As the regular season descends upon us, there’s been a growing sense of deja-vu infiltrating my thoughts about this football team. It actually started while attending training camp at St. John Fisher College at the end of July. It increasingly invaded my thoughts as the preseason unfolded. This requires a bit of context and a lot of wyobabble to explain, so please bear with me.
The season that keeps coming to mind was 1987, when the Bills finished with a 7-8 record. Memories of that season are so vivid in my mind because that was the year I quit my job, eloped, and moved to the Northern Rockies from the Pacific Northwest. It was also the year I had to introduce my husband to the long and tortured history of the Buffalo Bills.
The Bills were beginning to show a pulse that year after putrid performances during most of the mid-1980s. Jim Kelly was settling into his role as the franchise QB after his stint with the USFL.
The Bills were beginning to find their footing with an erratic season made even crazier by a players strike. One game was cancelled, and three were played with replacement players before the strike was settled in the middle of the regular season.
The 1987 season was also the year of the famous three-way trade that landed Cornelius Bennett with the Bills. For those of you who want to read more about the 1987 team, there is a fabulous write up of that season here.
At that time, the Bills were coming off nearly two decades where there was little success, and a whole lot of mediocrity. On paper, the Bills looked like they might finally be coming of age, with a relatively strong defense and young erratic offense.
The most glaring difference in the 1987 version of the Bills was that we were already seeing Jim Kelly’s productivity on the field, compared to the question marks that still surround EJ Manuel. Kelly was already starting to give us a thrilling peek about what was yet to come.
Jim Kelly was the Andrew Luck of his time in the sense that you knew he was destined for greatness before he ever stepped on the field in an NFL uniform. He was already considered a ‘Savior’ for a franchise mired in a state of perpetual mental malaise, similar to what we’ve experienced since 2000.
Today, all we have to hang our hats on regarding the QB position is EJ Manuel’s college career statistics, as well as an erratic first year as a professional punctuated by injury and inconsistency. There are very good reasons why Bills fans should be skeptical about how Manuel will perform this season. His preseason was an incoherent mess behind an offensive line that is yet to find their groove.
Apparently the coaching staff must have been in agreement with that assessment. Signing Kyle Orton for a sizable contract at this late juncture is a clear indication that the training wheels are coming off, and this coaching staff is now giving Manuel a clear message that it’s time to show us the baby.
Arguably, this young Bills team is overall as athletically gifted as the 1987 Bills. However, it isn’t the players or the coaching/front office staff where I see the biggest difference regarding this team.
The biggest difference I see between the 1987 season and this one is regarding the attitude of the fan base. There was generally a much more optimistic view that the 1987 team was headed in the right direction, in great part because the franchise’s QB situation was finally settled.
It should also be noted that the fan base had much more confidence in the front office in 1987 as well. After decades of rotating front office staff, Bill Polian and Marv Levy were finally righting the ship. The mood of the fan base was fairly upbeat.
However, today and for the next couple of months (at least), we exist as a fan base of a team without an owner. We will remain insecure about the future of the franchise in the Western New York region until the ink dries stating that the team will stay in Western New York for generations to come.
The specter of a new owner brings with it questions about the stability of the front office and coaching staff. That brings it’s own level of heartburn for a fan base paranoid about losing their team to another city.
However, even with the sale of the Bills for the first time in their history, the biggest difference I see with the fan base this season compared to 1987 is a resistance to believing that EJ Manuel will turn out to be a successful QB in the NFL. Why are fans so reluctant to get behind this guy and encourage his success?
Seems to this old set of eyeballs the crux of the issue boils down to how Manuel assesses his own performance. Manuel does one thing that infuriates Bills fans; he refuses to admit when he has not performed well. That seeming inability to own his own stink is something that does not go over well for many Bills fans.
Manuel does not communicate in a manner that most Bills fans respect; being totally honest and blunt. With Jim Kelly, there was never a shred of doubt about his emotions when he played a bad game. Manuel on the other hand rarely, if ever, shows his frustration overtly, and that naturally causes people to become distrustful of him.
There is a term in psychology referred to as emotional congruence. This involves how much the emotion on the inside of a person matches the emotions they display on the outside toward others. If the two do not match, it is referred to as emotional incongruence.
Bills fans are particularly adept at spotting emotional incongruence, and calling players out when they see it. The reason we love Jim Kelly is that when he was playing, he was one of the most emotionally congruent players we ever saw in a Bills uniform.
He bled the red, white and blue. There was no question about his disappointment when he did not play well, and he was blunt about his own performance, and even about his teammates at times.
In contrast, you can see the fan base turning against Manuel already in part because the seeds of distrust have already been sown when he repeatedly refuses to authentically own his mistakes. He seems to be a man who blocks out obvious problems to the point where fans don’t have a real GPS coordinate on him as a person.
It seems like the Bills have had a succession of QBs since Jim Kelly with personalities that were emotionally incongruent, with the one exception of Doug Flutie. Bills fans loved Flutie for his honesty and willingness to be truthful about a bad performance as well.
As mentioned in previous posts, old age has taught me the importance of not wasting energy on things I can’t control. So, what can I control as a fan facing another season where there is a problem with emotional incongruence regarding a young QB playing for the Buffalo Bills? As a fan, I can control my emotions and how I handle the inevitable frustration that happens when the team or a player falters.
Let’s use this example and take a look at how changing my frustration level about Manuel’s emotional incongruence might be a better approach than resorting to abject hostility about another “failing QB.” What would happen if I threw my support behind Manuel just as I did when Flutie became QB of the Bills? What do I need to do to get my attitude to reflect more support and less negativity?
The first thing that is clear to me is that I need to understand and accept that Manuel’s sense of self is strongly based upon what other people think of him. Evidence of this is based upon his frequent references to reporters about what the coaches tell him about his performance instead of honestly reflecting his own opinion.
In this situation, he is displaying a personality trait that mental health professionals refer to as being “externally oriented.” His opinion of himself is based more upon what other people say (his coaches) about him than what he thinks about himself. This is an important piece of information when trying to understand how to help someone reach the greatest potential for success.
Connecting these ‘dots’ was a big revelation for me. It clarified all the dyspeptic feelings I’ve had about Manuel in recent press conferences. If you listen to any of them over last season, and even in this recent training camp, you cannot tell if Manuel had a good day or a bad day.
The tone and message are all the same. We often hear, “My coaches tell me I’m doing fine.” This is a classic comment by someone who is externally oriented in terms of self-esteem.
There’s not much that grates on the nerves of a moribund fan base more than being fed the same dose of pablum day after day instead of taking responsibility for stinking up the field. We loved Jim Kelly for his ability to tell fans in a blunt manner he had a bad day. We love honesty and abhor lip service. Worse yet is to patronize us.
Since none of us are presumably in a position to do anything about Manuel’s seeming inability to get real with fans about his struggles on the field, what can we do to manage our own frustration? Maybe the best thing to do is to step back and put Manuel’s career in perspective and change our own attitude.
Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter what we as fans think of EJ Manuel at this point. He remains the face of the franchise at the QB position, at least for this season. Kyle Orton is not the future, and Manuel will not be either if he continues to flounder.
However, if you accept that an individual who is externally oriented builds their sense of self based upon the opinions of others, then fans must also accept that by creating a hostile environment for him to play, we will negatively impact his ability to improve his confidence in himself because of the way he is wired.
Guys like Kelly and Flutie are internally oriented men who developed their confidence within themselves long before they became professional football players. They were in control of their sense of self and did not rely upon the opinion of others to validate themselves throughout their lives.
Whether EJ Manuel is willing to admit it or not, he is not wired that way. His constant references to what the coaches say about his performance instead of giving a flat out honest assessment of himself is a dead giveaway of his emotional vulnerability. This is not to suggest he should be molly coddled.
I like the move of bringing in someone who will force Manuel to now feel some pressure to perform or get benched. That kind of pressure is good for him at this point, unlike the pressure he is getting from a weary fan base that is fed up and booing him during meaningless preseason games.
As much as fans have every reason to be frustrated and disgusted at the thought of yet another first round QB bust like J.P. Losman on the horizon, there are some things fans need to think about before dissing Manuel every step of the way this season. Fans must understand that projecting hostility is guaranteed to do nothing but create more cognitive dissonance in a young man who needs to gain more confidence as a player.
So, what should fans do instead of taking their years of hostility out on Manuel? Get behind him. This team is 0-0 right now. There are loads of problems, but this is still a team loaded with talent. Knowing that the one thing that will make or break this season is how well EJ Manuel progresses, what good would come from fans booing a raw QB with ten games of NFL experience?
Yes, fans are “entitled” to watch a good product on the field and express their displeasure when that fails to happen. However, that entitlement also comes with the responsibility of understanding that you also reap what you sow.
If we continue to rag on EJ Manuel when he throws a bad pass, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy because regardless of whether or not he admits it to himself, it does matter to him what fans think because that his how his brain is programmed. This guy has never played on a team with a history of losing like the Buffalo Bills have done for decades.
He has no experience with a fan base that has endured this much frustration. And frankly, the bottom line is that we as fans must ask this question of ourselves; are we doing everything we can as fans to help our team win? If you think that it’s your right to express your displeasure, you are absolutely correct.
However, we better also own our responsibility as fans and ask ourselves that if we consider ourselves the ’12th man,’ then we also have to accept and take charge of our own behavior, and how it contributes to the success or failure of the team. The ’12th man’ implies that fans are a part of the team and thus have some responsibility to do whatever we can to help our team perform at their best.
Are we really serving our own best interest when we carry the grudge of 14 years of not making the playoffs and dumping it on a group of very young men who are just finding their way in life?
Does it really help the team for fans to troll Twitter and belittle a player for eating pizza at Papa Johns? I stand by my previous post and implore Bills fans to please think before you interact with players on social media sites. This type of behavior and even the loud booing of a team during a meaningless preseason game is not exactly the best way to inspire players to want to lay their bodies out their for this fan base.
We had endured decades of despair when the season opened in 1987. The fan base embraced Jim Kelly and a very young team and inspired them to the greatest years this franchise ever experienced.
Instead of dumping a bunch of hostility on a group of talented young players, why don’t we as fans do something different and get behind these young guys and let them know why we were (yes, were) the best fans in the NFL. We have as much work to do as fans as this team does to get over the hump. Tick tock.
Post Note: If you’d like to blame someone for inspiring this particularly lengthy dose of wyobabble, feel free to send your ‘thanks’ to @BruceExclusive on Twitter. Thanks, Bruce!