First of all, I feel an obligation to reiterate my stance on the NFL’s blackout policy. It’s a joke, an antiquated remnant of the sporting stone age. Yes, the league modified the rule for this season, lowering the blackout threshold to 85 percent of home seating capacity.
It’s still an outrage.
The Bills, of course, chose not to take advantage of the new rules (neither did today’s opponent, the Jacksonville Jaguars). They argued that it was bad for business, and besides, they weren’t likely to reach the 85 percent level required to lift the blackout under the revised policy.
But it’s still an insult to the team’s fans to treat them in this fashion. The Bills should be gratified – indeed, flattered – to know that people still care to patronize their sorry, underachieving squad.
These folks are customers, captives to the NFL‘s television spectacle. If the product stinks, owners should feel fortunate for the privilege of entering fans’ living rooms and trying to win them back.
When you think about it, though, maybe the absent fans are the lucky ones. They’ll be spared the indignity of suffering through another Bills game in December. Maybe I’m wasting my time advocating for fans. I might as well defend their right to smash their heads against a wall for three hours.
Welcome to December, the annual advent of irrelevance. It truly is the cruelest month for Bills fans. Do you realize the Bills have not entered a home game in December or later with a winning record in eight years?
The last time it happened was on Jan. 2, 2005. I imagine you’d rather forget it, but that was the day they entered the season finale at 9-6, needing to beat the Steelers to keep their playoff hopes alive. Pittsburgh, playing mostly with backups (most notably, Willie Parker), beat them, 29-24.
Mike Mularkey was in his first year as the Bills’ coach that year. Mularkey, who quit as coach a year later rather than continue as an emasculated figure under Ralph Wilson, said that Steelers game torments him to this day.
“A lot,” Mularkey said on a conference call with Buffalo media. “I’ve used it a number of times. Where we were at the start and what we had to do to get to that point ... in the [opener], if we stop Jacksonville on any of the three fourth downs that they convert on the last drive of the game, we don’t have to beat Pittsburgh to get to the playoffs.
“I’ve used the example how one play and a number of plays in that 2004 season changed the whole scenario. I still talk about a lot of things from that season. How that team had to overcome the adversity of starting 0-4 and stick together. That’s a very memorable season for me.”
For Bills fans, ’04 seems like Shangri-la. The only nine-win season since 1999. A chance at the playoffs on the final week. A home game with meaning during the holidays. This year was supposed to be different. Getting Mario Williams didn’t guarantee the postseason, but even the most skeptical fans figured the Bills would be in the thick of things at this point.
Instead, here we are – stuck at 4-7, with Chan Gailey making comparisons to last year’s Giants and the players talking with straight faces about running the table. And Mularkey comes along with his 2-9 Jaguars, looking to kick dirt on the Bills and heap further embarrassment on his old employer.
Mularkey didn’t want to talk about his ignominious departure after the ’05 season. He said it’s old news. He talked about personnel changes that “changed the makeup of the team” after the ‘04 season. Presumably, he was talking about the decision to part ways with Drew Bledsoe and Pat Williams
But Mularkey insisted that he has no lingering resentments about his time in Buffalo. He said he had no regrets, no exposed wounds.
“No,” he said, “don’t make it out to be like that, I still have very good memories from there, and there’s no incentives, no motivation to do this or that.”
So this is nothing, I asked, like Bill Cowher getting sweet revenge against Tom Donahoe here in ‘04, after their bitter parting in Pittsburgh?
“No, I don’t think that way,” Mularkey said.
Sorry, I don’t buy it. I suspect Mularkey would take great pleasure in knocking off the Bills today and sticking it to Wilson. He’s human, after all. His final season here was an utter humiliation. He makes it clear that it took a heavy toll on his family.
Jack Del Rio, the former Jags’ head coach, once kept a wooden stump and an axe in his locker room to motivate his team. You don’t suppose Mularkey will let his players know how much he would relish beating the team that ran him out of his first NFL head job?
This would be a nice win for Mularkey and a rebuilding Jags franchise. They’re no pushovers. Yes, they’re last in the NFL in offense and 31st in defense. But they’ve lost three overtime games on the road and won at Indy. They’ve averaged 30 points the last two weeks.
For the Bills, who are six-point favorites, a loss would be a disaster. It would be the worst loss of the Chan Gailey era, which is saying a lot. Buddy Nix has faith in Gailey. Gailey stands behind Ryan Fitzpatrick. But a loss today would put them all on even shakier ground.
The owner isn’t too old to feel humiliated. Losing to Mularkey would be a slap to the face, a reminder of the organization’s ceaseless cycle of dysfunction after the departures of Donahoe and Mularkey seven years ago.
Mularkey left here a defeated man, wondering if he would ever get another chance at a head job. In retrospect, he seems like the smartest man in the room, the one guy with the sense to get away with his dignity intact.
Losing to the Jags today would be a low point, a dark day even by modern Bills standards. Maybe a blackout is for the best.