Simple

Ryan

While this week has been full of Sports Illustrated articles and regional covers, the most passed around Bills link comes via Yahoo! Sports’ Les Carpenter.

I can’t be the only one that kind of hates that, though. I have nothing against the author’s intent or even the conclusion he draws. Rather, what’s frustrating is that we accept his words as fact.

This might be the last simple place left in the NFL.

It’s that word. Simple.

I understand what he means by that. It’s the small-town feel Bills games have when you walk by people parking on front lawns. It’s the 1970’s-style stadium the team retrofitted a decade ago and is once again outdated. It’s the whimsy and charm of Jim Kelly partying with the RVs on Sunday mornings. All of that sounds simple, sure, but that’s not Buffalo. Not at all.

Over-matched. Over our heads. Outgunned. Overwhelmed. Those are the words that come to mind. Buffalo is anything but simple, if it were its problems wouldn’t be so complex and overwrought that we sit idle for decades as things decay. Labeling the city (and the region as a whole) as ‘simple’ is, well, simply far too simple if you ask me.

Of course that’s not the usage he’s looking for, but the rest is implied when you think about it. Buffalo just looooves its football, and that’s all it needs. Wrong. Football is a huge part of the culture in Buffalo for much larger reasons than its inherent complexities. Buffalo needs its football team because the sport keeps this region tied to something much larger than it could have without it.

Buffalo is out of its league with the National Football League.

This is a story about football. More specifically it’s a story about a team often tucked into irrelevance in a city where the boom left long ago and not fully come back. Much of America seems to think the Bills won’t last here. Much of America sees the team’s owner Ralph Wilson is 92 years old without a succession plan upon his death and it figures the franchise might head to Los Angeles or Toronto, where it plays one regular season game annually as part of a five-year agreement that ends in 2012.

What Buffalo sees is perhaps its greatest asset, a team and its heartache that becomes a calling card when traveling around the country as in the case of its mayor Byron Brown, who upon arriving at the White House for a Super Bowl party this year was greeted by President Obama who shouted, “There’s my Buffalo diehard!”

And yet just as many were giving up hope, there have come signs of surprise. Last year, Buffalo’s unemployment dropped to 7.5 percent. More bio-medical jobs are being created. The city is starting to pop up on those lists of best places to live. And like the city, the football team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 1999 season is 3-0, something no one can believe. Last Sunday the Bills beat the New England Patriots for the first time in 15 games.

The city exploded with joy.

Because Buffalo was suddenly mentioned on SportsCenter and Chris Berman got to do his thing. Because Jim Rome put Bills players on his radio show and SI started looking at the photo reel from the Ralph. Buffalo Bills football put the area in a national spotlight, even if it is fleeting and based solely on three football games. Spotlights are spotlights, and the warmth is hard to ignore.

But Buffalo should not want to be simple, especially in football, a remarkably complex game few other than coaches and players really understand. Sure, the average fan’s football acumen is minuscule, so maybe we all are simple in a way. But is that really something to ascribe to? Should ‘simple’ be good enough?

I think we are something more. We are Aaron Williams.

Aaron Williams was absolutely abused by the New England Patriots on Sunday. Early in the first quarter, from my seat in Section 240, I could tell that Aaron Williams was in trouble. That meant the Bills were in trouble. Wes Welker was getting tons of space and huge yardage against Williams, and when the rookie was switched to Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, the local boy burned him, too.

It was pathetic. He simply couldn’t keep up with the Patriots, and I realized as the score got larger that Aaron Williams represented something larger about this so-called rivalry the Patriots and Bills had developed over the better part of a decade. The Bills never properly matched up, and New England found every which way to uncover these inadequacies and make them pay.

It was just that simple, and Buffalo, as a city, as a people, are well-represented by that failure as well. There are plenty of positives about this place and hundreds of ways to forget them and focus on the disasters. There are angles to exploit, and smart people who look hard enough can walk in here and tear the place to shreds.

Something amazing happened on Sunday that I still can’t get over. Despite all the flaws and problems, Buffalo won. It was improbable and unlikely and plenty of pieces were in motion to make it happen. It was complex and full of hand-wringing and all kinds of things I’ll never understand. It was wonderful.

It has certainly brought a lot of attention to this place over the last few days. Success tends to do that. The point of all this is not that Les Carpenter is wrong, because maybe he isn’t. Maybe it doesn’t matter. What does is that what we are isn’t good enough. Buffalo, both the team and the place, should be something more.

We have a long way to go.

2 Comments

  1. PKB

    The Buffalo Bills 3-0 record is a slam dunk for these national voices. Carpenter didn’t write that thing for Buffalo. He wrote it for the web, for NFL fans on the web. It’s like the perfect writing assignment.

    Write a feel good piece about a forgotten city in which an upstart team of footballers are off to an unexpected 3-0 start.

    Uh, sure!

    I did not care for the Carpenter piece. I don’t feel obligated to like it because it excludes all the bad parts about Buffalo and the game-day experience at the RWS. The Carpenter piece is attempting to set a margin for the NFL. It’s a thing to write because the Bills are at the opposite end of the spectrum as the Dallas Cowboys and Cowboy Stadium. The Bills and Buffalo are unique and “simple” yet they’re part of this giant, insanely lucrative league.

    But they’re really not, right? Barely, right? They weren’t the ones negotiating with the players union to form the current CBA. Their stadium is named after a 90 YO, not a razor blade manufacturer, and this is heartwarming in a very noncommercial way but if the Bills drop the next five games or whatever, it’s back to the quiet room. Carpenter’s piece will exist as this reminder to Bills fans that, yes, they are participating in this league. That will probably be enough to keep it going, right? This is how it works in Buffalo, right?

    I think it’s all bullshit. Sorry for doing the asshole contrarion thing here. I hope the Bills win a ton of games this season, get a home playoff game (in HD!), and maintain all this excitement. Beating the Pats is awesome and a statement and all that but this thing with Carpenter’s piece was such a soapbox moment. See! We told you Buffalo’s great! Why? Because it’s simple and look there’s Jim Kelly!

    Yep.

  2. I liked the Les Carpenter article, but I understand this criticism.

    I think the main thing is, we probably should all stop using sports to try to define and understand the city. It really makes NO sense. Comparing team to city is sort of irresistible in the case of the current Bills because they reflect Buffalo in a way everyone finds appealing (They’re a rag tag bunch of misfits no one believed in!), but in reality, the similarities between us is just a (commercially marketable) coincidence. To me, the interesting thing to look at between a city and a sports team is how the fans REACT to the team, and in that sense, Buffalo IS simple. At the end of the day, Buffalo’s reaction to the Bills, for better of for worse, is almost 100% emotional. No one has their head screwed on straight right now. The citywide joyfest last Sunday was probably unique to us. I’m not sure that could’ve happened anywhere else.

    Personally, I strive for simplicity in my life, and I love it in my sports.