Buffalo Bills’ fans’ expectations and hopes are continuously and perpetually disappointed. But that doesn’t mean they stop hoping.
When the Buffalo Bills defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 41-7 on the opening weekend of the NFL’s National Football League’s 2011-2012 season, I received a text message (one of many) from a friend I grew up with. This friend had possessed Bills’ season tickets since I had known him as a small boy. He was a true diehard; the kind who excitedly sent me draft predictions and hyperbolic prognostications about the Buffalo Bills’ return* to dominance. His text was a short, two-word message: “Super Bowl.” It was a joke, but he wasn’t alone in this sentiment.
*This was meant to be ironic, simply because the “dominance” was only in reference to AFC Championship games.
For Cleveland, Minnesota, and [insert maligned franchise that hasn’t seen a title in 30+ years] fans there’s a veil of doom covering the end of every season. No matter how excited we get—or more importantly—allow ourselves to get, at the end of the year we always end up disappointed. After a while, you grow numb to the fanaticism you encounter every fall or spring, and you’re left with a glass-half-empty philosophy you try and hide from your team’s zealots. You play devil’s advocate on fan boards; you laugh at their training camp follies and downplay their preseason excellence; you never once select your team’s players for fantasy purposes, and when your team inevitably loses, you comfort yourself in the warm glow of your own preemptory disappointment. You knew this was coming, and even braced against the failures, but you’re still crestfallen once the loss arrives—it’s unavoidable.
This doesn’t mean you actively root against your team, far from it, but when you’re watching a tight contest, you’re mentally preparing for failure. It’s a coping mechanism embattled fans inherit after each successive losing season; you grow a callous of dread that replaces the open wounds of defeat you’ve suffered for so many years. You’re bitter and snarky. For me, I had a thick callus before I finished puberty. My Buffalo Bills lost four straight Super Bowls before I became a teenager. Afterwards, I still bought Flutie Flakes, and talked up our acquisition of Rob Johnson; our hiring of Dick Jauron from the Bears; the Drew Bledsoe signing (yes, a real quarterback—past his prime), and the disgusting Terrell Owens disaster or whichever savior Ralph Wilson & Co. purchased in an off-season ad infinitum.
On the surface, I portrayed a callow air of “I told you so,” but deep down, in the primordial stew of my boyhood fandom, after every successive loss, I was always crushed. This still hasn’t gone away. After our win against Kansas City IN ARROWHEAD, I laughed off the hyperbolic pronouncements of “16-0” and “Super Bowl” that rang through the Bills Bar and the text messages I swapped with my friends. I knew this was just a preamble before the storm of losses. The initial glow of victory Bills fans haven’t seen since the spunky Flutie led us to our last playoff appearance more than a decade ago, would likely come crashing down.
This past Sunday, after navigating the various MTA misdirections blocking Brooklyn from Manhattan every weekend, I finally got to the Bills Bar with a little over 4 minutes left in the game. We had come from behind against Oakland to take the lead. I was overjoyed because the initial ESPN score reports had the familiar chime of “here we go again” as Oakland had jumped out to a 21-3 lead at halftime. But now, here we were, up 31-28 with the seconds ticking down. The moment I walked further into the bar, Oakland’s Jason Campbell launched a 50-yard bomb down the field to a double-covered Denarious Moore in the end zone. He out-leaped the coverage and wrestled the ball away. Touchdown. I was more than deflated, even with all my psychological maneuvering to avoid moments such as these.
A fellow fan made a remark to me about what a bad omen my sudden appearance at the bar had been, and I agreed—self-loathing fans place themselves at the center of their team’s disasters; “If only I’d been standing instead of sitting for that last play or had arrived at the bar a little later, that play wouldn’t have happened and we would have won.” When I was younger, I’d sometimes just walk out of the room if things weren’t going well. I was sure we’d lose now.
I reluctantly waited for the next drive, convinced it would end in a 4th-down drop or a rushed interception. But the calamity I foretold never came. The Bills slowly drove 80 yards down the field and our lovable QB, who is either called “Fitzy” or “Havahd” depending on the fan, completed a 4th-down touchdown pass to David Nelson. We were back on top. The bar exploded, and I hugged 20 different people I didn’t know. We had won. We had actually won. We had taken the lead. We kicked off with only 14 seconds remaining, and Jason Campbell quickly completed a 24-yard pass to Denarious Moore. We’re all Bills fans, so we know shit invariably happens when we’re at our most vulnerable. Thankfully, the Hail Mary Campbell threw up, as time expired, got picked off in the end zone—as the bar collectively said a prayer. We’re Bills fans; most other fans would have assumed the Hail Mary wouldn’t work.
The Buffalo Bills are 2-0 for the first time since 2008. If you’re a Bills fan, you remember we went 4-0 that same 2008 September, only to lose all our division games and finish 7-9 for the third consecutive season. We were/are stuck in the NFL’s mediocre abyss where you can’t get better in the draft, but never make the playoffs. We still haven’t left that abyss, and we haven’t made the playoffs since 2000.
This weekend we have New England coming up, and as I watched Tom Brady meticulously break down the San Diego defense after the Bills game, Kurtz’s “the horror, the horror” ran on loop through my head. We are going to lose to New England—like we always have for the last decade—and lose to those detestable Jets in New York New Jersey. Maybe we’ll squeak out a win against the quarterback doppelgangers lined up behind center in Miami. We’ll probably finish around 7-9 or 8-8 or 9-7 this season, barely missing the playoffs and setting ourselves up for another middling first-round pick in 2012. The abyss will continue. I know this is the likely outcome, and I’ve resigned myself to our fate. Welcome to the diminished expectations of a Buffalo Bills fan.
Deep down, I still think this might be a happy ending for the Bills, and we’ll make a miracle run to the Super Bowl, where old emotions will be dredged up while the 24-hour news cycle talks endlessly about the Bill’s spectacular choke jobs in the beginning of the ’90s. They’ll play Norwood’s kick over and over and over again, and Bills fans will collectively lose faith before the opening kickoff. The hopelessness in the air alone may be enough to paralyze our team before they even take the field.
See what happened? Even while my imagination explored the possibilities of the Buffalo Bills miraculously making the Super Bowl, my experience with the team told me they’d probably lose the game too. Bills fans can’t even dream without a nightmare weaseling it’s way into our psyche. So we soldier on, and bare the collective failures of our franchise while secretly still dreaming things will change. No matter how much our future outlook for the team erodes, we’ll covertly wish they’d prove us wrong. That’s why we’re (masochistic) fans.