Cosa Nostra

I feel as if we have similar conversations every year the Bills open camp.

Expectations are usually pretty low, but if V, W, X, Y and Z go right, hey, who knows? We might be looking at a playoff team. When things were really bad, watching an entertaining 60-minute game was almost a victory in its own right.

This year feels a bit different. Maybe it’s because it looks like the front office actually has a plan and is moving in the right direction. It’s probably a byproduct of having a front office that actually puts football first.

The last two years (the first two under Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey) have felt like one long season that has had its share of ups and downs. The 0-8 start one year followed by the 4-1 start the next. The Stevie Drop against Pittsburgh and the win over the Patriots. It’s been a roller coaster ride complete with loop-de-loops, corkscrews and Zero-G rolls.

At one point over the last two seasons, the team was historically bad. At another it had us thinking that maybe they could host a playoff game. Thirty-two weeks worth of games will do that to you.

Most of that time surrounded around a series of “What Ifs?” It’s easy to fall into that trap.
What if Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus had played more than five games together?

What if Fred Jackson, who was having an MVP-caliber season, had stayed healthy?

What if Ryan Fitzpatrick hadn’t cracked those ribs?

What if Spider-Man had kept his six arms?

A lot of things went wrong, but what if many of them had gone right?

There’s been a growing enthusiasm surrounding the team since Buddy and Chan took over. Outside of ticket sales and revenues, the biggest example of this may be the Bills Mafia.

It’s easy to knock and rip on a mafia family that hasn’t made the playoffs in over a decade and gives up an eighth of its territory every year to Toronto. What clout do they really have? New England and the more powerful families probably treat the Bills like Fredo.

But let’s look at what’s really happening here. A quick look at their website shows that it actually started off as a bit of a joke. So taking the “mafia” label at face value is a tad disingenuous. As far as we know, there are no bodies at the bottom of the river.

What the Bills Mafia has done is put a label on some of the excitement that’s been building since the team put real football people in charge of, well, football. Sure it’s silly and goofy, but that’s a bit of what’s been missing from following sports in recent years.

Both fans and players have bought in and joined the Family.

Check the Twitter accounts of Bills fans and you’ll see this little guy in many of their profile pictures:

In Italian, “Costa Nostra” means “our affair” or “our thing.” In Western New York, the Bills are pretty much our thing. Not so much of a stretch there, is it?

While the Bills Mafia isn’t affiliated with the Bills, the team has taken note of social media’s role in energizing a fan base. They’ve expanded their web presence by hiring another reporter for the site, providing more updates on Twitter and they finally joined Instagram.

Off the field, they’re doing more to engage fans and enhance their brand.

This has been an offseason to remember in terms of player personnel, too. For the first time, the Bills were players in free agency. Actually, it’s bigger than that.

For the first time, the Bills were winners in free agency. Mario Williams was the big catch. Then they brought Mark Anderson aboard and signed Vince Young to compete for the backup quarterback position.

Star names are coming in and when you combine that with Chan and Buddy’s “guys,” the team could actually be really good in 2012.

If there was ever a time to make a Bills version of the “Offseason Champs” T-shirt, this could be it.

There will most certainly be struggles, too. But after years of frustration, those struggles should feel more like growing pains than a knife being twisted in your side.

The front office has a vision and a plan. Fans have put a lot of trust in them so far and they’re going to have to continue to do so. Realistically, the Bills probably need another season or two to really put things together, but this offseason may have played a large part in accelerating that timeline.

It’s super easy to be excited about the thought of Super Mario running down Ryan Tannehill. It makes you want to pre-order Madden 13.

We’ve had so many false alarms over the past 12 years that it would easy to take the wait-and-see approach with this team. Show me that you’re not just picking me up so you can drop me head-first onto the concrete sidewalk. Then maybe —maybe— I’ll invest some time and energy into watching you on Sundays.

With the football season being so short, however, you’re likely sacrificing a whole year to waiting. Go for the ride and enjoy it.

Sports are supposed to be fun. So really, who cares? Have some fun. And let the Bills Mafia have its fun — so long as they don’t shoot anyone in the eye.