Saturday, January 24, 2015

Tanks a lot

The Buffalo Sabres are on holiday these days, enjoying a long All-Star break.

Good thing. The people covering team need to figure out new ways to describe losses. Eleven straight regulation defeats will do that.

The latest skid has put "tanking" back on the table as a discussion for discussion. That's when your team more or less gives up on a particular season or two in order to get the best available talent in the draft.

Sometimes, a team picks the correct year to lose. In basketball, the former Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) went first to the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969, and he turned that team into a champion in short order. In hockey, Mario Lemieux needed a few years to get a Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh ... but he got them there. The Penguins, you'll recall, didn't exactly load up with talent the season before the draft in order to avoid the chance of getting him in the draft.

On the other hand, there are no guarantees. The Edmonton Oilers have had a bunch of high draft choices lately. Yet they are still at the bottom of the NHL standings. The Philadelphia 76ers have had some good picks in the NBA draft too, but haven't quite found the combination yet to change their fortunes. They remain awful.

The Sabres had a hot streak in December that got them well out of the basement. But this poor run on losses in 2015 has put them in the basement and renewed the talk of tanking, frustrating players and front office members alike. After all, who wants to be associated with losing in that way?

Let's look at the Sabres situation. How do teams that are in losing streaks react? Usually, they follow a series of steps.

First, they look to the minor leagues for reinforcements. The Sabres have done some of that; most of the best players in Rochester have had at least the proverbial cup of coffee in Buffalo. You could argue, and some have, that there are players like Mark Pysyk who are better than guys in Sabre uniforms. But there is something to be said about giving players time in the minors to grow and mature - particularly defensemen. Others have come up and shown little.

Second, they make trades. Yes, most (all?) of the phone calls to general manager Tim Murray no doubt are about young players. No doubt, they are also one-sided offers. Even so, teams often trade "my fringe player for your fringe player," just to shake things up. That hasn't happened. The Sabres did add some players in that sense last year, but so far it's been quiet. In fairness, it's tough to know what's possible and what's not in such areas.

Third, they fire the coach. Obviously, that hasn't happened here. Ted Nolan signed a three-year contract last summer, I believe, and he still has plenty of good will among members of Sabre Nation. When the team is in 30th place overall, you should save all the good will you can.

Yet, both Nolan and Murray are operating under an odd situation. They were both hired by Pat LaFontaine, who later, um, vacated the premises. That means Nolan wasn't hired by Murray, an unusual situation for a coach and general manager. Since LaFontaine wasn't replaced, no one can be sure what it would take to send Murray or Nolan to the unemployment line. Owner Terry Pegula and team president Ted Black could order such moves, I guess, even though it would be odd for someone to be fired for following the overall blueprint for rebuilding.

Add it up, and the Sabres have been on the quiet side in reacting to the situation this season. Meanwhile, what constitutes a tank anyway? Most non-playoff teams in hockey usually trade their soon-to-be unrestricted free agents for prospects and/or draft choices in order to get better in the future. Clearly, trading Ryan Miller last year meant the Sabres did not have short-term interests in mind. But most agree that the deal probably was the right idea under the circumstances. It's difficult to find good free agents to come to a team at the bottom of the standings; sometimes even overpaying them isn't good enough. So is collecting young players proof of tanking, or do you have to find a cliched "smoking gun" document that says "let's lose as often as possible so we can get Connor McDavid"? Depends on your definition, I guess.

The Sabres can't exactly sell the present to the fan base. But they can sell hope - hope that better times will be coming. It shows the passion of those fans that many are willing to watch the team lose - yes, even root for losses - if it means a superstar in the form of McDavid is coming. That puts them on opposite sides from the current group of players, who obviously have an interest in doing as well as possible.

It's an uncomfortable situation for everyone, and it will test the patience of those involved - from ownership to fans in the 300 level. This is a new situation for all concerned, since the Sabres haven't gone through many long droughts in their history. We're likely to learn a lot about those connected to the team in the coming months.

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Something in common

Great coaching performances in professional sports usually are discovered in hindsight. We have to look back and see what sort of material a coach had at the time in order to gain perspective on what was accomplished.

I think of a couple of specific coaching performances along those lines. In 1996-97, the Buffalo Sabres' leading scorer was Derek Plante, followed by Brian Holzinger. The top goal-scorer was Jason Dawe. Those were three decent NHL players, but they would be the first to tell you that they weren't Crosby or Ovechkin. Ted Nolan won a division title and a playoff series with that lineup.

In 2009, the New York Jets had a rookie quarterback in Mark Sanchez. He threw for 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions ... and the Jets made it to the AFC Championship game under rookie coach Rex Ryan. A year later, Sanchez was a bit better, but not brilliant - 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Not bad, but no one was comparing him with Tom Brady yet ... and at least from a 2015 perspective, they never will. Again, the Jets reached the AFC Championship game.

There obviously were other factors involved in those seasons. For the Sabres, Dominik Hasek was at the peak of his powers, playing at an MVP level. The Jets, meanwhile, had an excellent defense - especially in 2009. That unit played a big role in winning four road playoff games in two years. Few other teams have done that. Nevertheless, the coaches get some credit when things go well, and the blame when they don't.

It appears that Nolan and Ryan will have something else in common in the near future. Ryan is about to take over as coach of the Bills, while Nolan is "back" with the Sabres. That means both will be drawing paychecks authorized by Terry Pegula.

If Pegula wanted to serve notice that "things have changed since I took over the Bills," hiring Ryan is far better, and much louder, than issuing a news release.

For some reason, Ralph Wilson soured on big-name coaches, and paying them big-time salaries, at some point after Chuck Knox left after the 1982 season. It's certainly been a mixed bag since then. The best pick was obviously Marv Levy; Bills' fans probably can come up with their own pick of who their least favorite coach of the past 32 years is. Wilson never would have hired Ryan, and never would have paid him $27.5 million over five years.

Speaking of differences, Ryan has more personality than the last few Bills' coaches combined. How many of those non-Levy Bills' coaches over the years gave the impression that they'd be interesting dinner companions, let alone quotable in a football setting? Ryan gets two checks there as well. He is bound to attract national attention and put the Bills back on the map in that sense for the first time in years.

The hiring answers one major question, but the Bills' short offseason has produced plenty of others. Jim Schwartz has a great reputation locally after one very good season as defensive coordinator here; he and Ryan do have different philosophies (4-3 vs. 3-4, for starters) and it's easy to wonder if they can coexist. The Bills had talked to Bill Polian about a senior adviser's role; Ryan's hiring might change the need for such a position now or its role. If team president Russ Brandon is sticking to business matters, as he said he'd do at the end of the season, then the chain of command around Ralph Wilson Stadium looks, um, unclear.

The biggest unsettled matter, of course, remains the quarterback. EJ Manuel was thrown back into the spotlight by Kyle Orton's retirement. The Bills say they haven't given up on him, but someone else certainly is needed for competition's sake at the position. It might be an overstatement to say, no matter what else happens in any aspect of the job, that Ryan's level of success might be determined by how the quarterback position works out in the next few years. But it wouldn't be a big overstatement.

I'm not going to claim to have any special insight into Ryan's chances for success. My impression from a distance is that for years the Bills' front office members haven't all been rowing in the same direction, making it difficult for any coach to succeed. It sounds as if Doug Marrone tried to change of that, and created some enemies along the way (as well as for some other actions). Now, the Bills' entire organizational culture is in the midst of a huge change. Until we see what emerges from that rebuilding, it's tough to know if anyone can thrive in the new environment. The Sabres have gone in the wrong direction since Pegula took over there, but it's really not fair to judge that situation in such a relatively short period of time.

Plus, it's never easy to determine who the next great coach might be in the National Football League. The Bills, like other NFL teams this offseason, have talked to a variety of successful coordinators in the past couple of weeks in search of someone with the required magic. Some will land head coaching jobs elsewhere. Will one of them be another Bill Belichick, who went from the Giants' defensive guru to a great coach with New England, albeit one with a brief failed stop as a head coach in Cleveland? Will another be more like Buddy Ryan, defensive coordinator of the legendary '85 Bears team and father of Rex? Buddy was unable to duplicate his success with the Bears after becoming a head coach, winning no playoff games in seven seasons.

Before he came to the Jets, Rex Ryan was one of those "hot coordinators" after a good run with the Baltimore Ravens. He's got a reputation for being football smart, and he's certainly bright enough to have learned some things about being a head coach. Ryan was in demand with other teams, if interviews are any indication. In New York, Ryan was popular with the players, and popular with the fans. That gives him something in common with Levy, and something that sets him apart from Marrone. He walks in the front door with something of a head start.

Add it up, and Ryan has a good chance to be a good choice. Which is about all you can ask in such times.

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Monday, December 29, 2014

What if I told you ...

... back in July that the Buffalo Bills would have a winning record in the 2014 season? That the Bills would not have a losing record at any point in 2014? That they would finish second in the AFC East?

My guess is that many Bills fans would have settled for that. And that's exactly what happened. The first winning season in 10 years (9-7) was a good sign of progress. As an added bonus, the first-round pick in 2015 that was given up in the trade involving Sammy Watkins turned out to be the 19th pick in the first round. Just for comparison's sake, EJ Manuel went 16th overall two years ago. It's still a slightly painful transaction - but it could have been much worse.

But, while no one expected joy after sitting out the postseason again, there's a lot of anger out there. Maybe 15 years of missing the playoffs will do that, but there are calls for massive shakeups of personnel and some firings in the team's football department. Admittedly, some of this anger turns up in the form of letters to the sports editor or talk shows, and those are outlets which are not representative as the public as a whole. (In other words, those people are more likely to pick up the phone to complain rather than those who are relatively content.)

Part of the reaction naturally can be traced to something along the lines of the old Peanuts cartoon. Remember when Charlie Brown would come up to kick a football, and Lucy always pull it away at the last minute? That what the season felt like to some fans.

The Bills were good enough to get people's hopes up, a welcome development as these things go. Mix that with the good feeling generates by the sale of the team to the Pegulas, and expectations hadn't been so high in years. Then came the Miami game, which dashed some hopes. And then came the Oakland game, a stunning loss to a poor team that took place only a week after an equally shocking win over Green Bay.

In hindsight, a winning record is a good-sized accomplishment under the circumstances. As most people will tell you, the Bills didn't really have a starting quarterback on the roster this season. Manuel didn't live up to expectations and was benched in favor of Kyle Orton, one of those quarterbacks who is good enough to prevent the boat from sinking if your starter gets hurt but not good enough to be a top-flight starter. Orton complicated matters by retiring the day after the season ended, making some wonder what was on his mind for the final weeks of the season. Good teams usually have good quarterbacks.

In addition, the running game did little throughout 2014. The Bills' current coaches never figured out how to use C.J. Spiller properly, and then he broke his collarbone and sat out several weeks. Fred Jackson showed signs of wearing down, and the others looked like the substitutes they were most of the time. By the end of the season, the coaches seemed afraid to try to run the ball on short yardage because they knew they had little chance of making it.

Show me a team with issues at quarterback and running, and I'll show you a team that has offensive line problems. A couple of more good players in that position would have been nice, and the fact that Cyrus Kouandjio, the second-round draft choice, couldn't even get on the field was discouraging. The coaching staff received some criticism for all of this, but the group didn't have much to work with.

This is not to say that it won't be an interesting offseason at One Bills Drive. We start with the fact that new owner Terry Pegula has a chance to put his own stamp on the franchise, if he desires. It's now his shoe store. There are reports circulating that he is interested in hiring someone as either a consultant or as a head of the football department - not a bad idea.

Speaking of reports, stories have circulated that Marrone and general manager Doug Whaley aren't getting along. That has been denied, but it's hard to say from a distance if there is the slightest bit of truth in it. Marrone reportedly has a three-day opt-out clause in his contract, effective at the end of the season, and no one is going to say what might be happening in that area behind the scenes.

Then there's the quarterback situation, which just got more complicated with Orton's announcement. The Bills certainly can't be enthsiastic about the idea of selling EJ Manuel as the only possible option for 2015 at the position. Still, teams are really good about locking up decent quarterbacks, so those who could be available for trades or as free agents have all sorts of flaws attached. That missing first-round draft choice could have been useful there.

It's a complicated picture, and there are a lot of pieces in play. But there's also a little hope after the just completed season ... for a change. By training camp, we'll know more if the Bills have a chance of continuing their forward progress, or if a step backward is more than possible.

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Monday, December 01, 2014

Face of the franchise

Buffalo Bills fans received a shock when they picked up their morning newspaper on Thanksgiving morning. The main story on the front page was on the problems faced by Darryl Talley, one of the most popular players on the Bills' roster during their Super Bowl years of the early 1990s.

As outlined by Tim Graham in an excellent, difficult-to-read report, Talley has fallen on all sorts of bad times. His body has given out, leaving him unable to stand or sleep for long. Talley discovered well after the fact that he played NFL football with a broken neck. He may have brain damage from his playing days. Talley's personal finances are a mess, thanks to the collapse of his small business, to the point that he lost his house. The ex-linebacker suffers from depression and has had thoughts about trying to commit suicide.

Suddenly, the problems of ex-players with physical problems has a face in Buffalo. It's one thing when another team's star had issues. Junior Seau, one of the best linebackers in history, committed suicide due to concussion effects. But in Buffalo, seeing Talley in this situation drove home the point of what a problem this can be now and no doubt will be in the future.

Talley's status raises issues - lot of issues.

The veteran is receiving a yearly disability payment from the league, but it is far from the maximum allowed. The initial reaction from many is along the lines of, how disabled does someone have to be in order to qualify for the max? In fairness, the lines are very blurry in such cases, and the financial stakes over the rest of a lifetime are enormous. Yes, the NFL has plenty of money, but no business would hand out settlements like candy at Halloween.

Then there is the reaction of the Bills' franchise, which has to follow the lead of the National Football League in such matters. Otherwise, the legal complications could be immense.

That, in turn, brings up the issue of the team's new ownership. Ralph Wilson had a connection to the team from 1960 to 2014. He knew all of his veterans over the years, and is said to have personally helped out some of them financially in tough times. But Wilson didn't advertise it, because he knew that might lead to anyone who showed up at a Bills' training camp who had lost a few dollars would come asking for help.

Wilson is gone now, and Terry Pegula has replaced him. Pegula does not have the same emotional connection to every single Bill, even if he was a fan of the team for many years. What will he do in such situations?

Even help from fans can be complicated. A grass-roots effort to raise money to help Talley collected more than $100,000 within a couple of days. The show of support and generosity took everyone's breath away, and proved what Bills' fans thought of their ex-star. But Talley and his family aren't thrilled about taking that sort of handout in good conscience. Understandable. If they don't take the money, what happens to it? If the funds go to some related charity, donors certainly could say, "I sent in a check to help Darryl Talley, and not to go to some organized nonprofit."

Pretty clearly, the number of Darryl Talleys will be coming at an ever faster rate in the coming years. There is a fund dedicates to helping such cases as part of a legal settlement, but even hundreds of millions of dollars can go to victims quicker than you'd think.

There's one other issue, but it's for the long term. How many mothers read that story on Thanksgiving morning and said, "My son is not going to play football"? Get enough of those parents, and it's easy to wonder if football will start to lose popularity in terms of participation.

There's plenty at stake here, and it was rather brave of Talley to open up his life for the story. He's changed the conversation among Bills' fans for good, and for that we all owe him a debt of gratitude.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Finish line

It's not often I get to be in the same photograph as two
marathon directors ... and two of my favorite people. Here Mary
Wittenberg of New York Road Runners is honored by the late Tom
Donnelly at the Western New York Running Hall of Fame
induction ceremony in August, 2014.
Whenever something happened in the running community in the journalistic sense around Western New York, I knew exactly whom to call for a reaction. Inevitably I would try to reach Tom Donnelly, the unofficial leader of that community, who was sure to give me an intelligent, thoughtful response full of perspective.

Imagine, then, what happened when the news came out on Saturday night that Tom had died of a heart attack of the age of 61. Who could put his life into the proper perspective? No one.

Basketball star Bill Russell once said, when he heard about the death of Wilt Chamberlain, "I am unspeakably injured." Many runners in Western New York have that feeling now.  

I could pinpoint more or less precisely the time when I started to get to know Tom. He was the subject of my third running column back in February 2005. I may have known him slightly before that through mutual friends, but we hadn't really talked one-on-one. That changed quickly. For nearly 10 years, I think he was the most quoted person in the column.

That's because talking to Tom was one of the major benefits of the job. We basically had the same goals for the sport locally, even if we approached them  in different roles. Tom and I both wanted the sport to grow in Western New York. We both thought that the Buffalo Marathon and the YMCA Turkey Trot could become signature events on the running calendar. We believed that there should be a way to honor the great runners of Western New York in the past. When so much is in common, it's easy to strike up a conversation ... and a friendship.

Whenever I needed to know what was going on in running circules, Tom would point me in a direction or introduce me to a person. In fact, he did so many introductions that it was nice last month to reverse the roles. In one of the last times we were together, both of us turned up at the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner. Tom was somewhat excited about seeing some of the ex-Sabres in the crowd, so I called Derek Smith and Don Luce over to say hello. Tom was thrilled. 

Lives often can be divided into different "compartments," with relationships coming in different ways. In Tom's case, I knew few other members of his family, even though it was a big and happy one - based on the frequent Facebook pictures of reunions and events. I can't say we ever talked about his job at the NFTA; we never got around to it. Tom even had a "bridge" compartment, as he had a regular group of card players that participated in that particular game. He had the chance to play bridge with the legendary Warren Buffett. Even though I knew how to play the game, I never did sit across the table from him and be his dummy. So to speak.

No one locally, though, had a bigger "running compartment" than Tom. He had started the sport simply with a need to get in shape, and ran constantly for the rest of his life. Tom was always in great condition, except when he had gave in to the temptation of a Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner every so often. It was the only time he had an ounce of fat on him during the time I knew him. But the act of running wasn't quite enough involvement for Tom. When he had the chance to move into the business side of the sport, he jumped in with, um, both feet.

At the end, he was the director of the Buffalo Marathon, director of the YMCA Turkey Trot, president of the Checkers Athletic Club (which included many of the area's best runners), and the leader of the Western New York Running Hall of Fame. Oh, and he had a small business in which he designed logos for shirts given out at races. Where did he have the time to have any other compartments?

One way to do so was to find good people to help him. Tom used to say that he was no genius, but that he had surrounded himself with top-notch assistants. He was kidding himself in a sense; it takes a special type of person to be able to persuade people to give up their spare time to work on a project - particularly without pay. 

Tom was always willing to talk about running and runners. Our last conversation was rather typical of that. I was running in the Sarkin race in October, jogging down Delevan Ave. at my usual pace. Suddenly I heard Tom shout out some encouragement while doing a training run in the other direction. This sort of greeting, by the way, was a regular event for him; he knew everyone. This time, though, Tom went past me, turned around, caught up with me (not too hard for him, a former 2:35 marathoner), and started talking with me. This went on for more than a mile. At one point, Tom said that he thought we might be disturbing the woman running in our vicinity. She turned and said, "Oh, no. You guys are really interesting."

What's more, Tom was always willing to listen to new ideas. For example, I always believed that the Buffalo Marathon should sell licensed merchandise (shirts, hats, bags, etc.) in order to connect runners to the race. Tom replied that the Marathon didn't have the extra money needed to produce the items in advance of their sale. A couple of years later, I heard that a local company might be interested in supplying "official" items for the Marathon, giving the race a portion of the proceeds. I told Tom about it on Monday; he had completed a deal on Friday. That has to be a business record for speed. It's not merely good to find someone who appreciate your ideas and is willing to act on them; one cherishes it. Tom realized how that sort of action builds loyalty.

Admittedly, Tom and I were on different sides of the journalistic fence. We both realized that if something went wrong with one of his races, I'd have to ask the tough questions, and he'd have to answer them. But that never proved to be an obstacle for us. Our on-the-record conversations featured as many smiles as the personal ones.

Sudden deaths don't happen in your life very often, but they are shocking and unforgettable when they occur. In Tom's case that was particularly true because he was so active. His Facebook page became an instant memorial, with people from all portions of his life saying how much of a difference his attitude and upbeat approach made to them. Tom had a history of heart disease in his family. It was often as if he was determined to cram as much as possible into the years that he did have. If so, he certainly succeeded.

It's often said at such times that a departed person can not be replaced. That's very true in Tom's case; it will take five or six people to take on all of his jobs. Hopefully they'll carry Tom's dream with them and make running an even larger part of our community.  

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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Untold story

The midterm elections are over, and commentators throughout the country are busy trying to read the tea leaves in an attempt to figure out, solemnly, "what it all means." Usually they and the candidates themselves try to put some sort of great overriding theme into the results, when in reality it's more of a case of many individual decisions that may or may not have anything to do with each other when you try to connect the dots.

With all of this analysis, there's one overriding factor that doesn't get discussed here. But listen to people talk or pay attention to their posts on social media, and the message comes across loud and clear.

People are angry at the campaign process itself.

Few people were talking about who might win a political race. They were more likely to talk about how much mail they received on a given day from campaigns, or how many phone calls they received from candidates or their surrogates.

Political battles have become something of a virus, infecting people unexpectedly. In New York, we're somewhat immune from the major battles. The state usually goes Democratic in Presidential battles, and elections for Governor and Senator have been relatively one-sided too. I can't imagine what it's like to live in Ohio in an election year these days.

This year, we had an odd set of circumstances in my State Senate district. Usually, the Democrat wins handily since the registration edge is something like three-to-one. This was not a typical year. Two years ago, Mark Grisanti switched parties to run and win as a Republican. Since then he voted for same-sex marriage and gun control, angering some Republicans. He lost the primary to Kevin Stocker, and then opted to run on the Independence Party line. Meanwhile, Democrat Marc Panepinto was waiting in the general election. Panepinto was mostly known for being convicted of election fraud 11 years ago - not a good sign for someone seeking elective office. None of them, by the way, would ever be called "the best and the brightest" when it comes to serving the public - at least based on their public statements.

Throw in another conservative candidate who figured to draw some votes, and no one had the slightest idea who would win. So special interests came out of the woodwork to back Grisanti and Panepinto, and they threw money at the voters in the form of television ads and literature. And threw it, and threw it, and threw it. You couldn't watch the local news without seeing political ads, with the same candidate sometimes promoted more than once within the half-hour cycle. Heck, at the end of the news I was starting to miss ads like Fred Thompson's support of reverse mortgages.

The day before the election, I received 19 pieces of mail - mostly about this particular State Senate election. To be fair, Stocker's campaign was rather quiet in this sense, but that was probably more a case of a lack of supporting funds. Keep in mind that I'm not affiliated with a political party, although my wife is. We both were overwhelmed.

We all know that negative campaigning works, otherwise candidates and groups wouldn't be so quick to use it. Political parties and other groups have been happy to spread negative thoughts about opponents, using anecdotes and conclusions that sometimes are only within touching distance of the truth. The literature often comes without the name of the sponsoring group attached, meaning that the recipient has no idea who is doing the attacking. (At least on television, the group paying the bills has to be identified ... briefly.)

By the end of the campaign season, the voters are pretty tired. When the phone rings, many check Caller ID to see if the call is from a number they recognize. Otherwise, it goes unanswered. If they do answer, they hang up quickly. This isn't new. I remember one time some years ago, a co-worker came to work at 5 p.m one late October., and I asked him how he was. "Lousy - Hillary Clinton woke me up from my nap," he answered. But it's getting worse by  the year.

On Sunday, I even was frustrated enough to fight back once. I got an actual person calling me asking if he could count on my support of Panepinto. I told him that the election fraud conviction really bothered me, although I never said it was a disqualifying offense in terms of a vote. The guy on the phone said that was 11 years ago, and I said it still showed very poor judgment. With that, the guy just gave up - said thank you and hung up. No room for discussion there.

What happens by election day? People are sick of everyone. No candidate comes through the process without scars. Most of my friends vote all the time, so they take it all with a grunt and move on. Still, can you blame anyone for not voting? The numbers haven't been good in terms of turnout for off-year elections for a few decades - under 50 percent. According to some early statistics, turnout dropped in more than 40 states this time as compared to 2010. Remember, this is apples to apples, and not compared to 2012 when there was a Presidential race.

My guess is that by driving away those who aren't fully invested in the process, you tend to get a larger percentage of the "true believers" - which translates into the left and right wings. Which leads to less of a willingness to compromise, more gridlock in government, and more anger at the other side.

I would think that we need to take a look at all of this in a rational manner, starting with making it easier and more convenient to vote. I know that some think that reducing the size of the electorate can work in a particular party's favor in a particular race. But let's agree on something, shall we? The goal in a democratic society (note the small D) is to make the process more inclusive. What we're doing now is driving people away. 

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Traveling man

One of the best parts about traveling is that you find out what other cities are doing with their resources. In other words, it's educational.

Let's take, for example, the city of Little Rock, Arkansas. Little Rock has a riverfront, and civic officials there obviously have put some effort into turning it into a gathering place, instead of a swamp. There are all sorts of walking and running trails, and the nearby historic district is filling up with shops and restaurants.

This amphitheater, however, is the part that caught my eye. It's obvious a nice facility, with a good-sized covered stage and some permanent seating (there are some grassy areas surrounding it as well). Looks like a nice place to spend a summer day or night, doesn't it?

Now. Wouldn't one of these look good on Buffalo's waterfront ... somewhere?

My personal choice would be LaSalle Park, which might be the most underutilized or at least underrated piece of public property in the region. It's right on Lake Erie, and there is something of a stage there now. Yes, it would take a little money to do the stage itself, with other funds needed for such elements as parking. But it could turn into a magnet for people. If the amphitheater wouldn't work at LaSalle Park, there are other spots that could work as well.

I've seen other cities with subways have stops that are physically connected to major facilities, so that no one has to be outside in the winter in order to enter. Think about that the next time you walk outside from the ugly subway stop for the First Niagara Center on a chilly night for a Sabres' game. It wouldn't take much effort to construct a new station down the street a ways.

I've also seen cities in northern locations connect buildings through tunnels and skyways. That would be a natural here, but I'm not willing to be so ambitious quite yet. We've made some fast progress in Buffalo lately, and I'm willing to borrow ideas from any source to keep the momentum going. Everyone else should be too.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

A unique position

Let's take a look at what happens to most professional athletes when they hit a period of time when their play is below their usual or necessary standards.

If it's a short slump, the athletes might come out of a particular game in favor of someone else. If a hockey player keeps giving the puck to the other team, he'll take a seat on the bench for a while. When a basketball players misses eight straight shots, well, let him think about things for a while sitting next to the coach. If a baseball pitcher can't get anyone out, off to the showers ... until the next opportunity.

In any of those cases and almost all of the others, the players receives another chance to do well. If it goes on for a period of time, the baseball hitter will be dropped in the batting order or platooned. The football player will see spot duty and find himself on special teams. The hockey player will be placed on different lines and/or see his ice time reduced. Even golfers have a chance at redemption in upcoming tournaments.

But there is one big exception to the rule, and it centers on the single most glamorous and single most difficult position in sports - the football quarterback.

Ask EJ Manuel.

The Buffalo Bills quarterback was replaced this week as the team's starter, as Kyle Orton will take over on Sunday against the Detroit Lions. Manuel had not been playing well lately, and coach Doug Marrone announced the move earlier this week.

Let's review here. Manuel was a first-round draft pick in 2013 by the Bills in something of a surprise move, since other teams had him projected much lower. It would be interesting to know if Buffalo had planned to start him right away last season. Plan A might have been to start Kevin Kolb at the beginning of the year and give Manuel a chance to get his feet wet a bit. But Kolb suffered a career-ending concussion in preseason, and Manuel was Plan B. Manuel didn't look like the obvious answer at quarterback when he played last season, but then again he was good enough that we didn't know that he wasn't going to be the answer some day.

Fast forward to this year. The Bills traded two number-one picks to Cleveland for wide receiver Sammy Watkins, in theory giving Manuel a big-time target. Thad Lewis showed up in the spring, and the backup quarterback apparently had forgotten how to throw a football. He was quickly cut in camp. That left a vacancy at quarterback, and the Bills spent major dollars - something like $11 million over two years - to sign veteran free agent Kyle Orton. That's one expensive insurance policy, but an important one since Manuel was injured three times last year and in the NFL these days your season is essentially over if your QB goes down and you don't have a decent backup.

It didn't take an injury to force a switch. Manuel had trouble completing a pass beyond 10 yards or so, checking down to his running backs frequently. Shades of Trent Edwards. The team won two of its first four games, and it wasn't enough to keep the fan base happy. After defending Manuel after the Houston loss, Marrone announced a switch in starters 24 hours later. He might as well have dropped a green flag announcing "Let the speculation begin."

Were the Bills giving up on Manuel forever? The denials about that possibility quickly came from the team, but some quick research revealed that quarterbacks put in similar situations over the years frequently disappear for good. Check with J.P. Losman. The switch certainly prompted questions about whether the Bills were as sold on Manuel back in August as they said they were in public, and thus had this at least in mind since then.

And what about the pressure to win now? Certainly, another poor season would not go over well for a team that hasn't made the playoffs in this century. But throw in the fact that the AFC East looks pretty mediocre at best so far, and there's an opportunity to march into the playoffs relatively easily if things stay the way they are. What's more, the Watkins trade was designed to help the team immediately. Another poor season would bring another top-notch draft choice ...  to Cleveland.

Overshadowing all of that, naturally, is that the Bills are about to get a new owner. It's tough to know what Terry Pegula will do with the team when he takes over. He made some changes in the Sabres' front office, but he left the hockey department alone for a while. The people in the NFL are always under pressure to "win now." Still, observers have been guessing how many wins it would take to prevent a major housecleaning at One Bills Drive in the offseason. The most popular number is nine.

If this situation had come up in any other position, Orton probably would have come in for Manuel in the second half last week. Then maybe Manuel starts next week or maybe he doesn't, but no one is suggesting he's at the crossroads of his career.

But we're talking about a starting quarterback here, and the rules are different.

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