After an inauspicious 0-4 start, it was looking like another one of those seasons for the Buffalo Bills. You know, the kind that begin with high expectations and end in disillusionment. Fans in Buffalo and beyond were frustrated and clamoring for answers.
One of the most common questions was, "Why does this team look the same as it did under Gregg Williams?" Williams, who was fired at the end of the 2003 season, is an excellent defensive coordinator, but as a head coach he failed to inspire his players and establish an identity for the team. The Gregg Williams era was brief because his team underachieved to the tune of a 17-31 record. Few NFL coaches have ever survived numbers like that over a three-year span.
This season, a sense of "here we go again" had settled into the stomachs of Bills fans by late September. In the season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Bills were in control of the game's first 58 minutes, but gave up the deciding touchdown on the last play of the game. In Oakland the following week, a sputtering offense and three subjective penalty calls --- two of which the NFL later acknowledged were incorrect --- conspired to send the Bills home with a second straight loss.
"Here we go again," indeed. Two similar losses later, and fans had come to believe that their team had an intractable knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Yet three words persistently made their way into post-game interviews and weekly press conferences: "we still believe."
When the Bills were 2-5 and coming off an ugly loss in Baltimore, those three words rang a bit hollow for me, so I decided to call Tom. I figured if anyone could help make sense of the 2004 Buffalo Bills, it would be Tom --- as in Tom Donahoe, the president and general manager of the Buffalo Bills. Donahoe explained that the players and coaches were frustrated, but not in the same way that fans were frustrated.
The team didn't have that "here we go again" feeling that had been spreading through the Buffalo Bills community. The Bills knew they had beaten themselves in three of their first four losses, and they knew that better days were ahead. Donahoe told me that I would soon see what the Bills were made of. I believed him, but only because I had good reason to.
You see, last season, I decided to call the Bills GM on a whim, to ask a few questions about the team's mid-season slide past mediocrity and into foul territory. I left a message with his secretary, explained that I was simply a fan with a few questions for the boss, and hung up expecting nothing.
An hour later, Tom Donahoe called me back. We talked for about 15 minutes on the state of the Bills. He responded to my questions fairly and honestly, and even said some things I wouldn't have expected him to share with Joe Fan. But he didn't project the same kind of optimism back then.
I could hear in his voice and in his choice of words that he believed there was something wrong with the team, and there was. For the most part, the 2003 Bills were mentally tough as individuals. But as a team, they were playing like they were afraid to lose, like they were afraid of perpetuating their own fears. This is the opposite of mental toughness, and it showed in their 6-10 season record.
The 2004 Bills are a lot different from last year's incarnation. They have shown they have the ability to bounce back, a vital characteristic for success in the NFL. After their last loss --- a humbling primetime defeat in New England that put their playoff hopes up against the wall --- the Bills could have raised the white flag. Instead, they took the loss personally. They came back the next week and destroyed the Rams 37-17, then went out to Seattle to show the NFC West division leaders how to play the game, dominating in all three phases and finishing with a 38-9 rout.
Fans are beginning to see how good this team can be, now and in the future. It took a while for the players to fully absorb rookie head coach Mike Mularkey's offense, but it's coming together and the team is peaking late. It's often said that good football teams take on the characteristics of their head coach. Mularkey never strayed from his plan when fans were panicking. He remained cool, confident, and determined.
After winning six of their last seven games, it's clear the Bills have found themselves. A calm confidence has grown in them. Mularkey is coaching smart football and his players are playing smart football. Team chemistry seems to be excellent, and they believe, individually and collectively. They've said so all along, but back when the outlook was bleak, their record spoke louder.
Today the Bills stand at 7-6 with three games to play. On Sunday, they embarrassed the Cleveland Browns 37-7, but that doesn't even tell the whole story. The Bills defense held Cleveland to 17 total yards --- for the entire game. That represents the fifth fewest yards allowed by any team in NFL history.
The Bills just might make some more history in the coming weeks. Only one other team has ever started 0-4 and went on to make the playoffs (the 1992 San Diego Chargers). The Bills believe they can finish with 10 wins, which is usually the "magic number" for making the playoffs. However, a 10-6 record might not be enough this season, as the AFC is crowded with good teams vying for those two precious wildcard berths. Can they do it? I believe so. It's a long shot, but it's a shot, and they're not likely to squander it.
Keep up with the Bills at www.buffalobills.com, which offers practice videos, press conferences, game highlights, and more, including Donahoe and Mularkey's weekly answers to fans' questions.