Sunday Ė the start of the new Buffalo Bills season. Another year has gone by. Much has changed Ė some of it good, some of it bad, and some of it head-scratching. Regardless of what has happened since the Bills played their last snap in January, you no doubt had Sunday circled on the calendar for months.
Thereís always a certain level of excitement on opening day. The hope of potential abounds and it is easy to daydream about better days, beyond the past 17 years. Thereís an extra spring in my step as I go about my daily routine and end up throwing a batch of wings into boiling oil shortly before kickoff Ė this is it Ė the season is here.
Alas, compared with years past my excitement is tempered by the realization that the Bills are undergoing yet another rebuilding phase. They arenít going to be very good this season, but thatís just the point Ė they arenít supposed to be very good this season. This season is about building a new regime, getting the right young players and character vets and getting them experience, stockpiling draft picks and preparing to draft for the future.
As a fan, rebuilding is hard to take Ė it goes against your natural instincts as a fan, not that I need to tell Bills fans anything about rebuilding. We hope that this time itís different than all the rebuilds of the past Ė that somehow Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane are onto something that will finally pay much-deserved dividends to beleaguered and success-starved fans, but thereís no guarantee that it will be. Heck, the arrival of Tom Donahoe in 2001 was supposed to mark a new era of success in Buffalo and there was much excitement that the Bills were finally on the right track, but we all know how that turned out Ė more heartbreak.
Iím not saying that Brandon Beane is Tom Donahoe 2.0 (Lord, please donít let that be), but I do want to point out that yet again Bills fans find themselves putting their faith in a ďfootball guyĒ general manager to rebuild the team ďthe right wayĒ. We all want to believe that the organization is finally on the right track and with just a little more time and pain it will turn the corner on an insanely long dark period of their history.
I sit down to watch the game on my new television (my old set blew up on Thursday morning, the start of the season Ė seriously) with that mix of excitement and adrenaline (and maybe some wing sauce flowing through my veins). Iím a bit confused Ė am I supposed to root for the Bills to win or to lose? This is the Jets, a division rival and almost universally regarded as the worst team in the league this year after their rebuilding saw a virtual fire sale of solid players, and the game is in Orchard Park. I canít seriously want the Bills to lose this game, can I?
I decide that I need to root for the Bills Ė even with the Bills a lesser team than they were before training camp, this is a winnable game, and you do your best to win those games. Lest anyone accuse me of not being a real fan, my definition of rooting for the Bills includes the ability to root for long term success over short term gratification Ė if you want the Bills to succeed, youíre a fan.
If the Bills manage to come out on the short end of the scoreboard at the end of the game Iím going to be bummed, but Iíll have the benefit of knowing that the outcome might have increased their position next May. But it doesnít matter Ė Iím rooting for the win today Ė letís go get Ďem! And so I begin my season of low expectations. Over the past decade I donít think Iíve ever been optimistic to truly believe that the Bills would win double-digit games and make the playoffs, but I have allowed myself to daydream about it. Every year some team seems to come out of nowhere to defy the odds and become a contender Ė why canít it be the Bills? Strangely enough, that feeling is gone for me this year Ė I donít actually want it to happen. I donít want to find some nearly impossible way to finish with 9 or 10 wins and become the #6 seed at the end of the regular season.
This is all part of the rebuild process. Some may call it tanking, but I donít think it goes that far. Tanking is when the Jets punted down by two scores with four minutes to go - I donít see the Bills going that far. Tanking is Starting Josh McCown with no real youngster to develop behind him.
For those who have a high level of faith in the current regime, the Bills may finally be rebuilding ďthe right wayĒ. This seems to mean that the rebuild is serious Ė itís not a matter of trying to win now while positioning the organization for the future, but an emphasis solidly on the future over the present. The old way of trying to win while rebuilding has left the Bills in a middling position for years Ė not good, but not bad enough to reap the benefits ineptitude Ė just a maddening and never ending bout of futility. Rebuilding means donít tank when it comes to the game of football, but donít hold out hope to go on a 6 game winning streak, either- there is some reward in a loss, even if you are not actively pursuing that reward.
I think Iím on the same page as the Bills Ė want to win, but not really. Just as I find it hard to root against the Bills on any given Sunday, I donít think Sean McDermott is going to do anything to lessen the chance that the team comes away with a win. That said, in many contests the reality may be that the outcome of a game is all but known before it even starts, and that may be OK. Regardless of what you want to do in the years ahead, you play your hardest and root your hardest and lack of success now may ultimately lead to success tomorrow. Itís a weird feeling, but I hope I get used to it. Itís not wanting the team to lose, but rather learning to be OK with low expectations in the immediate future. Maybe Iím just damaged enough as a fan to subscribe to it Ė I certainly donít expect every fan to be able to do the same and embrace it or even agree with me on this topic.
The Bills may not end up winning many games this year Ė I see 4 or 5 wins as a distinct possibility Ė so I really need to enjoy games like Sundayís. Iím going to enjoy watching Shady run for over 100 yards and how slippery he is when he goes for 20+. Iím going to enjoy watching a young secondary deny the ball or make a play to intercept it. Iím going to enjoy watching the Bills front 7 shut down an opponentís running game. Sure, not all opponents are going to be the NY Jets and I believe the Bills will fair poorly against premium competition, and Iíll have to be OK with that. As hard as it will be, I am hoping to root for good plays, good outcomes (no matter the definition), and a brighter tomorrow, whenever that may be.