A View from Calico Jack’s End of 2008

Another year…another season with no meaningful Bills games in January, the longest playoff drought in the NFL.

With three consecutive 7-9 seasons, the Bills’ cardinal sin isn’t being bad – it’s being mediocre and boring. Sports people like to talk about momentum, or the Big Mo. The Bills these days are the Big No.

I expected this final game to have little or no influence over my end-of-season analysis. The Bills had already established a “body of work” that, for better or worse, spoke volumes. Why dwell on a game without any real implications (for the Bills, in any case)?

Here’s why…some of what I saw in game 16 stunned me. Literally. More important, it shined bright klieg lights on much of what ails the Bills today.

Let’s compare two “coaching moments”:

The Bills, with precious few seconds remaining in the first half and no timeouts, choose to run another play – a running play. As they scramble to kick what would be a hurry-up field goal attempt under the best of circumstances, one of their players gets caught up in an on-field scuffle. No time left. No field goal attempt. No points. If it were possible to hear a smirk, we would hear the Pats smirking.

Early in the second half, deep in their own territory with fourth and very long coming up, the Pats line up as though they’re going to go for it. Are they actually planning to go for it? Doubtful, even giving full consideration to Bill Belichick’s arrogance. But, it does force the Bills to use a timeout early in the half – after which the Pats, of course, punt.

Just horrible.

I’m going to leave the 2008 season Xs and Os analysis to others – believe me, there are a lot of people better qualified to do that than I am, and do it they no doubt will. However, I’ll briefly share that I still believe Trent Edwards is a viable long-term quarterback solution. I’ll also share, just for kicks, that Robert Royal is uniquely able to catch the uncatchable, and tragically unable to catch the catchable.

My goal here is to take a step back, from the perspective of Joe Bills Fan: What’s the big picture, beyond the top priorities of “getting better talent,” “winning more games,” and “making the playoffs”? Those are obviously crucial but when it comes to the Bills, there are other, equally large priorities.

What do the Bills need to do in order to ensure that fans such as me – and you – stay loyal, and continue to care – not to mention spend their money going to games and on merchandise? What do they need to do, from a fan’s perspective, to give us a sense of hope and, dare I say, progress? What do they need to do in order to – I’ll say it – save this franchise?

From THIS fan’s perspective, it’s more complex than drafting well and signing strong free agents. Far more complex.

I could easily do a Top 10 or even a Top 20, but here are my Five Big Picture Considerations facing the Bills:

Big Picture Priority #1: General Manage…DON’T Manage Generally
From a fan’s perspective, there’s a huge management void at One Bills Drive. Who’s in charge? Who represents the team’s football conscience and philosophy? I bet no one questions who’s in charge of the Dolphins’ football operations. For a fan to believe the Bills have direction, the Bills need accountability. Not having a General Manager is inexcusable. Maybe it’s Tom Modrak. Maybe it’s someone else. But it’s got to be someone. And it can’t be a marketing guy.

Big Picture Priority #2: Out Coached? Coaches Out!
Pretty consistently, I’m one of the fans least likely to advocate coaching changes, especially at the head coaching level. I just believe that every time you change head coaches, you’re introducing chaos into your organization; the Bills change coaches every three years, and it shows.

My reluctance is compounded in this case by my admiration for Dick Jauron. But Game 16 drove home how badly the Bills have been out coached this year. If the Bills are considering the fan’s perspective, then deep down they KNOW they must make a change. At the same time, making that change BEFORE addressing Big Picture Priority #1 is fruitless – you’ve got to have a football guy in place on top, and then let THAT PERSON take the lead in choosing new coaches.

I recognize this might be complicated by the contract extension Coach Jauron signed – or didn’t. If he signed the extension I suspect he did…well, I realize it’s hard for the Bills to simply eat two or three years of a contract. At the very least, however, they’ve got to look at new assistants, except for Bobby April.

Big Picture Priority #3: Tear the Roof off the Sucker
From a fan’s perspective, we almost certainly lost a divisional game this year because of the Toronto fiasco, end of story. Even mild-mannered Jason Peters spoke out. I’m actually among the apparent minority favoring the Toronto experiment because I believe it gives us the best opportunity to keep the Bills somewhere east of Oklahoma or San Antonio. But that game HAS GOT TO BE A TRUE HOME GAME. More affordable tickets. More “real” Bills fans. And, please, open the roof. It’s sealed shut? They manage to open it before the Jays’ season starts. If the financials are THAT onerous, they need to explain that better to the fans. Right now, I see no evidence anyone pressed the issue.

Big Picture Priority #4: Stadium Arcane-ium
Like the Chili Peppers reference?

My two final Big Picture Priorities are admittedly far larger in scope, and arguably naïve to raise because so many realities work against them being addressed. But it’s equally naïve to believe the Bills can ignore them forever.

The Ralph is getting old (I mean the stadium). Balloons knock out our power. Winds nearly knock down our goal posts. The place is becoming evocative of past successes rather than future competitiveness.

I’m not asking for a new stadium referendum; nor do I suggest the Wilsons are prepared to invest massive amounts in stadium upgrades. Yet from a fan’s perspective, we need to hear the team begin to articulate a stadium strategy that needs to be a part of any plan to keep the team in Buffalo long-term. In its own way, I believe that’s as vital as the Toronto strategy.

Big Picture Priority #5: Take our Ownership…Please
Finally, let’s address the elephant in the room: who is going to own this team – and I hope it’s a long time off – once the Wilson family is no longer in a position to own it?

I’m not asking Ralph to sell the team before his time. He’s earned the right to own it as long as he wants, and that apparently means the rest of his life. Technically, he’s under no obligation to even discuss the issue, ever (except when he’s negotiating with the state for funding.)

But, from a fan’s perspective, this is THE issue: in its own way, it affects each of the other four Priorities I’ve raised here. How does the team plan for the long-term when the long-term is fundamentally a mystery to the fan base? How does it address stadium needs without knowing if there will be a team to play in that stadium? How do the Bills attract top-notch football talent when that talent doesn’t even know if the team has a future? It’s already nearly impossible for the Bills to recruit a Bill Parcells or Bill Cowher, who love warm, affluent places like Miami, and traditional football strongholds like Dallas; doubts about the team’s future only exacerbate the challenge.

So, what am I asking for? A little more transparency. What does the Wilson family believe about the future of the team? Are they emphasizing a commitment to Buffalo as one of the criteria beyond money (recognizing that the league has to ultimately approve any deal)? Can they identify potential – underscore potential – ownership groups that might keep the team in Buffalo? We always hear rumors about Tom Golisano and Jim Kelly – can we simply get some confirmation that they, or someone, is interested in keeping this team in Buffalo?

I’m not asking for promises, which are impossible to offer. But from a fan’s perspective, the Wilsons need to share SOMETHING with us, not because of obligation but because from a business perspective they need to give the world – fans, managerial and coaching talent, free agents – something to hang onto. Because, I’ve got to tell you, ten years of mediocre football combined with a bad national economic climate and a shrinking local economy will eventually take its toll on even the most loyal of fans.

I HATE being a buzz kill here. My personal loyalty is undying, and I haven’t missed a game since 1990. I usually play booster with these columns. So, let me end on a high note: The Bills gave us a fantastic September and October. It only reinforces in my mind that this team has legitimate talent. Marshawn, Evans, Edwards…great special teams…some solid defensive talent…the Bills absolutely have better talent now than the Fish had last year. I’d STILL rather be the Bills than the Jets after Favre retires, whenever that is. I STILL think the Bills could have – should have – made the playoffs this year.

I also believe we had a terrific year at Calico Jack’s. Great attendance until the end. Great waitresses. Managers that paid attention to us. There probably aren’t many fan bases that have homes away from home like Bills fans do with Calico Jack’s and McFadden’s.

See you at the draft in April!

by Phil Mann