Saturday, December 10, 2016

Rexual Inadequacy, Season 2

While trying earlier this week to come up with something interesting to say about Buffalo's come-from-ahead, probably playoff-exile-sustaining disintegration in Oakland last Sunday, it was hard to shake the feeling I'd written it all before.

Didn't have to dive too deeply into We Want Marangi's archives to realize that I had done exactly that, about a year to the day earlier.

Rather than risk accusations of self-plagiarization, and still have time to finally get started on Christmas shopping, the WWM Editorial Board has decided rerun a post from Dec. 6, 2015. All you really need to do to fully enjoy it at home is substitute the words "Oakland" and "Raiders" for "Kansas City" and "Chiefs" and "end-of-half clock management" for "replay-challenge situations."

Most of the rest still stands up, including Tyrod Taylor coming undone after a strong start, a Buffalo defense that has never performed well enough for long enough under Rex Ryan to even qualify as overrated getting shredded while giving up a double-digit-lead and Ryan and his coaching staff again failing to remember than in-game-adjustments to the game plan are, in fact, perfectly permissible in the National Football League.

If there is a single hallmark of Ryan's 28 games since buying that blue, white and red pickup truck, it is the weekly failure to effectively counter opposing strategy shifts. If Buffalo's initial game plan works on either side of the ball, the Bills are in great shape as long as the other team doesn't make any adjustments.

They almost always do, however, at which point Ryan and his staff appear stunned that such strategic shiftiness is not only allowed, but encouraged. Instead, they and the players they coach showed all the flexibility of the electric football players pictured above.

Similarly, Taylor and the rest of the offense again showed that there does not seem to be any institutional understanding that the game changes as the clock winds down at the end of each half. No one should be especially surprised about Buffalo's failure to even try adding to its then-eight-point lead just before intermission, as the Bills have not demonstrated much sense of urgency at the end of games since Taylor and Ryan arrived, either.

Like Ryan's first-season production, these Bills are still technically alive for the postseason. All they have to do The simplest route is winning their final four games, starting Sunday against Pittsburgh in what could wind up sounding like a Steelers home game, even though it's being played at New Era Field (quite possibly the most misleading stadium name in the history of corporate sponsorships), while the four teams above them in the race for the two AFC Wild Card slots (eight if you count the four division leaders), simultaneously collapse.

Hashing out such improbable scenarios has become a holiday tradition in these parts, much like authoring Facebook posts blaming Elf On The Shelf for the death of the American Dream and dangerous levels of exposure to Trans-Siberian Railroad, or Grand Funk Orchestra, or whatever that bunch is called.

It's not like a loss to Pittsburgh puts an end to such contortions, since Buffalo's official elimination can't occur until next week, when Cleveland brings its quest to become the second team to go 0-16 to Orchard Park.

In the meantime, enjoy the following evidence that, even in a year as chaotic as this one, some things never really change.

Rexual Inadequacy

It would be easy, maybe even fun, to spend the next few hundred—or thousand—words ripping Rex Ryan for the managerial inattention that led to going 0-for-5 in replay-challenge situations, which played a major role in Sunday’s gut-twisting loss to Kansas City.

As damaging as Rex’s red-flag issues were, though (and seeming to defer to the team’s chaplain at one decisive moment does not instill confidence in anyone), the disintegration of his defense—once universally considered Ryan’s area of unquestioned expertise—hurt a lot more.

A week after thoroughly flustering Tom Brady in perhaps their best overall effort of the season, Buffalo’s defenders allowed one of the National Football League’s less-explosive offenses to wipe out a double-digit deficit and score 17 straight points en route to a 30-22 win.

That collapse put these new-look Bills right where they have been for most of the past 16 years at this point in the season—likely needing to run the table while multiple upstairs neighbors in the standings falter.

Buffalo’s two-game losing streak, leaves them tied for fifth (with the less-than-fearsome Oakland Raiders) in the chase for the AFC’s two wild-card berths, while saddled with an apparent inability to make effective in-game adjustments.

The initial game plan could not have worked much better. For the game’s first 15 minutes, Tyrod Taylor and Sammy Watkins thoroughly flummoxed Kansas City’s defense, while Ryan’s injury-riddled defense looked very much like the unit promised since his hiring last January, with the Bills ending the opening quarter up 10-0.

Watkins continued to look like he just might justify the high cost the Bills paid to get him in the 2014 draft in the second, hooking up with Taylor—who showed little sign that the shoulder injury suffered a week earlier in New England was hampering him in any way—for their fourth deep connection and second touchdown of the game putting Buffalo ahead 16-7.

Then it all fell apart.

After Dan Carpenter missed his second extra point in three games, and third of the year, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith shattered the myth that he can’t, or won’t, throw long, lasering a 41-yard touchdown to Jeremy Maclin (whose 37-yard “catch” on one of Ryan’s replay blunders set up the first Kansas City touchdown) to make it a two-point game at the half.

Watkins, whose second score gave him six catches for 158 yards, never caught another pass, largely because Taylor threw just one more his way.

Buffalo’s defense, which had yielded a single first down on the first three Kansas City possessions, surrendered points on six of the next seven, with a 54-yard field goal attempt hitting the crossbar as time expired in the first half marking the closest thing Ryan’s crew managed to a stop until Smith kneeled away the game’s final seconds.

In the process, the Bills somehow made the much-maligned Smith look better than Tom Brady had a week earlier, while also allowing someone named Spencer Ware to run for 114 yards.

Things were no better for the offense, with Taylor—who was 16-of-24 for 236 yards and those two touchdowns to Watkins in the first half—hitting on just five of 14 throws for 55 yards after intermission, while looking very much like the career backup he was until this year in the process.

Through it all, Ryan and his coaching staff appeared as overwhelmed as a fact-checker at a Republican presidential debate. Not to mention completely overmatched by Andy Reid’s staff on the opposite sideline, unable to cope in any meaningful way as another highly winnable game slipped away.

All of which leaves Buffalo needing at least four wins in its final five games, and quite possibly five straight, to have a shot at ending the franchise’s playoff-free millennium. This is especially troubling for a team that has not been able to win three in a row all season. And one with a coach whose shortcomings in the areas of clock management, in-game strategy, and now replay-review competency have made a difference in several galling defeats.

Say this much for Rex—his team seems to be committing fewer stupid penalties at crucial moments, though it still managed nine slightly smarter infractions to gift the Chiefs with an extra 91 yards.

That’s kind of a lot of problems to fix during the season’s final month. On the bright side, none of the remaining five opponents presents a Patriots-style mismatch.

The best of the bunch, Houston (one of the four teams Buffalo trails by one game in the chase), visits Orchard Park on Sunday. Another contender now at 6-5, the New York Jets, comes to town for the season finale on Jan. 3, 2016.

For that potential play-in game against Rex’s former team to matter, though, his Bills have to get by the Texans, followed by trips to Philadelphia and Washington and a post-Christmas visit from Dallas (as quarterbacked, most likely, by Matt Cassel).

And they have to do so while operating with almost no margin for error, as they try to save a season in which they, and their coach, have made way too many of them already.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Bills Try Authoring Different Ending To Same Old Story

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The editorial staff of We Want Marangi has been been busy for much of the fall promoting the campaign of its favored presidential candidate and coming to terms with that candidate's shocking loss on Election Day. Time to get back to work.)

Please, stop me if you've heard this one before.

The Buffalo Bills may not have participated in an actual playoff game since Frank Wycheck launched that alleged lateral nearly 17 years ago, but this afternoon's contest in Oakland serves essentially the same purpose.

Upset the 9-2 Raiders, the AFC's biggest surprise so far, and the competitive portion of the 2016 season continues for at least another week. Lose a crucial December road game, as the Bills have been wont to do through the Phillips/Williams/Mularkey/Jauron/Gailey/Marrone/Ryan Era, and everyone can start looking forward to the draft and trying to find someone willing to pay anything for tickets to that Christmas Eve game against the Dolphins.

At 7-5, the Bills would come home for three winnable games at New Era Field, followed by the season finale on New Year's Day, 2017, in New Jersey against the smoldering ruins of the New York Jets.

OK, you've definitely heard this one before. Like nearly every year since Home Run Throwback, save the handful of truly execrable seasons in which the Bills spared everyone the torturous math required to see a path to the postseason and eliminated themselves by Thanksgiving, or before.

But this is where we are, and this is what we do around here.

It's not all that tough to talk yourself into a win over the Raiders, either. Oakland's run defense ranks 26th in the NFL and will be missing three regulars up front. The pass defense has been better, rating an impressive-looking fifth, but will be without cornerback D.J. Hayden, their primary slot defender in pass coverage.

Given Tyrod Taylor's inability or unwillingness to throw the ball over the middle, the absence of Hayden might not mean much. But the battered line should further weaken a pass rush that has managed an NFL-low 17 sacks.

Buffalo won't be especially well-equipped to exploit holes in coverage, with Robert Woods out and Charles Clay missing the trip in order to be present for the birth of his child (as a side note, if you have a problem with the tight end's decision, you either don't have any children or shouldn't).

The Bills' three primary playmakers -- LeSean McCoy, Sammy Watkins and Taylor -- are all healthy, though, or at least as uninjured as anyone can be at this point in the season. This is the sort of situation where seven-figure contracts are earned.

It is also where coaching reputations are bolstered. Or debunked. Derek Carr has produced most of Oakland's offense, carrying the Raiders to their last two wins despite a marginal running game and, last week in a wild 35-32 win over Carolina, a mangled hand.

Carr's dislocated pinky is reportedly fine, but if Rex Ryan's defense can take away the run, it makes it easier to pressure a quarterback who has been sacked an NFL-low 12 times.

At this point, it doesn't much matter how the Bills win, just that they find a way to pull one out in the stadium where their 2014 playoff hopes imploded against a relatively feeble opponent.

Otherwise, this season starts to feel even more like most of the 16 that came before it.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Living In Distant Past Fueling Bills Revival

It's been a while.

Last week, the Buffalo Bills' 30-19 win over the Los Angeles Rams (thanks, Rams, for moving homemarked the first time they've managed the modest achievement of three straight victories since 2011. Since then, they've labored under three head coaches and four starting quarterbacks.

Today, with the San Francisco 49ers in town, they have a chance to make it four in a row for the first time since 2008, which they accomplished shortly before the world economy collapsed as George W. Bush finished his second term.

Neither of those streaks went anywhere. The '11 Bills, helmed by Chan Gailey, collapsed shortly after Ryan Fitzpatrick signed a contract extension, with the lovable-but-inevitably-inept quarterback demonstrating the form that forced five franchises to give up on him during his first 10 NFL seasons and presently has him leading the league in interceptions for what will be very soon be the sixth. They wound up 6-10, one of five times they've done so during the ongoing 16-season string of not making the playoffs.

The high hopes generated by the 4-0 opening in '08 disappeared along with Trent Edwards' consciousness and confidence moments into the season's fifth game, courtesy of unblocked Arizona blitzer Adrian Wilson. Those Bills staggered to their third straight 7-9 finish under Dick Jauron.

Of course, this is a different Buffalo coach, with Tyrod Taylor not having yet shown definitively that he is or isn't a viable starting quarterback for the long-term, and Rex Ryan still offering at least a glimmer that the high point of his coaching career might not have taken place six years ago.

If nothing else, Rex has his team playing in his preferred style, executing game plans transported in a time machine from the early 1970s. Big-play defense and a LeSean McCoy-heavy offense with enough of Taylor's passing to keep opponents from swarming the line has been enough. To revive what was looking like a lost season five days in over the last three weeks, at least, and probably this one.

The Bills and 49ers are certainly playing like their ancestors from 1972 (pictured above), coming into the day with the NFL's least- and second-least productive passing offenses, respectively. Each averages a shade more than half the passing yards per game being put up by league-leading Atlanta.

They're not the only ones. Whether it's a product of evolving defenses, crappy quarterbacking (most the superstars of the past few years spent most or all of the season's first third suspended, retired, injured or getting their brains beat in) or coaching that hasn't adjusted to either, plenty of games have been unwatchable throughout the league during the first five weeks.

Unless your team is winning.

Beating the 49ers won't prove a whole lot, beyond reinforcing the idea that Ryan's defense can smother offenses led by a quarterback who is either completely immobile (like Arizona's Carson Palmer), painfully inexperienced (Jacoby Brissett of New England) or wholly unqualified (the Rams' Case Keenum).

San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, who gets his first start of the season due more to Blaine Gabbert's Blaine Gabbertness than anything the former Super Bowl starter has accomplished on the field since that Super Bowl start, doesn't fall into the first two categories. But he may still wind up in the third, given his regression since his electrifying tear through the playoffs following the 2013 season.

Buffalo's pass rush, led by the league's most unlikely breakout of 2016, Lorenzo Alexander, has finally started looking like the dominating wave promised by Ryan when he arrived in Buffalo 21 months ago.

Aided by a crowd whose hostility level may approach the ongoing slog toward Election Day, given Kaepernick's polarizing expression of his political views, Rex's throwbacks had better be able to bludgeon another feeble offense at home, and do the same next week against the backsliding Dolphins in South Florida.

After that, one of the NFL's few teams living in the 21st Century comes to town. And they'll have that Brady guy this time.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Bills, Patriots Head Into The Unknown

Let's be honest here.

I've got no frigging idea what's going to happen when Buffalo takes the field in Foxborough on Sunday for what has become, for the most part, an annual humiliation by the New England Patriots.

That's no surprise to anyone familiar with the sort of speculation published by We Want Marangi and its predecessors over the years, or even just last week. But neither do you. And neither does anyone else, with the possible exception of Bill Belichick.

The Bills' offense and defense -- aided and abetted by the decision-making of Rex Ryan and other former and current coaches -- took turns handing over achievable wins against Baltimore and the New York Jets in the season's first two weeks, only to put together a close-to-complete game in mashing Arizona, an NFC finalist a season ago, in Week 3.

The Patriots, meanwhile, have run off three straight wins without Tom Brady, a development that's really only surprising if you haven't been paying much attention through Belichick's reign in New England.

On Friday, Sammy Watkins' absence for this Sunday -- and at least seven more after that -- was assured when the Bills placed him on injured reserve, meaning he has to sit out eight games before becoming eligible to return.

While Watkins' injury leaves Tyrod Taylor without his most threatening target, at least Buffalo knows for sure who will be throwing the ball.

The Patriots know Brady is out, serving the final game of the silliest suspension in NFL history. Backup Jimmy Garoppolo did a reasonable Brady imitation for six quarters before departing with a shoulder injury, while third-stringer Jacoby Brissett handed off and ran efficiently enough for the Patriots to slog the pathetic-when-it-matters Texans, despite breaking a thumb in the process.

Both substitute quarterbacks took snaps this week. Wide receiver Julian Edelman (pictured above), who hasn't played quarterback in a game since college, is the emergency option if one can't go, or keep going.

Under most circumstances, most teams facing an opponent with such disarray at the game's most important position would have to feel pretty good about their chances.

But these are the Bills. And those are the Patriots.

Would it really surprise anyone if Edelman started, if only so Belichick could prove his evil genius in yet another way, and threw for a couple of scores and ran for another in an offense that looks something like this?

Or Garappolo lit Buffalo up for 300 yards, popping his shoulder back into the socket between completions?

Or Brissett, operating with one hand, was still able to successfully transfer the ball about 40 times to LeGarrette Blount, who continued to gash the Bills even though they knew it was coming? Without Brady, these Patriots have simply decided to lead the league in rushing through the first thee games.

Then again, it's altogether possible, given the circumstances, that the Bills could produce that rarest of accomplishments by a Ryan-coached team -- a dominant performance with and without the ball.

A theoretically high-pressure defense like the one Ryan has promised since arriving in Buffalo, but only occasionally delivered, should swarm an inexperienced passer like  Garoppolo or Bissett, and quickly bury a non-quarterback such as Edelman.

New England's run defense ranks in the NFL's Top 10, as it did in 2015, but hasn't been so dominant that new offensive coordinator shouldn't be able to come up with a game plan at least nearly as effective as the one that tore up the Cardinals. A heavy dose of LeSean McCoy seems in order, with some relief from Mike Gillislee. Maybe Lynn can come up with a constructive use for Reggie Bush, who has not touched the ball from scrimmage since three carries in the opener moved the Bills back a total of four yards.

And you would think that, at some point, Taylor has to throw the ball over the middle, maybe even incorporating Charles Clay into the passing game, at long last.

Given the uncertainty for both teams, this one figures to come down to coaching. This does not benefit the Bills.

Oddsmakers seem to agree. Even without knowing who will quarterback the Patriots, or if they'll actually field a quarterback, New England was a consensus 7.5-point favorite at press time.

Playing at home is generally worth about three points, so the people setting the lines see Belichick being worth close to a touchdown, in comparison to Ryan. Which is probably pretty generous to Rex, given their histories. Belichick's Patriots are 11-4 all-time against Ryan-coached teams, with three of the losses coming in Rex's first two seasons with the Jets.

Reverse that trend, and Ryan and the Bills pump new life into a season that looked lost after getting shredded by Ryan Fitzpatrick -- who followed up the game of his life by Fitzing away six interceptions in Kansas City last Sunday -- just 16 days ago.

Lose to a team without a healthy professional quarterback, though, and the future of the team, and its coach, is as uncertain as Sunday's outcome.

Rex Wins Another Media Day Recalling First-Round Fizzle

Since taking over as the Buffalo Bills' frontman, his teams have won nine games and lost 10 heading into Sunday's trip to New England, which has served as an annual death march for the franchise throughout the millennium.

With his previous group, the New York Jets, Ryan's teams went 46-50 in the regular season and 4-2 in the playoffs, with all the postseason activity taking place within his first two years.

Add it up, and Ryan is 59-62 as a head coach in the National Football League.

In a business dominated by coach-speak, excessive praise of opponents and pour-mouthing one's own team, though, Rex is the undisputed champion of press conferences.

His enthusiasm and lack of the filter that makes most of his colleagues painful to listen to (his opposite number on Sunday, Bill Belichick occasionally ranks as an exception, having raised use of the cliches inherent in the system to an art form) provided the basis for most of the enthusiasm that surrounded his hiring by the Bills in January 2015. It didn't hurt that he was following Doug Marrone, who anonymous sources tell We Want Marangi had his personality surgically removed as a teenager.

Once his Bills took the field, however, they quickly reinforced the reality that led to his ouster in New York: Winning big on Media Day doesn't mean much on Sunday afternoon.

With the 2015 season teetering as the Bills prepared to hit the quarter-pole, though, Ryan defended his title on Wednesday.

Ryan's choice of a fake name to butt in on the area media's conference call with Julian Edelman, who may or may not wind up playing quarterback for the first time since college, raises an important question, especially for anyone under 50.

Who is Walt Patulski?

Until the first-round selections of Mike Williams in 2002 and Aaron Maybin in 2009, Patulski was the easy call for a generation of Bills fans as the franchise's worst pick ever.

Unlike Williams or Maybin -- or Booker Moore (1981), Perry Tuttle (1982), or other underachieving top choices throughout Buffalo's sordid draft history -- Patulski was the first overall selection in the NFL draft, earning him more notoriety -- fairly or not -- than anything he would accomplish in uniform during a five-year professional career.

Looking back, it was almost a no-brainer pick going into the 1972 NFL draft.

Patulski was a 6-foot-6, 258-pound defensive end from Notre Dame. As a senior, he not only won the Lombardi Trophy as the nation's best defensive lineman, but was so dominant that he finished ninth in the Heisman Trophy balloting, the lone defender in the Top 10 (no defensive player won the award until Charles Woodson in 1997).

The marketing angle didn't hurt for a franchise coming off a 1-13 season and still struggling to find an effective way to use its first overall pick from 1969, an injury-plagued running back named O.J. Simpson. Patulski was Polish, grew up in Syracuse and went to Notre Dame.

Had his performance as a professional matched his collegiate pedigree and demographic appeal, he would have provided Buffalo with a defensive superstar to pair with Simpson in a Bills Golden Age to rival the AFL champions of a decade earlier, or the Super Bowl teams of almost 20 years later.

That never came close to happening, though. Patulski had his moments -- though sacks were not yet an official statistic, he was credited with 21.5 in his four seasons with the Bills.

And considering this is the same franchise that drafted Al Cowlings in the first round two years earlier on the basis of his friendship with O.J. Simpson, Patulski wasn't even Buffalo's worst choice of the 1970s.

Given the expectations surrounding him, though, he would have needed to record twice as many sacks to avoid the scorn of fans who never saw their team win a playoff game during his Buffalo career, despite Simpson's five-year run as the NFL's dominant runner.

It didn't help that the coach who chose him didn't like him much, at least as a player.

"In tough situations, he would take the easy way out," Lou Saban told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times in 1993. "To be aggressive, it just wasn't him."

The same knock plagued Williams and Maybin during their short Buffalo careers. The variety of injuries he endured plagued him later in life, he went on to a career in banking back home in the Syracuse area. He told Plaschke that business success had not yet blotted out his NFL washout.

"I will go to my grave feeling that I didn't do all I could," Patulski said in 1993.

Now 66, Patulski was aware of his legacy, fair or not. The coach who name-checked him is running out of time to improve his.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

WWM Flashback: Bye, Bye, Brian

(Editor's Note: Believe it or not, the greatest Buffalo Bill of the Drought Era was released four years ago today. The following was originally posted on Sept. 25, 2012.)

The Buffalo Bills cut the best punter they have ever had on Tuesday.

By any measurable standard, Brian Moorman outkicked Chris Mohr and Paul Maguire, the only other  two Buffalo punters in the conversation, by a good distance.

Moorman was three games into his 12th season in Buffalo, putting him more than a year ahead of his predecessor, Mohr, on the Bills’ punting longevity chart. Moorman’s replacement, rookie  Shawn Powell, will be only Buffalo’s third punter since 1990.

He did not merely hang around, though. Moorman’s ability to kick long, high and to precise spots on the field made him Buffalo’s most valuable player in more than a few games, particularly during the depths of the Mularkey-Jauron years, which spanned the second half of the preceding decade.

While this says at least as much about the feebleness of those teams as it does about Mohr’s ability to kick a ball that he had just intentionally dropped before it hit the ground, he routinely provided a field-position advantage to teammates who desperately needed it.

Moorman’s value earned him a prominent place in a column I wrote long ago, and far away.

Back in August, while walking up to Ralph Wilson Stadium for the exhibition game against Cincinnati, I noticed that the ticket provided by Gary, BillStuff's gracious host for the evening, bore the image of Brian Moorman.

Usually, such high-profile placement is reserved for the quarterback, or running back, or a star defender. Not the guy who only gets to do his job when his teammates have failed at theirs.

"You know, putting your punter on the tickets doesn't exactly instill confidence," I said.

"No," Gary said. "No, it doesn't."

Moorman more than earned such recognition in the game I was writing about, Buffalo’s 16-6 win over Miami in September 2006. Five of his six punts landed inside the Dolphins’ 20-yard line, with four pinning them inside their own 10.

There were more than a few days like that. He also kicked with a consistency that kept him around for more than 11 years. He was also the greatest fake-field-goal holder the Bills have ever had, throwing a touchdown pass in 2008 and another in 2009, giving him a perfect passing rating of 158.3 for both seasons.

His off-field work with various local charities, particularly his own foundation to benefit children with cancer and other serious diseases, helped make him as popular as a punter could possibly hope.

This summer, he almost lost the punting job to Powell, a first-team All-American at Florida State last year, in training camp. Evidently, the Bills decided this week that Moorman had lost a few feet on his kicks, or could no longer place the ball exactly where it would be most beneficial to their coverage schemes.

The 6-foot-4, 248-pound Powell has a big leg, averaging 44.8 yards per kick in the preseason. Moorman’s value, though, came just as much from his consistency catching the ball, on punts and field goal attempts, and kicking it away quickly (just two blocked punts, nine years apart, blemish his statistical resume. Like Mohr before him, he thrived in the swirling winds and icy rain and snow of late fall in Western New York.

Can a guy who has done all of his big-game punting in the relatively balmy American Southeast bear up as well under the weather? The answer will be as important as the strength of Powell’s leg in determining whether he lasts nearly as long as the best punter in Buffalo’s football history.

Rex Honestly Answers Questions Not Asked

"Probably not real good," Rex Ryan said in answer to a question after Friday's walk-through in preparation for Buffalo's increasingly ominous-looking game against Arizona on Sunday.

He was talking about the likelihood of Sammy Watkins taking the field against the Cardinals after the wide receiver's already-balky foot got stepped on earlier in the week, causing him to miss each ensuing practice.

Given the state of his 0-2 football team, which managed to lose both a defensive struggle and an offensive shootout by identical six-point margins within a five-day span to open the season, Rex could have answered any number of questions using the same four words. Especially with the annual trip to New England, which is off to a 3-0 start without Tom Brady so much as strapping on his shoulder pads since August, looming a week after Arizona's visit.

Those four simple words are all Buffalo's beleaguered coach really needs to accurately assess most of his team's problems: "Probably not real good."

For example:

"What are the chances of upsetting a conference finalist if you couldn't beat the fucking New York Jets, even while scoring 31 points -- including two scoring passes of 70-yards-plus and a defensive touchdown, all in front of a raucous Thursday night crowd?"

"How do you expect your allegedly elite cornerbacks to look against Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals' other fast, rangy receivers after getting torched for more than 100 yards by two big Jets wideouts and nearly 100 by a third?"

"What's the possibility of your pass rush, one of your supposed areas of expertise, generating consistent pressure on Carson Palmer, as opposed to allowing him to calmly survey the field for most of the day?"

"What's your assessment of 'Bills Run Deep' as a franchise slogan?"

"How about as a football-related term that even makes sense to anyone but the marketing types who came up with it?"

"What kind of performance to you expect from Tyrod Taylor without Watkins (who was ruled out officially a few hours before game time) to target, or at least draw coverage away from your other, far lesser receivers?"

"What kind of outcome did you expect from repeatedly diving into the heart of New York's short-yardage run defense, especially when it barely worked the first time?"

"What kind of defensive game plan are you and your brother going to come up with?"

"Speaking of game plans, any chance your new offensive coordinator will be able to establish any sort of consistency beyond punting a lot and hoping Taylor can hit a long bomb once in a while?"

"How did you feel when you found out your bosses like to have meetings with your employees without you around, like the sessions reportedly held right before your old offensive coordinator got canned?"

"What sort of impact do you think that sort of thing has on your credibility with those employees?"

"How would you rate your team's chances of making the playoffs for the first time in so long that sportswriters are running out of comic comparisons to make?"

"How about the likelihood of just staying in the postseason race until the final week of the season for the first time since 2004?"

"At least until after Thanksgiving?"


"Thanks, Rex. One more question. What are the odds of you and your brother still having jobs when the playoffs start if you don't get this mess figured out in a hurry?"

(Note: You can follow @davidstaba on the Twitter, if you really want.)


Friday, September 16, 2016

Rex: The Buck Stops ... Over There

What do you do when your defense gives up 37 points and allows a quarterback playing for his sixth NFL team to throw for 374 yards, including more than 100 to two receivers and 92 to a third, while still finding time to surrender 100 yards and three touchdowns to the same team's running back?

Fire the offensive coordinator, of course.

Apparently, Greg Roman was responsible for the defensive scheme, such as it was, that somehow managed to let Ryan Fitzpatrick's receivers run free down the middle AND along the sidelines in the New York Jets' 37-31 victory at New Era But Same Results Field on Thursday night. And also the lack of gap control and tackling technique that permitted Matt Forte to grind out that aforementioned 100 yards and trio of scores.

Yes, the Bills might still have pulled out an unlikely and largely undeserved win had what turned into an apocalyptic short-yardage situation in the fourth quarter been handled in just about any other way imaginable. And maybe the whole backup-quarterback sneak, timeout, speed-back-dive-up-the-middle fiasco went exactly the way Roman drew it up.

Seems like the head coach usually has the final say on such potentially game-wrecking and possibly season-sabotaging decisions, though.

To place the blame anywhere but on Roman, though, would mean Rex Ryan diving on that grenade, or at least tossing twin brother and co-defensive guru Rob in that general direction.

Instead, Roman -- who received ample credit for Tyrod Taylor's development from career backup to possible quarterback-of-at-least-the-immediate-future in his first season as a starter, as well as turning Buffalo's running game into the league's most productive in 2015 -- is looking for a job.

If the Ryan Boys, with the help of new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, can't figure out a way to pull at least one upset in the next two weeks (with Arizona and New England poised to double the futility level of the 0-2 Bills) they should join him.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Bills Rushing To Avoid 0-2 Start

(EDITOR'S NOTE: In an effort to pay homage to Bruce Smith, who will have his iconic No. 78 retired during tonight's home opener against the New York Jets, the editorial staff of We Want Marangi took the summer off, relaxing while the Buffalo Bills sweated under the hot sun. Since largely contact-free practices and exhibition games in which almost no one who matters come September gets much playing time bear little resemblance to the sport of American football, we don't think we missed much.

We bring this up mainly to quell rumors that one or more WWM staffers were suspended for Week 1 after testing positive for excessive levels of Kaopectate, Flinstones Chewable Vitamins and/or horse tranquilizers.)

Late one spring afternoon a few years back, a friend called, asking if I wanted a free ticket to see Bob Dylan perform that night at the University at Buffalo's Alumni Arena.

Since a few other friends were going, I accepted, but had no real expectations one way or the other. I'd heard a Dylan concert could be either a flashback to the genius that made him a legend, or a total shitshow.

However it turned out, I figured it was a chance to see one of the most influential musicians of the past century perform live, as well as a spontaneous opportunity to hang out with some buddies. But I didn't really have a strong sense how it would turn out.

That feeling, or lack thereof, returned as the Bills' season opener approached. Buffalo's 2015 campaign was, by any measure, a crashing disappointment, a letdown at least as big as any the Bills had perpetrated during their 16-season playoff-free skid.

The offseason didn't bring much more good news. Buffalo's first two draft choices, Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland, who were expected to bolster a defense largely responsible for last season's letdown, were lost to injury before the first exhibition. Then starting linebacker Manny Lawson, who reportedly had a league suspension following a domestic-violence charge looming, was cut.

Most preseason optimism hinged on the continued improvement of quarterback Tyrod Taylor, heading into his second season, and an offensive line that cleared the way for the NFL's top running attack in 2015. The only significant addition on either side of the ball still ambulatory for Opening Day was Reggie Bush, who won the Heisman Trophy 11 years ago, but hadn't done much over the past two seasons in Detroit and San Francisco.

A 1-3 exhibition record, including a shutout on each side of the ledger, didn't offer much in the way of what the regular season would bring. Still, as it always does around here, things were pretty optimistic around here, as well as among the national pundits.

Nobody sane predicted a serious challenge to New England for the AFC East title, but  contention for a wildcard berth, representing Buffalo's first playoff appearance since 1999, was a common prediction. Taylor would get better in his second season while a second full year in Ryan's system almost had to yield results on defense, the consensus held.

The defense did look improved in Baltimore, allowing Ravens runners just 3.0 yards per carry and sacking Joe Flacco four times. There was one breakdown, when Mike Wallace got behind Stephon Gilmore for a 66-yard touchdown early in the second quarter for Baltimore's lone touchdown.

As it turned out, it was the only one the Ravens needed.

One long pass, made possible by Taylor's athleticism when he escaped a sack and connected with Charles Clay for 33 yards, set up the only Bills touchdown, which came on a 1-yard LeSean McCoy fourth-down dive.

That dazzling play by Taylor turned out to be the only one he and his offense managed all day. The rest of the time, the Bills looked like they were marking time through another exhibition, failing to establish themselves on the ground or in the air.

The No. 1 rushing game of a year ago managed just 65 yards, while runners were dropped behind the line five times for 18 yards in losses. McCoy and Taylor couldn't break free, while Bush's three tries added up to four yards in reverse.

Bush's lack of impact has even led to speculation that Buffalo should consider bringing back the newly released C.J. Spiller.

Other than the hookup with Clay, Taylor completed 14 of 21 passes, which would be good numbers if those completions had added up to at least double the 78 yards they covered. Under pressure much of the day, Taylor's willingness, and ability, to throw deep marked his first year as the starter, but on Sunday, he resorted to the sort of quick, safe dump-offs that earned Trent Edwards the "Captain Checkdown" nickname during his largely forgettable stint in Buffalo.

Taylor's offense did nothing after entering the fourth quarter trailing by three, going three-and-out on its final three possessions, while the defense wore down enough to let Baltimore hold the ball for nearly 12 minutes in the fourth quarter, including the game's final 4:29, while tacking on an insurance field goal.

Buffalo's familiar-but-allegedly-improved attack wasn't any more effective earlier, failing to do anything after a huge break, when a botched shotgun snap created the game's lone turnover, setting the Bills up at Baltimore's 47-yard line midway through the first quarter. Three snaps and four yards later, Buffalo punted.

The seven points the Bills managed were the fewest scored by any team Sunday. Only the once-again-Los Angeles Rams accomplished less, getting blanked by San Francisco during the Monday-night finale.

Back to that Dylan concert. That night, the old man and his band killed it. Raw and bluesy, they were the best bar band you could want to hear.

But then, non-existent expectations are easy to exceed. Somehow, on Sunday, the Bills failed to do even that.

Which, of course, leaves them with even less to live up to tonight in front of a sold-out, likely well-lubricated crowd at newly renamed New Era Field.

The Jets started off 2016 with an even more painful loss, as Nick Folk's first career missed extra point proved the difference at home against Cincinnati. And Ryan Fitzpatrick showed why New York took its time in re-signing him, starting off this season as he ended the last one, snuffing his team's chances with a late interception.

New York's defense figures to keep Taylor under pressure, having sacked the Bengals' Andy Dalton seven times, intercepting him once. And the Jets featured new running back Matt Forte in Week 1, with the ex-Bear piling up 155 yards from scrimmage on 27 touches.

All of which gives tonight's game extraordinary importance for a mid-September contest. Maybe Taylor will resume arcing long throws to Sammy Watkins, McCoy will prove as elusive to the Jets defense as he was to the Philadelphia police who wanted him charged after an offseason bar brawl, and New York's quarterback will again Fitz all over the turf in Orchard Park.

If not, it might be tough to not start thinking about expectations for 2017.


One thing about tonight's home opener is certain.

The Bills' uniforms, imposed by the NFL's Color Rush mandate, will be heinous. All-any-color duds make professional teams resemble high-school squads, with Buffalo's red pajamas particularly painful to watch.

Mercifully, the league is not forcing the Jets to don the all-green unis that, in combination with the Bills, particularly tortured colorblind viewers last November. If aesthetics mattered to the league office as much as selling more officially licensed jerseys (SPOILER ALERT: They don't), it would have dressed Buffalo in white, since the Bills' white-on-white combo might be the sharpest get-up in the game, especially when topped with the throwback standing Buffalo helmets.


This being America and all, WWM believes those who have spent a remarkable amount of time on social media raging about Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand during the pre-game playing of the national anthem, as well as an increasing number of his peers offering similar protest, are every bit as entitled to their opinions as the second-string San Francisco quarterback and his like-minded colleagues are to theirs.

It was interesting, though, to note that only two people out of about 20 in the room where we watched the first half of Buffalo v. Baltimore stood during "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- and to be fair, we were already on our feet -- and only one of us took off his baseball cap.

(ANOTHER EDITOR'S NOTE: If you're the type who likes to fill the gaps between actual action during an NFL telecast, you can always follow @davidstaba on the Twitter for WWM-style semi-informed commentary and gratuitous cheap shots.)

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Loss Generation

Sixteen Years of Mediocrity Produce Few Football Memories

(Note: In keeping with longstanding policy, We Want Marangi does not publish the last names of Buffalo Bills fans, believing that they suffer enough regret and shame without enduring public humiliation, as well.)

Tyler is 22. He grew up somewhere between Buffalo and Rochester (WWM is also keeping his precise location undisclosed, for the reasons cited above). A three-sport athlete in high school, he’s been a Bills fan as long as he can remember.

What he can’t recall, though, is much of anything his team has done right during that span. He was an infant when Buffalo reached its fourth straight Super Bowl. He has no memory of The Music City Miracle, the Bills’ last appearance in the National Football League’s post-season, which ended with Tennessee’s Kevin Dyson catching the most infamous lateral in the game’s history and delivering it to the Buffalo end zone 75 yards away.

Since that day more than 16 years ago? To be fair, there isn’t a hell of a lot to remember.

Asked for the high point of his fandom, the game he remembers most, Tyler has to think about it. And think about it. Finally, he comes up with one.

“That time they blew out New England in the season opener,” he says. “What was that, 2008?”

His team’s recent history has been so bleak, even the relatively vivid memories are vague. The only time anything like that has happened this millenium was in 2003, when the Bills, fortified by the game-week signing of banished Patriots safety Lawyer Malloy, dismantled New England 31-0.

A great day, to be sure. Drew Bledsoe led the Bills to touchdowns on their first two drives against his old team, while Malloy helped the defense batter Tom Brady into one of the worst games of his career. The then-26-year-old completed just 14 of his 28 passes for 123 yards, while the Bills picked off four of them. with 350-pound defensive tackle Sam Adams thundered 37 yards with one of them for a touchdown that put Buffalo ahead 21-0 in the third quarter, seemingly shattering the Patriots’ hex on the Bills, then just three seasons old, in the process.

Satisfying as it may have been, though, it was only the first game of a long season. The next one went pretty well, too, as Buffalo drilled Jacksonville – then a perennial AFC contender, believe it or not – 38-14 to inspire Super Bowl talk both locally and nationally.

Highly premature Super Bowl talk, as it turned out. Bledsoe and the Bills went 3-11 from there, getting obliterated by New England in the finale by a highly appropriate score – 31-0.

That Tyler’s best memory of his team stems from an ultimately meaningless game pretty well sums up his generation’s experience with the Bills. But at least it was directly football-related.

Jackie, age 24, has to go back even further for her high point as a Bills fan, to Dec. 1, 2002, when the Bills beat the Dolphins 38-21 on their way to an 8-8 finish (which, it should be noted, is the second-best record the franchise has posted during its playoff exile).

Not because Bledsoe threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns, or because Travis Henry ran for 151 yards long before embarking on a less-successful career as a drug trafficker and deadbeat dad, or even because Buffalo won despite a career-best 227-yard rushing day by Miami’s Ricky Williams. The game is indelible for Jackie (and she’s not alone – it’s the only 21st-century contest on the list of most-memorable Bills-Dolphins game compiled by because of the steady, heavy snowfall that led it to be dubbed “The Snow Globe Game.”

“I just remember the whole crowd singing, ‘Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow,” she says.

Her friend Nevada, 23, cites a more recent Buffalo-Miami clash, the Bills’ 19-14 win on Nov. 15, 2012. Not that it had much significance for either franchise, but because it was the first Thursday night home game played at Ralph Wilson Stadium (for the record, the Bills were technically the home team against the Jets in a 2009 Thursday-nighter at Rogers Centre, but UFR refuses to officially acknowledge that the whole Toronto debacle ever occurred).

It’s a pretty stark contrast with their peers around the league. Take the combatants in last Sunday’s Super Bowl. You’re forgiven if you’ve already forgotten a game overshadowed by whatever that was at halftime and Peyton Manning’s post-game focus on his endorsements and business holdings, but the Wade Phillips’ defense won 24-10, with Manning and the Denver offense largely staying out of the way.

So the Broncos have made two Super Bowl appearances in the last three years, along with seven other playoff appearances since the Bills made it to the NFL tournament. The Panthers, who didn’t exist when Buffalo lost its fourth straight Super Bowl, have also gotten there twice during the Bills’ non-playoff skid.
None of which is nearly as galling to the local faithful as the Patriots and their dominant run -- six Super Bowl berths, four Lombardi Trophies and 12 playoff appearances in the last 14 seasons.

Buffalo fans over 30 can relate, if bitterly. They remember their team going to the Super Bowl four straight years and reaching the playoffs six times in a row, eight out of nine and 10 out of 12 from 1988-99, as well as the big regular-season wins that got them there.

If you fall in an older demographic, you might also recall Jim Kelly getting motorcaded to training camp in Fredonia. Or Joe Cribbs jumping to the USFL, then returning. Or the 1980-81 playoff teams who inspired an incredibly cheesy theme song. Or the years when O.J. Simpson was known solely as the best football player on the planet.

Those who sat in War Memorial Stadium have Jack Kemp, Cookie Gilchrist, Elbert Dubenion and the most dominant defense the American Football League ever produced, along with two league titles, to look back on with fond nostalgia.

Tyler’s generation, meanwhile, remembers weather and the calendar. And Bledsoe and J.P. Losman and C.J. Spiller. And, of course, the sprawling pre-game tailgate party that has kept the stadium in Orchard Park sold out through most of this bleak era, despite widespread harrumphing from some older scolds among the fan base.

“Any home game at the Ralph is awesome,” says 21-year-old Austin.

Even slightly older Buffalo fans have some memory of Bills games that mattered, even if they’re not the most pleasant.

Josh, now 28, was 12 years old and grounded, due to some infraction lost to the ages, and therefore forced to watch Buffalo’s Jan. 8, 2000 visit to Nashville on a 4x4-inch black-and-white television in his bedroom. When Steve Christie’s 41-yard field goal pushed the Bills ahead of the Titans with 16 seconds remaining, he made a break for it.

“I came running out of my bedroom, yelling, ‘Oh my God, they won!’ I got yelled at by my dad, ‘Get back in there – you’re going to jinx them!’ Before I could, the Music City Miracle happens. He’s blamed me for it ever since.”

Maybe a traumatic memory is better than none at all.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

'The Precision Jack-Hammer Attack:' A Hunter S. Thompson Super Bowl Reader

(It's Super Bowl Sunday, which means it is time for We Want Marangi's annual re-posting of our look at Hunter S. Thompson's thoughts on one of the most uniquely American institutions, first published in February 2013.)

Hunter S. Thompson wrote about a lot of things -- bikers, bluegrass, police corruption, high-powered weaponry and horse racing, to name a few.

Mostly, and most successfully, though, he wrote about politics and football. At his best, both at the same time.

In particular, presidential elections and Super Bowls were his twin inspirations, regularly scheduled events that embodied what he hated and loved about America and Americans. Even his suicide note was entitled "Football Season is Over."

I'm not going to try to write about his writing here, because doing so would be an exercise in ego and pointlessness, other than to introduce a few of my favorite passages you can enjoy while, or instead of, sitting through the four-hour pre-game show leading up to the epic struggle between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers. It's got to beat getting force-fed yet another fond farewell to Ray Lewis and further exploration of the brotherly love shared by the Harbaughs.

As a recovering sportswriter, I've never read an analysis that captures the profession's spirit, or lack thereof, as this bit from Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, a collection of Thompson's Rolling Stone articles on Richard M. Nixon's final run for office:

There is a dangerous kind of simple-minded Power/Precision worship at the root of the massive fascination with pro football in this country, and sportswriters are mainly responsible for it. With a few rare exceptions like Bob Lypstye of The New York Times and Tom Quinn of the (now-defunct) Washington Daily News, sportswriters are a kind of rude and brainless subculture of fascist drunks whose only real function is to publicize & sell whatever the sports editor sends them out to cover. . .

Which is a nice way to make a living, because it keeps a man busy and requires no thought at all. The two keys to success as a sportswriter are: (1) A blind willingness to believe anything you're told by the coaches, flacks, hustlers, and other "official spokesmen" for the team-owners who provide the free booze. . . and: (2) A Roget's Thesaurus, in order to avoid using the same verbs and adjectives twice in the same paragraph.

Even a sports editor, for instance, might notice something wrong with a lead that said: "The precision-jackhammer attack of the Miami Dolphins stomped the balls off the Washington Redskins today by stomping and hammering with one precise jackthrust after another up the middle, mixed with pinpoint precision passes into the flat and numerous hammer-jack stomps around both ends. . ."

Right. And there was the genius of Grantland Rice. He carried a pocket thesaurus, so that "The thundering hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen" never echoed more than once in the same paragraph, and the "Granite-grey sky" in his lead was a "cold dark dusk" in the last lonely line of his heart-rending, nerve-ripping stories. . .

There was a time, about ten years ago, when I could write like Grantland Rice. Not necessarily because I believed all that sporty bullshit, but because sportswriting was the only thing I could do that anybody was willing to pay for.

A few paragraphs earlier, Thompson served up a brutal parody of every hack who ever filed a game story (present company included):

They came together on a hot afternoon in Los Angeles, howling and clawing at each other like wild beasts in heat. Under a brown California sky, the fierceness of their struggle brought tears to the eyes of 90,000 God-fearing fans.

They were twenty-two men who were somehow more than men.

They were giants, idols, titans. . .


They stood for everything Good and True and Right in the American Spirit.

Because they had guts.

And they yearned for the Ultimate Glory, the Great Prize, the Final Fruits of a long and vicious campaign.

Victory in the Super Bowl: $15,000 each.

They were hungry for it. They were thirsty. For twenty long weeks, from August through December, they had struggled to reach this Pinnacle. . . and when dawn lit the beaches of Southern California on that fateful Sunday morning in January, they were ready.

To seize the Final Fruit.

They could almost taste it. The smell was stronger than a ton of rotten mangoes.

Their nerves burned like open sores on a dog's neck. White knuckles. Wild eyes. Strange fluid welled up in their throats, with a taste far sharper than bile.


Those who went early said the pre-game tension was almost unbearable. By noon, many fans were weeping openly, for no apparent reason. Others wrung their hands or gnawed on the necks of pop bottles, trying to stay calm. Many fist-fights were reported in the public urinals. Nervous ushers roamed up and down the aisles, confiscating alcoholic beverages and occasionally grappling with drunkards. Gangs of Seconal-crazed teenagers prowled through the parking lot outside the stadium, beating the mortal shit out of luckless stragglers. . .

A year later, Thompson referred back to the 'The precision-jackhamer attack of the Miami Dolphins ...' lede in a lengthy Rolling Stone piece entitled "Fear And Loathing At The Super Bowl: No Rest For The Wretched." Gonzo Journalism at its finest, Thompson blends his thoughts on Watergate, labor relations and fortune-telling with a mini-profile of Oakland Raiders strongman Al Davis, trademark accounts of substance abuse and a pre-dawn sermon based on Revelations 20:15 from the 20th-floor balcony of his hotel.

As in the best of Thompson's work, he cuts the psychedelia and free-form association with some remarkably precise description of the physical and psychic impact of Miami wide receiver Paul Warfield:

This was what happened in Houston with the Dolphins' Paul Warfield, widely regarded as "the most dangerous pass receiver in pro football." Warfield is a game-breaker, a man who commands double-coverage at all times because of his antelope running style, twin magnets for hands, and a weird kind of adrenaline instinct that feeds on tension and high pressure. There is no more beautiful sight in football than watching Paul Warfield float out of the backfield on a sort of angle-streak pattern right into the heart of a "perfect" zone defense and take a softly thrown pass on his hip, without even seeming to notice the arrival of the ball, and then float another 60 yards into the end zone, with none of the frustrated defensive backs ever touching him.

There is an eerie kind of certainty about Warfield's style that is far more demoralizing than just another six points on the Scoreboard. About half the time he looks bored and lazy -- but even the best pass defenders in the league know, in some nervous corner of their hearts, that when the deal goes down Warfield is capable of streaking right past them like they didn't exist. . .

Unless he's hurt; playing with some kind of injury that might or might not be serious enough to either slow him down or gimp the fiendish concentration that makes him so dangerous. . . and this was the possibility that Dolphin coach Don Shula raised on Wednesday when he announced that Warfield had pulled a leg muscle in practice that afternoon and might not play on Sunday.

This news caused instant action in gambling circles. Even big-time bookies, whose underground information on these things is usually as good as Pete Rozelle's, took Shula's announcement seriously enough to cut the spread down from seven to six-- a decision worth many millions of betting dollars if the game turned out to be close.

Even the rumor of an injury to Warfield was worth one point (and even two, with some bookies I was never able to locate). . . and if Shula had announced on Saturday that Paul was definitely not going to play, the spread would probably have dropped to four, or even three. . . Because the guaranteed absence of Warfield would have taken a great psychological load off the minds of Minnesota's defensive backs.

Without the ever-present likelihood of a game-breaking "bomb" at any moment, they could focus down much tighter on stopping Miami's brutal running game -- which eventually destroyed them, just as it had destroyed Oakland's nut-cutting defense two weeks earlier, and one of the main reasons why the Vikings failed to stop the Dolphins on the ground was the constant presence of Paul Warfield in his customary wide-receiver's spot.

He played almost the whole game, never showing any sign of injury; and although he caught only one pass, he neutralized two Minnesota defensive backs on every play. . . and two extra tacklers on the line of scrimmage might have made a hell of a difference in that embarrassingly decisive first quarter when Miami twice drove what might as well have been the whole length of the field to score 14 quick points and crack the Vikings' confidence just as harshly as they had cracked the Redskins out in Los Angeles a year earlier.

The above represents Thompson at the peak of his powers, the writer who produced Hells AngelsFear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved." Over the three decades before his suicide (for which I remain pissed at him), his genius unraveled, whether due to fame, wealth, drugs, the internal victory of cynicism over hope for his country, or a swirl of all four.

But the Super Bowl remained his personal Holy Day, and he could still reach back and find the groove when writing about it.

Whoops. Strike that. Leeches are not rodents. They are blood-sucking members of the Hirudinea family, a sub-species of the hermaphroditic sucker-worm that is frequently applied to headache-victims and other human wounds. Leeches used in human treatment range in size from three inches to 13 inches when fully bloated. They have two ugly mouths, one on each end, filled with tiny, razor-sharp teeth by which they attach themselves firmly to the flesh, prior to sucking. The leech has many eyes.

The Oakland Raiders are the only team in football that still routinely uses leeches for treatment of serious injuries. It is an old-timey medicine, deriving no doubt from the team's Bay Area roots, with its powerful Italian community and its many neighborhood grocery stores and exotic foreign delicacies, along with sausage, fresh fish and leeches ... I have many fond memories of hanging out in North Beach at elegant Italian restaurants with Raiders players in the good old days of yesteryear, when the silver-and-black dynasty was just getting started, long before they turned into the gigantic, high-powered winning machine that they are today.

Things were different in those years, but they were never dull. Every game was a terrifying adventure, win or lose, and the Raiders of the '70s usually won -- except in Pittsburgh, where cruel things happened and many dreams died horribly. You could see the early beginnings of what would evolve into the massive Raider Nation, which is beyond doubt the sleaziest and rudest and most sinister mob of thugs and whackos ever assembled in such numbers under a single "roof," so to speak, anywhere in the English-speaking world. No doubt there are other profoundly disagreeable cults that meet from time to time in most of the 50 states ...

But so what? There is nothing more to say. I have obviously made my decision about the Raiders. They are simply a better football team than the Buccaneers, and they will win. A realistic line for this game would be 10 or 11, but right now it is hovering around 5 or 6.

For all Thompson's gifts, football prognostication was not one of them. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers stomped the balls off the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, 48-21.

(NOTE: If, for some reason, you do not already own The Great Shark Hunt, an anthology of the first and best two decades of Thompson's writing career which includes the full articles from which the first two passages above are lifted, you can do so here. For only $11.87, for God's sake. Or, if you are a lazy and/or cheap bastard, you can get the whole thing in .pdf form here.)