Archive for January, 2013

You Owe Me: Fear & Self-Loathing in Cheektovegas

January 20, 2013

They’re playing hockey today – which is great. I’m excited, and you probably are too if you’re reading this. All the teeth gnashing you did, all the cursing of Bettman, Daly, and Fehr, the threats of never watching this league again – they were all hollow. And you kind of knew it too, didn’t you? Deep down you weren’t walking away.

The sweet day those arena gates were flung open and you got the chance to get your grubby little hands on a minipack and a Grigorenko sweater you knew you were a lost cause.

And that’s fine – despite all my rage, I acknowledged early on that the minute this hilariously needless work stoppage ended, I’d be in front of my TV like the hopeless rube that I am. Maybe not buying tickets and merchandise but definitely giving the Sabres & NHL my full attention and mindshare. And in the age of trending topics and commercial self worth determined by facebook shares and likes – that’s almost as valuable, isn’t it?

The NHL & NHLPA kissed and made up, the fans cheered and most got in line to hand over gobs of cash…as fans are wont to do. But some haven’t been as compliant. Some still aren’t completely sated and, right or wrong, made their viewpoints made

Which, in turn, brought an avalanche of scorn from those who weren’t asking for a bit more.

You think you’re OWED something? This is a BUSINESS – they owe you NOTHING was the general refrain from those doing the shaming.

Which, is generally true – the NHL and its franchises all operate as for profit institutions. The end game is making money, not playing hockey. That is reality.

The fact that this was being communicated didn’t strike me as much as the widespread ferocity in which it was delivered. It was almost as if the people asking for half priced beer or car magnets as good faith gestures were posting YouTube videos of themselves wearing Bin Laden masks and burning American flags while Norwood’s kick sailed right on a 52” in the background for all the hostility they were met with.

And it made me think about the broader context of how American sports fans behave and view themselves, say compared to their counterparts in Europe or South America.

Last weekend Manchester City of the English Premier League traveled south to London to play Arsenal. As is the norm in English soccer, a few sections of every stadium are set aside for fans of the visiting team as to not have fans of opposing sides mingle together and cause potential crowd trouble (long story – google “The English Disease”).

Similar to the Sabres variable pricing model, Arsenal also prices games based on the stature of the opponent, competition, etc… Given that Manchester City are the defending EPL champions and that away tickets are normally higher in price than home fan tickets (supply & demand) – City fans were met with a staggering per ticket cost of 62 GBP or, in US dollars, $98.36.

Incensed City fans balked at the prices and over 900 unsold tickets were returned to the Arsenal front office as an embarrassingly large swath of empty seats was displayed prominently on televisions around the globe. The ones that did come down from the north of England brought protest banners and chants with them, winning the sympathy of not only fan groups across the UK but a game official who persuaded the Manchester City players to jog over to the away end and thank the fans for dishing out so much cash.

Think about that story – can you ever conceive of that happening in Buffalo? It’s absurd, isn’t it? The thought of Drew Stafford glumly skating over to the bench after a dull 2-1 Wednesday night loss to Winnipeg or Washington and thanking fans by the railings for having to plunk down the cost of a pretty damn nice meal at the Chop House to see what amounted to the hockey version of the dollar menu.

Can you ever imagine Sabres fans in the 100s unfurling banners reading “$180? WHERE DOES IT STOP?” WGR drive time show hosts clucking their tongues sympathetically at the extortionist nature of modern pro sports and exhorting listeners to action.

But that doesn’t happen here. Behind the high ticket prices, threat of relocation if public funds aren’t handed over and general disregard for those who make the whole system work lies this sentiment: “You’re lucky to have us“.

And the response, nearly universally from the great unwashed is nearly always “Yes, we know!”

Sports are a game – they’re entertainment; in the grand scheme they don’t mean anything of any true substance (or so I’ve been told). And, if, as a society this is how we want things to be that’s fine.

But it’s interesting to note that in the wake of this fiasco reaching a non-season killing resolution, the first scarlet letters handed out post-lockout weren’t to the perpetrators, but to those who wouldn’t let the frustration of the work stoppage die.

Collectivist action just isn’t in our bones as Americans – for a nation that has prided itself on protest, modern sports fandom across the four majors seems to be a nervy game of musical chairs – no one wants to speak up or walk out in fears of the next guy on the season ticket waiting list taking your spot and effectively erasing your relevance to the team. Or worse – being called out for not being a REAL FAN.

Which, of course, all plays into the math the NHL and NHLPA literally bank on: that you can’t say no. That no matter what kind of farce they make of the game you love and fund, that you’d sooner trample the guy in the row below you for a ticket upgrade than EVER consider maybe talking to him about staging a meaningful protest or boycott to send the money men a lesson that what happened from October until earlier this month is NOT OK.

But, again, that’s not how we think. The first instinct is to accept the lot of ever increasing tickets, ever brazen ownership and ever shortsighted player representation. Fans – the people who genuinely hold all the cards- defeat, no, cannibalize themselves before the battle even begins.

Granted, nothing more terrible than some boring winter evenings and lean times at Cobblestone area pubs have come as a result of all this. This isn’t huge banks laundering money for cartels or drone strikes killing civilians in Pakistan. It’s hockey, it’s supposed to be a fun diversion, not the whole point.

I suppose it all comes down to what we want as a sporting society – is this all worth it? Is it still fun? Would you want anything to change?

Personally, I don’t know those answers. It’s late and the Sabres are playing tomorrow.

Re-Brandon-ing the Bills With Marrone

January 6, 2013

For the fourth time since 2004, the Buffalo Bills will soon hold a press conference introducing the newest head coach of the team.  However, for the first time in the team’s fifty three year history, they will be hiring someone directly from the college ranks, to assume control of the floundering franchise.

Syracuse University Head Coach Doug Marrone will step to the podium in the coming days and answer the probing questions of (a rightfully so) impatient and skeptical fan base, about being named the 17th head coach in Buffalo Bills history. What Marrone represents, unlike the previous men to stand behind the same podium he soon will, is tangible proof of change in the decision making process at One Bills Drive. Over the past decade-plus of upsetting mediocrity and irrelevance, the Bills decision-maker(s) have always sided with the “safe choice” when selecting a head coach- someone from the “good ole boys club” who has enjoyed brief, staggered success in previous NFL years.  Much like playing a game to not lose, the only result this tactic of coach selection has bred for the Bills- is more losing.

On the heels of the organizational hierarchy change on this past New Year’s Day, the selection of Marrone as head coach, demonstrates the change in culture new President and CEO Russ Brandon was speaking to. The sentiment of the Buffalo Bills brand being “tarnished” is not something that could have been fixed by selecting yet another retread, recently fired “safe” coach, such as Ken Wisenhunt or Lovie Smith. How does any company or business in America go about re-legitimizing their brand after a PR disaster? Typically, it’s by taking a risk, thinking unconventionally and perhaps even wincing a little bit as you pull the trigger.

In short, with the choice of Marrone as head coach, Brandon and the Bills will be wincing a little. It’s a leap of faith that his hard-nosed, meticulous approach to coaching will translate to a roster of professional men, and not just a group of college kids.  It’s a hope that his fiery, innovative ways will allow the Bills to step into the same stadium as the Patriots, and not just “hope” to play well, but expect to win. After transforming a 10-37 woebegone Syracuse Orange football program, to a culture of winning and relevancy, Marrone seems to be just the man to take over the tire fire that has been the Buffalo Bills, and clear out the “loser mentality” that seems to be hanging over Ralph Wilson Stadium like a thick, gray January snow cloud.

Who Marrone chooses to join him on his Bills staff, will be very telling. Despite his NFL experience as a position coach for the NY Jets and offensive coordinator of the Saints, will Marrone be able to re-assimilate back to the NFL game, after spending the past four years at Syracuse?  A great way to accomplish this would be to surround him with a blend of new and experienced NFL coaches that can offer varying degrees of expertise and vantage points. While Marrone will of course be calling the shots on game day, and intricately involved in game planning during the week, he must empower and lead those he tabs as coordinators and position coaches, to contribute to the team’s success. Hopefully, the days are gone of the head coach of the Bills wearing “many hats” and having their hands on one side of the ball too much (see Gailey, Mularkey, Williams, Phillips, etc). A head coach must be first and foremost, a leader of men. Focusing on this, with the attitude and accountability that Marrone showcased at Syracuse, should come naturally for the Bronx, NY native.

Since fans and media always tend to label the status of an NFL franchise with terms like “rebuilding” or “reloading”, the term that seems to fit best (especially in light of the sentiment spoken by the team’s president and CEO)  is “rebranding”. The 2013 Buffalo Bills are attempting to rebrand themselves with a different type of hierarchy, coach, and philosophy.

Only time will tell if this risk Brandon and the Bills are taking, will in turn lead to more victories. But for most Bills fans, after thirteen years of enduring incredibly meaningless and dreadful football, the very act of this type of change has to at least be met and welcomed with open minds.

Good luck Doug Marrone, Bills fans are pulling for you.

Meet Mike McCoy

January 5, 2013

The Buffalo Bills head coaching carousel is in full swing and it seems like a new name is added to the team’s list of candidates each day. New President and CEO Russ Brandon and crew have already interviewed former Cardinals Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt; Cardinals D-coordinator Ray Horton; former Bears Head Coach Lovie Smith; Syracuse Orange Head Coach Doug Marone and  Oregon Head Coach Chip Kelly. The Bills’ search committee is set to interview Broncos Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy today and with no other possible candidates announced, could potentially be the last interviewee. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the list of individuals vying to become the next head coach of this team starting with the 40 year-old McCoy.

Bio: A former quarterback who bounced around on a couple teams’ practice squads in the mid-90’s, McCoy never had much success in the NFL as a player. He joined the Carolina Panthers as an offensive assistant in 2000 and became the team’s wide receiver coach when John Fox was hired in 2001. He held multiple positions on the Panthers’ coaching staff during Fox’s tenure in Carolina before heading to Denver to become the offensive coordinator in 2009. Upon joining the Broncos McCoy was tasked with turning around an offense that just lost their starting quarterback in Jay Cutler and was left with Kyle Orton and Chris Simms.

In his first year McCoy completely remade Orton. The former Chicago Bear, whose career to that point was defined by wild inconsistency, enjoyed his best season in 2009 under McCoy. He set career highs in passing yards, touchdowns, and completion percentage on his way to leading the Broncos to an 8-7 record in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season. The next season McCoy’s offense ranked 13th overall in the league but his passing attack was seventh. Then-head coach Josh McDaniels was fired 12 games into the 2010 season after the team woefully underperformed in his second season but McCoy was kept on as the play caller when Denver brought his former boss John Fox in as head coach in 2011.

When Tim Tebow was pegged to take over as the starting quarterback six games into the 2011 season McCoy, who was known to favor a vertical attack, completely revamped his offense to tailor to Tebow’s strengths. By the end of the season the Broncos rushing attack was number one in the league and after starting the season 1-4, made the playoffs and beat the defending AFC Champion Steelers on Wild Card Weekend.

McCoy’s work in 2012 speaks for itself. The Broncos ranked second in scoring offense, fourth in yards, fifth in passing offense and own home field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs. Sure McCoy was working with the greatest quarterback of our generation in Peyton Manning this season but he maintained a balanced offensive attack with a strong rushing attack to go along with a dominant passing game.

Why he makes sense: McCoy will get knocked for his success this season because he had Manning at the helm but his experience doesn’t lie. He has thrived in pretty much every offensive setting. He operated one of the better passing attacks in the league in 2009 and 2010 with Orton as his starting QB. He rebuilt an offense to cater to Tebow’s horrible arm and created the best rushing attack in the league in 2011. He maintained a balanced attack and led a 2012 squad to offensive dominance.

With the current makeup of Bills roster McCoy could potentially turn the Bills rushing attack into one of the league’s best. No matter who takes over for Chan Gailey one of the first areas they’ll need to address is the quarterback position. The most likely scenario would see the Bills finding a stopgap like Michael Vick, Alex Smith or Matt Flynn and drafting a developmental quarterback with an early pick. Of all the candidates it wouldn’t be a stretch to say McCoy is probably the best option to find success early with an unsettled quarterback situation. His success making Orton into an above average option and getting the most out of Tebow is probably his biggest selling point. His ability to adapt to an ever-changing league should also be attractive to a fan base that had to deal with a coaching staff that redefined futility when it came to making adjustments.

Potential Coaching Staff: Eric Studesville (Offensive Coordinator), Richard Smith (Defensive Coordinator)

The Rise and Fall of Chan Gailey Part III

January 3, 2013

The third and final installment

On the eve of the 2012 season opener against the New York Jets, the city of Buffalo and the Western New York area in general were in an uproar of anticipation. What looked like an unimposing schedule and a vastly improved defense were at the forefront of a team that looked destined to enter the postseason for the first time since the Clinton Administration.  The game kicked off a little after 1:00PM and the end result would usher in the beginning of the end.

Circle back a little more than four months prior to the opener to April 27th at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. One day before the Buffalo Bills nabbed the best player on the board and filled a major need at corner with South Carolina product Stephon Gilmore. With their second pick Nix again hit a home run with Georgia offensive tackle/guard Cordy Glenn (who was projected by many to be a top 20 pick). What looked to have the promise of being one of the best team drafts in recent history fell apart at the seams with their third round pick. The Bills traded up two spots to the number 6th pick in the third and it looked like they were set to finally pick a developmental quarterback in either Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson, Arizona’s Nick Foles or Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins. The Bills front office and Gailey were rumored to be very interested in Wilson and Cousins, interviewing both during the combine and attending each pro day. Instead of investing a third rounder on a QB they could groom for at least a season or two, Nix and Gailey pulled the trigger on NC State wide receiver/kick returner T.J. Graham.

Graham was considered by many to be a 5th round talent at best and both Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay had him tabbed as a 7th rounder. Wilson on the other hand had thoroughly impressed scouts with his combine and pro day workouts and along with Cousins, was one of the stars of the Senior Bowl in Mobile, AL. Alas, Nix felt Wilson was a reach in the third. He was drafted by the Seahawks six picks later and led them to the playoffs as the full time starter this season.

For the third year in a row the Nix and Gailey neglected to take a “chance” on a quarterback (do not bring up Levi Brown, he doesn’t count) and would once again enter a season with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm.

Fast forward back to the opener in the Meadowlands. The Bills were out of the game in the first quarter, after Fitzpatrick squandered an early turnover and gift wrapped a pick to Darrelle Revis on the ensuing drive. The Jets put up 21 unanswered on their way to a 48-28 romp of the “upstart” Bills. With that, the Bills once promising 2012 season was over before it even began.

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The Rise and Fall of Chan Gailey Part II

January 2, 2013

The Second Part of a Three Part Series

Prior to his second season in control Gailey had to deal with a severely shortened postseason due to the NFL lockout. The team lost minicamps and training camp was shortened because greed once again reared its ugly face in the professional sports spectrum. The free agency period was shortened to roughly 2 and half weeks while rookies weren’t able to properly become acclimated to the league with offseason team activities and a full training camp schedule.

In the 2011 draft the Bills selected number three overall with their eyes set on drafting Auburn QB Cam Newton if he was available. Newton went first overall however and Nix and Gailey were forced to make the first rational move in recent franchise history by filling a need and snagging the best player on the board at the same time, Alabama defensive tackle Marcel Dareus. Most fans were ecstatic with the pick because Dareus was believed to be one of the most dominant defensive players in the draft. A long awaited day 1 victory after so many reaches in the past seemed to give light to what was sure to be one of the best Bills’ drafts in recent memory. The football gods may have smiled upon the emotionally battered citizens of Buffalo for the day but in Western New York the sun only shines for brief moments.

Going into the draft it was all but a guarantee the Bills would look to address the hole at quarterback with a draft class presumably deep with talent at the position. With Newton off the board Nix and Gailey did the prudent thing by filling a huge need with Dareus and set themselves up with a chance to draft a developmental QB prospect in the second. Of those still on the board sat the hero of the 2011 Rose Bowl in Andy Dalton, an athletic prospect from Nevada in Colin Kaepernick and the super talented/major head case Ryan Mallett.  Instead of picking the best player on the board and filling an enormous need by selecting Dalton Buffalo chose Aaron Williams a cornerback from Texas who projected out as a free safety in the NFL. When asked about the decision to pass on Dalton, Nix and Gailey agreed that the second pick of the second round was a reach. The Bengals, who had the next pick after the Bills nabbed Dalton and have enjoyed the spoils of consecutive playoff births in his first two years in the league as their starting quarterback. Williams on the other hand has developed into a corner that gets beat for huge yardage and scores by average receivers on a week-by-week basis.

Neglecting to grab a QB in either of the first two rounds meant Ryan Fitzpatrick was set to enter the 2011 season as the unquestioned starter for the first time in his career. The early results were indicative of a genius decision by the Bills’ brass as the team enjoyed an improbable 5-2 start with Fitzpatrick looking like a franchise quarterback in the process. Prior to a late October matchup in Toronto against the Washington Redskins, Nix showed his gratitude by paying Fitz like the signal caller the Bills have been sorely missing since Doug Flutie flew the coop for San Diego. Of course, that’s when it came apart at the seams.

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The Rise and Fall of Chan Gailey Part I

January 1, 2013

Chan Gailey’s three year run as head coach of the Buffalo Bills came to an end yesterday after the team’s third consecutive season without a winning record and 13th straight year without a playoff birth. Gailey finished with a record of 16-32 during his tenure and was cut loose after what looked to be a promising 2012 squad grossly underperformed to the tune of a 6-10 record. Examining the reasons for Gailey’s shortcomings may seem to be an exercise in futility but I’ve also been fond of George Santayana’s adage: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Gailey was anything but a popular choice when then recently hired General Manager Buddy Nix named him as his coach in January of 2010. Rumors ran rampant that Ralph Wilson was willing to dish out big money to attract a name like Shanahan, Cowher, or Gruden but in the end Nix and Wilson went with the low cost option of hiring Gailey. For a time after the dust settled on the Cowher talk and Shanahan went to the Redskins, the top candidate looked to be then-Vikings D-Coordinator Leslie Frazier. Wilson hired Gailey, Frazier stuck it out in Minnesota, was named interim head coach after Brad Childress was fired the next season and as the permanent head coach this season led an underdog team to the sixth and final NFC playoff spot on Sunday.

When Gailey signed on he didn’t have huge shoes to fill but he had an enormous task at hand, restoring hope in an exceedingly disgruntled fan base, rebuild a team that’s best player at the time arguably was Lee Evans and end a 10 year playoff drought. His first major decision as head coach was to switch to a 3-4 defense with not defined nose tackle and a linebacking corps that was one of the worst in the league. He added minor free agents in Andra Davis and Dwan Edwards in the offseason before drafting C.J. Spiller as his first pick at the helm with a stable of running backs that included former first round pick Marshawn Lynch and upstart workhorse Fred Jackson. The rest of the draft featured a slew of unheard of picks the likes of Torel Troup, Alex Carrington and Marcus Easley.

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