Never forget the game where Tom Brady was benched against the Buffalo Bills after not scoring a first-half touchdown. Well, that’s one way to frame it. The division’s bully remembered the regular season’s final result for about as long as a preseason outing. But the Bills must savor the de facto exhibition because they have no other option. Finally winning in 2002’s brand-new stadium showed they are capable of playing for pride. Now, they must internalize how a victory for self-esteem isn’t that rewarding.
Gleams of improvement offer little consolation following the extension of a playoff drought that has lasted for over 27 percent of the team’s existence. Good teams overcome deficiencies. By contrast, the Bills have been defined by them. If they had gotten another win, we might be discussing how the unstoppable defensive front four embodies the franchise. Instead, the offensive dotted line was perforated enough to spoil the fun. Emphasizing what went wrong isn’t just a reaction to the franchise’s unfortunate consistency in missing the playoffs: it’s to motivate fixes by those in position to repair.
Frustration is exacerbated when there’s no end in sight. Everyone attached to this franchise had enough over 200 games ago. If Marty McFly told you in 1999 after the Music City Misdemeanor that you’d face 15 straight times where the Bills couldn’t even get ripped off in the playoffs, you would’ve thought that was unbearably improbable. Yet, we’ve made it. We’re capable of dealing with torment our brains would deem impossible to withstand. That doesn’t make it acceptable. Even the three-year gap between the next-longest playoff droughts in Cleveland and Oakland is too long. Waiting months to see if they can improve wouldn’t be that bad except for the high school sophomore-aged interval already served.
We’ve had to strain to recall happy moments. After all, the Bills have lost a majority of the time. A 9-7 season means they’re up to 58 games under .500 over the franchise’s existence. Sure, they got their most wins in a decade. But they’re merely bettering their own woeful recent standard. And, if today’s players want to accept the credit for the best record since 2004, they also must take the blame for continuing the playoff drought started under long-retired predecessors.
Those without recent success naturally look to recapture past glory. With this team, that means going back over 20 years. The implausible scenario where AFC champion architect Bill Polian returns would be as unsatisfying as Marv Levy’s second coming. The game has changed dramatically since Polian excelled at managing it, so be happy with recalling what he achieved instead of trying fruitlessly to recapture it.
The impulse to encourage successful former employees to reapply is understandable, especially with so few grand moments to fill the mind. Someone who created pleasant memories could offer security in precedent. Ted Nolan can remind you that this wouldn’t be the first time Terry Pegula brought back a successful guy from the past. But too many sequels involve characters you adore stuck telling lesser stories.
Searching for meaning in a meaningless game is an even more popular hobby for Buffalonians than explaining to out-of-towners that it actually hasn’t been that wintry this December. Fans who stumble across a listing of this season in future years hopefully won’t ask what the Patriots were playing for or how long their franchise quarterback played. If they’re curious, the answers “nothing” and “not very” will help them put a long-awaited triumph in context.
New England will have to console themselves with the conference’s top seed. So, the Bills don’t quite own Foxboro. Even worse, we face the potential dark side of getting to a winning record after the playoffs are out of reach, namely how it might permit Doug Marrone to artificially earn the right to not be fired. By improving the record through an extra win in garbage time, games like this can count for the wrong reason.
It’s been well over a decade since fans grew tired of learning that little victories don’t add up to one big success. Seeking comfort in a game that only affects draft positioning is even less enthralling when the Bills are presently skipping opening night. We didn’t even get to say goodbye to Kyle Orton, as the fastest he moved all season was after he got his final check. Just like before he retired, they need to find a quarterback.
Not to be gloomy, but the last win is more enjoyable on its own than as an inspiration that more will follow starting in September. A three-win improvement doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll build on that next season, just like disco record sales may not increase by 400 percent every year just because they did so in 1976. All the Bills have right now is a conquest that only helped their self-esteem. If that feels unsatisfying, your emotions are properly calibrated. An infuriating decade and a half later, fans deserve more than little signs of progress.