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Not Your Average Winter Bills (Redux)

  • Mar 2, 2014
  • by
Note: I'm re-writing some of my earliest reviews from my Teams Series because they're so far from the template they eventually evolved into.

I'm from Buffalo, New York, and when football came to my personal radar, it turned out I had been born at the right time. When I was about seven years old, the Buffalo Bills began a run on which they became one of the most dominant teams in the league, and it lasted for such a long time that onlookers were thinking the Bills were finally about to shed their history as a league doormat for good. Then they went back to being a free victory, and now I scoff whenever I hear the hip, new, young commentators talk about the "once-powerful Buffalo Bills." There's a real illusion of the team's past because the Bills have had great, huge moments of such significance that they tend to overshadow everything else. Unfortunately, that "everything else" is rife with some of the most incredible losing you can imagine.

The Bills were founded in 1959 by insurance salesman and automobile heir Ralph Wilson Jr. as a charter member of the AFL. They named themselves after the old All-America Football Conference team, which was absorbed into the old Cleveland Browns when the AAFC and the NFL merged in 1950. There was no connection between those Bills and the current Bills, but the name - after Buffalo Bill Cody - proved to have staying power, so Wilson went with it. Wilson was the part-owner of the Detroit Lions, and he even had the early Bills teams dressing in their colors. The Bills went 5-8-1 in their inaugural season, and for the first few years, things only got worse. In 1961, the Bills became the only NFL team to play - and lose - a game with a CFL team, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

It wasn't long before Buffalo started stocking up on offensive talent, though, and so the 60's saw the influx of Jack Kemp, Billy Shaw, and Cookie Gilchrist and one of the most stubborn defenses in the league. In the offense-based AFL, the 1964 Bills were known as a defensive team, and they even set an impressive record when they only allowed 913 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns in the year, total. That record still stands. They also registered 50 sacks, which is still the team record. They were the first AFL team to win 13 games in a single season. In the AFL Championship, they smothered the San Diego Chargers, 20-7. That success spilled over into 1965, with the Bills beating the Chargers for their second title, shutting them out in the Championship game 23-0. In 1966, the Bills returned to the AFL Championship once more, but their opponents, the Kanas City Chiefs, were just BETTER. They beat Buffalo 31-7, but that game still stands out as a seminal moment in Bills history and is the subject of many what-could-have-been conversations among old school Bills fans. The 1966 season was the first time the AFL and NFL decided to play their league Champions against each other to see, once and for all, who was better. Today the AFL-NFL World Championship Game is known to football historians as Super Bowl I, and if Buffalo had beaten Kansas City, they would have been the AFL representative. They also would have gotten totally creamed by Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, but that's not something you should try to mention to anyone in Buffalo.

The Bills had a backup quarterback named Daryle Lamonica who was very exciting and very ambitious. Unfortunately for him, Jack Kemp was a great starting quarterback, so Lamonica was shipped to the Oakland Raiders, where he became their template. This proved to be a problem for the Bills in 1968, because Kemp got hurt and their backups at the time were so bad that the team tried to convert one of its wideouts to the position. It didn't end well. The Bills dropped to the league's worst, but hey, high draft picks, you know?

The projected star in 1969 was a gimme: USC had a Heisman man by the name of OJ Simpson, and the Bills won the right to draft him first overall in 1969. It was right in time for the merger, but not enough to help the Bills. While Simpson was able to slice and cut through defenses like nothing nothing anyone had ever seen, the Bills went 3-10-1 in their first NFL season. In 1971, they finished 1-13, scored the fewest points in the league, and allowed the most points. In 1972, they went 4-9-1. Adding to everything, the team's home, War Memorial Stadium, was falling apart and Ralph Wilson started making the first of many threats to move. 1973 was a year of real change: Ralph Wilson Stadium - then called Rich Stadium - opened, and Simpson, behind a world-class offensive line nicknamed "The Electric Company" because they "turned on The Juice," slaughtered every rushing record in the book. He ran for 2003 yards, and is still the only player to ever hit the 2000 mark in 14 games. The team won more than it lost for the next few years, but they were never really, ahem, a contender. They only made the playoffs once, with a 9-5 record, losing the wild card game to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Part of this was because the Bills spent the whole decade neatly setting a record by losing to the Miami Dolphins in 20 straight games, which is still the record for consecutive losses by one team to another. The Bills were outright bad again by the late 70's, and Simpson was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in 1977 where, his body just about murdered over the previous eight years, he played one more season before retiring.

Things were looking up again in 1980. The Bills beat the Dolphins for the first time in 11 years and won their first-ever division title. The next year, they returned to the playoffs and won a playoff game for the first time ever in their history, against the New York Jets. In the 1983 draft, they picked Jim Kelly, who quickly bolted to play for the Houston Gamblers of the USFL instead. The Bills stank up the league through the mid-80's, but the joke was on Jim Kelly when the USFL collapsed and he was forced to return to Buffalo. In 1986, the Bills hired former CFL coach Marv Levy and general manager Bill Polian, who got right to work and stockpiled talent like Bruce Smith; Andre Reed; Thurman Thomas; Ray Bentley; and Cornelius Bennett, a linebacker who evoked favorable comparisons to Lawrence Taylor. 1987 was a coming out party. The Bills were good; not Good, but GOOD, for the first time ever. They went 12-4 and earned their first trip to the AFC Championship, where the Cincinnati Bengals overwhelmed them with a new offensive form called the no-huddle.

Levy tried to discourage use of the no-huddle, but then the league wasn't buying, he developed a very unique way of throwing a hissy fit: He installed a revolutionary version of it with the Bills called the K-Gun. Jim Kelly called his own plays, and is the most recent NFL quarterback to do that to such a complete level. The Bills rode the K-Gun to the Super Bowl in 1990, clobbering the Los Angeles Raiders 51-3 in the AFC Championship. They went 13-3, which made them the first AFC team to win 13 games in one season. They were unstoppable.... Then, in the Super Bowl, the New York Giants slowed them down. They hogged the time of possession, and put together a gameplan so brilliant that the plan is in the Hall of Fame. During the media junket, Lawrence Taylor confessed that the Giants tricked the Bills into buying into their own hype. The Giants played at their absolute peak level while the Bills played like the season was already over, and yet, the game was STILL the closest Super Bowl in history. The Giants won. The final score was 20-19, and the outcome wasn't sealed until the kick that would have won the game for the Bills flew wide right with eight seconds left in the game. Although the Bills had been favored, it's becoming chic for NFL historians to write cute little revisions trumping how the Bills stood no chance. Anyone with a brain shouldn't be buying that bullshit. The Bills should have dropped 17 on the Giants in the first quarter and cruised through the game.

The Bills weren't discouraged, though. They returned to the Super Bowl every year for the next three years.... And lost them all. The second and third Super Bowls - against Washington and the Dallas Cowboys, respectively - were honest blowouts. The third, however, saw the finest hour in Bills history in the wild card game. Against the Houston Oilers, with Kelly and Thomas out, the Oilers jumped out to a 28-3 halftime lead, which went to 35-3 early in the third quarter. The Bills then went on a 28-point binge while holding Houston to just a field goal afterward. In the fourth quarter, Buffalo took the lead, and they earn the victory in overtime, thus capping The Miracle Comeback, the largest in NFL history. The fourth, against Dallas again, saw the Bills carrying a halftime lead. But after a third quarter fumble, their haunted history got into their heads, and then they just tanked. The Super Bowl teams were out of gas after that, aging. Kelly retired in 1997.

In 1998, fleet, speedy Doug Flutie was signed, and the Bills continued to terrorize defenses for a couple more years. Unfortunately, they made a trade for another quarterback - the Jacksonville Jaguars' Rob Johnson - that same year. Flutie had the keys in 1998 and 1999, taking the Bills to 10 and 11 wins in those years. Flutie was much older, though, and the Bills needed a franchise guy, and Johnson impressed in a few games. So rumor has it that Ralph Wilson told then-coach Wade Phillips to start Johnson in the 1999 playoffs against the Tennessee Titans. The Bills were leading that game 16-15 after a field goal with 16 seconds left, and on the ensuing kickoff, the Titans scored a touchdown that featured a lateral play. That was called the Music City Miracle, but even though science and math have proven that it was totally legit, Buffalo still thinks of it as The Forward Lateral. That's the most recent playoff game the Bills have played in.

The Bills had a chance to turn their historical fortunes around for good in 2001. There was a serious quarterback controversy between Johnson and Flutie. Flutie was dynamic and could win, but old. Johnson was young and showed flashes of greatness, but he was mostly terrible, had a glass jaw, and good at absorbing sacks. The Bills took Johnson. After going 3-13 in 2001, the Bills traded for former New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who gets a far worse rap for his Bills years than he deserves. In 2002, he took the Bills to an 8-8 record with the league's number two offense. The next year, instead of capitalizing on that strength, then-coach Gregg Williams stupidly decided to try shifting to a run and defense oriented plan. Receiver Peerless Price left the team because he wanted a chance to be a number one receiver, and couldn't do that with the great Eric Moulds on the other side. Tight end Jay Riemersma - a receiving tight end - was released for blocking tight end Mark Campbell. Receiving fullback Larry Centers was released for blocking tight end Sam Gash. That's over 100 receptions that were cut. 2002 rookie receiver Josh Reed had a great debut year, but no one could have seen his bad sophomore year coming. The 2003 Bills won six games, but a year later, Bledsoe managed to salvage the little receiving talent he still had to lead the Bills to a 9-7 record in 2004, the last time they surpassed seven wins. Everything afterward has been a messy retread. The Bills have the longest active streaks without either a winning record or a playoff appearance.

A few years ago, the Toronto Series was instated, and it's a source of fan embarrassment. The Bills are basically forced to surrender one home game a year to play in the Toronto Skydome. The official excuse is to expand the fanbase, but the fan theory is that Roger Goodell is trying to test the international waters for expansion. The games haven't been selling out, and the reception there is so bad that the league has resorted to giving out tickets literally by thousands. The Bills have won just one game in Toronto, a 2011 match where they beat up always-hapless Washington 23-0. It's no exaggeration to say half the spectators in Toronto show up to root for the other team, so no one - including the Bills players, who have been vocal in their opposition to playing in Toronto - is fooled into thinking it's a home game. The 2013 game against the Atlanta Falcons was a special embarrassment: The Bills choked away a 14-point first quarter lead, gave up a couple of late leads, and blew a couple of surefire touchdowns against a Falcons team worse than they were. Atlanta won in overtime, and their players said it felt almost like a home game for them. The team president is saying he's giving serious thought to axing the series after that.

The Bills, like many other teams, have a Wall of Fame. Among the names on it are OJ Simpson, Jack Kemp, Marv Levy, Kent Hull, Darryl Talley, Joe Ferguson, Steve Tasker, and Bill Polian. Only one number - 12, for Jim Kelly - has been officially retired. Kelly is considered an all-time quarterbacking great, although not quite in the same tier as Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, and Peyton Manning. The numbers of OJ Simpson, Thurman Thomas, and Bruce Smith aren't officially retired, but they're all out of circulation. Simpson still stands out for a very horrible and peculiar reason: He was the face of the Bills, and he never spoke badly of the team or fans. Cleveland sports fans have The Decision, where NBA star LeBron James used a national TV special to say he was leaving his team. That was probably unimaginably embarrassing to Cleveland, but the thing is this: NO ONE DIED. Hell, Cleveland is starting to look like it might embrace James if he decides to return and finish what he started there. OJ Simpson proved to be a true scumbag in private, when a murder arrest in 1994 revealed his true character. While John Law says OJ didn't do it, the public at large thinks he did, and that Simpson got off easy when the race card was played. When Simpson later committed a robbery and was given a disproportionate sentence for that, it was the law making up for what it didn't do years earlier. Buffalo believes to the letter that Simpson is guilty, and a number of petitions have been circulated to have his name removed from the Wall of Fame. The Wall, though, celebrates how good a person played football, and in that respect, Simpson deserves to be up there.

The main rivalry focus has shifted in the last decade. Where most fans of my generation grew up hating the Dolphins, the Dolphins are regularly mired in messes even more absurd than Buffalo's. It's hard to think Miami once played through a whole season completely undefeated, won two Super Bowls, won 20 straight against Buffalo, and that during the years with Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, Bills/Dolphins was a marquee NFL game. Now the hate is reserved for the New England Patriots, who have always had a wild rivalry with the Bills, but one that got almost as one-sided as the 70's Bills/Dolphins after Tom Brady became their quarterback. Since 2001, the Bills have only won two games against the Patriots: A 31-0 blowout in 2003, which the Patriots nevertheless wrote off on their way to their second Super Bowl victory, and a hell of a game in 2011 in which the Bills came back from a 21-0 deficit to win. The Patriots wrote that loss off on the way to a Super Bowl appearance that year, too. There's also a rivalry with the New York Jets, which was the biggest in the Namath era.

The Bills have an intensely loyal fanbase, but their stability has run out. Although the team claims to have made a deal that will keep them in Buffalo for the next decade, anyone with half a brain regarding practical economics knows the Bills are going to bolt soon. The city keeps discussing a new stadium which it can't possibly afford, the team already lent itself to Toronto for extra money, and the Bills are always at the forefront of any and all talks regarding a new Los Angeles team. Ralph Wilson's heirs have already admitted there's no way they can afford to keep the team in Buffalo after taxes. It's a case where the team and city need to leave each other in order to save themselves, but the people don't want to accept that because the Bills are the final hanging thread connecting today to Buffalo's days as a true power. That being said, Ralph Wilson Stadium is highly renowned for its tailgating experience, and the people in Buffalo do know how to grill good meat, so anyone who wants to enjoy great tailgating with some of the best, friendliest, and most knowledgeable fans in the NFL better come to Buffalo and do that while there's still time. Ralph Wilson is the team's only owner, and he's in his 90's.

There are a few good reasons to adopt the Bills if you're looking for a team. If you don't mind the fact that they'll be gone in a few years, then by all means. If you're adopting them for civic reasons, though, you'll have to find someone else. Even though the Bills are the only NFL team in New York (the Jets and Giants are both based in New Jersey), there actually a pretty good chance you'll be better off adopting the Jacksonville Jaguars, and that's just pathetic.

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review by . September 20, 2011
Before I get slammed by any red, white, and blue faithful, I need you to understand something: The Buffalo Bills are my hometown team. I've always liked them and will continue to root for them. When I was seven or eight years old, I dressed as Bills legend Jim Kelly for Halloween. But my fandom is currently in a state of extreme flux because of the way mismanagement is totally screwing the team over.     Yes, I'm giving the Bills credit for their recent good draft, awesome new …
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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The Buffalo Bills participate in the National Football League (NFL) and are based in Orchard Park, New York. Buffalo plays its games in the East of the AFC. The Buffalo Bills, founded in 1959, play home games at Ralph Wilson Stadium and Rogers Centre and have won two NFL Titles (1964, 1965).
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