Twenty-nine years ago, I was promoted to the Buffalo Bills beat, and I couldn't have been happier. It had been a journalistic goal of mine to cover a team in a major professional sports league, and I couldn't wait to get started. But not long after word spread through the Democrat and Chronicle newsroom that early spring day, colleagues began offering condolences rather than congratulations.
See, the Bills were beyond awful in 1985, much worse than they are now, if you can believe that. They were coming off a 2-14 season and were devoid of stars and hope. Game-day attendance in the cavernous stadium then known as Rich often featured 20,000 bodies with a pulse along with 60,000 disguised as empty seats. The most popular Bills-related item in those gory days wasn't a jersey or a poster but rather a renegade bumper sticker pleading for someone, anyone to Bring Professional Football Back to Western New York.
Among those who stopped by to shake my hand that day and metaphorically dump lake-effect snow on my parade was my Times-Union counterpart, Rick Woodson. "If anyone can empathize with the hell you are about to go through, it's me,'' Rick joked in that distinctive Southern drawl of his. "You're going to be put to the test. We'll see how many creative ways you can describe a loss."
And so began my relationship with the football team that both galvanizes and exasperates a region and the humorous newspaper rival who preceded me in this RBJ column space and who would become my friend. Rick would stop covering the Bills regularly a few years later, but he never lost interest in them. Invariably, each time we ran into each other, we'd commiserate about this storied, cursed franchise and marvel at its vise-like grip on the collective soul of Western New York.
Well, another season is upon us, and it hasn't taken long for hope to be trampled by doom and gloom. I'm sure my late friend Rick would have gotten a kick out of the recent profane and funny Internet post detailing 32 reasons why being a Bills fan is more painful than childbirth. I've obviously never given birth (though I'm told by doctor friends that my episodes with kidney stones gave me a pretty good idea of the pain level). But I can relate to the pain associated with following a team that always breaks your heart. I did have the good fortune of chronicling this franchise's rise from consecutive basement finishes to back-to-back-to-back-to-back Super Bowls. However, that's two decades ago-ancient history-and we all know the team's travails so far this century. It's made diehards want to pout, not shout.
We media types aren't paid to hoist pom-poms, but this stretch of mediocrity has gotten old for us, too. I was tallying up some figures recently and discovered that I'm on my seventh head coach since Marv Levy retired in 1997, my sixth general manager since John Butler left in 2000 and my 11th starting quarterback since Jim Kelly called it quits following the 1996 season. With that kind of instability at these three essential positions, is it any wonder this team hasn't made the playoffs in 13 years and hasn't won a postseason game since Bill Clinton was in the White House? About seven years ago, I wrote that the Bills reminded me of the movie "Groundhog Day." Sadly, the analogy still holds.
Through two games this preseason, spirits ran high. New coach Doug Marrone infused the team with an energy missing during the tired, retread regimes of predecessors Chan Gailey and Dick Jauron. Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel looked poised and confident, giving hope that maybe, just maybe, Buffalo finally had found a guy to succeed Hall-of-Famer Kelly. Second-year cornerback Stephon Gilmore was rapidly developing into the kind of defender so essential in today's pass-happy NFL.
And then, boom, just like that, despair blindsided the Bills. Manuel injured his knee. His backup, Kevin Kolb, suffered a season-ending concussion, meaning that if Manuel doesn't heal in time for Sunday's opener, the Bills will become the first team in eons to start an undrafted, rookie free agent (Jeff Tuel) at quarterback. Compounding matters, Gilmore broke his wrist, sidelining him for at least six weeks. The Bills lost their final two exhibition games by a combined score of 65-20. Oh, and did we mention Buffalo opens the 2013 season against New England, which is 20-2 vs. the Bills since Tom Brady became the Patriots quarterback a dozen years ago?
So the sky is falling again. Buffalo is doomed. Another season is lost. It's fourth and eternity at One Bills Drive. The groundhog has seen his shadow for a 14th consecutive year.
I believe the youthful Bills may be hard-pressed to match last year's 6-10 won-lost record, but I think they are moving in the right direction. Marrone successfully resuscitated a Syracuse University program that had become the dregs of college football, guiding the Orange to two bowl victories in four years. Before that, he was a part of the New Orleans Saints renaissance. So he just might be the right guy. And Manuel has the potential to make us remember Kelly and forget Rob Johnson, J.P. Losman and Trent Edwards.
Look at it this way: At some point the odds have to work in the Bills' favor. At some point, they have to luck out on a coach and a quarterback. At some point, hope has to sack despair.
In the meantime, I'll attempt to follow Rick's sage advice and try to be as creative as I can in describing those losses.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak's 16th book, a collaboration with rock 'n' roll legend Lou Gramm titled "Juke Box Hero," is available at amazon.com and in bookstores. He provides analysis following Bills games on WROC-TV and is a correspondent for USA Today SportsWeekly.
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