First posted on Lunch.com:
Before I get slammed by any red, white, and blue faithful, I need you to understand something: The Buffalo Bills are my hometown team. I’ve always liked them and will continue to root for them. When I was seven or eight years old, I dressed as Bills legend Jim Kelly for Halloween. But my fandom is currently in a state of extreme flux because of the way mismanagement is totally screwing the team over.
Yes, I’m giving the Bills credit for their recent good draft, awesome new uniforms, and fast start. In fact, that’s why I’m giving them a rating of -2 instead of the full -5. But my time left as a Bills fan is likely extremely limited. Saving a last-minute miracle, the Bills are going to bolt once Ralph Wilson’s clock runs out; Wilson is the owner of the Buffalo Bills and he’s the only owner the team has ever had. He’s also well into his 90’s and his family is stuck paying some exorbitant death taxes once he takes his final breath. The Bills are going away and the entire city of Buffalo knows it, even if they don’t care to acknowledge it. The only reason they’re still around, in fact, is because Wilson has exhibited an incredible loyalty to the greater Buffalo area which hasn’t wavered no matter what circumstances he was under. Wilson promised that the team would play in Buffalo for as long as he was alive, and he’s kept that promise. At the expense of profit potential, he’s kept the Bills in Buffalo. Once his heart explodes, though, I am – in all likelihood – done with the Buffalo Bills. I’m afraid my loyalty contract with the team expires when he does. I’ve already begun detaching myself just to save the trouble.
The kicker is the Toronto series, the concoction of several deluded minds in both Buffalo and Toronto. What happened was the Bills needed funds, so they leased the team to the Skydome in Toronto (no, I don’t give a shit that the sign has the words “Rogers Centre” plastered across it now) for one “home” game every season. The delusion I mentioned stems from the fact that people from both organizations tend to labor under the idea that there are many devoted Bills fans in Toronto. This has never been the case; barring the obvious allusion to turf invasion, Buffalo and Toronto, despite being only a 90-minute car ride from each other, don’t get along. They are hardcore rivals in the professional sports world; in the NHL, the Buffalo Sabres have been playing the scrappy, petulant, rebellious underdog to the storied 13-time Stanley Cup-winning Toronto Maple Leafs. In the National Lacrosse League – which has an enormous underground following in Canada and the northeastern United States – every season renews a massive territorial pissing contest between the Buffalo Bandits (who have won four league titles) and the Toronto Rock (five titles). Buffalonian loyalties in MLB lean heavily toward the New York Yankees, with a little bit of breathing room for the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets; the only Toronto Blue Jays fans in these two cities live in Toronto. Buffalo’s NBA love is mostly for the Boston Celtics, while Torontonians make due with the Toronto Raptors.
The NFL, for its part, is busy trying to tell everyone who will listen that an NFL presence in Buffalo is imperative to its operations because it wants to expand into Canada. I’m calling bullshit because any respectable NFL fan remembers the hissy fits thrown by Baltimore and Cleveland when their teams were moved. Buffalo’s fans lean toward the insane kind of devotion shown by Browns, Eagles, Steelers, or Packers fans, which means the league is probably just making a futile attempt to save itself a similar fiasco in Buffalo. More to the point, Canadians are happy with their own football league, which plays an exciting brand of gridiron football more reliant on skill and finesse than physicality. Canada was actually playing gridiron football long before the United States ever caught on, and our game is based on their rules. We may make fun of the CFL, but Canada was doing it first, and they don’t want our league trying to infect their sports heritage. The Bills are subjected to a rain of thunderous booing in these Canadian “home” games, and the team is 0-2 in the Great White North so far.
As a football team, the identity of the Buffalo Bills is based mainly on OJ Simpson and dominance in the 1990’s. Those two things have the habit of nullifying a mostly unspectacular legacy. Yes, OJ Simpson proved to be a sorry excuse of a human being and yes, the Bills lost four straight Super Bowls (the only four they’ve ever been to). While the Bills have been bad for the last decade, though, the decade has been more reflective of their historical luck in general. The thing with losing the Super Bowl is you have to get to the Super Bowl in order to lose it, and so NFL watchers’ concentration on those losses have turned them into a kind of reverse Boston Red Sox: Everyone thinks the Bills were a much better team than their all-time record indicates. Now only longtime Bills faithful remember those ugly years under Kay Stephenson and Hank Bullough (combined years: 1983-1986, combined record: 14-43). The 70’s teams led by Joe Ferguson and OJ Simpson were pretty good, but they also have the dubious record of most losses by one team to another – 20 straight beatings at the hands of the Miami Dolphins, and you now know why those two teams hate each other. The Bills won AFL titles in 1964 and 1965, but never got beyond the first playoff rounds again until 1988, their first visit to a conference title game (and a loss, to Cincinnati). They haven’t gotten to the conference championship since their last Super Bowl appearance. They haven’t actually gotten out of the first round since then, even!
The Bills do have a handful of unique distinctions. The big one would of course be their Super Bowl streak. Buffalo was the first team to go to the Super Bowl four straight times. So far, they’re also the last team to do that. The first Super Bowl against the New York Giants is the closest Super Bowl ever played; Buffalo lost by a single point when, with only eight seconds left in the game, they tried kicking a field goal which missed. A title during those years would have been nice, but the team – and the city of Buffalo – seem happy with their achievement. (Running back Thurman Thomas is apparently good friends with Hall of Famers Warren Moon and Barry Sanders, who reportedly both tell him they would have gladly sacrificed a limb to so much as play in a Super Bowl, which neither of them ever did.) OJ Simpson was the first running back to ever rush for over 2000 yards in a single season, and he’s still the only one who did it in 14 games. In a 1993 playoff game, the Bills fell behind by 32 points in the second half and came back to win, an incident known as The Miracle Comeback because no other team won after a deficit like that before (the city of Houston, whose Oilers were the losers, call it The Choke). On the other end, there’s the losing streak against the Dolphins and the Music City Miracle (or as we know it in Buffalo, The Forward Lateral).
Can anyone name a Hall of Fame Bill who wasn’t on the Super Bowl teams or named OJ Simpson? I didn’t think so, so here they are: Billy Shaw, a guard; Joe DeLamielleure, also a guard; and Ralph Wilson, the owner. That says a lot about the makeup and character of the team, and it ain’t wonderful. In the last decade, the only Hall of Famer in a Bills uniform was Drew Bledsoe, who is a borderline candidate at best, although he should get in. Aside from safety Jairus Byrd and receiver Eric Moulds and Bledsoe – who only appeared once each, not counting the two injury replacements – the only Pro Bowl Bills have been guards, tackles…. And Brian Moorman, a damned punter!
Ralph Wilson is known around the league and the city of Buffalo as a bit of a cheapskate. Salary dumps have become common lately, and the salaries usually being dumped are those of the few players drafted who could actually play football. Nate Clements is probably the most notable, and Lee Evans – whose recent trade to Baltimore was another tipping point for me – was a hard blow too. Personnel has failed on every level, grabbing bombs like Aaron Maybin and Mike Williams; taking shiny toys like Willis McGahee and CJ Spiller in the draft instead of going for necessary components of a good team; and hiring personnel from the Good Ol’ Boys network, which resulted in bombs like Mike Mularkey, Chan Gailey, and Dick Jauron (who, by the way, won the job over the infinitely more qualified Mike Sherman). One of the team’s General Managers over the last decade was their Hall of Fame coach, Marv Levy, and he was succeeded by Buddy Nix, an inside-the-organization hire.
The Bills have some great rivalries to their history. The Dolphins are the biggest, although the New England Patriots are contending hard for that title. Even during their bad seasons, the Bills had a rivalry with the New York Jets which heated up mostly because Buffalo seems to posses a unique ownership edge when it comes to the Jets: The Bills are ahead in the all-time series and always seem to win the Jets games, even when they’re having bad years while the Jets are doing well. An unusual rivalry is against the Raiders, and the series is close to even between them. This rivalry began when Buffalo picked Jack Kemp as their quarterback and exiled Daryl Lamonica to Oakland only to watch him become a star (Kemp, for his worth, was a great quarterback himself, though) and the rivalry climaxed in the 1991 playoffs, when the Raiders were stomped by the Bills 51-3 in the AFC Conference Championship, sending the Bills to their first Super Bowl. It was the worst loss in the Raiders’ storied history.
There are two kinds of football teams: Teams which are liked enough but existing in cities which people move to at a fast rate, and teams which picked up loyal followers going back generations. The Bills are one of the latter, and people often favorably compare their devoted fanbase to fans of other such generational teams like the Chiefs, Packers, and Steelers. Fans remain devoted despite the team hitting its all-time nadir in the last decade. Unfortunately, it’s a prominent (and apparently sound) theory in Buffalo that Ralph Wilson is purposely tanking the Buffalo Bills in order to make a move easier, and it seems apparent Buffalo isn’t going to be birthing any new, rabidly devoted Bills fans in a few more years. They say some team alumni are trying to buy the Bills to keep them in Buffalo, but I have my very serious doubts. Until then, though, I’m going to enjoy the team and the best tailgating stadium in the league.