Sunday, January 27, 2013

Happy Birthday, Wide Right

The Bills had finally made it to the Super Bowl, and we marked the occasion with a small, intimate gathering at our cinder-block townhouse in Brockport.

Bill and I had traveled to Cleveland a year earlier and nearly gotten ourselves killed by taunting Browns fans until Ronnie Harmon saved us, but seen Buffalo gain redemption, and a berth in Super Bowl XXV, a week earlier in Orchard Park.

Doug and John, fierce Miami partisans, had vowed to put aside their deeply ingrained animus toward the Bills for the evening. And Pete, like most Jets fans, had grown accustomed to living vicariously through the success of other teams.

We had stocked up with all manner of saturated fats and high-fructose corn syrup delivery vehicles, along with more than enough of the world's third most-popular beverage to ensure proper digestion.

As a rookie sportswriter for the Batavia Daily News, I had published my first column predicting the exact score of a football game. This was before the day of internet archives, or internet anything, for that matter, so I'm going from memory here, but believe my expert prognostication was Buffalo 35, New York Giants 16.

There was simply no way the Giants, with an offense revolving around career backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler, 33-year-old running back Ottis Anderson and a group of nondescript receivers, could possibly keep up with Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and Buffalo's revolutionary K-Gun attack.

After all, the Bills had laid 44 points on Miami in the Divisional Round, then annihilated the Raiders 51-3 in a game so one-sided, the crowd spent most of the second half singing derogatory taunts directed at Los Angeles quarterback Jay Schroeder, most of which called his sexual proclivities into question. Some combination of our Super Bowl-watching party had attended each of those two glorious victories, so we had no doubt that even the NFL's stingiest defense could stop, or even significantly slow, Buffalo's no-huddle blitzkrieg. 

The Giants, meanwhile, hadn't even scored a touchdown while sneaking past San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game. A bunch of field goals weren't going to cut it, and the Bills were going to roll.

Didn't quite work out that way. New York ate as much clock as possible every time it had the ball, and stalled the over-eager Bills often enough to keep it close throughout. We relaxed a little when Thurman Thomas broke a 31-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter to put the Bills ahead 19-17.

Here we go. The defense would make a stop, the offense would ride the clearly shifted momentum to another touchdown and the Giants wouldn't have time to dink their way past a two-score deficit.

Instead, New York leisurely spent half the fourth quarter moving to Matt Bahr's go-ahead field goal.

Still plenty of time.

It wasn't until an exchange of punts left the Bills at their own 10-yard line with 2:16 remaining, that anybody admitted to any doubts about a Buffalo triumph.

Sure enough, the Bills moved in torturous fashion down the field, with Thomas ripping off a couple long runs on draw plays and Kelly picking up more yards running (18) than passing (10).

Somehow, Buffalo got to the Giants' 30-yard line with eight seconds left.

You know what happened then.

Curses flew around the living room. Bill plunged, face-first, to the floor as the Giants started jumping around. Doug silently stood up and walked to the kitchen, where what had been planned as a celebratory batch of victory wings sat poised above an ancient deep fryer.

The fryer, as it turned out, contained much more bubbling grease than was necessary, or safe, to cook the frozen wings.

The boiling oil started spraying from the fryer, coating the counter and splattering the wall behind it. Bill -- almost always the most responsible member of our group -- somehow shook off the agony of Wide Right, pulled himself off the floor, to get the fryer's plug out of the wall before our heavily carpeted townhouse, as well as the adjacent units, ignited.

The near-inferno had offered us a much-needed distraction, as well as perspective. The Bills had lost, but in the most exciting Super Bowl up until that time, and only the second to be decided on the game's final play.

They would be back. And next time, there was absolutely no doubt they would get it right.

Besides, none of us would require a skin graft.

Youtube offers a variety of options for facilitating your memories of Jan. 27, 1991.

Thanks to surprisingly lax copyright enforcement, ydou can luxuriate in every agonizing moment, starting with the pregame show.

If you don't have four hours to spare, and want a little international flavor, you can enjoy the highlights narrated in Japanese. 

Or, if you're really in a hurry, just cut right to the chase.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

It's Been Colder

So, from what I read on Facebook and saw on the local news, it was a little frigid around here this week.

Which got me thinking about the then-Los Angeles Raiders came to Orchard Park in January 1994, poised to spare America from a fourth straight Super Bowl appearance by the Bills.

Buffalo's mustachioed arch-nemesis at the time, Jeff Hostetler, had engineered a 25-24 upset at Rich Stadium less than a month earlier, and it wasn't a stretch to imagine the opposing quarterback in the Bills' first Super Bowl loss four years earlier finally putting an end to what had become a late-January tradition.

That December win had sparked a playoff run by the Raiders, who beat John Elway and Denver 33-30 in the season finale to earn a wild-card berth, then thrashed the Broncos again a week later, 42-24, to reach the Divisional Round. With a game-time temperature of zero degrees and wind chills estimated at more than 30 below for the rematch with Buffalo, a much lower-scoring rematch made sense.

By the 1993 season, the rest of the NFL was wising up to Buffalo's K-Gun offense, and the Bills' core was getting older. The combination produced the fewest points the team had scored since 1988, the first time it reached the playoffs with Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, Thurman Thomas and the rest in uniform.

But the defense compensated for the drop-off, giving up less points than it had since '88, as well.

Steve Tasker's 67-yard return of a squibbed Raiders kickoff in the second quarter set up Kenneth Davis' 1-yard plunge for the game's first touchdown, but Los Angeles answered with a pair of 1-yard runs by Napoleon McCallum to build a 17-6 lead. Hostetler's mobility and short passing were befuddling Buffalo, just as in Super Bown XXV and during the Raiders' win a month earlier.

But after Thomas' 8-yard run pulled the Bills within four at halftime, defensive coordinator Walt Corey did something seemingly impossible for his most recent successor -- adjust and adapt.

The Bills trailed 17-13 when defensive coordinator Walt Corey went to an eight-man front that he seldom uses and had just updated Friday. But he needed to contain quarterback Jeff Hostetler's ad-lib runs, and the power blasts of McCallum. 
Except for an 86-yard touchdown pass from Hostetler to Tim Brown, the Raiders were hardly heard from in the second half. 
"It wasn't a gamble at all," Corey said of the improvisation. "I felt if other things weren't working like I felt they should, I had no recourse except to do it. 
"The eight-man front gave us enough people on both sides of the ball. No matter which side they ran, we were able to balance it off, and still play our regular coverages."
Kelly, meanwhile, connected with Billy Brooks for two touchdowns. When it was over, the Bills had once again found a way to advance, 29-23. A week later, they beat Joe Montana's Kansas City Chiefs to reach yet another Super Bowl, where ... well, you know the rest.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Day The (Original) Buffalo Bills Died

When a youthful insurance tycoon named Ralph Wilson Jr. bought into the fledgling American Football League in 1959, he held a contest to give the franchise a name.

He probably didn't need to bother. The winning entry was the same as in a similar contest held 12 years earlier for another team in another league

The Buffalo Bills were a popular, if not financially or aesthetically successful, entry in the All-America Football Conference, a post-World War II challenger to the National Football League, who met their end 62 years ago today.

Buffalo's entry in the AAFC was almost inevitably known as the Bisons at first, just like the city's minor-league baseball and hockey franchises.

Perhaps looking for a little diversity, or a fresh start after the Bisons went 3-10-1 in 1946, owner Jim Breuil staged a contest to come up with a new name. The winning entry was "Bills," referring back to buffalo-killer and Western showman Buffalo "Bill" Cody, whose touring act in the late 19th and early 20th century made him one of the country's first superstars. The name also tied in nicely with Breuil's day job as owner of Frontier Oil. It also led to the sweet illustration above, perhaps the finest logo in Buffalo's sporting history.

The Bills improved to 8-4-2 in their second season, finishing second in the AAFC's East Division. Meanwhile, in the West Division, the Cleveland Browns were busily knocking the crap out of the rest of the league, as they would throughout its brief existence.

The supremacy of the Browns, who won the championship every year, helped douse enthusiasm in every member city except Cleveland, San Francisco and Buffalo.

By 1948, though, even Browns fans seemingly tired of seeing their team destroy everybody. The Bills finished 7-7, but reached the championship game by beating the Baltimore Colts 28-17 in an East Division playoff.

Their reward was a third meeting with the Browns, who had already thrashed them 42-13 and 31-14 on the way to a 14-0 regular season.

The title game drew only 22,981 fans to Municipal Stadium, which regularly held 50,000 or more for Browns games.

Those who stayed home didn't miss much. Marion Motley, pictured above scoring one of his three touchdowns, ran for 133 yards on just 14 carries. Buffalo's offense, led by quarterback George Ratterman and backs Rex Bumgardner, Chet Mutryn and Lou Tomasetti, managed only 167 yards of offense, while coughing up eight turnovers.

A Cleveland linebacker named Lou Saban returned one of the eight giveaways, a fourth-quarter interception by backup quarterback Jim Still, 39 yards for the final Browns touchdown in a 49-7 romp.

In 1949, as officials from the AAFC and NFL discussed merger terms, the Bills went 5-5-2 and, of course, lost to Cleveland in a semifinal playoff game on Dec. 4.

Bills fans got much worse news five days later, when the specifics of the merger were announced. Only three teams -- the Browns, Colts and San Francisco 49ers -- would be absorbed into the NFL. Players from the other franchises would be scattered in a dispersal draft.

It didn't help that Breuil, claiming losses of more than $700,000 over the Bills' lifespan, swapped Bumgardner, guard Abe Gibron and defensive tackle John Kissell to Cleveland as part of a deal that gave him a one-quarter share in the Browns, as Joe Marren wrote in The Coffin Corner, a publication of the Pro Football Researcher's Association.

Despite Breuil's sell-out, as well as Ratterman signing with the established league's New York Yanks  (originality in nicknames was clearly not rampant in those days), Buffalo fans and businesses didn't give up, putting together a "Keep the Bills in Buffalo" campaign described by Marren:

Despite it all, Buffalo rallied and people were slightly optimistic when a delegation went to the annual NFL meeting in January 1950 in Philadelphia with more than 15,000 season ticket pledges (more than twice the number of season tickets sold in '49) and $175,000  from selling $5 shares in The Buffalo Bills Football Club, Inc. But the NFL owners still turned Buffalo down because Commissioner Bert Bell did not produce a schedule that included Buffalo.
Other accounts suggest Bell did prepare a 14-team schedule, but did not present it to the other 13 NFL owners. Whatever the case, the league vote on Jan. 20, 1950, was 9-4 in favor of admitting Buffalo. Since a unanimous vote was required, Buffalo was out.

The NFL toyed with Buffalo a little as the 1950s wore on, siting exhibition and regular-season games featuring the Chicago Cardinals at Civic Stadium in 1958.

Nothing came of that flirtation, but a year later, along came Wilson. A year after that, for better or worse, the modern Bills were born.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Come Clean, Manti: A Tip From A Pro

(Editor's note: Pat Murray is a longtime Western New York sports reporter and editor who relocated his family to Texas in order to exploit that state's more lenient gun laws take a job in Lamar University's athletic media relations department. We Want Marangi asked him to share his thoughts on the furor surrounding the non-death of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's imaginary girlfriend. No need to thank us, Notre Dame. You need all the help you can get.)

By Pat Murray

It’s the worst nightmare for anyone working in media relations: You turn on ESPN and see your school’s biggest name prominently featured, and not for scoring the game-winning bucket or making the game-saving tackle.

Instead, your star player, the face of the program is on the news for the wrong reasons. Suspended from the team for “violating team rules.” Arrested for any number of reasons. Or, God forbid, severely injured or killed. Almost all of us in the profession have dealt with that situation at one time or another. 

It’s never any fun.

Then there’s the unique case of Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o, the Heisman Trophy finalist, who finds himself in a situation that no athlete of his stature, or media-relations director, has ever been in.

As I write this, Te’o is not known to have done anything illegal. Yet, the sports media relations people at Notre Dame, who are usually concerned with such mundane things as tackles for loss and yards per carry, are suddenly spin doctors, those people who routinely try to salvage the image of the likes of Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan and Nick Nolte.

So what do you do in a situation like this, if it’s your job to deal with it?

First, it’s just not a sports issue, it’s a university issue. So we get together with the school’s public relations department to devise a strategy. You can see that was done in the way Notre Dame’s Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick addressed the media on Wednesday.

But there’s more to do. The story sounds so unbelievable, and gets stranger by the moment. Was Te’o the victim of a hoax? Or was he part of a hoax? In these days of social media, everything moves so fast. It’s hard to hide anything anymore.

The next step is to find the truth from Te’o. If he was the victim of a con, a claim many people find difficult, if not impossible to believe, get the facts out there. Phone records, emails, texts will show that he was communicating with someone.

If he was in on the hoax, get him to come clean now. The sooner he comes clean, the sooner you can start damage control, not only for him, but for the football program and the school. We already know Te’o has lied about meeting the girl who never lived. He has already recanted the imaginary meetings he previously described to reporters and said all of the supposed interaction was online.

It’s not hard to believe a relationship can develop online. That’s how my wife and I met, and we’ve been married for 13 ½ years. But somehow, all of Te’o’s comments just don’t ring true.  That’s why he needs to tell everything, good AND bad, about the whole incident.

That way he can get on with his life, his family and friends can get on with theirs, and the media relations department can get back to worrying about the school record for 3-pointers in a game.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Say It Ain't So, Te'o: The Greatest Story Ever Fabricated

Everyone coming has probably read or heard about this somewhere else already, but I'm in a bit of a cold-induced funk and want to know where I can find it when my head clears, to be sure it was real. And can think of something to say about it other than:


Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, the stories said, played this season under a terrible burden. A Mormon linebacker who led his Catholic school's football program back to glory, Te'o was whipsawed between personal tragedies along the way. In the span of six hours in September, as Sports Illustrated told it, Te'o learned first of the death of his grandmother, Annette Santiago, and then of the death of his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua. 
Kekua, 22 years old, had been in a serious car accident in California, and then had been diagnosed with leukemia. SI's Pete Thamel described how Te'o would phone her in her hospital room and stay on the line with her as he slept through the night. "Her relatives told him that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice," Thamel wrote. 
Upon receiving the news of the two deaths, Te'o went out and led the Fighting Irish to a 20-3 upset of Michigan State, racking up 12 tackles. It was heartbreaking and inspirational. Te'o would appear on ESPN's College GameDay to talk about the letters Kekua had written him during her illness. He would send a heartfelt letter to the parents of a sick child, discussing his experience with disease and grief. The South Bend Tribune wrote an article describing the young couple's fairytale meeting—she, a Stanford student; he, a Notre Dame star—after a football game outside Palo Alto. 
Did you enjoy the uplifiting story, the tale of a man who responded to adversity by becoming one of the top players of the game? If so, stop reading. 
Manti Te'o did lose his grandmother this past fall. Annette Santiago died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis. But there is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper. 
Nor is there any report of a severe auto accident involving a Lennay Kekua. Background checks turn up nothing. The Stanford registrar's office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there's no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed. 
The photographs identified as Kekua—in online tributes and on TV news reports—are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old California woman who is not named Lennay Kekua. She is not a Stanford graduate; she has not been in a severe car accident; and she does not have leukemia. And she has never met Manti Te'o.

Within hours of the revelations by Deadspin, the denials started flowing from Notre Dame -- which is at the least complicit in the most ornate hoax in sports-media history -- and Te'o -- a Heisman Trophy finalist and probable high first-round draft pick who is either the most naive 22-year-old in America, an effective-yet-short-sighted con artist, a deeply troubled young man or some combination of the three.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that quite a bit more to this story will be out there soon, probably by the time this gets posted. Wherever it goes from here, the shame of the story of The Dead Girlfriend Who Never Lived falls as much on the mass-media journalists who hyped it as the bastards/geniuses who perpetrated it.

When I wrote for the New York Times, standard policy was that you at least attempted to talk to anyone who was of even minor importance in any story. Apparently, things have changed since I kicked the professional journalism habit a few years back.

SB Nation has a handy list of the assorted guardians of truth, and their employer/enablers, who evidently do not follow that policy.

Thanks to all listed for encouraging the portion of the populace already prone to seeing media-fueled conspiracies behind even the most horrific stories imaginable. And also to those responsible, for making today a little more interesting.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

What's A Marrone?

Other than a severe aversion to Notre Dame, the staff at We Want Marangi admits to possessing precious little knowledge about college football, so we are going to reserve comment on the apparent hiring of Syracuse's Doug Marrone as Buffalo's new head coach.

(As of Sunday morning, the Bills haven't made any announcements, but the Buffalo News and ESPN are reporting a deal is imminent.)

Except to note that the decision, if it's been made, represents a marked shift from the Bills' past hiring practices. Lou Saban, John Rauch, Chuck Knox, Marv Levy, Wade Phillips, Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey all had prior experience as a professional head coach. Joe Collier, Jim Ringo, Kay Stephenson and Hank Bullough were all high-ranking assistants with the Bills before assuming the top job, while Gregg Williams and Mike Mularkey were successful coordinators elsewhere in the NFL, and Buster Ramsey was an esteemed assistant with a championship team in Detroit before becoming Buffalo's first head coach.

That makes Marrone the first college head coach the Bills have selected for their top job. It also reinforces the idea that Buddy Nix is sticking around to help his eventual replacement as general manager, Doug Whaley, through the process of finding Chan Gailey's replacement and April's draft before easing into retirement.

Marrone was an NFL assistant for seven years before taking over at Syracuse, including three seasons as the offensive coordinator in New Orleans, during which the Saints offense finished first, fourth and first in total yards. Sean Payton has been the primary offensive strategist during his tenure in New Orleans, but working with the most consistently explosive offense outside of New England isn't the worst experience to have on a resume.

So Buffalo's new head coach is a 48-year-old who has run innovative offenses at the professional and college levels and turned around a program saturated with mediocrity. The Orange were 10-37 in the four seasons before hiring Marrone and 26-57 over the last seven. Marrone's teams went 25-25, capped by an 8-5 mark this year and a 38-14 win over West Virginia in last month's New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

This is definitely not the type of hire you would expect of Nix, who chose an out-of-work Gailey rather than consider anyone without NFL head-coaching experience the last time around. Or Ralph Wilson, for that matter, who had final say over every previous coaching move.

Whatever the process, this hire is the first signature decision for Brandon since succeeding Wilson, and for Whaley as GM-in-waiting.

No question, it's different than what has happened in the past.

Better? We'll see.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

It Was 20 Years Ago Today

We are at the only bar in Brockport we could find showing the pirated broadcast of the wildcard playoff game between the Bills and the Oilers.

The place is packed, but very quiet as Warren Moon hits every pass he throws, moving Houston to touchdown after touchdown, while Frank Reich scatters passes around like, well, like a backup quarterback.

I'm working as a news reporter after occasionally covering the Bills through the 1990 and '91 seasons, so my rather perverse childhood loyalty to the team has seeped into my staunch objectivity. I stand at the bar, in the midst of a group that included the most intense Steelers fans I've ever known, two Dolphins fundamentalists, a Long Island native who has a contentious relationship with the Jets, and my girlfriend, genetically predisposed to all Boston-area sports teams.

So there are more than a few biting comments about the demise of the Bills, who have been to and lost two straight Super Bowls, as the score hits 28-3 by halftime.

"The problem," I say, to one of the Dolphins fans, "is that we're not drinking enough."

This provided us with common ground, despite our denominational differences.

While ordering a round, I looked about the bar and noticed something interesting.

No one was leaving.

Granted, it's early on a cold day-after-New Year, and most of the mix of townies and college kids who had hung around town through Christmas break don't have anything better to do or anyplace better to do it, but it still makes for a striking contrast to the shots of fans streaming out of Rich Stadium.

Shortly after the bartender brings over another half-dozen drafts, Bubba McDowell grabs a tipped Reich throw and returns it 58 yards for a touchdown.

Thirty-five to three.

Still, the bar door stays closed.

And it starts.

Reich can't miss his suddenly wide-open receivers, and Moon can't keep his feet still, or his passes on target.

Kenneth Davis goes in from a yard out. 35-10.

Some sarcastic rumbling around the bar.

An onside kickoff. What? Beebe sneaking inbounds. 35-17.

Hey, you never know.

Reed, backing in. 35-24.

Are you kidding?

Reed again, diving. 35-31. With a whole quarter left. The cartel of loyalists of Buffalo's arch-rivals are yelling themselves hoarse for the Bills.

Reed, of course, one more time. 38-35, Buffalo.

Holy crap.

By this point, Buffalo winning -- impossible an hour earlier -- is inevitable. No anxiety or drama, just joyful disbelief.

Even when Houston ties it, or wins the overtime coin flip.

And Nate Odomes picks Moon and Steve Christie ends it.

Buffalo 41. Houston 38.

Dolphins hugging Steelers, Jets and Patriots because the Bills won. Despite our disparate belief systems, we had willed it, with a superstitious boost from the stack of empty cups in front of us. Every anguished, delusional hope of every Buffalo loyalist had been validated over a rapidly escalating two hours.

The feeling, 20 years later, was the best I have ever had as a fan. I saw my other inexplicably favorite team, the New York Mets, win a World Championship and pull off the second-greatest comeback I've ever seen on the way. And it wasn't quite the same.

 I can't imagine a Super Bowl win being any better.

(Recapture a little of it with the ESPN recap from Jan. 3, 1993.)

(Frank Reich looks back, interspersed with highlights accompanied by Van Miller's ecstatic play-by-play.)

(The New York Times asks whether it was the greatest comeback, or the greatest choke.)