After the Bills’ heartbreaking 31-34 overtime loss to Atlanta in Toronto extinguished the team’s last lingering hopes for a legitimate playoff run in 2013, things looked to be about as bad as they could get for Buffalo fans. A miserable Sabres team, and meaningless December football once again.
But things can always get worse, and boy, did they ever last weekend. The Bills needed just 18 seconds to give up the game-winning score to the Bucs on Sunday. For a season that had many Bills fans optimistic about moving forward, the total no-show in Tampa was a huge step back. But is it really time to break out #becauseitsBuffalo and give up? I think not. Allow me, in what may be our darkest hour of 2013, to offer some random reasons for keeping our chins up:
1) The Islanders stink
When the Islanders sent Matt Moulson and a first round pick to the Sabres for Thomas Vanek, they probably thought the move would help them chase a playoff berth. But since that trade, the Isles have fallen apart. They’ve won just 1 of their last 10 games, and now sit at 14th in the East. As part of the trade, the Isles have the option of sending Buffalo their first round pick in either 2014 or 2015. But as Two in the Box recently explained, this is not necessarily a saving grace for the Islanders. If they choose to send Buffalo their 2015 pick, they’ll be losing a huge opportunity to grab the consensus top prospect in hockey, Connor McDavid, who is expected to be the first overall pick that year. If they let Buffalo have their 2014 pick, they’re likely to be handing the Sabres something in the top 5.
Whatever you think of the Vanek trade, it’s a better deal for Buffalo now than it was on the day it was made. The Sabres can have two extremely high picks in 2014, or dramatically increase their shot at McDavid in 2015. Or they can use the stockpile of draft picks they’ve accumulated in trades. However they play it, the talent level on the Sabres roster is set to rise big time.
2) The Toronto series is a hilarious failure
Yes, it sucks that the Bills only play 7 home games each year. But the Toronto series could have been much worse for Bills fans than that, threatening to pave the way towards a time when there are zero NFL games in Buffalo. When it was announced in 2008, Bills fans were rightfully terrified. The NFL clearly wants to expand internationally, Toronto is the largest city in Canada, and powerful owners like Jerry Jones have long implied a desire to move small-market teams like Buffalo to wealthier areas. The Toronto Bills felt like inevitability.
Five years later, who could have predicted it would go so well for Buffalo fans and so poorly for Toronto? The horrendous sales, the cheering for the opposing team, the morgue atmosphere of the Rogers Center - all of these things have made it much, much less plausible for the Bills to move to Ontario. Fans will bemoan the “blood money” arrangement and the team’s dismal record in Toronto, and rightfully so. But 5 years of failing to sell the Bills in Toronto is a major silver lining for Buffalo fans, who are more likely to have their team in town long-term as a result.
Even Russ Brandon is paying lip-service to ending the deal, and it’s his baby. I don’t think Brandon is serious about killing the series, but it’s a telling sign that at this point, nobody can deny that the Toronto Bills experiment failed miserably in every way, other than getting the Bills paid. Cash that check and run, Ralph!
3) The Bills could get a top 5 pick in the 2014 Draft
The Bills have spent way too many years in the frustrating no-man’s land of 6-to-8 win seasons. It’s the worst: half of the season’s games are meaningless, but your draft pick isn’t worth getting excited about either. The 2013 Bills somehow managed to do the opposite, giving fans legitimate hopes for a playoff run as late as Thanksgiving, and now putting themselves in position to draft within the top 5.
This is extra exciting because the Bills aren’t bad: they lost at the last second to New England, lost in OT to Cincy, would’ve beaten KC without Tuel’s 99 yard pick-6, and had two game-losing fumbles to lose in OT to Atlanta. The Bills are just a few plays from still being a playoff contender, and yet they could be adding a top-5 pick to their roster before next year. That’s exciting.
4) Don’t look now, but the Bills Front Office looks almost… smart?
Dare I say it? I’m starting to trust the Bills. That sounds bizarre and wrong in every way. But look at the recent track record: the team’s recent draft choices look downright intelligent. EJ may not be the answer, but I doubt you wish the Bills had taken Geno Smith or some other QB instead. Virtually no draft “experts” thought that EJ would be the first QB selected in the draft, but so far he looks clearly, by far, to have been the best choice. The Bills identified an area of need and got the best available option for it? Shocking.
On top of that, there’s the legend of Kiko, Woods and Goodwin from the 2013 class. From the 2012 class, Cordy Glenn shines quietly as possibly the Bills’ most underrated player. And the Bills have shown ability to target their areas of need, selecting Stephon Gilmore and Ron Brooks in 2012 to fill a major (so major it’s still there) hole at CB. 2011’s first round choice of Marcell Dareus took some criticism last year, but now he looks like an all-pro.
In addition to draft competence, the Bills have won some minor trades: Thad Lewis from Detroit, Jerry Hughes from Indianapolis. The team can’t be accused of not trying either, having brought in Kevin Kolb, Lewis, Matt Leinart, and Matt Flynn to try to improve the QB position.
And, hey, signing Mario Williams looks pretty smart right now, doesn’t it? The usual crowd of Bills-haters was gleefully waiting to kill the team over that deal the instant it was signed, but then Mario became the team’s best pass rusher since Bruce Smith. Get the man another mini fridge!
For a long time, it seemed like it didn’t matter what draft position the Bills ended up with because they missed consistently. Or that no matter who they drafted, they wouldn’t be able to supplement their home-grown talent with the right free agents and trades. But recent years give us reason to think the team has improved significantly at identifying areas of need and evaluating talent.
5) I can listen to our coaches talk without jamming a knife into my ear
The Bills and Sabres losing is nothing new. What is new is Ted Nolan and Doug Marrone, two guys who are an absolute pleasure to listen to, a night-and-day change from the men they replaced. Both Nolan and Marrone give thoughtful, honest responses to questions and display a level of emotion that’s been lacking in Buffalo coaches for a long time. Ron Rolston sounded like Darcy Regier in coach-form. Lindy had his moments, but after over a decade, he started to sound like he was out of ideas. There was less emotion and more deflection (Lindy’s goodbye presser was incredible, however).
Bills coaches have been the worst. Chan Gailey press conferences always made me think “of course we lost. This man doesn’t know where he is right now. Will someone help him get home?” Just a year ago this team had a coach who couldn’t explain why his best player wasn’t on the field and a GM who was returning prank calls to try to get rid of our $65 million Harvard QB (did you know Ryan Fitzpatrick went to Harvard?). Then there was Dick Jauron, who would lose 55-3 and say “we’ll have to look at that in practice this week” and then change nothing. Infuriating.
Neither the Bills nor Sabres are winning, but both teams finally have leadership in place that can speak intelligently and passionately to the concerns of their fans. That’s a giant breath of fresh air.
6) The Sabres keep losing.
It would’ve been cool if Ted Nolan suddenly made the team good, but I don’t think anyone expected that. Honestly, this is better. The team is still on pace to have the best chance in the league at the first overall pick in the draft. On Draft Day many teams will be envious of the Sabres. Patience!
7) Zemgus Girgensons can play
You read Matthew Coller’s column on this at WGR, or you should have, so I don’t have to make the statistical case here. It’s hard to enjoy a dead-last season, but one of the few perks is looking at ‘the kids’ and trying to figure out which ones could eventually become key players on a competitive team. It’s been such a short stretch of time that I don’t want to give Girgensons too much credit for making some impact. Sabres fans have a Napoleon complex about team toughness, so any time a larger-than-average forward prospect plays with some so-called ‘grit’ we get a little delusional.
Zach Kassian was going to be a star, remember? Marcus Foligno had a couple solid weeks and we fell in love. Corey Tropp even had his admirers. Still, from this humble layman’s perspective, Girgensons has been more impressive on the ice than any of those guys (of course, he’s also a center and not a wing). It’s been good to see him get rewarded with a couple nice goals recently.
I’m also feeling hopeful about defensemen Mark Pysyk and 2013 first-rounder Ramus Ristolainen. Prospects! (Joe's note: FUCK THEM PUNKS AND BAKER!)
8) Ryan Miller is making a case to be Team USA’s starter
Can you imagine how bad the Sabres’ boxscores would look this season without Miller? He’s quietly had an amazing season behind a tire fire defense. His save percentage (92.0) is at its highest since his Vezina-winning 2010 season (92.9) and above his career average (91.5). After Miller’s performance dipped a little in 2011 and 2012, and Jonathan Quick backstopped the LA Kings to a Stanley Cup championship, it seemed all but certain that Miller’s playing days for Team USA were over. But Quick hasn’t been the same, and no other US goalie has emerged as dominant either. If Miller gets a chance, I think he’ll win the starting job. It would be great for Buffalo fans to get a chance to see him backstopping a good team and competing at the highest level one more time as a representative of the Sabres. We may also get to see him in the NHL playoffs on another team, but that probably won’t be quite as fun.
9.) It’s not lonely at the bottom
Being a Buffalo fan requires a certain capacity for hate. Not real hate, but sports hate. You have to be prepared to hate a ton of teams because Buffalo loses heartbreakers constantly and never washes them away with a championship. If you’re into enjoying the suffering of others, you have a lot to laugh at this year.
There’s the Snyder-Shanahan-RG3 circus in Washington. Hey, at least the Bills aren’t benching their best player in a battle over severance pay! There’s the Jets, who may have the worst rookie QB season I’ve ever seen from Geno Smith, who also has no help around him and thus little hope of getting better. There’s the Browns, who did Browns things against the Patriots. And the Cowboys must be terrible because I haven’t heard about them every ten seconds on ESPN this year.
10.) The year in sports is about to get good
December brings the World Junior and college bowl games, in January we’ll have playoff football to watch, followed shortly by the Winter Olympics in February. March brings Madness, April brings playoffs to the NBA and NHL. Before you know it, it’s draft day for the NFL, and you have a pretty good idea of what your team looks like heading into 2014. Then it’s summer and the NHL is having its draft, the Sabres will have a new GM and likely a new coach, to go with exciting new prospects.
Things seem dark now, but the year in sports will keep speeding along. We’ll be tailgating at the Ralph in 2014 talking about a playoff run soon enough. Hang in there, my friends!