by John Furgele
In 1999, both Twitter and Facebook did not exist. That’s the last time the Buffalo Bills made the NFL playoffs. Wade Phillips was the coach and for 15 games, Doug Flutie was the quarterback. Rob Johnson got the start in the meaningless season finale against Indianapolis and played brilliantly. Two days later Phillips announced that Johnson would be the starter for the Wild Card playoff game at Tennessee. Johnson did not play particularly well, but engineered a late fourth quarter drive that ended with a Steve Christie field goal that gave Buffalo a 16-15 lead. Bills’ fans know the rest of the story. The Home Run Throwback ensued and the Titans were on their way to the AFC title and a Super Bowl appearance.
Sixteen years is a long time. In those 16 years, I got married, became a three-time father and got divorced. A lot can happen in those years! Buffalo Bills fans are great fans. I’m not one to believe that fans “deserve” a championship, nor am I to believe that Buffalo fans are better than Atlanta, Detroit or Jacksonville fans, but Bills’ fans have been a patient lot. Since 1960, the Bills have played 55 seasons of football and have only qualified for the playoffs 16 times, a rate of just 29 percent. That percentage should drop assuming that the 2015 Bills, at 6-7 will not qualify. The Bills did win AFL titles in 1964 and 1965, and then lost the AFL Championship Game to Kansas City in 1966. A win there would have propelled them to Super Bowl I.
Being a fan causes much anguish. My 14-year old son is not a sports fan and for that, I tell him he’s better off. Why deal with added stress? There is enough stress in the world. Following sports also consumes a valuable amount of one’s time. Think about how many hours have been lost watching game after game after game? It can, at times, overwhelm.
Bills fans are up in arms with the latest result, a 23-20 loss to a not-terribly good Philadelphia Eagles squad. It was the same old-same old; seventeen penalties, poor coaching decisions and so on and so forth. The fans call the talk shows and make demands. They want GM Doug Whaley gone, they think Rex Ryan is overrated, the defense is under-performing, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman has not been creative enough. Fans say this because they have wishes and hopes. Each year, they hope to be good. They wish for the team to make the playoffs, they hope that they found a diamond-in-the-rough in quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Cubs’ fans have been like this for years. They expect to win a division with fourth-place talent.
The GM can only do so much. They can draft players and then turn them over to the coaches in the “hopes,” that they can be made into productive NFL players. It really is a crap-shoot. They get too much credit when one becomes a star; too much blame when one becomes a dud.
Sports fans also believe in dumb luck. Buffalo Bills’ fans think that dumb luck would find them making the playoffs at least once since 1999. The 1970s Bills made the playoffs just once; in 1974 when they were drubbed 32-14 by eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh. They went 9-5 in 1973, but failed to qualify for the playoffs and there were 8-6 in 1975. The rest of the decade saw sub-.500 finishes, including the Dark Era of 1976-1978 when Buffalo won just 10 games and lost 34.
Bills fans look at this team and think they should be a playoff caliber club. They believed the talk of head coach Rex Ryan, just like Jets’ fans did when he took over as their coach. Fans are like kids and Santa Claus; they want to believe.
Football is unlike the rest of the sports. The league is mired in mediocrity. There are the Carolinas, New Englands and Arizonas, but there are far too many 5-8 and 6-7 teams that are contending for playoff bids. That’s what makes the anguish greater for Bills fans; the fine line from being in and out. Football is the ultimate tease. In baseball, you usually know early on if your team can compete. You don’t hope for good pitching, you know it’s either bad or good. A .250 hitter is going to hit around .250; there is little hope that he will suddenly bat .310. Hockey and basketball have similar like consistencies. It is rare for one team to go from 30 wins to 45 in each 82 game season.
Football, because they only play 16 times, lends itself to a certain kind of unpredictability and that is one of the many reasons why the game is so popular. Even at 6-7, there are some Bills fans that think they can “run the table,” and sneak into the AFC playoffs.
Buffalo Bills fans don’t “deserve” to have their team make the playoffs, but they do deserve a team that can play with discipline and have some character. When you commit 17 penalties, do you really “deserve” to win? When the star running back eschews the team to complain about how bitter—and sad—he is at being traded by the opponent, what does that say about LeShon McCoy? Why can’t McCoy get over it? Why can’t he accept that the Philadelphia Eagles no longer wanted him? Why is that so hard for him to take? Why can’t he also accept and be glad that the Buffalo Bills wanted him? Why can’t he be grateful that he is still employed and making good money in the NFL? Furthermore, why didn’t Rex Ryan and the other coaches explain this to him in the days leading up to the game?
That’s what Buffalo Bills fans deserve. Would it be nice for the fans to see a playoff game before guys like me see their kids—unborn in 1999—graduate from high school? Sure, but there are only two guarantees in life and deserving a sports champion isn’t one of them. Of course, fans get greedy once success is achieved. The Boston Red Sox endured an 86-year drought before finally winning the World Series title in 2004. Two more titles followed in 2007 and 2013 but after two sub-par finishes, there is pressure again in Beantown. General Manager Ben Cherington resigned and Dave Dombrowski has taken over to help deliver another world title.
The Bills won four consecutive AFC championships (1990-1993) and then lost all four Super Bowls. Even so, those teams were revered for their perseverance, fortitude and never-say-die persona. What would Bills’ fans give to see their team lose a fifth Super Bowl? That too, is another worn-out cliché. Do fans really have to give up something to see their team win? You’ll hear people say that they would give up five years of their life for just one Super Bowl title, but in reality, nobody would really do that.
Most Bills’ fans lay in bed, visualizing a Super Bowl victory and all the pomp and circumstance that would go with it. But, when you see the 2015 Bills play, you realize that lying in bed and visualizing is just robbing you of much needed sleep.