TORONTO (Sep. 13) — For a few moments, Monday night, it seemed as if nothing worse had ever happened in New York on Sep. 11.
Veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers — late of the Green Bay Packers and making his much–ballyhooed National Football League debut with the Jets — sustained a ruptured Achilles tendon on the first offensive series. His season ended before it started. If, at 39, Rodgers never again suits up, Jets owner Woody Johnston will have paid him $18.75 million per play ($75 million ÷ 4). Hardly what the amped–up crowd at MetLife Stadium envisioned as it packed the Meadowlands facility to cheer on, against Buffalo, the future Hall–of–Fame slinger. That the home team prevailed on a punt return in overtime after falling behind, 16–3, was another Miracle on the Hudson.
The fans went home delirious, yet saddened.
On the visitors’ side, the healthy quarterback was bludgeoning himself. No matter how adroitly reporters attempted to steer Josh Allen from his uncustomarily poor performance, the Buffalo pivot refused to look elsewhere.
“I am the reason we lost tonight,” said Allen, flatly, to a room full of media. “The Jets have a good defense but you cannot play two [opponents] in the same game: them and us. I hurt our team. This loss is on me, no one else.”
Allen accounted for four turnovers (three interceptions and a fumble) in the 22–16 defeat.
THE SCENE, MONDAY NIGHT, OF THE NFL OPENER BETWEEN THE NEW YORK JETS AND BUFFALO BILLS. ESPN/TSN IMAGE
As I watched Allen excoriate himself, my mind reverted to the shame I felt for fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the wake of a playoff humiliation, last spring, against the Florida Panthers. Toronto dropped the second–round series in five games, one more than the minimum. Game 3, in Sunrise, Fla., ranked among the darkest hours in the “Core–4” era, as none of William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews or John Tavares showed up to play. All were invisible in the most–critical match of the season: a 3–2 loss that plunged the Leafs into a 3–0 series deficit.
Even worse were the media exit interviews in which the vaunted Core spoke about its communal love and confidence “in the group”. Not one stepped forward with a trace of anger or discontent over another failed attempt to matter in the Stanley Cup chase. No one even implied “this isn’t good enough”… or expressed a hint of emotion. Nothing along the lines of Leon Draisaitl of Edmonton, after the Oilers were eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights in Round 2. Fighting back tears, Draisaitl, who scored 13 playoff goals (one more than the combined efforts of Matthews, Marner and Nylander), called it a “failure” and a “wasted year”. Not a single Toronto skater showed the passion and character of Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, who famously told reporters, two springs ago, “I’m going into my ninth year and I haven’t won shit!” Only to raise the Stanley Cup after his 10th season.
Instead, the coddled Maple Leafs espoused on the “wonderful culture” within the team.
The contrast, therefore, between Allen taking full responsibility for a season–opening loss, and the Leaf “leaders” casually shrugging off another Stanley Cup disaster, was stark and foreboding. It’s the reason that Allen, a first–rate pro, will ultimately lead the Bills to a Super Bowl triumph, especially if management can find a receiver other than Stefon Diggs in which the quarterback has abiding confidence. It’s also the reason that the integrity challenged Leafs will continue to tread water. For the Blue and White — and for the baseball Blue Jays — “clutch” is the disengaging device on an automobile transmission, not the structure and design of a pro sports champion. Evidently, the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment moguls like it that way, for the Leafs will enter another season without a smidgen of fundamental change. It’s possible that Toronto could be the lone hockey market on Earth content with perennial apathy from ownership and management. Buffalo, as a football market, is entirely different.
Though the Bills, in the realm of perspective, are far–too critical to the self esteem of western New York, there is accountability in the dressing room. Which starts with Allen: face of the football club. I’ve been to neighboring Buffalo on numerous occasions. It’s a city of friendly, hard–working people; forever ranking among the favorite places to visit during my 17 seasons covering the Leafs as a reporter for The FAN–590. There should be more pride in the community… and less dependence on the Bills for regional morale. That said, it’s easy to understand why the city and football team are intrinsically woven. Each cares deeply for the other… so antithetical to the obvious and interminable disconnect between the rabid Toronto hockey market and its pampered, privileged athletes.
THERE WERE SMILES ALL AROUND AT SCOTIABANK ARENA LAST MAY 14 (ABOVE), AS THE SPINELESS LEAFS SHRUGGED OFF YET ANOTHER STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF EMBARRASSMENT. NOT SO WITH JOSH ALLEN (BELOW) AFTER MONDAY NIGHT’S SEASON–OPENING LOSS BY THE BUFFALO BILLS. HE PINNED THE DEFEAT SQUARELY ON HIS SHOULDERS.
Accomplishment is never a precondition around here.
Instead, an overwhelming man–love for the team by reporters and pundits extends to the hapless fan base. No one within the hockey department takes responsibility for underachievement or failure. Doing so isn’t important.
That is not the case with football in Buffalo. Proven, yet again, when the franchise quarterback stood up like a man, absorbing a disproportionate level of blame for one start in a season the Bills can still finish 16–1.
If, as a Toronto sports fan, you didn’t notice the contrast, your head is in the sand.