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State of the Bills, Part I: On Ralph C. Wilson, Jr.

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The Buffalo Bills suck.  I didn't need to say it - if you're reading this, you're well aware of that fact - but it's the logical place to start.  When a football team sucks for as long as the Bills have, something needs to change.  And it's definitely been a while; only the Detroit Lions have missed the playoffs as many consecutive years (nine) as our beloved Bills.  It's bad.  Again, you know this.

What follows is Part I of a [TBA]-part series, not so creatively dubbed "State of the Bills".  Following logic, we'll start at the top.  On the hot seat in Part I - team owner Ralph C. Wilson, Jr.

First, a disclaimer - I'm a present-oriented guy.  I'm not here to speculate about the team's future viability in the Buffalo market, because frankly, winning and losing is far more important to me.  I've watched a losing franchise for the past decade; I'm 23 years old.  You do the math.  The last time I watched legitimately good Bills football was, for me, almost half a lifetime ago.  I was nearing high school.  I want to see winning football first and foremost.

So if you want to talk about your issues with Ralph and his handling of the sale of the team, this isn't the thread.  This thread is about Ralph's role in putting a better product on the field.  It's laced with opinion and speculation; largely, it's me getting this off of my chest.  Use it as a place to start what I hope will be one of the better philosophical discussions we've had as a community.

On Ralph's commitment to winning: Ralph has owned this team since day one, and as that's pushing 50 years, he's had time to contradict himself several times over - and that's not a bad thing.  He's tried a lot of different tactics to field a winner - and, as you realize, it hasn't worked more often than not.  He's hired familiar faces (Terry Bledsoe - a recent discovery of mine from this very community - Bill Polian and GM-Marv Levy as examples) and outside guys (Tom Donahoe).  He's surrendered control (Donahoe) and seized it back (before and after Donahoe).  He's hired experienced coaches and hot young coordinators.  He's deferred decisions and been instrumental in others.  The man is clearly trying to field a winner; his moves have gotten more frequent and more desperate in recent years, for several very obvious reasons.  But nobody will ever convince me that the man isn't interested in fielding a winner; the proof is in the pudding.  Ralph's as desperate as we are, and unfortunately, it's led to some turmoil in recent years.

On "being cheap": Ah, yes.  Everyone's favorite argument.  I'll grant you that some of Ralph's coaching hires over the years have been less than exciting, Dick Jauron included.  (Side note: I'm not placing a shred of blame on Ralph for this fact, because he's not doing the hiring - the GMs are.  If anything, he gets credit for getting rid of rubbish like Gregg Williams, and demerit for Wade Phillips.  You take the good with the bad when someone's been around as long as Ralph.)  I'll even grant you that his GM hires have been iffy.  He's had good ones and he's had bad ones; just once, an outside hire blew up in his face, and beyond that, he's done almost everything in-house.  The man's loyal; let's give him that.  But he's never truly paid top dollar for elite front office "talent", if that's the right word for it.

Just once more, I'd like Ralph to try the "Donahoe route" again.  Outside influence can bring a lot of positives to an organization, and Ralph is undoubtedly gun-shy to try it again.  I chalk that up to his age.  Older owners tend to gravitate toward the familiar; we've seen Al Davis (re-hiring Art Shell as head coach) do the same thing.  Ralph did it with Marv, and he was a tremendous stabilizing force after the Donahoe fiasco.  Whenever Ralph deems it necessary to change it again, going outside the organization, in my view, is a must.

As for being cheap with players - again, in my view, you take the good with the bad.  Or, rather, you take the bad with the bad.  He's paid money, there's no doubt about it; he's just given it to questionable athletes like Derrick Dockery and Chris Kelsay rather than proven commodities like Pat Williams and Antoine Winfield.  Again, the players themselves aren't his decision, so it's hard to fault him for each individual move.  But the money he's paid - as well as the money he's saved - has clearly starved the franchise of key talent.  I don't view Ralph as being cheap; I just think that personnel decisions have been largely terrible.  Again, the majority of the blame there isn't on Ralph's shoulders.

On age and business savvy: Without making an attempt to put this lightly, but maintaining all respect for the venerable Mr. Wilson, Ralph is an old man.  There isn't a better way to say it.  I've mentioned this in passing several times on this blog, but it certainly bears repeating in this article - I'm very confident that Ralph's age hinders his ability to do the things we'd like him to do with his team.

Where's the draw of playing for a 90-year-old owner?  The franchise has been in disarray for years.  Ralph is nearing the end of his tenure as this team's owner, not to mention his days on this Earth.  He's made knee-jerk decisions in his past, and as of late, has shuffled his front office and coaching tree too frequently.  Historically speaking, this franchise has only had two stints of viability under his leadership.  There are 31 other franchises in the league.  Even if Ralph entertained the idea of bringing in guys that we, the fans, bring up on a daily basis, those guys likely wouldn't come to Buffalo.  Bill Parcells?  Bill Cowher?  Dream on.  It will be a cold day in hell before they work here, and it's not because they don't respect Ralph.  It's because there's no draw, and because said elite talent has the option to wait to put themselves in a better situation.

On his media appearances: Ralph's latest outburst wasn't fair to the players he's paying nor the coaches he's employing.  We don't publicly hear from Ralph very often, so naturally, when he speaks, we all listen.  Every time he speaks, and I listen, I invariably end up wishing that he'd just stayed behind the scenes.

From his latest outburst to his public ripping of the CBA (even if he was right) to his infamous press conference with the late Ted Rogers announcing the Bills in Toronto Series, I cringe when the man's voice is heard.  Not because of his age, but because of the words themselves.  That only decreases from that pull I mentioned in the business savvy point - to be blunt, Ralph makes an ass of himself when he speaks.  I appreciate his candor and his own bluntness when he does - Lord knows it's refreshing - but it's also ultimately destructive.

On his role with the franchise: Just like most other NFL owners, Ralph is a meddler.  He's fidgety.  I get the sense - maybe you don't, but I do - that he's far more involved day-to-day than we can possibly imagine, and not in a beneficial way.  It's not hard to imagine a scenario where he calls men like Jauron, Russ Brandon and his vice presidents (John Guy and Tom Modrak) a half-dozen times a day.  He's not just the owner of the team, he's also the President.  He has a degree of power in the operations of the franchise; you can bet he's involved more than we realize.  Given the tenuous front office structure (stay tuned for Part II of this series!), it can't help the situation.  Meddling is generally never a productive behavior.

In conclusion: I have immense respect for Ralph Wilson.  How can I not?  Without him, the Buffalo Bills don't exist, I'm probably a Browns or Vikings fan, and I'm not here, therapeutically getting all of this off of my chest.  His contributions to the NFL are, quite frankly, awesome, and he's been a large shaper of the NFL we know today.  We're indebted to him for that, and NFL fans everywhere owe him a degree of allegiance as well.

I don't fault Wilson for much of what's happened during his tenure as owner, largely because of the reason I alluded to earlier in this little rant of mine.  The man is trying.  I don't view him as cheap, and I don't think that's an argument that can be used to explain the woes of this franchise.  Has he been a bit conservative in his front office decision-making?  Sure he has, and it's directly led to a lot of the franchise's problems.  To his credit, he's always shown a willingness to make the change.

My problem with Ralph isn't what he's done, it's what he's now preventing us from doing.  We can make change all we want, but it will all be side-stepping, because again, Ralph has no draw.  As a result, his franchise has no draw.  There's a reason we've missed the playoffs for nine straight seasons and suffered through decades of terrible football.  It's not what Ralph has or hasn't done; to me, it's his mere presence.  I highly doubt anything will change until Ralph is no longer associated with this franchise, which is no fault of his own - he's trying.  It's the ultimate Catch-22 - and it's an incredibly unfortunate fact.