Unless you live in a cave–and a particularly deep, nasty cave with trolls and snakes and giant spiders and whatnot–you probably have heard that in 2020, the Buffalo Bills finally returned to the ranks of the Indisputably Good Teams, after an 18-year stretch of almost unrelentingly bad teams that finally ended with a Pretty Good Team in 2019. This year, the team blossomed in full fire, scoring more points in one season than at any other point in team history. They finished 13-3, and they would have been 14-2 if they had managed to knock down a last-play Hail Mary pass against the Arizona Cardinals. They took the second seed in the AFC, and as I write this, tomorrow night (Saturday night), they play their second playoff game of the year, this time facing the Baltimore Ravens after defeating the Indianapolis Colts last Saturday. That game against the Colts was the Bills’ first playoff win since January 1996.
Longtime readers might remember that I used to be very staunch in my Bills fandom. This began in 1988, to be quite specific. Prior to that, as a kid I’d never been terribly interested in sports, even though my father enjoyed sports quite a lot. I’d root for the Steelers along with him, especially in 1978 and 1979, the final seasons of their 1970s NFL dominance, but once they declined and we moved a few times and both the Steelers and the Pirates went into the doldrums, I stopped caring much at all. Plus, there was probably a bit of the whole “teenage kid doesn’t want to be interested in the same things Dad likes” thing, though I think in my case that was more of getting really into stuff that I loved more than rebelling against stuff that he loved.
I also wasn’t about to get all that interested in football during the mid-80s, when the Buffalo Bills were utterly awful, going 2-14 two years in a row, and drafting a quarterback named Jim Kelly who hated the idea of coming to Buffalo so much that he opted to go play in the USFL instead for a few years, only finally relenting and accepting his Buffalo fate when the USFL folded and he realized that if he wanted to keep on living as a football player, his choices were either Canada or Buffalo. A funny thing happened then, though: the Bills got good, and in 1988, they got really good, and everybody in the region got really happy and excited. I found it hard to be around that and not join in, so that’s about when my football fandom blossomed. Plus it was then that I finally had to ask my father things like “What does ‘first down’ mean?” and “What’s the difference between a field goal and an extra point?” and stuff like that. Took me a while, but I got there. (Likewise, two years later the Pittsburgh Pirates would get good, so all this happened again, with baseball.)
Now, 1988 was the first half of my senior year in high school; in 1989 I went off to Iowa for college, and while it didn’t happen instantly, I did get homesick on occasion. That was when the Buffalo Bills being really good became a godsend: they were on teevee a lot then, because they were really good–four consecutive Super Bowl appearances good. And when they were on teevee, it felt like I was seeing a little bit of home, even if they were playing a road game. I didn’t get to see them on teevee all that much, because they weren’t local, obviously. But they were on a decent amount, and it meant a lot to me at the time, even if they would lose the Super Bowl ever single season.
The Bills stayed good (mostly) through the 1990s, all the way up to the 1999 team, which lost a playoff game on that knife-to-the-heart kickoff return against the Titans, and then they got bad and stayed bad for seventeen years. When I started blogging, though, I was still watching the Bills religiously, and I’d post extensive thoughts about how they played after each game, along with ruminations about how they might improve or…as it happened, not improve. Over time I got less and less interested in blogging about the Bills’ every game, and as the losing mounted, I got less and less interested in watching the Bills. There was a game in the 2009 season where the Bills hosted the Cleveland Browns, and in this game they managed to hold the Browns’ quarterback to just two completed passes. And yet they lost that game, 6-3. Later that same season, they had a game at Atlanta where, having completely fallen out of playoff contention, they decided to start some young quarterback they’d found from somewhere else, and the resulting game was one of the most boring games in football history, a reverse-routing that probably wasn’t even entertaining for Atlanta fans, even though their team beat the Bills 31-7 or something like that.
It was right around then that I started realizing that I wasn’t really enjoying watching the Bills very much, and I likewise started wondering if maybe I shouldn’t stop devoting three hours a week to watching something that didn’t make me happy at all. The next season I decided that I’d watch the games until I started finding them annoying, at which point I’d switch to watching movies or reading or writing. This point came sometime around, oh, week nine or ten of the season (a season is seventeen weeks, with sixteen games played and one week off for each team). The next couple of seasons my point of abandoning the team came earlier each year, until finally I decided to stop watching entirely. Initially I adopted a personal rule of not watching them until they were at least four games over .500, but the last couple of seasons they’ve actually hit that mark, and it turns out that I am so broken of my football-watching habit that I have quite simply stopped watching entirely.
Other fans used to mock this idea; some even called me a “fair weather fan”, as if there’s some kind of obligation involved with being a fan. I continue to resist this notion, as I find the idea that being a “fan” requires that one subject themselves willingly to something that doesn’t bring anyone happiness deeply odd. If watching your football team being bad is making you angry, why keep watching it? I never understood this, and I still don’t.
Nowadays, I still root for the Buffalo Bills and I’m glad that they are doing well right now, with a future that as of right now looks very bright. It’s kind of like that 1988 season all over again: it’s hard not to be excited when so many people around me that I love a great deal are themselves really happy and excited about something, and there’s still a part of me that really does consider itself a “Bills fan”, so even as I’m not watching the games, I’m refreshing the box scores online and checking Twitter once in a while to see what’s going on. Am I back on the bandwagon? I have to admit that I am…a little. I still have a lot of problems with the NFL, things that started standing out like sore thumbs to me when I stopped feeling the need to attend upon the NFL’s product on a weekly basis out of fandom obligation. The NFL’s foot-dragging as the reality of repeated head injuries became clear was very disappointing, as was the reaction by some fans to this, along the lines of “So what? They signed contracts, let ’em get jobs if they don’t want to play football.” Wow, really?
I was also troubled by the NFL’s reliance on patriotic military fetishism as a major part of its marketing strategy, and by the collusion the teams engaged in blacklisting Colin Kaepernick; and I continue to be frustrated by cities using public funds to build palaces for football teams to play in, thus ensuring gigantic profits for their owners for years or decades to come, while those same cities plead poverty when it comes to schools, infrastructure improvements, the arts, or anything at all that’s not a shiny weapon for the police department. I doubt I’ll ever again be the football fan I was when I was in college and watching Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, Darryl Talley, and all the rest of those guys on television. I haven’t watched a full football game in at least five years, but I’ll still root for the team and look at replays and read boxscores. And what of that? That’s how baseball fans had to follow their teams’ fortunes before they ever invented teevee, after all.
And it does help that the current Bills team is a pretty likeable batch of players, so for what it’s worth, from this occasional bandwagon fan who finds the NFL kind of creepy…Go Bills!