To say a player. or any figure in sports, is loved or hated is an opinion-based statement that requires some backing up.
So writing this piece almost ensures that there’ll be some furious fans, regardless of how fully the choices are supported with fact.
Sure, I could have taken the easy road and nominated Ryan Fitzpatrick as both the most hated and most loved of the Bills, but it seemed to be ducking the issue.
However, the evidence for him is truly there. Fitz was 5-2 to start 2011, but finished 1-8 (sure, he had busted ribs, but he had 14 TDs, eight interceptions, and seven sacks the first seven, then had just 10 TDs, with 15 INTs and 15 sacks the last nine).
He was signed to be the steady hand at quarterback for Buffalo through 2017, which was great, but was given far too much for the extension, making him the second highest-paid player on the team behind Mario Williams for 2012 (Ryan has also already collected $15 million in bonuses since signing the extension as well, with another $9 million guaranteed).
He has been coached tremendously by David Lee in the offseason and looked great commanding the no-huddle offense in the preseason, but he’s been reverting to throwing off his back foot under pressure and too often stares down receivers, ignoring an open man in favor of double coverage.
He’s a Jekyll and Hyde player in Buffalo, one moment playing beloved savior, then suddenly becoming a despised reach as the franchise quarterback.
So, rather than go on about Fitz, here are two separate, and I feel solid choices that may start some arguments, but are proper candidates to be sure. Though “hate” and “love” seem strong words, sports fans aren’t usually known for their emotional control, so we’ll just keep them and call them appropriate here. We’ll start on a downer…
Most Hated – Ralph Wilson Jr.
Hall-of-Famer (2009). AFL founder (one of the initial eight members of “The Foolish Club”). One of the driving forces behind the eventual AFL-NFL merger and the LAST original owner to still own his team in the same city (at almost 94).
Ralph Wilson has been the only one signing paychecks in Buffalo since the Bills were created in 1959 and though he’s a commendable business owner and a true lover of football (he loaned money to both Raiders and Patriots to keep them going through the pre-merger, lean years of the AFL), the reason he has to be on this list is that no single player or person in the organization engenders as much animosity as the owner.
Perhaps he’s unjustly vilified, as the ones who worry about the bottom-line so often are, but in a town filled with blue collar, salt-of-the-earth types, having a billionaire that operates his business primarily off of taxpayer dollars is too often seen as a rich man taking welfare checks.
Let’s face it, Mr. Wilson has been and always will be a football lover, but he’s a sly, vicious business man as well, and that’s what turns so many stomachs among fans. When he bought and established the team for a mere $25,000 in 1959 (after being rejected by Miami, that is), he was dedicated to making it a lucrative business and fought to make that AFL-NFL merger happen, seeing the financial stability involved in the decision.
In the end, though, that’s been the problem. Wilson may indeed love football, but he has always been a businessman first and looking back on his history, you find that’s what really grinds a fan’s gears in Buffalo, and that’s why he’s being put here as the Most Hated of the Buffalo Bills.
Look back to Lou Saban, who coached the Bills in the early 60s, improved the team every year, and took them to their first two AFL Championships (earning Coach of the Year honors both times), only to unexpectedly resign in 1966. Though he said it was because “there can be little left to conquer in professional football” (he moved on to coach at the University of Maryland), there were many who still feel it was because Wilson refused Saban a much deserved raise in pay.
Saban returned to Buffalo in 1971, returning a fallen Bills team to some glory by 1975, only to resign once again, this time specifically citing his anger over the debacle that was the re-signing of O.J. Simpson.
That’s just a microcosm of decisions Wilson has made that firmly put profit as a priority over the team. After a third run to the Super Bowl with Bill Polian helming the front office, Wilson abruptly fired Polian as the two butted heads about the handling of the future of the Bills.
Polian assembled what would become a four-time Super Bowl team for Wilson, but when he asked that more be sunk into the franchise to continue, Wilson balked and Polian was out. Though Bill’s now on the Bills’ Wall of Fame (unlike Saban and running back Cookie Gilchrist… why that is I have no idea…), that doesn’t make it up to Buffalo fans, who had to watch Polian go to the Colts and construct one heck of a team there (that looked surprisingly like the 1990s Bills on offense).
Then, there’s the annual rumors of the Bills leaving Buffalo. Business is business, sure, but when you have a fan base aching to know what will happen to their team when their 90+ year old owner dies amidst swirling rumors of relocation, whether it be to Los Angeles or Toronto (the latter a rumor Wilson fueled himself by opting to play one game a year north of the border), you have to wonder how long Ralph’s going to keep people guessing.
Losing the Bills in this area would be a major blow to the city, both emotionally and financially, and Wilson’s family have stated numerous times they’d be uninterested in the team should it pass to them. However, when offers have come to buy the team (sometimes by groups interested in keeping the team where it is), Wilson has staunchly stated the team is not for sale.
Granted, a smart business man has to keep certain secrets, but you’re killing your fan base by giving them no clear idea what will happen in the all too near future.
Other examples spring to mind including a series of horrible coaching hires on the cheap (Dick Jauron, Wade Phillips, Mike Mularkey… all good coordinators, all terrible coaches... oh, and Gregg Williams, currently enjoying an NFL ban) and, more recently, the decision to blackout the first preseason game of 2012 to try and squeeze out some extra money at the gate (always a good idea to punish fans for not going to a scrimmage after years of selling out games in a small market).
Also, when the naming rights for Rich Stadium expired, it was renamed Ralph Wilson Stadium, an ego-stroking move that ignored many financially-lucrative naming offers (maybe not smart business, but keeping in line with Wilson’s history of arrogance).
It’s like he thinks he can be buried with the franchise, like he’s just going to lie down at the 50 yard line and have them fill the place with dirt when he passes.
In the end, the man who once said he “doesn’t think Buffalo can support a pro team” has now started spending money to try and “see [Buffalo] in the playoffs and possibly the Super Bowl” before he sheds the old mortal coil, after years of ignoring pleas by fans to spend money to improve the team.
Where were those sentiments 20 years ago, when the Bills had lost four straight Super Bowls and Wilson’s wallet suddenly dried up? Did Buffalo really have to struggle through more than a decade long playoff drought because Wilson didn’t quite realize his own mortality until the last few years?
Right or wrong, fans have seen Wilson as having no loyalty to fans or employees, a self-centered conceit about his ownership of the team, and a dedication to the almighty dollar that continually trumps his love for football (and Buffalo). He is often fingered by fans as the sole reason for Buffalo’s long standing joke-status in the NFL, preferring to do what is better for his bank account than what is good for the team itself, working to improve the league, but not his own franchise. Though it’s great he’s finally spending some money (quoted in March, Ralph said he realized, “I can’t take the money with me”… duh…), it’s kind of like getting a quick confession in on your deathbed because you realized you might not get into heaven otherwise. Wilson doesn’t want his legacy to be marred by his past missteps and tight purse strings with the team, but to many fans who do hate him above all others on the team, it’s too little, too late.
Most Loved – Brian Moorman
Though getting a much smaller write-up than Wilson did above, punter Brian Moorman’s following is both large and fierce in Buffalo.
What other franchise has ever had a market for their punter’s jersey outside of, maybe, Oakland Hall-of-Famer Ray Guy or Shane Lechler in New York? Moorman’s a rock star in Buffalo; talented, gregarious, loyal, and much more athletic, visible, and known than your average leg-man.
Why such love? Well, for starters, Moorman is entering his 12th NFL season and they are all with Buffalo, making him the longest tenured name currently on the team, a loyalty mirrored by fans in Western New York. In that time, his average per punt has never dipped below 40.8 yards (2007), with a net average of 36 yds or higher in every year save his first (33.8).
His consistent skill over the years has been astounding, with two seasons of 30+ punts that landed inside the 20, seven seasons with 20+, as well as only two blocks in his entire career.
He has never missed a game (that’s 176 regular season starts), has displayed a startling ability to make plays defending his own kicks, rarely avoiding contact as other kickers do (he has nine tackles in his career), and even has a couple TDs to his name off fakes (he’s 3-7 in the passing game all told).
This is a guy who, in 2002, kicked a ball 84 yards and had an 80-yarder two years later. A punter who competed in the 2006 Pro Bowl Skills Competition during his second straight Pro Bowl. A punter.
If you go to a home game, you’re likely to run into the rabid members of Moorman’s Army, proud to wear their No. 8 jerseys alongside such classic choices as Jim Kelly or Bruce Smith. In the dark decade or so since the Bills’ last playoff appearance, Moorman has undoubtedly been the shining light on the team, the high point of many a bad season.
On top of that, he’s just a class act, even when he was demolished by free safety Sean Taylor in the 2006 Pro Bowl game (he was knocked back on a three yard fake run on 4th down, flying back through the air as far as he’d run, but was quickly up and congratulating Taylor on the smack down).
Last season, at age 35, Moorman managed a personal high 48.2 yards per punt and this season, has seemed to perfect a new wrinkle to his game, fully adopting a new “Aussie” kicking style to pin teams back inside their 20 (rather than spiraling the ball, the Aussie style drops the ball point first, resulting in an end-over-end kick that will usually bounce back, preventing a touchback).
In the 2012 preseason, Moorman already has impressed by putting four of his first five punts against the Redskins inside the 20 and averaging 43 per punt in the first two games.
It’s a good thing he seems to be still operating at such a high level, as his contract is set to expire at the end of the upcoming season and the Bills have been auditioning a new leg in case wear starts to show, bringing in rookie Shawn Powell from Florida State.
However, though Powell has been showing more power (an average 47.9 per punt, with a 55 and 54 yard kick thus far), he doesn’t have the skill set and experience Moorman has to this point, so there’s still a chance we might see Moorman retire in a Bills jersey, maybe getting a couple more years added on before his deal is up.
Good thing, too, as there are very few players, especially punters, that get such universal love from their fan base. Hopefully, with that much support from fans, it seems a given we’ll be seeing Moorman’s name on the Wall of Fame someday at the Ralph… and maybe see a bust in Canton as well.
There you go, one to love, one to hate, Bills fans.
Let the disagreement begin.