Fresh off a one-week vacation in Rhode Island, I stopped off at Coles on Monday evening and ran into my old buddy, Rex Carr, who was stationed alone at the end of the bar.
You know Rex. He's the middle-aged grump who fancies himself the foremost Buffalo sports fan. He was scanning the local sports section from behind a pair of cheap plastic sunglasses, a happy, glowing expression on his face.
"Look at this," Rex said, as I gestured for Russell the barkeep to bring us a couple of drafts. "The Bills hired Brian Gaine to be VP of player personnel! That means they got two of the top four guys on their GM list."
"It's a step up from Whaley, I'll admit," I said. "But let's not forget it was a limited list, mainly a bunch of inexperienced young guys who had never run a team and would be willing to defer to McDermott."
"Typical negativity," Rex snarled. "You'd find something bad to say about 70 degrees and sunny. You ran off Whaley and ripped the Pegulas for dysfunction. So they got Brandon Beane for GM, stole Joe Schoen from Miami to be his assistant, and now they get Gaine on top of it. Do you hit the ground unhappy in the morning?"
"I admit, it's a step in the right direction. These guys have been around. Gaine has done a lot of scouting. But I would have preferred a veteran football man who had experience running the show and had actually won something in the NFL."
"A czar, right?" Rex said. "I'm sick of hearing about your czar. Beane said they don't need a czar. It'll be a team effort, with everyone chipping in. The sort of collaborative decision-making Pegula likes."
"And it took him all this time to figure that out?" I said. "The fact is, these guys will be learning on the job, same as Jason Botterill with the Sabres. I'm sure he'll bring in a first-time head coach, too."
"You got to start somewhere," Rex said.
"You sure have changed your tune," I said. "You were practically leading the parade for Rex Ryan and his big-game experience. You loved the fact that Dan Bylsma had won the Cup in Pittsburgh and coached in the Olympics."
"So we overreacted to big-name coaches. Now I realize it's more about organization and structure. Smart management. I like what they're doing."
"You just blow with the wind, Rex, like the fan that you are. Whatever your teams are selling, you're ready to buy. You loved Ryan and Tim Murray for their bravado, for not being afraid to make a big gamble. They were real Buffalo guys! You were OK with the Watkins deal, with the Sabres' tank."
"Now they're raising ticket prices again," Rex said, tossing his plastic sunglasses on the bar.
"Look, I understand that the new GMs look and sound good," I said. "It's got to the point where base competence looks like genius to Buffalo fans. It seems the worse things get in this town, the greater the capacity for people to believe."
"Sorry for seeing the bright side," Rex said. "You see nothing but doom and gloom. I'm telling you, these guys are smart. Botterill has a master's in business, you know."
"Do we ever call anyone dumb right out of the box?" I said, slamming my beer mug on the bar. "We always give them the benefit of the doubt, especially when they're following a clown show. There are dozens of guys just like Beane and Gaine and Botterill in sports. Just because they're not raving blowhards doesn't make them competent."
"It doesn't mean they'll fail, either. Even your pals at the News seem optimistic. They say it could work. At least the coaches and GMs will be on the same page and won't be stabbing each other in the back."
"I'm a little confused about the structure," I said. "McDermott and Beane both answer to Pegula, but the new Sabres coach will answer to Botterill. Can't the Pegulas pick a model and stick with it? They make it up as they go along."
"McDermott has the power, don't kid yourself," Rex said. "I don't have a problem with it. The head coach has the power on a lot of NFL teams these days."
"Yeah, but not before they even coach a game," I said. "It comes down to players in the end. All this fuss over front office guys helps distract people from the fact that these teams are a mess. The Bills still don't have a real franchise quarterback. Both teams are thin on defense."
"I'm not kidding myself," Rex said. "I realize it'll probably be a long process. But at least there is a process, a feeling that competent people are finally running our teams. It's been a long time since I could say that."
"I see you're on board the Process Train. Well, I'm happy for you, Rex. Fans in this town amaze me. They can find hope in the most bleak situation. I guess that happens when you lower your standards and you're grateful to simply have the teams."
"We appreciate what we have," he said. "It you don't like it, why don't you go back to New England?"
"This is my home," I said, raising a glass. "But I did go to college in Missouri. You have to show me. Talk to me when they start playing the games."