Getting Cute in a Tough-Guy Game

January 9, 2018

by John Furgele (The Puzzled 228)

When I started watching football in 1975, I thought the game was easy. Line up, run or pass and try to score touchdowns. As I aged, I was told that football is a complex game, too complex for common fans to understand. There were formations, disguises and many other intricacies that the common fan could never comprehend.

Forty-two years have passed and I have realized that football is not that complicated after all.   The coaches make it to be for sure, and there are some parts of the game that aren’t easy to understand, but deep, deep down, the game is fairly simple.

The game may be simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to play, and we all know that the quarterback position has to be the toughest to play in all of professional sports. A great quarterback can put a coach in the Hall of Fame while a bad one gets the coach fired.

Be that as it may, coaches like to make the game harder than it is. We saw that in Super Bowl 49 when Pete Carroll tried to trick the Patriots by throwing a pass from the 1-yard line. Coaches spend 15 hours a day in their offices, devising plans for a game that is played by gladiators, and often, they try to win these games by being sneaky and at times deceitful.

Yesterday’s Buffalo-Jacksonville game was far from a thing of beauty. Unless you were a Bills or Jags fan, you might have struggled to stay with it. The game in Buffalo drew a 51.1 rating and 77 share. Those numbers are obscene, but sadly, those who watched saw the coaching staff out-clever itself when they needed to just keep it simple.

The game was scoreless late in the second quarter and the Bills were preparing to kick a field goal when they received a gift. The Jags jumped offsides and Buffalo now had a 1st and goal at the 1.

Football is a game for only the tough. It is a brutal sport and when you see the collisions in slow motion, there can be a small amount of guilt in watching—and liking—a game that is so violent.

This is the puzzling part for me. Why, in such a tough guy sport, do teams get cute? The Bills have a great running back in Shady McCoy, who was playing on a very bad ankle, yet they threw the ball on first down from the one. The result—a 10-yard penalty to make it 1st and goal from the 11.   If you’re a Bills fan, you knew right there that a field goal was going to be kicked. The kick was made and the Bills took a 3-0 lead, but many fans knew that in a game where scoring would be low, its outcome might have been decided right there and then.

Buffalo had four chances (assuming they go on 4th down) to make one yard and never let McCoy touch the ball. Bills fans are blaming offensive coordinator Rick Dennison for this, but the blame starts and ends with one person and that’s head coach Sean McDermott.

McDermott has to be the guy there. In fact, he should be the guy for all 60 minutes of the game. Let Dennison design the plays, and make sure they are executed properly in practice, but on game day, McDermott has to call run or pass. All coaches should do this, because the last I checked, they don’t assign win-loss records to assistant coaches.

All McDermott had to do was walk down to Dennison and say, “run.” Pete Carroll should have done that in Super Bowl 49 because if he had, his Seahawks might have won back-to-back Super Bowls.

McCoy had 19 carries for 75 yards and caught six passes for 44 more. He was underutilized. The head coach has to call run or pass based on how the game is going. The Bills threw 40 passes in the game—40. And, remember they ranked 31st of 32 teams in passing, but there they were passing on first down and getting themselves in long yardage situations.

This is what football coaches do; they get cute in a tough-guy game. If McCoy runs for 15 yards, I’d run him again and again until I had to pass. Instead, they call for a pass on the next play. I’d pick up the tempo and put the defense on their heels and when I have 1st and goal at the one, I run it three times, maybe four. If the defense stops me, I seek them out afterwards and pat them on the back with congratulations.

Jacksonville ran three times from the Buffalo one and Buffalo was up to the task. They passed for it on fourth down and were successful, scoring the game’s only touchdown. Even though the call worked, I was against it. I would have run again because the League of National Football is a tough-guy game. If I can’t make one or two yards, then frankly, I don’t deserve to win the game–or any game.

But, some teams just aren’t tough enough.


For Bills Fans, It’s Been a Fun Week But Now, the Fun is Over

January 6, 2018

by John Furgele (The Excited 228)

It is time for the Buffalo Bills and their fans to put Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals in the rear-view mirror.  For Buffalo fans it has been a great week, one flooded with emotions and memories.  If you’re old enough to remember the Bills “salad days” of the 1990s, gearing up for a playoff game was not that big of a deal.  In the 1980s, the Bills had some good years.  They won the AFC East in 1980 with an 11-5 record, losing a heartbreaker in the AFC Divisional Playoffs to the then San Diego Chargers.  In 1981, they secured the Wild Card before bowing at Cincinnati 28-21 in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, a hard fought loss to a team that ended up losing in the Super Bowl to Joe Montana and the 49ers.

The run of runs began in 1988.  Again, if you’re old enough, you recall when the Bills beat the Jets to secure the AFC East.  You recall public address announcer and morning radio host Stan Roberts imploring fans not to tear down the goal posts, saying, “We’re going to need those for playoff action.”  That team made the AFC Championship Game, losing 21-10 to the Cincinnati Bengals, but Bills fans were not deterred as the team was full of young stars.

The 1989 team became known as the “Bickering Bills,” but by season’s end had discovered themselves.  In the AFC Divisional Playoffs, they lost 34-30 to the Cleveland Browns, but in doing so discovered what would carry them to four straight AFC titles and subsequent Super Bowl appearances—the no-huddle, K-Gun offense.

For Bills fans, going to the playoffs and home playoff games became automatic, a rite of passage.  In the 1990s, the Bills qualified in 1990-1993, 1995, 1996, 1998 and 1999, an amazing eight times in a decade.

We all know about the drought.  We all know about the miracle which saw Cincinnati hit paydirt on a 4th and 12 to beat Baltimore.  Since that game, the nation has been kind to Buffalo and its Bills.  Why wouldn’t they?  This is a feel-good story about a team, a time and its city.  It’s funny to have America back on our side.  By 1994, America was tired of the Bills.  They had lost three straight Super Bowls and the point deferential was increasing each time. After losing the one-point heartbreaker to the New York Giants in Super Bowl 25, they were routed by Washington, humiliated by Dallas and were about to be thrashed by Dallas again.

This is how the American sports fan works.  In 2001, most were rooting for the underdog Patriots when they played the Rams, a team that had won a Super Bowl two years earlier.  That Patriots were quarterbacked by an unheralded Tom Brady and a coach who was trying to prove himself in Bill Belichick.  Now, most of America despises the Patriots.

The Bills have made it and it will be interesting to see what happens in their Wild Card game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.  The Jags are favored, expected to win and are at home.  But, this Jags team is far from a juggernaut.  It would not be a shock if Buffalo wins, nor would it be if they lost by a couple of touchdowns.  This is not a vintage Bills team, but at that same time, not a bad one either.

The fans have already prepped themselves.  Most have adopted the “I don’t care if they lose, I’m just glad they finally made it attitude.”  In sports vernacular that’s called playing with house money.  The fan rationalizes; admitting that perhaps its team was lucky to make it and rather than stress, they will enjoy the ride and playoff football for the first time since January, 2000.

Bills nation has further endeared itself to America by thanking Andy Dalton and his Bengals by donating to his charity.  At last count, Bills fans have donated over $300,000 to a fund that helps sick children.  When wide receiver Tyler Boyd—he the recipient of the Dalton throw—mentioned his charity, Bills fans started donating to his as well.  Now, sick children and youth football players in Western Pennsylvania have been the benefactors of a grateful Buffalo Bills Nation. What human wouldn’t like this story?

All this has been great, but now, it’s time to get nasty; to get the game face on.  No matter what Bills fans have been thinking and saying all week, once that game begins, everybody is all in and locked in.  If Tyrod Taylor overthrows a wide open Charles Clay, nobody in Western New York is going to say, “I’m just glad we made the playoffs.”  Instead, they will say, “How could he miss that throw?”

When Sean McDermott opts for a field goal on 4th and 1 from the Jacksonville 5, no Bills fan will say, “I’m just glad they scored some points in a playoff game.”  Instead, they will say, “What is doing, he should be aggressive and go for it.”

The Bills fan is excited and rightly so as it has been a long time between drinks for them.  If and when they lose, Bills fans will get over it and upon reflection will realize that magic that got them into the playoffs.  That said, if they lose a heartbreaker, the fans will huff and puff and show that anger because…..that’s what fans do.

The fans have enjoyed the week and they will do their best to enjoy and appreciate a playoff game for the first time since January 8, 2000.  But, once that game starts, everything changes.

And that’s the way it should be.



On College Football: Let The Cartel Do Their Thing And The Others Do Theirs.

January 4, 2018

by John Furgele (The Visionary 228)

Danny White has made his declaration that the Central Florida Knights are college football champions for 2017.  Notice I omitted the word national from his statement because I still don’t believe that college football truly crowns a national champion.  Until 1998, the writers (Associated Press) and coaches (UPI, USA Today, ESPN, et al) voted for the champions of college football.  It has never been an exact science, but it has made for good theater.

Who can forget 1977 when Notre Dame went into the bowls ranked fifth, but beat the number one ranked Texas Longhorns and then saw number 2 lose, number three beat a weak team with number 4 losing as well.  This resulted in the Irish being voted number one by the AP and UPI.

Miami did the same thing in 1983, vaulting from fifth to first by beating the unbeatable Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Orange Bowl.  The next year (1984) BYU went 13-0, beat Michigan in the lower-tiered Holiday Bowl and then had to sweat it out.  In the end, they were voted college football champions.

In 1998, the BCS tried to pit the best two teams in the BCS Championship Game.  Most of the time, this worked, but in the 2004 season, Oklahoma, USC and Auburn finished their seasons 12-0, but you can’t fit three into two and Auburn was left out.  USC crushed Oklahoma 55-19 in the Orange Bowl to win the BCS title.  Auburn decided to claim a championship as well and who we were to stop them?

What’s the point?  White says that UCF beat Auburn, the same Auburn that beat both Alabama and Georgia.  White says he will get a championship banner for Spectrum Stadium and will give his coaches bonuses for winning a championship.  That’s how serious he is.

He makes a valid point.  As I have said before, the College Football Playoff is a playoff of exclusion run by the” Power 5 Cartel”, or if you want to get specific, the “SEC Cartel.”  SEC and Power 5 schools have to play their way out of the CFP, while Group 5 schools and non-blueblood schools have to try to play their way in.  Most of the time, they get shafted.  Last year, Washington had to practically apologize for going 12-1 because they played a relatively weak nonconference schedule.  Alabama, the blueblood of bluebloods was not knocked one iota for battling FCS Chattanooga in late November.

This year, Wisconsin won its first 12 games, but it wasn’t until they won that 12th game that they cracked the top four in the CFP standings.  If you’re not a blueblood, you really have an uphill fight to make the CFP.  And, if you’re a Group 5 school—-forget it.  UCF went undefeated and was 12th coming into the bowls.

Who are the bluebloods; the teams that will get every opportunity to make the CFP.  There’s USC from the Pac 12; Ohio State and Michigan from the Big Ten; Clemson and Florida State from the ACC; Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12 and Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU and Florida from the SEC and of course, Notre Dame from the Notre Dame conference.  Can other Power 5 schools make it?  Yes, but you better be 13-0 to make sure you get the number four seed.

Temple could beat Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame and let’s say, Bowling Green in their nonconference slate, but once they begin American Athletic Conference play, they will be penalized.  They will actually earn demerits for beating Connecticut, East Carolina, Tulane and Navy. When the first CFP poll comes out they will be ranked 8th or 9th and the committee chair will say that their conference schedule is just not strong enough.

I never understood the conference schedule thing.  Teams have no choice; they have to play the teams that are in their conference.  It is not Temple’s fault that they’re not in a better conference. The Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC don’t want them, so they joined the American.  This shouldn’t hurt college football teams, but it does.

If Temple finishes 13-0 with the American title, they will still have to sweat it out because the CFP is really a glorified beauty pageant.  If Texas, Michigan, Alabama and USC are all 12-1, they will get the nod over the number 5 ranked Temple Owls.  The committee will say things like, “Temple was so close and so deserving, but we felt that they were just a wee bit short.”

What can we do?  Well, expanding to eight teams is not the answer because all that does is allow “The Cartel,” to make more money.  If you think “The Cartel,” is going to give the G 5 an automatic bid, you might as well make that down payment on an oceanfront condo in Kansas.

The best thing to do is a breakaway.  Let the Power 5 schools form the CFA—the College Football Alliance—and let them continue on with their four-team blueblood playoffs.  That’s what they’re doing now, so let them continue.

The Group 5 schools and FCS schools should join together and keep the NCAA moniker.  Now, you’ll have two levels of college football—the CFA and the NCAA.  Currently, there are three levels.  It’s disguised, but it really is three levels—1-A for the Power 5; 1-AA for the Group 5 and 1-AAA for the FCS schools.  By combining 1-AA and 1-AAA you actually streamline and improve the product.

As mentioned, the CFA would have a four-team playoff while the NCAA could have an eight-team playoff.  With 12 teams in the playoffs, you could keep the bowl games intact.  And, in these bowl games, CFA and NCAA teams could play one another, just like they would during the regular season.  Temple can open at Bowling Green, travel to Indiana State and then go to the “Big House,” to face the Michigan Wolverines.  If Temple finishes 8-4, they can play 8-4 Missouri in the Independence Bowl.  Now, Chattanooga can play at Alabama with no judgement.

With two levels of playoffs, there would be two champions, the CFA champs and the NCAA champs and you could have 30 bowl games.  That’s 72 teams playing extra games, so everything is preserved.  The CFA winner will print a banner that says, “Alabama Crimson Tide: CFA National Champions,” and the NCAA winner will make a banner that says, “Central Florida Knights:  NCAA National Champions.”

I would suggest removing the word national and I will never refer to these winners as national champions, not because I’m a snob, but because I have never done that.

God bless Danny White and full kudos to him.  White has always been an outside-the-box thinker and this is just another example.  We need guys like White; not to make declarations like he did, but to institute change in college football.  He needs to push for this separation and creation of the CFA and NCAA.

This Saturday, an FCS champion will be crowned when North Dakota State faces James Madison in the FCS Championship Game.  On Monday night, the CFP champion will be crowned when SEC rivals Alabama and Georgia face off in that title game.  Which schools are getting left out?  The Group 5 schools like—-Central Florida.  That’s why White did what he did.  He had to advocate for the G5.

Now, he needs to go the extra step and get college football to crown two football champions.


The Queen Cities Get Together and Make it Happen.

January 1, 2018

For the first time since January, 2000, there will be playoff action for the Buffalo Bills

by John Furgele (The Buffalo 228)

One Queen City needed to win and then, they needed the other Queen City to win.  The odds of that happening were slim.  Queen City 1–the Buffalo Bills–had to beat the Miami Dolphins in Miami and then had to have Queen City 2–the Cincinnati Bengals–beat the 9-6 Baltimore Ravens, a team that needed to just win at home to clinch a playoff berth.

Queen City 1 got off to a good start.  They took advantage of a Miami team that had nothing to play for; a team that was going for it on fourth downs, a team that was playing its third-string quarterback.  As usual, Queen City 1 had an apparent touchdown overruled and before you could blink it was 22-16 and after Miami recovered an onside kick, it looked like Queen City 1 was going to blow it and surrender any chance of making the playoffs for the first time since 1999.  But, an interception sealed the game and Queen City 1 headed to the locker room with the win and a 9-7 overall record.

Now, they had to wait to see if Queen City 2 could pull the upset.  For most of the game, they were the better team.  They jumped on the Ravens but saw a 24-10 lead evaporate.  The Ravens started moving the ball with ease and before you knew it, led 27-24. There’s a reason why Queen City 2 was 6-9 coming into this game.  Many times, they blew leads, many times they couldn’t finish games and as a result, you’re three games under .500 and your coach is about to be shown the door.

It’s never a good thing for a team to have to rely on others to make the playoffs.  Queen City 1 was 9-7 and one of those losses in 2017 was to Queen City 2.  Now, weeks later, QC 1 was rooting—hard—for QC 2.

The season came down to one play.  It was 4th and 12 for Queen City 2, the ball on their own 49-yard line.  One last gasp.  The players in the Queen City 1 lockerroom were watching, but they were hoping and praying for a miracle.  What were the chances of Queen City 2 making a big play in a season devoid of them?

Then, the miracle happened.  Queen City 2 quarterback Andy Dalton found the seam and hit Tyler Boyd.  It wasn’t a perfect pass, but it was good enough to keep the drive alive.  In fact, after Boyd made a quick spin it was a better than a first down catch, it was a 51-yard touchdown reception with just 44 seconds left.  Back in Miami, the Queen City 1 lockerroom erupted.  Was it really happening?  Was the 17 year playoff drought—the longest current one in North American sports—really going to end?

The answer came in a few agonizing minutes.  The Ravens turned the ball over on downs and just like that, Queen City 2 had done it.  They had knocked the Ravens and bumped the Bills—Queen City 1—into the NFL playoffs.  Next week, Queen City 1 travels to Jacksonville to take on the Jags in an AFC Wild Card Game.

Week 17 (Game 16) is always hard to figure.  For teams like the Cincinnati Bengals, you wonder what the motivation will be?  Football is a brutal game and when you’re on a 6-9 team, the number one goal in Game 16 is to get out of the game with your health intact.  If things go badly early on, the game can get ugly and before you know it, it’s 27-3 with five minutes remaining in the first half.

The other scenario is the old give it a quarter and see what happens one.  If the team that has nothing to play for gets off to a good start, they’ll keep playing and because professional athletes are a competitive bunch, the adrenaline and the will to win kicks in.

That’s what happened to the Bengals.  They had the 17-3 lead and they were into it.  They wanted to win, perhaps for their coach, but more importantly, for themselves.  They eventually reverted back to what they were (a mediocre football team) and lost the lead, but they were too far in to just roll up the tent.  This was game that they led most of the way and they were determined to go down fighting.  For Baltimore fans, there would be no second-half coronation.

They got the ball back and they kept trying.  Queen City 1 was watching in Miami and were appreciative of their efforts.  Win or lose, Queen City 2 did not “run for the bus,” as many teams in the final week of season do.  They kept playing and in the end, one Queen City helped another end a drought that had lasted 17 years.

Seventeen years is a long time.  In 1999, I was 31 with no kids and had never owned a house.  Since then, I have moved several times, owned a few houses, been married, divorced and now have four kids.  Lots of changes, but there was one constant—no playoff berths for the Buffalo Bills.

If you’re from the Buffalo area, you live through the sports teams, the Bills and the NHL Sabres.  Yes, most fans in most cities root hard for their teams, but there is a civic pride that comes with Buffalonians and Western New Yorkers and the Bills.  It’s hard to explain, just like Buffalo is hard to explain to outsiders.  The outsiders see an old rust-belt city and snow and wonder why people would ever live there.  But, there is tremendous civic pride by those who still live there and those who are from there and have moved away.  A Bills win brightens the week.

I once knew a guy who was promoted and transferred to Buffalo.  When he told his wife they were moving to the Queen City, she cried.  Who wants to move to Buffalo?  Eight years later, he was promoted again and they left Buffalo.  The wife cried again.  This time, she didn’t want to go.

That’s the best explanation of Buffalo and WNY that I have and that is why Bills fans around the world are really happy this New Year’s Day.



The Curious Career of Eli Manning

December 29, 2017

by John Furgele (The Concussed 228)

Eli Manning is a two-time Super Bowl champion.  He has played in two Super Bowls and was the MVP both times.  In 2007, the 10-6 Giants went on an incredible run by beating Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay on the road before vanquishing the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl 42 in an epic game for the ages.

In 2011, the Giants finished 9-7 and again, went on a similiar run.  No Super Bowl winner had a worse regular season record than these Giants.  In the playoffs, they defeated Atlanta at home and then went on the road to beat Green Bay and San Francisco.  Like they did in 2007, they won the NFC Championship Game in overtime.

Manning, in 2007, was sublime in the playoffs.  In the NFC title game, whenever he needed to complete a pass, he found Plaxico Burress and in the Super Bowl, when he needed to, he found Burress again as well as Steve Smith and of course, David Tyree.  In 2011, he found Mario Manningham and within four seasons, Peyton’s younger brother was a two-time Super Bowl champion.

Manning’s Giants have kept Tom Brady’s Patriots from being 7-0 in Super Bowls.  Sure, the Patriots have played and won many close games in the Super Bowls, but their two losses to the Giants were agonizing.  Because Manning has those two Super Bowl rings, most consider him a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  But is he?  Does winning two Super Bowls ensure enshrinement/football immortality?

If you look at Manning’s numbers, they’re very good.  In 14 total seasons, he has passed for over 51,000 yards, has 338 touchdown passes, 227 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 83.6.  The numbers are good, but not gaudy in this passer-friendly era.

His teams have won, then lost. After 2007, the Giants didn’t make the playoffs in 2008, 2009, or 2010 and after 2011; they failed to qualify from 2012-2016, droughts of seven years in total.  His won-lost record is 110-103, 51.6 percent.  Jim Kelly played 11 seasons for Buffalo and his record was 101-59 (63.1 percent). And, Kelly’s Bills made the playoffs in 8 of those 11 seasons.

Is it possible to play one’s way out of the Hall of Fame?  Now, this is the dumbest game of all to play, but what if Manning had no Super Bowl titles?  Or one?  Would he still be a lock for Canton?  The great quarterbacks are supposed to put teams on their back and carry them to the playoffs.  We have seen Aaron Rodgers do this with Green Bay and we have seen Tom Brady do this with New England and when healthy, Andrew Luck with Indianapolis.  His brother Peyton played on some very average teams in Indianapolis and every year, they won at least 10 games and made the playoffs.  He was knocked for losing playoff games, but when he sat out 2011, the Colts went 2-14.

In 13 full seasons, Manning and his Giants have made the playoffs just six times.  He has played on teams that finished .500 or worse six times in that span.  Joe Namath played 12 seasons for the NY Jets and made the playoffs just twice, but because he and Manning have those Super Bowl titles and MVPs, they do not get that negative scrutiny that guys like Moon and Fran Tarkenton have.

Namath played in a different era, but if you look at stats and stats alone, you might wonder why he is in the Hall of Fame.  He threw 173 touchdowns, 220 interceptions and completed just 50.1 percent of his passes.  But, he was the gunslinger, the swashbuckler and in 1969, he put the old American Football League on the map. If a player can make the Hall of Fame on one game, Namath was that guy.

Jim Plunkett won two Super Bowls with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders and despite that is never going to the Hall of Fame.  So, for those who argue it’s all about rings, it really isn’t.  If it were, why are Dan Marino and Warren Moon in and Plunkett out?

Manning’s career is a strange one.  In two postseasons, he played beyond himself—he outkicked his coverage.  He has been a very good quarterback, but if you watch he and his Giants, he has frustrated.  He has never been a dink-and-dunker in this, the dink-and-dunk age and that has resulted in some sloppy play and many an interception.  He has led the NFL in interceptions three times, with a high-water mark of 27 in 2013, a 7-9 season.

I dislike the dink-and-dunk era; it’s one of the many reasons why Andy Reid and his Eagles/Chiefs have never won a Super Bowl.  I have always admired Manning and his coaches for not succumbing to that style.  But, I wonder if Manning could play that way? I don’t think he can and that is just another one of his shortcomings.

2018 will be an interesting one for Manning.  It will be tough for the Giants to let him leave, even though it’s probably the best thing for the organization.  Most think Manning could join a ready-made team and make a deep run in the playoffs.  Some say he would be a great fit in Jacksonville, where he would be reunited with his old coach and mentor, Tom Coughlin, who is in the Jags’ front office.

I’m not sure Manning would be a great fit there, or anywhere, for that matter.  He can still play, but can he play in certain systems?  It never ends well for most quarterbacks.  Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl in his final season, but Denver had to carry him across the finish line.  John Elway was the Super Bowl MVP in his final game, but he was struggling at the end, too.  Thankfully, he had Terrell Davis and a great defense to help him out.

When his career is over, Eli Manning will have a bust in Canton, Ohio.  He will never buy dinner in New York again for those two Super Bowls, and he outplayed and beat the best all-time quarterback Tom Brady twice on the biggest stage in North American sports—the Super Bowl.

Manning has had his ups and downs, more than most Hall of Famers.  It won’t prevent him from enshrinement, but it does keep him off the list of all-time greats.  Was he better than Brett Favre?  Ken Stabler?  Terry Bradshaw?  Troy Aikman?  Kurt Warner?  That’s the beauty of sports.  All of those quarterbacks are in the Hall of Fame.  Manning will be too and once they’re there, there are no levels in the Hall—they’re all just in.  Fans can do the rankings.  They can rank him low but because he’s a Hall of Famer, they have to rank him; something that one doesn’t do with players like Phil Simms and Boomer Esiason, two very good players who are not, nor will be Hall of Famers.

I would stop short of calling Manning an enigma, but he has been puzzling for sure.  Puzzling, yes, but still, a Hall of Fame quarterback.

Woodbine Hosts Boxing Day Harness Racing For The Last Time

December 27, 2017

In 2018, it will be Mohawk for harness racing; Woodbine for horse racing

by John Furgele (The Sentimental 228)

Boxing Day in Canada means a lot of things and one of them is afternoon harness racing at Woodbine.  This Boxing Day took a different degree of importance as it marked the last time that Woodbine will host harness racing on December 26.  As you probably know, the Woodbine Entertainment Group owns Woodbine and Mohawk racetracks and beginning in April, all harness racing will take place at the rebranded Woodbine at Mohawk Park, with all thoroughbred racing taking place in Etobicoke at Woodbine.

There were two Boxing Day features at old Woodbine; one for three-year old fillies and mares and one for three-year old colts and geldings.  In the $34,400 Niagara for the ladies, a field of ten paced a mile over the 7/8 mile track.  In the first four races, the track catered to those who got to the lead, but the Niagara saw that end.  They all charged to get to the lead—into the wind—with Party Beach leading them through a swift opening quarter of 27.4.  It was a three horse affair in those early stages with Teachers Vet, Cloud Diva and the aforementioned Party Beach.  They sped through the half in 56.4 and three-quarters in 1:24.3.  It was there when Jazzy Image came from off the pace to get to the lead and look Cloud Diva in the eye.  The stirring stretch drive saw Jazzy Image prevail in 1:54.4 with Cloud Diva second and late running Nasty Rumor capturing third.

Like the Niagara, it was a field of 10 in the Valedictory.  Penzance Hanover took the early lead and got the field through the quarter in 27.1 before duking it out with Brave World who was able to wrest the lead through the half in a quick 55.4.  The backstretch was kind as the horses had a tailwind, but coming home, the headwind was back in their faces.  Brave World held through the three-quarters in 1:24.3, but began to fade, giving way to both Windsun Gotham and Homey Joe, who engaged in a memorable stretch drive.  Better B Rolling was able to duck to the inside and it looked for a moment that he might get there, but Windsun Gotham hung on to win in 1:54.1, ahead of Homey Joe with Better B Rolling third.

These were nice stakes races—designed for non-winners of $60,000.  For Jazzy Image, it was win number five in 2017; for Windsun Gotham, number six.  The Boxing Day matinee closed the lid on the 2017 Woodbine harness season.  The track takes a 10 day break now, with racing resuming on Saturday, January 6.

I’ve always been a sentimental guy that longs for the good old days.  Part of that is age of course, and part of that really believes that things were better back in the day.  You know, the days before instant replay ruined pro football, basketball and baseball.  I wasn’t at Woodbine for today’s racing, but I wonder what the mood was.  Were people sad that this was the last Boxing Day card at the track or could they care less?  Will they just saunter over to Mohawk next year and be done with things?

The harness racing product at Woodbine and Mohawk has always been a good one, and there is no doubt that it will continue with a streamlined operation.  The Thoroughbreds will have Woodbine all to themselves and the Standardbreds can monopolize what will be called Woodbine at Mohawk Park.  For the Standardbred owners, no more shuttling between the two tracks.  They can now drop anchor 12 months per year in Campbellville, the home of Mohawk Park.

Woodbine will be missed.  It was one of the last remaining tracks that could host both horse and harness racing. In the United States, Hawthorne hosts both, but never at the same time.  Woodbine provided great Standardbred racing for decades and that will be missed.

Boxing Day 2017 at Woodbine—the end of an era, and perhaps, the dawn of a new one.



The Glory Days Are Gone

December 8, 2017

The Game Day experience at New Era just ain’t what it used to be 

by John Furgele (The Reasonable 228)

ORCHARD PARK, NY—The Buffalo Bills have been in the NFL since the 1970 season.  This is their 48th season of NFL play and for the most part, they have been a sub-par operation.

In the 1970s, they made the playoffs, once, in 1974 when they had O.J. Simpson and finished 9-5.  They lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh 32-14 in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, but all in all, a good year.

They were 9-5 in 1973; that season was highlighted by Simpson rushing for 2,000 yards.  In 1975, they were 8-6.  The rest of the decade—woeful.

In the 1980s, they made the playoffs four times—1980, 81, 88 and 89.  All four of their teams were good ones—the first two quarterbacked by Joe Ferguson, the last two by Jim Kelly.  Combined, those teams went 2-4 in the playoffs.  The ’88 team lost in the AFC Championship to Cincinnati.

The 1990s were the salad days for the Fighting Buffaloes.  Most fans know what happened.  They made the playoffs from 1990-1993; 1995-1996; and 1998-1999.  They won numerous division titles and four AFC championships, but alas, never won that big game at the end of the season.

In 30 years of NFL play (I am leaving the AFL days out), the Bills have made the playoffs 13 times and participated—and lost—four Super Bowls.

Since 1999, they have not sniffed playoff action and when this season concludes, it will mark the 18th consecutive season without a playoff appearance.

I bring this up because I grew up in the Buffalo suburbs and lived in the Rochester area through 1999.  I went to my first Bills’ game in 1975 and saw Buffalo beat New England 45-31.  I went to games in the 1980s and many games during the halcyon days of the 1990s.  Obviously, those were fantastic times to be a Buffalo Bills fan.  They won and moreover, you expected them to win.  These were also the days before massive new stadiums were built, so ticket prices were affordable and there was a good mix or people in the stands.

On Sunday, I was in the stands as the Bills bowed to the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots 23-3.  The game was close for a while with New England holding just a 9-3 halftime lead before it got ugly.

I was amazed by what I saw at the stadium.  Now, it must be noted that since 1998, I have only attended three games—1998 when Doug Flutie quarterbacked the Bills against Vinny Testaverde and the Jets, 2013 when the Bills hosted the Chiefs and Sunday. To expect things to be the same would be silly.

Ticket prices are higher, so there were not many families at the game. I was there with my 14-year old daughter, but father-child was a rare sight.  What you see now is young 20 somethings with disposable incomes and 45-year old men with disposable incomes.  The 20 years olds don’t worry about mortgage payments; they spend all their dollars on booze, food and entertainment.  The 45-year old is there with his wife/girlfriend or friend and not with his three kids.  In addition to the higher prices, the vulgarity that exists at a football game remains at a high level.  The f word is prevalent as is crotch grabbing, gay references and much more.  Of course, that has always been part of the football experience.  Gates open at 9 am for a game that starts at 1 pm, so there is plenty of time to get drunk before kickoff.  In fact, many people sitting next to me were glazed over before that 1 pm kickoff.  They came for the game, but they really came to partake in the pregame ritual that is called tailgating.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the fans felt that they were part of the game.  Many felt that they could influence the outcome by being loud, screaming, jiggling their car keys, and chanting during the games.

Sadly, this isn’t the case anymore.  The game today reminded me of the 1977 and 1978 Bills, teams that went a combined 8-22.  The fans go to the game, they tailgate (and drink too much) and then the come inside, sit on their hands and after the third quarter head to the exits to beat the traffic.  They want the Bills to win, but they don’t will the Bills to win. In the 1990s, the fans came and expected a win.  They knew there would be moments of anguish, but in the end, they knew that they could rock the house and propel the Bills to another win.  The team was that good and the fans were cock and confident.

The Patriots of today remind of those 1990s Bills’ teams.  Even when it was just 6-3, a Patriots fan never expected Buffalo to take over the game.  Some call that cockiness, I call it cold-blooded confidence.  All one had to do was watch last year’s Super Bowl to know that the New England Patriots are never out of a football game.

The young people at the game don’t know greatness as their beloved Bills have not reached the playoffs since 1999.  The older people—those that remember the 1990s—cling to the season tickets, but might be tiring of the experience.  When you’re 22, it’s about getting up early, drinking, eating and tailgating.  If you imbibe too much, just call in sick on Monday, or if you’re lucky, it’s your day off

When you’re 52, it’s tougher to “get up,” for the excitement.  The tailgating is fun, but not as fun and at this age, you want to see the team do better.  In fact, you would trade the tailgate for a cold sub and victory.  The young person doesn’t really care and because the team has been so bad, doesn’t know anybody. At the same time, you’re afraid to give up your seasons because—what if they get good again?

The Bills are also in danger of never getting the young WNYer to come on board.  Young people like winning teams.  If you’re nine and living in Lancaster, why not be a Patriots fan? A Steelers fan?  Why support the Bills when they keep losing time after time. If the Bills could make the playoffs, that nine-year old never gets a chance to jump ship and pick that out-of-town team.

I drove by the stadium on Monday as I prepared to head east and back to Albany.  It looked desolate, drab and devoid of life.  A day ago, there were 68,000 plus there, full of hope thinking the Bills would win and place themselves squarely in the playoff picture.  That didn’t happen, and if they can’t beat the lowly 3-9 Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, the drought will extend to 18 years.

For me, three games over 17 years.  I can close my eyes and remember that Bills-Jets game when Testaverde and the Jets outdueled Flutie and the Bills.  That was a big game; it gave the Jets the inside track in the AFC East.  They would win the division that year and advance to the AFC Championship, where they would fall in Denver to Elway and the Broncos.  The Bills finished 10-6, grabbed the Wild Card where they would lose at Miami to the Dolphins by a 24-17 score.

The 2013 game versus the Chiefs is nothing but a blur. The Bills were forced to start to Jeff Tuel at QB and they made too many mistakes and lost to Kansas City.  The game was dull and so, too was the crowd.

On Sunday, the Pats did to the Bills what they always do to the Bills—they blasted them.  As sad as it was, the loss didn’t linger because it was expected.  That may be sad, but that’s where the Buffalo Bills are today.

I was glad I was there, but it might be a while before I’m back again.

Getting CFP Right Not an Exact Science

December 6, 2017

When you have five conferences and Notre Dame vying for four spots, it gets tricky

by John Furgele (The Studious 228)

In the end, I think the CFP committee got it right.  They picked Alabama over Ohio State, but had they picked Ohio State over Alabama, I would have also said that the committee got it right.  Each year, there are at least five candidates for four sports and each year, one fan base will be happy and the other, not so much.  That said, we are placing way too much emphasis on the CFP and it is hurting college football.  No longer is 9-3 or even 10-2 an accepted record.  If you keep missing the CFP, eventually, the coach gets run of town.  Is that healthy for the sport?  This was one of the reasons the college presidents were reluctant to change the old bowl system.  They were okay with the writers and coaches voting for champions because it was subjective and really didn’t mean that much.  If I was 11-1 and you were 11-1 but we didn’t play each other, who really was better?

For the second straight year, we learned that winning a conference championship game doesn’t mean anything.  Last year, Penn State won the Big Ten title game; this year Ohio State did the same, but both teams were left out.  Alabama lost its final regular season contest, sat home on championship Saturday and made the playoff.  Ohio State can’t bellyache because they did the same thing Alabama did last year.

In fairness, the committee’s job is to pick what they think are the four best teams.  They have never made playing and winning the conference championship game a requirement.  Wisconsin was undefeated all year yet was never ranked first in any poll.  The writers, coaches and the CFP committee never felt that Wisconsin was the best team.  Had they finished 13-0, they would have made the CFP, but still wouldn’t have captured the number one seed/ranking.

When the CFP is announced, most call for an expansion of the tournament.  Some want 6, others 8, some 12 and others 16, but the truth of the matter is that this hasn’t been discussed at all by the college presidents and athletic directors.  Expansion is not coming any time soon, and because that’s the case, the best thing to do is tweak the current system so everybody knows what they need to do.  Right now, the CFP is turning into the cartel that the BCS was—the same teams are making it each and every year.  We have seen Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and Alabama in this thing each and every year.  The tournament needs to be more inclusive or risk a serious ratings decline.  The world will eventually get sick of Alabama; especially if they think the committee is “putting them in,” to get TV ratings and the like.

What should be done, and how should it be done?  Here are my suggestions.

-Games are against FCS teams should not be allowed.  Alabama went 11-1; in their nonconference they played Florida State, Fresno State, Colorado State and FCS Mercer.  Ohio State played Oklahoma, Army and UNLV.  If Alabama played say, Central Florida, would they be 11-1 or 10-2?  Let Bowling Green play Mercer and let Alabama play Bowling Green.

-All conferences should play the same number of conference games.  Look at the above scenario—Ohio State played nine Big Ten games and three nonconference games while Alabama played eight (SEC games) and four (nonconference games).  The SEC wants 8 so teams can play at least 7 if not 8 home games; the Big Ten knows that in some years, Ohio State will have to play 5 conference road games.  Some conferences simply do not want that.

-Teams should have to play at least two Power 5 schools in their nonconference slate.  I think 8 conference games is probably the best avenue, so this would make teams play two Power 5 and two Group 5 schools each year.  Ohio State could schedule Bowling Green, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Oklahoma State, while Alabama could play Clemson, Michigan State, Boise State and UAB.  That would be cool, wouldn’t it?

-Eliminate divisions in conferences.  They’re artificial and don’t assure that the two best teams will play in the conference title game.  There are no divisions in college basketball; why should they have them in college football.  The Big 12 got this one right.  They played the conference games and took the two best teams.  Last year, Penn State would have played Ohio State for the Big Ten title and if Penn State had won, they would have made the tournament.

-Eliminating the conference championship games would be the best thing to do, but the SEC would never do that because their game is cherished by the fans and makes the conference millions and millions of dollars.  If all Power 5 schools schedule fairer, these conference championship games will truly serve as playoff games.  Winning the title game can help get you in; losing should eliminate you.  There was a possibility that 12-0 Alabama could have lost to 11-1 Georgia in Atlanta and both teams could have received berths in the CFP.  That’s the situation that needs to be avoided.  You could have the 9-3 team beat the 11-1 team in a conference title game, but that doesn’t mean the now 10-3 team is getting in, but the 11-2 would be out.  What happens is the 10-2 team beats the 12-0 team?

There will always be problems.  A few years ago, the Big Ten said no more games against FCS schools.  But, they reversed course and now say that in years when you have five conference road games, you can schedule an FCS school.  As soon as that announcement was made, Purdue went ahead and scheduled game against Indiana State of the FCS.

Let’s assume there were no conference championship games—-here is what things would have looked like.  These are the records of the teams with two losses or less before they played the conference title games were played.

Wisconsin           12-0

Georgia               11-1

Oklahoma           11-1

Clemson              11-1

USC                     10-2

Alabama              11-1

Ohio State           10-2

Auburn                10-2

Miami                  10-1 (game canceled because of Irma).

UCF                     11-0 (game canceled because of Irma).

Penn State           10-2

Memphis             10-1

Under this scenario, I would think that Wisconsin, Clemson, Oklahoma and Georgia would have been given berths in the CFP.  The Big Ten conference title game hurt the conference because the two-loss team beat the undefeated team and that resulted in the Big Ten getting shut out come CFP time.  But, the conferences got greedy; they want the game and the revenue that goes with it, but there is a risk-reward scenario.  Ask Kansas State and Oklahoma, two teams that lost potential berths in the old BCS title game when they lost to teams with multiple losses in the Big 12 title game.

College football is funny; USC lost at 9-3 Notre Dame 49-19, while Ohio State was blitzed in Iowa City by 7-5 Iowa 55-24, yet USC was never considered for a CFP bid while Ohio State was the first one out.  Ohio State also lost at home 31-16 to Oklahoma while USC’s second loss was on the road to 9-3 Washington State, 30-27.  It is fitting that these two teams will square up against one another in the Cotton Bowl.  But, it’s curious why Ohio State was given much more CFP consideration that the Trojans.

There may never be a “correct” way to figure out a perfect system.  The four that they selected are the four that I would have selected, but cases can be made for USC, Ohio State and yes, UCF.  In the end, the cartel will call the shots and for now, the number will remain at four.  Even if all FBS teams played two Power 5 schools and two Group 5 schools, we all know playing Vanderbilt is not the same as playing TCU, so the bellyaching will never go away.

The conference championship games are likely staying, so let’s do what we can do.  Drop games against the FCS and have the Ohio States replace UNLV with Pittsburgh.  Sure, they can play UNLV, but they have to play Pittsburgh and one other Power 5 school, too.  Let’s also have all Power 5 schools agree on eight or nine conference games.  This levels the field—each P5 school plays at least two games against fellow P5 schools and then two versus G5 schools.

This won’t solve anything because there are six conferences (Notre Dame counts as the Notre Dame Conference) vying for four slots.  If the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and Notre Dame all finished at say, 11-1, two deserving schools will not make the cut.  They will get to play in a great bowl game like Ohio State and USC are doing this year, but in today’s age, that is considered disappointing.  That’s a shame, of course, and something that college officials didn’t want to create, but when they took the CFP money, they sold out.  Nothing wrong with trying to make money, but there are always some drawbacks to chasing it.


The Toronto Argonauts: The Most Resilient Team in North America

November 28, 2017

They may not get the royal treatment, but they’re good at winning Grey Cup titles

by John Furgele (The Canadian 228?)

They’ve been bankrupt.  They’ve been ownerless. They don’t have tons of  fans and pretty much every year, they rank last in attendance.  They were booted out of the Rogers Centre and truth be told were never welcomed there by the Toronto Blue Jays and their ownership.  There are many in Greater Toronto that think they left town.  They didn’t have a coach or general manager until March.  They didn’t have many players either.  They have had regular season NFL games staged there while their season was still in session.

They are the Toronto Argonauts—the 2017 Grey Cup champions, and out of all of them, this probably ranks as the most surprising of their 17 titles.  They were 4-7 but rallied to finish 9-9, good enough to get them the East division title and the division final at home; a game where they squeaked by the crossover Saskatchewan Roughriders.  In the Grey Cup, they were outplayed and outgained by the Calgary Stampeders, a team that finished the season 13-4-1.  But, they were not outgunned.  They fired three bullets and all of them worked.  They got a 100 yard touchdown pass from in the first half; a half where they gained 123 total yards. Despite this, they only trailed at the half 17-8.

The second bullet was the scoop and the 109-yard touchdown scamper that tied the score at 24.  Calgary’s gun was loaded and ready to shoot the Argos out of TD Place Stadium.  But, the Argos gun was not only loaded, it fired salvos.  When you’re the underdog, you have to be opportunistic and when you get the chance to land the haymaker, you have to do so.  The Argos trailed the whole game, 6-0, 14-6, 14-8, 17-8, 17-16, 24-16, but once they drew even, they acted like the more confident team.  They got the ball back at 24-all and drove the field for what would turn out to be the game-winning field goal.  But, they still had one bullet left and that was Matt Black’s interception in the end zone with 12 seconds left.  If he doesn’t make that play, the game likely heads to overtime, but opportunistic teams make those plays and that’s what the Argonauts did.

No team has won the Grey Cup more times than the Boatmen, but no team has been as underappreciated as the Boatmen.  In the old days, the city had the Maple Leafs and them, so people cared more; they accepted the Argos even though it was a second class football league.  In 1977, the Blue Jays began and their existence bit into the Argo fan base.  They still did okay—winning the Grey Cup in 1983 before the Jays really got good.  They won another in 1991, but by then, the Jays were rolling and in 1992 and 1993, they would bring the World Series title north.

The Argos wouldn’t go away.  The Raptors came to town in the fall of 1995, but the Argos, buoyed by the arrival of Doug Flutie would win back-to-back titles in 1996 and 1997.  Despite the Cup wins, they still suffered from fragile ownership, a building much too big for them, and most importantly, fan apathy.  Just when things looked the bleakest, they captured another title in 2004, this time led by 41-year old quarterback Damon Allen.

In 2005, Toronto FC came to town, and further eroded the Argonaut fan base.  Toronto now had four professional sports teams playing in the highest level of their sport in North America.  Major League Soccer is not the Premier League or the Bundesliga, but in North America, there is no level of soccer higher.  Even so, the Argos were now competing in a deep pool and even though the CFL is exciting, unique and full of flavor, Greater TO was not buying it.

They persevered and in 2012, they won the 100th Grey Cup at home, in the Rogers Centre before a packed house.  I mentioned opportunistic previously, didn’t I?

As magical as winning the 100th Grey Cup was, it didn’t create that spark.  Soon, the Argos were homeless.  They tried to build a new stadium, but that plan failed. When Larry Tannebaum purchased them, the decision was made to have the Argos bunk with the “Reds.”  BMO Field is better than Rogers Centre, but it was built for soccer first. Like the Rogers Centre, the Argos would be the tenant.

The Toronto Argonauts appear to be survivors.  There are other CFL teams that win and win more, but they don’t win Grey Cups like the Argos do.  Hamilton, a city that really cares about CFL football hasn’t won one since 1999.  Winnipeg, a city that really cares about football, hasn’t won since 1990.  Saskatchewan, a province that really cares about football, has only won four times—1966, 1989, 2007 and 2013.  Since 1983, the Argos have won seven Grey Cups.

They are a curious study to be sure.  They win enough, but it’s the way they win that makes it curious.  If you were born in 1975, you are now 42 years old. In your lifetime, you’ve seen the Argos win in 1983 when you were eight; 1991 when you were 16; 1996 and 1997 when you were 21 and 22.  Seven years later, in 2004, as a 29 year old, they won again, then eight years later, your 37-year old self saw another and then on Sunday, at age 42, you saw the Argos win that seventh Grey Cup title.

Let’s think about this.  The Argos do not dominate and they’re not a dynasty, but they do a good job of spreading their titles out.  In 1983, they broke a 31-year drought when they beat the BC Lions in Vancouver in a thriller, 18-17.  They got to another title game in 1987, but lost in the final minute, 38-36, to the Edmonton Eskimos.  But, since then, they haven’t lost another Grey Cup game.  In 34 years (1983-2017), Toronto has won seven titles, an average of one every five years.  What sports fan wouldn’t sign for that?

The Argos are funny because they follow a pattern.  They win and then they go dormant for a while.  They won in 1983, then took eight years off, but re-emerged in 1991.  After hibernating from 1992-1995, Flutie rescued the team and perhaps the franchise with those back-to-back titles.  Per custom, the Argos took a six-year nap and then won again in 2004.  That was followed by another nap (2005-2011) before winning one at home in 2012.  Five years later, in 2017, they are champions again.

On paper, they certainly do enough to keep the Toronto fan interested.  They aren’t the Buffalo Bills, a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 1999—17 seasons.  They aren’t the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that hasn’t even reached the Stanley Cup since 1967, the year they last won it.  The Toronto Blue Jays won in 1993, but then, didn’t reach the playoffs until the 2015 season, a 22-year drought.  They are still waiting for the Raptors to make an NBA final and there is hope that Toronto FC can win the MLS Cup this year (they are in the Eastern Conference finals at the time of this writing).

We know it’s easier to make the playoffs in the CFL because there are only nine teams in the entire league, but it remains hard to win titles and win them at Toronto’s 7-1 rate in the championship game.  The Argos may be unloved, but they are not undeterred.

When they win the Grey Cup, the journalists write the obligatory “Can this victory win the fans over.”  The answer is probably not and maybe that’s the right formula for the Boatmen.  Maybe they’re better off flying under the radar because at least on the field, this formula seems to be working.  They averaged 14,000 and change this year, last in the league.  When the team needed the fans, over 24,400 showed up for the Eastern Final.  For Toronto citizens, the CFL is there when they need it, and apparently, the Argos go unnoticed for several years, make a Grey Cup game, gain the fans’ attention, win it and then poof, the fans go away.  Five to eight years later, the pattern repeats—the team gets hot, gets fan attention and wins another chalice.

How much longer can this go on?  Are the Argos underappreciated by Greater TO?  Are they overlooked?  Are they respected?  Are they forgotten?  Are they forlorn?  Are they angry?  Has their self-esteem suffered irreparable harm?  Are the Argos indifferent?  Are they depressed or are they comfortable in their own skin?

The one thing I like about the Argos (and I am referring to the Argos as a person) is that they don’t seem to care.  They go about their business.  They would like more fans to come to the games–is 20,000 per asking too much–but they don’t complain when you don’t show up.  When you do, they appreciate the support and they hope that you will get hooked and come back for more.  But, the Argos never beg.  That is just not their style.  They keep coming, they keep trying.  They struggle at times, but they rise up and bag that title every five to eight years.  They are a resilient group aren’t they?

And, for the 17th time, they are Grey Cup champions.


For Buffalo Sports, It’s Real Bad

November 20, 2017

The Sabres and Bills keep flailing

by John Furgele (The Measured 228)

How can this be possible?  The Buffalo Bills have been members of the NFL since 1970.  The Buffalo Sabres joined the NHL in 1970.  I don’t need to do that math, but that’s a lot of seasons.  There’s one common thread:  neither the Bills nor the Sabres have won an NFL or NHL title.  There are those who will point to the Bills back-to-back AFL titles in 1964 and 1965, but I’m letting those go as they were won back when there were two football leagues and the consensus was that the Bills played in the weaker of the two.

How can it be?  How can one city with two professional sports teams be so title-starved?  Sure, you can point to other cities, but the Buffalo sports teams are not only bad, they’re really bad.  Both are owned by Terry Pegula and both continue to struggle.  One would think that by dumb luck one of these teams would have bagged a title by now.

The Sabres are an absolute train wreck.  Through 20 games, they’re  5-15 for 14 points.  They are boring to watch, they show very little skill and as a result, very little life.  They tanked—deliberately held back—so they could be in position to draft either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.  Eichel is a very good player, but McDavid is special.  Naturally, the Sabres ended up with Eichel.  The Sabres do everything wrong.  When they score, they get shoddy goaltending and when they get good goaltending, they don’t score.  They seem to lack professional pride.  On Friday, they lost 3-1 in a half-empty arena in Detroit.  The next night, at home, they lost to Carolina, a team that with the win, improved to 8-10.

Many think the Sabres are two or three years away from contending.  Who really believes that?  They will have to likely blow this team up and start anew and are probably five to eight years away from being good, provided they can actually draft, find and develop players.  The Sabres made the playoffs for years in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but making the playoffs was never that hard.  There were years when 16 of 21 teams qualified.  When the Sabres played in the old Adams Division, four of the five teams made the playoffs—usually it was 80 games to eliminate the Hartford Whalers.  Those teams never made deep runs despite having talented players.  Since 1970, the Sabres have played in the Stanley Cup Finals twice—1975 and 1999.  That says very little.

The Bills might be worse off, although on paper, it says otherwise.  They are 5-5 and that .500 record has them tied with Baltimore for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC with the Baltimore Ravens.  But, this is a team that has to play New England twice and has lost three straight after starting 5-2.  In the past two games, they have surrendered 101 points!  That’s hard to do in the dink and dunk NFL that loves field goal battles.

I have watched a lot of football but I don’t ever remember a 5-4 team that was holding down a playoff spot benching their starting quarterback for a rookie that was drafted in the 5th round.  We all know Tyrod Taylor is not the answer long-term for the Bills, but the move to Nathan Peterman was more than a head-scratcher.  Now, coach Sean McDermott fears losing his team.  The players said all the right things when Taylor was benched, but deep down, there couldn’t have been a player on the team that wasn’t stunned by what transpired.  Now, he has to go back to Taylor for this Sunday’s game at Kansas City and who knows which Taylor will show up?  Will it be the, “I’m out to prove you made a mistake,” Taylor or the “They don’t care about me, why should I care,” Taylor.  In one word—ugh!

The Bills had one glorious run from 1988-1999.  In that span, they played in five AFC Championship Games, winning four.  They played in four Super Bowls, and as we all know, lost them all.  They made the playoffs in 9 of those 12 years.  Not bad.

Since 1999, they have been drier than Las Vegas on a July night, not only dry, but inept.  The NFL builds itself on parity, yet the Bills can’t even sneak into the playoffs.  A broken clock is right twice a day, but the Bills clock is missing its big hand.  In the meantime, the fans suffer.  Every city claims they have the best fans, but Bills fans (and Sabres fans) are loyal.  When the Bills are on TV, ratings hover in the 40s.  When the Sabres played in the 1999 Stanley Cup, billboards were full of good wishes and most vehicles had something Sabres attached to it.  They have passion and they are desperate to see their teams win.

I have never believed that fans or cities deserve a championship; that’s just not how things go in the real world, but it is hard to fathom just how bad the Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills are.  They are owned by billionaire Pegula, who is finding out that running sports teams might be harder than running a fracking company.  Once viewed as the savior, there is now egg on his face.  Successful businesspeople aren’t used to losing. Most have won all their life and when they buy a sports team, their ego tells them that they will leave their mark and prove that what they did in the real world will carry over to the sports world, but more often than not, it doesn’t happen.

Buffalo fans can say that they don’t care, but they do.  They’ll keep watching, they’ll keep listening and they’ll keep reading.  Professional sports have always been the outlet for the people of Buffalo and Western New York.  It gets them through the short falls and the long winters.  They aren’t going anywhere, but sadly, it appears that they will continue to suffer.