Monday, November 30, 2009

A tribute to Bob Sheppard, the Devine Voice of Yankee Stadium


Bob Sheppard, the true voice of the Yankees, announced the other day that he is officially retiring at the age of 99. In honor of the man who announced more than a half-century's worth of players, great and small, I reprint this tribute to him that appeared in my book, Memories of Yankee Stadium. Enjoy!

THE DEVINE VOICE

When Reggie Jackson was preparing his Baseball Hall of Fame acceptance speech during the summer of 1993, he sought the assistance of longtime Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard.

Wise move.

Who better to help Mr. October than The Voice of God himself?

Sheppard's first piece of advice to the verbose slugger was to slice his speech in half.

"I reminded Reggie that brevity is the soul of wit,'' Sheppard recalled in his distinctive, resonant tones. "Brevity, when it comes to public speaking, especially on a hot summer's day, also is a way of making friends.''

When it comes to endearing oneself to audiences, no one has done it better or longer than Bob Sheppard. The Queens native introduced his first Yankees lineup at the Stadium on April 17, 1951, and since that time has worked more than 4,500 baseball games in the House That Ruth Built.

Most New York fans probably wouldn't recognize him if they saw him on the street, but Sheppard's Q-rating among strangers surely would shoot up dramatically the minute he opened his mouth.

His sonorous, dignified voice has become as much a part of Stadium lore as the pinstripes on the Yankee uniforms and the copper fa├žade that once hung from the old ballpark's roof. He has been a constant, the man who connects generations of Stadium-goers - from Joe DiMaggio to Derek Jeter, from grandpa to grandson and granddaughter.

"I can't imagine a home Yankees game without Bob's voice booming out of the loudspeakers,'' said Goose Gossage, the legendary Yankees reliever. "I still get chills running up and down my spine when I hear him say my name. You're not officially a Yankee until he announces you that first time. And then when he does, it's like you are connected to all the great players who came before you.''

The funny thing is that this six-decade-long gig almost didn't happen. Yankee officials were impressed with the P.A. job Sheppard had done for two old All-American Football Conference teams - the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees. So, before the 1950 season, they offered him the baseball job at the Stadium, but Sheppard refused because the day games during the spring would interfere with his work as speech professor at his alma mater, St. John's University.

The baseball club approached him again before the '51 season with a compromise offer. They would find a substitute for him on the days there was a scheduling conflict.

Sheppard accepted, never anticipating that he would still be at the microphone in 2007.

"A temporary job,'' he quipped, "that has lasted a half-century.''

For the record, the first name he announced from his loge-level perch behind homeplate that afternoon was that of Boston Red Sox centerfielder, Dom DiMaggio. Interestingly, Sheppard would say the names of eight players in the starting lineups at that 1951 home opener who would eventually be honored with plaques at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Among them would be Sheppard's all-time favorite name - Mickey Mantle.

"I loved the alliteration of that name and the emphasis you could place on the first syllable of his last name,'' he explained.

Though best known as the Stadium voice of the Yankees, Sheppard also has worked for several other teams and venues through the years. He was the P.A. announcer for the New York football Giants for 50 years - 18 at Yankee Stadium and 32 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. And he also worked games at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and at the Polo Grounds, which was located just two miles from Yankee Stadium across the Harlem River in upper Manhattan.

Long before he began announcing games, Sheppard enjoyed playing them. He was a first baseman and quarterback at St. John's and played semi-pro football for $25 a game after graduating from college.

Though he is extremely honored that he has become a part of Yankees lore, he is more gratified by the work he did as a teacher.

"I think teaching was more important in my life than public address because teaching had a greater impact on society,'' said Sheppard, who continued to work as a professor at St. John's into the 1990s. "I've heard from hundreds of students I taught. The number of ballplayers I've heard from you can count on one hand.
"I'm not into hero worship,'' continued Sheppard, who is a devout Roman Catholic and a lecter at his church on Long Island. "I usually keep my distance from players and managers. And that's as it should be. I have a job to do at the ballpark, and so do they.''

He may not have heard from many players through the years, but he can rest assured he made an impact on them. Mantle once told Sheppard he experienced goose bumps hearing the Voice of the Yankees pronounce his name. Sheppard, who delivered a stirring tribute the day Mantle died, told the Mick he had a similar reaction each time he announced the slugger's name.

Mantle was hardly alone in his reaction.

"Nobody - and I mean nobody - has ever said people's names better,'' said former Yankees third baseman Scott Brosious. "You get the feeling that when it's your time to meet St. Peter at the pearly gates, Bob Sheppard is going to be standing there next to him, introducing you.''

Sheppard's favorite Yankee Stadium moments include: Don Larsen's perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1956 World Series; Roger Maris' record-breaking 61st homer in 1961; Chris Chambliss' walkoff homer against the Kansas City Royals in the 1976 American League Championship Series, and Jackson's three-homers-on-three-pitches explosion in Game Six of the 1977 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Chambliss' memorable blast was preceded by a stoppage in play because fans had thrown debris onto the field. Sheppard made an announcement telling the unruly spectators to refrain from such behavior. They stopped and the game resumed. When Chambliss homered - ending the game and a 12-year Yankees' World Series drought - thousands of spectators rushed onto the field. This time, Sheppard's mic remained silent.

"The game was over, the Yankees had won, 10,000 people, as if they were shot out of a cannon, ran out on the field and I just folded my arms and let them do it,'' Sheppard recalled in a 2000 interview with USA Today. "I could never have stopped them. The Marines couldn't have stopped them. Nobody could have stopped them. It had to happen. I never saw anything like it before, and I've never seen anything like it since.''

Sunday, November 29, 2009

New coach "Fewells'' Bills victory vs. Dolphins

ORCHARD PARK – I’m not ready to call off the Bills’ head-coaching search.

I’m not ready to remove the “interim’’ tag from the front of Perry Fewell’s title after just two games.

But I do like what I see from the new guy so far.

And apparently so do his players, who rapidly have become a reflection of their new coach.

Just as the Bills of the past three-years-and-change took on Dick Jauron’s play-not-to-lose, ultra-conservative personality, the Bills of the past two weeks have wholeheartedly adopted Fewell’s enthusiastic, let’s-play-to-win personality.

It didn’t quite work out for them in their fourth-quarter fade last Sunday against Jacksonville, but it worked out marvelously in Sunday’s 31-14 victory against the Miami Dolphins at the Ralph.

This win – which was iced with a 24-0 finishing kick in the final 15 minutes – emphatically, underscored the stark contrast between Fewell and his predecessor.

With 3:35 to go and the score knotted at 14, Fewell rolled the dice. Eschewing the punt (the safe decision; the one that Jauron would have made), Fewell sent in Rian Lindell to attempt a 56-yard field goal. He had missed a 44-yarder earlier in the game, but his coach had faith. And, yes, he knew the repercussions of a miss – the Dolphins would have new life and the ball on their 48-yard-line.

“It was on the cusp of his range,’’ Fewell explained. “He had missed the one earlier and I said to him, ‘Rian, we’re going to need you again.’ It was a gut feeling. I had confidence in him.’’

Confidence no doubt bolstered by watching Lindell connect consistently from that distance in pre-game warm-ups.

Lindell rewarded his coach’s faith with the longest field goal of his career.

“I knew the ramifications,’’ Fewell said. “But I thought at that point in time we could turn the tide.’’

That wasn’t the end of Fewell’s risk-taking.

On the Dolphins next possession, Bills cornerback Drayton Florence intercepted a Chad Henne pass returning it seven yards to Buffalo’s 49 with 2:31 remaining. Most coaches would have run the ball in an attempt to milk the clock. Not Fewell. He had preached aggressiveness all week to his players. If there was an opportunity to make a big play, he wanted them to take it.

On the first play following Florence’s pick, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick noticed that Terrell Owens was being single-covered. Fitzpatrick immediately audibled and lofted a 51-yard touchdown pass down the right sidelines to T.O.

Buffalo 24, Miami 14.

Ballgame.

Donte Whitner picked off another Henne pass on the Dolphins next possession, and the Bills added a seven-yard touchdown run by Fred Jackson to complete the scoring, but the knockout blow clearly was Fitzpatrick’s bomb to Owens.

“I loved it,’’ Fewell said. “I told (Ryan) you have some big gonads, and I told him as long as he keeps hitting them, keep throwing them.’’

Fewell, 47, spent 29 years focusing on defense. He played defensive back in college and has coached on that side of the ball during his 13 seasons at the college level and his 12 seasons in the NFL, the past five with Buffalo.

So, you might expect him to play it close to the vest offensively, so as not to put his injury-riddled defense in tough situations. But Fewell has proven to have some big, um, guts, too, when it comes to going for it. And although his specialty is defense, he realizes as the head guy, he needs to coach the entire team, not just part of it.

“I told those guys (on offense) that I have confidence in them,’’ he said. “I’ve been over there in the huddle with them in practice. I look them in the eye. I believe in them, and so we’re just working together right now. I think we have good skilled players on the outside (T.O. and fellow wide receiver Lee Evans) and I think that if we get our playmakers the ball then we have the opportunity to score points, so that’s what we’re doing right now.’’

It’s no coincidence that T.O. has 14 catches for 293 yards and two long scores in the past two games after making just 26 receptions for 366 yards and 1 touchdown in his first 9 games.

T.O.’s revival has much to do with the change at quarterback and the change in philosophy – each attributable to the new head coach.

Fitzpatrick isn’t the Bills quarterback of the future, but he is a noticeable improvement over the skittish Trent Edwards. The guy from Harvard completed 17-of-26 passes for 246 yards and a score, and also gained 50 yards on seven carries, one of his totes resulting in a 31-yard touchdown, the longest TD ramble ever by a Bills QB. And don’t forget, Fitzpatrick achieved this playing behind a patch-work offensive line that did a weak job protecting him – yielding six sacks and numerous pressures.

Fewell also deserves credit for the decision to make Jackson, not Marshawn Lynch, the featured back. Like Lindell, T.O., Fitzpatrick and a bunch of other Bills, Jackson rewarded his coach’s belief in him with a solid all-around game Sunday – 15 carries, 73 yards, 2 scores; 5 receptions, 43 yards, and 20.3 yards on three kickoff returns.

Again, I’m not calling for Ralph Wilson to cancel the search. I’d still like to see the Bills owner bring in a head coach with a proven track record.

But I’m beginning to think that Fewell may have the leadership skills and the intestinal fortitude necessary to be a head coach in this league. And that’s “head coach” without the interim tag.

Buffalo-bound

Shuffling off to Buffalo to cover the Bills-Dolphins game at the Ralph. Check out my column a few hours after the game.

I have positive vibes about this contest. Call it: Bills 23, Fish 21.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours

In honor of Thanksgiving, I offer this prayer that my wife stumbled upon while reading this morning's newspaper. It comes from Dear Abby and eloquently sums up my feelings on a day when I take pause from the turkey and stuffing and the wall-to-wall football games to count my many blessings:

We thank thee for food and remember the hungry;

We thank thee for health and remember the sick;

We thank thee for freedom and remember the enslaved.

May these remembrances stir us to service,

That the gifts to us may be used for others. Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Another Bills defeat, but encouraging signs in Fewell's debut

We learned on the opening coin toss that, thankfully, we no longer are living in the Dick Jauron Error.

Instead of following the illogical tendency of his predecessor and deferring until the second-half kickoff, new Bills head coach Perry Fewell opted to take the ball right away. Yes, I know, Buffalo squandered that first possession when Ryan Fitzpatrick threw an interception, but I liked the aggressive approach Fewell took. It sent a message to his team that “we’re going to go for it right from the start.’’ He was playing to win instead of playing not to lose.

And I loved the emotion and energy Fewell showed along the sidelines and in the play-calling on both sides of the ball. How refreshing it was to see a coach really into the game. I’m not saying you need to be a raving maniac, but neither do you need to act like a walking corpse.

Now, I’m sure many of you are grumbling that the results were the same because the Bills proved to be their own worst enemies once more – committing foolish penalties that nullified a 9-yard touchdown run by Fred Jackson late in the first quarter and a 53-yard bomb from Fitzpatrick to Lee Evans in the second half. But at least this team competed to the very end of its 18-15 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Bills didn’t fold up the tents in the fourth quarter the way they had in the previous two embarrassing losses in the final games of Jauron’s mediocre tenure.

“I thought our guys fought their hind ends off,’’ Fewell said in his post-game news conference.

He thought right.

We finally saw a quarterback not afraid to take chances and throw the ball downfield instead of always taking the easy way out, and dumping it off.

We finally saw Terrell Owens unleashed, with brilliant results – 9 catches for 197 yards and one touchdown on an astute and gutsy call that produced a 98-yard bomb from Fitzpatrick, the longest scoring play in Bills history.

We saw a defense, playing without tackle Marcus Stroud and several other starters, finally turn in a stout performance against the run, limiting the powerful and quick Maurice Jones-Drew to a hard-earned 66 yards on 25 carries. (His longest run was for just 10 yards.)

And we saw one of the Bills truly unsung and most dependable heroes – Rian Lindell – boot three more field goals, giving him 17 in 19 attempts, a dead-on accuracy rate a sliver below 90 percent.

By no means, am I saying Fewell’s coaching debut was flawless. He badly mismanaged the clock in the waning moments of the first half. Instead of taking two shots at the end zone that might have resulted in a touchdown, the Bills were lucky to put three points on the board before time expired. And they didn’t look particularly sharp during the final 50 seconds of the game when they still had an opportunity to move into position for the field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.

But there were a lot of encouraging signs. You have to admit it was a whole lot more enjoyable watching a head coach who appeared to know what he was doing on game day.

It will be interesting to see if Fewell can keep his team playing at a decent level or if the performance vs. the Jags was merely the result of a natural high that comes when a new coach takes the sidelines for the first time.

***

The Bills injury bug-a-boo continues, with three more players – Eric Wood (broken leg), Marshawn Lynch (bruised shoulder) and Seth McKinney (bruised knee) forced out of the game. Wood’s was the most gruesome and costly to the Bills. He is one of the rookie offensive linemen they are counting on for many years to come. Buffalo already is paper-thin on the O-line. They’re going to need to raid other teams’ practice squads to find bodies just to finish the season.

***

We already alluded to the two big penalties, but the Bills also continue to be hampered by their inability to convert third downs and mount any kind of run game. Clearly, the inexperience and constant flux along the line and at quarterback has a great deal to do with that.

With 8:36 remaining and nursing a 15-10 lead, Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny – who, by the way, is playing some outstanding football in recent weeks – stripped Jags quarterback David Garrard of the ball, and defensive tackle Spencer Johnson recovered on the Buffalo 20. But two runs by Fred Jackson produced just five yards and Fitzpatrick was sacked, forcing the Bills to punt it away.
Jacksonville took over at its 32 with 6:28 to go and put together a time-consuming drive for the winning score.

The Bills finished the game converting just 3-of-11 third downs.

***

It wasn’t a world-beating performance by Fitzpatrick, but it was better than we would have seen out of the deposed Trent Edwards. Fitz completed 18-of-31 for 297 yards, one TD and two picks. He didn’t play well on that final drive, which ended in a pass off T.O.’s hands and into the mitts of Jaguars’ defensive back Anthony Smith. But the outcome would have been different and his stats even more impressive had that long TD pass to Evans not been negated. The thing I really liked is how he got Owens involved early in the game, and, how, he was able to talk to the emotionally fragile T.O., even when the diva wideout was stewing on the sidelines.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

This Syracuse basketball team is going to be something special

How 'bout those Orange men?

And how 'bout that Wesley Johnson?

The last time I saw a Syracuse University basketball team toy with a highly ranked opponent the way they did with fourth-ranked North Carolina last night at Madison Square Garden was during the 'Cuse's national championship run back in '03.

Johnson, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Iowa State, might not be the second coming of Carmelo Anthony, but he has the makings of a future NBA star. He can jump out of a gym and he also has a silky smooth shooting stroke, so he can beat you inside or out. And like 'Melo, he has the ability to take charge of a game, as he proved with that 25-point, 8-rebound effort against the Tar Heels. After witnessing Johnson's Garden Party, SU coach Jim Boeheim said: "He just became a top-five pick (in the 2010 NBA Draft).''

He's definitely going to be a one-and-done player, so enjoy him while you can.

The nice thing about this SU team is that they are deep in talent and size. Like the championship squad these Orange men feature seven starters and some skilled bench players as well, so Boeheim can play guys in droves, and not have to be over-reliant on one player, the way he was with point guard Jonny Flynn the past two seasons.

But, maybe the most impressive thing about the current edition is the way it plays defense. North Carolina coach Roy Williams said SU's 2-3 zone is extremely active and reminded him of the match-up zone Temple used to employ. For the record, the defending national champion Tar Heels shot just 38 percent from the field vs. SU's nasty defense.

I think after the way Syracuse disposed of Carolina and 13th-ranked Cal, we're destined for a fun winter in the Carrier Dome.

***

Wasn't it nice to finally see some real basketball played at the Garden? Has pro basketball ever been worse in New York. The Knicks are 2-9 and the Nets 0-12. Two-and-21. Pretty pathetic.

***

Expect new quarterback Brian Brohm to be seeing action for the Bills within a few weeks.

***

I said Trent Edwards would be in trouble once he lost his guardian angel, Dick Jauron.

***

Having been a victim of a layoff, I never revel in anyone losing his or her job. But I can't shed too many tears for Jauron. He's going to be making close to $6 million over the next two years. There are millions of displaced workers who wish they had a Fortune 500 executive's golden parachute like that.

***

I think the Bills will play Jacksonville tough in Perry Fewell's debut tomorrow, but I don't believe the emotion of suiting up for a new head coach will propel them to victory. I just don't like the match-up of the Bills league-worst run defense (now without injured tackle Marcus Stroud) vs. Maurice Jones-Drew, one of the NFL's leading rushers. Call it Jags 23, Bills 16. And check out my post-game column in this cyberspace after the contest tomorrow afternoon.

***

The Minnesota Vikings will listen long and hard to suitors from Los Angeles about moving to the left coast. The Vikings want a new $900 million stadium built on the site of the Metro Dome, and given the fact the taxpayers just shelled out a king's ransom to build a new baseball park for the Twins, the chances of that happening aren't good.

If the Vikings were to relocate to Tinsel Town, it would mark the second time a Minnesota pro sports franchise made this cross-country trek. The Minneapolis Lakers were an NBA dynasty when they packed the moving vans for the trip to L.A. in the 1950s.

***

I'm looking forward to tonight's Rochester Boxing Hall of Fame banquet at the Diplomat Party House. Hall of Fame president Tony Liccione does a fabulous job running it and bringing in some of the sport's biggest names. Tony's a guy with a big heart. He's always giving back to the boxing community.

And I'm honored to be receiving the George Beahon Sportswriting Award. George, as many of you know, was a Rochester sports columnist for more than a half-century, and he became a friend and mentor when I came to town in 1985. He was one of the people who set the standard for sports journalism excellence in Rochester and chronicled some of the most memorable events in our city's rich history.

My favorite Beahon story concerns his first assignment with the Democrat and Chronicle back in the 1930s. Babe Ruth was in town for an exhibition game at old Red Wings Stadium, and they sent George over to interview the legendary Yankees slugger. George was just a young whippersnapper at the time and the Babe mistakenly thought he was a gofer, so he handed George a $20-bill and told him to get him two hot dogs and two beers from the concession stand. George happily complied and brought the goods back to the dugout, where the Babe promptly inhaled the food and drinks. He told George to keep the change, then granted the him the first interview of the copy boy's newspaper career.

Imagine that? Your first interview in the business is with the most famous athlete of the 20th century. I joked with George, "Geez, was it all downhill after that?''

***

I wanted to extend belated congratulations to three friends of mine, who were inducted into the Section V Basketball Hall of Fame last Saturday night - Wendy Bleier, Tom Ward and Ken Henry.

***

Speaking of basketball teams that might have special seasons, check out the Bonnies. I was stringing for The Associated Press the other night and was thoroughly impressed with St. Bonaventure, especially Andrew Nicholson, the sophomore diamond-in-the-rough forward they recruited out of Canada. He definitely is an NBA prospect and also is a chemistry scholar.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sounds like Ralph Wilson means business

My friend, John Wawrow from The Associated Press, had a very interesting interview with Ralph Wilson today in which the Bills owner said he is prepared to revamp his entire football operation after the season and that no job is safe. Wilson also said in the interview that he’s open to making a lucrative offer to land a high-profile coach.

“It’s not about money, it’s about winning,’’ Wilson told the AP. “If it was about money, we wouldn’t have brought in and paid for somebody we know was a great player.’’

Ralph obviously was referring to the signing of the underachieving Terrell Owens to a one-year, $6.5 million contract after the star receiver was released by the Dallas Cowboys in March.

Ralph also discounted reports that the Bills are preparing to interview former Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan.

So, let’s dissect this.

First off, I’m glad Ralph is going to hold everyone accountable because the Bills woes obviously go well beyond the poor coaching of Dick Jauron. It also includes a front office that has done a poor job of drafting college players and signing free agents for much of this decade.

It’s also encouraging that Ralph said he is willing to spend big bucks for a new coach and director of football operations because that’s the only way he is going to land a Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, Mike Holgrem, Mike Shanahan, etc.

As I’ve written before, this is going to be a very competitive process because there are a number of bad teams out there courting these big-name coaches, whose ranks also include broadcaster Jon Gruden, who I assume has an escape clause built into that new contract extension he just signed with ESPN.

My feeling is the Bills shouldn’t wait until the end of the season to nab their guy.

I think the ideal situation would be to get somebody in house as soon as possible – not to coach this season, but to evaluate from above the way Bill Parcells did when he arrived in Miami a few years ago. That would allow the new guy to make a fair assessment of his players and coaches with his own eyes in real games. It would give him a huge jump on the holes he’ll have to address via free agency and the draft.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Firing Jauron first step on Bills road to recovery

I don’t expect immediate results at One Bills Drive now that Dick Jauron has been fired and replaced by defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. The team is a shambles, and it’s going to take time and bold moves to pick up the pieces.

Still, I applaud this in-season change by owner Ralph Wilson because it at least shows that he is listening to the legions of frustrated Bills fans who gave up on the overmatched Jauron after a third consecutive 7-9 finish last season.

Jauron leaves Buffalo with a 24-33 record – a dismal .421 winning percentage – and zero winning seasons and zero playoff appearances. He is, by all accounts, a decent man, but he never showed the leadership skills or the passion necessary to be a successful NFL head coach, either here or during his time with the Chicago Bears. He clearly didn’t have what it took to lift this moribund franchise out of the doldrums that has seen it go nearly a decade without a playoff appearance.

Given the lack of talent he was forced to work with, Fewell did a decent job with this defense. He might blossom into a decent head coach, but he isn’t the long-term answer to what ails the Bills.

Wilson needs to do something dramatic – something similar to what he did back in 1978 when he went out and hired the most successful coach available, Chuck Knox. It’s going to cost Wilson a lot of money, and it’s going to mean that he’s going to have to turn the keys to the franchise over to the new guy, the way he did 31 years ago. Knox, who was coming off five consecutive NFC West titles with the Los Angeles Rams, was named coach and vice-president of football operations, which meant he had control over drafts, trades and free-agent signings. In just three years, he wound up turning a team that had lost 23 of 28 games in the two seasons prior to his arrival into AFC East champions.

As I’ve written in this cyberspace before, I’d make an all-out push for Bill Cowher. Let him bring in his personnel evaluators to take over for Tom Modrak and John Guy. Let him bring in his own assistant coaches. Heck, let him bring his own chauffeur and chef if he wants. Let him do whatever he needs to do to change the culture of a locker room where losing has become acceptable, where accountability is lacking.

There are many talented program builders out there for Wilson to choose from – if not Cowher, then Mike Shanahan or Mike Holmgren or Tony Dungy or Jon Gruden. But the courtship needs to begin now, in earnest, because there are numerous other NFL dregs out there in dire need of architects of hope.

This change was long overdue. But it should be viewed as only the beginning. There are people out there who can turn this thing around. It’s up to Ralph to take the next big step. It’s going to take several million dollar bills to ensure that these Bills no longer are counterfeit.

Jauron fired

Dick Jauron finally was fired as Bills head coach. Perry Fewell will be the interim coach. I'll have my thoughts on this in a few minutes.

That was quite a 'bird' show in Tennessee

What’s with 86-year-old Bud Adams pulling a Bryan Cox and showing the Bills both of his middle digits? Geez, the “Comeback” game was nearly 17 years ago. Don’t tell me he's still holding a grudge about that. Wasn’t the “Music City Miracle’’ a good enough payback?

***
Adams' histrionics reminds me of the time during the latter stages of a Monday Night Football blowout when the ABC cameras zoomed in on a fan who appeared to have fallen asleep in a near-empty section of the upper deck. Just as the camera closed in on him, the man awakened and flipped off America. Without missing a beat, Dandy Don Meredith drawled, “He’s just telling us that we’re No. 1.’’

***
Is it just me or is Jon Gruden hogging the microphone in the Monday Night Football booth? Poor Ron Jaworski – who unlike most color men actually provides insight – can’t get a freaking word in edgewise.
***
Speaking of Jaws, I like my friend Mike Catalana’s suggestion of turning the keys of the Bills football operations over to him. Hey, I’d trust Jaworski to get the right football personnel people and coaches in place, and, most of all, I’d trust his judgment on drafting a quarterback who can actually play in the NFL. Plus, the Bills need a new, hopeful face to put on this latest rebuilding project. Why not go with a guy who was an excellent quarterback and great commentator and football mind, not to mention a Buffalo native?
***

The one good thing about working on my fifth book about Bills history is that it reminds me there were indeed times when good and exciting football was being played in these parts.

***
Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew is the latest running back who must be salivating while watching films of Buffalo’s bottom-feeder run defense.
***
I think it’s about time we see a lot more of Fred Jackson, and a lot less of Marshawn “Least Mode’’ Lynch.
***
When I saw Bill Belichick go for it that deep in his own territory while nursing a late lead Sunday night, I wondered if Dick Jauron had suddenly hijacked the Patriots? That was just lame-brained. And Belichick continued to show his hubris by not backing off the decision the following day. Hey, Bill, hate to break this to you, but even geniuses occasionally make mistakes. The least you can do is admit it and apologize to your team for blowing their chance at a win that would have given you homefield advantage for the playoffs.
***

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Same old, same old for the sinking Bills

“What’s new?’’ Terrell Owens responded Sunday when asked about yet another Bills meltdown – this one of epic proportions – in a 41-17 evisceration by the Tennessee Titans that saw Buffalo yield 24 unanswered points in the final 11 minutes.

The collapse featured two pick-sixes – one by starter Trent Edwards and one by backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose pass should have been caught by T.O., but instead slipped through his fingers.

There were six more penalties, including five false start calls, against the offensive line. And a total of 10 penalties whistled against the Bills, bringing their nine-game total to 69, just two fewer than they committed in 16 games last season.

There was a heated exchange between wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert and T.O. and Josh Reed after a horrendous series by Edwards, in which the quarterback misread the defense and made three errant throws.

And there was another head-scratching decision by Buffalo coach Dick Jauron, who declined a holding penalty that would have forced the Titans to face a third-and-16. Instead, the Yale-educated football coach decided to roll the dice and force red-hot Tennessee field goal kicker Rob Bironas to attempt a 51-yard field goal, which he made with plenty to spare to put the Titans up 27-17 with 3:21 left in the game.

So what’s new, T.O.?

Sadly, not much.

Asked afterward to assess an offensive line that allowed two sacks and who-knows-how-many-other quarterback hurries, the beleaguered Jauron said: “I believe they are going to be a good line. It’s going to take time, and time is not something we have a lot of.’’

With his team 3-6 and sinking rapidly into the abyss, time no longer is on his side. In fact, it should have expired on his days as a Bills coach after last year’s third consecutive 7-9 record.

I wrote in this cyberspace several weeks ago that if I were Ralph Wilson I would make an interim change to at least let loyal and long-suffering Bills fans know that management feels their pain and isn’t going to put up with it any more.

And after the last two fade-away losses (piled on top of what will be a decade without a post-season), I offer up that advice again. Elevate Bobby April or Perry Fewell and begin in earnest the courtship of Bill Cowher or Mike Shanahan or Tony Dungy or Jon Gruden or Mike Holgrem or some other coach with a track record of building winning cultures at this level.

Why prolong the agony?
***
Other tidbits and observations from Sunday’s forgetta-BILLS’ performance:

Trent was just 4-for-9 for 58 yards with that costly interception in the second half, after a decent first-half performance that saw him complete 14-of-19 passes for 127 yards, one touchdown and no picks. After starting out with 4 touchdown tosses and 1 interception in his first two games, he’s had 2 TD passes and 6 interceptions in his last four starts. The problem is that Ryan Fitzpatrick is pretty limited. So you might as well keep auditioning Edwards.
***
I hadn’t watched Titans running back Chris Johnson play a lot until Sunday. He’s something else, isn’t he? The Titans running back showed why many believe he is superior to Adrian Peterson by rushing for 132 yards and two scores on 28 carries and catching nine passes for 100 yards.
***
Awfully nice of CBS to replay that “Home Run Throwback’’ lowlight for Bills fans wasn’t it? Believe me, no replay is necessary because that one is indelibly embedded in the memory banks of western New Yorkers. It can’t be erased.
***
If you discover the whereabouts of running back Marshawn Lynch, please contact the Bills coaching staff. This guy wearing the No. 23 jersey is operating in Least Mode, not Beast mode.
***
I’d still like to see Fred Jackson utilized more than he has been.
***
I don’t have a problem with T.O. showing some emotion. Heck, it’s about time somebody other than the fans and media got a little angry about the way this team’s been performing. But it also would be nice if T.O. backed his words with action. He clearly quit on one of those routes and his butterfingers led to the interception return for a touchdown.
***
Apparently, Jeff Fisher is coaching for his job in Tennessee. He’s into his 16th season in the position (he started when the team was still the Houston Oilers). I’ll tell you what, if Bud Adams lets him go, I wouldn’t mind seeing him on the Bills sidelines next year.
***
Another game, another Jairus Byrd interception. That’s a team record five consecutive games with a pick and gives the former Oregon star eight, tying Archie Matsos’ Bills record for interceptions by a rookie.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Getting to know Jim Boeheim through the years

My senior year at Syracuse University was Jim Boeheim’s first as head basketball coach of the Orangemen.

None of us students knew much about him at the time, other than that he had been a bespectacled, geeky-looking assistant coach who wore god-awful plaid sports coats and had a name many of us mispronounced.

He was the polar opposite, personality-wise, of his predecessor, Roy Danforth, who was a glib guy who loved interacting with reporters and with us students, particularly the rowdy ones who transformed the Manley Fieldhouse “Zoo’’ into one of America’s true college basketball pits.

That winter of 1976-77, we learned that although Boeheim didn’t look the part, he could flat-out coach. The son of a Lyons, N.Y. undertaker guided that team to a 26-4 record and accumulated 100 victories in his first four years.

After graduating from SU, I would come to know Boeheim in a different light – from the perspective of a reporter and later as a columnist. Unlike Roy, he was not a media darling. In fact, he often treated young reporters – yours truly included – with feelings bordering on contempt. Interviewing him often turned into a competition. We were perceived as the enemy. The most innocuous questions could set him off. Dumb questions (and, heaven knows, I asked a few of those) could result in volcanic eruptions.

As the years progressed, and I matured as a person and a reporter and he matured as a person and a basketball coach, our relationship changed.

My questions became more pointed and he provided thoughtful, insightful responses, instead of rants. I came to appreciate Boeheim’s true brilliance as a coach, program builder and sustainer.

Through his wife, Juli, I began to see the human side of the man. The curmudgeonly wall he had erected to keep the media out began to crumble and I discovered not only a devoted husband and father, but also someone who was remarkably committed to giving back to his school and his community. This mellowing is largely attributable to the impact Juli and their kids have had on him. Undoubtedly, his bout with prostate cancer also changed the way he views life and ramped up even more his zeal to raise millions for “Coaches vs. Cancer.’’

Thirty-two years and 800 victories later, I see a man who hasn’t changed, yet has changed greatly.

He can still be prickly towards the media – especially those poor young reporters who must go through the same rite of passage that I and many others were forced to experience. And his competitive juices still flow like whitewater rapids on game nights. (If you don’t believe me, just ask his players and the referees.)

But I also see a man more comfortable in his own skin.

Like many of my classmates, I sold him short way back when. I got caught up with the cover of the book, rather than the contents.

As the 65-year-old coach continues his journey toward more basketball milestones, SU fans should be grateful he eschewed offers to coach elsewhere through the years and remain true to his school. The university and the Syracuse community are better places because he decided to stay put.

***

Like my friend and former newspaper colleague, Bob Matthews, I’m baffled why so many non-veterans get Veterans’ Day off, while so many people who served time in the Armed Forces have to work. Why not make it a holiday where only veterans get the day off?

***

I know it’s only November and a lot of Rochesterians aren’t in the mood for hockey just yet, but you’d think the Amerks' record-tying win streak would have enticed more fans to catch a glimpse of history. Management has gone out and put a great product on the ice. Now, it's up to Rochester's hockey fans to support that product.

***

It was good to see Marv Levy join the parade of ex-coaches in those entertaining Coor’s beer commercials. But it’s too bad they couldn’t have used some of Marv’s more entertaining sideline rants - the non-profane ones, of course. My all-time favorite game-day Marvism was when he yelled “You over-officious jerk’’ at the referee.

***

By the way, did you catch Marv shouting “Come on, Todd’’ in that commercial? It obviously was a reference to Bills quarterback bust Todd Collins, who by the way is now 38-years-old and still drawing an NFL paycheck as a backup QB.

***

Don’t know about you, but my New York State license plates are in good shape. So why am I and millions of other New York drivers with perfectly good plates being required to buy new ones in 2010? Why to raise another $120 million for our dysfunctionally governed state, that’s why.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Al Cervi helped lay the foundation for today's NBA

A few times each year, for the past 10 years, I've had the privilege of going to lunch with John Ricco and a bunch of other old-time Rochester sports legends at Antonetta's, a great Italian restaurant on the city's west side where the portions are beyond generous and the sauce reminiscent of the kind mama used to make.

The party has included the likes of Johnny Antonelli, Sammy Urzetta, Carmen Basilio, Ron Mack and Al Cervi. And I've thoroughly enjoyed every one of the get-togethers because the stories and jokes told by these men who made sports history are every bit as delicious as the food.

One of the funniest and most opinionated tale-tellers was Cervi, the Basketball Hall of Famer who once played for the old Rochester Royals and later coached the Syracuse Nationals to their only NBA championship in 1955. (Yes, folks. Rochester and Syracuse once had NBA teams.)

Al would regale us about the pioneering days of pro basketball, when money was in short supply and the travel mostly on sooty locomotives. He was known as "Digger," for his willingness to do the dirty work and shut down the opposition's high scorer, and for his daring drives through the lane.

Al was not a fan of the modern game. He believed current players were too lackadaisical on defense and too selfish on offense. I remember at one of the lunches, Al told me that he would have been able to put the clamps on Michael Jordan. He was dead serious and extremely passionate about it. I wasn't about to argue.

Sadly, Al passed away yesterday at age 92. I am so privileged that I had an opportunity to get to know him. Our lunches won't be nearly as lively without Digger holding court.

In memory of Al, I'm rerunning an essay I wrote in my previous incarnation as a sports columnist. It ran after Cervi was included with scores of other basketball players on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Rest in peace, my friend. And thanks for the memories.

Standing tall in hoops history

Al Cervi gazes at the tiny picture on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated and chuckles. There he is, in a white Rochester Royals uniform with blue trim, holding a basketball in the palm of his right hand while standing between current NBA star Allen Iverson and oldtimer Slater Martin.

“That's definitely my face, but that doesn't look like my body," the spry 90-year-old says from the family room of his Brighton home. "I think they put my head on somebody else's body."
Not that Cervi's complaining.

The Basketball Hall of Famer realizes that being pictured on the cover of SI is a big deal, even if his noggin might have been computer-generated onto another player’s body.

And it's an even bigger deal for someone who last played in 1953, a year before the magazine was launched.

"I was shocked when my neighbor brought a copy of it to me," says Cervi, who was named the best 5-foot-11 player in professional basketball history by the magazine. "I thought it was some kind of a joke when I first heard about it because I haven't laced them up in 54 years."

As part of its 2007 NBA Preview issue, SI decided to have some fun and pick an all-time, all-size team. The digitally enhanced lineup photo on the cover and centerspread begins big (7-7 Manute Bol) and ends small (5-3 Muggsy Bogues). It includes 28 players, past and present. Among the selections are three women 5-8 Ann Meyers, 5-6 Dawn Staley and 5-4 Suzie McConnell.

"It's kind of a goofy idea, but it is nice to be remembered," said Cervi, who divided his pro playing career with the Royals, Buffalo Bisons and Syracuse Nationals. "It feels great because I thought people had forgotten about us old-timers."

They haven't.

In fact, Cervi still receives close to 20 autograph requests a month, some from as faraway as Japan.

"People see that I'm a Hall of Famer who's still alive and kicking and they find my address and write," he says. "I think it's a result of the Internet. I get all sorts of things to sign photographs, cards, basketballs, old uniforms. You name it."

And he'll no doubt soon be receiving numerous copies of Sports Illustrated now that he's a "cover boy."

It's good to see Cervi receive the recognition because he was one of the pioneers who laid the foundation for the success the NBA currently enjoys.

A Buffalo native who earned All-City honors in basketball and baseball, Cervi began his pro hoops career with the Bisons in 1937, making 15 bucks a game. Rochester Seagrams owner Les Harrison, who later would coach the Royals to an NBA title, was so impressed with Cervi that he lured him away from Buffalo.

After serving in the Armed Forces for five years during World War II, Cervi returned to Rochester and won a scoring title and MVP honors while leading the Royals to the National Basketball League title in 1947.

Nicknamed "Digger" because of his tenacious defense and his slashing drives to the basket, Cervi would earn All-Pro honors five times and league coach-of-the-year honors five times.

One of his finest moments occurred in 1955, when he coached the Nats to their one and only NBA crown.In 1962, The Sporting News named Cervi the best backcourt player during professional basketball's early era. Despite his numerous achievements as a player and coach, he wasn't inducted into the Hall of Fame until 1984.

For more than 30 years, Cervi and the late Al Masino held a popular summer youth basketball camp, first in the Adirondacks and later in the Finger Lakes region. He still follows the NBA, but he doesn't care much for the current game.

"It was more of a team game when we played, and there was a tremendous emphasis on fundamentals and defense," he says. "You have a lot of great athletes out there today, but so many of them seem to be playing for themselves."

One of the nice things about this unexpected dose of publicity is that it has given Cervi a chance to reminisce about his good, old days.

"I'm thinking about making a comeback," he says, grinning mischievously.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Vick isn't the answer in Buffalo

Tony Dungy is one of the most respected voices in football and obviously has been a mentor to Michael Vick since the quarterback was released from prison earlier this year after serving time for his heinous dog-fighting crimes.

So, when the Super-Bowl-winning-coach-turned-football-analyst says on national television that he thinks Buffalo is a darkhorse for Vick’s QB services, you take his words seriously.

If I’m a Bills fan, I hope like heck that Vick remains a darkhouse and winds up with some other team. (Dungy mentioned Cleveland, St. Louis and Washington as the leading contenders.)
From a purely football standpoint, I wouldn’t take a chance on Vick because I believe he is washed up, and the truth is that although he was a dynamic performer before, he never was a great quarterback.


Yes, Buffalo has a gaping hole at the position, but Vick isn’t the answer. And I believe Bills fans are smart enough not buy into him as a solution to the team’s most pressing problem.

I would, however, welcome Dungy to Buffalo with open arms if he were interested in resuscitating this moribund franchise.

***

Speaking of QBs, Trent Edwards is now playing for his football future in Buffalo. We’ve seen what Ryan Fitzpatrick can and can’t do, so it’s time for the beleaguered, concussion-prone Edwards to be inserted back into the starting lineup for his final audition.

In the remaining eight games, he needs to finally grab this anemic offense by the facemask and prove that he is a leader. Yes, it’s going to be extremely difficult, given the inexperience of his line.

But he has no choice but to try to rise above these difficulties and elevate his team with him.
He’s not going to have Dick Jauron around next season to be his guardian angel. There will be a new coach and new football people evaluating these films. Captain Checkdown needs to become Captain Playmaker or he may be holding a clipboard next fall.

****

I was saddened to learn that Brighton resident and Basketball Hall of Famer Al Cervi died this morning at age 92. Cervi was a star guard for the Rochester Royals, who earned the nickname “Digger,’’ because he wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty and play smothering defense. A native of Buffalo, he led the Syracuse Nationals to their only NBA championship in 1955. My condolences to his wife, Ruthie, and their kids. I’ll have some personal reflections about Cervi in an upcoming blog.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Day of the Dolphins at Carrier Dome for stunned SU hoopsters

Syracuse voters elected their first female mayor Tuesday night, but that wasn't the biggest story in the Salt City. Not by a long-shot. No, the most newsworthy story of the day was LeMoyne College's shocking 82-79 upset of SU in an exhibition basketball game.

Think U.S. hockey team vs. the mighty Soviets. Think tiny Chaminade vs. a University of Virginia basketball team that featured 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson. Think Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson.

Yes, it was only a practice game, so to speak, and it won't count against SU when the NCAA tournament selection committee convenes in mid-March.

Still, you never expect a Division II team - even a good one - to knock off the nation's 25th-ranked Division I team.

SU guard Andy Rautins, who is from Syracuse, called the loss "embarrassing.''

In recent years, Division I programs have been allowed to play two preseason exhibitions against DII teams. As a favor to LeMoyne, which is located only a few miles from the SU campus, Jim Boeheim always schedules one of them against the Dolphins. These are supposed to be final tune-ups where the DI club barely breaks a sweat.

As stunning as this upset was, I wouldn't put too much stock into it. SU still is going to boast an NCAA-bound team this winter. But you can rest assured that this was a serious wake-up call - like an air horn going off in your ear at 3 in the morning.

Let's just say that practice today could be very interesting.

***

Although I'm an SU alum, I'm happy for LeMoyne, and their coach Steve Evans. Like moi, he is a Rome, N.Y. native, so I always like to see fellow Romans succeed.

Steve's dad, Stan "Buddy'' Evans was a legendary high school hoops coach at Rome Free Academy and a superb junior varsity baseball coach. I learned more baseball from him in my one season of JV ball than I did in all my other years of playing the game combined. Buddy Evans wound up coaching junior varsity baseball with great success for nearly 40 years, which must be some kind of national record. I feel badly that he never got an opportunity to coach baseball at the varsity level. He truly was deserving.

***

I said the Yankees in seven, so I'll stick with that prediction, but I won't be displeased if I'm off by one game.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Opining on the World Series, Urban Meyer and SU football

Man, if the Yankees blow this World Series after going up three-games-to-one, Joe Girardi’s decision to use each of his starters on just three days rest is going to be second-guessed from here to eternity.

***

Barring a remarkable performance from one of his Philadelphia teammates or one of the Yankees, Chase Utley should win the MVP award hands-down, even if the Phillies don’t win the championship. Naming an MVP from a losing team wouldn’t be unprecedented. A lot of people erroneously think Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski won the award after beating the Bronx Bombers with his famous walk-off homer in Game 7 of the 1960 Fall Classic. But the award went to the second baseman from the other team – Bobby Richardson, whose body of work included 12 RBI, a Series record that still stands.

***

I can’t decide which has been more painful to watch recently – Ryan Howard batting or the Bills offense. One more strike out, and Howard will establish a dubious Series record with 13 whiffs.

***

Former Syracuse University wide receiver Mike Williams obviously is a troubled young man. The wide receiver with NFL talent was given a second chance this fall after a year hiatus from SU following a suspension for academic cheating. Instead of learning his lesson and being grateful for the new opportunity, Williams wound up being suspended for the Akron game two weeks ago after violating unspecified team rules, then he walked into coach Doug Marrone’s office Monday morning to tell him he was quitting the team. This was a young man who had the potential to be a high draft pick, but he cost himself hundreds of thousands of dollars by blowing his second chance. If he is drafted, it will be late because teams will be reluctant to risk a pick on a player with serious character flaws.

***

Glad to see that Florida football coach Urban Meyer takes his role as builder-of-young-men so seriously. After learning that his linebacker and defensive captain Brandon Spikes attempted to gouge the eyes of a Georgia running back in last Saturday’s game, Meyer decided to suspend Spikes for the first half of this week’s game. Wow! That ought to teach Spikes a lesson and send a strong message to the rest of the team that such behavior won’t be tolerated in Gator land.

***

Congrats to my long-suffering but loyal son, Chris, whose St. Louis Lambs snapped their winless streak by beating the Detroit Lions Sunday.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Bills have become much too gracious hosts

ORCHARD PARK - I remember a time when the stadium formerly known as Rich was a House of Horrors for visiting teams. A time when this was one of the toughest places in the NFL.
But that seems like ancient history now. The Ralph has become a welcome wagon for visiting teams.

Sunday’s 31-10 victory by the Houston Texans marked the eighth time in the past nine games that the opposition has left town happy. In the last five home losses, the Bills have managed just one offensive touchdown, meaning the home team has not only been bad, but boring.

***

There’s no way to sugar-coat this: The Bills offense continues to be putrid. A week after mustering just 167 yards, Buffalo racked up 204. They converted just 2-of-10 third downs and managed just 9 first downs, marking the first time since the 1971 season they’ve had consecutive games where they failed to reach double figures in that all-important category.

Ryan Fitzpatrick passed for 117 yards and zero touchdowns and was picked off twice for a paltry 41.4 passer rating. The Bills rushed for 97 yards, and that figure was skewed as 29 of those yards came on Terrell Owens’ reverse for a touchdown. That run, by the way, was the longest play of the day for the Bills.

***

It was another anemic day for T.O. and Lee Evans, the two combining for a whopping 7 receptions for 68 yards. Owens is on pace to catch 46 passes for 562 yards and 2 scores, while Evans is looking at 46 receptions for 662 yards and 6 touchdowns.

So, that’s 92 receptions for 1,224 yards and 9 TDs – combined. Contrast that with last year’s production when T.O. finished with 69 catches for 1,052 yards and 10 TDs for the Dallas Cowboys, and Evans had 63 receptions for 1,017 yards and 3 scores.

Viewed another way, they have been about half as productive as they were in 2008.

***

The diamond amid the ashes continues to be Bills safety Jairus Byrd. The second-round pick out of Oregon picked off two more passes Sunday to become the first rookie and only the second player in NFL history to have multiple interceptions in three consecutive games. It’s been amazing to watch these past few weeks. He had two more picks bounce his way in the first quarter against the Texans. He’s like a magnet.

***

The Bills worst-ranked run defense yielded 186 yards rushing against Houston, but that stat is misleading. One hundred and nineteen of those yards came in the second half after Buffalo’s “D’’ wore down. The fact the Bills offense can’t sustain a drive definitely has taking its toll on the defense.

Another reason to cut them some slack: With injuries to defensive end Aaron Schobel and linebacker Keith Ellison, Buffalo was forced to play most of the second half with seven reserves.

***

Some people want to know if there will be a quarterback controversy at One Bills Drive following the bye week. My response: You need to have a quarterback in order to have a quarterback controversy.

I’m not trying to be a smart-aleck. I really don’t believe the Bills have a true starting quarterback on their roster.

When you compare the performances of Trent Edwards and Fitzpatrick, there really isn’t a lot to choose from. Their statistics are similarly mediocre and neither one makes me believe he has what it truly takes to be the Bills long-term answer at the position that has been a revolving door since Jim Kelly’s retirement following the 1996 season.

Edwards has completed 59.5 percent of his passes and has 5 touchdown passes and 6 interceptions to go with a 2-4 won-lost record. (It should be noted that Edwards received credit for the win against the Jets even though Fitzpatrick played three quarters of that game and staged the comeback.) Fitzpatrick has completed 51.4 percent of his passes and has 2 TD passes and 3 picks to go with a 1-1 record.

Put the two names in a hat, spin a bottle, flip a coin, play rock, paper, scissors. It doesn’t matter. They play like the same guy.

Jim Kelly tackles a number of topics, including the Bills future in Buffalo


Jim Kelly endured his share of sacks and criticism during his Hall-of-Fame career, so the last thing he wants to do is pile on a fellow member of the quarterback fraternity. But when asked to assess the state of the Bills, the man who set the standard for Buffalo QBs can’t help but start with the position he knows best.
“If you look at the solid teams around the league, you’ll see that they are really established at the quarterback position,’’ Kelly said. “We are still a question mark.’’
And have been for quite some time.
In the dozen-plus seasons since Jimbo’s retirement following the 1996 campaign, Buffalo’s quarterback situation has been about as stable as the Balloon Boy’s parents. Ryan Fitzpatrick is the 10th different player to start at the position, and you get the sense he won’t be the last as this never-ending search to find a worthy successor to the greatest field general in franchise history stumbles on.
So far, we’ve seen a steady stream of err apparents.
That said, Kelly isn’t necessarily ready to give up on Trent Edwards, the bruised and beleaguered Bills signalcaller who, at times, has resembled the bungling reincarnation of Rob Johnson, J.P. Losman and Todd Collins, among others.
"I’m really pulling for Trent because I know how hard he works and I believe he has the talent to get the job done,’’ Kelly said. “Yeah, he hasn’t been performing well, but when you have as many changes as the Bills have had on the offensive line, especially at the two tackle spots, it’s pretty rough on a quarterback.’’
It also didn’t help when the Bills attempted to force a no-huddle approach on Edwards and a woefully inexperienced offensive line that wasn’t ready to run it.
“The no-huddle takes a lot more quick thinking by everybody,’’ said Kelly, who ran that attack as well as anyone ever has while leading the high-octane Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s. “When you have linemen jump off-sides nine times (as Buffalo did during its 6-3 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 11) you realize it’s time to scrap it and start huddling-up again so everybody can get on the same page.’’
Kelly believes the Bills can still make something of this season. But, in order for that to happen, several players are going to have to ramp up their play, including their high-priced wideout Terrell Owens.
“T.O. has to step it up; he’s got to start catching the football,’’ Kelly said. “He’s dropped too many balls and that hasn’t helped. But you need to stick with him and keep throwing to him because he’s a guy who can get hot and carry a team. He’s done it before. He can do it again.’’
Kelly, of course, knows a thing or two about carrying a team. He led the Bills to a 109-66 record, eight playoff appearances and four AFC titles in 11 seasons. By contrast, the 10 QBs who have started since No. 12’s retirement have combined for a 90-109 mark and just two playoff berths. Yes, there have been some encouraging moments – most notably when Doug Flutie and Drew Bledsoe were behind center – but for the most part the search for a successor has been an exercise in futility.
Kelly was considered a franchise savior when he signed with the Bills after the USFL went belly-up in the summer of 1986. He brought instant credibility to a franchise that was coming off back-to-back 2-14 seasons and seemed in danger of leaving town because of fan apathy.
Interestingly, as Bills fans fret over the long-time future of the team in western New York, many are looking to Kelly again. The man who will turn 50 on Valentine’s Day said he has a group willing and able to buy the team. But, out of deference to owner Ralph Wilson, Kelly hasn’t pursued the matter.
“This is still Mr. Wilson’s team and I don’t think it’s right for me to press this,’’ he said. “I have the utmost respect for Mr. Wilson. God bless him for keeping the Bills here for 50 years when there’s no doubt he could have easily made more money by moving the team someplace else.’’
The angst felt by Bills fans has intensified in recent weeks with news that billionaire Ed Roski will finance the construction of a football stadium near Los Angeles and has identified seven NFL teams, including the Bills, he plans to contact about moving to the nation’s second largest city.
Despite the news, Kelly isn’t worried. His confidence is bolstered not only by the financial wherewithal of his potential ownership group, but also by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Kelly believes Goodell, who grew up near Jamestown, will not allow the Bills to leave western New York.
“I know people think otherwise, but Goodell does care about that stuff,’’ he said. “He’s not going to allow that to happen on his watch. He is a class act and I think he’s going to be around a long time as commissioner, and that’s good news for the Bills.’’
These days, Kelly keeps himself busy working for Hunter’s Hope, the foundation he and his wife, Jill, founded in memory of their late son, Hunter Kelly. Thanks to their lobbying efforts, several states, including New York, have vastly expanded their new-born disease screening programs. The Kellys’ efforts at early diagnoses has saved lives and improved the quality of life of many children.
“It’s tremendously rewarding to have parents come up to you and tell you that their child is alive because of what we’ve done,’’ Kelly said. “We have a lot of work still to do lobbying congressmen, legislators and assemblymen in getting all 50 states involved in these newborn screening programs. But we are making progress every day.’’
More than a dozen years removed from his last game, Kelly remains a man on the move. When he’s not working on the foundation, he can be found spending time with his wife and two daughters, appearing at autograph shows or making speaking engagements around the country.
In his spare time, he likes to hunt and fish. In recent months, he has hunted deer in Colorado and elk in Wyoming, and has gone deep sea fishing near Miami.
“I’m an outdoors freak,’’ he said, chuckling.
He’s also a Bills freak.
“I’m hoping at some point to become even more involved with the team,’’ he said. “I’m a Buffalo Bill through and through and I want to do whatever I can to help them succeed.’’