ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Darryl Talley bit his lip so not to risk spouting a profanity.
The Buffalo Bills’ 17-year playoff drought roils the emotions of the franchise’s proud old guard.
“That’s real …” the former star linebacker said with a grunt of frustration followed by a short pause. “That’s real hard for me to get my head around. I wanted to say something else, but I didn’t.”
The feelings are hardly different for Bill Polian, architect of the Bills’ golden-era teams of the late 1980s and early ’90s. As much as the Hall of Fame executive-turned-broadcaster relishes the place he holds in franchise lore, Polian’s not too proud to suggest it’s long overdue for a new group to write a new chapter of success.
“It’s time for a new generation of stars to step forward and make their mark,” Polian said. “We’ve done our thing. But let’s have new guys step forward and do things that get that same feeling of excitement and pride that we were so happy to have been a part of.”
Oh, where have the good times gone? What had been the AFC’s winningest team of the 1990s, the Bills have spent the new millennium relegated to afterthought status, compiling the longest active playoff drought in North America’s four professional sports.
The team’s longstanding woes were a prime topic of discussion among former Bills attending Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly’s annual charity golf tournament outside of Buffalo last month. The franchise is undergoing the latest in a long string of off-season overhauls after coach Rex Ryan was fired in December, followed by general manager Doug Whaley in April.
The changes place the onus on the new regime to restore order to a franchise now on its eighth coach, Sean McDermott , and seventh GM, Brandon Beane , since 2000.
“I’m getting tired of the rotation with everything,” Kelly said, referring to the front-office turnover. “Hopefully, (McDermott’s) going to be here for the long run. So, we’ll see.”
Hope might run eternal in Buffalo, but it usually comes with a hint (or more) of skepticism given how much time has passed since the Bills were relevant.
It’s been 23 years since the team made and lost its fourth consecutive Super Bowl appearance. Some 20 years have gone by since Kelly last threw a meaningful pass in what was then known as Rich Stadium; he retired following the 1996 season.
The Bills haven’t won a playoff game since Dec. 30, 1995.
Their last post-season appearance ended in as deep a heart break as imaginable — a 22-16 loss at Tennessee in an AFC wild-card game on Jan. 8, 2000. The game, dubbed “The Music City Miracle ,” was decided in the final seconds when Kevin Dyson — off a lateral from Frank Wycheck — scored returning a kickoff.
Since then, the Bills have posted just two winning seasons, 9-7 finishes in 2004 and 2014, during a notorious stretch pockmarked by dysfunction.
There have been numerous draft miscues. Such as when offensive tackle Mike Williams was selected with the No. 4 pick in 2002 and cut after four seasons.
Free-agent signings have been spotty. Buffalo committed a combined $62 million to offensive linemen Derrick Dockery and Langston Walker in 2007, only to give up on both within two seasons.
And this is a team that had two coaches either resign (Mike Mularkey in January 2006), or opt out of a contract (Doug Marrone following the 2014 season).
Though the past can’t be pinned on McDermott, he acknowledged it’s a burden he must bear.
“I believe that the minute I was hired I own that, right? I’m a part of that,” McDermott said. “So to try to separate one’s self from that, I think, is the wrong approach.”
Asking McDermott and Beane to overnight solve the many issues that have undone the Bills might be unfair.
The defence, for example, features several starters better suited to fit Ryan’s three-lineman, four-linebacker scheme. McDermott, meanwhile, is reintroducing a 4-3 philosophy. Aside from bringing in a new staff, the third in four years for some players, McDermott is also overhauling the roster. Not including rookies, only 17 players drafted by Buffalo remain on the team.
Refusing to call it a “rebuild,” McDermott said it takes time to establish a winning culture , and acknowledged his process is a balancing act of assessing short- and long-term objectives.
Polian went through similar challenges taking over as Bills GM in 1986. Buffalo didn’t make the playoffs until two years later. It wasn’t until 1990 when the Bills began their Super Bowl run that might never be matched.
“It’s going to require patience,” Polian said. “I recognize that people don’t like to hear it takes time, but it does.”
McDermott envisioned the long-elusive possibilities the moment he entered his new office. Glancing out the window overlooking New Era Stadium and its expansive parking lots, he imagined fans celebrating and mobbing cars and players after a playoff victory.
“Sometimes I stare off into space and just think, ‘This will be awesome,”‘ McDermott said. “That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. That’s where we’re going.”
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