Well, fixing the Bills is easy. The way the NFL works nowadays, fixing any team is easy. The job involves just two steps:
1. Draft a great quarterback.
Of course, that first step is kind of a killer. As advice goes, this is about as useful as my old college music theory professor’s chestnut, “Playing the piano is very easy. Just strike the keys in the right order and the piano does the rest.” If only!
Anyone who pays even slight attention the the Bills knows that they have not really been good at the quarterback position since Jim Kelly retired after the 1996 season. (In fact, anyone who paid attention to the Bills that year might make the case that they haven’t been good at quarterback since before that season, but that’s neither here nor there.) Why is this? Well, because they’ve made a series of epic blunders at the position. There’s no need to go into the history of it all, but suffice it to say...they’ve been terrible at the game’s most important position.
And they’ve been bad at that position in a football era in which the rules favoring offense in general and passing in particular have made the position even more important than ever before. So that’s where it starts: find a great quarterback. And how do you do that? Scout ‘em all. Draft at least one quarterback every single year until one succeeds. Lather, rinse, repeat. Be hard-nosed in your evaluations and unafraid to make deals if you need to move up in the draft, and equally unafraid to cut guys’ careers short if you have to. Two years ago, the Carolina Panthers took two quarterbacks in the draft, including one in the first round: Jimmy Clausen and Tony Pike. The next year, armed with the first overall pick, they took Cam Newton, regardless of the two picks they’d spend on QBs the year before. That’s what the Bills need to do: focus on QB with laser-like precision.
Until then, nothing else matters...except maybe linebacker. Boy Howdy, are they bad at linebacker. But once you figure out QB, then it’s easier to slot in the pieces around that guy. Let a great QB make everyone else better, instead of doing what the Bills have been doing -- relying on everybody else to make the QB better.
As for the NFL in general...well, I hate to say this, but I think that my passion for football in particular and for sports in general is waning pretty severely. I find it harder and harder to enjoy football, knowing more and more that these players are doing things to their bodies which destroy their future lives -- in some cases entirely, what with the increasing rate of retired-player suicides in which the victims later turn out to have suffered brain damage from repeated hits. The game’s attraction was always that it was kind of ‘cartoon violence’; sure, players got seriously hurt once in a great while, but those were freak occurrences. But it’s just harder to see it that way now, and I’m especially disheartened to hear other fans say things like “Well, they signed the contract. Nobody forced them to play football.”
Well, you know, that’s something that needs to be rethought in general in our society, I think. There are more ways to force someone to do something other than holding them at gunpoint. The lure of a huge paycheck -- or, in some cases, any paycheck -- can be a compelling force too, I think.
My other problem with football isn’t so much with football but with sports in general now. It took me a long time to get there, but I am increasingly of the mind that the amounts of money involved are insanely high, and that’s just going to go up. We build these palatial stadiums for teams, almost always involving public financing in some way, when it’s got to be one of the worst-kept secrets in the world that sports facilities just don’t generate large amounts of economic impact. And there’s this sense of entitlement the sports leagues seem to have, because they know that as a society, we have collectively decided that sports is one of the most important things we have.
Here in Buffalo, the community’s sports fervor has switched over the last ten years from football to hockey. Once a rabid football town, Buffalo is now a stalwart hockey city that sells out its beloved Sabres almost every single time they play. And time was when I found that exciting and fun to behold; hockey as a game is a joy to watch, and over the last few years I’ve started liking it more and more. (I never really learned the rules years ago, so I never understood it all that well, and I haven’t had too much opportunity over the last decade owing to our not having cable.) But the just-concluded NHL lockout has left a very sour taste in my mouth for the sport, to the point that for the most part, I may well be done with sports in general.
Again, it comes back to money. While my instinct in labor disputes is to always side with the folks who do the work over the people who ‘foot the bill’ (and thus profit hugely by it), it was very difficult to justify rooting for one side in this dispute over the other. It wasn’t the Haves versus the Have-nots; It was the Have-a-ton’s versus the Have-a-bit-less-but-still-more-than-I’ll-ever-see’s. At one point I heard some player talk about how this was about “how are we gonna feed our families”, and I wanted to vomit. If you gave me a single NHL player’s one-year salary, say $2,000,000, as a one-time bonus, and said to me, “This is all the money you are allowed to use to feed your family every week for the next fifty years,”, you know what? That single check would allow me to more than quadruple my current weekly food expenditures for my family. Two million divided by fifty years divided by fifty-two weeks? Yeah, I think I can feed my family extremely generously on $769 a week.
The money involved makes it harder than ever for me to maintain any kind of interest in sports, because that money’s not just coming from the sky. Nor are owners paying it out of their own personal fortunes. The teams are in business to make money, and the make it from teevee advertising and from fans who buy tickets. That’s what I find most disturbing. One refrain I hear constantly whenever any one sport suffers a labor-related stoppage is that “The owners and players will make out fine, it’s the fans who get screwed!” And yet, when the stoppage ends and play resumes, the stadiums still sell out. The Sabres just announced a record for ticket sales in a single day, for the start of a lockout-shortened season. As I said on Facebook: If this is the fans getting ‘screwed’, I sure hope that the Sabres at least left a little something extra on the nightstand on their way out the door.
(I wrote this post yesterday, but on my way into work this morning, the radio guys were discussing this very topic, with one of them opining that to just decide "to hell with hockey" is to "cut your nose off to spite your face". Well...no. Not really, no. It's not like I'd be sitting around for three hours staring at the walls when I might have been watching hockey. I'm finding other stuff to occupy my time with. It can be done. Really. Might be hard for a couple of guys who are paid to talk about sports all day to imagine, but I can fill the sports-sized hole in my life just fine.)
Ultimately, though, I find sports less fun than ever before, with the exception of the Olympic Games. I dislike the idea of using sports to foster civic identity, and in any event, that’s rather overblown anyway -- witness the number of Notre Dame fans you meet in regular life who have never been within five hundred miles of South Bend. I don’t identify with these teams, and it seems silly to, as one local radio host proudly proclaims, “Root for the shirt, regardless of who’s wearing it.” More and more I find sports in general to be a dreary affair, regardless of who wins or loses. This year I haven’t watched a single play of any football game since week four -- where in years past, even after I gave up on the Bills I would watch a game here or there involving some good team or other. I haven’t watched a baseball game in its entirety in nearly two decades. Hockey? Basketball? No and no. And so it goes.
But you know what I do still like about sports? The writing. I can read good sports writing until the end of days. I guess I can pretty much do without the sports themselves, though.
(Nothing I have written here should be taken as a newfound ambivalence toward Tom Brady. Because, really: screw that guy!)