This Sunday's game against the Chiefs, and especially the game changing pick-six at the goal line, has unleashed a lot of anger and emotion among Buffalo fans. Out come the "same old Bills" arguments, with the blame falling on some combination of Hackett (for allowing Tuel to throw), Tuel (for making the poor read), Whaley (for not having better QB options on the roster before the season started), Ralph Wilson and Russ Brandon (just on principle for the last 13 years), fate, bad luck, and the whims of the football gods.
Perhaps foolishly, I think Bills fans should take the long view, especially the 26 year long view back to 1987.
Somewhat surprisingly given his continual distrust of real football coaches, Ralph Wilson turned the team in the late 70's over to the veteran Rams coach, Chuck Knox, who led the team to playoff berths and double digit win seasons in 1980 and 1981.
Unfortunately, Ralph and his cronies penny pinching ways quickly soured the relationship with Knox, and after a series of holdouts and contract problems with Tom Cousineau, Jim Kelly, Joe Cribbs and Jerry Butler, Knox fled for the Seahawks head coaching gig immediately after the strike season of 1982. What followed next is a story familiar to many long term Bills fans.
- A mediocre 8-8 season, followed by two disastrous seasons in 1984 and 1985 when the Bills went back to back 2-14, then 4-12 in 1986.
- Mediocre coaching hires who came and went in Kay Stephenson and Hank Bullough.
- Mediocre GMs who came and went in Stew Barber and Pat McGroder.
- A lot of unproductive high draft choices: Chris Williams, Byron Franklin, Perry Tuttle, Matt Koffler, Tony Hunter, Eric Richardson, Rodney Bullinger, Sean McManie and Mike Mosley. Heard of any of them? Not surprised.
- An inability to find an effective starting QB, with the lowlights Joe Ferguson's 7 TD, 16 INT performance in 1982, and the combination of Vince Ferragamo and Bruce Mathison in 1985, who combined for 9 TDs and 31 INT (hard to believe, I know, but you can look it up).
- A consistent lack of effort and composure that led to frequent blowouts, with the 1984 team one of only two teams in NFL history to lose 6 times by more than 25 points in a season.
While we didn't realize it at the time, the Bills fortunes were looking up. The 1986 team may have gone 4-12, but they fought much harder, losing 7 games by less than 1 TD, 5 times in the 4th quarter. The 1987 team went 7-8, another step forward, going 6-5 over their last 11 games. And after that two year consolidation of roster improvement and young player development, the Bills exploded in 1988, going 12-4 and losing in the AFC Championship game.
Are there similarities to our current situation?
- A dramatic improvement in drafting led to significant roster overhaul and improvement, but was only visible in game results after several years. Darryl Talley in 1983, Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, Derrick Burroughs and Frank Reich in 1985, Jim Kelly joining from the USFL in 1986, along with '86 draftees Ronnie Harmon and Wil Wolford, and Shane Conlan, Nate Odomes, Howard Ballard and Keith McKeller in 1987.
- Supplementing the roster with both trades- Cornelius Bennett- and aggressive scouting of other team's cast-offs like Steve Tasker and Mark Kelso.
- Replacing the old GM and promoting the untested Director of Player Personnel in 1986, Bill Polian.
- Replacing the head coach with someone with a mix of experience at the NFL, CFL and college levels in Marv Levy in the middle of the year in 1986, and then allowing Levy to replace the offensive, defensive and special teams coordinator positions heading into the 1987 season.
As a Bills fan who grew up on the Simpson-Electric Company Bills in the early 70's, and has seen every rise and fall of the organization since, the current Bills team seems to share very little with the ones we've watched fail repeatedly since 2000.
Growing collection of up and coming young talent, much of it through the draft? Check. Recently promoted, highly respected personnel guy as GM? Check. Completely new staff of coaches and coordinators with a mix of college and NFL experience? Check. Growing level of competiveness, where most games come down to Q4 but which often result in losses due to the inconsistency of young players making plays?Check. Young, franchise QB drafted in 1st round? TBA.
This team may end up with 6-7 wins this year, but if Whaley was right in selecting E.J. as the QB we've been waiting to develop, put me down for a full cup of the Kool-Aid that 2014=1988, and this team is playoff bound next year. Now on to stomaching the growing pains in the interim...