Rex's Bills Look to Keep Fans Thirsty
by Dave Staba
Here's to Football!
You never need to look too far for a reason to drink in these parts, if you are so inclined.
The sun is shining. It’s snowing. Somebody’s building something (usually a heavily taxpayer-subsidized something). Something just got torn down (often to make room for a heavily taxpayer-subsidized something). The Sabres are going to win that Cup (OK, it’s been a while for that one). The Sabres might succeed in making themselves lousy enough to draft an 18-year-old kid whose mere presence will wipe away years of institutional lousiness. Hey, it’s a previously obscure ethnic holiday!
No single entity or event, however, inspires more liver exercise than the local football team. Through their 55-season history, the Buffalo Bills have provided their devotees with two primary reasons to have a few cold ones:
1) To celebrate the team’s triumphs, particularly during its four straight runs to the Super Bowl.
2) To dull the pain of defeat, particularly during and after those aforementioned Super Bowls.
In the two decades-plus since reaching football’s pinnacle stopped seeming like a regional birth-right, then turned into a cruel delusion, Bills-related alcohol consumption has been largely of the latter variety.
To its credit, drinking has also helped keep Ralph Wilson Stadium full through most of the team’s ongoing playoff drought, now going on 16 seasons. The region has turned tailgating into an art form, as tens of thousands fortify themselves for the inevitable cruelties that await each home Sunday with ornate menus of the finest meats, cheeses, chilis and chips, all washed down with lakes of beer—generally something from the lager family—and dark liquor.
While the parking lots of Orchard Park are always a good time on a Sunday morning, even when the weather is dismal and the football is worse, nothing in the world of sports-related activities beats the festivities at the annual home opener, before the optimism of a new beginning gets drenched in the reality of Gregg Williams/Dick Jauron/Doug Marrone punting on fourth-and-inches or J.P. Losman/Ryan Fitzpatrick/Kyle Orton getting separated from the football by a blindside blitz.
Midway through an off-season already overflowing with tumult and turnover, Opening Day 2015 promises to be the most well-lubricated to date.
With a pair of 9-7 records, neither of which was good enough to qualify for the playoffs, standing as the dual high-water marks of this century, the post-success-era Bills have sold their clientele a steady supply of hope:
That Gregg Williams seems like a smart, tough young coach. Can’t believe they got Drew Bledsoe! Tom Donahoe/Mike Mularkey comes from Pittsburgh, so the Bills will be just like the Steelers. Marv Levy’s back! J.P. Losman/Trent Edwards/E.J. Manuel is ready to step up as the franchise quarterback they’ve been missing since Jim Kelly. Ryan Fitzpatrick/Kyle Orton/Matt Cassell will provide the veteran leadership and experience they need (as long as he doesn’t perform exactly like he has everywhere else he’s been). Or (still my personal favorite) Terrell Owens is just what they’ve been missing.
In the wake of a highly deceptive, yet relatively impressive 2014 season, the Bills have provided the faithful with far more than their traditionally singular cause for optimism to which to cling.
■ Orton retired the day after the high point of his stay in Buffalo, a dull win against a bunch of guys dressed up as the New England Patriots. Knowing that someone, anyone else will play quarterback next year was a nice way to ring out 2014.
■ But not as nice as two days later, when Marrone badly miscalculated his value on the open market, giving new owners Terry and Kim Pegula the opportunity to make the franchise’s highest-profile coaching hire since Chuck Knox in 1978. While Knox had far more success as a head coach in Los Angeles before coming to town than did Rex Ryan with the Jets, we never knew any details of Chuck’s private life, nor did he ever own a pickup truck emblazoned with the Bills’ logo. Knox also lacked Ryan’s knack for speechifying, as demonstrated in Ryan’s introductory press conference in January.
■ Even before the free-agent signing period officially opened Tuesday, the front office made what would constitute an entire spring and summer’s worth of moves in most years.
Doug Whaley signed Richie Incognito, a former Pro Bowl (and short-time Bills) guard best known for his remarkably poor texting judgment and status as perhaps the first still-capable player ever run out of the league for being a jerk. While it remains to be seen what Incognito has left after a year out of football, or how he fits into the system of new offensive coordinator Greg Roman, the signing was an at-least symbolic attempt to improve the team’s second-weakest position, after quarterback.
Buffalo’s general manager then swung the league’s biggest player-for-player trade since Washington sent Champ Bailey to Denver for Clinton Portis way back in early 2004, giving up fan favorite Kiko Alonso, who was the NFL’s runner-up for Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, but missed the 2014 campaign with a knee injury, to get LeSean McCoy, the NFL’s leading rusher in ‘13, from Philadelphia.
Whaley also completed a deal to acquire Matt Cassel, who filled in admirably for an injured Tom Brady with New England in 2008 and led Kansas City to the playoffs in 2010, but hasn’t done much else since. Cassel may turn out to not be as bad as Orton, and at the least provides an alternative for the segment of fans who are absolutely convinced Manuel can never develop into a starting quarterback of reasonable quality.
In the first couple days of free agency, the Bills re-signed pass-rushing demon Jerry Hughes, signed Minnesota fullback Jerome Felton, a bulldozing run blocker who was a key element in Adrian Peterson’s 2,097-yard season in 2012, and tendered an offer to Miami tight end Charles Clay, an accomplished run blocker who would also provide an additional target for whomever winds up playing quarterback.
Whether or not the Dolphins match Buffalo’s offer for Clay, Whaley and Ryan have made clear their rather retro strategy, given the lack of quarterbacks any better than Manuel or Cassel in free agency or the upcoming draft. By devoting so many resources to maintaining one of the league’s best defenses while rebuilding a pitiful running game, they want to make the position as irrelevant as possible.
Despite seismic changes in rules and tactics over the past 40 years or so, maybe they are on to something. Perhaps bucking the league-wide trend toward pass-first offenses by crafting a roster built to win it all in 1975 will yield results similar to Ryan’s first two seasons in New York, which ended with berths in the AFC Championship Game.
Or maybe the game really has passed them by, and attempting to function without a game-changing quarterback winds up like Rex’s last two years with the Jets—in dysfunctional disarray.
For all that uncertainty, come September in the parking lots of Orchard Park, Ryan’s Bills are a lock to provide plenty of reason to hoist a Solo cup, Crown Royal bottle or (for those not experienced enough to know better) a funnel—one way or the other.
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