Dear Flem: Lamenting the Bills

12/30/2008 - Buffalo Bills

In the crazy, topsy-turvy world of the NFL, sometimes fans just need someone to talk to. So once a week Mag senior writer David Fleming will exchange emails with one lucky (we think) reader. If you'd like to have an email exchange with Flem, click here and pour your pigskin heart out. Go ahead, Flem's listening. And be sure to check out the weekly Flem File on Page 2 tomorrow and every Wednesday.

Dear Flem:
I'm old enough to know better. I have three happy, healthy children, with a fourth arriving any day now. I married a beautiful woman, have had a rewarding career, heard some great bands, seen some wonderful movies, enjoyed the company of loving friends and family. Heck, my cat even likes me; she's curled up at my feet, purring as I finish pounding out this plea for help. So, why am I here in this dark place again, hating myself for caring so deeply about the fading fortunes of these 53 mercenaries who are Buffalo in name only? Will I ever grow out of this, or is this a redeeming sign of my humanity and capacity for empathy? There has to be some good that comes out of all this heartache I get from the Buffalo Bills. There has to be.

— Bob Chase, a new father and lifelong Bills fan.

FLEM: On behalf of the multitude of Bills fans who have been emailing me for help in the last few weeks: Go ahead, Bob—and all of Buffalo—I'm listening.

BOB: I thought I was past this. I thought I had matured, seasoned, found purpose and meaning in the daily trials and tribulations, the joys and victories of my own life. And then the Jets game happened, the "Miracle at the Meadowlands," proving me wrong, so very wrong. Why do I do this to myself? I had a healthy adult attitude about the proper place of football for the better part of that game. In fact, I was wrapping Christmas presents with the rest of the family, a laudable task by anyone's definition. Sure, I pulled the kitchen table into the living room so I could have a better view of the TV and the Bills game, but I was participating, interacting, actively pursuing life. Living, not merely spectating.

Then the Jets sliced through the run-for-the-bus Bills defense with a pair of 70-yard drives ending in touchdowns in the first quarter, and the rout was on. And I was OK with that. It wasn't completely unexpected; the local sports columnist asked in Sunday morning's paper how any self-respecting Bills fan could possibly sit there and watch Buffalo phone this one in when there was so much to do to get ready for Christmas. Me, I congratulated myself for managing to do both.

The Bills scored on consecutive drives late in the second quarter to take a 17-14 lead, and that was OK too. There were many presents to wrap, and it wouldn't hurt to have something mildly interesting on while we were plowing through them. Besides, there was plenty of time to choke.

And then that team, that cursed team, pulled me back in like it had some many times before. The defense stiffened, refusing to yield to Feel-Good Favre. Marshawn Lynch ran like a steam locomotive, slicing through the Jets like a Southtowns snowplow. The Bills took the lead on an 11-yard Fred Jackson grind through the center of the New York defense and a win was within our grasp.

See. There I go again. "Our" grasp. I should know better.

I've lived through so much heartache in my 41 years as a Buffalo fan, forced to grasp onto the most meager scraps as the rewards of my fandom. The Super Bowl losses weren't the only burdens we've had to carry; for me, it started the year I was born, 1967, with Buffalo losing to Kansas City in the AFL Championship on New Year's Day and missing the opportunity to play in the very first Super Bowl.

It continued with the 20-game losing streak to Miami that lasted the better part of the 1970s; Dan Fouts to Ron Smith for 50 yards with 2:06 to go for the loss to San Diego in the 1980 playoffs; three-time Pro Bowl running back Joe Cribbs leaving town to play for the USFL's Birmingham Stallions; Jim Kelly snubbing Buffalo to start his career with the Houston Gamblers; Wide Right; "Where's My Helmet?"; Ken Norton, Jr. leaping over the offensive line to crash into Jim Kelly's knee in SB XXVII; the Music City Miracle; the nine-points-in-20-seconds choke to Dallas on Monday Night Football last year; the first-win-for-Brady-Quinn debacle against Cleveland on Monday Night Football this year.

FLEM: Okay, wait, stop. I don't know how you did it, but now I'm depressed, too. Here are my two favorite Buffalo stories: 1) I covered a game there once where I left my hotel under sunny blue skies and 20 minutes later had to adbandon my rental car on the side of the highway in the middle of a complete white-out blizzard; and, 2) Jim Kelly and I once spent most of our interview discussing Sammy Hagar's version of Van Halen.

BOB: See, Flem, I should be prepared for the worst. But there's something about that blue and red that keeps me coming back for more. We had the ball with four minutes and change to go against the Jets, and Marshawn was tearing up the fourth-ranked running defense in the league. Four yards, then five, then three, then five more. Huge chunks of time were gouged off the clock while the Jets preserved their timeouts in the unlikely event their defense could manage a stop, any kind of stop. And then the play.

I needn't rehash it for you. Surely, you've seen it a dozen times, maybe more, and smiled and shook your head. Let's just say that the moment I saw The Quarterback Who Shall Not Be Named rolling to the right, I leapt five feet straight up off the couch. And once the ball came loose, there was never a doubt that a Jet would recover it. The fact that it was returned for a touchdown was a blessing, a quick, clean hit not unlike a Soprano rub-out to the back of the head.

When it happened, I lost my sense of place for a moment, and three times screamed the word that all parents of preschoolers are forbidden to utter in front of their children: "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!"

FLEM: We've never done a one-answer Dear Flem but this one is good enough to qualify. But I wonder, why, for the last 40 years have you kept coming back to this team? Is it location? Family? Hope? A certain memory or feeling? What?

BOB: I really think we Buffalo fans—and devoted, lifelong fans of any sports team, college or pro—keep coming back to their teams no matter how lousy, pathetic and heartbreaking it can be year after year because of family and a sense of belonging. Watching football was a way for me to connect with my Dad and spend time with him. Some families go fishing together, some collect stamps and baseball cards, some explore caves, some go bird-watching. Our family? My Dad and I played catch on the sidewalk in front of our house, we went to the lumberyard to buy supplies for the latest do-it-yourself home improvement project and we watched Buffalo Bills football together.

FLEM: Well, how appropriate, then, that you wrote these answers while in the hospital after the birth of your son, David Christopher. (And I'm touched that you'd name him after me. Thanks.) Seriously, what a wonderful gift for you and your family. Congratulations.

BOB: Football was among the first "adult" conversations I was able to have with my own dad. When I was growing up, could I have carried on a conversation with my Dad about the Watergate tapes? The Munich Olympics? Three Mile Island? The Iran Hostages? No way. But we could talk as equals about a balletic Bobby Chandler catch at the back of the end zone or a deviously wonderful Conrad Dobler cheap shot after the whistle. Watching football with my Dad was the first time I felt like a grown-up.

FLEM: And why is it so strong with Buffalo fans? Most of the guys I play hockey with down here near Charlotte are all originally from Buffalo. They all have two things in common: they are all great, laid-back, hard working dudes who always have your back and, I swear, they all practically get choked up every time we start talking about the Bills.

BOB: Basically, I see the connection between the Buffalo Bills and their fans as this: If you've lived or grown up in this community in the past 40 years, your life has probably changed a great deal, but the Bills have been the one constant you can count on. Like many cities in the Northeast, the economy here is transforming from one primarily focused on manufacturing and "rust belt" industry into high-tech and other "information economy" enterprises. We know the change is good for us, and we will emerge stronger than ever when the transformation is complete, but the change is painful nonetheless.

People have been forced to alter the way they think about everything: jobs in the trades were plentiful here 40 years ago, and you could get by with a high school education, but jobs in an information economy require at least some post-high school work if not a college degree. You may not be able to stay at the same job your entire career, and even if you do, there probably isn't the a comfortable pension for you at the end of the road like your parents got.

But the Bills? We have had one owner; home games have been played in the same stadium for 35 years; I can park in the same gravel lot off Abbott Road, the one only a few of us old timers knows about; I can hate the Miami Dolphins at an otherwise unacceptable decibel level like I always have. Yes, as Jerry Seinfeld puts it, we're all rooting for laundry. But we're rooting for our laundry, our fathers' laundry and our grandfathers' laundry.

FLEM: Understanding that, what happens to this franchise in the next ten years? Is it headed for Toronto? I always said, if the Browns could leave Cleveland then no one's franchise is safe.

BOB: There are two ways of looking at the Bills post-Ralph Wilson. Logic would say there's no way the Bills will stay in Buffalo. There are too many greener pastures elsewhere, and Toronto is just one of them. By my count, there are 21 television markets in the U.S. larger than Buffalo that don't have an NFL team, with Los Angeles chief among them. What community wouldn't want a franchise in the most successful sports league in North America? What about Las Vegas? Portland? How about putting a team in Detroit? Whoops, sorry Detroit.

If you let your heart lead the way, though, anything is possible. Ralph has been tight-lipped about his vision for the Bills once he departs this mortal coil, which could mean (A) he has no plan because it's not his problem once he's gone; (B) he has a plan, but it would break our hearts; or (C) he has a brilliant, delightful surprise in store for us all that he wants to keep secret, like he's some kind of latter-day Willy Wonka.

I think there's hope for the Bills staying in Buffalo. Green Bay is in the smallest market by far, yet they've found considerable success in the salary cap era. And there are plenty of logical arguments against these larger markets taking our team. Both Al Davis and Georgia Frontiere moved teams out of Los Angeles, and the NFL has struggled for years to find adequate real estate for a stadium there.

Let me just say this: Ralph could have uprooted this team any time he wanted at a time when there were far more suitors for NFL franchises than there are today, and he kept the Bills here. Ralph is a Detroit guy with no pre-existing ties to this area, but he's invested in the franchise and contributed much to this community in ways that go far beyond football.

I'm Fox Mulder on this one, Flem. I want to believe in Ralph, and I want to believe the Bills will stay.

FLEM: I think the decision to keep Dick Jauron, if that is the case, is actually smart. Too many teams cut bait too early, fire the coach and start over, not realizing that the minute you do that it takes a new coach, new scouts and new players 2-3 more years to get up to speed.

BOB: If you had asked me last Sunday what I thought about Jauron, I would have said that the Bills should toss Jauron out of the plane like Indiana Jones did to that ticket taker in the blimp. Today, I'm willing to let Dick take a seat, but I don't want him piloting the team next season.

I hear what you're saying about disrupting the continuity of the team at this point, but that would only matter if we felt the team was going the right direction. It sure looked like it at the beginning of the season, when we were 5-1, but who had we beaten? Seattle (now 3-11), Jacksonville (5-9), Oakland (3-11), St. Louis (2-12) and San Diego (6-8). And our sixth win was against Kansas City (2-12). That's not exactly murderer's row there.

But it's not just the fact that we have lost this year, it's the fact that we've lost in the most excruciatingly boring ways possible. As awful as the Jets loss was, it was a vast improvement over the previous two games, where we struggled to score a field goal in each and a seven- or ten-point deficit seemed insurmountable.

Calling for the coach's head is the most clichéd reaction in the world for the disgruntled sports fan, and no coach is immune no matter how much success he's had. Yes, there were those who wanted to run Marv Levy out of town on a rail during the Super Bowl years. They were fools, of course.

Speaking of Marv, we all wanted Dick to be successful because, by all accounts, he shares many of the same attributes as Marv: smart, decent, honorable, a player's coach. As our general manager, Marv picked Jauron to be our coach, and Marv had never steered us wrong before.

The one noticeable difference between Marv and Dick is passion. Who could ever forget Marv's famous "Hey, you over-officious jerk!" tirade.

Dick hasn't demonstrated nearly any of the same passion. It's one thing to show a calm demeanor when you're winning; that would make you Tony Dungy. But when your team looks as listless as a frat brother dragged to the ballet by his girlfriend, maybe it's time to take off the headphones and yell at somebody. And if you won't do it after three years of mediocrity, maybe we should find someone who will.

FLEM: Be careful what you wish for. Coaches who yell, spit, scream and turn over tables sure are fun to watch and really make people believe they care, but I've found that players tune those guys out faster than any other kind of coach in the biz. What you really want is a guy millionaires will run through a brick wall for. I still think Jauron is that guy for Buffalo.

So, what were you wrapping when you had your Meadowlands Meltdown, anything good?

BOB: I don't want to ruin Christmas for any of my relatives, but if Billy Mays is selling it on TV at three in the morning, it has to be good, right?