The natural approach on New Year’s Day is looking back and assessing the previous 12 months. People are on an everlasting, yet often unattained, quest to make sure there are better days ahead. Our best measure for the future can often be found when examining our lives in the time left behind.
Life is moving so fast sometimes that it’s hard to keep up. For years, I’ve had a strange fascination with blocks of time. I look at the past five years and try to envision life five years from now. My oldest son was in middle school five years ago, for example, but in five years he’ll be graduating from college.
It also applies to sports, of course.
Seattle was the class of the NFL during the regular season. Five years ago, the Seahawks were 4-12. The Blackhawks missed the postseason for five consecutive seasons and won two Stanley Cups in their next five. They’re two examples of how quickly things can change for teams conducting business in the right way.
Just look at the past year. The Bills hired a new head coach, Doug Marrone, and had a very good draft under new GM Doug Whaley. The Sabres had the same coach for 15-plus seasons, then hired two in nine months. A year ago, it seemed Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff would be here until eternity. Eleven months later, both were gone.
The Red Sox went from worst to first. The Harbaugh brothers met in the Super Bowl. Auburn went from 3-9 to 12-1 and a berth in the national championship game under first-year coach Gus Malzahn. Brad Stevens was coaching Butler basketball last season and a few months later was running the Celtics.
So there is hope for Buffalo sports.
This will mark the seventh straight season in which the Sabres will fail to win a playoff round. The Bills have missed the playoffs in 14 straight seasons and haven’t won a playoff game since 1995, or before my oldest child was born. The Bills and Sabres haven’t been in the playoffs in the same year since 1999.
The past year was particularly unsightly, but I’ll spare you the details – Happy New Year! – before bidding good riddance to another year. Let’s start 2014 right, hit the reset button, look ahead and allow ourselves to dream. Here are 10 reasons to be optimistic about Buffalo sports in the next 12 months:
10. Big Dance: We may not win championships in Western New York, but we embrace major events. March Madness connects our region with big-time basketball. Syracuse, if it can keep rolling, will be rewarded by NCAA Tournament officials by playing two games here and having a home-feel advantage.
9. Team USA: It’s not a coincidence that Ryan Miller is playing his best hockey leading into the Olympics and during a contract year. They are two factors in allowing him to maintain the right mind-set in an otherwise lost year. The side effect is allowing the Sabres to grow around him. In fact, it’s his greatest contribution.
8. UB Football: The Bulls took a major step back after reaching a bowl game in 2008 and losing coach Turner Gill and quarterback Drew Willy. Jeff Quinn and Joe Licata will be back, maintaining program continuity after seniors Khalil Mack, Branden Oliver and Alex Neutz walk out the door.
7. HarborCenter: Terry Pegula’s money didn’t have the desired effect on the Sabres, but it will on the community. The arena project will draw tourists downtown while giving Canisius College a hockey home and recruiting tool. It has the potential to turn Jim Kelley Way into a destination for youth tournaments and development.
6. Big Four Hoops: Pick any local team, and you’ll find at least one player who is worth the price of admission. Niagara’s Antoine Mason leads the nation in scoring, but Canisius’ Billy Baron might be a better all-around player. Javon McCrea of UB and Youssou Ndoye of St. Bonaventure have more NBA potential than both.
5. Manuel’s Labor: EJ Manuel did little to prove he’s a true starting quarterback this season, but working through tough times will only help him. This season wasn’t so much a failure as it was an incomplete grade. He should be better with his rookie season, and a full offseason, behind him. He might even throw for 300 yards in a game.
4. Ted Nolan: So much time had passed since Nolan’s first stint in Buffalo and his return that many forgot — or were too young to remember — his knack for bringing players together. He already has improved overall morale and competitiveness. If he stays beyond this season, and I think he will, stronger efforts will turn into more wins.
3. Trending Buffalo: The Bills have a knack for finishing 6-10 or 7-9, but they’re going in the right direction under Doug Marrone. The Bills finished .500 in the division. Five or fewer plays separated them from a winning season. Their record may look the same, but their young nucleus suggests they’re not far off. Prediction for 2014: playoffs.
2. Sabres Management: Pat LaFontaine hasn’t yet hired a general manager, but I’m already certain that he’ll be an upgrade over the last one. Read that however you please. LaFontaine arrived with competence, credibility and class. It will help him recruit the right general manager and better players. He’ll restore hope.
1. Playoff Fever: The Bills haven’t won a playoff game in the same year the Sabres won a playoff series since 1993, or when Jim Kelly was the quarterback and LaFontaine was the captain. I did mention the New Year allows people to dream, right?