Bills top wide out Stevie Johnson had a performance to forget on...
Tempering Expectations, or Failing in the Process
Now that we’ve been relieved of the nervous apprehension associated with the lockout, and careened straight into a disorienting whirlwind of transactions, roster moves, and training camp battles, I feel like we haven’t had the opportunity to gauge where the Buffalo Bills are as an organization, and where they might be headed in the 2011 campaign. The best way I can describe my expectations surrounding the season is as a confluence of two related but separate feelings.
On one hand, I think there’s legitimate cause for excitement. Our offense developed some cohesion midway through last year, we had a few young breakout stars who look to continue their development, the rookies have played well so far, and early reports indicate that Merriman could be the shot of B-12 (literally?) the defense needed.
On the other, I sing this song and dougie this dance every year. Going into every season, the optimistic Bills fan has a large number of discrete bits of information regarding the team to choose from that are presumed to be the catalyst for the upcoming year’s resurgence. Recently…
2010 No More Dick!
2009 TO has never played on a crappy offense!
2008 We’ll have the starters healthy!
2007 JP’s going to build on our 4-3 finish last year!
…and so on. This is perhaps a coping mechanism to help us deal with the collective pain associated with being so unsuccessful over the past decade, and some would argue a lie we tell ourselves to get through the season, like a battered wife making rationalizations on behalf of her abuser. After all, the abuse hasn’t stopped, and the Sal Marioana’s of the Bills-o-sphere have the best track record.
But I think there’s a better way to describe the source of such unending hope.
For one, hopes that Bills will change their fortunes have a very different aesthetic than hopes for other downtrodden franchises such as the Baltimore Orioles or Milwaukee Bucks. In the case of the former, the revenue disparities between the large and small market teams (or teams that choose to behave as if they play in small markets) are nearly insurmountable. Through shrewd personnel management and development, some small market teams can compete, but even they must overcome losing their best developed prospects to free agency. In the NFL, revenue sharing closes this gap considerably, and the new CBA’s salary floor should shrink it even further. Additionally, the fact that free agency isn’t nearly as effective as it is in every other major sport means that franchises like Buffalo won’t be crippled when trying to compete (Washington has given almost enough case studies over the past decade for this theory to be considered scientifically reliable).
As for the latter, you can build a successful team for no other reason than having nice weather and a good nightlife, thus the ability to draw free agents. Even if Milwaukee had the cap room, would any bookie have even bothered to make odds on the chance of LeBron anointing Wisconsin as his new kingdom? Yet in the NFL, two rustbelt, small market teams provided our Super Bowl participants last year. Thus Pete Rozelle’s evil dream of parity has given Bills fans an air of legitimacy in their hopes by simply playing in the NFL that fans of losing MLB and NBA franchises can only dream about.
Yet even with the lack of relative constraining factors on them as a NFL team, the Bills have been as bad or worse recently than the two cited examples. Why? For the past decade, Buffalo has been run with the (in)competency of a Detroit auto manufacturer (when you consider Ralph’s hometown, it’s not hard to believe). From short-sighted, need-based first round draft picks, total lack of scouting talent from the*ahem* scouting department(the only pick in the 10 Modrak years I would call ‘very good’ would be Kyle Williams), failure to build or maintain any sort of consistent organizational philosophy on how to acquire and use football players(q.v. firing offensive coordinator Turk Schonert weeks before the 2009 season, right after he spent all offseason installing a new offense and after paying 7 million for TO), etc., the Bills have been, for lack of a better term, a hot mess.
None of this comes as news to anyone who’s been following the team, but I bring it up to point out the teams who’ve been successful over that period like New England, Pittsburgh, and San Diego have been exemplary in all the aforementioned areas because of strong leadership; which is exactly what Buffalo hasn’t had over that time period. However, with Buddy Nix stepping into the fray, Bills fans have reason for a modicum of hope. Buddy has so far proven to have a consistent approach with a long term vision in building this team ‘through the draft.’ Whether or not he pans out as a talent evaluator remains to be seen, but it is only year 2. If his draft picks wind up being successful, Buffalo will be set up to be a force in the AFC for the next decade.
So as we get ready to ground whatever hopes we have with a touch of reality when we see the team on the field Saturday night, I’d like to remind everyone that I drum up reasons to believe every year, this just happens to be the best job I’ve ever done articulating my optimism. But I would encourage everyone to think twice before taking league with the Mike Schopps of Western New York by saying this: Although the pissants may be more likely to be right, I’ll actually enjoy my time with the Bills this season. Who would you rather be?