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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