This is the first post of what should be many more to follow where Joe and Brandon go back and forth on the hottest topics hovering around the Buffalo sports scene. Now that it's August, the most important thing on any Bills and Sabres fans' mind is what to expect for the upcoming 2012-13 seasons. Are we in for an exciting ride, or have our beloved franchises once again set us up for severe disappointment?
To join in on the conversation you can follow Brandon (@b_schlag) and Joe (@JoeBuffaloWins) on Twitter or take to the comment section and give us your take on which team we should be most optimistic about this season. For now, sit back and enjoy the ride.
Brandon: Alright so, essentially, we're debating the promise of two teams eternally notorious for dropping their fans on our heads every time we raise our expectations slightly above mediocrity. This should be fun. The feeling around Buffalo right now seems like it's pretty much a polar opposite from everybody's mindset last August, which was, of course, the Bills will suck forever and the Sabres will obviously win the Stanley Cup. Now, with the addition of Mario Williams and the skyrocketing popularity of Chan Gailey and Buddy Nix, the Bills can do no wrong. Conversely, it seems no one in the Sabres' organization is safe from scrutiny (even Vanek, apparently, since I had to waste 2,000 words defending him last week). It's amazing how the tables have turned so drastically in a year's span. Is it right? I'm not sure. Lets debate.
Joe: Insane. I remember last year how the Bills Mafia was out in hiding because things looked so bad for them. But give them credit, Brandon, they signed the biggest free agent in the history of Buffalo Sports. Mario Williams is no slouch and he's not Ville Leino. I'm excited about the Bills because they just feel different and cooler than in years past. More importantly, since we are comparing, the Sabres feel dated. It is the same players for the most part and a lot of hope tied into youngsters like Hodgson, Foligno and Ennis, who have played like five minutes in the NHL. That bores me 'cause I lived through the waiting for youngsters like Stafford, Roy and a bunch of other prospects the Sabres were excited about. I think the Bills being different and addressing needs, while the Sabres still don't have a center, is why I'm more optimistic about them.
Brandon: I'm optimistic about the Bills this year, too (I didn't think I would ever write that in a million years). As much as I've lambasted the Bills in years past, I give them huge props for everything they've done over the past five months. What has impressed me the most, maybe even more so than signing Williams, is how Nix and Gailey are leading this team and building it from the ground up. I'm very pleased with how they've gone about their business since 2010. For the first time in my life as a Bills fan I notice a sense of direction with this front office. That, I think, is why I'm optimistic, because Gailey and Nix actually seem to know what they're doing. Now, are expectations still getting blown way out of proportion with the Bills? Absolutely. I think we saw that Thursday, even if it was just a preseason game. I think that there's an unhealthy amount of Bills fans who are seeing the stars of an 11-5, 12-4 division-winning season. That is absurd, given Ryan Fitzpatrick's track record.
I think a lot of Bills fans need to realize 8-8 is the realistic benchmark here, with the hope of a 9-7 or 10-6 season if, and it's a big if, everything goes right for the Bills. As for the Sabres, I'm in a really tough spot with them. I'm much more optimistic about their chances this season than most others are, I think. But that could change instantly if they were to say trade for Bobby Ryan (most Sabres fans expectations would then skyrocket past mine). I think, for me, it's a combination of the Sabres improving very little this offseason, if at all, and, to double back to my "direction" point with the Bills, on the flip side, I'm not sure if I'm able to clearly see Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff's "vision" just yet. Now, I'd like to preface everything by saying it would be a gargantuan disappointment should the Sabres fall short of the playoffs again this season. Man, would heads roll then. But I think, reasonably, I can see this team finishing anywhere from No. 8 to as high as No. 4 in the Eastern Conference, if everything works to perfection. I don't think they're a division winner, but the Sabres should put up a good fight this season, if nothing else.
Joe: Well, if Fitz plays like he did during the first 8 games of last year and the defense plays like a top-10 unit, they can go 10-6. However, Fitz is their weakness/wildcard in my opinion. The interesting part about this debate is what is a doable goal or more importantly, what would be a successful one? If the Bills make the playoffs and lose in the wildcard, you'd have to say it was a successful year just from what they are coming from. Twelve years of no playoffs to finally get in may equal a parade in this town. However, if the Sabres make it as an 8th seed and lose in the first round, the shit would hit the fan. Is that fair?
Brandon: Oh, absolutely. If the Bills make the playoffs this season, it is as HUGE a triumph as it would be a catastrophe if the Sabres miss the postseason. I mean, like you said, it's been 12 years since the last time the Bills managed toput it all together. No one is expecting the playoffs for the Bills this season. At least, you shouldn't be. 'Expect' is the key word here. Like I said, I 'expect' the Bills to finish 8-8 this season. Anything less, I'm pissed. If they go 9-7 and miss the postseason but Fitz shows strides and the 'D' is at or close to top-10 level, I am extremely satisfied. To me, the only way, and I put huge emphasis on this, the Bills make the playoffs is if Fitzpatrick has a career year — almost Pro Bowl caliber. If he should struggle at all, it won't matter how good the defense is. Defense doesn't win championships anymore. You need a competent QB to win anything in this league, and potent offenses (aka your Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings of the world) will find ways to score against the Bills one way or another. If not at first, it will be inevitable.
So I agree with what you said. Fitz is a huge wildcard. He is the only wildcard for me. If he doesn't come through, nothing else will matter. The Bills will draft a QB next year and move on with it. If he throws 30 touchdowns and keeps his interception rate down, the Bills will have a potent offense and I'd then put them at as good of odds to compete with just about anyone should they get to the Wildcard round. And I think it goes without saying shit would hit the fan if the Sabres missed the postseason. I think everyone feels that way. To me, I just don't see any possible way the Sabres could justify another missed postseason. Injuries won't fly this time. Although, to your point, another first round loss might even be a big disappointment for everyone. It wouldn't so much for me, so long as they show signs of improvement (young guys like Ennis and Hodgson, etc, take significant steps forward; the big names like Vanek and Miller play to their capable level), and show they can compete with the league's top teams. They'll never get the respect they desire every time they call themselves "Hockey Heaven" until they prove they deserve that distinction. It's put up or shut up time for the Sabres this season.
Joe: What makes you think the Sabres can be better than the Bills? I look at it this way: Yes, the crappy decade of the 2000's haunts the Bills and shouldn't be ignored. But if you look at just good players at their positions, the Bills have better players. Fred Jackson is a top 10 back. Stevie is top 15. Fitz is probably in that top 12. Defensive line may be a top-five unit. The safeties are top five. Are the Sabres in the top 15-20 in anything? Maybe Miller, but after that, it gets ugly. Also, and this works for the sabres, it is a lot easier to make the playoffs in the NHL. Teams dont go 12 years without getting in the playoffs in that league. Even the Islanders got in 5 years ago. Another thing to point out is that the Bills were more decimated by injuries last year than the Sabres. They were 5-2 and then the wheels started coming off when Nos. 22, 70, 56, 95, and a bunch of others went down with injuries. Since "injuries are a fact of life," as Pegula and some Sabres fans say, you could say the same for the Bills. Frankly, I think the Bills injuries hurt more in derailing their season than the Sabres.
Brandon: Yeah, but I'm not sure you can make that connection between the two leagues like that. Sure, the Bills have some good players who might finally earn the team some respect. But if you're a starter in the NFL on a relatively successful team, you're pretty damn good at what you do. That's not the same in the NHL. In hockey, you have so many different guys who might entirely suck at scoring goals, for example, yet be among the best players in the league at winning faceoffs and keeping the put out of the defensive zone. In the NHL, there are some pretty damn good players no one would ever even think to put in a top-15 positional ranking. The NFL is a lot more cut-and-dry in that regard. So, no, the Sabres might not have anyone who is a top-15 player at their respective position, (aside from Miller, who I'd go as far to say, over the past five years, is still among the top five goalies, if not then very close, and maybe Vanek, too), but they do have a lot of guys who are very good at their own little niche. And that's what good hockey teams are made out of: A group of players who compliment each other well. Sure, it's nice to have that star. You probably need that star to win a Cup, but you don't need a superstar to be a respectable, successful hockey team year after year. Too much more goes into it than that.
And to your injury point: I think that is a very interesting comparison. However, I think in the NFL it's much easier for a team to overcome losing a star to injury than it is in the NHL — aside from maybe the loss of a star quarterback. I think the good teams find ways to plug guys in and win games while fighting through injuries. Depth is key in both leagues, but it's so much more important to have depth at key NFL positions. In the NHL, if you lose your star, expectations plummet (unless you're Pittsburgh, but that's what happens when you have two of the league's best players on your roster). So I'm not sure if it's fair to compare the two in that light, either.
But yes, overall, it is definitely much easier to make the postseason in the NHL. More often than not you see at least one mediocre team sneak in to the Stanley Cup Playoffs each year (teams like Ottawa this year). In the NFL, the teams who make the playoffs are the league's best teams — although you do still see the occasional 8-8 team sneak in, at the expense of a better team penalized for playing in a better division, because of the NFL's bullshit division winner rule. So, to answer your question, I really don't think the Sabres are better than the Bills. To me, each team's success is not relative to the other. Just because I say I think the Sabres are in playoffs-or-bust mode and the Bills are not does not mean I think the Sabres are better than the Bills. Instead, it says that it takes that much better of a team to make the playoffs in the NFL than the NHL, and I don't think the Bills are at that level, at least not until Fitz shows whether or not he can be a winning QB in the league.
Joe: That's a good point. I know the Kings went all the way as a No. 8 seed, but in the NFL, wildcard teams are known to go all the way more so than in the NHL. The Giants did it last year and in 2007. Steelers in 2005. Cards made it as a wildcard a few years ago. So, yes, I can see what you are saying. Does the Bills' history jade your opinion about them? It really messes with mine because they have always been the pure shits. It is stylish to say, "Oh, fans haven't been this excited since the Clinton Years." But they have been. They had a stinken rally for T.O. and Bledsoe when they came here. Bills fans are desperate, so of course everyone is going to be more excited. It is like being a desperate girl who gets dumped 20 times in a row, but they always feel the next guy is "Mr. Right" 'cause she's desperate. That's the problem.
Brandon: Yeah, I still don't think they've earned that right not to be doubted. At least, not from me they haven't. To me, they've still got some work to do this season before I begin to respect them as a team that is a threat to make the postseason every year. I mean, you can say all you want about a great offseason or whatever, but the reality is the Bills still haven't won a damn thing in 12 years. In my eyes, they're the same 6-10 team they were last season until they take the field at MetLife Stadium and beyond and prove that they're not. Too many things can go wrong, and too many things have gone wrong over the years for me to give them the benefit of the doubt just yet. Are there reasons to be excited? Yes, absolutely. More than there have been since I can remember. But signing Mario Williams does not automatically erase 12 years of what has been an embarrassment of a franchise until recently. Bills fans are extremely desperate, and extremely naive in a lot of ways, because the team hasn't been good for so long. Like you said, we have had reasons to get excited in the past, and each year it blew up in our face for one reason or another. You see the same trend beginning the happen with the Sabres, too, which is scary. But I think they'll right that ship before it gets to the level it has been at with the Bills.
At least, I hope Terry Pegula has a stronger will than to allow more years of suffering, especially if it means it has to come at the expense of Ruff and Regier. Maybe we get too excited too easily as Buffalo sports fans because we've never won that elusive championship. Maybe our bar is always lower than what it should be, which is often how Jerry Sullivan and the like criticize the Buffalo sports fan for — that we should demand more from the teams that we've poured our heart, soul and hard-earned money into only to watch them suck year after year, decade after decade. And, to a degree, I think there is a lot of truth to that.
Joe: But here's the thing for me: We are killing off the Bills because of who they are. However, the guys who made them into a joke are gone. Donahoe is gone. So is Jauron. Modrak. The players we hated. The Sabres still have the same people making decisions. Fourteen years of Darcy and Lindy. Five playoff series wins since "No Goal". You know I was only 19 years old then? You were probably learning to ride a bike. Sure, the Bills have sucked, but we aren't comparing Islanders and Yankees here. It is more like Islanders and the Jets.
Brandon: Right, and that's the reason for optimism for me and hopefully for other Bills fans, because, like I said before, we're finally beginning to see a sense of direction in the Bills front office. Whether or not Nix and Gailey know how to build a winning football team still remains to be seen, but at least there's the possibility they know what they're doing, because no one in their sane mind has enough evidence after two years to suggest they don't. Not yet. We'll know more after this season, when judgement day comes for Fitzpatrick and the jury is out on the free agents brought in. Not to mention, this will be the first year we can begin to make fair assessments of how that 2010 draft turned out.
That's not the case with the Sabres. Regier and Ruff don't have that luxury. Like you said, we've already seen what they've been able to do for 14 years, and that hasn't been much, aside from a little success here and there. It truly is an anomaly in sports that these guys have stuck around for as long as they have. Now, I'm not in the "Fire Lindy! Fire Darcy!" party. Not yet, anyway. I like the idea of giving them a bit of a window from Feb. 22, 2011 to put it all together. New ownership can change a lot, regardless of how many Bucky Gleason columns say that it doesn't matter. Should things fall apart this season, though, then I'll grab a pitchfork and join the thousands of other fans marching down Washington Street. But I'm willing to give the duo at least this year to prove me wrong. Or, in Ruff's case, a half year (Darcy gets another year from me. But, if things fall apart early for a third straight season, I think it's time to show the coach the door). This is do-or-die time for the Sabres' regime. I'm not in that mindset yet for the Bills brass. Barring some ridiculous 4-12 collapse, I'm giving Nix and Gailey a two-year window from now to get this team into the postseason.
Joe: Brandon, I'm very happy for you. You seem to be turning the corner on the Bills. I'm still miserable when it comes to the Sabres. I just see the same team and not much of a turnover besides getting some tough guys. But it is close on the optimistic part in comparing. I do think the Sabres have a better chance of getting in the playoffs than the Bills, but I still think the football team has more fun unknowns than the hockey team. I also think if everything works out with Fitz playing like he did at the start of last year the defense plays top-10 like, the Bills can go further than the Sabres. So, in closing, I'm more hopeful of the Bills because they made bigger moves and the Sabres kind of feel the same for me. The unknown makes it more optimistic for me rather than the devil we already know with Lindy & Darcy. Your final thoughts?
Brandon: I know. I'm getting too soft. It only took 12 years (and probably another 12 years off of my life expectancy for rooting for them over this past decade), but, with the way Nix and Gailey have handled themselves since they landed here, I've found it much easier to get behind the organization, even if Ralph Wilson is still the owner. I mean, I challenge anyone to listen to a radio segment with a Buddy Nix interview and tell me they're not in love with the guy. It's just something about him — he has that comforting, grandfather-like way about him that assures you he knows what he's talking about; that everything will be okay so long as he's in charge. I just hope that for once it's not too good to be true for the Bills. We shall see. As far as the Sabres go, sooner or later, I'm going to get you to come around on them, too. It may take a Lindy Ruff firing, but there is hope for you yet, Joseph.
This is what I'll end with: I think the whole crux of the diminished hope for Sabres fans and influx of optimism from Bills fans is a direct effect from the offseason each team has had. I'd bet you every dollar I've ever earned that if Regier announced tomorrow the Sabres have acquired Bobby Ryan, the aura surrounding Sabres fans would take a huge shift for the better. From One Bills Drive, everyone's ecstatic because of the apparent improvements made via free agency. Right now, from where I stand, I do expect much more from the Sabres than I do from the Bills this season. But, overall, I think I'm pretty optimistic about each team meeting my satisfaction level, which I pointed out earlier. It's been a long time since I've been able to say that about both teams at once.