissy fit over the no-huddle which proved much more effective than anything he could have done during a playoff game: He looked at it, revised it, and installed it as the primary method of attack for the Bills. Levy’s no-huddle, nicknamed the K-Gun, turned into the Bills’ signature and is today considered the most complete and effective usage of the no-huddle. In 1990, the Bills rode the K-Gun to 13 wins – their best record ever – and their first Super Bowl, where they faced the New York Giants. The Bills had a better offense than anything the NFL had ever seen at that point, and their defense was in the league’s top ten. The Giants had the NFL’s best defense that year and legendary linebacker Lawrence Taylor, but they had a rather pedestrian offense. While quarterback Phil Simms could give a defensive coordinator pause for thought, his weapons weren’t really thought of as weapons, and his running back was an aging power runner named Ottis Anderson who was noteworthy mainly for his odometer: He had 11 years behind him in a position with an average career length of two years. In any case, the Giants had an added concern because Simms was hurt and Jeff Hostetler was going to be playing instead. This was a cakewalk for the Bills, so they were favored by a considerable line. But the Bills let their own hype get into their heads – Lawrence Taylor confessed later that part of the Giants’ game plan included using the pre-game ceremonies to compliment the Bills and get them to let their guard down – and the Giants had defensive wizards Bill Parcells as their head coach and Bill Belichick as their defensive coordinator, and they came up with a plan to stop the Bills dead. What came about was a game where the Bills were playing improvised, mistake-prone football against a team that was playing its absolute, peak best. Even then, the Giants’ victory was reliant on Bills kicker missing the last-second field goal which kept the score at its 20-19 final – the closest Super Bowl in history – and the Bills on the losing end.

It was the start of one of the most incredible and defining streaks in the NFL. It also kicked off a dynasty that never got to be a dynasty. The Bills returned to the Super Bowl every years for the next three years and lost all three of them too. The two in the middle were straight blowouts. The second Super Bowl was against the Washington Redskins. In my research, I learned that the 1991 Redskins are a common thinking fans’ choice for the greatest NFL team ever, and that the Bills think the Redskins were the best team they faced during the Super Bowl. The 37-24 score was more lopsided than it looked; the Skins held a 17-0 halftime lead, and 14 of the Bills’ points came from a pair of fourth quarter save-face touchdowns. The third Super Bowl is one of the worst ever played; the final was 52-17. And the fourth was winnable until the Dallas Cowboys tacked on a field goal with a little over three minutes left.

It was en route to that third Super Bowl, however, that the Bills delivered their finest hour. In the Wild Card game that year, the Bills played against the Houston Oilers. The Bills and Oilers had played against each other in the last game of the regular season, and the Oilers beat up the Bills – the final score had been 27-3. When they met in the playoffs, the Bills were without Jim Kelly, while Thurman Thomas was hurt early in the game. Houston was healthy after a rash of injuries, and the first half of the game looked like it would be a repeat of the year’s last game. The Oilers took a 28-3 lead to the locker room. At halftime, the Bills’ defensive coordinator screamed himself hoarse, while Levy gave a more subtle monologue. “You’ve got 30 more minutes. Maybe it’s the last 30 minutes of your season. When your season’s over, you’re going to have to live with yourselves and look yourselves in the eyes,” Levy told his embarrassed team. The Bills charged back onto the field, where backup quarterback Frank Reich… Threw an interception, which was returned for a touchdown that notched Houston’s lead to 35-3. Every law of space and time said this game was over now. But on the ensuing kickoff, the wind shifted the ball, which turned it into an unintentional squib. The Bills recovered the ball at great field position, and that was the start of a seven-minute splurge in which the Bills put 28 points on the board, cutting their deficit to four points. In the last quarter, the Bills scored another touchdown for the lead, while the Oilers couldn’t manage anything but one measly field goal. The game was tied at 38 when the clock ran out. While Houston got the ball to start the overtime quarter, quarterback Warren Moon heaved an interception which was immediately converted into the field goal which gave the Bills the victory and the distinction of having a 32-point comeback which is still the largest in NFL history.

A Strive for Five Super Bowl appearance wasn’t meant to be. The Bills had an off year in 1994, winning just seven games. Their core got older. Jim Kelly and Marv Levy both retired after 1997, Thurman Thomas lost his gallop, and Todd Collins just wasn’t very good. The Bills did manage to find a few stopgap talents, mostly notably quarterback Doug Flutie and receiver Eric Moulds. They helped keep the Bills flying along to a last division title in 1995 and three Wild Card spots in the playoffs. But in 1998, a nasty rift developed between Flutie and the other quarterback the Bills signed, Rob Johnson. Johnson had a cannon arm and youth on his side. Flutie knew how to play quarterback and didn’t get sacked. Johnson got the starting job in 1998, but when the Bills went 0-3, Flutie became the starter. He stayed the starter through the 1999 season and led the Bills to what is currently still their most recent playoff appearance, which was against the Houston Oilers again. Okay, well, by now the Oilers weren’t the Oilers anymore. They were the Tennessee Titans now. And even though Flutie had excelled as the Bills’ quarterback, the team saw it fit to start Rob Johnson in the Wild Card game. While Johnson played well against the Titans, the Titans also got some karmic retribution for The Comeback when, with the Bills leading in the final seconds 16-15, they scored a miracle kickoff return touchdown which sent the Bills home. This touchdown, called the Music City Miracle, featured a lateral which Bills fans still swear was an illegal forward lateral. In Houston, The Comeback is known as The Choke. In Buffalo, the Music City Miracle is called The Forward Lateral.

After 15 years of dominance with only a couple of hiccups, the Bills looked like they had turned the corner for good. Yeah, but they hired Tom Donahoe to be their new general manager in 2001. Donahoe made a name for himself building a team with the Steelers in the 90’s which went to the Super Bowl with his players twice, winning it in 2005, years after he left. As far as general managers go, he was a slam dunk home run. At least, that’s what everyone in the entire NFL thought. In practice… Not so much. Just before Donahoe arrived, the Bills were forced to part with Thomas, Reed, and Smith – the final links to the Super Bowl days. Donahoe proceeding to beat the stuffing out of it. He got rid of the rest of the team’s talent, replaced it with low-end players, and ended the Flutie/Johnson controversy by taking Johnson. The Bills went 3-13 in his first year, then cut Johnson. While Johnson was a terrible quarterback, in all fairness to him, he wasn’t even close to the only problem. Donahoe drafted Mike Williams, an offensive lineman, and tried to turn thing around on the spot by trading for New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe; the Patriots decided they didn’t need Bledsoe after his injury the previous year gave rise to Tom Brady. If there’s one Bills player who takes more shit from fans than he should, it’s Bledsoe. Although he left a bad taste in Buffalo’s mouth, it was more because he was brought in with such high expectations which perhaps no one could have met. Bledsoe did what he could. His first year, he made the Pro Bowl and set several team passing records on the way to an 8-8 record. He was bad in his second year because coach Gregg Williams gutted the offense in his obsession with installing a power running game. In his third year, he took the depleted Bills to a 9-7 record, just missing a playoff spot right in the last game of the year. After that, the Bills looked like they were on the verge of a revival, but then Donahoe decided he wanted more youth and tried to hand the team to 2004 draft pick JP Losman. Understandably pissed, Bledsoe demanded his release and got it.  The Bills were a shallow mess in 2005. They won five games and Donahoe was fired.

What followed was a series of hires that alternated between retreads and the Bills trying to outsmart themselves. It’s tough to name all the quarterbacks, general managers, and coaches they went through. They finally looked like they had hit a real direction in 2013, when they had a plan and a new coach in Doug Marrone. Marrone had a growing year, but brought the Bills to a 9-7 record in his second year, and then… Took his $4 million option and walked off. The new – and current coach – is Rex Ryan, who went 8-8, giving the Bills two consecutive non-losing seasons for the first time in forever. Unfortunately, the positive vibes don’t look like they’re going to last. The Bills are having a bad start to the current season, and they just fired the offensive coordinator.

The Bills have two retired numbers: Jim Kelly’s 12, and Bruce Smith’s 78. 32 and 34, for OJ Simpson and Thurman Thomas respectively, are retired on an unofficial level; they’re not issued, but they’re not technically out. There are three more numbers which have had reduced circulation, the most notable of which is Andre Reed’s 83. Lee Evans wore number 83 while he put together a respectable career, but he got special permission to do it. Some of the other notable players who were Bills were Billy Shaw, Jack Kemp, Joe DeLamielleure, Darryl Talley, Steve Tasker, Cornelius Bennett, James Lofton, and Cookie Gilchrist. Joe Ferguson and Drew Bledsoe hold several quarterbacking records which Kelly don’t have, and Jack Kemp is widely considered the second-best quarterback to ever play for the Bills. He was the team’s undisputed leader for their two AFL titles and was a seven-time All-Star, even though he threw more interceptions than touchdowns in his career. Kemp went on to have an awesome post-football career as well. He was dedicated to making the world around him a better place, and in 1971, his election to the United States House of Representatives in New York kicked off a long and distinguished political career which saw him rise to becoming a member of George HW Bush’s Cabinet as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the running mate to Bob Dole in the 1996 Presidential election, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner in 2009 when Barack Obama gave him the award posthumously. Now, Kemp was a Republican, which means that him and me were pretty sparse as far as common personal politics go, but he did support minorities, women, blue-collar workers, and organized labor, which rankled his own side. In any case, you don’t see the popular metaphor of the quarterback being the team leader frequently taken to such an incredible post-football extreme. Alas, the positive spotlight that Kemp’s accomplishments after football should be casting on the Bills gets overshadowed by another Bills player who went in a different direction…

OJ Simpson was one of the faces of football in his day. He was the highest-paid player in the league; Joe Namath once demanded his New York Jets start paying him as much as the Bills paid Simpson. After football, Simpson had a Hollywood spotlight on him as he shined as a commercial pitchman and an actor in several popular and acclaimed movies, including The Towering Inferno. In the 80’s, director James Cameron had Simpson slated to be the star of The Terminator – as the title character. As a Bill, The Juice carried the team, and he was always a better on-field player than his statistics would say. The bulk of his career says he did his best work from 1972 to 1976. He’s the only player to rush for 2000 yards in a 14-game season; every other 2000-yard clubber needed 16 games. After his career, he started a production company. Although he had a great public image, OJ was one of those people who was privately a piece of shit. In 1989, he entered a no contest plea to spousal abuse. Then in 1994, His ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman were found stabbed to death outside Nicole’s home. It began one of the great legal fiascos of the 20th Century. OJ was accused of the murder and beat the rap, but an enormous part of the public still believes the evidence was more than convincing enough for him to be blamed. After that was his wrongful death civil trial. Simpson was found guilty and ordered to pay damages while his stuff was auctioned off. He wrote a book about how he “hypothetically” would have committed the crime had he, you know, actually done it. He was suspected of money laundering, accused of pirating, arrested a few times for battery, and that’s not even close to everything. In 2007, he was arrested and convicted for armed robbery in Las Vegas, and sentenced to 33 years. The law is still coming up with a lot of bad stuff on OJ, and it makes one wonder: After the greatest law sleight of hand in history helped him beat an in-the-bag murder charge, what the hell was he thinking? He had to know after that that if he was ever convicted of anything, he’d be thrown in prison for a long time if he was ever caught jaywalking. There’s a running joke among NFL pundits and fans that Buffalo is the only city where white people think OJ Simpson is innocent. That’s not at all true. It’s the opposite: Buffalo is the only city where black people believe Simpson is guilty. The Bills fans have circulated several petitions proposing his name’s removal from the team’s Wall of Fame. I can’t say I agree with that measure. The Wall of Fame is there for one thing, and that’s how good you were at playing football. No matter of anything else regarding Simpson, that’s the one thing you can never take away from him. Although given who and what he is, you’ll understand that I don’t exactly leap to the defense of keeping it up there, either.

I have to bring up the biggest thing the Bills ever accomplished: Going to the Super Bowl for four straight years. They became a running joke for losing all four of them. Surely you’ve heard the jokes: Bills means Boy I Love Losing Super Bowls. The X-Files offhandedly had a character talk about a conspiracy in which a character demanded that they never win a Super Bowl. But football players expend a lot of effort in playing the sport to the best of their abilities, and to achieve one measly Super Bowl appearance after what they go through – even if they end up losing – is a hell of a thing. Not many people can say they’ve helped get a team to the Super Bowl. And when you think about it, having lost a Super Bowl has to mentally beeak a team down. It’s being thisclose to the summit that every kid who ever suited up in a football uniform dreams of only to fall just short. It’s tough after one loss to pull yourself together to get back for a second shot. A few teams have done it, but not that many. Three in a row? Only the No-Name Miami Dolphins of the 70’s and the Bills have done that, and as for four in a row, the Bills stand alone. And the Bills blew all four of their shots, but think about that: After every try, they got back up, were mentally able to piece their psyches back together, and went at it again. After the streak, they were aging, and that’s one of the things that denied them a fifth straight appearance. Winning just one of those titles would have meant the world to Buffalo, but if you ask fans, a lot of them prefer having this streak of losses to one winning Super Bowl appearance. And it’s tough to blame them. The list of teams that WON the fucking game looks like my grocery list, and how many of them do you remember? NFL fans everywhere remember Marv Levy’s Buffalo Bills, and when they do – and despite their never being able to close – it’s more frequently to talk about how good they were to go to four straight Super Bowls and how big a shame it is they never managed to win. To augment what I’m saying, I’m going to ask a question, and I want you to be honest with yourself about the answer: Before you read this essay, did any of you – save fans of the opposing teams – remember what teams the Bills lost to? There’s a common belief that the AFC just wasn’t producing quality opponents during those years, but the Bills spent their Super Bowl years going 14-2 against the NFC, even beating their Super Bowl opponents in the regular season, so that rumor is laid to rest.

In a more just world, the Bills’ Super Bowl record would be 2-2. They stood a chance in that final Super Bowl. They spent the first half running all over the place against the Cowboys and took the lead into the half, but a third quarter fumble is frequently blamed with getting their warning signals blaring enough for them to mentally tank it. But it’s that first Super Bowl which captures the imaginations of fans. It was the closest Super Bowl ever played – decided by a single point after a last-second field goal attempt missed – and the underdog came out on top. There are a lot of older-generation NFL pundits who are trying to play revisionist and say the Bills didn’t stand a chance, but most of their arguments are purely subjective: “The Giants were more motivated! They had Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells, and Lawrence Taylor!” Obviously most of these pundits are gamblers who are trying to save face years after losing money. The Bills weren’t themselves during that game, and as mentioned already, the Giants were reaching well above the best they had ever played – and the game STILL ended the way it did. Think the Bills playing at their best, and you’re suddenly looking at a team that drops 17 in the first quarter, is adding insurance points in the second, and is playing the same ball control game Parcells and Belichick used against them in cruise control mode after the half. It would have been a classic 80’s Super Bowl romp which ended with a score of about 31-10. Belichick’s defensive plan – while among the most inspired game plans ever devised – would have broken down because it was a gamble based on the idea that the Bills would stay on the ground. (Belichick has admitted this.) As for the Giants’ offensive plan, Parcells gave the ball to Jeff Hostetler and told him, “I have a plan for this, and YOU FUCKING STICK TO IT. You’re not Simms. You’re not a hero, so don’t try to be one. You’re not going to win this game; your job is to not lose it.” Hostetler complied.

The Bills have a couple of other streaks worth mentioning: They hold the record for consecutive losses by one team to another. You think they struggle against the New England Patriots now? That’s nothing. They dropped 20 games against the Dolphins all in a row, all of them neatly ensconced in the 70’s. Buffalo’s biggest rival these days is New England, and there’s no question. But fans my age and older have a special venom chamber in their hearts reserved for the Miami Dolphins of Don Schula and Dan Marino. (The Dolphins were a favorite team of mine during Marino’s years, so I don’t feel that as strongly as I should.) Even after the 1980 Bills finally broke the Miami jinx, they still lost almost every game against the Fish until Marv Levy came and turned the table on them, and even then the Bills were never able to match what the Fish did against them in the 70’s. But there was still plenty of raw hatred because the top of the rivalry just switched sides. Dolphins linebacker Bryan Cox was a notorious character in Buffalo because he kept goading Bills fans in such a way that fans once threw batteries at him. Also, the Bills have missed the playoffs every year since the turn of the millennium. There are 123 teams in the big four North American professional sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL). Of all of those teams, only two of them have done that. The Bills are one of them. And the other one is the new team that National Hockey League Commissioner Gary “Hockey in the Desert WILL be My Legacy, Dammit!” Bettman just created for Las Vegas. They don’t start play until the 2017-18 season and aren’t even named yet. Even the dumpster fire Cleveland Browns made it to the playoffs, even if that was in 2002.

The team’s identity now is taking on the mold of baseball’s Chicago Cubs: They have some of the most devoted and knowledgeable fans a football player could ever hope to play in front of, but they’re turning into the league’s Lovable Losers. Their errors and screwups are perpetual and comedic in nearly every way: One game away from the playoffs? Lose to Pittsburgh’s third line! Coaching choice between the competent Mike Sherman and Dick Jauron, who lucked his way into a soft-schedule division title with the Chicago Bears once? Pick Jauron! Patchy defense, no quarterback, and your only good wide receiver for the last decade just signed with the Houston Texans but no issues whatsoever at running back? Obviously you need another running back and should use your first round draft pick on one! The Bills seem to be making an effort to recover from that, but then again, they also have Rex Ryan coaching the team, and signed known asshole Richie Incognito a couple of years ago. (To his credit, Incognito currently appears to have changed his ways and doesn’t seem to be burdening the Bills.) They traded for running back LeSean McCoy when they hired Ryan, but McCoy – who was playing close to his home while he was with the Philadelphia Eagles – didn’t like the trade and his whole contract had to be restructured. This has all had a weird side effect on the Bills fan base: We’ve almost stopped caring about the on-field product. Yes, we know what’s happening and everything about the sport and the league, but games have become about how unruly we can be. I worked at Ralph Wilson Stadium while this metamorphosis started. At a Thursday night game in 2012, one fan drowned in the ravine behind the stadium, and what happened inside was one of the most unpleasantly surreal experiences of my life. My supervisor said the next day that the night shook his faith in humanity. Fans have taken to total debauchery in both the parking lot and the stadium. They’ve been caught doing things like falling off the top deck of the stadium, smashing tables with wrestling moves, and exchanging team memorabilia for sexual favors in the parking lot. If you read Deadspin’s Why Your Team Sucks series, an awful lot of posts about the Bills revolve around urine. This isn’t to defame Bills fans, though, because the tailgate parties they throw are a joy to attend and the enthusiasm we have for our team is boundless and infectious. Anyone wearing the other team’s colors in the stadium isn’t going to receive the reputed Philadelphia welcome, although they’ll probably get a few verbal barbs.

One of the most shameful and humiliating episodes in Bills history has nothing to do with the game. For a few years, the Bills were running home games in Toronto. Although the official explanation was to grow the fan base and make a little extra money, most fans suspect it was an experiment by the NFL to see how receptive Toronto would be in the event of the Bills moving there for good. The suspicion isn’t without a foundation; whenever talk of the first NFL team in Las Vegas or Portland or San Antonio comes up, the Bills always seem to be one of the first teams mentioned in the conversation. Toronto used to be one of those future NFL team cities, and the team signed a deal with Toronto to play one home game a year there starting in 2008. For a few years back in the day, there were exhibition games where NFL teams played against CFL teams. The series was dropped after the NFL won three of four games. Its only loss was when the Buffalo Bills were beat by the nearby Hamilton Tiger-Cats. While it should be noted that, at the time, the Tycats just won the the Grey Cup while the Bills were one of the worst teams in the league, it didn’t bode well for the Bills. And the series did little to get Canada’s attention. This was the NFL’s effort to try again, and the Bills insisted that they had thousands of fans in Toronto. I have no doubt this is the case – a good-sized Canadian contingent usually shows up from Toronto to see the Bills every week. But that led to the Bills overestimating the size of their Toronto base. While there are many Bills fans in Toronto, there are also many fans of at least 31 other NFL teams in Toronto. The Bills played their first regular season game in Canada in December of 2008 against the Dolphins, and were beat 16-3. They didn’t win a game at the Toronto Skydome until the Redskins “visited” in 2011. That seemed to be enough of an impetus for the NFL to approve a renewed contract in 2012, and the Bills never won another game in Canada. Furthermore, the attendance numbers in Toronto kept dropping. Meanwhile, the fans in Buffalo were just plain pissed. They refused to drive to Toronto to attend the games, while the fans in Toronto hated the series because the atmosphere in the cavernous Skydome was bland, the attendees weren’t as into the action as they were in Buffalo, and you could forget about the tailgating. The players hated the series too, because the fans weren’t behind them. Meanwhile, the team made its last resort argument to justify the series after the Seattle Seahawks killed them 50-17 in 2012: They were making money! Finally, in 2013, the Atlanta Falcons “visited.” In one of the two truly exciting games in the series, the lead went back and forth between a lousy Bills team and a Falcons squad that ultimately finished 4-12. The Bills blew a pair of leads, the game went into overtime, and the Falcons won 34-31. The Bills players flipped out and said the game would have been a surefire victory had their usual Buffalo crowd been behind them. Falcons players said there were so many people at Skydome cheering for them that it was almost like a home game. (Note: The Falcons are a dome team.) The media in both cities pounded both the Bills and Rogers, which owns Skydome. The crowd was a laughable 38,969. With the fans fed up and the team in rebellion, the team president took the hint… and “postponed” the series while he was “going to look at everything.” The Bills and Rogers Centre people agreed to resume in 2015 while they would “use this time to collectively evaluate opportunities and blah blah blah…” In other words, the series was going to go on no matter what. Before that could happen, though, Bills owner Ralph Wilson died and the Bills were sold to Terry Pegula. Pegula finally guillotined the series for good.

The Buffalo Bills are one of those communal, inheritance teams. Few people would choose to become fans, although I’ve met several who have taken this path by choice. They’re one of the few football teams on Facebook with a number of followers that’s still in six figures rather than seven, so no one will accuse you of bandwagoning. But what we lack in number, we make up in enthusiasm. It can send shivers down opposing fans’ spines when a shout of “Let’s go Buffalo!” rises up from that little city.

Pros

Won two titles; visited four Super Bowls in a row; Jack Kemp played for them; visitors to the stadium will be expected to gorge themselves on wings at some point

Cons

Two titles were both AFL titles from before the Super Bowl; lost all four Super Bowls; OJ Simpson played for them; visitors to the stadium will be expected to dive-bomb onto a folding table at some point; and by the way, Bills Mafia is a stupid hashtag that sounds like the name of your high school clique

Should you be a fan?

There’s that reputation. Bills fans are becoming the Cubs fans of the NFL, and everyone loves Cubs fans because of their constant optimism and sense of fun. The old jokes about the Super Bowl Bills being losers are falling out of style and being replaced with proper respects, but those old “losers” have been replaced by young losers. The fans do embody the sense of joy and community that being a sports fan is supposed to bring, but you’ll get sick of sports pundits predicting the Bills to be good and then wondering what happened when they’re suddenly 6-9 going into their last game. So there’s the question: Are you looking for a community or just a team?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s