One of the drawbacks to sports writing is that you surrender your right to be a fan. Your job is to be an objective, dispassionate observer of the passing scene. It amazes me how so many people don’t get it, but rooting for the home team is not an option.
There was one time when I cheered for the Bills. It was during the famous comeback game against the Oilers, exactly 23 years ago today. I wasn’t assigned to write that day, so I wandered out into the stands early in the second half and got swept up in the hysteria.
I was cheering for the moment, for one of those extraordinary games that remind us why we care in the first place. Basically, what I cheer for is a good story. That can also involve rooting for good people, and wishing for success to come their way.
Often, that feeling comes in retrospect. When I watched “Four Falls of Buffalo,” the documentary on the four Super Bowl losses, I found myself wishing that those Bills players and coaches – and the fans – could have experienced winning a Super Bowl just one time.
Thurman Thomas and Darryl Talley were two of the toughest players I ever covered. They were emotional, complicated characters who wore their feelings on their jersey sleeves. In the documentary, Thurman says the Super Bowls still eat away at him, even more than they do Scott Norwood.
You couldn’t be human and not feel a twinge of regret for recent Bills who played here for long stretches and never got to a playoff game. George Wilson, the “Senator,” played 10 seasons in the NFL and never was part of a team that finished with a .500 record.
Takeo Spikes, a coil of competitive passion, played 15 years in the NFL and never appeared in a playoff game. In 2004, Spikes had the finest season I’ve seen by a Bills linebacker. It was the only time he ever played on a team with a winning record, and he fell just short when the Bills lost to the Steelers in the finale.
Chris Kelsay, Terrence McGee, Josh Reed, Brian Moorman, Aaron Schobel – they all retired without making it to the postseason. It was tough to see Fred Jackson leave, but it’ll be nice to see him compete in his first playoff game next week, a month before turning 35.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, who returns to The Ralph on Sunday, is at the top of the list. Fitz is playing in his 11th season, for his sixth NFL team. If the Jets beat the Bills in Sunday’s regular-season finale, Fitzpatrick will make it to the playoffs for the first time in his career.
I’ll be pulling for him. It’s not only Fitz. Chan Gailey, a true gentleman and a resourceful offensive mind during his three years as Bills head coach, is the Jets’ offensive coordinator. It would good to see Gailey go to the playoffs for the first time since he went as Miami’s coordinator 15 years ago.
The same goes for wideout Brandon Marshall, a gifted but troubled star who has raised mental health awareness by admitting his struggle with borderline personality disorder. Marshall, the only player in NFL history with six 100-catch seasons, is also seeking his first playoff trip.
Bills center Eric Wood, who is still close to Fitz, said his old pal is easy to root for. How do you not root for a quarterback who was a loyal teammate and fierce competitor, a good guy who reflected the Buffalo ethos? After a tough loss in December of 2011, Fitz prefaced his postgame remarks by remembering my dear colleague Allen Wilson, who had lost his fight with leukemia the day before.
Fitz was the classic underdog, a seventh-round pick who lacked the raw athletic skills of a franchise QB and had to prove himself every step of the way in his vagabond career. He was the perfect guy to lead a Bills offense that rode a bunch of undrafted guys and late-round picks to the top of the NFL’s offensive charts until he cracked his ribs in 2011.
He always said that as soon as he slipped up, he became that “rag-arm from Harvard” again. If he falls on his face against a watered-down opponent – the way Drew Bledsoe did here in a similar situation 11 years ago – we’ll be talking about the “old Fitz” showing up again.
No doubt, the hard-core fans would love to see Fitzpatrick fall on his face. But I imagine many people will be ambivalent. In their heart of hearts, a lot of Buffalo fans will be pulling for the guy with the unruly beard and the wedding ring on his finger.
Sure, it’s tough for fans to see former Buffalo sports figures win elsewhere. It probably hurt to see Don Beebe win the Super Bowl with the Packers, or Dominik Hasek and Brian Campbell win the Stanley Cup elsewhere. It would sting to see Lindy Ruff win it with Dallas.
All I know is Fitz winning makes the best story. It’s a lot better than, say, Mario Williams sacking him three times in his final game as a Bill. I don’t see how any fan could take pleasure in seeing Mario flourish after going through the motions for most of the season.
Williams is the antithesis of the Buffalo guys whose relentless competitive personality endeared them to fans – guys like Talley, Thomas, Jackson and, of course, Jim Kelly. When the Bills signed Williams, his detractors said he didn’t have a true passion for the sport, that winning wasn’t that important to him and he was quick to give up on plays.
I wasn’t surprised to hear an anonymous Bill tell Tyler Dunne that Williams “totally checked out” this season and used Rex Ryan’s ill-advised defensive schemes as an excuse to coast. It was reminiscent of what a prominent defender told me in Mario’s first year here in 2012, that he was among several players who felt Williams wasn’t giving his all.
It was laughable to hear Williams boast about his “individual” performance in his first three years in Buffalo. He came here in 2012 as the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. The defense got worse. The Bills gave up the second-most points in franchise history and allowed 50 points three times. It was the coaches’ fault then, too.
People talk about Fitzpatrick’s six-year, $59 million contract extension as a monumental mistake. He wound up collecting around $21 million of that deal, and $26 million over four years – roughly what Mario Williams pocketed in his first year in Buffalo.
Fitzpatrick took the fall for 2012, even though the defense was the bigger problem that year. He and Chan Gailey had worn out their welcome. It was time to draft a potential franchise quarterback. But those offenses were as good as anything the Bills have had since. Fitz looks better in retrospect. Put him with last year’s defense and they might have made the playoffs.
Whatever their rooting interests, fans should give Fitz a warm reception Sunday. It’s understandable if there are mixed feelings. A win would make the Bills 8-8. It would give them consecutive .500 seasons for the first time this millennium, as if that matters. Hard-core believers might contend that if not for all the injuries, they would have delivered on Ryan’s promise to make the playoffs.
But it wouldn’t be any profound show of disloyalty to pull for Fitzpatrick. Look at it this way: You won’t be rooting against the Bills. You’ll be pulling for them to get a higher draft pick.
Losing might only move them up a couple of spots, but history shows that can make a world of difference. If they had lost one more game in 2004, they would have picked two spots higher and gotten Ben Roethlisberger, instead of wasting an extra first-rounder on J.P. Losman.
Really, would it be such a crime to root against the Pegulas for one day? Wasn’t it just last year when fans of the town’s hockey team did it 82 times?