On Thursday night in Los Angeles, it all begins again. The Bills take on the defending champion Rams in the nationally televised NFL opener on NBC, carrying the weight of expectations that accompanies the role of Super Bowl favorite.
It’s a heavy burden for a team that didn’t even reach the AFC title game a year ago. But if not for those fateful 13 seconds in Kansas City, they might have won it a year ago. They’re the chic choice among the oddsmakers, and many media, to hoist the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 12.
Not since the height of the Super Bowl years have the Bills been in this lofty a spot at the start of a season. They were the odds-on favorite to win it all in 1991, the year after they went to the big game for the first time and lost to the Giants.
Those were heady times, as older fans can attest. It wasn’t that long after the steel plants closed, with people eager to preserve Buffalo’s identity as a vibrant and relevant city. The Bills were a vehicle for Talkin’ Proud, a psychic connection to the big-time as the region lost population.
The fans didn’t identify as a Bills Mafia, or dive through tables in the parking lot. But the fan base was frenzied and fervent back in those days. I remember all the Zubaz pants, and the roar of 80,000 fans at Rich Stadium, the wild scenes in the bars when they played on Monday nights.
From the moment that Jim Kelly came riding into town after finally signing with the Bills, that team was a media sensation, a spectacle on and off the field. It seemed every Bill had a radio or TV show in the early ’90s. Even Adam Lingner, the long snapper, had his own radio show.
The connection between the town and the players was more intimate then, more tangible. The Bills were out in the community more. You were more likely to run into them at a restaurant or bar. Bill Polian, the GM, would sit at the bar at Mudd McGrath’s and not be bothered by the patrons.
Back in 2011, I did a story on the 20th anniversary of the first Super Bowl (“It’s Not Hooking”). Leon Seals, the former defensive end, talked about the bond between the city and the team. He said those players were “the ghosts who still walk the town.”
They were an enormously talented, and fun-loving bunch. Those parties at Jim Kelly’s house after home games were the stuff of legend. The players felt it contributed to their incredible competitive will on the field. The current team has a strong bond, but do they have anything like those parties?
And boy, could they compete. It’s silly to compare that group to this year’s team. It was before unrestricted free agency. There’s no way you could keep that gifted a roster together for very long.
The 1991 team had TEN Pro Bowlers. There were five future Hall of Famers on the roster (Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, James Lofton) and six others who made multiple Pro Bowls (Steve Tasker, Kent Hull, Shane Conlan, Will Wolford, Darryl Talley, Cornelius Bennett). Not to mention, they had a Hall of Fame owner (Ralph Wilson), general manager (Polian) and head coach (Marv Levy).
That team validated the high expectations, going to the second of four straight Super Bowls before losing to Washington. The Bills opened at home with a 35-31 win over Miami, amassing 582 yards of total offense, which is still a team record in regulation time.
They set a franchise record with 458 points that year, when the vaunted No-Huddle was functioning at its peak. The Bills shattered that record in 2020, scoring 501 points as Josh Allen broke most of Kelly’s team passing records. They scored 483 in 17 games last season.
So, it’s a tribute to the squad that general manager Brandon Beane has assembled to hear national NFL writers to say these Bills have the same pressure to win it all as those teams from the ’90s, and that anything less than a Super Bowl victory would be a disappointment.
Maybe those expectations are a little high for a team that has yet to reach the big game. But I do think the anticipation for this season could be greater than it’s ever been on the eve of a Bills season, even more so than during the four-year Super Bowl run during the Kelly era.
The NFL is so much bigger nowadays, and the mania for the Bills has grown accordingly. The league is a 12-month proposition. Fans wait all year for the draft. Everything is heightened, of course, by social media. Imagine cell phone cameras in Kelly’s day.
The Bills Mafia is more wide-spread, mainly because so many people have moved elsewhere in the country and the team provides their main connection to their hometown. NFL games dominate the national TV ratings. Fantasy football has quadrupled in the last 20 years and is estimated to be an $18.6 billion business. Legal sports gambling is out of control.
Nowadays, a lot of people need to have a personal investment to pay attention to sports. Fantasy and gambling become bigger than the actual games. But most Bills fans have an emotional investment in their team and their town. I know people who root for only one sports team: The Bills.
There’s still an innocence to being a Bills fan, a thread connecting people over generations. I’ve talked to middle-aged fans who are excited to see their children — and even grandchildren — getting to experience what they had with the Kelly teams 30 or more years ago.
They say a generation is anywhere from 20 to 30 years. So there’s a generation of Buffalo fans with no memory of those Super Bowl teams. Their primary memory is of a 17-year drought, a long and depressing chronicle of woe and horrifying losses.
This team is their reward for years of despair. That’s why the anticipation is greater than ever, because it’s a shared expectation, really across three generations. Older fans are getting to re-live the joys of their younger days, to see the Bills once again through the eyes of children.
There’s a boyish quality about Allen, too. As Ryan Fitzpatrick told me for a story after he announced his retirement, Allen is the perfect quarterback for the Bills, and he’s the chief reason for the soaring hope and anticipation about the team this season.
“He definitely gets it,” Fitz said, “but he’s also just authentic. His personality and authenticity hits home with Bills fans, it really does. There’s a natural fit to Josh and Buffalo that he doesn’t have to try hard, either.”
It helps, of course, that Allen is a superstar, the long-awaited heir to Kelly as the franchise savior. Kelly was a great player, a superior passer and one of the toughest guys I ever covered. But Allen is a singular, more dynamic athlete, as good a blend of runner and thrower as the game has seen.
Allen is a national fascination as well. It was the lingering memory of his stunning performance in the Bills’ two playoff games last season — a 77.4 completion percentage, 637 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions — that prodded experts to anoint the Bills the team to beat.
Respected football writer Peter King, a big admirer of the Bills teams of the ’90s, wrote in a recent column, “I cannot find any good reason to pick someone other than Josh Allen for MVP.”
That’s a lot of pressure. There’s certainly justifiable support for Allen. The addition of Von Miller to the defense is also a big reason for high hopes. But it’s easy to forget, in light of that historic two-game playoff run, that his passing numbers fell off from his record-setting 2020 season.
“I’ve always said pressure is a privilege,” Miller said Sunday. “But here, I think we’re all following Josh Allen’s lead.”
The fans are taking Allen’s lead, too. I’ve said for years it’s all about the quarterback in the NFL. Once you get that right, all things become possible. Allen allows fans to rise above the old fatalism. I’ve had fans tell me that even if they don’t win it this year, they believe Allen is destined to win a Super Bowl, and maybe more, during his career in Buffalo.
Yes, expectations can be an enormous burden for a team. Nothing is guaranteed from one year to the next in the NFL. In the last 24 years, just one NFC team has gone to consecutive Super Bowls (Seattle in 2014-15). Who predicted the Bengals would get there a year ago?
“A team has to persevere through challenges, good moments, bad moments,” head coach Sean McDermott said. “So we’ll see how our team comes together and how we handle all those situations.”
The NFL season can be long and tortuous. A year ago, remember, the Bills were 7-6 at one point and appeared to be in danger of missing the playoffs altogether. People are a little bit giddy when they pick them to go 15-2 or 14-3.
But it beats the alternative. I imagine some seasoned Bills-watchers will turn to the younger fans on Thursday and remind them to soak it in, to revel in being the big favorite. I remember people looking back on the Super Bowl years and saying they didn’t know how good they had it.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.