By: Vincent Hochstatter
As most true NFL fans know the Buffalo Bills are a distinguished professional sports team that has a historic background that is almost second to no other team in all of professional sports. Matter of fact Western New York itself is a staple in professional football dating back to the 1920’s American Professional Football Association (APFA) when Western New York had three professional football teams: the Buffalo All-Americans, the Tonawanda Kardex, and the Rochester Jeffersons. Given this history it may surprise some that the Buffalo Bills are still considered a small market team, but don’t tell their fans that. The Buffalo Bills not only represent the entire geographical area of Western New York for Professional Football but also are the only team that plays internationally every year when they play one home game in Toronto Canada’s Rogers Centre. The Bills only reward for their efforts during the seasons as of late have been their fans. I’m going on record and saying that these fans are the most passionate fans of any team in the NFL. Buffalo Bills fans do everything from camping out for the start of the season, attending road games and filling the air with their team chant "Let’s Go Buffalo", to staying two hours after a victory against AFC East rival Miami Dolphins on Thursday Night Football the in the freezing November cold Western New York air just to show their support for their team. Last season I personally attended five NFL games in five different stadiums (including three Bills games) and I must say that Buffalo Bills have the best following of fans in the NFL bar none. Yet, in recent memory the Buffalo Bills have not had legitimate post season expectations. Their recent expectations only discourage their fans from supporting their team which is reflected by the ticket sales at the Ralph in late season. This article will outline three key changes which have transpired in the past year and may be predictors of success in the near future for this historic franchise and give their fans a reason to keep cheering.Changing of the Guard
No I am not referring to LG Andy Levitre’s departure from Buffalo (which I for one am 100% disappointed about) but I am talking about the organizational changes which stem from the top and flutters all the way to the bottom of this organization. The changing of the guard began on December 31, 2012 when the Bills began to clean house with the firing head coach Chan Gailey and all of his coaching staff members after another subpar season of going 6-10. The next change occurred only one day after the firing of Chan Gailey, when Ralph Wilson named CEO Russ Brandon to the position of President on January 1, 2013. Russ Brandon is only the third president ever for the Buffalo Bills (Tom Donahoe and Ralph Wilson) and he is the youngest of the three at the age of 45 years old. This title gives Brandon full control over the franchise. Russ Brandon wasted no time making a huge splash by selecting former Syracuse head coach and former New Orleans Saints Offensive coordinator Doug Marrone to be the Buffalo Bills 17th head coach ever in January of 2013. The addition of Doug Marrone, who is considered a young coach at the age of 48, should excite fans with his fast paced offensive style and history of strong relationships in the NFL. Head Coach Doug Marrone wasted no time making his presence felt by making extensive changes throughout the practice facility most notably hanging the Bills former championship banners up in the practice facility, adding huge Vince Lombardi trophies and selecting motivational quotes which he added throughout the Buffalo Bills campus. In addition to Doug Marrone is his new athletic training staff which is utilizing electronic sports analytics by using a GPS on each player to track the players progress in practices and evaluating each players tendencies and explosiveness out of their cuts and off the line of scrimmage. This should assist Doug Marrone in utilizing the players at there best attributes and decreasing injuries. The last huge change occurred on May 13, 2013 when the Bills promoted Doug Whaley to General Manager. He replaces Buddy Nix and completes the youngest front office in NFL history (Brandon, Maronne, Whaley). Doug Whaley is only 40 years old. I believe keeping Buddy Nix on the staff as a Special Assistant was a great idea for Buffalo since I believe he has a wealth of knowledge. True Buddy Nix has made his share of mistakes over the years including signing Fitzpartick after only a few good games but I believe that Buddy Nix has a rare eye for talent. Buddy Nix has drafted or scouted Pro-Bowl and Hall of Fame caliber players for roughly twenty years in the NFL. These players include Eli Manning (and trading him for a decent Phillip Rivers), Drew Brees, Shawn Merriman, LaDainian Tomlinson, and CJ Spiller just to name a few.
Another notable addition to the changing of the guard occurs on the defensive side of the ball with the hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. The former Baltimore Ravens line backers coach and New York Jets Defensive Coordinator is highly respected as one of the best defensive minds in football, the addition of Mike Pettine should be a huge improvement over last year’s defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. Yes it true that the Jets rush defense last year only averaged 12 yards less than the Bills but the truth is the Jets do not have the formidable front D line that the Bills have in Dareus, Williams, Branch and Carrington. Bills fans should be optimistic about this addition as he brings a track record of coaching some of the best defenses in the NFL over the past seven years and on paper the Bills have one of the most under preformed yet most talented defenses in the NFL (K.Williams, M. Williams, Bryd, Gilmore, Dareus). I am sure Pettine will bring the best out of our players and Buffalo will live up to their defenses ability and expectations which fell way short under Dave Wanstednets predictable defense. Mike Pettine will no doubt impact the number of close games with just his presence on the sidelines and not up in the booth, hopefully this change is a positive one which improves upon last year’s record of losing four games by 7 or less points in 2012.
The second reason why Buffalo Bills fans should have optimism is based on the success that youth has had in the NFL lately. With the success of the likes of Luck, RG3, Wilson, Kapernick the Bills have placed faith of the franchise in EJ Mannuel who is a mobile quarterback that fits the mold of recent quarterback styles that lead to success. Along with having the youngest front office in NFL history the Buffalo Bills set their focus on building through the draft this off season rather than through free agency. The Bills released many veterans this offseason including George Wilson, Nick Barnett and Ryan Fitzpatrick etc. These releases created vacant spots in key positions which allow younger talent to fill the spots and mature as a professional. Although Buffalo acquired some players through free agency in the likes of Manny Lawson, Andre Branch and Kevin Kolb, overall the Buffalo Bills got younger as a team. As of May 2013 the Bills are the 7th youngest team (average age 27) with the likes of the 49ers (26.7), Patriots (26.7), Seahawks (26.1), Colts(26.9), and Bengals(26.6) all playoff teams and all are younger teams. This has been a historic problem with the Bills since the departure of the golden years (aka Kelly, Thomas, Reed, and Smith). The Bills have been focused on acquiring talent through the free agency rather than building through the draft. Not that free agency is a bad strategy since many teams have great success through free agency (I hope Mario Williams is a huge free agency success) however the recent trend has been younger talent equals better chance at success. (This ironically does not including the quarterback position with the likes of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady whose average age 35.3). The Bills have had a bad past of targeting in free agency and losing out on players because of focusing efforts towards players that eventually sign with other teams. Also free agency has had bad karma for the Bills seeing players in their prime leave Buffalo after putting up good seasons. The history shows players left in their prime such as the likes of Donte Whitner,Marcellus Wiley, Paul Posluszny, Antwan Winfield, Willis McGahee, Peerless Price (yes I said Peerless Price), etc. Although many teams lose talent through free agency every year, the Bills have had a horrible past 10 years with free agency. However in the past two seasons Buffalo has not let too much star talent leave and the talent that has left the Bills have testified that they have a backup plan in place. Maybe the most intriguing part the Bills in the past two years has been the attractive contracts offered to their own players to stay in Buffalo with the exception of Levetrie and Byrd not signing his franchise tag (a huge exception at that). The recent signings in the past two years include Fred Jackson, (Bust) Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Stevie Johnson. This is a huge positive sign for the Bills which show fellow Bills players if you perform the Bills organization will value your talents and offer you a contract (let’s hope they keep this up with Bryd). Buffalo has young good talent in key positions that should give Bills fans hope, such players as C.J. Spiller, EJ Mannuel, Robert Woods, Kiko Alonso, Stephon Gilmore, Marcell Dareus who all have stardom potential and all are 25 years old or younger.
Stadium lease and upgrades
Last but not least a big reason for fans to have optimism for the Buffalo Bills future success is the new stadium lease agreement with Erie County that locks the Bills in Buffalo for up to ten years (after seven years the team can decide to relocate). Secondly the new 130 million dollar stadium upgrades which include new parking lot features, entrence ramps, wider tunnels, new video and sound upgrades, new concessions area and a new team store and much, much more. These are all upgrades that the Ralph desperately needed in order to compete with other stadiums around the NFL. A change in scenery and new additions might just be the change in feng shui needed for the Bills to change their luck. Plus not to mention these changes make it easier to enjoy a game at the Ralph.
In conclusion, Western New York has had a large role in professional football since the first professional league and although the Bills are a small market team they have made some recent moves to suggest that the organization is moving towards a positive direction. There’s a saying that "change is always a good thing", well if this is true then the Buffalo Bills are defiantly headed in the right direction. With all of these changes going on in the Bills organization I cannot recall a time in the past 15 years when the future has looked so bright. I am sure that the passionate fans of the Buffalo Bills will respond only with the support and enthusiasm which has defined them as the best fans in football for many more years to come. I just hope that these changes are sufficient enough to return the Buffalo Bills back to their winning ways and keep the Buffalo Bills in Western New York for many more years after the lease agreement ends.