I have been trying to make sense of why I have become more and more attached to this team, like no Buffalo sports team I can remember, and why I cannot get enough of Buffalo Bills news and commentary and official press conferences and video clips from OTA workouts and Top Ten performances and game highlights etc.
One of the wonderful aspects about being a Buffalo Bills fan in the 2nd decade of the 21st century is this: we not only have the Buffalo News increasing its coverage of the team, and we not only have the exponential growth in the development of internet blogs launched by independent journalists and fans devoted to writing about the team (led, of course, by the best of these, Buffalo Rumblings), and we not only have an impressive BuffaloBills.Com official website led by team journalist Chris Brown, and TV shows hosted by former Bills' greats Steve Tasker and Thurman Thomas, and countless radio shows hosted by current players, but we have something which makes all of the above especially enjoyable: an amazing cast of characters from Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey (eg. Chix), to Ryan Fitpatrick, Freddie Jackson, Stevie Johnson, Shawn Merriman, Nick Barnett, The Senator George Wilson, and many many more. Below I discuss why I am not the only one on Cloud 9 heading into the coming season, with a reflection on some interviews with players, coaches and management during this offseason and recent OTAs.
And it finally became clear during the past few days, as I listened and watched different interviews and press conferences. These guys are really interesting, and there is a chemistry developing between players, coaches, and management which I am convinced is not simply for public consumption, but fundamentally real and profound.
Call me crazy, but I believe the Buffalo Bills are becoming a tight community of talented and overachieving believers, and there is a sense of inner confidence at One Bills Drive that they have figured out the puzzle to on field success, and it begins with off field success. Solving the puzzle involves understanding that success is not only about accumulating talented coaches and players, but beyond that, it is embedded in a culture of unity, a unity of organizational mind, body and purpose.
Everyone has to buy in to the belief system, which requires leadership at all levels of the organization, including coaches and players, that not only preach it but practice it daily. It is about developing an instinctive culture of unity, so that it is no longer just articulating platitudes but feeling it, wanting it, understanding it, loving it, realizing its power and rejecting any and all challenges to its fulfillment.
And I am sure many cynics will laugh or mock or dismiss me for this thought, but behind it all, behind what is a game played by super affluent athletes for super affluent owners in order to entertain the sports hungry masses, behind all of that is something much more important and lasting, which is passion and love for the game and one another.
How ironic, as we try and wrap our hearts and heads around the fact that so many former NFL players are now suffering from the physical, mental and emotional disabilities produced by the game they loved. How tragic that some of our most cherished memories as fans of our professional football teams are at least partially scarred by the awareness that many of our heroes on the gridiron literally sacrificed their future health for a youthful chance to experience glory before hundreds of thousands if not millions of admirers.
I am aware of all of that, and it is precisely because there is no way that the current professional football players are themselves not aware of the long term risks of the sport they play for a living that what is happening at One Bills Drive is not only extremely important, but also more understandable.
There are only 32 teams in the league, and there are less than 2000 men who actually get to play on any given Sunday in the NFL. And, on any given Sunday, several of these elite athletes will sustain an injury which will end or severely shorten their careers and their ability to earn the wealth which comes from being physically able to perform at an elite level in a game. In light of such high risk and the adrenaline rush which flows naturally from such activity and such a career, professional football players have a special, if tension-filled bond with each other, including their weekly opponents, as a small group of elite high risk athletic performers.
We see that unique bond reaffirmed every Sunday when players meet and greet each other after the game at midfield just minutes after finishing a competition in which they spent a few hours trying to knock each others' heads off (as former Bills Head Coach Greg Williams has now helped clarify like no other NFL coach has done before).
But what I want to focus on here is the idea that there is something special going on with the Buffalo Bills football team, beyond the perfect offseason of free agent signings and contract extensions of Williams, Anderson, Johnson and Jackson. This special emerging quality goes far beyond, if it cannot be separated from, the perfect off season of signings and the upgrading of talent on the roster.
The special emerging quality of organizational and team unity and deep emotional bonding was crystallized for me as I watched two events, first when Buddy Nix held the press conference with Stevie Johnson announcing the resigning, and secondly, when shortly thereafter a phone interview was held with Ryan Fitzpatrick to get his reaction to the good news.
Nix, answering reporters questions with Stevie standing behind him waiting for his turn at the podium, made a comment which led to Stevie reacting playfully: Stevie stepped forward and, as if Nix was his Dad and not his Boss, calmly gave his GM and seventy plus year old football Wise Man a soft neck massage/hug/embrace. Nix neither reacting surprised, disturbed, uncomfortable or upset. Instead, he smiled, Stevie smiled, and the press conference continued as if it was nothing more nor less than a family gathering of friends and relatives announcing the transfer of a significant portion of property from one member to another in the form of a 35 million or so contract over several years.
And so I flipped over to the followup telephone interview largely carried out by Mark Gaughn of the Buffalo News, also posted at the official Buffalo Bills website, to listen to a long conversation with Ryan Fitzpatrick about the recent signing of Stevie Johnson, his friend, number one receiver, and fellow 7th round NFL draft pick turned multimillionaire through their performance as leaders on the Buffalo Bills football team. And Fitz did not disappoint.
I had listened to the interview over the phone with Fitz back when Stevie first signed, as I had watched the press conference with Nix and Stevie. But this time I was interested in the tone, the reverence, the bond, the trust, the sense of unity and purpose in the voice and words of Fitz. And just like I suspected, it was not the typical sports interview. It was warm and cerebral, insightful and emotional, it was about football and friendship. It was also about the larger sense of where the Bills as an organization were going and how they planned to get there. But in the end, it was all about organizational unity and human solidarity.
Fitz mentioned several times, how Nix is a Man of his Word, and Fitz is a Man of His Word, and Stevie is someone that has earned the respect of his fellow players. We know Fitz has steadfastly sung the praises of and stood by Freddie Jackson. Like his GM, Fitz stressed the importance of the Bills showing they are "committed to keeping their own" who perform well on the field. Fitz also said he believes Chix has a Plan, and this is a sign that the players can believe in the Chix Plan. But what really struck me was the phrase Fitz used to describe his feeling about the signing of Stevie: he said he was on "Cloud 9."
Now remember, this was the interview after the signing of Stevie, before the signing of Super Mario, Mark Anderson, and the extension of Fitz's favorite football teammate of all time, in his own words, Freddie Jackson.
People are quick to criticize Fitz for his throwing errors and mistakes. But it seems most critics of Fitz seriously underestimate how his leadership has helped develop the deepening bonds among players within the locker room, and why a player like Stevie Johnson would want to stay in Buffalo and be Fitz's number 1 receiver. Fitz is a high character guy. And the QB is, at the end of the day, the most important moral/spiritual force on a professional football team, with few exceptions (Ray Lewis with the Ravens being one of those few).
Football is an emotional game, it is a game of will, desire, passion and faith, trust and unity. Football, as one of the most programmed sports, with a fine line of precision separating success from failure, is also about believing in one another. Players talk about it all the time, matter-of-factly.
Players believing in one another, having faith in one another, is an organizational/collective intangible. Though not measured by statistics, the power of collective belief (faith) is one of the most important factors in determining those statistics of success on the field which can be measured.
One of the unspoken factors determining why the Bills were so eager to sign Fitz to a long-term contract was precisely because Chix understood what he brought to the team in terms of the greatest of all intangibles: leadership, which is ultimately about moral authority. Leaders emerge in two ways, through organizational force and through voluntary election. When it comes to locker room leadership, we are talking about the latter.
If it seems strange to be talking about leadership and moral authority when talking about professional football, perhaps it is because most armchair amateur pundits spend most of their time citing statistics, and little if any time talking about leadership. Leadership is hard, if not impossible to measure. One way to measure it is to ask people who are their leaders and why. There has not been an official poll of the Bills locker room to ask who are the leaders and why. But there is no question Fitz understands the importance of solidarity. He has stood Tall and Strong behind his two most important offensive players during their contract negotiations, and that goes miles within the locker room. But equally important, Chix have stood Tall and Strong behind Fitz, including during his difficult struggles this past season, and that also goes miles within a locker room.
In the end, leadership in professional sports matters. It begins at the top at the level of management. But management needs to recruit the right players to create a high level of leadership in the locker room.
Buffalo sports fans should know better than to ignore it: Since Chris Drury and Daniel Briere left the Sabres several years ago through free agency, many fans and media pundits have concluded the poor performance which has followed has not been about the lack of talent on the team, but the lack of leadership in the locker room.
I realize that professional football is a business, and that the players who are successful become part of the 1 percent in America when it comes to wealth. I understand why many people, including fans, can become cynical about all of the money and fame and how it can often bring out the worst in athletes and other celebrities. But I believe the Buffalo Bills have put together an amazing cast of characters, players of exceptional talent with a sense of community, solidarity, unity.
I cannot say that what the Buffalo Bills are developing is unique to professional football, nor professional sports teams more generally. But what I can say is that something special is happening in Orchard Park, NY at One Bills Drive, and it is not simply the coming together of a core of world class athletic talent, but something more lasting and profound: the coming together of an organization and a team into a unity of special purpose, with a clear goal in sight, and a deepening awareness of how they are going to get there.
When I listen to Nix, Chan, Stevie, Freddie, Fitz, Nick, Kyle, Mario, The Senator, CJ and others, I realize that not only are these guys really smart, and not only do they really like being in Buffalo with the Bills, but they really love being around each other. There are still some boring interviews, since not all the players get beyond the cliches of the sport. But many of the players, especially the veteran leaders, show something much deeper is happening inside the locker room.
And if something deeper is happening inside the locker room, it is because something has been figured out, and a moral tone of credibility and accountability has been set by management, led by Buddy Nix as GM, the most powerful force for good in the organization, the folksy mad scientist behind all the coaching hires, free agent recruits, and draft picks of the past few years.
The wagons are circling again at OBD, perhaps like never before, enjoy the ride!