There are many names for it: optimism, promise, confidence, faith or hope. The ability to look forward to the future and know that tomorrow could be better than today and next year may be better than this. Tim Robbins may have put it best while portraying Andy Dufresne in “The Shawshank Redemption” when he said “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” It’s true, hope may be the best of things, having an optimistic outlook on life and the future gives us reason to wake up and look forward to the coming day. For fans of the Buffalo Bills, the promise of hope may have finally run out.
The decimation of hope is nothing new for fans of a franchise that was on the wrong end of the “Music City Miracle” and “Wide Right”. In it’s now 52-year existence the organization has seen the playoffs a total of 17 times and boasts an overall record of 363-413-8. They currently hold the longest playoff draught in the NFL which currently sits at 11 years and will soon enter its 12th after this season officially ends. The long-held belief throughout sports that “we’ll get ‘um next year” has been vacant from Western New York for over a decade. The feeling of camaraderie and pride in “our team” has been swayed to the other major sports franchise in town for the better part of that decade and threats of the team’s uprooting to Toronto lingers more and more on an annual basis.
When the 2011 season began the belief was that the team would show some improvement from its 4-12 finish in 2010 but still be in place to either draft a developmental franchise quarterback of the future or a left tackle to bolster an unstable offensive line. This team drastically deviated from that plan however, starting the season 4-1 with a high-powered offense that hadn’t been seen since the days of Kelly, Thomas and Reed. In the process the combination of Fitzpatrick, Jackson and a rag-tag crew of receivers staged a thrilling comeback to end a 15-game, 8-year losing streak to the hated New England Patriots. That feeling of pride and hope was, at least for a moment, reborn throughout the community. As quickly as it had come, it was just as swiftly ripped away.
When the Bills knocked off the “dream team” Eagles to hit the 4-1 mark the general feeling in Western New York should’ve been uninhibited jubilation. Although excitement mounted, there was a still a general consensus of cautious optimism throughout the fan-base. This unanimity of a vigilant approach can be circled back to the 2008-2009 season when the team reached the same plateau. To the die-hard fan this approach might’ve been seemed pessimistic and juvenile considering the fact that Trent Edwards was not the signal caller, Fred Jackson was on pace for an All-Pro year, and the defense, although filled with holes, had an uncanny knack for taking the ball away from opposing offenses in clutch situations. This team looked to be the exact opposite of an ’08 team that lacked heart and playmaking ability. This team looked poised to actually make a run at ending that league-worst playoff draught. So what happened?
The logical explanation for the Bills mid-season collapse can be attributed to an onslaught of injuries. During the team’s 7 game skid the Bills lost their heart and soul on both sides of the ball. Kyle Williams was lost for the season after the victory against the Eagles with a mysterious foot injury. Mid-season First Team All-Pro Eric Wood went down with an ACL tear running down a Ryan Fitzpatrick interception against the Cowboys and team MVP Jackson was lost in the embarrassing defeat to the Dolphins. It would make sense that losing your top three players would undoubtedly lead to a downfall but their collective loss exposes a much bigger issue that this organization has dealt with for the better part of the last decade.
Since the beginning of the new millennium and the start of the worst stretch in the organization’s history, the Bills have displayed an unprecedented ineptitude for finding sufficient talent in the NFL draft and free agency. Sure they made a few splashes with trades for Drew Bledsoe and Takeo Spikes and free agent acquisitions like London Fletcher, Sam Adams and Terrell Owens, but their complete ineffectiveness for finding talent in the draft has left the organization almost barren of talent.
Let’s take a look at the 2010 draft for a reference point. Buddy Nix’s first attempt at rebuilding resulted in the likes of CJ Spiller, Torell Troup, Alex Carrington, Marcus Easley, Ed Wang, Arthur Moats, Danny Batten, Levi Brown and Kyle Calloway. While it may be too early to judge Nix’s first draft class, the early signs are anything but encouraging. Of the nine picks, six remain on the current roster and with the exception of Spiller none have made much of an impact. Troup has had difficulty staying on the field, battling multiple injuries including a foot and back injury that made him a complete nonfactor in 2011. Carrington on the other hand has shown extremely brief glimpses of capability. At times it looks like he’s able to get into the backfield and put pressure on the quarterback but only has two career sacks to show for it. He has proved to be somewhat valuable on special teams with a blocked field goal and extra point this season. Easley has never seen a regular season down in the NFL, due in part to a heart condition that sidelined him for all of 2011. Moats seemed like he had some talent after effectively ending Brett Favre’s record consecutive starts streak and becoming somewhat of a presence in opposing backfields. He did however take a step back in his sophomore campaign, showing a lack of explosiveness with increased playing time this past season. Batten lost his whole rookie campaign to injury and didn’t show much when given a chance this season. Wang, Brown and Calloway are all out of the NFL.
Nix’s insistence on building a competitive team through the draft while avoiding costly free agents would seem like a massive failure after his first attempt. Spiller of course is the determining factor however. After a horrendous rookie season that barely saw the former Clemson Tiger on the field, Spiller proved that his explosiveness wasn’t a fallacy. Spiller showed tremendous explosiveness when given a chance after Jackson went down and restored some semblance of hope for Nix’s first class.
When it’s all said in done though, the Bills did what they’ve been doing for the last 12 years. They got our collective hopes up and before we knew it, they dashed any semblance of hope. To say that 2012 is a make-or-break offseason for the Buffalo Bills may be the understatement of the century but it’s also become second nature rhetoric to a demoralized fan base. In his post season press conference Nix let it be known that the front office would dull out some sort of cash in the free agent market to fill the multiple holes on both sides of the ball but to Bills fans it’s getting to the point where these empty promises mean nothing. As a diehard Bills fan for my 25+ years of existence on this blue marble, the doomsday clock has hit one minute to midnight and its put up or shut up time for this franchise.