Penny took me to the Buffalo Bills v. Denver Broncos tilt at New Era Field in Orchard Park.* For the uninitiated, the Bills don’t play in Buffalo, but instead at their stadium in the Southtowns, specifically, Orchard Park, NY. Growing up an Eagles fan and having been indoctrinated with the bias of the NFC being the league where real football is played, it is a gift to see it from the ABC POV instead of FOX. There is a clear distinction between AFC and NFC football that becomes omnipresent the moment you leave your house on a Sunday morning. The difference is all around you. Perhaps I am hyper-sensitive to it because to me it is familiar. To me, it is good.
The RVs, the history, the football and the food. The stadium perched at the top of a slight hill, not a new stadium with a 400 ft. LED screen and $20K personal seat bonds for the privilege of spending your hard-earned money on a ticket. A few sponsors adorn the walls, mostly local companies. The signage is far outnumbered by the names of the luminaries who left it all on the gridiron for their Buffalo Bills.
To me, it is familiar because of how much it feels, sounds and smells like a game at Beaver Stadium, State College, PA. The Big Beaver on the Hill and the home of my family’s beloved Nittany Lions. Yes, a Buffalo Bills game feels just like Saturday in Happy Valley and I am sure a myriad of other college towns that dot this great nation from coast to coast. And to me, it is better than good. It is great.
While I have drawn parallels to Big Ten football before, today the analogy was particularly apt because I was treated to the massive Blue Band, the marching band of the Penn State Nittany Lions! For a stranger in a strange land to get such a singular bonus at a Bills game was a thrill. I mean, these band-camp f*ckers woke me up every morning for a year and a half practicing “Louie, Louie” (The Troggs?) outside my dorm window in East Halls. Yes, years ago, I might have had a few in me, amassed a small arsenal of wet, wadded up loose leaf paper and unleashed a salvo of jumbo spitballs towards the bells of the dozen or so shining silver tubas in a futile effort to stem the tide of their ceaseless auditory assault. But time and tide … and today Peter Pan stayed at home and the Blue Band warmed my heart to see them form “L-I-O-N-S” and march and tumble and twirl up and down the green turf. And then the jets flew over, the fireworks ignited and … it was great.
Now, I don’t have Bills in my blood; never can, so when a native says, “Great Game!” and high-fives me after the game, I do my best not to miss his hand and smack him in the forehead like we have all done and do I truly share his pride in a Bills’ victory. But, it wasn’t a great game. It was a well-played game where I was able to spot (having grown up with Andy Reid and his disciples, one of which being Bills’ Head Coach and former fan favorite in Philadelphia, Sean McDermott) the emergence of a narrative. I see the beginning of a story, a good story, but the first few chapters can be rough but trust me, Bills fans, don’t put this book down.
“The team begins to buy in to the system. They begin to believe that if they play with discipline, play defense for all 4 quarters, play tough on special teams, stay away from turnovers and stupid penalties, they see that they can stay close against teams that are undoubtedly better … on paper. But games aren’t played on paper, are they?”
That story arc which Coach Reid narrated for the Eagles begins with the almost inexplicable jettisoning of well-known, high-priced (babies?) talent. Asking little in return other than meager draft picks, he places them in his quiver like so many arrows. And when that dust settles, onto the football. Initially, it can be fraught with fits-and-starts but sooner or later, a tipping point is reached. The team begins to buy into the system. They begin to believe that if they play with discipline, play tough defense for all 4 quarters, play strong on special teams, stay away from turnovers and dumb penalties, they see that they can stay close against teams that are undoubtedly better … on paper. But games aren’t played on paper. They will steal a few and with each one, they believe more and then they will begin to expect to win. I could see that transformation begin to happen as if on cue today; the Bills were not satisfied going into the locker room at the half down three. They gutted out a tough field goal. As the clock began to wain, the Bills were not surprised to find themselves leading; they deserved to be leading and they believed it. And then they got stronger.
These Bills weren’t listening to the lip-service of the pundits or the blather of a bombastic and narcissistic head coach. Coach McDermott is quietly dignified and like Reid, highly cerebral. This allows the players to focus on playing the game and not a headline tacked to the bulletin board in the locker room. Keep the game close, don’t make stupid mistakes, throw the ball away, punt if you have to and wait for the other team to make that critical mistake or for one of your guys to make a play. The narrative is one of becoming a team, BUT …
The Bills won’t make the playoffs this year and unless they can squeek in at maybe .500, they won’t next either; they have too many needs on both sides of the football and if I was a starting offensive player for the Bills, I probably wouldn’t buy green bananas. I’m sorry, my Bills fans brethren. But watch out for year three … and four … and five …
Oh, and before I forget, should the Bills draft or acquire a stud blue-chipper or free agent who comes to town and thinks he is bigger than the team and he gets cut after behaving badly or bad-mouthing his teammates or the front-office, don’t be surprised. The Mike Holmgren-Andy Reid-Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott coaching clan won’t hesitate to make an example (and unload salary). Chances are, the public bad-behavin’ was just the tip of the spear so hang tight and it should pay off. A return to the Super Bowl? Not out of the question, but unless you want to prop up Trent Dilfer, the Bills must have a franchise quarterback first. I say that will all due respect to Tyrod Tailor because he seems like a good kid, but I think he goes about 6-foot and unless your name is Drew Brees, you are carrying the clipboard on my team. Some may argue this with Joe Montana and Russell Wilson, but Montana is a once-in-a-lifetime hall-of-famer and Russell Wilson had the best defense, offensive line (has the Bills ) and rushing support in Seattle for a season. “Big Ben” Roethlisberger himself at 6′ 5″ may have to change his nickname as he is only the 9th tallest starter in the league. As Jack Ramsey once said, you can’t coach height. A franchise QB will be the critical success factor that determines if a return to an elite status is on the horizon. Coach is a defensive-minded guy so there could be some tense moments as this situation unfolds over the off-season and next season.
In the 4th quarter, the Bills, energized, took the ball away twice. These were two big plays late in the game and while they didn’t result in scores, they got the defense off the field, chewed clock, set up positive field position and perhaps most notably, these takeaways resulted in some serious shoulder slumping over on the Broncos sidelines.
Yeah, may not have been a great game. It wasn’t like the “Comeback”. It was a good game, well-played, and a good win with a big step towards turning around the fortune of this storied franchise. I am sure Coach McDermott said something along the lines of “…. we did some things well, but we saw plenty to work on for next week.”. And then he probably read the injury report before turning the mic over to the reporters for a few questions while mumbling something along the line of “the time is your’s … ” and that is all we should ever hear. The Buffalo Bills have a head coach. He knows talent and he will be stock-piling those picks. Bear with him, and maybe next week when they take the ball away, they will come off the field with at least three points. And I hope another win. For the Bills, the fans and for Coach (afte rall, he is a LaSalle guy!).
Maybe not the greatest game, but certainly a great day. Congrats Bills fans, the future is getting brighter all the time.
* We would like to thank our hosts for their most-gracious hospitality. You contribute so much to our community and quality-of-life here in Buffalo and were a blast to share the beautiful day with at the Ralph! Thank you all very much!
The Paper Plane asks that every Buffalonian get out and support the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the arts here in Buffalo. Give, visit, post a link to the site. The Albright-Knox is a treasure trove of some of the greatest works of art in the world, countless programs and exhibits and the best is yet to come. Thanks, again.
Thanks, Penny, for always knowing just what I need and making every moment spent together one that I will always remember.