“You can’t help who you love.” – Anonymous, probably someone who drank themselves to death.
Hi, I’m John Gorman. Rant Sports columnist. Rock snob and hip-hop populist. Crusader for social justice. Beer connoisseur and renaissance man and purveyor of pretentious anglicized French verbiage. And, most importantly, life-long, red, white & blue-blooded, unabashed Buffalo Bills fan.
I don’t often make my allegiances known, but for the purposes of this fatalist op-ed, I think it’s important to note my living quarters for the entire duration of Pearl Jam’s pop-culture relevance was decked to the nines in Buffalo Bills gear. Lamp, blinds, sheets, blankets, comforter, pillows, posters, stuffed plush and wall decor.
I have copies of The Buffalo News from before and after all four Super Bowl losses, as well as one from after “The Comeback” for good measure. My dad sat in the end zone where Norwood missed his kick. I empathized with Vincent Gallo‘s drudgery in Buffalo ’66.
I sobbed like a colic-striken toddler after each playoff loss. I sobbed after the Buffalo Bills finally beat the New England Patriots for the first time since opening day, 2003, this past season as if I’d just seen Rudy for the first time.
I’ve been to 20 Bills games since 1994, 19 at home and last year’s 44-7 slaughterfest at The Jerrydome. I look forward to watching them play the Texans in Houston again, November 4. I’ve seen them win once, and I don’t even think I can properly claim I “saw” the victory because I was blackout-drunk and got forcibly removed from the stadium late in the third quarter, after sucking face with a girl dressed like a pirate and chain-smoking in the lower bowl.
But each year, Lucy calls me over at the start of NFL season and says, “Kick it, Charlie Brown.” And I line up, squarely focused with white-hot intensity, only to gaze in slack-jawed defeatism as the Bills flail away against their NFL peers like a blindfolded kitten in the middle of a shark-infested riptide.
“Those who are short on memory are long on happiness.” – Anonymous, probably an amnesiac.
Why should this year be any different? What possible ROI can I possibly reap from vivaciously encouraging my beloved Bills? A lot of pundits are talking, by the way. Peter King. Colin Cowherd. Mike Lombardi. Dan Patrick. Mike Greenberg. I see you guys. “Watch out for Buffalo.”
I can plow through nearly every talking point of nearly every Buffalo Bills 2012 Season Preview within 150 words, so I’ll get them out of the way for your informational pleasure:
1. Hey! The Bills spent a truckload of money on Mario Williams! Look at that defense!
2. Owner Ralph Wilson is old!
2A. When Ralph Wilson dies, the team becomes the front-runner in the upcoming reality show, “Who Wants to Move to Los Angeles?”
3. The division is weak!
4. No team has gone longer without making the playoffs! (Since 1999, if you care.)
4A. After starting 5-2 last year, they were derailed by injuries, so this might finally be their year to break that streak!
5. I can’t name anyone else on the team, so I’ll say they “have some pieces” and “might surprise some people” and they “play hard for their coach (who’s their coach?)”
6. Crumbling economy … small market … blue-collar fans … did we touch on the cliches? Great. NEXT!
Of course, only the above points 1 and 3 possess any tangible merit when assessing Buffalo’s chances at making the playoffs. The rest are extensions of the same tired rhetoric commentators have deployed for years when discussing the Bills, all euphemisms for, “The Bills don’t move the needle. I have no vested interest in this team. But so as to avoid completely alienating 1.3% of my target demographic, I need to posit something. Because they are still in the NFL, after all.”
I know, Generic Sports Talk Guy. I feel your pain. I wish the Bills were interesting, too. I really do. Sometimes I forget Terrell Owens played for the Bills. That was only three years ago. I’ll bet you forgot, too.
Stevie Johnson probably isn’t a competent possession receiver, but a cyborg deployed by Ralph Wilson to draw a spotlight to his beleaguered, attention-starved outfit, and who if he suited up for the New York Jets would instantly morph into the most wildly entertaining player in the NFL.
But the Bills aren’t just attention-starved, they seem to relish their irrelevance.
Buddy Nix is a septuagenarian first-time GM who was run out of Buffalo as a Southeastern U.S. Scout in 2000. Chan Gailey is a sexagenarian retread coach who was run out of Georgia Tech. Their only noteworthy assistant coach is more famous for his facial hair than his football prowess.
Ryan Fitzpatrick went to Harvard. Fred Jackson went to Coe. 80% of the receiving corps went undrafted. Anonymity. I dare you to name one Buffalo Bills linebacker. Nope, not Shawne Merriman. He was cut. (But he was briefly interesting, right?)
In 2010, I famously quipped I’d swap Ryan Fitzpatrick for Vince Young. Two years and a monumental VY flameout later, we were treated to both. Vince Young got cut and replaced by Tavaris Jackson.
The team is, perpetually, the only thing you can be in the NFL that’s worse than bad. They’re boring.
If only the Bills could be enough of a spectacular grease-fire that they’d back into the No. 1 pick and draft a franchise quarterback. If only the Bills could implode with the type of high-profile coach and GM that they couldn’t even handsomely bribe enough to climb aboard the sinking ship. If only.
You’ve seen the show Intervention, right? The one where woebegone addicts unimaginably struggle through brushes with death, professional and financial ruin and the type of health and relationship hazards that would cripple any sound mind? And then a social worker gets called in and tries to set the wayward straight? It’s compelling TV! But that’s not Buffalo.
The Bills would be the lowest-rated reality show on television, and it would probably appear on History Channel, where it’d be too earnest to even be considered campy.
Buffalo’s the kid with the Poly-Sci degree that worked in food service for 20 years. The quiet one. The one that never left home. The one that never married or got arrested for a wild a night out or ever bought a house or a dog or had kids or any hobbies beyond playing Resident Evil and falling asleep to PBS. They drink in moderation, drive their mom to work and don’t even have the kind of debilitating illness or life-affirming adversity that would make their mediocrity intriguing from a “It Could Have Been So Much Worse” perspective.
And you want to shake them, call in a mediator and a life coach and scream from the mountain-tops, “Wake up! See the world! You’re slowly rotting away and you’re doing it too methodically for you to even realize that it’s killing you!” You want to tell them to drop everything and transform their being, but … without any negative habits to correct, they retort, “I’m doing nothing wrong.”
And you walk away, defeated.
Because it’s true, they’re doing nothing wrong. The Buffalo Bills hire the best people who are willing to work for them. They overpay them, too, because they have to. How else would you entice anyone with better options to choose Buffalo over the other 31 marquee destinations on the NFL Tour Bus? In a bizarre way, the Bills are maximizing their potential, and what lies beyond the pale is a double-barreled blast of luck and circumstance, the alchemy of which only seems to only occur once every couple generations.
A lot was made about last year’s season-highlight victory over the New England Patriots, their first in 15 attempts and second in over a decade, but very little was made about their rematch, which occurred in the season’s final week.
The Bills, already out of the playoff hunt due to a spectacular seven-game swan-dive in the standings after teasing their malnourished fans with a 5-2 start, raced out to a 21-0 lead … as the Patriots had done in the first game before the Bills nudged their way to an improbable ‘W.’ It looked as though Buffalo would be able to stride into the off-season with some solace: “Hey, we’re out of the hunt again, but at least we vanquished our most abominable demons.”
Over the three subsequent quarters, New England hung 49 unanswered on the Bills, emphatically undoing all the ‘progress’ made over the season, sending the the Bills stumbling to the clubhouse after turning in another depressing double-digit loss scorecard. The result restored order to the world. If you looked at the AFC East Standings, you’d have thought nothing out of the ordinary: Week 3 a mere flight-of-fancy during a commercial jet commute.
Things didn’t change much. Yes, the Bills signed Mario Williams, an injury-plagued but nicely-productive DE to an impossibly-round and hair-raising $100M deal … they had to. But aside from that, they pretty much continued being the Bills this off-season. They shuffled some talent. They drafted some pretty okay people. They sleepwalked through the preseason.
The 2012 Buffalo Bills will finish 8-8. For the 10th time in 13 seasons, they’ll finish with 10 or fewer losses. For the 13th time in 13 seasons, they’ll finish out of the playoff money. They’ll show marginal improvement on both sides of the ball. They’ll split the division.
My guess is they’ll tank early this year, with a ripe-for-underachievement fanfare-less tour against (in order): The Jets, Kansas City, Cleveland, New England, followed by back-to-back roadies at San Francisco and Arizona before entering their bye against the Tennessee Titans. They emerge to face Houston and New England on the road before their schedule softens up. They could have seven losses by then. They probably will. 8-8 still sounds right.
That season-ending flurry home to respectability will be just enough to save Chan Gailey’s job. It will be just enough to avoid shaking things up too much. It will be just good enough to send two players selected to the Pro Bowl as alternates. It will be just enough to avoid the good fortune of drafting a franchise QB like Geno Smith or Matt Barkley. And it will be good enough to remind me why I fell in love with this team in the first place, and they’ll lovingly suck me back in for another go next year.
I’d settle – yes if that word ‘settle’ makes me less of a man for not demanding greatness from that to which I devote my passion I’ll cop to that – for a playoff birth and unceremonious exit. Just one more taste of the double-chocolate cake for this diabetic, please.
Look, I didn’t pick this team. They picked me. I was born in Western New York and spent most of my life there. I remember some good times. I’m nostalgic for them. I yearn for something closely resembling them to show itself to me.
But sometimes you look your life-long love in the eye and you realize they’re not just not the person they were when you were young, but that the person they used to be actually wasn’t them at all. You were duped. Suckered. And after a brief honeymoon you settle in and resign yourself to the fact that they’ll never be that person again, no matter how many fleeting flashes of greatness light up your eyes.
But you turn over after kissing them goodnight and thank god or fate or nature or Donald Trump or whomever because they’re yours and a more thrilling life without them is impossible.
Yes, the Bills are somnolent. Yes, they’re maddening due to their frustrating ineptitude and lack of ability change it. Yes, they’re somehow both apathetic and sympathetic. Aimless. Ordinary. Mediocre. Neither wrong, nor right. Consistently grey and unchanging. Vanilla. Plain. Milquetoast. Certainly not sexy.
But there’s something comforting to knowing they’ve been with you for as long as you can remember. That kind of dependability – defeating the hell of high expectations through years of inauspicious bar-lowering – meets your standards just by reappearing in the same locale year after year. The Buffalo Bills may not be worth 10% of the faith I sink into them, but they’re worth 110% of the words I just spilled. This column could go on forever, and, damn, I could tell you some incredible stories.
This year, another in an endless string, will come and go. It’ll leave me disproportionately thrilled, exhausted, frustrated and bewildered, and all that will be all mine. Everything that I just said, every emotion that races through my body, they’re all a construct of caring, a function of an unconditional love toward something that’s never done a damn thing to deserve it because it didn’t have to. The Bills are the bedrock upon which my life’s been built. To remove the foundation, I’d need to tear down the house.
I cheer the team on because doing so completes my identity. Because, for better or worse, they’re the team that fused itself into my soul and won’t relinquish it’s icy grip. And just having something out there that can’t be replaced and therefore can’t be improved upon … that’s a wonderful feeling, just like a sunny September afternoon at The Ralph. (At least, before the final score.)
Of course it doesn’t make sense, and yet it’s all that makes sense to me. Sentimental value can’t be exchanged for cash, and that makes the Buffalo Bills priceless, even if they might be worthless.
You can’t help who you love.
Predicted Record: 8-8, 2nd in the AFC East