Friday, November 13, 2015

Can Rex Ryan help change the Buffalo underdog mentality?

Reprinted with permission from

The city of Buffalo has not had a championship parade for it’s major sports teams ever, unless you want to include the pre-NFL merger when the Buffalo Bills won back-to-back AFL Championships in 1964 and ’65. It's something I'm sure is not lost on owners Kim and Terry Pegula and their charges at Pegula Sports and Entertainment, the umbrella organization in charge of running the Pegula's Bills and Buffalo Sabres franchises (among other entities.)
The Bills have been to the Super Bowl four times (all consecutive) but came out on the losing end every time. The Buffalo Sabres have made it to Stanley Cup Finals twice (1975 and 1999) losing both times in six games. The city of Buffalo also had an NBA franchise, the Buffalo Braves (1970-78,) now the LA Clippers via the San Diego Clippers (and Boston Celtics.) They made the playoffs three consecutive years (1974-76) but made it past the first round only once.
Being a small-market city in big-time sports has been a difficult task and it became even more difficult as the price to compete went up while the standard of living in Buffalo stagnated and the population decreased. According Google Public Data via the US Census Bureau the population in Erie County peaked during 1.12 million in 1971 and has been on a steady decline until a slight uptick in brought the number to it’s 2014 estimate of 922,832.


Through the years Buffalo earned a reputation as a decaying, rust-belt city with a reputation for being the snow capital of NY State (it actually ranks 3rd in the state behind Syracuse and Rochester) and the professional sports scene has only added to the misery of the good people of Buffalo. In addition to the move of the Braves, the Bills lost their first Super Bowl, SB XXV, on the now infamous “Wide Right” miss while the Cup Finals losses were punctuated by 1999’s “No Goal.” The year 1999 was also the last time the Buffalo Bills made the playoffs, the longest current drought in the NFL.
It’s enough to give the city and it’s people an inferiority complex. Being downtrodden and trampled upon by an obsolete economy and changing demographics, the wealth of other big-league sports cities had placed Buffalonians in "underdog-mode" for the better part of two decades now. The last time that we Buffalo fans had the opportunity to puff out our collective chest over a team was the early 1990's with Jim "K-Gun" Kelly's Buffalo Bills. However, being humiliated three consecutive times post-"Wide Right," put us right back to where we were far too often--the dog being kicked, waiting for it's day.

Our professional teams mostly consisted of hard-working, "Buffalo-type" players who put on their work-boots and generally avoided grandstanding while either plying their trade or talking with the media. No one knows when, or even if, there will be a parade down Delaware Ave., but for the past 20 or so years we've been locked into and underdog mentality and if a Buffalo team were to ever win a championship, it was thought that they'd rise from the bottom on an inspired, noble run to the top with good old-fashioned mores and values as the driving force behind their rise, as if fate would somehow reward them for their character. A noble gesture in and of itself.

Throughout the past two decades, a majority of the coaches that have passed through Buffalo have been "salt-of-the-earth" types. The Sabres had Lindy Ruff for 15 years which pretty much gobbles up that entire time period. Ruff was the epitome of a Buffalo guy. He was a former captain of the team, down to earth, friendly, and a real Buffalonian-type. Ted Nolan was a bit more flashy in his first stint as head coach, but was a fiery underdog and his "hardest working team in hockey" was the standard-bearer for the type of team the city hoped would be successful.

The Buffalo Bills coaching list is a little longer after Marv Levy, the successful coach of those four AFC Championship teams, retired in 1997. Wade Phillips, a seemingly good guy, was the last head coach to take the team to the playoffs. His successors, from Greg Williams (2001) to Doug Marrone (2014,) were all generally overmatched and took an understated, business-like approach to coaching the Bills. None of them finished with a winning record and they combined to go 89-135.

When the Pegulas took over the Sabres in 2011 and the Bills in 2014 he allowed the teams to operate without any encumbrances and in effect they brought in a totally different mentality. It was big money, big moves and the opportunity for a big payoff. But with that also comes the probability of big mistakes. However, the Pegula's via PSE have stated that they really don't care at this point and are allowing their charges to make mistakes in pursuit of a championship.

Terry Pegula's initiation into the world of professional sports ownership began with good old-fashioned faith in the Sabres front office and ended in disaster. No worries, he brought in a whole new regime and began again at the very bottom.  Was it embarrassing? Obviously, but that's a part of the deal.

After being snubbed by head coach Marrone (which was probably a good thing) Terry and Kim Pegula were at the fore of the Bills coaching search and they turned to Rex Ryan, former coach of the NY Jets.

Ryan comes off as a person with the salesmanship of a carnival barker and the carnival atmosphere he brings to his press conferences is all about that. It's something he's been noted for throughout his coaching career, it's something he doesn't care about and it's something he won't change. In the Big Apple, the Empire City, the self described Capital of the World, Ryan entertained the press and in keeping the press focused upon him, for better or worse he allowed his team to focus their energies on the football field. Pre-game Ryan was fun and offered up more than a few pin-up quotes for the opposition bulletin-board while post-game he called it like he saw it. Right or wrong in the eyes of the media and fans.

One can easily point to his 46-50 record over six seasons with the Jets and say he's been only slightly better than the coaches that have paraded through Buffalo the past 15 years, but an asterisks is in order, at least for last season when the Jets went 4-12. Manish Metha, who covers the Jets for the NY Daily News, put that record fully on the shoulders of former Jets GM, John Idzik, Jr. saying coaching greats Bill Walsh and Vince Lombardi couldn't work miracles with some of the players Idzik brought in saying his "horrific player acquisitions were too much to overcome."

Ryan headed into NY/New Jersey media circus Monday, smack-dab in the middle on a short week with his Bills at 4-4 and plenty questions involving the past and present. But, this really isn't about a defense of Ryan's final days in NY. Nor is it a defense of his average defense which the often described defensive genius boldly proclaimed would be better than the No. 4 ranked defense he inherited. This isn't about his choice of captains or any failures of this season (from the shellacking by New England to the loss to Jacksonville in London,) for this fan, it's more about changing one's mindset from that of an underdog in the shadows to that of one in the spotlight.

It's easy for a team to come from nowhere and surprise everyone. It happens all the time. But how many of those teams unexpectedly get to the promised land? Very few, and when they do, success is usually fleeting. This is the limelight. Underdogs can come off as meek and mild when the spotlight's turned on them and their shyness is rather charming in a small-town way. Yet too much of the spotlight invariably pounds away at their core-being to the point where confidence can be shattered and the heights reached were revealed to be more about great timing, star-alignment and overachieving than anything else.

It's not a bad thing as it makes for a temporary, feel-good story but a situation like that only leads to sisyphean exasperation as it's back to the bottom.

Rex Ryan may not bring home the Lombardi Trophy with the Buffalo Bills (hell, he might not even get this team to the playoffs this season) but this is the Rex Ryan Show, the same one he had going on in NY. It's the same persona he used under the bright lights and in front of the blood-hound media in the Big Apple. He lived in prime-time, won and failed in prime-time and faced the NY media win or lose.

During the past two decades, the Sabres and Bills have been notorious for failing in prime time whether it was simply a nationally televised hockey game on NBCSN in the middle of he season or on Thursday and Monday nights for the Bills. Buffalo fans get fired up and in the end get let down.

Regardless of the outcome of tonight's game and/or the season, I'm along for the ride. If they take down the Jets tonight, fine. If they fail, fine. I'll be rooting no matter what. Accepting failures in the limelight means acceptance naked exposure in front of a national audience, something that Ryan has embraced since he became the head coach of the NY Jets. It's a part of the deal. A part of being in the limelight.

The Pegula's have brought a whole new way of thinking to the city of Buffalo. They put their money where their mouth was and dove in head-first with total disregard to the thoughts and opinions of others. They've had their fair share of failures early on, but nothing beats a failure but a try and success invariably built upon those failures.

They took a chance and I, as a "long-suffering" Buffalo sports fan, am all for it.

Won't ya step right up.

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