In The Face of Countless Tragedies, Bills Deserve Credit For Just Showing Up

With Free Agency in the rearview mirror and the NFL Draft quickly approaching, it is still surprising to see the anger on social media surrounding the Bills’ sobering and surprising loss in the Divisional Round of the AFC Playoffs to the Cincinnati Bengals. Sure, we all have those losses that stick with us. Personally, I am still not over “13 Seconds”, but this year the loss and end of the season felt different. After the loss to the Bengals Sean McDermott was asked if the team ran out of gas at the end of the season, considering all that they went through in the 2022 season. His response was:

“You can always look at that [the difficult circumstances]. I’m not going to discount that, but I’m also not going to use that as an excuse…we got beat on the football field.”

And while the Cincinnati Bengals did dominate the Bills in every way that day, I do believe that the emotional toll and strain of the season became too much for the team to handle given the rising intensity and higher stakes of each week of the NFL Playoffs. Bills Special Teams captain Taiwan Jones admitted to exactly that during an awkward Uber ride with a Bills fan who did not realize who he was driving around. This will be an unpopular take, and one that many fans clearly still disagree with as the calendar turns to April and some are still hoping Ken Dorsey decides to take a year away from coaching like his counterpart on the defensive side of the football did last month. A few months after the loss here is where I’m at: even though the NFL is a competitive league where winning in the only thing that matters, it is okay that the team ran out of gas at the end, any reasonable person would understand why.

The stakes and pressure going into the 2022 season were already incredibly high after the “13 Seconds” collapse last January. But what the Bills and the Buffalo community were about to endure was unlike anything anyone could have imagined. In May, a racist gunman murdered 10 people in Tops Supermarket in the East Side of Buffalo. Numerous players returned to Buffalo in the days after the tragedy, meeting with community members, survivors, and the victims’ families. Men who were trained to run routes, game plan, and play football for a living were now seeing things, hearing stories, and grieving with families, all related to something that nobody should have to experience in life. The next month, with the Bills just weeks away from Training Camp, team president Kim Pegula suffered a cardiac arrest episode. Back in February Jessica Pegula shared an update on her mother’s medical situation, outlining what happened to her and where things stand as of today for the President of the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres. Kim’s medical tragedy is a harrowing reminder of what the franchise had to endure this season. My summation will not do the story justice; you can read about her story, including how daughter saved her life, here.

The Kim Pegula health situation is different for this team. For this team, in this city, the owner of the football team is not around to collect a paycheck. This owner is part of the fabric of the town, she and her husband swooped in to make sure that the Bills would be in Buffalo forever. Pegula, who grew up in Fairport NY, has worked tirelessly during her tenure to create the family feel within the Bills and Sabres.

As the Bills were wrapping up training camp the team experienced a collective loss as Dawson Knox’s brother died unexpectedly at the age of 22. The impact of the loss was unimaginable for Dawson. From a football perspective, it seemed like Knox was missing for most of the year…and frankly, he was. But somehow, he and the team pushed on. The team pushed on once again during a November snow storm which forced the Bills to relocate to Detroit for a home game against the Browns. Coming off of a Thanksgiving win in the same stadium, the Bills went back to Detroit after just one day of practice during the week and had to play another game. The team had an all hands on deck approach on getting to Detroit, which included Sean McDermott and members of the coaching staff picking up players from their homes and neighborhoods. All of this happening while the players and coaches left their families back in Buffalo, some still without power days after the storm.

December brought another snow storm and this time, more death for the Buffalo community came with it. 47 lives were lost due to the once in a generation storm that hit Buffalo on December 23rd and 24th. The Bills were able to travel to Chicago and play that week, but were unable to come home and spend Christmas with their families. Just a week later, more death. On New Years Eve five children died in a house fire in Buffalo. Another gut-wrenching loss for a community that was still reeling from the loss of so many innocent lives already. Last month, the grandmother of the children passed away due to injuries sustained in the fire.

Inside the walls of One Bills Drive the team dealt with the type of adversity that teams go through: injuries. Micah Hyde was lost for the year in Week 2. In the same game Dane Jackson suffered a scary neck injury and was taken off of the field in the back of an ambulance. Josh Allen spend the second half of the year not quite feeling himself after an elbow injury in Week 9. Von Miller tore his ACL during the Thanksgiving Day win against the Lions.

And then everything came to a head January 2nd on national television during Monday Night Football when Damar Hamlin’s heart stopped. The players having to watch their brother’s lifeless body on the field was as traumatic as anything the players have ever experienced while playing football. Looking back now with the facts of what happened to Kim Pegula, it is not a stretch to believe that upper management who was in-tune with details about Pegula from the start would have experienced significant PTSD in the aftermath of the Damar Hamlin incident, which is eerily similar. What followed was questions on what the next few weeks looked like: would the Patriots game go on as scheduled? Would they make up the 17th game? Neutral-site AFC Championship game, etc. A whirlwind and historic season for this franchise took one last twist right as the team was gearing up for the playoffs. The rest is now history: the week after Nayheim Hines scores a TD on the game’s first play; something that left Josh Allen so moved that he declared, “God is real” on the podium after the game. In the playoffs, the Bills barely squeaked by the Dolphins and rookie QB Skylar Thompson in the Wild Card round, and then the week after they were on the wrong side of a one-sided loss against the Bengals which ended the Bills’ season.

Naysayers will retort that the slew of tragedies throughout the season is separate and distinct from Ken Dorsey crafting up creative gameplans, or Leslie Frazier calling the wrong defense at times in that Bengals game. I am not here to argue that, but rather say that I know how much stress and tragedy can weigh on people and impact their ability to do their jobs to the best of their ability. How much the circumstance weighed on people inside the building is for them to determine as they reflect back. Even reading this article back and noting the tragedy after tragedy, it took me some time to process all that I was writing.

When the Bills kicked off the 2022 season with an opening-night 31-10 win in Los Angeles the goal could not have been higher, and that was to bring a Super Bowl back to the city of Buffalo. Now that we sit on the other side of all of it, it turns out that the Bills should be commended for getting as far as they did. In a league that does not hand out participation trophies, I think the Bills deserve all the credit in the world for even showing up. And show up they did! A 13-win regular season, a 3rd straight AFC East division title. It might not have been the ultimate goal they were hoping for, bit all things considered, the team and the leaders of the team should be commended for what they did accomplish last year in the face of unspeakable tragedy and hardship for the city that they play for. There will come a time when a Super Bowl is the only thing that matters, but that time was not last season. For me, the Bills did just enough last year bringing joy, entertainment, and a feeling of togetherness into the lives of so many at a time when they needed it most.

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