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By David Staba

You'd think the Buffalo Bills have to be better this year.

After all, they jettisoned painfully stubborn offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and the rest of the staff that guided the feeblest offense spotted in the Orchard Park area since Vince Ferragamo was trying to read his wristband. With Tom Clements calling the plays and Sam Wyche rebuilding Drew Bledsoe's shattered confidence, memories of a season in which the offense failed to score a touchdown in seven of 16 games started fading by March.

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Then, in April's draft, they added wideout Lee Evans to complement a healthy Eric Moulds and add another delicacy to an offensive menu that also includes running backs Travis Henry and a returning Willis McGahee.

In free agency, they picked up cornerback Troy Vincent, one of the NFL's top ballhawks over the past decade, to spark a defense that placed second in the utterly meaningless league yardage rankings, but ranked at the bottom of the far-more-important takeaway list.

They traded in the smarter-than-thou Gregg Williams for the more straightforward Mike Mularkey, which already looks like an improvement.

There's that tricky phrase, though -- "looks like." A year ago at this time, Buffalo looked like a definite contender. Some prognosticators even hastily predicted a Super Bowl trip. (Sound of throat clearing.)

After two weeks of the regular season, what we saw on the field made how the Bills looked on paper seem downright pessimistic.

Well, things didn't quite work out that way.

On paper, these Bills should be a lock to improve for the reasons mentioned above. Or even contend for the postseason in a conference that looks like (there's that phrase again) it possesses a few very, very good teams and a lot of mediocre ones.

On the field, though, the sights weren't quite so appealing through the exhibition schedule. After the stinker Buffalo produced in Indianapolis in their third practice outing, a repeat of 6-10 looked like an optimistic prediction.

In the exhibition finale at Detroit, though, Drew Bledsoe directed the starting offense's first touchdown drive of the summer and the front-line defense showed signs of being at least pretty good. There were still way too many penalties and special-teams breakdowns, but it looked like a substantial improvement over the mess in Indy of five nights earlier.

At least from the vantage point enjoyed by BillStuff, which watched the summer's fourth dress rehearsal in the most painless fashion possible -- while doing something else. In this case, the Humm-Schlopy League's annual fantasy football draft provided the much-needed distraction.

The league draws its name from two of the more forgettable -- unless you're a trivia junky -- players in Bills history.

David Humm was a left-handed third-string quarterback best remembered for one-hopping a wide receiver screen to Jerry Butler against New England in 1980, his lone season in Buffalo. His career stats with the Bills: 14 attempts, four completions, 39 yards and one interception.

Todd Schlopy actually won a game for Buffalo. Sort of. His two field goals provided the Bills with all their points in a 6-3 win over the New York Giants during the final scab-ball game of the 1987 strike. During his career as a scab, he missed his other three field goal attempts and one of two extra-point tries. But he got at least one fantasy-football league named after him.

Despite the overriding importance of assembling a powerful roster of guys I'll spend most of the regular season cursing, BS did manage enough glances at the screen to come to a few conclusions.

Add it up, and you've got a 9-7 team headed for bigger and better things, even if that won't be quite good enough to get into the playoffs.

At least that's what it looks like from here.

BILLS MVP: Bledsoe not only led Buffalo's starters on that inaugural end-zone journey, he showed some zip on the ball and confidence in the pocket while doing it. For all the changes on the field and on the sidelines during the offseason, he remains the single biggest factor in what happens over the next four months.

THE OTHER GUYS' MVP: Not applicable. As usual, the Lions all looked the same as Detroit got pretty thoroughly outplayed, yet still "won" by a 20-17 count. That's exhibition football for you.

IRATE READER OF THE WEEK: A day after last week's BillStuff hit the Internet, Niagara Falls Reporter Editor in Chief Mike Hudson received a call from One Bills Drive. Seems the reference to Bills president and general manager Tom Donahoe as "Ol' Whitey" didn't sit well with some at team headquarters.

Now, on the off chance you've never seen him, Mr. Donahoe's hair is white. Remarkably white, in fact. There's a rich sporting tradition of athletes, coaches and front-office types bearing nicknames based on their hair color: Whitey Herzog, Red Grange, Whitey Ford and Red Auerbach, to name four.

Somehow, including his boss in this pantheon irritated Bills Vice President of Communications Scott "Li'l Red" Berchtold, who phoned Hudson to voice his displeasure, saying there was no reason to get "personal."

Mike offered to let Berchtold submit a letter to the editor in which he could call me whatever names he wanted, but he declined. Clearly misunderstanding the corporate culture here at the Reporter, he insisted that Mike should "talk to" me.

Which he did, spending most of the conversation laughing about someone with such a lofty title taking the time to pick up the phone over such a petty matter.

Berchtold could have contacted me directly, since my e-mail address can be found at the end of each BS column. While that would have still been fairly thin-skinned, it wouldn't have been conduct nearly as weaselly as the Bills' Media Relations Handbook prescribes.

Though he failed at one of his primary objectives -- getting the people he's supposed to help cover the team in "trouble" at their jobs -- Li'l Red did accomplish a few things with his phone call:

  1. He guaranteed that his boss will be referred to as Ol' Whitey in every BillStuff column until either or both are no longer employed by the team.
  2. He got his own name in print for something other than issuing a "no comment" from the organization.
  3. On the exceedingly slim chance that No. 2 ever happens again, he got himself a nickname. And one far more jovial -- and printable -- than the ones given him by the members of the media forced to deal with his nonsense on a regular basis.

WING REPORT: No wings at the draft, but the burritos from That Taco Place in Batavia and upside-down pizza created by founding Humm-Schlopy owner Vic Marchese of Vic's Dog House, another Batavia establishment, were spectacular.

For those who have demanded the return of the weekly wing review, be sure to tune in next week.


David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Sept. 7 2004