By Jerry Sullivan NEWS SENIOR SPORTS COLUMNIST
Feeling a bit desperate, Bills fans? Grasping for any strand of hope? Here, I’ll throw you a lifeline:
Back in 2004, the Bills got embarrassed on a Sunday night and limped out of New England with a 3-6 record.
Everyone but Mike Mularkey and a few hopeless optimists wrote them off. I was leading the charge, of course, calling for them to put Drew Bledsoe out of his misery and give the job to rookie J.P. Losman.
Then they won six straight games against feeble opposition, while teams above them in the AFC were faltering, and got back in the playoff race. They were still alive entering the finale at home against Pittsburgh. I’ll spare you the rest.
“Yeah, Chris [Kelsay] told me about it,” Kyle Williams said Tuesday at One Bills Drive. “They played the Steelers here to win and get in. There’s no law that says that can’t be done.”
The law of averages might have something to say about that. But if it happened before, it can happen again. This is the NFL, after all, where the grinding mediocrity of the product is your best hope, however faint. It starts with belief, with one win.
“It only takes a spark to start a fire,” Williams said. “And that spark is winning one game. If we can win one, I think that guys will feel good about making a run here late in the year.”
You can spark your imagination by examining the schedule, which gets easier from here. Five of the Bills’ remaining games, beginning with Thursday night’s home game against Miami, are against teams with losing records. Five are at home. Four are against rookie quarterbacks, and another against Blaine Gabbert.
The tough stretch is over. They’re only one game worse than a lot of people expected after nine games. If they had scored that late touchdown in New England last Sunday, the perspective would be radically different right now. But they’re in deep trouble, and they have to win tonight to sustain any remote, outlandish hopes of making the playoffs. They know it, too.
“We have to win every game,” said linebacker Nick Barnett. “It starts with this one. But the door is still open. I haven’t seen it mathematically shut yet.”
“That’s the way we’re looking at it,” said center Eric Wood. “This is a must-win game. We’ve got a seven-game playoff left. If we lose one more, our chances pretty much go out the window of making the playoffs and having meaningful games in December.”
There are lots of unsold tickets for the three remaining games at The Ralph in December. Meaningful games in the final month would be a welcome occurrence for everyone involved, but especially for the embattled head coach, Chan Gailey.
General Manager Buddy Nix gave Gailey a vote of confidence a couple of weeks ago. But if the Bills lose tonight, giving them four straight losses and further discouraging fans from investing their holiday cash in a reeling football team, it will turn up the heat on the coach.
The players are talking a good game and holding on to any whisper of hope they can find. But if the Bills lose at home against their historic rival, on national TV, in a declared “must-win” game, it might suck what little belief remains right out of that locker room.
That would not be a good thing for Gailey, whose teams have exhibited an alarming tendency to become discouraged, in games and during tough times. They lost seven in a row and eight out of nine last year. They lost their first eight in 2010. If not for a blocked field goal in Arizona, they’d be riding a six-game skid tonight against the Dolphins.
Lose tonight and they could go into another death spiral, one that would make it difficult for Nix and Co. to bring back Gailey for a fourth season. Dick Jauron went 21-27 in his first three seasons in Buffalo and was a dead man walking. Gailey is 13-28.
If the Bills won the rest of their games this season, Gailey would still be a game behind Jauron after Year Three. Anywhere else, he’d be on thin ice.
A year ago in Dallas, after his team had suffered a second straight blowout loss, Gailey said the Bills were “more a pretender than a contender.” He said he was worried that the losses might damage his team’s self-belief. But one year later, with a worse record, he wouldn’t go that far.
“No. No,” Gailey said Tuesday, seeming almost defiant at the notion. He said all he thinks about is the game in front of him.
Your players are calling it a must-win game, Chan. Are you saying you could be 3-7 and keep your players believing in playoffs?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I expect to win this game, so I’m not thinking of any other scenario other than that.”
Maybe Gailey wouldn’t entertain a discussion about his team’s belief because he knows it points back at him. Some of his recent decisions have strained belief. The gaffes are beginning to pile up:
The ill-fated Wildcat pass in Arizona. Abandoning the run in Houston and claiming he hadn’t prepared for the Texans to stay in their base defense against his spread. Calling a pass for rookie T.J. Graham on the decisive play in New England, rather than getting the ball to a proven playmaker.
Stevie Johnson said Tuesday that Graham hadn’t even run that pattern in practices. He said Graham shouldn’t be blamed, because he might have been put in a spot for which he wasn’t ready. That was a direct shot at the coach, a rare critical blast on a team known for keeping issues in-house.
Weeks earlier, Kelsay had questioned the effort of some of the defensive players. Gailey continues to defend his guys, no matter what. You wonder what it would take to get a genuine emotional rise out of the man.
Tonight might be the most critical game of Gailey’s tenure in Buffalo. He needs to turn this thing around now. If not, it could produce a different sort of spark, the kind that ignites not a fire, but a firing.