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Column: Mightier than the Sword: Notes on Writing: City of Hope

I was mountain biking on the nearly-empty McKenzie River Trail in middle-of-nowhere Oregon last weekend when I spotted a hiker in the distance wearing a red hat with a very familiar logo. At first, I thought, “No, it couldn’t be…” but as I got closer to him, I realized the emblem was exactly what I thought it was. As we passed one another on the trail, few words needed to be exchanged. As if I was relaying a secret password, I said, simply, “Go Bills!” He nodded his head in acknowledgment. “Go Bills!” he replied.

I have been noticing a lot of Bills fans lately, all over the country. Back in July, I was white water rafting in Colorado. One of the guides was wearing a Bills-themed Hawaiian shirt. “Go Bills!” I said to him. “Go Bills!” he replied. And earlier this year, I learned that a Bills Backer Bar opened up in my old neighborhood in Portland. That means there are now two Bills Backer Bars in this one West Coast city, nearly 2,700 miles from the town where the team plays its home games. 

It didn’t used to be this way. Until a few years ago, there were no Bills flags hanging from porches, or Bills stickers on bumpers, or kids wearing oversized Josh Allen jerseys, at least not anywhere outside of Western New York. In fact, I’ll never forget the one time I remember seeing someone wearing Bills merchandise on the West Coast. About a decade ago, I was walking through one of the rougher parts of Portland one afternoon when I noticed a disheveled man passed out on the sidewalk wrapped up in a faded blue Bills sweatshirt. Given the Bills recent performance at the time, the scene seemed fitting—a visual metaphor for a team that was in the midst of a 19-year playoff drought. So, why the recent change? Why do I now randomly spot the charging buffalo emblem all over this great nation? I think I can adequately sum up the reason in one word: Hope.

Buffalo is a city of hope. Always has been. Even in the Bills’ darkest days (think Rob Johnson-era, J.P. Losman-era, Nathan Peterman-era, etc.) Buffalo fans always had hope. “Next year will be our year!” seemed to be the common rallying cry. Of course it never was. And most of the time, deep down, we knew it wouldn’t be. But that didn’t stop us from hoping. What we saw with the Bills back then we are experiencing with the Sabres right now. Will they be contenders this season? Probably not, but we hope they will. We always hope…

Being a writer is a lot like being a Bills fan. There is a lot of hope involved. You always hope whatever you’re currently working on will end up being great. And then you hope someone will publish this great piece of writing. And then you hope someone will read it. And then you hope the person reading it will enjoy it. And then you hope the next thing you write is even greater. Comparing being a writer to being a Bills fan might seem like an unnecessary tangent, but this is a column about writing, and I do feel obligated to at least mention the craft, but now that I’ve done so, let’s talk more about the Bills.

Having hope is a great thing, but one thing I’ve learned as a writer is to not get my hopes up. Unfortunately, I think Bills fans have done just that. I’m writing this article before the regular season begins and every single “Power Ranking” I’ve seen has the Bills at #1. We are the betting favorite in Vegas to win it all. People are saying, “Super Bowl or bust,” whatever that means (I think the Bills will be strong contenders as long as Josh Allen is behind center). All of this talk of championship aspirations is only setting us fans up for severe disappointment if it doesn’t happen. And I’m not saying it’s not going to, but I do think this team is unjustly overhyped, and for two reasons: #1) Our returning defense is overrated, and #2) Our offense lacks grit. Allow me to explain. 

Last year we had the NFL’s top defense, but only statistically. We only faced two, arguably three, great quarterbacks—Mahomes, Brady and Matt Ryan. This is a quarterback driven league. I think a lot of teams, given the same schedule, would also have had statistically great defenses. And let’s not forget the last 13 seconds of regulation during the “Kansas City Heartbreak” (Are we calling it that yet? I think we should). Great defenses don’t let that happen. As for the offense, we didn’t win any single-score games last season. When the offense needed to show up at the end of games—against Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Jacksonville, New England on Monday Night and Tampa Bay in overtime—they failed to do so. Because the unit lacked grit. We only won games when we had comfortable leads, and mostly against bad teams.

Of course, everything I mentioned in the above paragraph happened last season and has no bearing on what happens this year. But it should at the very least help shape expectations. That being said, here’s my prediction for the 2022 season: The Bills go undefeated and win their first Super Bowl title. Hey, a fan can hope, can’t they? Go Bills!

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Jon Penfold

Mightier than the Sword: Notes on Writing is a column by Jon Penfold, an Iroquois Central graduate. He is the author of three books: “The Road and the River,” “The Last Indians,” and “A Long Walk on the Beach.” For information on ordering, or to see more of his work, please visit jonpenfold.com.

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