Forget the subtlety of metaphor, the freakishly heavy snow storm that buried Buffalo in late November was just another very real obstacle thrown the Bills’ way in a year that required perseverance, patience and, most of all, keeping the faith in Western New York. Snowmobile rides to the airport for the stranded players? Sure, why not? What else could befall the Bills as they dug their way out of so many difficult spots this season?
In a year in which the NFL’s reputation took a series of crushing blows, it was Buffalo—and the city’s beloved football team—that survived and even thrived. Think of the challenges the beleaguered but plucky Bills endured in the 55th year of the franchise’s existence, and the resilience they (and their fans) showed in order to come out the other side with hope intact:
* The death of the team’s patriarch and founder, Ralph Wilson, at 95 in late March, with a flood of uncertainty about what his passing meant for the future. Wilson put Buffalo on the football map in 1960, with the arrival of his AFL franchise, and without him, there was legitimate concern that the Buffalo Bills would not survive him for long.
2014 Year in Review
* The very public fight for his life waged by Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, whose fierce battle with sinus cancer resonated deeply among a fanbase that still idolizes the rough and rugged quarterback who personified the glory-era Bills of the early ’90s. Fears gave way to celebration as Kelly’s greatest comeback ever unfolded; he was declared cancer-free in late August and made his triumphant return to Ralph Wilson Stadium for the Week 2 home-opener, in time to help honor Wilson’s memory.
* After six long months that kept an entire region on tenterhooks awaiting the fate of the franchise, new ownership emerged in the form of Terry and Kim Pegula, the local buyers who also operate the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. Putting to rest the idea that the Bills were a prime candidate for future relocation, the Pegulas said the team would remain securely in the only market it has ever known, with the promise of a new stadium being built at some point in the not-too-distant future. “We all just bought a team, our team, the Buffalo Bills,” Terry Pegula said at his introductory news conference in October, after the $1.4 billion purchase was approved by NFL owners. “And the name of our team will not change; it will stay the Buffalo Bills.”
* On the field, the Bills missed the playoffs for a league-high 15th consecutive season, but there were highlights en route to Buffalo’s respectable 9-7 mark, its first winning season in a decade. The Bills played its first home game and improved to 2-0 with a win over Miami on an emotional day at The Ralph. Kelly gave a heartfelt address to 73,000-plus, who celebrated the Wilson family just days after the Pegula family was selected as the team’s prospective owners.
The Week 5 last-second upset of Detroit—Wilson’s hometown and longtime residence—on the final weekend the family would own the team was the stuff of storybooks. And who can forget that November storm that dumped more than six feet of snow on parts of the Buffalo area, turning the Bills’ stadium into Ice Station Zebra and necessitating the Jets game be moved to Detroit in Week 12? Once again, the Bills won in Motown, and then they followed up that impressive showing with an even better one, knocking off the mighty Packers—winners of five straight in dominating fashion—to climb to 8-6 and into AFC wild-card contention. A Week 17 victory over the division-champion Patriots, the Bills’ first win in Foxboro since 2000, capped the solid step forward Buffalo made this year.
For a franchise that has enjoyed just one other winning season amid the gloom and doom of eight last-place finishes these past 15 years, the 2014 Bills offered hope that a brighter day is finally on its way to the shores of Lake Erie. With a defense that made the likes of Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers look downright ordinary, the Bills put up a fight from start to finish, and Doug Marrone’s team proved it would do its part to usher in a new era of Buffalo football. These were not the same old Bills, and there was no mid-season swoon and descent into irrelevance. Buffalo didn’t go away, and the Bills signaled they’re here to stay, with the club’s annual Toronto series ending and the ticking clock that was the threat of relocation being unplugged for good.
Buffalo may only be the 52nd-largest TV market—and the second least populated among NFL cities, besting only small-town Green Bay—but the Bills cemented themselves as an institution in 2014. Kelly’s grit and determination set the tone, and the rest of the region followed suit.
The 2014 NFL season won’t be remembered fondly by many people, what with its litany of depressing off-field developments and unwanted headlines. But in Buffalo, for a change, it was a very good year.
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