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By David Staba

Editor's note: In an effort to spare our readers from a slightly different version of the same dry rehash and "We need to score more points and give up fewer" quotes you can find in at least a thousand other media outlets, the Niagara Falls Reporter is trying a new game plan for the 2002 Buffalo Bills schedule. Sports Editor David Staba and a varied cast of other self-described football experts will analyze each game from a different vantage point, exploring the culture surrounding the game along with the action on the field. And scoring some chicken wings, an intolerable impossibility in a National Football League press box. For the first installment of Billstuff, we chose, surprisingly, a pair of taverns in Niagara Falls.

The cry goes up from the end of the bar, starting as New York Jets kicker John Hall jogs toward the teed-up football and continuing as he launches it on its end-over-end flight through Ralph Wilson Stadium.


At last.

As if the National Football League and its network partners hadn't built the hype for its "Kickoff Weekend" enough, fans in stadiums and in front of television sets throughout the country waited an extra 15 minutes past the normal 1 p.m. kickoff for a rendition of "God Bless America" by a choir of some sort and then an apparently inspirational message from President George W. Bush.

While a labored blend of professional sports and patriotism has become oddly fashionable over the past year, and it's always reassuring to hear that the president is taking a break from all that war talk to watch a game, anticipation turns into irritation pretty quickly when there's football to be played. Particularly in a tavern, the only remote football-watching setting that approaches the atmosphere of being at the stadium in person.

Once Bush finishes praising NFL players as "role models for our children," which might explain some of the trouble the First Daughters stumble into from time to time, the extra wait quickly proves worth it.

The official beginning of Drew Bledsoe's career as a Buffalo Bill starts the way Rob Johnson's ended, with the quarterback driven into the turf by an unblocked defender. But Bledsoe gets up and the first of New York's two roughing-the-kicker penalties offsets left guard Ruben Brown's inability to remember the snap count. Buffalo actually scores points on its first drive, a tactic deemed distasteful, if not illegal, by the last few editions of the Bills.

By the time Travis Henry slashes in for the first of his three touchdowns, giving Buffalo a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter, the gathering at Cocktail Bob's is getting downright giddy.

Relatively speaking, at least.

Except one guy, and there's one in just about anyplace more than three people gather on a Football Sunday. For Doug, every Buffalo first down, defensive stop or score triggers a curse, a prediction of unspeakable futility to follow, or both.

Until tiny Jets kick returner Chad Morton makes Buffalo's would-be kick coverage unit look like a fraternity flag-football team, waving at him in vain as he weaves up the middle for a 98-yard touchdown. Before the deja vu of special-teams disasters of the recent past can fade, a deflected Bledsoe is intercepted. A few plays later, it's 14-10, Jets.

Doug is very happy.

Gotta ask -- is he a Jets fan, or a Bills hater? The latter, but for reasons that have little to do with football.

"I used to work in Buffalo -- they say it's the 'city of good neighbors,' but they don't tell you to watch your back."

Good enough for me.

By the end of the first half, the Bills and Jets have produced more excitement than Buffalo provided in entire months during 2001.

After the Billstuff coverage team moseys downtown for the second half, the drama continues to build. As in any authentic football setting, the guys at Cafe Etc. are at least as concerned with the point spread and various scoring possibilities that determine the winner of various pools as with the actual outcome.

Which isn't decided until Bledsoe directs exactly the sort of comeback expected of him, followed within moments by Morton making Buffalo's special teams look even sillier.

The more fatalist fans will bemoan New York's 37-31 overtime win (only the second in NFL history to end on a kickoff return) as a harbinger of another doomed campaign.

But for the rest of us, it's football season. And it's about time.

BILLS MVP: Henry -- 149 rushing yards and three touchdowns. His supposed competition for the starting job, Shawn Bryson, was last seen chasing Morton into Buffalo's end zone.

THE OTHER GUYS' MVP: Morton -- just the fifth player in NFL history to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in one game.

STAT OF THE DAY: Buffalo's defense, universally acknowledged as the team's glaring weakness (at least until Sunday) limited the Jets to 266 yards. The Bills surrendered 300 on kick returns. Add in a blocked punt suffered by Brian Moorman and Mike Hollis' missed field goal (50 yards but with no wind), and special teams coach Danny Smith had good reason for his profuse postgame apologies. He shouldn't count on Gregg Williams being nearly as patient as Wade Phillips was with Ronnie Jones two years ago.

EVIDENCE THAT PEERLESS PRICE'S MAMA DIDN'T DO HIM ANY FAVORS: Everyone's favorite underachiever wildly celebrated a first-quarter catch. Then, still basking in the glory of converting a first down, he didn't bother running out his pattern on the next play and was 20 yards from where Bledsoe's pass landed.

MYSTERY TRIGGERED BY FOX'S PREGAME SHOW: When, exactly, did Jon Bon Jovi become the lead singer of the National Football League?

WING REPORT: (The importance of chicken wings to the football-watching experience can not be overstated. Each week, BS will endeavor to consume at least one order and offer a review). Delivered from Mr. Sepe's. Meaty, great sauce (and not too much of it). Slightly undercooked, preventing a higher grade. A solid B.

BS FAN OF THE DAY: Didn't see Doug when Morton took his second field-length jaunt, but its a fair bet that plenty of people heard him.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter and the editor of the BuffaloPOST. He welcomes email at

Niagara Falls Reporter September 10 2002