By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Oct. 9) – Belated happy Thanksgiving, my fellow Canadians. How many of you watched that football turkey in San Francisco on Sunday? If you live in these parts, could you not instantly identify with the Buffalo Bills? Did you then see the Argonauts in their “gobble-gobble” rollover at Rogers Centre on Monday – allegedly gunning for first place in the CFL East?
Let’s start with the Bills.
The sport may be different but the similarity is astounding. In the opening weeks of this NFL season, the Bills thoroughly resemble the Leafs during their monumental plummet of last spring. The professional/business affiliation between the Bills and city of Toronto is purely coincidental… at least, I think it is. But, the football/hockey malaise is identical.
This is what happens when a season goes unexpectedly bad… I mean really, really bad. Not just off the rails, but over the cliff and into a heap. It isn’t a precise reflection of talent, coaching or management, for professional teams cannot be as acutely horrid as the Leafs of February to April and the September/October Bills. It does, however, indicate a vast character shortfall and it morphs into a dispiriting malfunction. Recovery is all but impossible.
THE BALL BOUNCED AWAY FROM BUFFALO THROUGHOUT THE AFTERNOON ON SUNDAY.
In each case, there’s a trigger-point.
For the Leafs, it occurred Feb. 11 at Air Canada Centre. In town, on a Saturday night, were the Montreal Canadiens – enduring one of the most abysmal seasons in franchise history. By comparison, the Leafs were in solid playoff contention with only five losses in their previous 17 games. Moreover, nostalgia enveloped the building with franchise scoring leader Mats Sundin on hand to watch his No. 13 banner ascend to the rafters.
During a pre-game ceremony, the one-time captain stood beneath a spotlight at centre-ice in the darkened arena and delivered a rousing speech. He implored the current Leafs to never take for granted the privilege of wearing the jersey and playing in front of the game’s most loyal, resilient fans.
As a tribute, his former team went out and got pounded, 5-0.
It was a disgraceful performance and an embarrassment for Sundin, who viewed the carnage with a pained expression from seats directly behind the Toronto bench. It triggered a death-spiral from which the Leafs could not recover and resulted in a thorough, humiliating collapse.
MATS SUNDIN ADDRESSES AIR CANADA CENTRE CROWD PRIOR TO FEB. 11 GAME BETWEEN MAPLE LEAFS AND CANADIENS. THERE WAS NO RESPONSE FROM HIS FORMER TEAM.
Changing coaches accomplished nothing.
Brian Burke fired Ron Wilson and hired Randy Carlyle. Leafs immediately got on a roll – for one night – winning Carlyle’s debut at Montreal. Then it was back to the abyss. Carlyle looked as if he’d seen a ghost at TD Garden in Boston moments after his new team was dismantled, 8-0, by the Bruins (Mar. 19). One night later, it was the mediocre New York Islanders waltzing away from Air Canada Centre with a 5-2 win. One week passed before Philadelphia denigrated Leafs, 7-1, at the ACC. A 5-3 lead in Buffalo with less than five minutes remaining morphed into a 6-5 overtime loss. And, there were no bodies inside the white uniforms at Montreal in the schedule finale. Once the season turned irreparably bad, Leafs were unable to respond. Burke could have changed coaches before every game, it wouldn’t have mattered.
Now, the Bills have been spooked all to hell.
Buffalo came into the current football season amid hype generated on both sides of the border. The basis for such embellishment – beyond the usual pre-season malarkey – was a significant defensive upgrade crafted around Mario Williams, an all-pro defensive end procured as a free agent from the Houston Texans for six years and roughly $100 million. So went the plan, anyway.
The Bills’ trigger occurred on Opening Day at the New Jersey Meadowlands when Williams and his teammates were scorched for 48 points by the menial New York Jets. Though the club rebounded against frail opposition (Kansas City and Cleveland), it found its catastrophic level in back-to-back lynchings by New England and San Francisco.
Almost never will a football team look so utterly defenseless – particularly at home – as the Bills did against Tom Brady last week. The Patriots scored on six consecutive drives and piled up a club-record 45 points in the second half of a 52-28 rout. In the midst of that flogging, Buffalo’s next opponent – San Francisco – trampled the Jets, 34-0, on the road. As such, the Bills were beaten well before kickoff at Candlestick Park; likely even before they chartered out of Buffalo-Niagara International Airport at week’s end.
Hanging tight in NoCal until the initial sign of adversity – a late first-quarter interception thrown by Ryan Fitzpatrick in the 49ers end zone – the Bills folded like fly-paper and were demolished, 45-3.
FROM CBS SPORTS TELECAST OF BUFFALO AT SAN FRANCISCO ON SUNDAY AFTERNOON: GAME STARTED OFF POORLY FOR THE VISITORS AND GOT PROGRESSIVELY WORSE.
As with Leafs in the waning months of the NHL season, the Bills have plunged to a level that belies coaching and management.
Say what you want about Chan Gailey and defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, they both have solid NFL credentials. Accordingly, the football club cannot be quite as pathetic as it appears. Giving up an astounding 97 points and more than 1,200 yards in consecutive games – historically bad by NFL standards – resulted more from emotional than physical incapacity. Taking the easy way out and firing Gailey and/or Wannstedt wouldn’t accomplish a thing. Buffalo may still win a few games, but the tone was set by getting trampled at the Meadowlands in Week 1. The New England and San Francisco disasters were merely a carry-over.
It doesn’t matter when a season goes unexpectedly bad. Once it happens with a team accustomed to failure, the treadmill picks up speed. We’ve seen it over and over again with football in Buffalo and hockey in Toronto.
TV IMAGES (BELOW) FROM REST OF WEEK 5 IN THE NFL. ONLY JACKSONVILLE – OBLITERATED, 41-3, AT HOME BY CHICAGO – SUFFERED THE SAME DEMORALIZING FATE AS THE BILLS. BUFFALO HAS YIELDED AN ASTOUNDING 97 POINTS AND MORE THAN 1,200 YARDS IN ITS PAST TWO GAMES.
Calamitous games for the Leafs and Bills merely reinforce that a culture of losing has long-been established by both clubs.
It seems like a hundred years ago that the Bills were getting to the Super Bowl with Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith. Leafs are literally approaching half that time since last appearing in the Stanley Cup final. So, deficiency by either club catches no person off guard.
The tone of failure, however, is eye-popping.
Toronto’s well-honed reputation as the worst professional sports city in North America gained further credence on Monday when the only club with a shred of possibility got annihilated. The Argonauts received what should have been a jolt of energy prior to their game against Saskatchewan here in town when news broke of Montreal being shocked at home by lowly Winnipeg. A victory over the Roughriders would create a first-place tie in the CFL East between Argos and Alouettes. So much for best-laid plans. Argos responded, instead, as if the Montreal loss had eliminated them from the playoffs.
A 36-10 butt-whipping by Saskatchewan flattered the Double Blue and dismissed any notion of ascendancy for a club in this Godforsaken sports town. Welcome to Buffalo… er, Toronto.
Courtesy of my old Canadian Olympic pal, David Bedford, I was at Rogers Centre with my trusty Nikon. I’ll get even for that, Dave :
IT WAS A SENSATIONAL, EARLY-AUTUMN DAY HERE IN TOWN, BUT…
WITH THE THERMOMETER HOVERING BENEATH 15 DEGREES CELSIUS, THE RETRACTABLE ROOF AT ROGERS CENTRE REMAINED CLOSED (ABOVE AND BELOW) DURING THE GAME.
ARGOS LOST IN THE TRENCHES AND ELSEWHERE ON MONDAY.
EVERY SASKATCHEWAN DEFENDER APPEARED DOUBLE TO QUARTERBACK JARIOUS JACKSON.
THE AFTERNOON WASN’T A TOTAL LOSS.
MORE FROM THE NIKON EYE…
AFTER THE GAME…
FACEBOOK: HOWARD BERGER [THORNHILL ON]