To be a Buffalo Bills fan is to face Decembers like this.
The Bills enter the final two weeks of the regular season with a 1 percent chance of making the playoffs. It’s not an impossible scenario, but it’s all but unlikely.
Close enough to have just a twinge of a bit of hope. But still far, far away from being a relevant NFL team.
That unlikely scenario aside, the Bills will be missing the playoffs for a 17th consecutive season. In a league driven by the notion of parity, that’s remarkable.
As another season falls apart, another coach gets fired, another QB gets replaced, there’s more talk about the team’s struggles. My pal Tyler Dunne has talked a lot about the bad play (especially at quarterback) that Bills fans have seen. Mike Lupica, writing for Sports on Earth, called the Bills one of the most dysfunctional franchise in the NFL.
There’s something about that word that doesn’t sit right with me. Dysfunctional. I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly why. I mean, when a franchise misses the playoffs for 17 consecutive years, something ain’t right.
But dysfunctional …
Words matter. They have a very specific meaning. And for me, dysfunctional doesn’t fit this franchise. Dysfunctional suggests a certain level of organizational incompetence. But the Bills regularly sell out games and are incredibly popular in our market. That has to count for something.
Also, the play on the field … it’s not dysfunctional. It’s easy to point to the playoff drought and claim you’re correct, but that’s using results to prove your point, and that feels incomplete.
Over the playoff drought, the Bills have had an average record of 6.5-9.5. Round up to 7-9, round down to 6-10. They’ve missed the playoffs by an average of 2-3 games a season. In 14 of their 17 playoff-free seasons, the Bills will have won between six and nine games. Most years, the team with the final wild card spot in the AFC won 10 games.
The Bills haven’t been dysfunctional.
They’ve been relentlessly mediocre.
One of the best things the analytics movement has taught us is that this is the worst place to be in sports. You’re not quite good enough to make the playoffs, but not bad enough to bottom out and earn top draft picks. It also fuels a relentless false optimism. When you’re two to three games short of the playoffs, it’s easy to think “one more piece and we’re there. We are so close, we just need one thing.” And that leads to chasing. It leads to plugging the dike with your fingers rather than rebuilding the whole infastructure of the damn itself.
It leads to thinking short term rather than long term.
It perpetuates to relentless mediocrity.
Let’s talk about Toronto.
For years, it was the elephant in the room in Orchard Park. The city loomed as the destination the Bills were going to move to once Ralph Wilson died. Toronto started hosting regular-season games. It felt inevitable that the Bills would move to Toronto.
This is complete conjecture on my part. I have no reporting to back this up, so please take this is as one person’s opinion. But you’ll never convince me that the Bills’ relentless mediocrity of the 2000s was in part because of the looming threat of Toronto.
If there is value in letting a team bottom out so you can rebuild, it was overshadowed in Buffalo by the looming threat of Toronto. How bad would it look for the organization to have years of bad records, of empty seats in Orchard Park, of a cold and empty stadium in a perceived cold and empty region, when a thriving international market loomed 90 minutes away? There are no doubt people in the NFL who want the Bills to leave Buffalo for greener pastures. Nothing personal, I believe, but strictly business. And if the team bottomed out and the fans bolted, that would give that faction all the power in there world to point to Buffalo and say “the time has come for a new start in a new city.”
So there was economic incentive for relentless mediocrity. If you can sell the team as always being close, there’s always hope. It might be better to bottom out. But mediocrity keeps people in the seats, keeps people coming.
Toronto’s not a threat anymore. The Pegulas bought the team two years ago (beating out Donald Trump. Remember when the biggest threat he posed was to the future of the Buffalo Bills?). And in some ways, they have a lifetime pass in Western New York. They saved the team from moving. They kept the team in Buffalo. That’s no small thing.
But now the threat is gone. Now the work has to begin.
Sports are a funny thing.
In no other enterprise would you continue to support a bad/mediocre entity. If a restaurant is bad, you don’t keep going back to it, and you certainly don’t celebrate the fact that you supported it through all the lean years of bad menus and uninterested chefs.
But sports are different. There’s a weird cultural cache in supporting a team when they stink or are just average. The worst thing you can be in sports is a “bandwagon fan,” one that only supports the team when they’re good. But again, that makes no real sense. If a restaurant becomes good, there’s no shame in wanting to go to it only because it’s good.
But sports are different. They’re more about emotion than reason. We connect to franchises on emotional levels rather than rational ones. That’s why I’ve never really gotten into soccer, because I can’t just start rooting for a team out of thin air. There’s no emotional connection, and when there’s no emotional connection, there’s no real desire to watch sports. Rooting for the Bills isn’t about a football team for me. It’s about the memories of watching Bills games at my grandparents house, of hearing Greg Bell’s 85-yard touchdown run against the Cowboys in 1984, about the Super Bowl years. It’s about calling my mom when the game is over so we can talk about it, the way my late grandpa used to call her after each game. It’s about family and shared memory and emotion
It’s emotion that keeps us rooting to a franchise when it’s bad. When it’s dysfunctional
When it’s relentlessly mediocre.