Saturday, January 9, 2016

It Can Always Be Worse

Ryan's Promises Proved Empty, But 8-8 Allows For Schadenfreude

The 2015 Buffalo Bills were far from the worst bunch to wear the franchise’s various uniforms during its extended exile from the National Football League’s annual postseason tournament.

The 8-8 record compiled during Rex Ryan’s first season in Buffalo ties this year’s model with the 2000 and 2002 editions for the second-best ledger during the 16 seasons since the Bills chased Kevin Dyson into the end zone in Nashville to end their most recent playoff appearance. Admittedly, that’s a pretty low bar, since Buffalo has failed to win more than nine games in one season during that stretch, finishing under .500 a dozen times.

And despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth by fans, particularly those with disposable time to spend on social media (where declaring almost anything the best or worst EVER has become a requirement) during the holiday season, it fails to qualify as the most disappointing campaign during that span, either.

That dishonor is shared, more or less equally, depending on your taste, by:

2003—After destroying the then-much-less-hated New England Patriots 31-0 to open the season and trouncing Jacksonville a week later to inspire national “are the Bills Super Bowl contenders?” discussion, they snuffed such talk by going 3-11 the rest of the way as the never-nimble Drew Bledsoe fully fossilized, guiding a steadily disintegrating offense to a shade over 12 points per game in the process. The 1971 Bills, who get this vote as the worst team in franchise history, averaged 13.1 on the way to a 1-13 mark.

2004—The Bills, and Bledsoe, aided by the emergence of Willis McGahee and an inordinate amount of defensive and special-teams touchdowns (nine), got as close as Buffalo has gotten to playing January games that matter this century. Needing only to get by Pittsburgh, which had already clinched home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs and rested just about everyone anyone had ever heard of, the Bills gave away the lead in the fourth quarter and lost 26-24 to a team quarterbacked by a sixth-stringer named Brian St. Pierre, even though he misfired on the only pass he threw—his last in the NFL until 2009.

2014—After their defense—one of the league’s best in just about every important statistical category—throttled Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay in their 14th game, the Bills had but to beat 2-12 Oakland to set up a win-and-in situation for the finale at New England, which, like Pittsburgh a decade earlier, would have no incentive to do anything but avoid injuries. So naturally, they faltered against the Raiders, also by a 26-24 count. Also like their ancestors from 2004, these Bills finished a highly disappointing 9-7.

Expectations for this year’s Bills inflated under the power of a hype machine that started churning on January 12, the day Ryan was named the organization’s 18th head coach. The idea of Ryan, whose defenses had carried the New York Jets to the AFC title game in each of his first two seasons as their coach, taking over a team built around a defensive line with four Pro Bowl-caliber starters which had stifled some of the NFL’s best quarterbacks down the stretch in ’14, was enough in itself to get the locals more fired up than they had been in years.

Two days later, when Ryan was formally introduced at a Wednesday press conference, things got downright frenzied around here.

“I’m not going to let our fans down,” Ryan said, before making an even bolder vow regarding the team’s postseason-free era. “I know it’s been 15 years. Well, get ready. We’re going.”

Which did not seem unreasonable at the time. Kyle Orton’s below-average quarterbacking and a running game that ranked near the bottom of the NFL did at least as much to keep Buffalo out of the 2014-15 playoffs as any opponent, so it stood to reason that any improvement when the Bills had the ball would finally get them in.

Well, the offense did get better with Tyrod Taylor at the controls—particularly once he realized throwing to Sammy Watkins a lot was a pretty good idea—and LeSean McCoy, Karlos Williams and, late in the year, Mike Gillislee combining to stage the league’s most productive running game.

But Ryan’s promised bullying defense, widely considered a given heading into the season, never materialized for any length of time. Once again, the sum total was not quite good enough.

As you watch this year’s playoffs, and see teams like Houston, Washington, Minnesota and Carolina—all of which had worse records in 2014 than Buffalo—try to capitalize on their shot at reaching Super Bowl 50, you can take some small solace from this:

Things could always be worse. You could, for instance, be a fan of the Cleveland Browns. Their owner, Jimmy Haslam—whose truck-stop company paid out $92 million in fines after admitting to bilking customers out of $56 million with a fraudulent rebate scheme—just fired his third head coach and third general manager in the four seasons since buying the team. One of the candidates to be the fourth coach fired by Haslam is none other than former Bills runaway coach Doug Marrone.

The two first-round picks they got in the Sammy Watkins trade, cornerback Justin Gilbert and guard Cameron Irving, have been more spectacular busts than any Bills selection since Aaron Maybin.

And another 2014 first-rounder, Johnny Manziel, reportedly spent the weekend of the last game of his second season skulking around Las Vegas in a blond wig and fake mustache while introducing himself as “Billy” in a futile effort to avoid yet another firestorm over whether or not he actually wants to play professional football.

OK, so that’s not much in terms of consolation. But around these parts, at this time of year, being able to look down on the Browns is about as good as it gets.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

WWM Flashback: It Was Twenty (-Three) Years Ago Today

(Note: Because the members of the We Want Marangi editorial board would prefer having our fingers forcibly run across a cheese grater, then soaked in lemon juice, to rehashing last week's unsightly win over the Dallas JV or previewing today's Rex Bowl II, we decided it would be better for everyone concerned to go with a re-run. So we offer this one from the WWM archives (originally published on Jan. 3, 2013), commemorating the then-20th anniversary of what remains, in our view, the most gratifying couple of hours in Buffalo Bills history.)

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 fan 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 ESPN's recap from Jan. 3, 1993.)

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