By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts Great White Hope (@colonelcomey)
We’d usually slam a fan base for leaving a game early that’s still in play, as Buffalo Bills fans did before returning to see Sunday's 24-23 win over the Carolina Panthers.
But with Buffalo fans, we're giving a pass.
Why? Because it had been more than 13 long, ugly years since Bills fans had experienced the real joyous hope other cities take for granted.
EJ Manuel gave them that hope, and it must have felt sweet.
December 26, 1999, was the last great day to be a Buffalo Bills fan. Start with the fact that the day after Christmas is awesome – no one really has to work, everyone’s got money, there are beers leftover in every fridge. And this was in 1999, when American life was an approximation of the post-WWII dream.
Good times. And in Buffalo? Great times.
They sat in well-heated homes, surrounded by cheese and chips and meats, and watched as, in overtime, the Bills rode Doug Flutie to a 13-10 overtime at over New England.
It was a gutty win, a great win.
They improved to 10-5, eliminated the Patriots, wrote themselves a ticket to the playoffs, and basked in all things Buffalo. It was so, so sweet.
Two weeks later, Wade Phillips benched Flutie for the playoffs in favor of Rob Johnson (you know how we feel about that), the Bills lost, and ever since it’s been 14 years of nothingness.
Bad teams (no 10-win seasons), bad QBs (not a single guy made it), bad coaches, bad football. Games in Toronto every year. Vague threats of relocation.
And then, at around 4:05 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, at the end of an overcast 68-degree Buffalo afternoon, Manuel gave the the Bills an identity for the first time in 14 years.
The identity was fully and officially cast when Manuel, after throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to Steve Johnson with two seconds left, embraced his father on the sidelines as the now-returned Buffalo crowd watched with a communal glow.
Rookie quarterback. Great poise. Great arm. Great backstory. Physical specimen.
And he's ours?
Buffalo fans must feel like they’ve scratched off a $1,000 lottery ticket; even after they check the numbers 10 times to make sure it’s real, it still doesn’t feel real.
Manuel’s two-week resume is the stuff of the new script for NFL success: overnight and obvious. He’s been asked to do a lot (66 passes and six runs in two games), and despite it he’s turned the ball over only twice. He’s got a 95.8 passer rating, and two “quality starts” based on any definition of the term.
Much like the NFL missed on Colin Kaepernick in 2010, it seems like they missed on Manuel similarly. All of the QB-needy teams passed on Manuel, and might have continued to do so if Buffalo – in what is now the fairly obvious move of the 2013 draft – didn’t take their man.
While Manuel might not be as fast as Kaepernick/Wilson/ Griffin, he’s fast and mobile. He’s also enormous (6-5, 240), pretty obviously among the biggest QBs in the league – tight end sized, really – with great pocket presence.
While there’s always a chance that the quality of the opposition can be the root of unexpected early success, that doesn’t seem to be the case here.
Week 1 opponent New England’s defense was strong in Week 2 against the Jets, and Carolina had held a very good Seattle team to 13 points the week before. Both defenses had pass rushers, playmakers, and neither team rattled No. 11.
The jury’s still out on the Buffalo defense, and the AFC East doesn’t look like as much like a pushover as preseason belief suggested (the division is 6-2 after Week 2, with both losses in-division games against the Patriots). So there’s no real reason to believe this is a 10-win team, and maybe it won’t even be an 8-win team.
But it’s a Buffalo team that’s got something the last 13 didn’t: a big, young truck of a quarterback with poise and physicality.
Go ahead and pinch yourselves, Bills nation. You have something to be excited about.