This really has to start with the owner. Terry Pegula said recently in a radio interview that “I don’t think anybody” is thinking about the Bills’ 16-year playoff drought.
“In my mind,” Pegula said, “the team hasn’t been to the playoffs in one year.”
That must be great comfort for suffering fans who haven’t seen a playoff team since Hillary Clinton was still first lady.
But hold on a minute. Pegula was suggesting he and his wife, Kim, have been owners for only one year. Evidently, he doesn’t want to claim the 2014 season, when he won the bid before the second game, a glorious home-opening triumph over the rival Dolphins.
Technically, yes, this is the Pegulas’ second full season as owners. But I wonder if Terry would be so quick to dismiss that year if the Bills had actually made the playoffs and Doug Marrone hadn’t taken the $4 million and run for the exit.
It’s convenient to forget that, late in that 2014 season, Pegula was seriously considering hiring Bill Polian or some other outside football man who almost surely would have dumped Doug Whaley and revamped the personnel department.
And last December, with the Bills out of the playoffs and Rex Ryan’s poll numbers at an all-time low, Pegula was again seeking outside counsel about his football team and telling Ryan and Whaley their jobs would be on the line this season.
This offseason was a thorough embarrassment, from the dubious drafting of an injured Shaq Lawson in the first round to the four-game drug suspension and subsequent slide into rehabilitation by $100 million defensive tackle Marcell Dareus.
So it’s laughable for Pegula to suggest that things are still fresh and new, and to counsel patience. The inconvenient truth is that his Bills own the longest playoff drought of any major American sports team, and these are desperate times at One Bills Drive.
This is Year Three of Pegula, and any NFL owner takes a hard look at his operation when his team hasn’t won − especially when the trail of incompetence stretches back to the previous millennium.
It gets redundant calling it a “critical year” for the Bills. Pegula would rather rationalize away failure and see progress. That way, he can avoid the messy work of having to remove vital people − people he wants to believe in, despite their shortcomings − from their jobs.
Pegula has a head coach, Ryan, who could become only the fourth man since the merger to coach in six consecutive non-winning seasons. In Whaley, he has a general manager who has overspent for a failed product and demonstrated no coherent plan for building a championship roster.
Other than that, things are fine. The hockey team is trending in the right direction. Pegula Sports & Entertainment is thriving. So what if the football team is a laughingstock in the eyes of his fellow owners in the most powerful sports league in history?
Pegula has been told by the NFL that he needs to consider building a new stadium. Winning would certainly help generate public will for such a major enterprise. So if Pegula believes there’s no urgency to win this season, he’s kidding himself, something at which he’s quite adept.
Of course, I should consider the bright side. There’s always reason for optimism in the NFL, where parity and the salary cap ensure that you’re never far from contention, where the difference between 6-10 and 10-6 can be razor-thin.
That makes it even more amazing that a team could go 16 years without making the playoffs. You almost have to work at it, by failing to learn from your mistakes, attempting quick fixes to curry favor with your fans and compounding past errors. But enough of the last 16 years.
At some point, the planets align. Luck falls your way. Maybe this will be one of those years where it all comes together in a crisis. Maybe this truly is the start of a new era at New Era Field.
Maybe Tyrod Taylor takes the next step and becomes a true franchise quarterback. LeSean McCoy stays healthy and motivated. Sammy Watkins stops getting hurt. The offensive line lives up to its new salaries and continues to run well against teams that are lining up to stop it.
Perhaps this defense smartens up and outperforms last year’s unit, validating Rex and Rob Ryan as defensive geniuses. Dareus is dominant after cleaning up his act. Lawson is a terror when he returns. The Williamses, Kyle and Aaron, come back better than ever.
Sure, maybe they stop getting all those penalties and Rex becomes a whiz at game and clock management, or actually identifies someone to specialize in those duties up in the box on game days.
Go ahead and believe. That’s what it means to be a fan, to see hope despite the dark realities, to perceive the faint traces of managerial genius amid years and years of incompetence in the football department.
But as a professional skeptic, you learn to be wary after 16 years of repeated bumbling. You withhold the benefit of the doubt. True, the Bills are coming off two straight non-losing seasons for the first time in the millennium. It still doesn’t feel like progress.
They strike me as a team that missed its chance the last two seasons and is about to regress. It’s an organization that has compensated too many players without corresponding achievement. Too many guys on this roster have gotten rich without ever winning a damn thing.
As the years go back, the Bills seem to me the living antithesis of the team that has tormented them during the drought: The Patriots, a calculating and unsentimental franchise that continues to win big and evolve on the move.
The Bills’ roster has been weakened by attrition and hasn’t added many players of consequence. That’s why the Lawson pick was such an outrage, because the Bills were one team that couldn’t afford to whiff on a draft pick because they needed defensive rookies who would have an immediate impact.
Brandon Spikes wasn’t good enough to make the team last year, but suddenly he’s the hope of the inside linebacking corps? That ought to tell you something. I’ll be surprised if the Bills improve in the most vital defensive stat of all − total points allowed.
Again, you never know how a season will unfold. Tom Brady might slip into decline when he returns from his suspension. The Broncos could struggle without a proven quarterback. The Steelers’ defense is still a question. There’s room for a sleeper AFC team or two to emerge.
The Bills? I can’t see it. I’d still rather be the Jaguars or Titans or Raiders, who have legitimate franchise quarterbacks and more solid players in their first contracts. Taylor is a borderline NFL starting quarterback.
This has the look of a 6-10 team, a discouraging step backward. At the end, Pegula might have to make a harsh evaluation and decide if major changes are needed in the football operation. I can’t predict the man. He might see it as a step in the right direction.