Fifteen years have passed since the Buffalo Bills were good enough for the playoffs.
On Friday, their Super Bowl drought will be old enough to legally join their parched and downtrodden fan base at the bar.
Thirteen teams have sprayed champagne over those 21 seasons. Six franchises celebrated for the first time, and two of those will play for multiple titles next Sunday, when the New England Patriots meet the Seattle Seahawks in Glendale, Ariz.
So when can Bills fans get intoxicated by playing at this time of year again?
The postseason – let alone the Super Bowl – is a distant memory for the Bills. But the difference between the NFL’s dregs and elites might not be as significant as Bills fans have been conditioned to believe.
“It’s right there,” Bills running back and captain Fred Jackson said. “We can be in the Super Bowl with the talent we have on this team right now.”
Some will scoff that Jackson’s assessment is equal parts wishful thinking and denial that the football gods simply revel in smiting Buffalo.
Yet a coach who got into the Pro Football Hall of Fame largely because he quickly transformed loser programs into winners agreed with Jackson that the Bills are close.
“There’s a tremendous gap between some of the best and worst teams,” Bill Parcells told The Buffalo News this week, “but your franchise isn’t one of them with a big gap.”
As ridiculous as it might seem to consider Buffalo in the same galaxy as New England or Seattle, stranger turnarounds have taken place.
How laughable to think New England or Seattle would be 21st century juggernauts around the last time Buffalo was in the playoffs.
Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll were failed head coaches then. New England icon Tom Brady was having trouble beating out Drew Henson at the University of Michigan. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was 11 years old.
Now look at them. New England will play in its sixth Super Bowl in 14 years. Seattle could become just the seventh franchise to win back-to-back Lombardi trophies.
“There are a lot of parallels,” legendary Bills pass-rusher Bruce Smith said, “between the team from our era versus teams like the Patriots of the 2000s.”
The Bills team Smith joined went 2-14 two years in a row and then 4-12 before turning the corner.
“We were awful,” said Smith, the first overall draft choice in 1985. “But we got better and we grew in confidence every year.”
While Smith joined an abysmal team that had been to the playoffs three times in 21 years, the current Bills went a respectable 9-7, falling just short of the postseason. Their first winning record in a decade happened despite lackluster quarterback play and the loss of a home game to the November snowstorm.
The Bills struggled within the AFC but went 4-0 against the rugged NFC North. Their cumulative plus-54 scoring margin ranked 12th in the NFL, better than four playoff teams.
“You look at the New York Giants when they won the Super Bowl, they were” 10-6, Jackson said of the 2007 champs, who upset the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl. “We didn’t get into the playoffs, but they did and won four more games.”
The prevailing thought at One Bills Drive – among players and the front office – is the organization got better when head coach Doug Marrone exercised the out clause in his contract, essentially quitting on the team.
Terry and Kim Pegula hired former New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, a charismatic leader with a reputation for galvanizing locker rooms.
“Bringing in Coach Ryan,” said Jackson, “can be just that stone to tip the scale for us and give us that opportunity to play in a Super Bowl and win it.”
A cynical – and probably realistic – observer would proclaim the Bills won’t go anywhere without a quarterback upgrade. Not only did Marrone jilt them, but also Kyle Orton retired unexpectedly.
That leaves an as-of-yet uninspiring EJ Manuel the lone quarterback on Buffalo’s roster.
But teams don’t necessarily need a super-duper star quarterback for a metamorphosis.
Parcells’ teams went to the playoffs with Phil Simms, Jeff Hostetler, Drew Bledsoe, Vinny Testaverde, Quincy Carter, Tony Romo and Chad Pennington.
Ryan took the Jets to consecutive AFC championship games with polarizing quarterback Mark Sanchez.
Other quarterbacks who’ve helped their teams execute worst-to-first divisional turnarounds over the past decade include Robert Griffin III, Matt Schaub, Alex Smith, Jeff Garcia and, yes, Orton.
“You’ve got to have a vision for what you’re trying to do. You’ve got to know what you’re looking for, and you’ve got to make every effort to acquire it,” Parcells said.
As was the case when Seattle and New England became elite NFL organizations more recently, Parcells’ teams had defensive foundations. The quarterbacks fell into place later.
Brady was a sixth-round draft choice, emerging as a game manager because New England had a dominant defense. Wilson was a happy accident, drafted in the third round after Seattle signed Matt Flynn to be the starting quarterback on a team with a big-boy defense.
The Bills could be in a similar situation. Their defense led the NFL in sacks and third-down efficiency. The Bills ranked fourth in yards allowed, third in yards per play, 11th against the run and third against the pass.
Ryan must be ecstatic about a nasty defense anchored by Pro Bowlers Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus along with linebacking depth and keepers in the secondary.
“This defense is good enough,” Smith said. “This is a formidable defense. The line ranks with the best in the league.
“There’s going to be a shift in power within the AFC over the next year or two. Tom Brady is going to be 38. It’s going to be wide open.
“We want to win the division. That’s doable within the next year or two provided we make the right decisions today.”
Parcells’ resume provides five fantastic examples that a lousy recent history can be shaken off abruptly.
• The Giants had been to the playoffs once in 19 years and had two winning records in 12 years. They won two Super Bowls under Parcells.
• The Patriots went 9-39 the three seasons before Parcells arrived in 1993 and went to the Super Bowl in the 1996 season.
• The Jets went 4-28 before Parcells got there in 1997. They were in the AFC Championship Game in the 1998 season.
• The Dallas Cowboys had gone 5-11 three straight seasons before Parcells went 10-6 and got them to the playoffs in 2003.
• The Miami Dolphins were deep into a 1-15 season when Parcells was named executive vice president of football operations in 2007. The Dolphins won the AFC East at 11-5 the next year.
“I don’t know that there’s any one blueprint,” Parcells said of the salvage process. “The problems aren’t identical, but they’re usually about the same.
“The most significant thing that I can tell you – that is vital – is you must have a philosophy on personnel,” Parcells said. “You must know what kind of player you’re looking for and how they will fit into the system you’re going to employ.
“If you don’t have that, then you’re just picking ‘This guy is a good player,’ but in the end he’s really not for you because he doesn’t fit what you’re trying to do.”
The Bills’ front office has been accused of winging its personnel decisions throughout its playoff drought.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you adjust the system as you go along?’ ” Parcells said. “Tom Landry told me when I was a young coach starting out, ‘If you start drafting exceptions to what you want to do, pretty soon you’re going to have a team full of exceptions.’ ”
Under a reorganized front office and revamped structure under the Pegulas, second-year General Manager Doug Whaley must come through and live up to the expectations the Bills had him when they hand-picked him to guide the franchise back to prominence.
The Bills need Ryan and his staff to provide sideline consistency. Ryan is their fourth head coach since 2009.
The Bills also are on their sixth defensive coordinator in seven years.
“You need a head coach that’s able to work hand-in-hand with the owner and the GM, and there has to be stability,” Smith said. “Coaches can’t be coming and going. The GM needs the authority to act.”
A discussion about Buffalo merely returning to the postseason isn’t enough for Smith. His standard is based on continued excellence year after year after year.
Smith went to four consecutive Super Bowls with Buffalo and to the playoffs 10 times over a 12-year stretch. His final game with the Bills was their last playoff appearance.
“The process takes time and it takes cohesiveness and it takes the belief in knowing you’re selecting the right players in the draft and have the right coaching staff to relate to the players,” Smith said.
“You have to continuously build, particularly during the offseason. You have to seize those moments to get better.”
Jackson will be 34 next month. He is the NFL’s oldest running back and the oldest player on the Bills’ roster.
Jackson likely wouldn’t be around to enjoy a dynasty. But he’s coming off the first winning season of his career and said he never has felt closer to being on a team that could make a postseason run.
“The opportunity is there,” Jackson said. “The reason guys line up and play their butts off is because once you hit that hot streak, the opportunity to win a Super Bowl is in sight.”