There it was in my e-mail inbox this morning, another e-mail from my friends at the Buffalo Bills. Not another team-approved "news" article on the Bills featuring a player or how the team is "preparing" for the Jets, but an ad from the good folks at the Bills Shop.
"Show Your Team Spirit This Holiday Season"shouted the subject line. My mind wrestled with that bizarre statement for a second. I quickly concluded that this was either a sick joke or a realization by the Buffalo Bills marketing organization that a large number of Bills fans may now be rooting for their secondary NFL teams and may want some NFL gear to cheer them on. I’m sure these folks weren’t referencing my "team spirit" for the Buffalo Bills at the low point of my fandom, particularly as I try to enjoy the upcoming holiday season. Do the Bills really want me to show my Bills “team spirit” this holiday season? Are they selling the Dick Jauron waterboarding kit? Are they selling Bills flags that light in fun colors when set ablaze? Are they selling anything to help remove vomit from the Christmas tree I was standing next to during the Miami game? "Team spirit" – you’ve got to be kidding me – do they not get televised Bills games in the Bills Shop?
I suppose this ill-timed and ill-titled e-mail is emblematic of the overall organization – oblivious to fan frustration and anger and continuing on as if the Bills were still 5-1. As the Bills have engineered one of the worst collapses in their history we get little indication from the organization that they understand the issues and are ready to address them in the name of providing a better product for the weary fans.
A few weeks ago I wrote off the Bills for the 2008 season, possessing the experience of a long time Bills fan who knew the ship was sinking. Some told me I was overly dramatic and pessimistic – I prefer to consider myself knowledgeable and ahead of the curve. Some people realized only this past Sunday that the 2008 Bills were a lost cause – those of us old enough to remember more of the Bills’ history knew it was a forgone conclusion.
So why I am still so angry about the Bills? I already stated I didn't care if they won by 50 points or lost by 50 points and that’s generally true. At this point it's not about the 2008 Buffalo Bills, but the leadership and direction of the organization. I have come to realize that the Bills are in a terrible quagmire and any positive change is in the distant future.
The stagnation is tough to take when you’ve suffered through the past 9 seasons without a playoff berth. Over that same span of time, 30 of the 32 other NFL teams have figured out how to pull together at least one playoff season. Put another way, only 2 teams have toiled in futility since 1999 – the Detroit Lions and the Buffalo Bills. That is some sickening company – if your blood pressure is rising and/or you feel the need to wretch take a moment before reading on. The Lions are the poster children for dysfunction in the NFL, and the Bills are steadily showing they are their eastern counterpart.
The NFL is generally cyclical – teams that are bad for a few years benefit from the draft and free agency and start to win games and teams that are good lose players due to the salary cap and fall from the top of the rankings. It’s a good system, one designed to keep fans from giving up on their teams as they weather rough patches. But the system doesn’t work if your team doesn’t improve or show signs of progress at some point. How is that every other team, save one, has figured out a way to succeed in the NFL? Why can’t the Bills develop on par with their peers? I’m not asking for the team to have a run of 5+ years at the top, just that they find some way, any way, to not be so damn mediocre. Where is the desire for greatness, if only for a season?
There are those who say the Bills are a year or two away from taking the next step and making the playoffs, deriding folks like me for a lack of patience and faith. To those folks I ask quite simply, how many seasons have you been telling me and yourselves that? Are you tired of saying we’re a year or two away? I'll tell you – I'm tired of hearing it – I'm to the point where I want to choke the life out of the little girl in the local production of "Annie" when I hear her joyfully singing about tomorrow.
So what is the problem with the organization? Is it player talent as Ralph Wilson said this weekend? Is it coaching as fans and a growing portion of the media are screaming? Is it ownership? I think it is a combination of all three with a heavy emphasis on coaching.
We all know the Bills have some serious holes in talent. The defensive line is devoid of a pass rush, allowing some suspect signal callers to look like they’re on their way to Canton. Aaron Schobel has been hurt, but there’s got to be more to that unit than a single guy. The tight end position continues to suffer from a lack of talent – are we ever going to see the Bills play with competence at that position? The secondary lacks depth to account for injuries and multi-receiver sets. The offensive line isn’t living up to its heft (the largest average size in the NFL) in short yardage situations. Center is a position of need. There is no #2 receiver on the team. Inconsistency is the name of the game at the quarterback position – instead of steady progress we see quarterbacks who show some flashes before falling hard from grace and taking multiple seasons to show they simply aren’t the answer.
The draft has been a mixed bag in terms of talent, but the Bills have wiffed on some high profile selections, notably J.P. Losman and John McCargo. Think about how different this team would be if those two players had lived up to their draft positions.
But talent alone doesn’t explain it. There are NFL teams with lesser talent making far better progress than the Bills. Does anyone truly believe that Ted Ginn and his colleagues in Miami are better than the Bills? I don't, but the Dolphins may win the division or clinch a wildcard spot and are likely to finish at least 2 wins better than Buffalo – why?
Anyone who has seen the Bills play this season has noticed how completely outcoached the Bills have been in game after game. The play calling has been predictable and amateurish – run against 8 in the box and pass against nickel and dime packages. Throw in short yardage situations. Vanilla plays when some imagination is required, getting overly cute when a straightforward approach is needed. Waste timeout after timeout after timeout because players and coaches don’t know what play to call and who should be on and off the field. Waste even more timeouts by challenging plays that obviously shouldn’t be challenged and allow other coaches to throw the red flag when you manage to get away with something. Fail to adjust to the looks and success being displayed by your opponent. Fail to stick with the run when it’s working. Show no emotion in any situation – God forbid anyone would think you had some fire in your belly and a deep desire to win.
Overall, its attitude. There’s a winning attitude and the Bills’ coaches don’t seem to have it. Jauron's a nice guy. He's a very bright guy – an Ivy Leaguer. I'm sure he watches lots of tape and works very hard. The players don’t seem to hate him, so that’s a good thing. I'm sure he wants to win and be successful. But when it comes right down to it, he doesn't have the right attitude and he’s not getting the job done.
Witness this ditty from Jauron's post Miami fiasco press conference as he addressed losing:
"It's where we are and we're disappointed about it. You're talking about a couple of things. Do we accept the performance? No, we're very disappointed in it. Is it unacceptable? How do you not accept it if you've done it? So that's where we are and we've got to live with it. That's our record and we've got to take it and go on and improve and that's what we're trying to do."
Disappointed? Disappointed is what you get when you want cheese on your burger and they’ve just run out. Disappointed in when your favorite contender gets voted off the island on Survivor. Disappointed is when your $2 scratch ticket comes up empty. Unacceptable is when you lose 6 or your last 7 football games. Unacceptable is when you put up a total of 6 points against defensive powerhouses like San Francisco and Miami. Unacceptable is when you defy the 85% chance of making the playoffs after starting off 4-0. I know what unacceptable is – every Bills fans knows what unacceptable is – why in the name of all that is holy does Jauron not get this? There may be some places where this awareness level and attitude are acceptable, but it certainly can’t be on the sidelines as the coach of the Buffalo Bills.
So why IS Dick Jauron the coach of the Buffalo Bills? The answer, quite simply, lies with Ralph Wilson. As a man in his 90s, Ralph Wilson is a man of another era. He's a man from an era where players played hard, team and team loyalty was all important, players and coaches were role models, and fathers could afford to take their sons out to the stadium on a Sunday afternoon. Character and sportsmanship were important and mattered. Players and coaches were well to do, but not rich. In his mind, a coach should be like Marv Levy – a smart, loyal, humble guy of outstanding personal character who inspires his players. Successful on and off the field – someone who brought teams to the playoffs and spoke for the United Way. It helps if he’ll work for cheap, as nice guys often do. In short, Wilson wants the coach everyone used to want.
The problem is, Marv Levys don't exist today. This is the era of big money - $100 or more for a ticket, $50 to park, corporate luxury boxes rather than an afternoon with your pop, players making untold millions and switching teams when the dollars are there, stealing sideline signals by videotape or other means, Pacman Jones, win at all costs, United Way be damned.
I've said it before and I'll say it again – I don’t care if the coach is a nice guy, an Ivy League grad or someone who does great things for charity. It’s about winning and its high time the Bills understood that and started winning. Bring me a jerk – a Jimmy Johnson, a Bill Belichick, a Bill Parcells, just bring me someone who wants to win, someone who knows the difference between disappointing and unacceptable. I mourn the loss of a bygone era, but I understand what it takes in today’s NFL.
While I don't mean to compare war to a silly football game, I do see parallels between the current state of the Bills and the situation in Iraq. The Bills are in a terrible situation with few good options – staying the course doesn’t appear to be a winning strategy and is not what a majority of the people want, but a change in course also has some terrible repercussions.
If you keep Jauron you continue down a road of mediocrity, never to get to the next level. If you make a change you start over again as the Bills have done 3 times in recent history. Constantly blowing up the organization does not move it forward – its stunts its growth considerably. So what do you do? What’s the best option when all are bad?
Put me in the camp that Jauron needs to go – I just don’t see a scenario where he brings them to the next level. If the Bills truly were a player or two or a year or two away I’d say keep him and hope that the march of progress gets you there, but the Bills aren’t there. The Bills aren't a few players short of the playoffs. The Bills aren't a year or two away. Unless you start to make some big changes, particularly in attitude with leadership who understand today’s NFL, you're not going to get there. As I've said far too many times in recent history, let the rebuilding begin, because eventually I'd like to "Show Your Team Spirit This Holiday Season".