Thirty years ago, I came to Buffalo as a first-time sports columnist, excited to be writing about one of the rising powers in the NFL. The Bills had gone to the AFC title game the year before. Jim Kelly was hitting his stride as a young franchise quarterback and one of the most gifted rosters in football history was hitting its prime.
I walked into a golden period of local sports. The Bills were at their height. The Sabres went to the playoffs every year. I covered a local kid, Christian Laettner, who was the darling of college basketball. I went across the border to chronicle the Blue Jays winning two straight World Series.
The greatest thing, of course, was the Bills going to four straight Super Bowls and making the playoffs 10 times in 12 years. The Sabres made it 11 of 12 years during that stretch. Excellence was an expectation, not a faded notion. You never imagined that one day, simply sneaking into the playoffs would bring people to tears.
Yeah, those were glorious times; we took them for granted. One night at the Big Tree, toward the end, Andre Reed told a group of us reporters that Buffalo wouldn’t realize how good they had it until years later. He was right. When it was happening, winning every year seemed routine. You took it for granted.
The Bills missed the playoffs 17 years in a row after I took over for Larry Felser as lead columnist. Those were grim years. It was a joyless exercise at times, chronicling the dysfunction at One Bills Drive. Buffalo had the most hapless team in sports, and fans came to expect calamity.
There were a lot of reasons for the Bills’ demise, but it was largely an organizational failure. Decisions were made for the wrong reasons. Inferior men were put in charge of personnel because the owner didn’t trust outsiders. In some ways, they’re still rebuilding from the small-minded vision of their past leadership.
But in 2017, the Pegulas finally brought in competent men to run the operation. Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane were young pros who knew what winning football looked like. At first, it was enough that they were better than the bumblers who preceded them. But they’ve rebuilt the team with their own players and vision, putting the team on a path back to respectability.
Now it’s time to prove they’ve lifted the franchise to a new competitive level. The Bills began their 60th training camp on Thursday at St. John Fisher. Expectations are soaring in the third year of the McBeane era. I’ll admit, I haven’t been as eager and optimistic heading into a new season since the Kelly years.
Maybe I’m desperate for something different, for the Bills to be relevant and consistently competitive in the NFL for the first time in two decades. They haven’t won 10 games since 1999. That goes back to the Music City Miracle playoff game, the year they pulled Doug Flutie for Rob Johnson before the postseason.
Twenty years later, the Bills appear to be on the rise again. We’ll never see a collection of talent like the Super Bowl team, which came together before free agency. But it has similar elements — a young franchise quarterback in Josh Allen, solid free agent acquisitions, a top defense with rising young stars in Tremaine Edmunds, Tre’Davious White, Matt Milano and a talented rookie lineman in Ed Oliver.
We joke about McDermott’s “process” and his coaching mantras about leadership and character. But he’s inspired belief in the fan base and established a sense that he has them going in the right direction. In his recent letter to fans, McDermott said he was excited about the Bills’ progress as they “worked to execute our plan for building a strong foundation.” He talked of “continuing to chase our vision of bringing a championship to this city.”
Beane and McDermott are doing their best to manage expectations, to guard against fans expecting too much too soon.
During an opening day press conference at St. John Fisher on Thursday, I reminded Beane that on average, five or six teams in the NFL had improved by four games over the last 10 years and asked him why the Bills wouldn’t be expected to do it this year.
“We just expect to go out and improve,” he said. “A lot can be the eyeball test; it’s not always going to be wins and losses. There’s so many things that happen between now and the first game … there are so many variables we deal with every day. I can’t sit here and tell you we’re going to have X number of wins each year.”
The Bills have gone the longest of any team in the NFL without a four-game improvement in a single season. Why wouldn’t they be expected to be one of those five or six teams this year? They have the defense, the new second-year franchise QB, the refurbished offense and a proven resilient quality under McDermott.
But it’s understandable if the men in charge are more interested in the long term. The goal is being a consistent contender and winning it all, not sneaking in with nine wins. If fans knew the Bills would go 9-7 this year and reach the Super Bowl the next — as they did from 1989-90 — I imagine they’d take it.
After two decades without double-digit wins, you can’t blame fans for expecting to win right now. If Beane and McDermott have raised the bar beyond what might be reasonable this year, that’s a good problem to have, and better than the alternative.
They’ve given Buffalo fans the most precious thing of all: Hope.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York, as well as the host of The Jerry Sullivan Show from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. weekdays on 1270 AM The Fan. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at email@example.com.