The Intangibles: Bills Fans May Help This Team More By Letting Go Of The Past

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.

(Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
EJ Manuel needs to take a big step this season and he needs our support. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

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!

About Robyn Mundy

Robyn Mundy is Editor-in-Chief of the BillsMafia blog at BillsMafia.com. She's a retired oncology nurse & psychotherapist who loves to write about her life-long passion for the Buffalo Bills, and occasionally something of clinical or social relevance. Robyn lives with her husband Gary and their dogs in the foothills of the glorious Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. Robyn is also a proud founding sponsor. Follow her on Twitter at @robynmundyWYO.

14 Replies to “The Intangibles: Bills Fans May Help This Team More By Letting Go Of The Past”

  1. I’m behind this team 100% every year and I hate the booing in pre season.

    I also can’t stand it when people think it’s ok to badger athletes just because they can.

    Who cares what pizza Aaron Williams eats!!

    And I saw a guy comparing Aaron Williams with Jim Kelly! Wtf! People need to leave these players alone. Twitter ruined it for athletes IMO. They have zero privacy now.

    • Hi PSI,

      Thanks for taking the time to read this article and comment. I think you are right on regarding your view of fan behavior on social media. It can be disgraceful, and the anonymity of the internet tends to bring out the worst in people.

      Personally, it’s never made sense to me to stay stuck in misery and to perpetrate those feelings toward others. They say misery loves company, so maybe that’s why humans have a tendency to behave badly at times when they dump their anger on everyone around them.

      However, that’s not a healthy mindset for this fan, and I choose not to “go there” or allow myself to be pulled into the sewer because I’ve learned that nothing good comes of getting sucked into that way of thinking.

      I get angry like any Bills fan when they stink. However, I vent it in a way that avoids taking it out on other people because it doesn’t seem to help anyone including myself, so it seems counterproductive.

      As for Twitter and players, sometimes they also reap what they sow as well. They must also realize that can incite the fan base in a counterproductive way when they engage with “trolls”. Nothing good comes of that waste of energy on their part either.

      Thanks again and GO BILLS!

      Take care,

      Robyn

  2. Though I disagree with your assessment of Manuel, Amen sister, Amen! lol

    In regards to Manuel, I think we need to consider in today’s world, athletes get media training and this effects how they choose to interact.

    I watch nearly every press conference and it seems to me that it looks like he wants to say one thing, but his media training forces him to respond in a different way.

    I also remember a press conference on the field in the second week of training camp if I remember correctly where a reporter stated that he had a inconsistent/bad practice and Manuel with a slightly pissed off look on his face said in a calm manner… “I disagree, I had a good practice.”

    Lastly, Manuel is a religious man. Kelly in his playing years was not. I think Manuel is very aware of his actions and wants to carry himself in a respectable and classy way. When many NFL atheletes speak bluntly in the post Moss-Owens-Ochocinco era, they immediate attract a lot more unwanted media attention. Thus many athletes choose the political/pg/defering route to answer questions instead of speaking real and blunt.

    The media can’t handle the truth!!! :)

    • Hi Brian,

      Thanks for sharing your point of view. I agree with much of it. However, I don’t believe it is the media that can’t handle the truth. I think it’s more the front office of the Bills who won’t let the truth be told in the manner this fan base demands.

      The media loves controversy, and at times they will stir the pot to create it themselves. Controversy creates $$$ for advertisers by clicks and viewer engagement. And of course nothing draws people in better than a tussle between the players, coaches, front office and fans.

      Also, your assessment of EJ Manuel is right on. I would only add that despite the best media training, a person’s orientation with regard to how they interact with the world has definitive patterns that are obvious to the trained eye regardless of “media training”.

      EJ Manuel certainly is a man of great dignity and class, and it reflects in how he speaks to the media. Hopefully he will be able to brush aside the increasing criticism and use it as fuel to prove his detractors wrong.

      We will probably know the near term fate of EJ Manuel’s career by the end of September. His leash is getting pulled very tight, and with no assurances of retaining jobs when a new owner is announced, this coaching staff will not wait much longer for EJ to prove he is ready to be a starting QB in the NFL.

      Oddly, some people with performance anxiety do respond well to pressure. It fires them up in a way that can push them through “the nerves”. We have seen EJ do well under pressure in the past. His performance at the Senior Bowl with little time to work with teammates for that game was impressive.

      Again, thanks for your comments!

      Take care,

      Robyn

  3. As always, a good, thought-provoking article. Thanks Robyn. I entirely agree. I especially liked your reference to the “12th” man. I also feel that in general, positive attitudes bring about positive happenings. Negative attitudes, negative happenings. Not exclusively and not always, of course. But certainly in general I have found that to be the case. Positive attitude doesn’t also mean “Pollyanna-ish.” One can be positive and critical at the same time, and positive criticism is so much more effective than negative criticism. Go Bills!

    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for your comments. Your last statement that one can be positive and critical at the same time is an excellent point!

      I wish the fan base would accept that realization and stop beating each other up, instead of fighting with each other. Winning cures everything though!

      GO BILLS!

      Take care,

      Robyn

  4. As Michael stated “a good-thought provoking article”. I concur.

    Here’s the plan … Somehow (easier said than done) get your article in front of HCDM. Then convince him to get E.J. on a plane from Chicago to Wyoming to spend 4 hours with you on Monday before the home Miami game. If that isn’t convenient for the Bills have them pay for your round trip ticket from Wyoming to Buffalo to spend some time with E.J. on his Monday off day.

    Putting the pipe dream aside, I feel that bringing in Kyle Orton now is just what E.J. needs at this time. This should be a wake up call to him that all is not well in Orchard Park.

    As the 12th man is concerned booing is not going to improve his performance but will only make matters worse for him and the team’s performance. I can understand why the fans, including myself, are totally frustrated after so many years of sub par performance. There is a lot of talent on this team who can get the team over the hump but they only have control of this year. If E.J.’s mind can get straightened out and the fans support the team by not booing, I think that there is a good chance of making at least an 8-8 record this year. If not, pack it in, it could be worse than last year.

    If I don’t make an 8-8 record this year I’m not going to get fired but I can think of a few who will.

    Do you have HCDM’s cell number?

    GO BILLS !!!

    • Hi Jeff!

      I completely agree that this fan base has every right to voice their displeasure with how this team performed in the preseason. However, there are also consequences, and one of them is that it can alienate players from the fan base.

      Just because we may feel entitled to express those feelings doesn’t mean there are no consequences if we do so.

      Nothing will cure fan crabbiness except for this team to start winning games on a consistent basis. When the time comes for this team to win a championship, it is the fans who should have a parade for ourselves and tote the Lombardi around at this point!

      GO BILLS!

  5. Hey girl ,
    I always love reading your thoughts..

    Here’s my take: while a lot of people rag on EJ because they see his pressers as not being aware of his own performances , it might just be that he understands exactly where he is and where the coaches expect him to be. Somebody who works as hard as he does to improve his game is not unaware . ( I would make the unaware argument for somebody like Johnny Football who is out riding swans and partying instead of learning the playbook . )

    At practice and in preseason , if they are bringing EJ along gradually and are working on a particular aspect of his game, then EJ improving at that aspect would be the success… not the outcome of the play . If the goal in a series of plays is to move the ball down the field and he does that but doesnt punch it into the endzone, then he has succeeded in his eyes and the eyes of the coaches. In the eyes of the fans , however, it would be a failure because there was no score ( or maybe a fieldgoal ) .

    We don’t know what the coaching emphasis is in practice and in pre season … so for fans to call out EJ as delusional about his abilities , when , in fact he has done what the object of the exercise was is unfair.
    He does consistency acknowledge that he has to get better.. so he isnt sitting back there, a la Johnnny Football , thinking he is God’s gift to the NFL .

    The other thing that adds to the problem is the general attitude on social media nowadays that seems to get worse every day . There is seemingly no more respect for people anymore . On any board, not just ones that discuss football , any place where people are allowed to voice their anonymous opinions, there is no discussion any more. Everything is now ” agree with me or I’ll call you filthy names .. which , by the way, I would never actually say to you face to face because I only have internet cojones. ” Heck, I ve even seen this kind of stupid behavior on Facebook with freaking china painters !!! CHINA PAINTERS!!

    The fact that any little pimple faced idiot can spew garbage on the internet without consequence has made places that used to be available for rational discussion virtually unbearable now . There just seems to be so much anger out there .. and not just directed at football players .,.. just general anger . It’s depressing .. and I don’t know whether we can ever get back to the days of treating people respectfully. Sad!

    Anyway , a lot of the irrational criticism stems from the way people respond to each other nowadays. The jerks who profess that EJ is the absolute worst piece of crap in the history of the NFL and has not made one single good throw in his entire life ( yes, there are people out there who have said that ) are the ones that seem to draw the most attention . The responses to the bashing posts on the BILLS boards far surpass the responses to the positive ones. Negativity draws attention . .. and it’s a hell of a lot easier to be negative than it is to be positive.

    This fan base is like a puppy that has been starved and kicked it ‘s whole life. We’ve had it rough . Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory time and time again is making us snap at any hand that comes near us, even one that might be holding a bowl of food. Can a fan base have PTSD ? LOL ! We can’t control what happens this season and jumping all over a young quarterback , who we all knew was a project, isn’t going to help ….. anymore than spray painting a **** on a player’s lawn helped THAT player.

    Going in , as always, with high hopes and high expectations….

    GO BILLS!
    Marci aka Paintgirl

    • Hey Marci!

      Wow, some really great observations here. Interesting that you ask if a fan base can have PTSD. I once wrote about that on the Buffalo Bills Message Board but it wasn’t well received because some people took offense that I would compare something that can happen as a result of war experience to apply to “just a game”.

      While I agree that PTS (as it is now referred) is a very serious problem, it is not unique to war. It happens as a result of any kind of psychotrauma.

      So yes, I believe it can be said to apply to a passionate fan base that has experienced extraordinary loss and heart break. It can happen when traumatic feelings are experienced in any setting.

      There is no doubt in my mind that as a fan base, we have been emotionally traumatized like no other. Four Super Bowl losses followed by nearly two decades of forward laterals and a playoff drought entering high school age is enough to make even the strongest fan base overreact (like booing a guy in a meaningless preseason game when he’s played ten games in the NFL).

      Hope all is well for you and Rex. You are never far from my thoughts, especially during football season. Thanks for your great commentary here.

      You go girl!

      Take care,

      Robyn

  6. I’m a life-long suffering Bills fan and kind of stumbled upon this article. My feeling is you have an awful lot of time on your hands! However I did enjoy many points of your rather lengthy dissertation. Mainly the fact that Manuel comes off as almost child-like in his responses to the media and to us, the fans. We want him to man-up and tell it like it is, bitch a little about the organization and then go out and pound down a few beers. Come back on Sunday and hammer the opposition with daring long shots to the end zone. Be a QB for gods sake.

    • Thanks for your comments. LOL… I try to warn people who read my posts to be prepared for “wyobabble” (long and nerdy).

      It has been my experience over the years that many Bills fans are as you describe as far as what they want out of their QB when he talks about his game; more blunt honesty and less media-speak.

      No doubt we are a crusty group of fans sick of losing! Let’s hope the time for that to change is NOW!

      Take care, and thanks for writing.

      Robyn

  7. I think there is a piece of this extra negativity based simply upon the technology of the time and the dominance of the NFL over other professional sports leagues. Back in 1987 (and before), we weren’t bombarded with the state of the franchise in such a repeated and consistent manner.

    14 years, 14 years ….14 FRICKIN’ YEARS!!!!! How many time and in how many ways do we hear this ringing in our ears and stinking our eyes? You wanna read something about the Bills current team…its there. You wanna read something about the ownership situation, its there. You turn on the TV and Marshall Faulk and others are there just waiting to bring this up for any conceivable reason. (I mean what did we ever do to him other than destroy those Indy teams back them???) You turn on the game, its said within the first 3 minutes by nearly every broadcaster. Okay, time to break out the chart showing the longest NFL playoffs droughts…there it is again.

    Its overtaken wide right. When we make the playoffs and maybe even win in the extra season, how many of you will gladly go back to hearing, “Wide right, wide right, WIDE RIGHT…HOLY HANNAH WIDE FRICKIN’ RIGHT!!!!!!!

  8. I too stumbled onto your article through one of the Bills message boards. I have been a Bills fan for at least 45 years. Been through it all. With the social media we have now it has been the longest training camp and preseason ever!! People are so negative and so mean. It’s like everyone is building up this wall of negativity so they are prepared for a horrible season. It’s like if you are optimistic…you’re crazy…drinking the Kool-Aid etc. I, personally think it will be a great fun season. We have a lot of talent, including EJ and if the o-line gives him 1 or 2 seconds more…it will be interesting. And also, offensive play calling will be very important. I was really upset that the fans booed because it was pre-season and a lot of evaluating is going on. Not like a real game. Everyone is pretty restless and anxious for this season to get started and I think that is part of the negativity. Training camp was like forever and nervous not to get injuries, like in the past. But I avoid the message boards for a few days and keep my glass half full for this season. Go Bills!!