It’s Hard to Be a Bills Fan…But Impossible Not to Be

Disclaimer: This article is long, the Bills play-off drought was longer and more painful, so suck it up.

I am a guest writer at BTB. Like all of the writers here on BTB, I grew up most of my life in North Jersey rooting for New Jersey and New York City teams. Three years ago, I moved to Rochester, about an hour due east of Buffalo, and while I was carrying boxes to help move in, I noticed a Bills flag in the neighbor’s window. I thought to myself “Wow look at that, a Bills fan, I can’t believe fans even exist for such an irrelevant team.” Little did I know three years later I would be listening to my car radio on a frigid cold New Year’s Eve to hear “15, 10, 5 Touchdown!” describing Bengals QB Andy Dalton’s touchdown pass launching the Bills into the playoffs and one of the most euphoric moments of my life.
There are a lot of teams out there that have put their fan bases through suffering: the Mets in the MLB, The Maple Leafs in the NHL, the LA Clippers in the NBA, and even the Cleveland Browns (0-16) are just some examples. The Bills, however, have put their fan base through a unique kind of misery over the past 30 years that no other team can equal.
To start, the Bills have never won a Super Bowl but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The Bills first qualified for the Big Game in the 1990 season. The 1990 Bills were arguably the best ever football team to represent the city of Buffalo. Their offense seemingly scored at will and the defense stopped teams cold. QB Jim Kelly had the highest passer rating in the league, and they possessed the defensive player of the year in Bruce Smith. Their dominance earned them the nickname “The Greatest Show on Turf”. They steam rolled their way to the Super Bowl, winning the AFC championship game 51-3 over the Raiders. Whereas their opponents, the Giants, scraped by winning 15-13 on a last second field goal in a game where they failed to reach the end zone. The Giants also had lost their starting QB and were forced to us back-up Jeff Hostetler whose mustache is really just an insult to the male gender.

Image result for jeff hostetler
No caption needed.

It was the Bills’ game to lose and that they did. BTW – the mastermind behind the upset victory for the Giants was none other than Buffalo nemesis Bill Belichick. Belichick, the Giants defensive coordinator, came up with an innovative defensive scheme with only 2 down lineman and 5 linebackers. The surprised Bills offense sputtered. Meanwhile, the Giants offense chewed up clock, further minimizing the opportunities for the normally high-flying Bills. The game plan was brilliant, keeping the game close. However, it looked like the Giant effort may still fall short as the juggernaut Bills marched to the 30 yard line with 8 seconds left to play with the score Giants 20, Bills 19. Scott Norwood lined up to kick a game-winning, no…. Super Bowl-winning 47 yard field goal, and then this happened.

Wide right! Wide right! The Bills lose.

The next day a beautiful, but relatively unknown, moment in sports history took place as fans gathered in Buffalo to greet their Second best Bills. The crowd, 25,000 people strong, chant “We want Scott! We want Scott!”. The fans of Buffalo publicly and warmly forgave their kicker. Scott made his way to the podium holding back tears and says, “I have never felt more loved than right now.”

Various other players and coaches made their way to the podium that day and promised the fans the Bills would return to the Super Bowl. And the Bills did, three more times. For a total of four straight Super Bowl appearances in a row, an NFL record, and they lost all four.

Super Bowl XXVI Bills 24 Redskins 37
Super Bowl XXVII Bills 24 Cowboys 52
Super Bowl XXVIII Bills 13 Cowboys 30

The Bills would go on to reach the playoffs in the 1995, 1996, and 1998 seasons but never advance past the divisional round. The last year the Bills made the playoffs was 1999. Yup, Bill Clinton was President, YouTube, FaceBook and Twitter were the stuff of science fiction, heck the Patriots hadn’t even won a Super Bowl.

The Bills were playing the Titans in the Wild Card round. The Bills kicked an apparent game winning go ahead field goal to make it 16-15 with 16 seconds left in the game. On the ensuing kick- off this happened.

The country knows this play as the “Music City Miracle”. Here in Western, NY it’s just “The Forward Pass”. Either way, it is the play that sent the Bills into what ended up being the longest playoff droughts across any of the four major American sports.

The 2000 season saw the Patriots acquire both Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. The famous duo would go on to build a dynasty winning the AFC East 14 of the next 17 years and five Super Bowls. In week 14 of the 2000 season the 7-6 Bills played the 7-6 Colts. Prior to the game the Bills head coach, Wade Phillips, said both teams, “were basically out of it”. The Bills lost 44-20 and the Colts later would go on to clinch a playoff berth.

In 2003, the Bills opened the season with a 31-0 trouncing of the Patriots in the season opener. Newly acquired safety, Lawyer Milloy who had just been cut by the Patriots helped secure the shutout victory with a sack. In week 17 of the same year the Patriots shutout the Bills 31-0 and go on to win a Superbowl.
In the 2004 draft the Bills selected Lee Evans (Lee who? exactly) 13th overall, passing up Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger. The Bills started the season 0-4 but rallied to a 9-6 record going into week 17. To make the playoffs the Bills needed the Jets to lose to the Rams, and for the Bills to beat a Steelers team starting their 3rd stringers. The Jets lost, and so did the Bills missing the playoffs for the 4th straight season.

The Bills select defensive tackle Kyle Williams 134th overall in 2006. Remember that name for later but forget that the team had a 7-9 record.

The walk in the wilderness continued in 2007 when the Bills draft Marshawn Lynch 12th overall. In week 5, the Bills were featured on MNF for the first time in seven years to play the Cowboys led by, you guessed it, Coach Wade Phillips who the Bills had let go in 2005. No matter, the Bills led the whole way and were set to pull off a huge upset win. The Bills scored with 24 seconds left to play to cut the lead to 24-22, but the ensuing tying 2-point conversion the pass intended for Terrell Owens is batted down to the delight of a rowdy and packed home crowd. The Cowboys, however, go on to recover the onside kick and convert a last second 53 yard field goal to win 25-24.

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Kicker, Nick Folk, celebrates his game winning kick as Bills players watch the ball sail through the uprights

The Bills acquire fading star Terrell Owens in 2009 and he is presented a key to the city. At age 35, TO’s antics continued, but his elite play did not. Week 1 of the season the Bills faced the Patriots on MNF. The Bills were up 24-19 with just over 2 minutes to play as the Patriots kicked off. The Bills return to the 30 but the ball is fumbled and recovered by the Pats. Brady throws the game winning touchdown shortly thereafter. The Patriots finish 10-6 and win the division, the Bills finished the season 6-10, dead last in the AFC East.

Exhausted yet? Heck we’re just a little over halfway through, we’ve got eight years more to go. Imagine living it as a Bills fan.

The 2010 draft the Bills select defensive tackle Torrell Troup, Rob Gronkowski was selected with the very next pick.

The Bills select defensive tackle Marcell Dareus in 2011 passing up on Von Miller, A.J Green, Julio Jones, and J.J Watt. (Dareus now plays for Bills opponent on Sunday, the Jaguars). The Bills beat the Patriots in the season opener for the first time since 2003 and open the season 3-0 but drop the next seven games and miss the playoffs.

In the forgettable 2012 season, team owner Ralph C. Wilson shows signs of aging and gives up the role of team president, starting swirling rumors about the team’s future in Buffalo.

The Bills later hire up and coming Syracuse coach Doug Marrone for the 2013 season. He referred to himself as “St. Doug” alluding to the idea it takes two miracles to become a Saint, first was his revitalizing of Syracuse, next was the Buffalo Bills who finished 6-10.

Ralph Wilson dies at age 95 intensifying rumors the Bills will leave Buffalo. Sabres owner Terry Pegula, however, buys the team for $1.4 billion quelling fears the Bills would relocate. The Bills finish 9-7 and would have clinched playoff berth if not for losing to the 2-12 Raiders in week 16. After the season Coach Marrone essentially quit the team. There was a $4 million opt-out clause written into his contract in case the Bills relocated. The Bills stayed in Buffalo but “St. Doug” did not. Marrone now coaches Marcell Dareus and the Jacksonville Jaguars who will square off against the Bills later today in the first Bills playoff game in 18 years.

Meanwhile the passage through NFL purgatory would trudge on in 2015 with the hiring of Rex Ryan. He won the head coaching job convincing new owner Terry Pegula that his defensive “wizardry” would frustrate Brady and his Patriots. That is when I enter the picture. I had just moved from New Jersey to Rochester, and not fully realizing this sad history at the time I joined the Bills fanhood. The Bills Mafia was excited about the bombastic Ryan, but having watched him coach the Jets, I knew Brady had more football “wizardry” in his left toe nail then Ryan did in his entire 300 pound frame. In games Brady played in against the Bills during Ryan’s tenure the Patriots were 3-0 where the pats averaged over 33 points a game. But 2015, some key rays of hope began to show with acquisition LeSean McCoy and the QB role was given to Tyrod Taylor.

In week 16 of the 2016 season the Bills played the Dolphins in a must-win game. The Bills punted on 4th and 2 in overtime because “it was a long 2 yards”, according to Coach Ryan. The Dolphins went on to kick the game winning field goal the next drive, eliminating the Bills from the playoffs for the 16th straight season.

Now we finally come to the 2017 season. I could fully recap the 2017 season, but I don’t see the point. The Zay Jones dropped pass vs Carolina, the blowout loss to the Jets on MNF, the Peterman game, none of it matters anymore. The Bills are in.

To understand the Bills and their fans one needs to understand western NY. When one thinks of the state of New York the first thing that comes to mind is of course New York City, then maybe Long Island and next might Albany (upstate New York which is different than western NY). Western NY is always the afterthought. Western New Yorkers carry that cross as a chip on their shoulder. People here don’t try to change that by seeking glamour they change it by earning respect, but still it seems nobody cares to notice.

The Bills face the same the issues of the people they play for. The Pats are the dynasty team of the AFC East. The Bills are third in line of their own state behind the Jets and Giants (whose stadium is actually in New Jersey). The Bills are the grinders, like their fans. There aren’t many cities that would not only stand by their team through such misery, but also come to be known as one of the rowdiest and most loyal fan bases in the country in the “Bills Mafia”. What people don’t realize about the Bills Mafia is that they are more than drunken football fans jumping from RV’s into tables.
Like a graduating class from Marine boot camp, they are a band of brothers and sisters who have suffered and fought together. They have fought to keep their beloved Bills in Buffalo. They have watched a field goal fly wide right denying their closest shot to a Super Bowl, they have watched the Music City Miracle crush their last playoff dreams, they have watched devastating loss after devastating loss in pivotal games, they have watched 10 different head coaches, and 17 different starting quarterbacks fail to clinch a playoff berth, and on December 31st, 2017 they watched the Bengals line up for a 4th and 12 from the 48 with 50 seconds left on the clock. For once in the history of the Bills, the unthinkable, the impossible, broke the Bills way as the feet of Bengal’s receiver Tyler Boyd touched pay-dirt in Baltimore. The Bills were going to the playoffs. Putting words to the collective euphoria would be a disservice to what it meant to Bills fans. So let’s watch.

 

Folks outside of Buffalo seem to think the excitement is misplaced, “You guys are just gonna lose to Jacksonville” is something you often hear. But the people don’t understand how exciting it is just to be in the playoffs. Perhaps the Bills will have finally earned the respect they have strived, worked, and cried for over the past 17 years. With rumblings about a power struggle in New England, maybe 2018 will mark the beginning of a new era in Buffalo. Nobody can know for sure, Bills fan can only hope, but after the past 25 years hope is the one thing the Bills and their fans are really good at.

-JJ

P.S.- I have only been a Bills fan for 3 years. I do not intend to act as if I know what it was like to live with the Bills over the past 25 years. Instead this article is my display of respect to the loyalty and passion displayed by Bills fans over their history.

McGon’s Picks: NFL Wild-Card Playoffs

It sucks that the NFL regular season is over, but you know what that means.

The PLAYOFFS are here, and we have some exciting matchups coming this weekend. While the point spreads do not necessarily reflect it, I think we will have some good games on our hands this weekend. The early Saturday game, Titans-Chiefs is not that exciting, but you have the defending NFC Champion Falcons playing the rising Rams in their first playoff since 2004 (which was also against the Falcons) on Saturday night. On Sunday, you have two of the longest playoff droughts coming to an end in the Bills-Jaguars matchup, and the most intriguing matchup of the weekend comes late Sunday with NFC South rivals squaring off in the Panthers and the Saints. Despite a Super Bowl for the ages, only 3 of the 12 playoff games last year were decided by one score, as the other 9 were 13-point plus blowouts. And of those 3 close games, the Packers were up 21-3 on the Cowboys before a second half comeback, and the Falcons were up 28-3 on the Patriots before a second half comeback, in case you forgot (JK, no one forgets). So especially with the way NFL ratings have gone down this year, the league needs some better games this postseason.

As for the regular season finale, Week 17, things were pretty unpredictable like I predicted. However, I did not do so badly. I went 10-6 straight up, and 8-8 against the spread, which helped me finish with an above .500 record against the spread for the regular season. Here’s a look back at the picks I made (winning team in red, spread winner in red):

Cowboys (-3) at Eagles

Packers (+7) at Lions 

  • Lions 35, Packers 11- It’s very hard to succeed with a backup QB in this league, but despite only playing in less than half the games, Aaron Rodgers may have proved he is the league MVP this season.

Texans at Colts (-5.5) 

Bears at Vikings (-12)

Jets (+15) at Patriots

  • Patriots 26, Jets 6- Another #1 seed for the Patriots, but is there trouble in paradise in New England? We will see if this latest report impacts the Patriots on the field over the next few weeks.

Redskins (-3.5) at Giants

  • Giants 18, Redskins 10- Despite the frigid temperatures, this game was actually great to attend, as it felt like a late season baseball game in which the crowd was pretty empty, and everyone was just there to have a good time. As for the game, the Giants only TDs came on a long run and off of a turnover, but Kirk Cousins and the Redskins could not get anything done.

Browns at Steelers (-6)

  • Steelers 28, Browns 24- I left the Giants game at halftime, so I caught the end of this one. My boy Jabrill Peppers had his first career INT, but what a heartbreaking way for the Browns to clinch an 0-16 season.

Panthers at Falcons (-3.5)

Bengals at Ravens (-9.5)

  • Bengals 31, Ravens 27- Holy Andy Dalton! This game definitely felt more like a Bills win than a Bengals win. How crazy that after the Ravens had played great down the stretch, all they had to do was beat the Bengals at home, and they could not get it done. I thought this spread was too big, but I took Ravens after because the Bengals had looked so horrible just 3 and 2 weeks prior. The Bengals did not make the playoffs, but at least they played spoiler in Weeks 16 and 17.

Bills at Dolphins (+2.5) 

  • Bills 22, Dolphins 16- Buffalo did it! It felt right that the Bills would lose and ruin any playoff chances, but even if they did win, I didn’t think there was any chance the Ravens would lose at home. Let’s go Buffalo!

Saints at Buccaneers (+6)

  • Buccaneers 31, Saints 24- After two weeks of nearly upsetting a division rival, Tampa finally pulled through. However, this did not affect the Saints, as the Panthers loss clinched the NFC South for New Orelans.

Jaguars (+2.5) at Titans

  • Titans 15, Jaguars 10- The Jaguars had nothing to play for, and the Titans had everything to play for. This may have not been a great pick, but if these two teams were matched up again this week, I would definitely go with the Jags.

Chiefs (+4) at Broncos

Raiders (+7) at Chargers

  • Chargers 30, Raiders 10- The Chargers are definitely better than the Titans and Bills, but they have to pay the price for their 0-4 start by watching from home this weekend.

49ers (-4) at Rams

Cardinals (+8.5) at Seahawks

  • Cardinals 26, Seahawks 24- Considering the Cardinals were able to finish 8-8 without Carson Palmer or David Johnson, suddenly my bold prediction before the season of the Cardinals finishing 12-4 is not so far off.

2017 Straight-Up: 173-83, 2017 Vs. Spread: 125-121-10

Enough of the regular season. It’s playoff time.

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Titans at Chiefs (-8.5)

Chiefs 27, Titans 14

  • The Titans did not finish the season very strong, and are lucky to be a playoff team, yet they were able to earn the first wild card spot. However, they may have been better suited to be the second wild card and face the Jaguars, because I think this is a bad matchup for them. Outside of struggling to finish the season, they will be missing DeMarco Murray, who is probably their most experienced player in big games, as he played a few playoff games and plenty of prime time games with the Cowboys. The Chiefs, meanwhile, finished the season strong after their midseason slump, winning 4 in a row (3 under Alex Smith). The Chiefs won’t blow the Titans out of the water on the scoreboard, but they will control the clock with Kareem Hunt in the cold weather and clearly be the superior team on Saturday to win and cover.

  • 2016 Titans-Chiefs matchup, the last time these teams met.

Falcons (+6) at Rams

Rams 27, Falcons 24 

  • Records get thrown out the door in the postseason, but everyone who has watched football this year knows the Rams have been significantly better than the Falcons, even if they were only one game better in the standings. While this game is home for the Rams, they don’t necessarily have a home field advantage, and the likely good weather will play to both team’s advantage. The Falcons are obviously more experienced in the postseason than the Rams, and of course come in with a chip on their shoulder after last season’s Super Bowl collpase (however, their play has not exactly reflected a chip on their shoulder). At the end of the day, I think the Rams will get this victory strictly on being a much better team than the Falcons this season. The other factors will make this a close game, however, and I think the Falcons cover. If the Falcons can get by this game, they have a great chance to turn a somewhat disappointing season into an NFC Championship appearance, as they would play the shorthanded Eagles the following week.

  • 2016 Falcons-Rams matchup, the last time these two teams met.

Bills at Jaguars (-8.5)

Jaguars 30, Bills 13

  • A playoff matchup between two perennial losing franchises is awesome, however, I think the Jaguars will ultimately show they are a much better team. The Bills may be without LeSean McCoy in this one, and even if he plays, he probably will not be at full strength. Whether he plays or not, the Bills will have a tough time up against Sacksonville and the best defense in the NFL. While the Jaguars offense is not always great, I think they will spend a lot of time on the field on Sunday and put up some points. I see this game being within a score at halftime, but then the Jaguars will pull away in the second half to win and cover.

  • 2016 Jaguars-Bills matchup, the last time these two teams met.

Panthers at Saints (-6.5) 

Saints 24, Panthers 17

  • I have the Saints covering a decently large spread, but I think this still has potential to be the best matchup of the weekend. It is hard to beat a team 3 times, but the Saints dominated in both matchups this season. The Panthers were playing well down the stretch, but looked shaky in each of their last two games. Combine the fact that the Saints are much better at home and the Panthers are much worse on the road, all signs point towards New Orleans. However, despite Drew Brees being the Super Bowl winning QB of the two, Cam and the Panthers have much more recent experience in the playoffs, including a trip to the Super Bowl just two years ago. The Panthers will play hard and this will be a good game, but I think the Saints are a touchdown better, and I think they will win, cover, and move on.

  • These teams met in Week 3 and Week 13, and the Saints won both times.

Now, I’ll reveal my pre-playoff playoff bracket. These picks are not necessarily the ones I’ll be making the next few weeks, as the matchups could change and I could also change my mind. However, this is how I think the playoff will shake out. I’m not going to give explanations, as I will save them for the week prior to the game.

Wild-Card Playoffs

  • AFC: Chiefs (4) over Titans (5), Jaguars (3) over Bills (6)
  • NFC: Saints (4) over Panthers (5), Rams (3) over Falcons (6)

Divisional Playoffs

  • AFC: (2) Steelers over (3) Jaguars, (1) Patriots over (4) Chiefs
  • NFC: (2) Vikings over (3) Rams, (4) Saints over (1) Eagles

Conference Championship

  • AFC: (1) Patriots over (2) Steelers
  • NFC: (2) Vikings over (4) Saints

Super Bowl LII from Minneapolis, MN

  • Vikings over Patriots

Let’s hope for a great Wild-Card Weekend, be back next week for the Divisional Round. Can the Falcons or Panthers score an upset and make another run to the Super Bowl?

You’ve Heard of the Steroid Era…But We Are About to Enter the Weed Era

A few weeks ago, Cleveland Browns WR Josh Gordon revealed to ESPN that he smoked or drank before every single game he played in the NFL…and still led the league in receiving in 2013. However he managed to do that, whether the alcohol/weed cooled his nerves or made him feel like he was on top of the world, it’s an incredible feat.

Today, Stephen Jackson, a former 20 PPG journeyman in the NBA, revealed to Bleacher Report he smoked his entire career.

A lot of high points during Jackson’s career.

A post shared by Bleacher Report (@bleacherreport) on

First things first, let’s not overreact to how good of a career Stephen Jackson had. He was good, probably never achieved over an 84 rating in 2K. He averaged 15.1 PPG for his career and never eclipsed more than 21 PPG. Good, but relax on the “Hell of a career” statement. Save that for the Hall of Famers, please.

Secondly, I think we are about to enter a whole new era of sports. Obviously, the 90s brought us the Steroid Era in baseball, which drizzled it’s way down into other sports over time. It was iconic, to say the least. It’s cheating, and it was entirely wrong, but Barry Bonds hit 73 HR in one season while batting .328…that is inhumane and absolutely incredible to watch. Bonds was hitting home runs with broken bats, and baseball reached a peak it had never known before.

But now, we are in the WEED ERA. Everybody and their brother is going to start revealing they smoked, drank, or did some other crazy shit before going out onto a field and being professional athletes.

Personally, I cannot wait until this happens. We’re gonna see things like Hines Ward smoked a blunt during halftime of Super Bowl XLIII, or Kershaw crushes Four Loko’s before every start. The Steroid Era took away from the accomplishments of athletes who used them, but the Weed Era is going to make your mouth drop at what some athletes accomplish while baked or drunk, further adding to their legacies.

A plethora of athletes are going to come forward, more likely when weed is entirely legal in more states so they avoid getting in trouble. Jackson could come out because he is retired and cannot exactly get in trouble with the league. Gordon came out because it was no secret and already got banned 7,000 times. Remember Michael Phelps? The guy smoked and got caught, but in case you haven’t heard, he was still an unreal athlete. The more people that get associated with this aspect of athletics, the more acceptable it will be, and the more people will continue to come out and say they followed the Josh Gordon Method. Not necessarily a good thing for sports nor the integrity of its players, but I believe it’s a trend that is about to hit this world hard.

Essentially, weed is going to be the backbone of athletics in like six years. Stay tuned.

One Problem the NHL Faces in Today’s World/The Difficulty of Being an NHL Beat Writer

“Though there are skilled players (on the New Jersey Devils), the players have bought into the notion that they are not skilled enough as a group to rely on that talent to win games and, instead, must outcompete their opponents for the puck.” – Devils’ beat reporter, Andrew Gross, on December 29.

Never mind that this quote is a blatant rip-off of Herb Brooks, this quote is also completely ridiculous in today’s NHL.  Literally zero NHL teams since 1995 have taken the approach not to outcompete opponents for the puck.  Zero.  Look at the most talented players in the NHL – Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin, Kane, Toews, Karlsson, Tarasenko to name a few.  All these players always try to outcompete opponents for the puck, and these players are usually successful at this endeavor.  After all, they are great players.  In November, I wrote that hockey is the only sport where the “result retroactively becomes the strategy”.  This dumb quote by Gross is a perfect example of this.

I watched most of the Devils’ games from 2012-3 through 2016-7, during which the Devils spent five seasons as one of the worst teams in the NHL.  The Devils of these seasons always competed hard, but they lost much more often than they won.  Why?  A combination of lack of speed and lack of talent.  Way too often over those five seasons, I would see over-the-hill veterans or never-will-be young players send soft, unscreened wrist shots from the point to the goalie.  I saw these guys come down the wing and take low-percentage shot after low-percentage shot with no teammate in reasonable position for a pass or rebound.  I saw the Devils pass the puck around the perimeter for large chunks of power plays, but the puck would never make its way with authority to the net.  All of this was not because of bad strategy but instead because of a lack of talent.

Image result for nj devils 2013

Meanwhile, I would watch other teams send multiple players to the Devils’ net with speed.  I would lament that this is how you score goals but that the Devils lacked this requisite speed.  Yes, rebound goals are considered “garbage goals”, but they usually happen because a puck carrier enters the zone with speed, takes a hard shot, and sees the rebound go to a teammate with speed.  I would see opposing teams make quick passes behind the Devils’ net and quick passes from the corner to the blue line.  I would see opposing players hungry to take shots, as opposed to the Devils who seemed intent to pass the puck around the perimeter.  Lastly, I would see opposing players win more puck battles than the Devils because the opposing players were faster, stronger, and more talented.

Well, finally this year, the Devils are doing all those wonderful things I saw opponents do to the Devils for five years.  It is amazing how much more successful an NHL team can be with an influx of offensive talent – Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Brian Boyle, and Taylor Hall (albeit a second-year Devil) – and fast, puck-moving defensemen (Will Butcher and Sami Vatanen).  This has been a delight for me.  I woke up this morning with the Devils essentially in first place in the Metropolitan Division (if first place is considered the team with the most points per game).  Coming into this season, I would have been ecstatic if the Devils were to enter New Year’s Day within 3 points of the last playoff spot.  This has been quite a turnaround.

Image result for brian boyle devils

That said, you do not hear much buzz about the Devils in most sports-media circles.  Much of that is because a) the Devils are always an afterthought in this metro area, and b) the NHL is the fourth-most popular professional sports league here.  However, the Rangers are a much bigger media draw than the Devils, yet they do not generate the buzz that teams from other sports do either.  Most of us know that a main reason for this is that most Americans do not grow up playing hockey like they do baseball, football, and basketball.  That is probably the biggest factor.  However, there is another factor in play.

With the proliferation of media – from TV to radio to social media, etc. – people in this country love debating sports every bit as much as they love watching sports.  As maligned as baseball can be for its “boring” and slow pace, has there ever been a time when individual baseball games get more discussion?  I think not.  The Mets and Yankees both play 162 games, yet we all dissect decisions made in April games for hours on end.  It is very easy to do.  Because of baseball’s slow pace, there is plenty of time for us fans to play “manager” and decide if we agree with what Joe Girardi or Terry Collins (RIP to both of them) have done.  In every game, there are probably five or six managerial/player decisions that are controversial enough for fans to discuss.  This is baseball.  As for football, every game is dissected like it is the Super Bowl.  With playcalling, personnel decisions, and “go for it”-versus-“kick it” conundrums, each game provides fifty big discussion points.

You are probably now wondering, “Wait, I thought he was talking about hockey’s problems.”  Precisely.  What hockey actions or strategies are there for fans and media to discuss?  Hockey is my favorite sport because it is fast-paced, and there are few breaks in the action.  For the “ADHD” aspect of today’s American population, this is a good thing.  However, for the “Let’s vilify people for every decision they make” aspect, it is a horrible thing.  In today’s NHL, every player must be responsible offensively and defensively.  Every player must be in peak physical condition.  Every player competes very hard on every shift.  Hockey is the ultimate team game, and no player could look his teammates in the eye if he were not to do one of these afore-mentioned things.  Really bad NHL teams do all these things.  Really good NHL teams do them too.  The only difference between good teams and bad teams is talent.  Therefore, fans cannot realistically criticize players for their work ethic, “compete level” (God do I hate this new-age term), or heart.

Strategically, fans have nothing about which to complain either.  Sure, it was revolutionary when the 1993-5 New Jersey Devils rolled four lines and three defensive pairs and had all players be responsible defensively.  However, by 1996, the whole league had caught up to that.  The 1995 Devils were vilified for playing the “neutral-zone trap”, which I always found silly.  The league was simply adjusting to a team that had all of its players playing solid defense in all zones.  Nowadays, all teams play some variation on a trap.  Really, the “trap” is the ideal defensive approach, but it happens only if a team has appropriate talent.  This strategy requires simply that players are responsible positionally in all zones, but all players are fine with this and have played some degree of a “trap” their whole organized-hockey lives.

Watching an NHL team is like clockwork.  Breakouts, cycling, and forecheck strategies are all virtually the same premise for all teams.  Players and reporters act like teams have vastly different “systems”, but that too is silly.  John Hynes, coach of the Devils, preaches that he wants the Devils to play a “puck-possession game”, and reporters often act like this quote is akin to hearing The Beatles for the first time.  News flash – all teams want to play a “puck-possession game”.  This brings me back to the original quote.

I do not fault Andrew Gross for making a stupid statement.  The fact is that hockey writers have the toughest job in the beat-reporting profession.  There are too few times where players or coaches have the time to make decisions that we can scrutinize.  Sure, we all get frustrated when a player passes when he should shoot (like the Devils historically do way too often on 2-on-1s) or when a goalie allows a soft goal.  However, the mistakes happen, and there is not too much debate to be had here.

As a result, hockey reporters must fabricate silly stories like Gross’s comment.  Deep down, he probably realizes that all teams in today’s NHL try to outcompete opponents for the puck, but, deep down, he is probably also thinking, “Man, what the heck am I going to write about every day for the next three months, or five months if the Devils go deep into the playoffs?”

Speaking of playoffs, it is always funny to read the “Keys to the Game” that are often printed in the lead-up to playoff games.  The keys usually include “Be strong on the power play”, “Be good even-strength”, “Have strong goaltending”, “Stay out of the penalty box”, or “Play Hard”.  Those are some bold strategies, Cotton.  Let’s see if they pay off for them.

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Of course, my favorite playoff lines are “The team needs to show more heart” or “The team that wanted it more won.”  These are just ridiculous.  In the playoffs, hockey players play through broken jaws, broken legs, broken arms, and so on because they want so badly to win the Stanley Cup and to support their teammates.  It is impossible for hockey players to show more heart or to “want it more”.  It turns out that the reason why teams lose games is that somebody has to win, and somebody has to lose……and, in the playoffs, when both teams are good, it means that good teams lose games and series.  Yes, it does happen – even when players are showing maximum “heart” and “wanting it to the max”.  Oh, and if you ever hear a reporter say that a player “is not a good fit for the team’s system”, the reporter means to say, “This guy sucks.”  Every team has the system of playing hard in all zones, getting traffic in front of the opposing goalie, not playing too fancy, looking for rebounds, and deflections, playing fast, playing big, being aggressive, and being positionally sound.  If a player is bad for one NHL team’s system, chances are he is bad for the other thirty teams’ systems as well.

That said, if I were the Devils’ beat reporter this year, I would have probably already written 30 pieces on how the Devils are faster than last year and how they are better shooters and passers.  Plus, I would have written a piece on how Cory Schneider should play no more than 80% of the games, because I have that belief for all NHL goalies.  I probably would rewrite that same piece once every two weeks to fill space.  However, I would like to think that I would avoid writing frivolous cliches just to fill space, but I cannot say for certain.  I have not been in that position.

In the end though, I love hockey.  It is my favorite sport.  However, it is not the sport for Monday-morning quarterbacks.  Those people can stick to baseball, football, basketball, and now politics.

Was There Ever a Better Feeling than a Snow Day Growing Up?

Pretty self explanatory but getting a snow day when you were growing up was the absolute shit. Waking up dreading a long day of sitting in class only to be told by your parents that you can go back to sleep was a feeling like no other. If you were lucky enough, you would get the call the night before, and know that you could stay up late doing whatever with your friends without having to wake up early the next day. Unfortunately, Ramsey NEVER used to do that when I was younger (they did last night though, they’ve really gone soft.) Continue reading Was There Ever a Better Feeling than a Snow Day Growing Up?

Expansion Teams are Supposed to be Terrible.

Expansion teams are supposed to stink.  This is one of the basic principles of sports.  The New York Mets, the Houston Texans, the Ottawa Senators, the Vancouver Grizzlies, etc.  I could list bad expansion teams all day long, but that would be silly.  Therefore, I will stop.  Just know that, before 2017, every single expansion team in the history of the four major North American sports leagues had been bad.

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This whole premise makes perfect sense.  Fans of expansion teams are ecstatic to have a team.  These fans do not need a good team.  Having a bad team is better than having no team at all.  Therefore, a league can milk several years of good attendance out of bad expansion teams.  It is a tried and true formula.  Nobody would be dumb enough to mess with it….except of course the man who continues to value an overtime/shootout win the same as a regulation win, the same man who stopped letting teams skate around the ice before the beginnings of periods (because it would make sooooo much of a difference in terms of keeping the ice slick).  Yes, the man is NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

During Mike Francesa’s last few radio shows, he interviewed Bettman.  During the interview, I heard Bettman say that the league deliberately let this year’s expansion Vegas Golden Knights build a great team because he did not want to deprive their fans of playoff hockey.  If ever there were an NHL version of an “Occupy Wall Street” protest, he probably heard this idiotic short-sighted idea there.  OK, OK, I do not want to get too political here, so I will use a different analogy.  Bettman essentially said that the 30-year-old guy who has been rejected by women all his life should now be handed a supermodel girlfriend.  That is ridiculous.  That guy is going to be happy being in a relationship with any woman.  As a society, we do not need to waste a supermodel (in limited supply) on this “happy to be with any woman” guy.

Well, in reality, the Vegas hockey fans are this 30-year-old guy, and the Golden Knights – currently in first place in the Pacific Division – are the supermodel.  Meanwhile, standard terrible expansion teams represent the “any woman”.  Golden Knights fans would have been perfectly happy rooting for teams of this low caliber, just as “the 30-year-old guy” would have been happy in a relationship with any woman.

You might be wondering how the NHL set Vegas up to have such a strong expansion team.  In the expansion drafts, teams were allowed to protect no more than 11 players.  This was different from the last expansion draft of 2000, when teams were allowed to protect at most 15 players.  This might seem like a minimal difference, but the change meant that many more quality players were available for Vegas to draft than for previous expansion teams to draft.  I do not like this.

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To me, it was a great story when the Ottawa Senators finally made the playoffs in their fifth season or when the Nashville Predators finally made the playoffs in their sixth season.  I was excited for their loyal fans to finally experience playoff hockey.  However, I am not pumped for Vegas’s fans to get playoff action in the team’s first season while loyal fans of teams like Carolina, Buffalo, Florida, Arizona, and Colorado must suffer through yet another playoffs-less season.

Moreover, when the supermodel eventually breaks up with the 30-year-old guy, that guy is going to be disappointed by all future girlfriends.  The same goes for Vegas’s fans, when the team regresses and misses the playoff next season.  Instead of Vegas’s fans getting 4-5 seasons of joy by watching a bad team grow into a good one, the fans get immediate gratification followed by inevitable years of disappointment when the team misses the playoffs.  Therefore, instead of 4-5 seasons of guaranteed large crowds, Vegas is guaranteed 1 season of a large crowd.

Classic short-sighted move by the NHL.  Expansion teams are supposed to be terrible.  This allows for expansion teams to do well financially for their first 4-5 years instead of their first 1-2 years.