"Totally coup, yo."

BILLS OUTLOOK

May

31

by

by James R. Miller

I know it is customary for the opinion writer to save the exegesis of his column’s name for the farewell installment, but given the potentially painful associations of the phrase “Wide Right” for many Buffalo sports fans, I thought it best to make my intentions clear from the outset.

There are of course those who feel that the ghost of Scott Norwood is best left stowed away in the attic of our collective mind, that dredging up such bitter memories at this late date will only lead to ever greater bitterness. I could not disagree more. Such a head-in-the-sand attitude will only leave us woefully unprepared when such a moment of truth once again presents itself.

In fact, we would do well to take examine how Mr. Norwood himself handled the situation following his 1991 Super Bowl failure. Rather than replaying the situation over and over in his mind and letting it become an obstacle to his future development, the place-kicker went on with his life. He left Buffalo later that year, and today is a well-contented insurance agent in the suburban Washington area of Virginia.

Buffalo, meanwhile, muddled on rather aimlessly in the wake of Mr. Norwood’s missed field goal. Although the Bills made it back to the Super Bowl in each of the three following years, each time they were systematically demolished by representatives of the then-dominant NFC East. Salary cap woes and a roster of aging veterans led to even more woeful results in the years since.

The lesson here is obvious: the sensible player knows not to throw good effort after bad and recognizes when it is time to get out of what is quite clearly a bankrupt situation. As the wise carpenter says, better to tear down and start anew than to perform superficial cosmetic repairs on a structure whose foundation is ruined. The rat who flees a sinking ship may seem selfish and cruel, but only from the perspective of those foolish enough to stay behind and slowly perish.

Still, it is not too late for this city and its beloved football franchise. And the way out lies in the true meaning of “Wide Right.” In short, we must adhere to traditional, conservative values while subtly adapting them to meet the requirements of modern realities. Nothing can alter the fundamental truth that strong defense and veteran leadership wins championships. But now that free agency is no longer in its infancy, we must adopt a slightly different approach in our off-season transactions. The signing of high-priced marquee players must be balanced with bargain pickups of key role players.

This of course is an approach that worked wonders for the New England Patriots, a divisional rival and, until last season, a team that had good reason to feel every bit as jinxed as our own Bills. And yet that team rode all the way to the championship on the shoulders of an untested backup signal caller and an unlikely assortment of free agent pickups that no one else seemed to want. And surely it is no coincidence that Adam Vinatieri’s field goal on the Super Bowl’s final play to beat the heavily favored St. Louis Rams was from 47 yards out—just like the one Mr. Norwood missed those 11 years ago.

The Bills and their fans would be wise to view this as a positive omen as we head into the upcoming season.

Was the Bills’ Losing Season Really Bad?

I know that a lot of people were disappointed with the Bills’ 3-13 regular season mark last year, but where did the expected victories disappear to? I’m not sure exactly what happened with the Bills, but I suspect that many of those 13 losses were the result of imprudent trades on the free-agency market. This means that the victories the Bills failed to achieve were not wasted, but rather transferred to someone else.

Consider two hypothetical NFL teams that experienced disappointed losing seasons. One team wasted tens of millions constructing useless luxury boxes that no one will ever use and signing aging veterans who can no longer compete at a high level. This team reduced the value of the franchise and its supporting community by wasting resources.

Now consider a second team whose season went down the crapper because it made a free-agency market bet with another team (let’s call it the third team) that certain players’ effectiveness would rise when it really fell, and vice versa. The second team did not waste resources, because its expected victories were enjoyed by this third team.

While I’m not entirely sure which team more closely represents the Buffalo Bills, I suspect it might be the second. Likewise, the third team appears to be a reasonably good approximation of the New England Patriots. For example, Bills castoff Antowain Smith was a key element in that latter team’s unexpected triumph.

Thus, the way to that elusive championship is elementary: the Bills must turn the tables on the Patriots, who now have nowhere to go but down. The much ballyhooed signing of quarterback Drew Bledsoe must then be a key element of this strategy.

But Is Bledsoe the Solution?

This, unfortunately, is a question with no easy answer. The eternal optimist will surely be quick to point out that one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure, but I’m inclined to be a bit more skeptical on the matter. Is it really reasonable to expect that New England, which was so flawless in its decision-making last year, would now be so frivolous as to give up the player with the skills to carry a division rival to victory? Probably not. But then again, stranger things have happened when a perennial underdog has suddenly found itself the king of the hill.

We may argue back and forth on the subject all we like, but ultimately the victor is decided on the field of play. As for which will be the last team standing at the end of this upcoming season, only time will tell.

Born and raised in Hamburg, James R. Miller is currently doing post-doctoral work in economics at London School of Economics. His column on the Buffalo sports scene will appear in this space each issue.

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