Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Bills fan's Excitement-Skepticism Complex: Episode I

It's fair to say that after Week 2's epic 38-35 comeback against the Raiders in the home opener, the Bills have generated more excitement than we thought possible just a few weeks ago.  This is all the more enjoyable following a preseason marred by tinkering with the offensive line, the loss of the team's de facto #1 receiver and offensive elder-statesman, and a lockout that should have made the learning curve steeper for a young and developing team.

Healthy skepticism seems to be part of the membership application process for a Bills fan.  For every golden moment on the horizon, there is usually a Lucy in waiting, ready to pull the ball away and laugh at our Charlie Brown-ish pursuits.

Yet, this looks and feels real.  Two legitimate victories against last year's #1 and #2 rushing teams.  Fresh off a great win against a tough opponent.  7 TDs for Fitzy in two games.  If you don't recall such excitement, it's because your memory of Jim Kelly has been dimmed by the long, feckless search for his successor.  So, we've got the best start by a Bills QB since the Kelly era on our hands.  The media who hate us, except for when they love us, love us right now, bringing Stevie Johnson and even Kirk Morrison into the studio to get the story of this unlikely turnaround.  Our guys are jumping into the stands, for crying out loud.

Mid-high-five, though, look the hell out for a leg sweep from the other boys in white, blue and red, with Sensei Belicheck and his cackling pupils looking once again to put us in a bodybag.  Pundits and fans alike will forecast a classic "back-to-earth" game, with Tom Brady and co. proving that once again, they have the Bills' number.  (Early lines give 8.5 points to the Bills, making them a big underdog at home).  For good measure, Brady has assembled almost a third of a Pro Bowl season in two games.

With this in mind, we're highlighting a few reasons to remain excited for the Bills in the face of their biggest challenge yet this season, as well as some cause to temper our expectations despite these two big - and drastically different - wins.  We'll continue this as a series throughout the season, and thus we present Episode I of The Bills fan's Excitement-Skepticism Complex.

1. Two big wins! Woo hoo!
Perhaps you were watching at home.  Maybe you were listening to 97 Rock while doing something productive, so as not to rue time spent taking in a loss passively on the couch/barstool.  You could have even been trying to discern the action in a crowded bar from a pixellated DirecTV feed that resembled a cubist masterpiece.  No matter how you took this one in, you just knew the Bills were going to come up short, like they always do.

Except this time, they didn't.

Every post-game interview with every Buffalo player has cited something "different" about this Bills locker room.  They believe that when this team is down, it's not out.  Against the Raiders, it was a relentless, punch-for-punch comeback effort from the Buffalo offense, highlighted by critical and thrilling fourth-down conversions.  Whenever this team does return to meaningful January football, this game will be one that a young team can call upon for inspiration, a sign of their ability to get it done in the clutch.  Going into Week 3 with half of 2010's win total in their pockets has to feel good.  Says the cliche, winning breeds confidence, and I believe for the first time in years that this team thinks it can beat the Pats.  They may be crazy, but let's let them enjoy the ride, and with nothing to lose, there'll be no harm in going on that ride with them.

2. The last traces of Levy/Jauron's fingerprints are gradually fading
God bless him, and thank him for his many accomplishments in Buffalo, but Marv Levy was not a good football GM.  Russ Brandon was no better.  And when Dick Jauron had his way?  Yuck.  If there was a philosophy, it was somewhere between "you can never have too many DBs," and "let's find linebackers built like kickers."  But the days of the small, speedy, smurfy Bills that they assembled are numbered, and this is a good thing.

The team has shifted toward road-graders and big, strong men at most positions, with a few gadgets here and there.  The offensive line is slightly bigger and stouter, and they are holding up well at the point of attack.  So far, they lead the league in rushing (though in no small part to the shiftiness of Fred Jackson, who looks better than ever at age 30).  This looks like a team that can play football.  Sure, there are a few exceptions.  Roscoe Parrish, who has actually survived 3-4 front offices depending on your count, is a nice toy that breaks down too easily.  (Note: as we published this, word came that Parrish was placed on injured reserve, which might spell the end for him in Buffalo.)  CJ Spiller is not large, but he starting to turn the corner in the role of Chan Gailey's "waterbug" running back.

But Donte Whitner: gone (how's that workin' out for you, San Fran?).  Aaron Maybin?  The CFL is calling.  Guys who play smaller than their bodies, like John McCargo?  We hardly remember ye.  The revamped front-seven and some underrated pickups are working wonders, despite the defensive foibles in the Raiders game.  The WRs not named Roscoe are bigger targets that Ryan Fitzpatrick can loft it to - and they get tough yards over the middle.  Speaking of Fitzpatrick, who among us does not believe in this guy anymore?  And how much better off are we with #14 instead of #5 taking the snaps?  Answer: a whole lot.  (Come on! You knew this!)

We could write a whole post about unsung hero Erik Pears, who, along with much-maligned left tackle Demetrius Bell, is putting together a solid season thus far.  Pears also is a redemption signing for GM Buddy Nix, who signed the ghastly Cornell Green to man right tackle last year. Gailey and Nix have sifted through the Levy/Jauron era and refashioned a team of nobodies who refuse to accept their destiny, rather than a team that plays like a bunch of nobodies.  That's easy to love, and it's easy to get excited about with these kinds of results.

1. Tom Brady will eat this secondary alive
Not literally, of course, because no one is suggesting that Tom Brady is a cannibal.*  But if Brady isn't looking at the Raiders game film and seeing exploitable defensive back play for miles, it's probably because he has stepped away from his 70" TV to use the john, and hasn't turned the on the 70" TV in the john.

If these guys hailed from Quebec, we'd call them the French Toast secondary.  They were horrendous in the home opener - George Wilson and Leodis McKelvin in particular.  Bills DBs HAVE to look back at Brady and contest balls in Week 3.  If they don't, they will continue to draw up a blueprint for opposing QBs for the rest of the season.  Where will relief come from?  Rookie Aaron Williams is being thrown into the fire a bit with Terrence McGee gone, and Drayton Florence and Jairus Byrd are playing admirably.  Wilson is a vocal leader and good guy who may need to take a backseat to Bryan Scott in some situations to limit liabilities.

Of all the DBs, McKelvin should seriously be on the hot seat.  He shows flashes, and then he has games like this one where he makes for easy target practice.  Ever the Jauron product in times of failure, McKelvin actually seems to think he played pretty well, while making a 5th string WR look like Jerry Rice's bionic son from the future.   It is not simply about showing the talent that made him a #1 pick, though he most certainly possesses the speed and athleticism necessary for a #1 corner.  The greater concern is that at a time when the game starts to slow down for most veterans, McKelvin looks perplexed about what's going on out on the field.  He has three INTs in 3+ seasons, and not for lack of opportunities.  He is putting himself in bad position regularly, and he does not seem to see the play developing until it's too late.  Unless he begins a substantial turnaround, he could be yet another high Levy/Jauron pick sent packing next year.

2. They are the Buffalo Bills
..and this will remain the root of all skepticism, until the happy day that the Bills hoist the Lombardi Trophy in something other than our dreams.  A better move on the ball by Scott Chandler's man Tyvon Branch, and we're talking about the same old Bills, finding a way to blow it.  A blocked field goal was a bad sign, even if Chan's call to kick one from fourth-and-pinkies proved the difference.  To wit, this kind of excitement doesn't always produce a victory, as we well know. "Last team with the ball wins" is a dangerous game for this team to play, with many opponents equal to or better than the Raiders remaining on the schedule.  We can't expect good hands, busted coverage, (un)timely penalties, and for even more to go the Bills' way.

That, my friends, is why this is bound to end badly.  For there are unlucky teams, and then there are the Buffalo Bills.  It's hard to care about football in quite the same way after Wide Right, Home Run Throwback, Just Give it To 'Em, and losing in the big game to jerks like Deion Sanders, Jimmy Johnson, Bill Belicheck and Bill Parcells.  Perhaps it's better not to let ourselves get hurt again, despite the temptation to give in.  This cast of lovable underdogs makes the test harder, but it's also a good reason to keep a level head.  Keep expectations low.  Under-promise, over-deliver.  Ask for nothing and be rewarded -- and surprised -- with more.  There is strength in remaining underrated, and this way, no one gets hurt.

Will our skepticism and excitement be rewarded as the Bills seek to beat the Pats for the first time in 16 games before a once-again-raucous crowd at The Ralph?  We're not holding our breath, but oh, are we ready to cheer like madmen if they can pull it off.

*Also, we are not not saying Tom Brady is a cannibal.

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