At the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in early March, former Cleveland Browns coaches got together to clown one of the most hapless franchises in professional sports. Reports circulated that a group of the team’s former, fired coaches threw a party in a restaurant called Rock Bottom.
It’s a near-perfect irony, except that losing is not a pit. It isn’t something you can find the bottom of and just climb out. There isn’t always a discernible end to it, and sometimes it’s not clear how to get out. But you still have to look up.
Losing isn’t a black hole, either. Black holes imply there’s no escape, only the crushing inevitability of getting caught and being stuck there forever. Losing is not like that. It’s a wormhole, and once you start there’s often no telling where it’s taking you, how long it will last, or what happens when it’s finally over.
The Buffalo Sabres are deep in a seven-year wormhole of losing. The beginning might be just as far away as the end, with no clear direction and no hope to speak of. But Terry Pegula’s other team is the one that’s made the metaphor less black and more worm. After 17 years of losing and the real thought that it might truly never end, the Buffalo Bills made the playoffs this January.
And they did it despite a long list of deterrents including a quarterback not many fans actually believed in and a coach who made, without a doubt, the worst decision of the Drought. There are people who think Tyrod Taylor is terrible. There are also some hopeless rubes who think Sean McDermott was right in benching him, but the Bills qualified for postseason play in spite of that decision and said rubes. In spite of a lot of things, really. But you never really know how the losing is going to end.
What happens next with the Bills, their starting quarterback and their 2018 season record is still a mystery. But the Drought is over, and that’s really all that seems to matter right now. The team is out of the wormhole, though it might have landed in a place that’s only slightly better and more competent. Time will tell.
The fate of the Buffalo Sabres, though, is certainly more bleak. To say the franchise is going nowhere would imply that time is not passing. It is, to the point that people are drifting away and leaving the team behind altogether.
The franchise is so pathetic, so hapless, and has been for so long that it’s stolen from most fans the righteous indignation the fanbase so fairly deserves. No one can muster much of any emotion for the team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2011. That team made the postseason mostly on smoke and mirrors, riding a wave of goodwill from the Pegula purchase that has long since pooled into stagnant water.
Until recently, the Sabres had never missed the playoffs in more than three straight seasons. Ever. The team is in its worst stretch in franchise history in an era that was supposed to be a golden age of spending and confidence. The gilded dreams are gone and so, too, is the belief that even if it takes time, they have to eventually figure it out.
This season in particular has broken a lot of fans. Expectations were not particularly high, but at least it felt like there would be good reason to be optimistic. A new head coach, Jack Eichel’s third season and a young group of talent could finally make a substantive leap in quality of play and results. What followed is much of the same: bad, boring hockey teams that lose in predictable ways.
It’s not fun. And fans don’t owe the team their attention, money or emotional investment. The hand-wringing over a lack of atmosphere and poor attendance at KeyBank Center over the last few years is always done absent of an important truth: nothing that happens on ice there feels like it matters. Stop right now and think of the last moment you felt like it mattered. I promise it happened a lot further in the past than you thought.
When a team is bad and has been for this long, even the rare positives are tainted with cynicism. Evander Kane was trade bait all season, and though he played an energetic game and embraced the community through charity his legal issues loomed large during his time here.The bad always crept in close to mingle with what passed for good.
Kane’s departure doesn’t even mark the end of an era of Sabres hockey in any discernible way. It feels like the team never really emerged from its rut despite the rotating cast of head coaches and bit players. And in that rut, grinding against the sides haplessly on weekday nights and weekend afternoons, a grim reality has been revealed: there is no real reason to hope it’s going to get any better.
They don’t have to figure it out. Tanking to get a good player doesn’t mean the rest of the team will magically get better. No matter where they finish this year or who wins the lottery, the Buffalo Sabres really could be this bad for much, much longer than we realize.
All those times we’ve reasoned our way into getting more points or seeing a player figure it out on the ice? Wishful thinking at best. That’s not how it works in sports. That’s the new nihilism in Buffalo sports: what is there is what we have, and not good enough doesn’t mean it has to change.
In the process, a lot of people have not just lost hope in the Sabres, they’ve lost interest altogether. I’m there, too. Games go by without even a passing interest in watching. Tickets go unclaimed and weak secondary markets sit unexploited. For many, Eichel’s injury took away any intrigue left in another lost season; his return at this point foolish pride at best.
You can feel it in the arena when you attend a game, but it’s palpable in all the places the Sabres once occupied your life. Close friends spend time catching up on Netflix with spouses and bloggers who once obsessed over the team and wrote about it brilliantly have kids to worry about. I write a lot about basketball now and go to movies after the gym.
But for a lot of people, including myself, this feels very different than disinterest in a bad product. This is not just growing up and growing old, it’s losing a fondness for something that once occupied a large portion of your life. It’s the death of something larger, a vacating of a nostalgia that should still be there. And it’s happening all over Western New York and beyond.
The truth is no one can predict when the losing ends anymore, but what’s worse is that it will take a seismic event of sorts to get a lot of those people back. The team will have to be good again to feel like they’re worth investing in and, quite frankly, no one deserves to be smug about not bailing on them sometime during their journey through the wormhole.
Because the thing about those coaches drinking and swapping Browns stories at Rock Bottom is that at least they all got paid to be a part of the losing. At this point, during the long winters and short springs in downtown Buffalo, what exactly are fans getting out of the Buffalo Sabres anymore?