For years, the expectation levels for the Bills & Sabres existed largely in a sort of low, gray area. Their consistent mediocrity broken up occasional by flashes of near goodness had lulled us all into a place where we never expect them to be great until we get a whiff of the idea that they might be. That doesn’t necessarily mean our expectations were raised, so much as our excitement level was. When the Bills went 4-0 in 2008, deep down in our heart of hearts, I think we all feared the worst. And unfortunately, our worst fears were realized.
For better or worse, we’d all grown accustomed to and comfortable with these expectations, partially because we never had any reason to anticipate them changing.
But that was before 2011. From the Sabres’ purchase by a billionaire dead set on turning them into a perennial championship threat, to the Bills’ surprising start with a team of low draft picks and castoffs, this year the expectation level of Buffalo fans has risen to a level we’ve arguably never seen.
Maybe I’m not old/smart enough to make that statement. I’m sure there have been other brief periods where people thought both the Bills and Sabres had a good shot of not just reaching the playoffs, but of going deep. But it’s not just that people expect it this season, they seem to be demanding it.
For the Bills, it’s a little different. No one was expecting much when the season started. The only thing you could call a major change in personnel was the release of veteran wideout Lee Evans. But when the Bills opened their season with three wins, the third being our first victory over the Patriots in 8 years, it became impossible for fans not to start expecting a bit more from them.
Of course, fans have every right to expect whatever they want from these teams. This is still America. But I’m just asking some of us to take a step back from the criticism we seem all to eager to hurl at our teams these days. But why all this frustration? Why is everyone clamoring to trade Ryan Miller? Why is everyone flabbergasted at Gailey getting outcoached by one of the better coaches of this era (sorry, Scizz)? Are these really reasonable reactions to be having?
Look, maybe it’s lame for the Apologist to urge people to have a “stop and smell the roses” moment, but for fuck’s sake cynics, stop and smell the friggin roses. Right now, the Bills are tied for the division lead. As of today, only Dallas and Toronto have more wins than the Sabres. (If you had either of these teams making the playoffs this year, raise your hand. Hey, put your hand down. Just stop.)
And yes, there is a goal controversy. But is it really a problem? We have two great goaltenders right now. Screw anyone who disagrees with that. Ryan Miller was as much a part of the team that battled it’s way into the playoffs last year as anyone. And do I really need to remind anyone that the man had two shutouts in one round against the Flyers? Yes, he had a clunker in the clinching game, but the ease with which so many fans seem to be ready to trade the goalie who has carried us for the last six years astounds me.
But let’s turn the page back to One Bills Drive. For the Bills, I’m not sure that the expectation level is rising, so much as our desperation. One thing that has surprised me a lot this year is that in a season where Ralph just made his very first appearance at a home game, I’ve barely discussed life after his death with any of my fellow fans. That was once a top 3 topic every time you conversed with a Bills fan in previous years.
1. Who the fuck is our quarterback?
2. Why the fuck are we playing in Toronto?
3. When the shit is Ralph gonna die and what the fuck are we gonna do?
(We Bills fans find ourselves cursing a lot when we discuss the team, but you already knew that.)
Still, when you take a step back and look at the Bills this year, only a pessimist could call anything they’ve done truly disappointing. The losses have almost all been ugly, but at this time last season we were 0-8. Let me repeat that. This time a year ago, we had yet to win a single game. And let’s not forget, other than their record, there’s not a whole lot different about last year’s team and this year’s team other than age and experience. Maybe our worst fears will be realized someday soon, but to call this year’s turnaround anything but a massive improvement is crazy. And with an owner on the other side of the Skyway doing everything he can to win, it’s foolish to think things aren’t going anywhere but up for these teams.
Of course, I’m trying not to get ahead of myself. There are still plenty of games left to be played for the Bills. But let’s not let this year’s accomplishments get lost. We finally have a core on offense worthy of praise. Our head coach has bested Bill Belichick, Andy Reid and Mike Shanahan in the same season. The entire team plays with a passion and determination that we haven’t seen in a long time. Say what you will about their talent level and at times playcalling, but you cannot question their heart or their desire to win.
And sure, the opening to the Sabres’ season has at times looked all too reminiscent of other sloppy starts. But did you notice that the Detroit Red Wings just went 0-5-1 a week ago? Do you think anyone in Detroit is ready to start shipping out players? think back to the team that won the President’s Trophy in 2007. Many of our current leaders were on that squad. Ask them what it meant to have the league’s best record after 82 games. When you’re old and gray, are you gonna fondly tell your grandkids about the year the Sabres won the most games in franchise history then got bounced 4-1 in the Conference Finals by our old pals, the Senators?
Look, I don’t want to come across like I know better. I can get as excitable as anyone over the little things and maybe writing this is as much a wake-up call for me as anyone. Surely there are plenty of reasons to expect more out of these teams now. I just want to remind everyone not to let our fears of what the future may hold ruin the excitement of what’s happening now. Our teams are playing great. Bills games in mid-November mean far more than how good a shot we have at drafting Andrew Luck. The Sabres are emerging as a popular destination for future talent and are as poised as anyone to take a run at Lord You-Know-Who’s You-Know-What.
Yes, the endings to these seasons might be as rocky as ever, but let’s try to appreciate how much better the ride has become.