‘THE COLUMN’. By Jerry Sullivan

FROM THE JERRY SULLIVAN SHOW, BY JERRY SULLIVAN: 

THE COLUMN

081619

Two things you can count on every NFL town, and especially in Buffalo — fans second-guessing the offensive coordinator and worrying about the offensive line.

I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunity to second-guess Brian Daboll this season. As for the offensive line, I’d be worried. Bills fans seem to be tip-toeing around the issue, assuming the best and settling for a low standard in classic Buffalo fashion. After the line was a disaster a year ago, they’re hoping it will make the leap to mediocre.

But really, is the offensive line going to be OK? There’s sufficient reason for skepticism, starting with the top paid center in the NFL, Mitch Morse, who was supposed to come in and anchor the O line and be a security blanket for Josh Allen. 

Morse suffered his fourth concussion on the very first day of padded practices and hasn’t practiced since. He’s been seen going through drills, so the signs are positive. But when a player — particularly an interior lineman — has that sort of concussion history, it’s a major concern. Who knows what’ll happen when Morse starts getting hit in the head again in real action? I imagine he’s wondering, too. 

Will he ever be the same player? How tentative will Morse be about engaging some of the biggest, fastest, toughest athletes in the world in a real NFL game? How much will all the missed time — in camp and in the offseason —  affect his chemistry with Allen and the rest of the offensive line?

The line hasn’t been a big issue otherwise in training camp, as it was a year ago. But it’s hard to judge an offensive line until the real games begin. Offensive linemen are the least athletic players on a team, it’s not until opponents come at them with menace in their hearts that you know for sure. 

The line “looks good” so far. Dion Dawkins has been adequate at left tackle. But there’s a difference between adequate in August and effective in October. Dawkins regressed last season in his second year. People seem to be taking him for granted, but coming into training camp some observers felt he had a thin hold on the left tackle job.

Ty Nsekhe is a good addition, but he’s 33 years old and had some injury issues in the offseason, like many of the linemen. It looks like he could be the answer at right tackle. But is that because he’s a solid player in the league or because rookie Cody Ford didn’t grab the position and run with it. Ford has played guard and tackle. He’s a rookie. He’s been up and down and he’s likely to have his struggles when the real bullets fly.

Spencer Long was supposed to provide depth on the interior and maybe start but he’s been nursing a knee injury. And let’s not forget, the Jets, who have a poor offensive line, cut him. LaAdrian Waddle is gone for the season. 

Jon Feliciano has been good as a versatile veteran on the line. He filled in for Morse at center and held his own. But Feliciano’s major virtue is that he’s better than Russell Bodine, who is likely to be cut if Morse comes back to take over the starting center job.

The line looked capable without Morse in the opening preseason game. They came out throwing and had an aggressive mindset. But I wonder if part of the reason was they wanted to compensate for the O line by getting the ball out fast, before Allen could find himself in a crisis and risk injury. 

Once the real games begin, I can envision Allen resorting to what worked best a year ago, pulling the ball down when the protection breaks down and using his remarkable running ability to scramble for big yardage. 

We still don’t know how good this line will be in the running game. Maybe they’ll open some big holes for LeSean McCoy tonight. I don’t want to be negative. It’s only August. But I also don’t want to fall into the familiar Buffalo trap of accepting a lower standard. That’s why I’m seeing when it comes to the offensive line, a willingness to accept the fact that at least they’re better than a year ago, that they’re not terrible. 

If the Bills are going to be a playoff team, the standard needs to be a lot higher than that. I’m sure Ruben Brown has some thoughts on the subject. 

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THE COLUMN

081519

Yesterday, I Heard a radio host suggesting that Baker Mayfield was on the short list to be MVP of the NFL this season. How about pumping the brakes on that one, fella? Can we calm down on the Browns? I know they have Mayfield, who is being made out to be the next Brett Favre after one good season. They have new weapons, including Odell Beckham Jr., who last time I checked hadn’t won a damn thing with the Giants. 

As my buddy Geoff Hobson from bengals.com reminded us last spring, how about showing a little respect for the AFC North, which has produced 18 playoff teams in the last 10 years, none of them from Cleveland. How about being one of the top teams in your own division for once? Then we can talk about the Super Bowl.

The Browns haven’t won a playoff game in 25 years. They won seven games last year, including two over the Bengals and one over the Jets. How about winning more than half their games in the division, which they have NEVER DONE since the AFC North was born  in 2002.

I’m not saying the Browns won’t be better and be a playoff contender. It’s just that they’re a chic pick and those teams tend to be more hype than reality. This is the time of year where we overestimate players and teams. Here’s a few more than I feel are being underestimated and some that are being overestimated as we approach the regular season

People are underestimating Green Bay running back Aaron Jones. If this guy is healthy, he could have a monster year that leaves people wondering why he wasn’t taken in the top 10 of fantasy drafts. He has missed four games in each of the last two seasons, but has averaged 5.5 yards a carry in both years. He led the NFL in yards per rush last season.

Jones had a TD in five straight games last season in the second half. There’s always drama with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, but with a new offensive minded head coach and a motivated Rodgers, I could see Jones have a real breakout year. 

People are overestimating the Saints. Yeah, they won 13 games and got screwed the NFC title game. They’ll be motivated. But Drew Brees looked to be going into decline late last season. He barely averaged 200 yards passing a game in the final month and wasn’t great in the postseason. 

The Saints’ defense is ordinary and the division will be better. I see the Falcons and Panthers bouncing back from 7-9 seasons. The Packers will be better, so will the Niners. I see New Orleans being one of the four or five teams every season that decline by four games or more from one year to the next. 

People are underestimating the Eagles. OK, so they won nine games. Let’s not forget, they won the Super Bowl two years ago. They have Carson Wentz back, and if he stays healthy, he could make a run at MVP like he did two years ago. You’d think Wentz was terrible last. year. He completed 70 percent of his passes for 3,000 yards and 21 touchdowns in 11 games. 

The Eagles might not play Wentz at all in the preseason. Fine. Why should they expose him to injury? Anyway, they’re going to win the NFC East. Their defense is solid. Doug Pederson is a solid head coach. They won three in a row to get in the playoffs, beating the Rams and Texans in that run. They won at the Bears in the playoffs (I know, with Nick Foles). 

I think people are overestimating the Chiefs. They won’t fall off the table, but they won’t win 12 games again, and might slip to 8-8. Mahomes is great, but opposing coaches have more film on the guy. Go back and watch the first half of the AFC title game against the Patriots. Everything went his way last season. He’s not that accurate throwing down the field. 

Their schedule will be tougher this season. They play against the NFC North. In the second half, they have games at the Chargers, Patriots, Bears and Titans. Their AFC crossover is against the South, which means games against the Colts and Texans. And of course, their defense was horrible last year. It might improve to mediocre, but it’s a problem. 

One more: People are underestimating the Bills. All right, call me a homer. But Vegas set the over under at 6 and a half. It recently went up to 7, but the general feeling is still that they won’t be a winning team. That reflects a lack of belief in Josh Allen, which is understandable. But I’ve set the standard at 10 wins, and if Allen makes strides and they stay healthy, they can get to 10 wins.

The defense should be top 10 in yards AND points allowed. If a team manages that on defense, they have a good chance of making the playoffs — if they have at least an average offense. I think they can get close to average with Allen and a much-improved cast of receivers, including the underestimated rookie, Devin Singletary.

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THE COLUMN

081419

Back when I was writing columns for the newspaper, there were occasional times when there didn’t seem to be a single pressing issue to address — I mean, you can’t write about the Bills’ quarterbacks every day. Those were the times when I would clean out the mental attic and … Column as I see ‘em.

Here’s a few things on my mind today: 

**Serena Williams, my favorite athlete, pulled out of another tournament on Tuesday. Williams withdrew from the Cincinnati Masters, a few days after pulling out of the final at the Rogers Open in Toronto with a back injury after just four games. 

Organizers in Cincinnati had given Serena as much time as possible to recover from back spasms. They scheduled her first-round match against Zarina Diyas for the second slot Tuesday night, which was the latest available time. No matter. She couldn’t go.

We’re just two weeks from the season’s last Slam, the U.S Open in New York City. That’s not much time for Williams to get ready in her latest attempt to win a 24th Grand Slam, tying Margaret Court for the most all-time. She’s the best player of all time regardless, but it would be great to see her win another major or two. 

Williams will be 38 in September. It’s amazing that she’s still competing at such a high level, two years after giving birth. Her main opponent now is time. She’s well beyond the age when most female tennis players are competing at the top levels. I’m worried. Still, you never write her off. Remember Tiger Woods at the Masters?

By the way — Buffalo angle — guess who replaced in the Cincinnati draw when Williams had to withdraw? Jessica Pegula, daughter of the Bills and Sabres owners, who won her first WTA title a couple of weeks ago in Washington. Good luck to Jessie.

**Well, the Red Sox are now 17 and a half games behind the Yankees, who won their fourth in a row against the Orioles last night, and 8 and a half behind the amazing Rays, who won their fifth straight and are 21 games over .500. The Sox are toast, one year after winning a team record 108 years and the World Series.

But like when I was a kid, there’s always some offensive feat to celebrate when the Sox are failing. On Tuesday night, Rafael Devers, who is having a sensational year at age 22. Devers went 6 for 6 with four doubles in Boston’s 7-6 win at Cleveland in 10 innings. He became the first player since 1900 to go 6 for 6 with four doubles in a game.

Devers is hitting .325 with 43 doubles, tied for the MLB lead in two-baggers with Nick Castellanos of the Cubs. He has a good chance at 50 doubles, though it would be tough for him to catch the Sox leader for doubles in a year. Earl Webb once had 67 for the Sox, which is also the Major League record.

**I know Bills fans figure they’re better off without the Antonio Brown drama. But would it be so bad for an often irrelevant franchise to be the most talked-about team in the NFL? I checked out profootballtalk.com this morning and four of the top five listed stories were about Brown and the Raiders, who are being featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks.

Brown couldn’t resist showing his feet, which suffered frostbite in a cryotherapy session, to the NFL Films folks. “My feet is pretty much getting circumcised, right? Right? For real,” he said after pulling off his socks. “It’s kind of like a pull back right now. I’m [expletive] circumcised on my feet. Hopefully my feet are born again, and I figure to run faster. Feel sorry for me later.”

The other stories told us that 1) Brown’s feet are feeling a lot better; 2) He’s still looking for a 2011 model of the Schutt Air Advantage helmet; and 3) Jon Gruden said Brown will definitely play in Week One. Imagine the attention he’ll get when he actually plays a real game for the Raiders.

**Tiger Woods said he feels good heading into this week’s BMW Championship. Like Serena Williams, he had to withdraw from an event last weekend, the Northern Trust, after suffering an oblique strain in the first round. It was the first time Tiger had to pull out of a tournament since spinal fusion surgery two years ago. 

The BMW is the second leg of the season-ending FedEx Cup playoffs. Woods is 38th in the FedEx Cup standings and needs to be 30th to qualify for the finals next weekend in Atlanta. I’m not optimistic for him, but never count him out. 

I’m rooting for Abraham Ancer, the native Mexican who finished second at the Northern Trust last weekend. Ancer shot all the way from 67th to 8th in the FedEx standings, which likely assures him a spot in the Tour Championship and his first Masters invitation. He’s going to be the first Mexican to play in the Presidents Cup. 

(OK, and I’m also the only one out of 47 people in my season-long golf pool who has the guy).

**If new Sabres coach Ralph Krueger is such a great motivator, how come Rasmus Ristolainen seems so uninspired about the prospect of playing for him this season in Buffalo? I assume Krueger has had at least one sit-down with Risto at this point. 

**Evidently, Bills fans were well-represented at the joint practices in Spartanburg on Tuesday. Friends of the show Thad Brown and Matt Parrino were among the media members who got photos of the many Bills Mafia folks on hand.

This hardly comes as a surprise. Having covered road games for more than 20 years, I got accustomed to seeing hordes of Bills fans at every venue in the South. At times, there seemed to be almost as many Buffalo fans as fans of the home team — that goes for NHL games, too. And there’s certainly no lack of Buffalo expatriates in the Carolinas. 

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THE COLUMN

081319

I’ve been saying for years that it’s all about the quarterback in today’s NFL. No one is more painfully aware of that than Bills fans, who have been waiting more than two decades for a worthy successor to Jim Kelly and are desperately hoping for Josh Allen to begin performing like a true franchise QB this season.

If you doubt that it’s all about the quarterback, just follow the money. The price for a franchise quarterback continues to soar. We’ve reached the point where an average passer like the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott can get offered $30 million a season by Jerry Jones and feel a little disrespected. 

That’s right. According to published reports, Prescott turned down an offer of $30 million from the Cowboys, who have more contract issues than any other team in the NFL right now. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott holding out of camp and contending that he won’t play at all this season without a contract befitting his status as the league’s leading rusher over his first three seasons.

Elliott’s holdout was the big story in Dallas until news of Prescott’s demands broke. There was one report that said he was looking for $40 MILLION a year in a new deal. That report was reported by NFL Network and confirmed by the Fort Worth Star Telegram. It was disputed by USA Today, Pro Football Talk and ESPN’s Chris Mortensen.

Well, that’s modern sports journalism for you. As we learned in the Antonio Brown negotiations, it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s assumed when national “experts” are battling to be the first to get it right. I don’t know how close the Bills were to signing Brown, and whether he shot down a deal. But it seems they’re better off without him.

But back to the position that matters most: Whether Prescott — who has a base salary of $2 million this coming season — is really asking for $40 million or not, it’s clear that he and his representatives are striking a hard deal with the Cowboys. For one thing, he has been severely underpaid as a fourth-round pick stuck in a deal that maxes out at $2.7 a year. And the QB market is going crazy in the NFL.

Remember when $20 million was the top for quarterbacks? Remember when it was a big deal that Tyrod Taylor got $18 million? The number is now $30 million or more. Russell Wilson, who is going to the Hall of Fame, signed a record four-year, $140 million contract in the offseason, with $107 million in guaranteed money.

The Eagles responded by giving Carson Wentz four years and $128 million. That’s $32 million a season, compared with $35 million for Wilson. But Wentz got $107.87 in guarantees, an obvious attempt to top Wilson in guaranteed cash, if not average salary.

So a $40 million quarterback can’t be that far off — and Tom Brady’s $23 million cap hit this year is an absolute bargain. And let’s face it, if we can contemplate a $40 million passer, can the days of a $50 million quarterback be that far off, with league revenues soaring in recent years and showing no signs of abating?

That’s why it’s so vital for the Bills to take advantage of having Allen on his rookie deal and not having to pay franchise QB money early in his career. One of the amazing things about the playoff drought was that they were never paying top quarterback money and had the luxury of paying at other positions during that time — and still couldn’t win.

The Cowboys went 32-16 over the last three seasons, largely because they had so many bargain players in their first contracts. That included Elliott, who was the fourth pick of the 2016 draft; Prescott, who was drafted in the fourth round; and defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, a second-round pick in 2014 who signed a $21 million a year deal last April.

Prescott wants to make up for money he lost because he was drafted so low. That’s understandable. But is he really worth more than $30 million? The numbers suggest he’s an average starting quarterback. In his three years, he has been 19th, 16th and 15th in passing yards; 16th, 14th and 16th in passing touchdowns; he was fourth in yards per attempt (the key stat), but dropped to 20th and 19th the last two seasons.

But Prescott can point to Wentz, who went second in the same draft in which Prescott lasted until the fourth round. He got paid his $32 million a year despite missing eight regular-season games and all five of the Eagles’ playoff games the last two seasons. Prescott has started every game in his three seasons and won 32 games, nine more than Wentz.

I think Wentz is a far better passer than Prescott. But Dak understands the market and he’s smart enough to push for the big money while the Cowboys are at an impasse with Elliott (and they still have to pay Amari Cooper). If Jerry Jones caves and gives Elliott top running back money — Todd Gurley got four years, $57.5 million from the Rams — that’ll make it harder for them to hand Prescott top money at his position. 

In the end, it’s about the quarterback, and Prescott knows it. Some day, $30 million won’t seem like a lot at the position. What the heck will Patrick Mahomes make if he keeps playing at the level he did in 2018? Prescott was a victim of the rookie wage scale and the draft, which the union is sure to make an issue in the next negotiations.

The bottom line? If you draft well, you eventually have to pay the going rate, especially at quarterback. It’s a problem the Bills will confront soon enough if all their rising young stars continue to develop. By the time Josh Allen comes up for his next deal, the going rate for a true franchise QB could be $40 million. I imagine it’s a problem the Bills and their fans would love to have. 

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THE COLUMN

081219

Last Friday, I talked about the Bills’ aggressive passing mindset in the opening playoff game and reminded people, once again, that it’s all about Josh Allen this season.

Yes, it’s generally about the quarterback in the NFL these days. So if it’s all about Josh Allen, we should remember that it’s also about the other quarterbacks who were taken in the 2018 draft. We’ll spend the coming years evaluating Allen’s development as a franchise quarterback — and even more important, comparing him to the other QBs drafted that year.

We tend to be myopic during a Bills training camp. We obsess on the Buffalo players and gush about everyone looking good and don’t pay enough attention to what’s going on elsewhere in the league. Other teams have good young players who are learning and getting better and lifting hopes among their loyal followers.

On that note, let’s take a quick look at the other quarterbacks from Allen’s draft class — the Bills face them all this season — and how they’re doing just four weeks from the start of the regular season. And yes, they all looked good. After all, it is preseason:

The Jets’ Sam Darnold, the No. 3 pick in ’18, wowed them in the preseason opener. He played one series and was close to perfect. The Jets took the opening kickoff and Sam led them on a seven-play, s, 75-yard scoring drive. After missing on a short pass to wide receiver Quincy Enunwa on second down, Darnold completed three straight passes.

He scrambled to create room and fired a  32-yarder to tight end Chris Herndon; then found wide Jamison Crowder crossing over the middle for a 28-yard gain, then hit running back  Ty Montgomery to set up first and goal at the 6. Darnold hit Crowder in the right corner of the end zone for the TD. He was 4-of-5 for 68 yards and a 158.3 quarterback rating

“It was fun out there for that first drive,” he said. “Hopefully, it gave the Jets fans a little taste of what this season will be like.”

Darnold has fans and media expecting a leap forward in Year Two. It’ll be very interesting when the Bills visit for the season opener on Sept. 8. Who knows? A playoff spot might be at stake when the teams play here in the regular-season finale on Dec. 29.

Lamar Jackson, who was the last pick of the first round by the Ravens, looked good in a 29-0 blowout win over Jacksonville on Thursday night. Word is he looks and feels different from last summer, same as we hear about Josh Allen. Granted, he didn’t face most of the Jags’ defensive starters, but word is he had as good a game as could expect 

Jackson rolled out on his first attempt and hit Chris Moore down the sideline with a perfect 30 yard throw. He went 4-for-6 for 59 yards and a touchdown. He’s said to be throwing tiger spiral and showing improved footwork in second season. He’ll also run a lot. I can’t wait for the Allen-Jackson showdown here in Buffalo on Dec. 8.

Oh, Baker Mayfield? No. 1 pick, who set a record for rookie TD passes. He was great, of course. In his only drive in the Browns’ opening preseason win, Mayfield was 6 of 7 passing  for 77 yards and a touchdown, a gorgeous throw to Rashard Higgins. The drive lasted 2:13 as the Browns decided to work on their two-minute offense. The Bills go to Cleveland on Nov. 10, one week before traveling to Miami. Speaking of which … 

Josh Rosen looked good while playing the middle two quarters of the Dolphins’ 34-27 win over Atlanta in relief of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Rosen led two TD drives. He was 13 of 20 for 191 yards, including four for 92 yards to undrafted rookie wideout Preston Williams.

After watching Rosen shine behind the first-team offensive line and hooking up with Miami’s young skill players, observers said it was likely a preview of what the offense could look like later in the season. The Bills host Miami on Oct. 20 and go to Florida for that rematch on Nov. 17. 

That’s six games for the Bills this season against quarterbacks taken in the first round of that 2018 draft. If Rosen takes over for Fitz by Week 7 and keeps the job, Allen could face one of his fellow ’18 first-rounders in all of those games. 

Everyone looks good right now. That’s why we need to take the preseason with a massive grain of salt. You’re high on Allen and figure he’s going to take the biggest leap forward of any QB from his draft class this season. Keep in mind, fans in all those other towns are feeling the same about their guy. 

Preseason is a time for heightened and inflated hopes. We find out for real who is ready to make the biggest strides four weeks from now. It can’t get here fast enough.

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THE COLUMN

The preseason doesn’t provide many indelible and unforgettable moments, especially during those late-game stretches when a bunch of no-names are running around the field and the fans are headed for the exits to beat the traffic. 

But Thursday’s exhibition opener at New Era Field gave us a rare thrill when Christian Wade, a former rugby star from Britain who is with the Bills as part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program, ran for a 65-yard touchdown on the first time he ever touched a ball in an NFL game in the fourth quarter. 

Wade’s run was the highlight of the Bills’ 24-16 win over the Colts. His teammates, and the fans who stuck around for the end, went wild after his run. Media mobbed him after the game and there were more words written about Wade than Josh Allen or Ed Oliver afterwards.

Years from now, when the other particulars have faded into history, Bills fans will recall it as the “Christian Wade game.” But we might also look back on Thursday night as the moment when the Buffalo offense finally began to develop an attitude, to become a passing team in a passing league.

Earlier in the week, I said it would be nice to see the Bills come out throwing on their first possession, to attack the Indianapolis defense through the air rather than assume the typically conservative posture of handing off and feeling their way with the run in the early going.

They sure didn’t mess around. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll dialed up passes on his first eight play calls. It wasn’t perfect. Allen made some very nice throws. He also overthrew Zay Jones badly down the field and under threw him on third down on the opening series. He reminded you he’s still a young quarterback whose accuracy at times leaves much to be desired.

But the most important thing was seeing the offense with a fresh mindset. Yeah, it was only the first eight plays of preseason, but it sure felt as if Daboll and the Bills were telling the world that this year was going to be different, that they have a gifted young quarterback with a powerful arm and some new weapons, and they’re going to ride him for better or worse.

Allen threw the ball down the field incomplete for tight end Tommy Sweeney on the very first play. He hit Cole Beasley on a crossing pattern on the next play. It got called back for a penalty, but Allen made a quick read and Beasley was open on a play that has been there all training camp and is expected to be a signature play for the offense this season. A good sign.

Allen had only two possessions and gave way to Matt Barkley after 13 minutes, but it was enough time to establish an identity. Zay Jones got involved as Allen targeted him five times, once when he was wide open for 23 yards out of a four wide receiver set. Jones dropped a pass near the goal-line and took a forearm to the head by the Colts’ Khari Willis.

Jones went to the locker room to be evaluated for a concussion and was later cleared. Considering the situation with Mitch Morse, who remains out with a fourth career concussion, it was a troubling moment. But overall, it was an encouraging performance for Jones, a third-year wideout with a lot to prove this season.

The entire offense has a lot to prove this season. But it was a promising opening performance. They attacked and dictated to the defense. Allen looked assured and quick to get rid of the ball. Remember, there was a lot of concern that the offensive line might struggle without Morse. But it’s a lot easier when the plays are being run quickly. 

Those first eight plays reminded me a little of the Patriots over the years. The Pats will often come out throwing on every down to put the defense on its heels and establish a tone for the game. All right, I’m going overboard with parallels to Tom Brady. It’s only the first preseason game. But there was an unmistakable attitude on display with the offense.

This is a team that has the fewest passing yards of any NFL team over the last 15 years. As I detailed this week in a Thermostat, they attempted about 50 fewer passes than any other team during that time, too. Too often, they’ve been stuck in the 1960s mindset in a league that has become more and more about passing and attacking through the air. 

It’s about time the Bills offense got into the 21st century. Maybe the days of running on first day and getting into difficult down and distance situations, are finally over. If it’s all about Allen, they might as well turn him loose and treat him like a weapon, not some project who needs to have his opportunities for mistakes kept to a minimum.

Allen has more weapons now. One of the biggest might just be Devin Singletary, who looked very good and has people saying he’ll be their best back before long. I’ve been saying that since May. Listen to me, seeing new exciting possibilities in a Bills offense. Maybe, at last, there’s a good reason. 

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THE COLUMN

Did you hear? There’s a football game tonight in Orchard Park. The Buffalo Bills will host the Indianapolis Colts — Frank Reich’s Colts — in the preseason opener at New Era Field at 7 p.m. Yes, a real live football game, though I still like to call them exhibitions, with guys hitting and tackling and people keeping score and officials making bad calls.

After seven months of incessant analysis, it’s about time. I should be in some sort of protocol after talking the Bills to death for more than 200 days. How many times have we said that it’s all about Josh Allen, that this is a big year for the young franchise quarterback? Or that LeSean McCoy has a lot to prove and might not even make the roster?

It’s a critical year for Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane. You’ve heard it all by now. It’ll be a relief to sit in the press box with my 10th cup of coffee of the day and watch some third-string running back bust a big run against the Indy backups. Hey, it’s football. 

The last time the Bills played a game at New Era was last Dec. 30. Remember that one? How could you forget? The Bills, who scored a total of three touchdowns over a six-game stretch in the middle of last season, scored six in one game that day. 

Josh Allen threw for three touchdowns and ran for two that day. The kid left Bills fans with some great memories and rising hope just before New Year’s. Zay Jones caught two TD passes that day. Robert Foster had one. The defense sacked Ryan Tannehill four times and picked him off twice. Boy, if only the Bills could bottle that game and break it out this year for every home game. They’ll reach my prediction of 10 wins for sure.

The last time the Bills played the Colts here was in December of 2017. I’m sure you remember that one, which was played in a raging snowstorm. The Bills pulled it out in overtime, 13-7. LeSean McCoy ran for 156 yards in the snow and won it with a long run in overtime. The Bills other touchdown came on a pass from Nathan Peterman to Kelvin Benjamin. Joe Webb finished the game at quarterback and made a huge throw to Deonte Thompson on the winning drive. Frank Gore ran for 130 yards for the Colts that day.

Boy, things sure do change in two years in this game, don’t they? Deonte Thompson, Peterman, Benjamin, Tyrod Taylor, Webb — all gone. Adolphus Washington and Kyle Williams were the starting defensive tackles that day. Every Bill who caught a pass that day is gone. Jacoby Brissett was the Indy quarterback that day. 

Brissett is back. He’s expected to start at quarterback for Frank Reich’s squad. Andrew Luck is nursing an injury again and won’t play. But do you know who is likely to see action in the second half for the Colts? Chad Kelly — yeah, Jim’s nephew, formerly of St. Joe’s Collegiate Institute and several other places where he misbehaved and squandered his talent. 

There’s a good chance Kelly will be playing QB for the Colts at the same time former UB star Tyree Jackson is flinging it for the Bills as their third stringer. This is what preseason is for, after all, watching marginal players — many of whom will never see the field in a regular-season game — battle desperately for their NFL futures. 

But as I said, at least we finally get some real football. After playing against each other in practice for two weeks, the Bills will go against guys from another team. It seems everyone has looked good in training camp at St. John Fisher. When you’re a captive of camp, there’s always a tendency to see everything through a positive, optimistic lens. 

Tonight, someone will break out and be the talk of the town for at least a day. Others will struggle and raise doubts about their chances of making the roster. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the revamped offensive line, which will be compromised by the absence of the sport’s highest-paid center, Mitch Morse, still lingering in concussion protocol. 

Presumably, Morse will be back soon and ready to anchor the line in real games. For now, it’s enough that football is back, at last. It’s only an exhibition, and as Morse’s situation reminds us, the main objective is making sure the top guys are healthy for the regular-season opener. 

Allen will play about a quarter. That’s enough time for us to over-react to whatever he does against the Colts. Remember, this season is essentially all about him. 

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THE COLUMN

Two weeks ago, the Mets were behind every National League team except the Marlins and Pirates. They were expected to be sellers at the trade deadline. Starting pitcher Zack Wheeler had his bags packed. Noah Syndergaard was rumored to be on the block, too.

The Mets had been the joke of baseball and New York city for much of the year. Manager Mickey Calloway seemed over his head. Our pal Mike Vaccaro was calling for his head. There was talk that general manager Brodie Van Wagenen was pulling Callaway’s strings. 

The only time the Mets owned the back page of the tabloids in the Big Apple was when they were embarrassing themselves. Callaway made news by cursing out a reporter, Tim Healey, outside his office after a loss. Pitcher Jason Vargas threatened to punch out Healey. Vargas was recently traded to the Phillies.

So what happened? Suddenly, the Mets are the hottest team in baseball. They’ve won 12 out of their last 13. On Tuesday night, they shut out the Marlins, 5-0, at Citi Field, to move two games over .500 and within two games of the Phillies in a wild NL playoff race. 

People wondered what the heck Van Wagenen was thinking when he traded for starter Marcus Stroman of the Jays before the trade deadline. But now Stroman is part of a resurgent starting rotation that could lead the Mets from laughingstock all the way to the playoffs. 

Wheeler, who had struggled for much of the year after a promising 2018, pitched eight shutout innings against the Marlins on Tuesday. Wheeler has won four of his last five starts and tossed 15 shutout innings in August. He has 34 strikeouts and only four walks in his last five. 

Syndegaard has won four of five. He’s gone at least seven innings in his last five starts and lowered his ERA by nearly a full run since the start of July. Oh, and then there’s reigning Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom, who isn’t as dominant as he was a year ago but is still second in the NL in strikeouts and fifth in earned-run average.

The Mets have two of the top NL rookie of the year candidates in Pete Alonso, who hit his 36th home run last night, and Jeff McNeil, who leads the league with a .340 batting average. Young shortstop Amed Rosario has been on of the league’s hottest hitters since the start of July. Michael Conforto has come on after a rough first half.

The Yankees aren’t the only New York team with compelling stories. The Yanks have DJ LeMahieu, they have McNeill. They have veterans like Todd Frazier and Robinson Cano — former Yankees, by the way — who would love to get back to the postseason. Mike Vaccaro wrote a column today comparing them with the 1973 Mets, who were 13 games under .500 in mid-August and reached the World Series.

OK, so the Mets have been beating up on teams that are below .500 this season. Down the stretch, 34 of their 48 games will be against teams currently over .500. Their team era is around 5.50 against teams over .500 this season. 

But there are a bunch of average teams competing with them for the playoffs. They’re not playing the Astros and Yankees down the stretch. I don’t hear the Yankees apologizing for the fact that they’ve won 14 games in a row at Camden Yards.

The Bills play their first preseason game tomorrow night. A lot of sports fans in this country are obsessed with the NFL in August. But for me, it’s still baseball season and a fascinating time in the game. “Pennant” races are heating up, along with the weather. The games mean more. Teams start playing big series within their divisions. 

There are 11 teams in the NL in first place or within four of the wild card. Even the Rockies and Padres aren’t truly out of it — look at how quickly the Mets got back in it. I always say baseball is more interesting when the Yankees are relevant. 

The game is even more interesting when both New York teams are alive and making headlines — for more than threatening to punch out reporters.

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THE COLUMN

Never have there been so many people analyzing and discussing the Bills. It’s non-stop these days. Every play in training camp gets chronicled and dissected and debated. We know the names of the third-team offensive linemen, the guys battling for the sixth spot at wide receiver, the life stories of guys who will never see the field in a real NFL game.

But it’s really quite simple to analyze the Buffalo Bills. All you have to do is go to Pro Football reference.com and examine the recent history of the league, more specifically the passing numbers. You realize that the problems of this franchise come down to one simple, inescapable fact: In a passing league, the Bills have been consistently behind the trend.

We all know that passing has increased over the years. The number of attempts and yards has risen steadily over the years. It’s a quarterback league. So I guess the fact that the Bills have been searching for a successor to Jim Kelly for more than 20 years explains why they have been so depressingly slow to keep up in a league where you need to throw it to win.

The Bills have the fewest passing yards of any team in the NFL in the last 16 years — since Drew Bledsoe became the only Bill ever to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. They have not finished higher than 15th in passing yards in any year since then. They were 15th in 2011, the year Ryan Fitzpatrick was the talk of the league for half a season.

Other than that, it’s embarrassing. Over the last 16 years, the Bills have finished in the bottom six in passing yards 11 times! Over the last four years, moving backwards, they’ve been 31st, 31st, 30th and 28th. It was at least a sign that they recognized the problem when they cut ties with Tyrod Taylor despite making the playoffs with a remedial passing game.

Well, you have to throw it to gain yards. Over the last 16 years, the Bills on average have attempted 58 fewer passes a season than the league average. It’s as if they were afraid to pass it like a real NFL team, and well, that sure seemed to be the case when Taylor was here and setting records for the lowest percentage of interceptions in history. As if that mattered.

Not having a franchise quarterback has certainly been an issue. But the Bills have also had some head coaches who were throwback types, guys like Rex Ryan and Dick Jauron and Doug Marrone who believed it was still about running the ball and playing defense and limiting your mistakes in the passing game. Remember in the old days when they said three things can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad?

The Bills have had some very good running teams in those days. They drafted more running backs in the first round over a 10-year period than any other NFL team. They also didn’t reach the playoffs in those years. Run and stop the run, yeah, it still matters. But it’s become more of a pass and rush the passer enterprise in the modern NFL.

So this is why Josh Allen is such a vital figure, and why this could be the most critical season since Kelly retired in 1996. Allen has to be a passer in a passing league. The Bills need to join the ranks of teams that attack through the air, who have a quarterback who can lift them in games when teams dare them to throw it, a stud who can carve teams up with the pass even when they know it’s coming — like Tom Brady in Super Bowls. 

You do have to wonder when you see the recent moves. They’ve committed to LeSean McCoy, brought in a veteran power back in Frank Gore, brought in T.J. Yeldon, surprisingly drafted a running back, Devin Singletary, in the third round. 

That doesn’t sound like a team that has made a full commitment to passing in a passing league. Sean McDermott is a defensive coach with conservative, old school tendencies. He’s a very good defensive mind, but you have to wonder about his judgement when it comes to quarterbacks. His infatuation with Nathan Peterman comes to mind.

Anyway, you can analyze this team to death, but it really comes down to one thing. Can Allen make it as a passer in a passing league? Are the Bills ready to trust him and open up the offense? Until that happens, they won’t be a legitimate contender. 

Really, if Allen is a true franchise quarterback, is it asking so much for the Bills to throw it as much as the average team in the league? 

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7/30/19

I can’t believe it, but we’re only two days from August. That means one thing: It’s time to start preparing for NFL fantasy drafts. All you have to do is look at the magazine rack at Barnes and Noble to know that it’s never too early to begin studying for our fond fantasy football obsession. 

Look, I’m no Eric Ludwig. I just interview him weekly on the radio during the season. I’m not an expert. But I play fantasy and make my playoffs more often than not. I’ve finished first, second and lost in the semifinals the last three years in the media league. Among other things, that proves that I take fantasy sports far too seriously.

A lot of us love the fantasy game. So as a public service to my regular listeners, I figured I would pass along some of my tips for success in the game. Luck has a lot to do with it. You only have one game a week and you’re at the mercy of the schedule at times. Who hasn’t had the second-highest score in a league but had the misfortune of matching up with the guy who had the most points that week? That’s why I prefer baseball, where you play every day. In my league, you play every team every week. 

Anway, Rule No. 1 for me over the last decade or more has been never to draft any Bills. All right, so I did take Fitz as my backup quarterback one year. But over nearly two decades of offensive incompetence, it has rarely helped to take any Bills. For one thing, Buffalo players tend to get overdrafted in local leagues. So even if a Bill has a decent year, he’s probably been taken too high, anyway.

That goes for Josh Allen. I know he was a great fantasy option in the second half of last season because of his running. Running quarterbacks tend to have great value in fantasy. But you can’t rely on getting carries and touchdowns from a QB, especially when they’re young and their coaches are trying to get them to be better in the pocket. And again, even if he has a decent year, chances are Allen will go too high in Buffalo leagues. 

The same goes for LeSean McCoy. Resist the urge to grab him in hopes of a bounce-back year. The one Bill I could make an argument for is Devin Singletary. I think he’ll lead the Bills in rushing. So if he’s still on the board late in your draft and you’re looking to add a running back, OK, you have my permission to grab the kid. He’s special. 

That brings me to another tip: Be willing to take a chance on rookie running backs. Most of the good ones are very productive as rookies. You could have won your league if you’d grabbed Alvin Kamara or Kareem Hunt two years ago. I took Saquon Barkley high last. Year and didn’t regret it. Twenty years ago, I stunned my league by drafting Edgerrin James fifth overall. James had 2,100 yards and 17 TDs as a rookie and I won my league. 

Running backs are important, and it’s hard to find two good ones. You should get one of the top ones if you draft high. But don’t reach; take the second best wide receiver in the NFL rather than the eighth-best running back for example. It’s amazing the wideouts you can get at the back end of a first round or the start of the second.

I actually think depth at wide receiver is the key to winning leagues. I’ll get my third one before my second running back. Study the young guys. Receivers often break out in their third season (Corey Davis of Titans could be one). See which guys made strides from their rookie year to their second. It’s also good to get receivers with the better quarterbacks. 

Avoid running backs from teams with weak passing games. The bottom five teams in rushing touchdowns last year: Oakland, Arizona, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Miami. The Bills would be down there if Josh Allen didn’t have eight of their 14 rushing TDs. They didn’t have a running back with more than 3 rushing touchdowns.

Pay attention to the way players emerged late in the previous season. Sometimes, guys come on late in the year and get undervalued in drafts due to overall numbers. Here’s five guys to watch: 

Aaron Jones, Green Bay, had 7 TDs in a five-game stretch late, is the only running back other than Alvin Kamara with 200 carries and 5.0 average per rush since 2017; Sony Michel, 478 yards rushing in his last six games, and a strong postseason for the Pats; Amari Cooper had 6 TD catches and 558 yards over his last six games after going to Dallas; Lamar Jackson had 4 rushing TDs and 5 passing scores in his last six games. He should be the rare quarterback whose coaches continue to give him carries. 

Mike Williams, had 6 TD catches the last six weeks for the Chargers, including five inside the 10. With Tyrell Williams gone, Mike Williams figures to get a lot more targets. Targets are critical with receivers, and opportunity matters. When another option departs, it leaves more targets for others. Preseason games can be meaningless, but keep track of targets. It can sometimes tell you who figures to be prominent in the passing game.

The number one rule in fantasy is to pay attention, both in camp and during the season. In-season pickups are crucial. In any fantasy sport, as in life, it comes down to hard work and persistence. I grabbed Adam Thielen in free agency late in the season three years ago. In my final, he had 12 catches, 202 yards and 2 TDs to win me a title.

Leagues aren’t generally won in the draft, but over a full year. The work starts now — unless, of course, you’ve already begun.

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THE COLUMN

7/26/19

Well, I went to Bills training camp for the first time in two years on Thursday. It was a fun day. It was good to get back into the fray, to spend time waiting for players to show up for press conferences and trade cynical barbs with my fellow media members, many of whom make periodic appearances on this radio show.

The opening of training camp is a fond annual ritual, a sense of renewal. From the moment camp begins until the last Sabres game — in mid-April, sadly, in recent years — there’s major pro sports to cover. I always felt more relevant, more connected to the community, when the Bills are in season.

Of course, nothing really happens on the first day of camp. Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane held a joint press conference before the first practice. McDermott joked about the word “process.” Beane answered a question about the team’s progress by talking about adding quality depth, addressing the quarterback position and dealing with the salary cap.  

I reminded Beane that on average, five or six teams in the NFL improved by four games over the last 10 years and asked why the Bills wouldn’t be expected to do it this year.

“We just expect to go out and improve,” he said. “A lot can be the eyeball test; it’s not always going to be wins and losses. There’s so many things that happen between now and the first game … there are so many variables we deal with every day. I can’t sit here and tell you we’re going to have X number of wins each year.”

Josh Allen and Tremaine Edmonds talked at the interview lectern. It’s interesting how they’re sending out Edmonds to be the spokesman of the defense this season, now that Kyle Williams is gone. They clearly want the kid to assert himself as a leader along with Allen, his fellow first-round pick from Beane’s first draft class. 

I only wish Edmonds had anything provocative to say. Same with Allen. These young players are practiced in saying nothing, in serving up innocuous, vanilla responses about team unity and hard work and getting better every day. I miss the days when Thurman Thomas would fly off the handle or Bruce Smith would threaten me. 

“This team doesn’t have any selfish players,” Allen said. 

Well, I’m not so sure about that. LeSean McCoy has always struck me as a selfish athlete. He’s a great player, an engaging personality when he’s in the mood, a supreme competitor who has played hurt to help his team. But McCoy is also a proud individual who worries about his place and his stats and his chances for making the Hall of Fame. 

There is very little drama with this Bills team. No one is holding out. There’s no volatile running back situation, like Melvin Gordon with the Chargers or Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas. There’s no star back in a new place, like Le’Veon Bell with the Jets; no diva wide receiver to draw attention from the national media, like Odell Beckham Jr. in Cleveland.

McCoy is the closest thing we have to a controversy. His production has declined significantly in each of the last two seasons. He’s 31, an age when many NFL backs are in serious decline or left the sport altogether. The Bills brought in two veteran running backs in Frank Gore and TJ Yeldon and drafted Devin Singletary in the third round. You don’t take a back that high if you don’t expect him to contribute as a rookie. So there’s justifiable concern that McCoy might not be on the team in September.

So Shady was the one guy the media sought out after the opening practice. About a dozen reporters and cameramen approached him as left walked off the grass field at Fisher. “Got a minute,” someone asked. McCoy kept walking. “Not today,” he said. 

Afterwards, while waiting for Allen to appear in the media tent, several reporters lamented McCoy’s decision to be quiet on Day One. One thing about Shady is that he’s rarely boring when he talks. He would have been perfect sound on the first day, a sliver of a story with some bite to it. Of course, maybe he didn’t want to talk because he was afraid of what might come out of his mouth — that he might be too honest. 

It’ll get interesting with McCoy soon enough. McDermott made it clear, as Beane had after drafting Singletary, that Shady would get the first reps at training camp. He’s still the starter, the Man, until proven otherwise. He looked good on Thursday. Of course, everybody looks good on the first day of the camp. 

Eventually, events will unfold. We’ll see what happens when Singletary starts dazzling us in camp, challenging for touches and playing time, or when Gore — who looked spry for his age — shows that he still has a lot left in the tank. At some point, McCoy might feel threatened and say something and give us some rare summer drama at camp.

For now, the Bills are back, and that’s good enough. Everything feels fresh and new again, everyone is hopeful and happy and optimistic. They even seemed happy to see me. 

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THE COLUMN

7/24/19

Thirty years ago, I came to Buffalo to become a sports columnist, excited to know that I was going to be writing about one of the rising powers in the NFL. The Bills had gone to the AFC title game the year before. Jim Kelly was hitting his stride as a young franchise quarterback and the most gifted rosters in football history was hitting its prime. 

I walked into a golden period of local sports. The Bills were at their height, the Sabres went to the playoffs every year. I covered a local kid, Christian Laettner, who was the best player in college basketball for Duke and made four straight Final Fours. I went across the border to chronicle the Blue Jays winning two straight World Series. 

But the biggest thing of all was watching the Bills go to four consecutive Super Bowls and reach the playoffs nine times in 11 years. Greatness was an expectation in those days. Eight guys from those teams made it to the Hall of Fame, if you include the owner, head coach and general manager. Doug Flutie gave us a couple of years to remember at the end. 

Yeah, those were glorious times, and like a lot of people I took them for granted. One night at the Big Tree, Reed told us group of us reporters that Buffalo would realize how good they had it until years later. He was right. When it was happening, winning every year seemed routine. You took it for granted. You never imagined making one postseason would one day become a dream, that sneaking into a playoff with nine wins would bring people to tears.

The Bills missed the playoffs 17 years in a row after I took over for Larry Felser as the lead columnist at the News. Those were some grim years, It was a joyless exercise at times, chronicling the dysfunction and numbing mediocrity at One Bills Drive. Buffalo had the most hapless losing team in sports, and fans came to expect calamity from their team. 

There were a lot of reasons for the Bills’ demise, but it was largely an organizational failure. Owners and management made decisions for the wrong reasons. Inferior men were put in charge of personnel because the owner didn’t trust outsiders. In some ways, they’re still rebuilding for the small-minded vision of their past leadership.

But in 2017, the Pegulas finally brought in competent men to run the operation. Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane were capable young football men who knew what winning football looked like. At first, it was enough that they were better, more professional, than the bumblers who came before them. But McBeane have systematically rebuilt the roster with their own players and vision and put the Bills on a path back to respectability.

Now the time comes for them to prove they’ve lifted the franchise to a new competitive level. The Bills begin another training camp, their 60th, on Thursday at St. John Fisher. Expectations are soaring in the third year of the McBeane era, and I have to say, I haven’t been as eager and optimistic heading into a new season since the Jim Kelly years. 

Maybe like a lot of people, I’m desperate for something different, for the Bills to be relevant and consistently competitive in the NFL for the first time in two decades. They haven’t won 10 games since 1999 — yeah, 20 years. That goes back to the Music City Miracle playoff game, the year they pulled Doug Flutie for Rob Johnson before the postseason. 

Twenty years later, the Bills appear to be on the rise again. We’ll never see a collection of elite talent like the Super Bowl team, which came together before free agency. But it has some of the same basic elements — a young franchise quarterback in Josh Allen, a top defense with several rising young stars in Tremaine Edmunds, Tre’Davious White, Matt Milano and a talented rookie lineman in Ed Oliver. 

We joke about McDermott’s “process” and his coaching mantras about leadership and character. But he’s inspired belief in the fan base and established a sense that he has them going in the right direction. In his recent letter to fans, McDermott said, 

I’m excited about the progress we have made this offseason as we worked to execute our plan of building a strong foundation. This foundation combined with true Buffalo toughness and love for one another will be instrumental as we continue to chase our vision of bringing a championship to this city. We are committed to building a team that you can be proud of both on and off the field for many years to come.

McDermott is reminding fans that they’re still building something. I’m sure he wants to manage expectations and not expect people to expect too much too soon. That’s understandable. If fans knew the Bills were going to go 9-7 this season and go to the Super bowl next year — as they did from 1989 to ’90, I’m sure they’d take it.

But you can’t blame fans for wanting to see progress right now, in Year three. And if McDermott and Beane have raised expectations beyond what might be reasonable, well, that’s a good problem. It’s about time. 

They’ve given Buffalo sports fans the most precious commodity of all: Hope. 

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THE COLUMN

7/23/19

The big question as the Bills get ready to kick off training camp on Thursday is, “How high should expectations be?” Is this the year they break through in the third year of Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane? Should they contend for the playoffs and win 10 games?

I’ve set the bar at 10 wins, which the Bills haven’t done since the 1999 season. Yeah, 20 years. They haven’t even been 6-4 after 10 games since the year 2000, when Bill Clinton was still President. We’re talking about a four-game improvement, from six wins to 10, which doesn’t seem that much to ask in a league where half the 12 playoff spots change from year to year on average. 

So with that in mind, I set out to find just how common it was for NFL teams to make that four-game jump. I went back over the last 10 seasons, from 2009-2018. What I discovered that such a leap was even more common than I thought. During that decade, there were 54 examples of NFL teams improving by at least four games from one year to the next. 

Of those 54, 35 made the playoffs after being out the previous year. All but five went from a losing record to the postseason, in a couple of cases winning the Super Bowl. There were 33 teams in the NFC and only 21 in the AFC. Several teams have done it more than once. Carolina did it every other year from 2011-17, four times. So McDermott could understand. 

Only three teams have not had at least one four-game improvement during the last 10 years. The Bills, Ravens and Steelers. Baltimore and Pittsburgh were consistently good and the Bills, who have gone the longest of any team in the league without experiencing a one-year improvement of four games, have been numbingly mediocre.

Last year, in fact, four teams improved by at least six games over the previous season: They were the Bears, who went from five wins to 12; the Texans, who went from four to 11; the Colts, who went from four wins to 10; and yes, the Browns, who went from a winless season to 7-8-1 and are now the chic pick to break through to the playoffs. 

In 2017, SEVEN teams made the jump of four wins or more, including five of the six teams that made the NFC playoffs. Two of them, the Eagles and Vikings, won 13 games and reached the NFC championship game. Philadelphia won the Super Bowl that year.

There are various reasons for breakthroughs in the NFL, a league designed to produce parity and cycles of winning. Losing teams get slightly easier schedules. They often get healthier from one year to the next. Young rosters mature, often with rising young head coaches. Other teams fall into a losing cycle. As I pointed out last week with the eight young quarterbacks whose teams improved by more than four wins in their second season, a rising QB can be a big reason.

Last year, the Browns had a top rookie quarterback, Baker Mayfield. Houston had a quarterback, Deshaun Watson, have a big season in his second year (despite a weak offensive line); Andrew Luck came back from a season-long injury in 2017.

The Bears had an elite defense with the addition of Khalil Mack — and an improving second-year franchise quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky. A year before, it was an elite defense that carried Jacksonville from three wins to within 10 minutes of a Super Bowl in the AFC title game. 

So why wouldn’t the Bills be one of the five-six teams that break through and get better by at least four wins? If any NFL expert put together a list of the teams most likely to do it this season, they would have to be somewhere near the top. 

They have the young franchise quarterback going into his second season. They have the strong defense that ranked third in yards last season and should be top 10 in points allowed if the offense becomes at least competent. They have the rising head coach in Sean McDermott. Their draft was highly rated. General manager Brandon Beane refurbished his offensive line and his wide receiver corps in the offseason.

The evidence screams that this is the Bills’ year for a breakthrough. In the third year of the Process, the bar should be elevated to 10 victories. The Patriots have won at least 10 games the last 16 seasons. Winning 10 shouldn’t be some unattainable Everest for the Bills. It’s amazing that any NFL team can go 20 years without getting there. 

A lot can happen in an NFL season. As Mark Gaughan pointed out last week, the Bills were one of the healthiest teams in the league a year ago. But they’re a team on the rise. The schedule isn’t very daunting. They might fall short, but expecting anything less than a four-game improvement is holding the Bills to a low standard, which has become a troubling tendency with Buffalo’s two major pro sports teams. 

Hold them to a high standard for once. Actually, when you examine the evidence over the last decade, going from six to 10 wins isn’t such a high standard at all.

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THE COLUMN

7/22/19

It’s finally training camp week. The Bills begin training camp on Thursday at St. John Fisher, and it can’t come too soon. Really, we’ve spent more than six months analyzing this team, talking the issues to death, it’s about time we had some actual practice to discuss. 

It used to be I said, wake me up in September. But this is one of the most anticipated Bills seasons I can remember. Expectations are soaring as we approach the third year of the Sean McDermott-Brandon Beane era — oh, and the season season for presumptive franchise quarterback Josh Allen. 

There’s a lot of pressure on McDermott and Beane to deliver on the Process, to show that they’re actually among the top young management tandems in the NFL Until now, it’s been enough for them to demonstrate base competence, to not be Doug Whaley and Rex Ryan and to lift the Bills above the status of laughingstock in the league.

Now it’s time to win, to prove they know how to identify talent and bring it along. The Bills haven’t won 10 games in a season in 20 years. They haven’t been even 6-4 after 10 games since 2000. Fans are tired of mediocrity, of acting as though nine wins were some kind of achievement during a time when the Patriots won double digit game for the last 16 seasons.

There are no five-year plans in the NFL anymore. Rebuilding is necessarily swift in a sport where half of the 12 playoff teams change every year on average. It’s time. The glow of the surprise 2017 playoff team has faded into history. This team needs to compete for a playoff spot, at the very least. The Bills need to be relevant, and I’m not talking about being on the bottom line of team that are technically “in the hunt” at 5-7 in early December.

A lot of men have a lot to prove this season. It’s a long list. But here are five who are near the top of that list as we await the start of camp on Thursday:

1. Sean McDermott. We’ve heard all about the process. McDermott hits all the right buttons with the fans. He shows leadership qualities; he’s not a self-aggrandizing clown like Ryan and he doesn’t throw his players under the bus. He’s a very good defensive coach. His teams have been extremely resilient in his two seasons, hanging together after some distressing patches of poor play. 

But he still has a lot to prove as a head coach, and as a game-day coach. At times, McDermott strikes me as the classic old school coach, stuck in archaic thinking. You know, win with defense and a strong running game. Times have changed. He needs to develop a more aggressive vision of football and a more attacking mentality on offense. 

2. Jerry Hughes. At his best, Hughes is a force at defensive end, a guy who disrupts opposing offenses and gets pressure on quarterbacks. The Bills acknowledged this with a two-year, $21.35 million contract extension, with $19.75 of that guaranteed.

Now he needs to justify that contract, which ensures he won’t be a free agent after the season. Hughes had a solid season a year ago, with seven sacks and three forced fumbles. Pro Football Focus rated him the league’s ninth best edge defender last season. He was the only consistent pass rusher on the team. But they need more from him. I know it’s not all about sacks, but Hughes can’t go weeks at a time without making a game-changing play.

He also needs to be a mature leader and keep his volatile temper under control. Hughes will be 31 next month. He’s one of only four Bills who were around in Rex Ryan’s time. No more losing his cool and hurting his team with unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Oh, and he needs to be better against the run. 

3. Zay Jones. I don’t want to hear about his statistics. Yes, he 56-652 and seven touchdowns. Much of it was garbage, numbers accumulated during blowouts and often at the end of games. The Bills played six games that were decided by a touchdown or less last season. In those half dozen games, Jones had 14 catches for 155 yards. 

He needs to be a lot better, a factor early in games. The Bills brought in two wideouts, John Brown and Cole Beasley, who also have much to prove. They might not need to rely on Jones as much in his third season. But if he doesn’t improve, if he doesn’t draw double-teams on occasion, the passing offense will struggle to be productive. Jones was an early second-round pick in McDermott’s first draft. It’s time he justified that choice.

4. Ed Oliver. Defensive players who get taken in the top 10 of the draft aren’t expected to sit and watch as rookies. They’re supposed to contribute right away, and Oliver is no exception. Getting him ninth overall was widely seen as a steal for the Bills. 

McDermott said Oliver is perfect for Buffalo’s penetrating, attack-style defense. He needs to be a force from the get-go. The retirement of Kyle Williams makes it more urgent for Oliver to have an immediate impact. If he’s not turning heads in the early days of training camp with his vaunted quickness off the line, it will be a bad sign.

5. Josh Allen, of course. You could argue that the entire revamped offensive line has a lot to prove, and that’s true. But it all gets back to the quarterback, and whether Allen will make the expected leap forward in Year Two with an improved line and receiving weapons. As I laid out last week, the best young franchise quarterbacks in the NFL have seen their teams improve by an average of 4 wins in their second season.

 All eyes will be on Allen in camp. The offensive line will help him, but franchise quarterbacks make their lines better. He needs to be a better, more accurate decision maker. If he is, people will take the O line for granted. Really, how many of Tom Brady’s linemen can you name? 

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THE COLUMN

7/18/19

Last week when I was with my son at a couple of ballgames in Philadelphia, there were moments when foul balls went sailing into the lower seats. When it happened, I found myself gasping and saying ‘Not again.” At one point, I saw a fan pointing to the area where a hard smash had gone into the crowd. Thankfully, no one had been hurt.

But this become a common reaction at Major League Baseball games nowadays, wondering when a fan will get injured next. Balls are flying off bats at alarming rates, up to 120 mph. You can tell by the home run numbers that the balls are more lively than ever. I worry that it’s only a matter of time before a pitcher, who is about 50 feet away after delivering a pitch, is seriously hurt by a line drive back at his head going well over 100 miles an hour.

But when fans have to live in fear of balls coming their way, baseball has a problem. The game is suffering from a drop in attendance, time of games, bad calls. They’re experimenting with robot umpires and time clocks and letting guys steal first base in the minors. But there’s nothing more critical than fan safety at the ballparks.

On May, 29, a 2-year-old girl was stuck in the head by a foul ball off the bat of Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. during a game in Houston. Almora was distraught afterwards. I imagine you’ve seen the footage of him moved to tears in the locker room. The little girl suffered a fractured skull, subdural bleeding, brain contusions and a brain edema.

A week later at a White Sox game in Chicago,  a ball hit into the stands in White Sox home game by Eloy Jimenez beyond the netting and down left field line hit a woman in the face, sending her to the hospital. The woman was said to be “alert and communicative” and wasn’t seriously hurt. But it was a very scary moment.

A few days later, a woman at Dodger Stadium was taken to the hospital after being hit in the head by a foul ball. It was at Dodger Stadium last August that a 79 year old woman was hit by a foul ball that struck her in the head. She died four days later, becoming first fan killed by ball at a Major League game in 50 years.

After the little girl was hit in Houston, ESPN conducted a study in which fans voted by a margin of 78 percent to 22 percent that netting is a good idea because it protects fans who often don’t have enough time to react to foul balls or bats that fly into stands.  Opponents said it obstructs fans’ views, and people know and understand the risks of getting hit.

Yeah, tell that to the family of the 13-year-old girl who died when she was hit in the head by a hockey puck in Columbus in 2002. The NHL went to netting to shield seats behind the the goals and in corners of every rink that June, three months later. I don’t hear people complaining about their view being obstructed at hockey games. 

MLB rules mandate that netting extends to the end of the dugouts. commissioner  Rob Manfred recently said that extending or not extending the meeting beyond the dugouts will be left up to individual teams for now.

“We recognized early in this process that it was very difficult to set an individual rule, one rule that applied to 30 different ballparks given their structural differences, and instead we have opted to work with the individual clubs over a period of time to extend netting,” Manfred said.

The White Sox committed to a change after the woman was hit; Rangers said they would extend their netting down the line, though not all the way to the foul poles. 

I imagine MLB is reluctant to issue a blanket order to all teams right now, probably because they worry about litigation in the meantime and the hassle of teams having to put up netting during the season. But the league needs to take control of this issue as soon as possible and mandate netting beyond the current rules — I would say all the way to the foul poles, just to be sure, regardless of criticisms.

They can’t wait until someone dies. You know damn well if someone dies, they’ll act immediately. This is more important than balls and strikes. It’s life and death. If they don’t act soon, it’s only a matter of time before someone gets killed, and almost certain there will be more accidents that send people to the hospital.

It’s also time MLB took a more serious look at the baseballs, which are part of the problem. The league did a study and admits they’re more lively — juiced, if you will. They say the balls are hand-stitched and there can be variations. Whatever the case, they’ve become missiles, weapons that are putting people and pitchers in danger. 

Fix the problem, baseball, before it’s too late.

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THE COLUMN

7/17/19

At this time of the year, it has always been hard for a columnist to come up with a topic. Over the years, I learned one basic rule: When in doubt, write about the quarterback.

The quarterback is always the big issue in Buffalo, and it’s never been more true than it is now, with Josh Allen going into his second season and expectations soaring for he Bills in year three of the McDermott-Beane era. The question, of course, is how high expectations should be. What’s fair for our young, dynamic, athletically gifted QB?

The answer is, they should be high. 

Fans and media are optimistic about Allen. They love his talent, his arm, his competitive demeanor, his upside. And with justificiation. So. It’s only fair to compare Allen to the guys who have succeeded at a high level, the young quarterbacks who have met expectations in their second NFL seasons and in some cases exceeded them. If you want him to be among the best, you compare him to the best. The standard is necessarily lofty.

So with that in mind, I took the eight current franchise quarterbacks who have been drafted in the top 12 over the last eight years who have made the Pro Bowl. That’s the group Allen needs to be compared with, the guys who broke through in their second years and lived up to the hype and — most important of all — won. 

This might sound like a Thermostat, and it would make a good one, but it’s bigger than a daily statistic. Josh Allen is the story, every day, and with training camp a week away, it’s time to lay out the expectations and set the stage for a compelling second season.

Here’s the eight quarterbacks in the study and when they were drafted: It goes back to 2011 and Cam Newton, taken first overall by Carolina; Andrew Luck, first overall to the Colts in 2012; Jameis Winston, first overall to the Bucs in 2015; Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, who went 1 and 2 overall to the Rams and Eagles in 2016; Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, who went second, 10th and 12th in 2017, all to teams that traded for the rights to draft them. 

So I added up the combined passing stats for the eight quarterbacks in their second season and averaged them over a full 16-game season. Five of them did start all 16 games in Year Two. Wentz started the fewest with 13 the year the Eagles went to the Super Bowl.

They went 2,516 for 4,058 passing, exactly 62 percent accuracy, for 31,366 yards. The average season for them was 315 of 507 passing for 3,920 yards. They combined for 231 touchdown passes and 86 interceptions. That’s an average of 29 TDs and 11 picks.

Since Allen’s running skills are such a big part of the package, I averaged the rushing numbers for the eight QBs in their second seasons, too. They combined for 562 carries for 2,877 yards and 24 TDs: Average — 70 for 360, 3 TDs. I imagine Josh can reach that standard.

The thing that was most striking to me was their teams’ records as starters in that second year. All but one, Winston, had a winning record in Year Two and six won at least 11 games. Five of them started all 16 games. Their aggregate record was 83-39, or a winning percentage of .680. That translates to a record of 11 wins. 

All of their teams got better except the Colts, who went 11-5 in Luck’s second year after going 11-5 when he was a rookie. Most of their teams got appreciably better in their second season. The teams were a combined 53-75 when they were rookies, which averages out to 6.6 wins. Their second year, the average record was just under 11 wins.

So in their second seasons, these eight QBs helped improve their teams by four games on average, from roughly six to 10 wins. So shouldn’t the Bills be expected to win 10 games in Allen’s second season? It’s a high bar, I guess, but it’s the exact bar if you’re comparing him to the quarterbacks who have been drafted high and succeeded in the last seven years or so.

I’m comparing him to the top guys, though it’s debatable whether some of the younger players, like Trubisky and Goff and Watson and even Mahomes, will continue to perform and win at a high level. But the evidence is there. In today’s NFL, franchise quarterbacks are expected to prove it quickly, and the record shows that happens in Year Two.

Hopes for Allen are soaring. People expect him to be the Bills’ best quarterback since Jim Kelly, not a disappointment like EJ Manuel or many other first-round QBs who didn’t live up to their draft status. So it’s fair to compare him with the ones who did so. 

That’s why I picked the players who won and made Pro Bowls. Not the likes of Marcus Mariota, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Christian Ponder and Blake Bortles.

Fair? I think so. Maybe we can’t expect Allen to do what Patrick Mahomes did for the Chiefs a year ago. But to reach the average level of this gang of eight and win 10 games? That’s the bar. The story of the coming season is how close he comes to reaching it.

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THE COLUMN

7/12/19

A wild offseason in the NBA got even crazier on Thursday when the Houston Rockets traded Chris Paul, two first round draft picks and pick swaps in 2021 and 2025 to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook.

This is a stunner, a deal that will make an improved Western Conference even more compelling. It’s not often that you see two superstars and future Hall of Famers traded for on another in sports. Paul and Westbrook are two of the most dynamic and polarizing guards in the game, making this one of the most fascinating swaps in league history.

The big winner here? Some suggest it’s the Rockets and Sam Presti, who unloaded Paul, an aging superstar (34) who is regarded as a bad teammate who couldn’t get along with James Harden in Houston.  The Rockets now have the two recent MVPs in the same backcourt. Westbrook won Most Valuable Player in 2017 and has averaged a triple-double three years in a row. Harden won MVP in 2018 and has led the league in scoring two years in a row.

I’m not so sure about that. Houston now has two of the more overrated players in the sport in the same backcourt. Westbrook and Harden will put on a show, put up triple-doubles and gaudy statistics  and get on TV all the time, but they have rarely played at their top level when it really mattered, in big playoff games.

How does this make the Rockets appreciably better? If Harden couldn’t co-exist with Paul, how will he thrive with Westbrook, a player has never played off the ball and demands it in his hands. This isn’t Kevin Durant blending in with the Splash Brothers, it’s two notorious gunners trying to win together. 

It won’t work, not in the playoffs when it becomes more of a half-court game and you can’t rely on the three-point shot and ball-hogging guards to carry you. Ask the Warriors, who struggled without Durant in the Finals, or the Rockets, who fell short two years in a row when a team built around Harden fell on its face in the clutch against Golden State.

Westbrook is a terrible three-point shooter — statistically the least accurate of any player who shot a significant number last season. He has shot under 30 percent from 3 in four of the last five seasons. But he hasn’t stopped firing them up. He’s even worse in the playoffs. The Thunder have lost three years in a row since Durant left, making Westbrook the clear focus of the offense. In those three playoffs, Westbrook shot 38 percent. He had games of 11-31 5-21, 5-20 5-17, 6-23 and 10-28 in playoff losses. 

Superstar? Hardly, and at 30, Westbrook has taken a bigger pounding than most players his age. He and Harden will both be over 30 next season. They’re in their late primes. This smacks as desperation by a Rockets franchise that was embarrassed in the playoffs this past season and needs to win right away, to counter what the Clippers and Lakers have done and take advantage of the Warriors falling back while Harden is still on top of his game.

I’m not seeing it. Paul has never made the Finals and isn’t a great teammate, but he’s a better all-around player than Westbrook. How does this make Houston better? The Lakers and Clippers are better. I think the Nuggets and Blazers are better. In a playoff series, I’d still take the Warriors with Curry and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. 

The Thunder is the winner here. They were ready to rebuild after Paul George demanded a trade to join Kawhi Leonard with the Clippers. They were happy to unload Westbrook, who has $170 million left on his contract. Sam Presti has now picked up eight future first-round picks this offseason. As Adrian Wojnarowski reported on ESPN, Oklahoma City could wheel Paul and picks for even more assets that will make them a contender down the road.

The Thunder made the Finals seven years ago with Harden, Durant and Westbrook. They haven’t been back. They chose to keep Westbrook over Harden after the ’12 Finals, a big mistake in retrospect. They watched Durant walk away to the Warriors three years ago. Now the last of the Big Three is gone, and they’re still waiting for their first title. But at least they’ve made the wise decision to move on from Westbrook, the statistical superstar.

I could see the Rockets missing the playoffs next season. Think about it: The Warriors will make it. So will the Lakers and Clippers. Denver and Portland are playoff teams. Utah is a solid playoff team that could ascend to the top four. That’s six. I’d never rule out the Spurs. The Pelicans are a threat with Zion Williamson. 

Westbrook and Harden is an experiment that could blow up in the Rockets’ face pretty quickly. Westbrook might get frustrated deferring to Harden and playing off the ball. The Rockets shoot more threes than any team and he’s a bad three-point shooter. He takes a lot of bad shots and that isn’t likely to change. Westbrook had Paul George and couldn’t get out of the first round. You could argue that George is a more complete player than Harden.

I’m sure TNT and ESPN will inundate us with Houston games next season, because fans can’t get enough of Westbrook’s triple doubles and Harden’s three-point barrages and 50-point performances. Come next spring, when LeBron and Anthony Davis and Leonard and Nikola Jokic are winning in the playoffs, they’ll be reminded that it’s a show that doesn’t win big when it really matters.

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THE COLUMN

7/1/19

NHL free agency begins officially at noon today. The Sabres are expected to be active in some capacity. But they got a head start on revamping the roster Friday when they  acquired defenseman Colin Miller from the Vegas Golden Knights for a 2021 second-round pick and a 2022 fifth-rounder. 

Not a bad deal for embattled general manager Jason Botterill, getting a top four defenseman without giving up a player in return. 

This tells me Botterill is feeling the heat to win right away under new head coach Ralph Krueger, and that he needed to bolster his shabby blue line. But more than anything, it looks like Botterill is paving the way for a deal to ship Rasmus Ristolainen out of town, presumably for a top six forward. 

Botterill tried to downplay the obvious connection to a Ristolainen deal. “There’s going to be rumors because he’s a player teams want to go after and teams want to have,” Botterill told reporters Saturday.

Krueger said right-handed defensemen are valuable commodity and he’s never going to complain about having too much depth. But Sabres fans would complain heartily about this team’s distressing lack of offensive depth and need for viable second-line players.

All you had to do was read between the lines. Botterill said the trade gave him “options” on his defense and “flexibility” in his lineup. 

Flexibility in his lineup? Flexibility isn’t something you talk about when you have a thin roster and a team that, outside of a fluke 10-game streak, has been the worst team in the NHL the last two seasons. Krueger said he loves internal competition within a team. That’s great. This team needs more offensive talent, and the guys in charge know it. 

Word during the draft was that Botterill was shopping Ristolainen vigorously. He needs to make a major deal and Risto is the obvious choice, one of the few tradable veterans with a friendly contract and the kind of offensive skill that makes other teams believe he can blossom given a change of scenery and a better supporting cast. 

There’s been suggestions that Ristolainen asked for a trade, that he’s tired of losing and wants to continue his career elsewhere. Botterill was coy about the rumors, saying he wouldn’t reveal conversations he’s had with his players. 

Of course the GM wasn’t going to admit he’s tried to move Ristolainen. He doesn’t want to compromise his leverage with other teams — even though it’s common knowledge that Risto is on the block. I suspect that’s one reason that Botterill emphasized the positive meetings between Krueger and Ristolainen, which he reiterated at development camp.

I imagine Sabres fans recoil in horror when they hear that Ristolainen is tired of losing. It hits too close to home. It’s a little soon after Ryan O’Reilly won the Stanley Cup and Smythe Trophy, one year after the Sabres moved him because he said he had lost his passion for the game and grown too accustomed to losing. 

No doubt Botterill is uneasy about it, too. He was the laughingstock of the league when O’Reilly walked away with all that hardware. He can’t relish the prospect of moving another player and having him thrive on another team and maybe make a heroic playoff run.

Too bad. Botterill hasn’t done much to justify his reputation as a personnel savant, but I think he’s secure enough to make the sort of bold deals that could expose him to ridicule. If he resists trading Ristolainen because he’s afraid of being embarrassed, he has no business being a general manager in the NHL. He needs to be better than that. 

All the evidence suggests he’s ready to move on from Risto. He has now made two traded for right side defensemen — Miller and Montour — which is a clear sign that he’s setting up for a trade for Ristolainen. Even before the Miller deal, I thought the Montour deal was made with an eye toward the future and a Risto trade. 

Ristolainen has the kind of physical assets that make other teams feel they can fix him. There’s talk that Krueger could do that. But I’ve seen enough. Let some other franchise treat him like some hot young prospect just waiting to be unleashed, rather than a six-year veteran who still plays defense like a dumb, rank rookie. 

Risto is minus-143 during his six years in Buffalo, the worst figure in the league during that time. Last year, it was minus-41. You can scoff at plus-minus, blame his teammates, his coaches, his goalies, his playing time. The guy is a defensive sieve, and if some other GM sees unrealized greatness in him, that’s great for Botterill and the Sabres.

Get a top six forward for Ristolainen and move on. Let some other sucker try to fix him.

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THE COLUMN

6/28/19

At 3 p.m. today Eastern time — 9 p.m. in Paris — the United States women will take on France in the World Cup quarterfinals. It’s being called the biggest game in women’s soccer history, which considering the sport’s popularity and the prominence of the women’s game would make it the biggest sporting event in women’s history. 

That might be debatable, but what’s not debatable is the continuing rise of women’s soccer, and women’s sports in general, in this country and around the globe. TV ratings, which were big for the women in 2015, could reach an all-time high. In France, the public is going crazy for the women’s team, which has never won the Cup or made the Final. France is looking to become the first country to hold the men’s and women’s titles at the same time.

Today’s game, which would have been a compelling Final, has been sold out for weeks. Tickets are going for up to $2200 on the resale market. The French women have relegated the men’s team to the inside pages of the newspapers in Paris. 

This is a great moment for women’s soccer, which struggles to catch up to the men’s game in popularity and financial support. As a side plot to the Americans’ attempt to win consecutive titles for the first time, the women have a pending lawsuit against its national federation for unequal support compared with the nation’s far less successful and popular men’s national team. 

I can’t believe it’s been 20 years since the U.S. women won the Cup in an epic shootout against China in 1999. That was the year the women’s game really took hold in this country. Who could forget Brandi Chastain scoring the winning penalty kick, dropping to her knees and ripping off her jersey down to her sports bra? It made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Women’s sports have soared since then. Just yesterday, Kara Lawson became the fourth woman hired to be an assistant coach for an NBA team. 

We’re coming up on a year until the next Olympics, when women athletes get to shine and be equal. At the last two Olympics, there were more women on the American teams than men. I’ve covered eight Olympics and watching and interviewing the women was the most rewarding part. 

I covered the women’s soccer team in London, watched the gymnasts win gold, saw a softball game where Lisa Fernandez lost the game — and her perfect game — on one pitch in extra innings. I was there for the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan soap opera in 1994. 

I met Serena Williams in 2012, watched the American women’s basketball team dominate. I saw the first Olympic women’s boxing tournament and the first women’s Olympic golf tournament at Rio. I was there when Fredonia’s Jenn Suhr won the gold medal in the pole vault, becoming the first Western New York native ever to win a gold medal in track; and I was there four years ago when Emily Regan won gold in the women’s eight, making her the first local ever to win a rowing gold at the Games.

One reason I always enjoyed covering women’s sports is that they appreciate the moment and the opportunity more. They don’t tend to take what they have for granted. Title IX was passed in 1972, a year before I went to college, guaranteeing females equal resources in sports. They’ve come a long way, but still have a long way to go in this culture. 

It’s important to take time to celebrate women’s sports, around the world and here in our own back yard. So with that in mind, I’m happy to welcome to the studio one of the greatest teams in local high school history. 

Two weeks ago, the Williamsville East girls softball team won the state championship to complete a perfect season. With us today are long-time head coach Chris Durr and four members of that title team — sophomore Summer Clarke; senior pitcher Cara Leone; senior Rachel Steffan; and senior Christy Mack, who homered to snap a scoreless tie in the Class A title game, a 3-0 win over Ballston Spa.

Welcome to the show and again, congratulations on the championship.

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THE COLUMN

6/26/19

One thing you have to say about LeSean McCoy. The guy isn’t lacking for confidence. He’s made it clear in recent interviews that he intends to be the featured back for the Bills this season and be the elite player he was before turning 30. 

It’s hard to replace a guy like me,” McCoy said Saturday on PennLive. “The front office got me some big hogs up front. And we’ll see what happens this year. I feel good and hopefully this year will speak for itself.”

“I use age and that type of thing to motivate me,” McCoy added. “My whole life I’ve kind of been the underdog. Is he big enough? Is he tough enough? Can he play in the pros? I feel like guys like myself come around every once in a while and I want to stick to that. I’m up for it.”

A week earlier, McCoy told the News, “I’m a dominant player. I think that speaks for itself. But I’ll be in the same role as last year … With the rookie, you know, we’ll try to fit them in there. But I expect to be the main workhorse.”

It’s interesting how McCoy refers to Devin Singletary as “the rookie,” rather than call him by his name. Shady is a sly character, you need to read between the lines. It seems he’s trying to minimize Singletary’s presence, put him in his place and downplay the threat he poses to his playing time. 

Notice that he’s also quick to point out that Bills management has added “some big hogs up front.” Shady wants to remind everyone that the shabby offensive line was the big reason that he had such a poor rushing performance a year ago — his 3.2 yards per carry was 48th out of 49 qualifying running backs in the NFL. Only LeGarrette Blount, a lumping 32-year-old, was worse.

It wasn’t only the offensive line. According to Mike Rodak, McCoy had the worst yards after contact of any back in the league last year. He wasn’t the same back who rushed for 1,267 and had a career-high 5.4. yards per carry in 2017. Shady has the dynamic, slashing style that requires him to cut on a dime and make people miss. It’s not a style that wears well after the age of 30.

McCoy will be 31 when the season starts. Bills management says it shares his confidence. Brandon Beane went out of his way after drafting Devin Singletary to declare that Shady is the starter. But their actions told a different story. But taking Singletary with the 74th pick of the draft — along with bringing in Frank Gore — the Bills announced their reservations about McCoy. 

Maybe he’s right. McCoy might be the rare back who declines late in his career and bounces back to dominant form. But the signs are troubling and hard to ignore. We point to his weak numbers a year ago, but the decline began a year earlier, when the Bills still had Eric Wood and Richie Incognito. His drop in yards per carry — from 5.4 to 4.0 — was the biggest ever by an NFL 1,000-yard running back.

The Bills had a lot of needs and were not expected to take a running back in the third round. They wouldn’t have taken Singletary that high if they didn’t expect him to have an immediate impact. 

Nowadays, rookie running backs tend to contribute right away, even the ones who were taken in later rounds. I examined the top 16 NFL running backs in yards from scrimmage from last season. Of those 16, nine had more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage as rookies. That includes the Broncos’ Philip Lindsay, who was undrafted last season, Alvin Kamara, the 67th pick in the 2017 draft, and Kareem Hunt, who went 86th in that same draft. 

This isn’t the NHL, where you draft kids with the thought of grooming them in the minors and seeing them break through two or three years down the road. The NFL is a Now league and if Singletary is as good as the Bills believe, and as good as he looked in OTAs, he’ll be on the field. A lot. 

At some point, McCoy’s continue presence on the team will become a problem. He’s too proud a man, too obsessed with his legacy and the Hall of Fame, to quietly concede playing time to a rookie. He makes a point to show deference to Gore, who is 36 and the fourth-leading rusher of all time. But anyone blocking his way will be an issue at some point. 

We know McCoy desperately wants to make the Hall of Fame, to put up statistics that will make it hard for the electors to pass him over when his time comes. 

McCoy is currently 25th on the career rushing list with 10,606 yards. If he gains 1,000 more yards, he will move to 18th, passing the likes of O.J. Simpson. He would move past four backs who are retired and eligible but have not made it into the Hall. Yards matter at this point in his career and he knows it. 

The guy is a team captain and presumed leader. But his actions over the years don’t scream leadership. He was benched for the start of last year’s finale when he was late for a bus — it came a few days after Shady scoffed at a reporter for suggesting he might yield to rookie Keith Ford as the featured back against the Pats in a meaningless game. 

It’s hard to see McCoy on the roster at the end of the season. I think Singletary will lead the team in rushing and push 1,000 yards from scrimmage. McCoy will say all the right things, but if he’s dwelling on personal achievement, he doesn’t fit into the selfless McDermott team culture. Josh Allen is the leader now. It’s his offense, and when McCoy is off the field, there will be times when he is actually the elder statesman among the offensive 11. 

The Bills would save $6.4 million of McCoy’s $9 million salary cap hit if they released him at the end of the preseason. So this is a fluid situation and will make for an interesting training camp. Shady might be in contention for Canton, but on this year’s Bills, he might simply be in the way. His various off-field issues don’t make things any easier.

He says it’s hard to replace a guy like him. Yeah, the player Shady was in his prime. The guy we saw the last two years? He won’t be very hard to replace at all.

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THE COLUMN

6/25/19

BOBBY, we never wrapped up our poll on Monday. To review, the voting public weighed in on the Sabres’ draft and a resounding 62 percent of respondents gave it a B. Twenty-one percent rated it a C and only 10 percent an 7. Seven percent gave them a D. 

So fans figure the Sabres had an OK draft, but it’s too soon to say whether it’ll be a very good one. But do you know who had a great draft last weekend, which hockey entity had maybe the best draft in its history: The United States. 

Yes, 59 Americans were selected in the 2019 Entry Draft in Vancouver. For the first time ever, seven of the first 15 players chosen were from the U.S., including first overall pick Jack Hughes of Orlando, Fla., to the Devils. Eight Americans taken in the opening round came from USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. 

The Americans taken in the top 15: Hughes, Alex Turcotte, an Illinois native, who went fifth; Trevor Zegras, from Bedford, N.Y., went to the Ducks at nine; Matthew Boldy of tiny Millis, Mass., taken by the Minnesota Wild at No. 12;  Spencer Knight, native of Stamford, Ct., 13th to the Panthers;  Cameron York, a Californian, went 14th to the Flyers; and Cole Caulfield of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, the sniper who went 15th to the Montreal Canadiens. 

Hughes was the eighth American to go first overall. Brian Lawton, from Mt St. Charles High in Rhode Island, was the first in 1983 when the North Stars took him. Oh, Americans went third and fifth that year, too. Pat LaFontaine went third to the Islanders and the Sabres took a goaltender from Boston, Mass., named Tom Barrasso.

Mike Eruzione, captain of the team that stunned the Russians won gold at Lake Placid in 1980, told the New York Times the number of elite players the United States is developing today is “off the charts” compared with his playing days. The 1980 Olympic team was made up of former college players, including several, like Eruzione, who were undrafted.

Yes, the NHL draft used to be a testament to Canada’s utter domination of the sport. In 1980, the year of the U.S. Olympic miracle, there were 21 players taken in the first round of the draft. Twenty were Canadians. The other was Rik Wilson, a defenseman taken by the Blues. 

Maybe it was that Olympic miracle that was a turning point for American hockey. Lawton went first three years later. In 1986, a record seven Americans went in the first round, including Jimmy Carson and Brian Leetch. A year later, the draft was held in the U.S. for the first time at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. In 1988, Mike Modano became the second American taken first overall.

The number of Americans taken in the first round rose to eight in 2003 and 2005, and 10 in 2006. In 2007, Buffalo’s Patrick Kane went first and James van Riemsdyk went second, making it the first time U.S.-born players went 1-2. A record 12 Americans were taken in the first round in the 2016 draft. 

As we found out in our interviews at the time of the Frozen Four in Buffalo this past winter, college hockey is surging in the United States as more and more top players move on from the national development program to the colleges. So. It’s no surprise that the rise in player development would be reflected in the draft.

We often criticize the lack of support for hockey in southern U.S. cities, and Sabres fans are envious when places like Carolina and Tampa win the Stanley Cup. But the expansion into non-traditional markets in warm weather cities has helped the sport. More children who come of age in the south, Southwest and California are playing the sport. 

It shows at the top of the draft. In the last five years, there have been 12 Americans taken in the top 10. In the five years before, there were three. 

The “American development model,” put in place by USA Hockey 10 years ago, has emphasized skill, making kids play 3 on 3 cross-ice games that put a premium on skating and puck skills. The skating skills have improved appreciably. The development program, which began in 1996, selected 22 of the top 16-year-olds in the nation and prepares them over two years for careers in college, international hockey and the pros. 

Meanwhile, The NBA has become an international phenomenon, fulfilling the promise that David Stern saw when he sent the original Dream Team to the ’92 Olympics. Monday night’s awards ceremony was a vivid example. MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, from Greece; Rookie of the Year, Luca Doncic of Slovenia; defensive player of the year, Rudy Gobert of France; most improved player, Pascal Siakam of Cameroon. League champion: Toronto Raptors for the first time. The top three bigs on the champions: Marc Gasol, Spain, and Serge Ibaka, the Congo, and Siakam, Cameroon

There were six Canadians selected in the two-round NBA draft last week, the most ever from a non-U.S. country in a single year. R.J. Barrett, from Toronto, went third overall to the Knicks. So as hockey becomes more American, basketball becomes more Canadian. 

And both sports are better for it.

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THE COLUMN

6/24/19

The Sabres took a center, Dylan Cozens, at seventh overall in the NHL draft on Friday night. Predictably, some of the more supportive media called it a steal. Cozens fell to them. It was a stroke of good fortune, much like Ed Oliver falling to the Bills with the ninth overall pick of the NFL draft in April.

Look, I don’t know Dylan Cozens from Dylan Thomas. He might become the next Gil Perrault. But I’ve learned not to assume the best about any move the Sabres make. Casey Mittelstadt “fell to them” at eight two years ago. He might develop into a star, but overestimating his ability to be the No. 2 center last season at age 20 was a major miscalculation. 

Sabres fans were excited about Alex Nylander and Brendan Guhle, Nikita Zadorov and Mikhail Grigorenko, Joel Armia and Zack Kassian. I won’t bore you by going back any further. It’s become a reflex to assume the best about the Bills and Sabres, especially among the media who are in business with the teams. After awhile, they lose the benefit of the doubt.

Ralph Krueger, the new head coach, called Cozens “perfect”. He loves his size and speed and overall ability, his character of course. Krueger was asked on the draft telecast what he liked best about the team’s roster and the first word out of his mouth was “youth”. It’s important, of course, to remind people that this underachieving team is still young and on the rise.

Krueger quickly mentioned the Pegulas — we can’t forget how much they’ve done for Buffalo hockey — and said they’re on the cusp everything is in place for the Sabres to take it to “another level”.  I had high hopes for Krueger. I thought he’d come in and take a harsh look at the operation. It seems he’s more interested in propping up Botterill and the existing roster. 

Well, they ought to be on the cusp. The Sabres have now picked in the top eight in seven consecutive drafts. Last season, they had eight players on their roster who had been picked in the top 10. Cozens thinks he can play in the NHL right away, so maybe they’ll have another next season. 

So Botterill has a delicate balancing act. He needs to show progress right away in the fifth year of Jack Eichel and sixth year of Sam Reinhart. At the same time, he’s trying to build through the draft after inheriting a mess from Tim Murray, who squandered his team’s organizational depth in an attempt to win in the short term and gussy up his own reputation.

Botterill has received high praise for his earlier drafts, though it didn’t take a genius to draft Rasmus Dahlin first overall last year, a pick that was the consequence of putting together the NHL’s worst team in his first year as GM. He took a team with 81 and 78 points before his arrival and took it to the bottom with a head coach, Phil Housley, that was over his head and got fired.

Yes, three of his picks from the ’17 draft, including Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Oskari Laaksonon and Jacob Bryson, are seen as top NHL prospects who will fortify the Sabres in coming years. But it’s funny how Sabres prospects seem so promising in the pipeline, but so disappointing when they hit the big-time. 

Cozens might be the rare talent who can contribute right away. But the Sabres are likely to bring him along slowly, particularly after seeing Mittelstadt struggle. Botterill and Krueger would like fans to be patient, but how long can fans wait? I don’t imagine they’re in the mood to blame Tim Murray and wait for the teen-agers to develop.

What, are supposed to believe that Botterill was rebuilding all along, that he needed five years to see all his draft gems come of age? When will the fans get a playoff team, when Jack Eichel is in his seventh NHL season two years from now and Cozens is ready? In the third year of Jeff Skinner’s eight-year, $72 million contract?

You lose the benefit of the doubt when you deal O’Reilly for the likes of Vlad Sobotka, Tage Thompson and Patrick Berglund, and when you bring in such limited talents as Nathan Beaulieu and Marco Scandella to the league’s worst blueline. 

The fact is, they were desperate to pick a center high — and pass on Cole Caulfield — because of their own miscalculations over the year. Murray took Reinhart second overall after the worst season in franchise history. They drafted him as a center, but he didn’t make it at center. Botts took Mittelstadt in 2017 and he was slow to develop. Then he traded O’Reilly, creating a huge hole at No. 2 center that Mittelstadt wasn’t ready to fill.

Fans don’t want to hear about youth, or about the kids in the minor leagues who will be coming to the rescue in the next few years. They want to win now. Botterill’s reputation is on the line and he knows it. If this team is really “on the cusp,” as Krueger contends, it’s his job to nudge it over and make it a genuine playoff contender.

Botterill has $19 million in cap space after overpaying Skinner. He has money to spend on a free agent. He also could move one of his more marketable veterans, most notably defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen — though Krueger has been glowing about Risto and there’s talk that he’ll be able to get the best out of the guy.

They’re young. They’re on the cusp. They have a pipeline of rising talent in the minors. They have more top 10 picks than any other team in the NHL. Now they have a steal in Dylan Cozens. Be patient. Surely, a Stanley Cup is right around the corner.

_

THE COLUMN

6/20/19

In case you missed it, Wednesday was the 20th anniversary of the Brett Hull no-goal in the 1999 Finals. Throughout the day, Buffalo sports fans revived their resentments over that historic loss. They shared stories and recalled where they were on that fateful day in June. Apparently, they’re still talking about it. 

It was a fun exercise, I hope, a way to mark our dubious recent sports history. But it also seemed a little sad, like Western New Yorkers embracing their role as cuddly little losers. Too many of our sporting memories are negative ones, grim recollections of bad calls or bad behavior or bad luck. 

Where were you when Norwood missed the kick? With family or friends? In some bar. In Tampa, maybe. How about Home Run Throwback, or Game 6 against Carolina in ’06. Where were you the night of the O.J. Bronco chase, when being a Buffalo sports fan changed forever?

Buffalo fans embraced their regret. It’s become part of their identity, the lovable losers. There’s something to be said for that, to be known as the generous souls who contribute to Andy Dalton’s charity after his miracle pass breaks a 17-year playoff drought, or raising money for students in the name of the great Bills fan, Ezra Castro — Pancho Billa. 

There’s a nobility in being the city that bears up under repeated crushing setbacks and reminds the world that there are more important things than winning championships. But we should be careful. At some point, embracing loss becomes acceptance. There’s a certain rationalization that looks pathetic from a distance. 

Buffalo fans are gracious losers, but they celebrate the misfortune of Boston teams. They convince themselves that Ryan O’Reilly winning the Stanley Cup and the Smythe is less an embarrassment because it prevented another Beantown team from winning a title. 

I came to Buffalo at a time where fans expected their teams to win, when the Sabres made the playoffs almost every season and the Bills went to the playoffs nine times in 11 years — and reached four Super Bowls. At some point, a lot of fans started accepting a lower standard, around the time they started believing losing four Super Bowls in a row might be better than actually winning one. 

When you lower the standard and embrace the loser’s identity, you enable the people running the teams. Instead of taking the Pegulas to task, you tell yourself you’re lucky to have two majors professional teams, thanks to them. You’re more likely to give them a pass. 

You celebrate base competence in the men running the teams. It’s enough that they’re not rank incompetents like the executives who came before them. Routine personnel moves are greeted as if they were moves of genius. It’s OK for Sean McDermott to show up, having never been an NFL head coach, and allow him to run the draft after showing up in town. 

The need to hope and believe eventually exceeds the reality. Rather than take a skeptical view of Ralph Krueger, Buffalo sports fans treat him like some kind of hockey savior, resurrected from the world of soccer and destined to lift up the chronic underachievers at KeyBank Center. 

If this makes me seem negative, so be it. I long for a return to the days when Buffalo sports fans aspired to a higher standard, when they expected excellence and didn’t leap to accept average, when they weren’t so quick to excuse the dysfunction and see hope around every bend. I have a well-earned skepticism and I’m too old to change.

Buffalo fans need to stop hoping for progress and demanding it. Sure, there are encouraging signs at One Bills Drive. But don’t anoint Brandon Beane as some personnel savant until the players he’s brought in justify the expectations. It’s not enough to fill out a roster, he’s supposed to be constructing a consistent winner.

The same goes for McDermott. He’s a fine defensive coach. We still need to find out about him as a head coach, a game manager. It’s fine to talk about the process and football character, but his football vision is on trial now. At times, he comes off as too steeped in the old days. 

Jason Botterill? If handing eight years and $72 million to Jeff Skinner is some kind of personnel coup, people need to hold the GM to a higher standard. His vision of defensive hockey is very much in question, much like McDermott’s vision of offensive football. 

Maybe these are harsh criticisms, but they’re fair ones. They’re the kind of criticisms you hear in towns where the teams win, and where fans and media demand that the people running their teams don’t become complacent about success. 

That’s what Buffalo fans need to do: Demand success. Don’t be cheered by rank competence. Act like you’ve had great teams before. At this point, you should be suspicious of your sports teams, not blindly accepting of anything that doesn’t smack of mediocrity.

You deserve more than just having the teams remain in Buffalo. You deserve teams that are well-run and that win. 

People should be sick and tired of Buffalo being a cuddly, lovable loser. In the end, a lovable loser is still a loser.

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THE COLUMN

6/19/19

My first baseball hero was an Italian-American kid from East Boston named Tony Conigliaro. Tony C felt like one of ours, a New England kid whose family lived near my Italian relatives in Beantown. In 1964, he came up to the Red Sox and hit 20 home runs as a 19-year-old for his hometown team . He holds the MLB record for home runs by a teen-ager and got to 100 homers faster than any other player in American League history.

My greatest disappointment as a young fan was when Tony C was beaned and nearly killed in a game in August of 1967, the year the Red Sox won a surprise pennant. He missed an entire season and though he came back to have a couple of decent seasons, Conigliaro was never the same and died young of a brain aneurism when he was only 45. 

Right now, there are 55 players on pace for 30 homers in Major League Baseball. Tony C led the AL in homers with 32 when he was 20. Homers meant something back then. The kid in me is kind of proud he set his record during a time when pitchers ruled and homers weren’t cheapened.

Conigliaro was the only American Leaguer to hit more than 30 homers that season. A guy named Rocky Colavito was fifth with 26 for the Indians. He was one of the most feared power hitters in the league, third all-time among AL  right-handed hitters in homers at the time. 

I was too young to know it at the time, but Colavito was Cleveland’s version of Conigliaro — right from the capital C to the O at the end — a handsome, boyish and charismatic right-handed hitter who was the most popular player in his city, and especially beloved in the Italian-American community. Colavito wasn’t from Cleveland, but the people there embraced him and considered him their own. 

While I knew about Colavito in the mid-60s, I wasn’t even aware it was his second stint with the Indians, that he was traded from Cleveland to Detroit in 1960 in one of the most controversial and hated move that made Frank Lane, the general manager, one of the most reviled characters in the the city’s history — right up there with Art Modell.

Colavito was a remarkable and, until now, undertold story. That story has finally been written by a former colleague of mine. Mark Sommer, the award-winning veteran reporter for the Buffalo News, a gifted and versatile journalist who can write about any subject but has a special love for baseball, has written the definite biography of Colavito — “Rocky Colavito, Cleveland’s Iconic Slugger.”

The book will be published on July 5, but it’s currently available at rockycolavitobiography.com. It’s the definitive biography and goes into great depth about the trade, the reaction among stunned Cleveland fans and his return to the city. Sommer spent hours interviewing former players and spent hours with Colavito, who was his typically gracious and accommodating self. 

Cleveland fans were crushed when Rocky was traded in 1960. I imagine for a young boy, innocent and newly fascinated with the great game of baseball, it was like having Tony C get beaned as a rising young slugger and wondering if he’d ever suit up for the Red Sox again. 

The Colavito book is a great read for any fan, but especially for those of us who came of age as young baseball fans in the 1950s and 60s. It was a simpler time then, and players tended to stay in their towns longer. That’s what makes Rocky’s story so iconic and worthy of remembering.

Mark Sommer gives baseball lovers an overdue gem with his Colavito biography, and I’m privileged to have my former News colleague in the studio this morning to talk about it — and sports in general, I imagine.

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THE COLUMN

6/18/19

Back in the day, when I didn’t have a single issue to write about, but had a number of various issues on my mind, I had a name for it. Let’s say we column as I see ‘em:

The Red Sox began a series Monday at Minnesota, which entered the game on pace to win 109 games and leading all of baseball in runs and homers. Boston promptly reminded the Twins who was the reigning World Series champion, shutting them out, 2-0.

Rick Porcello, a former Cy Young winner, out dueled young Twins ace Jose Berrios by tossing seven shutout innings. Berrios retired 19 Red Sox in a row after giving up an RBI single in the top of the first, but his teammates had a rare quiet night at the plate at Target Field. 

Boston is now on a season-high six-game winning streak, after losing five of six. Since falling to 6-13 after a loss to the Yankees in mid-April they’ve gone 34-21, a 100-win pace. They’re now only five and a half games behind the Yanks and tied with Texas for second wild card … 

I think they’ll get to the playoffs. And then, look out. 

So Anthony Davis is going to join LeBron James in LA. New Orleans has agreed to send Davis to the Lakers for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first-round picks, including the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft.

That’s a lot to give up, and the pressure will be on Davis and James to make the NBA Finals right away. The big question is whether LA can add another star to the mix. Problem is, they have only $27 million under the cap, $23 million unless Davis waives his trade kicker. That’s not enough to add a max contract player to the roster.

A top free agent (Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi maybe) would have to sign for less. We’ll find out now is players really are reluctant to sign on with LeBron. At any rate, whoever is running that team needs to do a job of filling out that roster. 

Erik Karlsson re-signed with the Sharks for eight years at an average of $11.5 million a season. The two-time Norris Trophy winner has the most goals of any defenseman in the decade since he entered the league and at 29, still has a lot left in the tank. 

Karlsson opted not to test free agency, just like the Sabres’ Jeff Skinner. This is the first of what figure to be a lot of deals that have Buffalo fans saying, ‘See, we didn’t really pay that much for Skinner. Everybody overpays.

In an ESPN report, Mike Rodak identified running back T.J. Yeldon as the most likely veteran to be cut by the Bills. It makes sense. Yeldon lined up as a third-teamer in OTAs as the Bills gave first-team reps to LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore and rookie Devin Singletary.

But I’ll make a couple of predictions here: One, Singletary will lead the Bills in rushing this season; Two, McCoy will not be on the roster at the end of the season. 

The Phillies’ Bryce Harper is hitting .247 with 12 home runs. There are 65 Major League players with more homers. I don’t think Philly is getting enough for that $330 million contract. But they can look on the bright side. At this time last year, Harper was hitting .212.

Rickie Fowler shot 66 in the first round of the U.S. Open and promptly followed with a 77 to fall out of contention. Imagine how many endorsements the guy would get if he actually won something that mattered. 

The same goes for Chris Paul, who apparently spent last much of last season struggling to co-exist with NBA scoring champion James Harden. As I write this, another of those State Farm commercials just came on my TV set. 

The Yankees have hit a home run in 20 straight games. Their only longer streak came in 1941, the year Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 …  Imagine how many they might hit when they get Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge back in the lineup. 

Authorities in the Dominican Republic are reportedly close to determining a motive for the shooting of David Ortiz last week. Prosecutors have identified a fugitive, Alberto Miguel Rodriguez Mota, as the man who paid for the hit. 

There’s still no established motive for the attack, but I’m with Bob Ryan, who told us last week it had to be either finance or romance.

There’s talk about moving the 2022 World Cup (men’s version) to England after former Champions League president Michel Platini was detained as part of a criminal investigation into possible corruption in Fifa’s decision to award the event to Qatar.

This isn’t exactly a shock. When Qatar, which isn’t exactly a soccer Mecca and where it’s 120 degrees in summer got the World Cup, you figured palms were being greased in the usual fashion. 

Cavan Biggio hit two more homers for the Blue Jays in a 10-5 loss to the Angels on Monday night. Biggio, the son of Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, started slowly after being elevated from the Bisons on May 23. 

But in his last five games, Biggio is 8 for 19 with two doubles and four homers. 

Word is that new Sabres coach Ralph Krueger is really high on Rasmus Ristolainen. I was hoping Krueger would come in with a harsh, critical eye. Seems he’s come in as more of a cheerleader for Jason Botterill’s roster. 

THE COLUMN

6/17/19

There’s nothing harder in sports than winning a golf major for the first time. Just ask Rickie Fowler or Brandt Snedeker or Matt Kuchar or Lee Westwood, who have never won one, or Phil Mickelson, who went more than a decade for doing it for the first time at age 33, or Sergio Garcia, who waited 20 years to win his only major.

Now imagine trying to break through with a stone-cold killer like Brooks Koepka, who was looking for a third straight national championship, stalking you along 18 holes of a gripping final round of the 119th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

That’s what Gary Woodland did on Sunday afternoon in Monterrey. With Koepka one group ahead and making a seemingly inexorable run at him in the fourth round, Woodland conquered his own nerves, the daunting Pebble Beach layout and Koepka to win his first major title.

Woodland, a 35-year-old Kansas who played DII college basketball at Washburn, is the 25th-ranked player in the world, a three-time PGA Tour winner. But he had never won any tournament, never mind a major, after taking the 54-hole lead into the final round. He had been oh for 7 in those situations heading into Sunday at Pebble, when he led by one shot over Justin Rose and by four over Koepka.

You wondered if Woodland could hold on over 18 holes at Pebble, with a bunch of great players lurking behind him — not only Koepka, but Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Rory McIlroy, Louie Oosthuisen and Rose, all of whom had won majors in the past. 

But it was Koepka, who had won four of the last eight majors and established himself as one of the greatest big-time player of all time, who seemed to pose the most daunting threat to Woodland. And when Koepka birdied four of the first five holes to pull within a shot of the leader, it seemed only a matter of time before he caught Woodland.

It didn’t happen. Woodland had his wobbles, but he made the clutch shots he needed to hang on, including some remarkable saves from the thick U.S. Open rough when his driver became wayward and right on some of Pebble’s more difficult holes. 

Woodland didn’t play it safe. On the par-5 14th, rather than layup from the left fairway, he bombed a 254-yard 3-wood onto the left side of the green and made birdie. On the 17th, he pushed his drive to the far right and just inches off a wide green, landing 90 feet away. He calmly used his 64-degree wedge to chip to 3 feet and saved par. 

On 18, all he needed to do was 3-putt for the win. He banged in a 30-foot putt to finish it off in style, winning on Father’s Day with his dad sanding next to the 18th green and his wife back home, expecting identical twin girls. At the end of a remarkable sports week, Woodland joined the Blues and Raptors as first-time major champions.

Woodland finished at 13 under par, the third lowest score to par in a U.S. Open win, behind McIlroy in 2011 and Koepka two years ago. 

We should take a moment to marvel at the amazing Koepka, who joined Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan as the only players who finished top two in four straight majors. He was second to Woods in the Masters and won his second straight PGA Championship in May. 

“He played great,” Koepka said. “Nothing I could do. Ary played great all four days. That’s what you have to do to win a major championship.”

This Open was another reminder of how much talent there is on tour these days. You think of all the players who were on that leader board, and the likes of Woods and Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth and Jason Day. You realize how difficult it is to win a single major nowadays … and how astonishing this run by Koepka has been, maybe the greatest short-term run in majors other than Woods.

In the end, it feels like golf is the winner. Nothing against Koepka, but at some point it’s refreshing to see the sport rise up and pull a guy back. Koepka turned human in the last nine on Sunday. He was missing fairways and failing to drop in the big putts. 

Yeah, all he did was become the first player ever to shoot in the 60s all four rounds of a U.S. Open. Also the first ever to shoot five straight rounds in the 60s of the event, going back to last year’s final round at Shinnecock.

But Father’s Day belonged to Gary Woodland, who has been on the verge of a breakthrough in his mid-30s. He set a 36-hole record at the 2018 PGA Championship — which Koepka broke at this year’s PGA. He bears a physical resemblance to Koepka, and like Brooks, he played another sport in college before concentrating on golf. 

Woodland might never win another major. It’s hard. But he got one and took his place in history. It’s awful sweet to win the first. Like the people up in Toronto this morning, he’s too busy celebrating to worry about what comes next. 

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THE COLUMN

6/14/19

So for the second consecutive night, a team won its league championship for the first time — with a new head coach and a Finals MVP born in 1991 who had been acquired in the offseason in trade after falling out of favor with his previous franchise. 

On Wednesday, the Blues won their first Stanley Cup with former Ryan O’Reilly winning the Smythe, one year after supposedly losing his passion for winning in Buffalo. And Thursday night, the Raptors brought Canada its first NBA crown behind Kawhi Leonard, who was traded from the Spurs after missing almost all of last season with a quad injury that had critics questioning his willingness to play hurt and in some cases calling him a quitter.

The Raptors closed out the Warriors in Game 6, 114-110, in the last game ever played at Oracle Arena in Oakland. Leonard wasn’t great in the finale with the Warriors doubling him at every turn. It was Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Fred Van Vleet  and Serge Ibaka who combined for 89 points on a night when only five Toronto players made a basket.

It was a little sad for NBA fans. It felt like the end of a dynasty, with a game but undermanned Warriors team trying to win a third straight title with Kevin Durant gone with a torn Achilles and then Klay Thompson leaving on crutches — as Durant had three nights earlier — with a torn ACL suffered late in the third quarter. 

The Raptors don’t need to apologize. Injuries are part of the game. The Warriors won the first title in their five-year finals run when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were out in the 2015 Finals. But I have to say, at full strength the Warriors were the best team in the league, as was the case when Durant signed with them before the 2016-17 season. 

No one believes any longer that the Warriors were better without Durant. The absurdity of that notion became crystal clear over the last two weeks. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have won without him. The Raptors were reeling and the Warriors seemed capable of winning Game 6 with Thompson having an extraordinary performance. But winning without two of the game’s greatest pure shooters was too much to ask.

Steph Curry gave it his all, but he shot 41.4 percent in the series and didn’t shoot 50 percent in any game.  It’s fashionable to call him the best shooter in NBA history, but not at the end of close playoff games. Last night was the ninth time he had a shot to take the lead in the last 30 seconds of regulation or overtime of a playoff game. 

He’s missed all nine.

The fact that Golden State was 31-1 with Curry and without Durant in regular-season games seemed pretty irrelevant by the end of the Finals. 

Durant and Thompson are looking at long recovery periods. Friend of the show Adrian Wojnaroski says Durant is likely gone, and that “opting in” with the Warriors for $31.5 million and going to free agency in 2020 is probably his last resort. Some team is likely to give him a big free-agent deal and he’ll want to prove he can lead another franchise to glory — though coming back from an Achilles is a difficult proposition.

Thompson will also have a tough recovery from the ACL tear, but he’ll probably re-sign in Golden State. He’s a great two-way player and one of the best shooters ever. If I needed to win a series, I’d take him over James Harden, Russell Westbrook or Kyrie Irving in a heartbeat. 

Who will be next year’s favorite? It’s hard to say with the future of so many NBA stars up in the air. Leonard will be a free agent. Will winning a title inspire him to remain in Canada? I doubt it. He’s more likely to go back to his native California and play for the Clippers. 

Irving, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Leonard, Durant, Thompson, Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton are among the key players on the free agent list. Anthony Davis is likely to be traded by the Pelicans after making it clear that season that he wanted out. 

Someone is going to hook up with LeBron James with the Lakers. Maybe Davis. Something tells me LeBron isn’t done being a championship factor in the NBA. As much as I admire Leonard, watching him struggle to get shots off in the Finals made me appreciate even more how dynamic James has been in clutch playoff situations.

I root for the best story, as you know. It’ll be nice to go back to an NBA where no team is a clear-cut favorite, the way the Warriors were in three years with Durant. The offseason will be very interesting as we see which way all the free agents and Anthony Davis go. 

How about an NBA where the Knicks and Nets are both contenders and battle for supremacy in New York City? And the same thing in LA between the Lakers and Clippers? I’m intrigued to find out if Denver and Milwaukee take the next step, and if the Raptors hold together as a contender even if Kawhi leaves. How about the Pelicans with Zion Williamson. 

Should be quite a season next year. I don’t know what to expect, but I imagine there will be some surprises in store for fans — in both the NBA and NHL.

After all, One year ago at this time, Ryan O’Reilly was a Sabre and Kawhi Leonard was a Spur. Seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

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THE COLUMN

6/13/19

The St. Louis Blues won their first Stanley Cup on Wednesday night, beating the favored Bruins in Boston, 4-1, in the seventh game of the Finals. 

It was an astonishing turnaround for the Blues, who six months earlier had been in last place overall in the NHL. I have two pressing questions after watching the Blues pull off the improbable Cup run:

How in the world did they do it without Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund and Tage Thompson?

And will the vote a winner’s share to Sabres general manager Jason Botterill?

Rarely has a league executive played such a key role in a team’s historic championship run. Last July 1, Botterill traded Ryan O’Reilly to the Blues for Sobotka, Berglund, Thompson, a first-round pick this year and a second-round pick in 2021. 

At the time, Botterill was given high grades for the move. He had insisted he would trade O’Reilly only for a king’s ransom. Pierre LeBrun called it a “major return.” Hey, the Blues even agreed to pick up a $7.5 million bonus that was due to O’Reilly that day. 

So the Pegulas saved $7.5 million on the deal. Congratulations. It seems that’s a small benefit in a swap that could go down as the worst in NHL history — and for an owner who once said he’d just drill another well if he needed more money for his franchise. 

King’s ransom? If so, O’Reilly wound up as the king of hockey. He scored the first goal in Game 7, making him the first player since Wayne Gretzky to score goals in four straight games in the Finals. And he was named the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy for Finals Most Valuable Player after the win. 

It’s convenient for Buffalo fans to claim they would rather see O’Reilly skate around with the Stanley Cup than see another Boston team win a title. Yeah, it seems like a classic rationalization, an attempt to ease the utter humiliation of seeing O’Reilly at the very top of the sport. 

This is one of the most Buffalo things ever, the newest indignity in a long chronicle of sporting woe. We’ve had our share of embarrassments, going back to O.J. 25 years ago this month. Vontae Davis quitting at halftime, the Nathan Peterman fiasco, Drury and Briere leaving on the same day, Thurman losing his helmet — I should get Bucky in here to go over our list of the 10 Billsiest things. 

But there’s never been anything quite like this. Some 14 months ago, O’Reilly sat in the Sabres dressing room and admitted he had lost his passion for the game, that he had become accustomed to losing. 

So Botterill traded him. O’Reilly became a convenient scapegoat for the Sabres’ organizational dysfunction, for a culture of losing that went back to the decision to lose on purpose for Jack Eichel. 

Boy, imagine what the hockey world was thinking when O’Reilly was skating around with the trophy late Wednesday night: HE lost his desire? HE became too accustomed to losing? This guy looks like one of the great winners in hockey, a player who needed to get away from a losing culture to unleash the winner and leader within. 

According to Pierre LeBrun, O’Reilly told his parents after the trade from the Sabres, “They think it’s my fault.”

“He was disappointed,” his mother Bonnie said. “He kind of felt, ‘They think I’m the problem.’ We said to him, ‘We know you’re not.’ Wherever you go, just keep doing what you’re doing. He got over it and was thrilled to go to St. Louis.”

It showed. O’Reilly led the Finals in scoring with five goals and nine points. He set a Blues record with 23 points in the postseason. He scored a huge goal in Game 7, tipping in a Jay Bouwmeester shot with 3:17 left in the first period to give the Blues a 1-0 lead after Boston had dominated most of the first period.

According to his father, O’Reilly played with a cracked rib suffered in the second round of the playoffs. 

A lot of former Buffalo athletes have won championships after leaving. Antowain Smith with the first Super Bowl winner in New England, Chris Hogan and Stephon Gilmore more recently. Marshawn Lynch. Brian Campbell, Dave Andreychuk and Dominik Hasek … those are but a few. 

But this tops them all. O’Reilly became the first player ever to win the Cup the year after being traded from another NHL team. It was a little surreal watching him win. It felt like a ringing indictment of the tank, a player who had supposedly lost his love for the game rediscovering it so dramatically at the expense of the Pegulas. 

It’s an in your face to anyone who endorsed the tank five and six years ago, in some cases turning it into a season-long entertainment, complete with fans cheering losses on home ice. Who were the ones who truly found losing acceptable, who created a toxic culture in the organization and the locker room. 

It’ll take Botterill awhile to live this one down. He was getting thrashed on two fronts by the NHL media during the Finals: For trading O’Reilly and for gifting an eight-year, $72 million contract to Jeff Skinner,  who has played the most games of any player without appearing in a Stanley Cup playoff game. Maybe it’s Skinner who has gotten used to losing.

Skinner better live up to that contract. They’d better improve right away. Because like it or not, there’s a direct connection to O’Reilly. Botterill justified the O’Reilly trade by saying it allowed him to deal for Skinner. OK, let’s see the Sabres find their competitive stride, the way the Blues did this year. 

“I still can’t believe this,” said O’Reilly. “I can’t believe I’m here right now as a Stanley Cup champion with this group of guys.”

It had to be surreal for Buffalo fans too. The Blues became the first team to go from last place in January to the Cup in the same year that the Sabres became the first team to lead the league in late November and miss the playoffs. You can’t make this stuff up. 

Gloria be. Well, maybe the Blues can be an inspiration to the Sabres and their fans, evidence that you’re never as far away as you might think. Draft well, add some depth and character, find a rising young goaltender, get a new coach who can reach his players and lift them to new heights.

Yeah, down the road Sabres fans might look back on this and laugh. But for now, it’s the hockey world that’s laughing. At them. 

___

THE COLUMN

6/11/19

On consecutive nights, in two countries, fans confronted one of the great realities of sports: The hardest game to win is often the last one, the game that clinches a long-awaited championship.

St. Louis fans discovered that Sunday night, when the Bruins won with the Stanley Cup in the building to force a Game 7 back in Boston on Wednesday last night. And on Monday night, Toronto fans were denied their first NBA title when a remarkable Warriors team rallied in the last two minutes to stun the Raptors, 106-105, sending the NBA Finals back to the Bay Area for Game 6 on Thursday. 

Kevin Durant finally came back from his “calf strain.” He looked great for awhile, scoring 11 points in 12 minutes and making all three of his three-point shots. A great story seemed to be unfolding. Then Durant went down again. It looks like a torn Achilles, after all. He’s finished, perhaps having played for Golden State for the last time. 

At the start of the Finals, I said the Warriors couldn’t win without Durant making a significant contribution. Twelve minutes hardly qualifies. But they’re still alive, with a chance to prove that while they’re certainly better with Durant, they still have the heart of a champion, and they might yet be capable of winning a third straight title without him. 

With two minutes left, Toronto led by six. Nick Nurse called a timeout to give his team a rest. The great Kawhi Leonard had just scored 10 points in a row. The Scotibank Arena was rocking. It seemed like a celebration. It was too soon. The Warriors had other ideas. 

Basketball is a very simple game sometimes. If you shoot better than the other team, you win. Golden State has two of the greatest pure shooters in NBA history in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. They were there before Durant, and they were there Monday when the two-time defending champions were on the verge of being eliminated. 

Thompson nailed a three-pointer. After Toronto turned the ball over on a bad possession, Curry hit a twisting three on top to tie it, 103-all. Then Leonard missed and the Warriors moved the ball beautifully around the perimeter before Thompson hit another three. Suddenly, it was Warriors by three. A 9-0 run in 1 minute, 35 seconds.

There was a palpable sense of panic about the Raptors now. It’s always hard to put away a champion, and in those final two minutes, with the series on the line, the Warriors played like a team that had been there before, the team with the cooler, clearer grasp of the big moment. 

In the end, their defense rose up, too. People tend to forget about the Warriors as a great defensive team.  They’ve been ranked third or better in the NBA in defensive field-goal percentage in each of the past five years: Third, third, first, third, first moving back to their first title in 2015.  At their best, they were hard to stop but also really hard to score against. 

Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson are three of the best defenders in the game at their positions. And they were ready on the final possession, when the Raptors  had a chance to win with 15.7 seconds left after Boogie Cousins was called for an illegal screen.

Leonard got the ball on top and drove right with Klay Thompson on him. Iguodala slid over to double-team, forcing Leonard to give up the ball to Fred van Vleet. With the clock running down, van Vleet frantically found Kyle Lowry in the left corner. Green rushed out and challenged the shot, which wasn’t close. 

Back to Oracle for Game 6. The Warriors are still alive. They’re the 35th team to fall behind three games to one in the Finals. Only one team has blown a lead in that spot — the Warriors against Cleveland three years ago. That’s why they got Durant. It would be a marvelous symmetry if they became the second team ever to do it. 

It won’t be easy. Toronto has two chances to close it out. The Warriors will need to shoot well again, twice, to pull it off. They made 20 three-pointers last night. They outscored the Raptors by 36 points from three. Curry and Thompson made three in a row in the clutch. Toronto missed three in a row in that stretch. The Raptors aren’t going to beat them in a long-distance shooting contest. 

In the end, the Raptors will have to win with its own defense and superior inside play, and with Leonard, who was brilliant for a stretch of the fourth quarter but otherwise had a rare off shooting night in the playoffs, shooting 9 for 24. 

I have to admit, I was rooting for the Warriors at the end. I’m never ready for an NBA season to end. It’s not supposed to be easy and it’s hard to put out a champion. I think the Raptors and their fans found that out after that timeout with two minutes left.  Finishing off a title run is the hardest thing, especially against a worthy opponent. 

There’s nothing quite like a seventh game in sports. We’ll get one tomorrow night in Boston for the Stanley Cup. Something tells me the NBA Finals will go that way, too, with Golden State trying to win it all without Kevin Durant. You can’t ask for a better end to the story. 

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THE COLUMN

6/10/19

Well, I’m not surprised. The Bruins had been behind in a playoff series three times before in these Stanley Cup playoffs, twice on the verge of elimination. They had won the game every time. 

So on Sunday night, the Bruins responded in a big way again. Facing elimination in Game 6 of the Cup finals in St. Louis, Boston defeated the Blues, 5-1, to bring the series back home to Beantown with a chance to win the seventh Stanley Cup in their history. 

The Bruins last won the Cup in 2011. That year, they were also down three games to two against Vancouver. They trailed the Finals two games to none. They also trailed their first series 2-0 that year. 

In ’11, they won Game 7 on the road. This time, they get to do it at home. It’ll be the first time they have a chance to win the Stanley Cup on home ice since 1970 — yes, against the St. Louis Blues. It ended on a Bobby Orr goal in overtime. Perhaps you’ve seen the iconic photo.

Patrice Bergeron, the best two-way player in hockey, gave his teammates a rousing pre-game speech Sunday, reminding them of 2011 and how they live for moments like this. Meanwhile, there was some apparent bad karma when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch mistakenly printed on-line ads during the day celebrating the Blues’ Cup victory and a letter from the owner talking about his excitement about the victory parade.

Fake news, indeed.

Well, no one does parades better than Boston, which celebrated a World Series title last November, a Super Bowl parade this past February and well, more parades than a New Englander can count at this point. 

“You’ve got two good teams that have gone toe to toe here,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. “The whole hockey world loves a Game 7. May the best team win.”

Hockey is the big winner here. There are few things in sports like a seventh game in the Stanley Cup playoffs. On Wednesday at Boston Garden — sorry, TD Garden — we’ll get to experience hockey’s ultimate for the first time in eight years. 

I’m just hoping for overtime, and the unbearable tension that comes when you know one shot ends it all. There hasn’t been a Game 7 overtime in the Finals since 1954, when Tony Leswick won it for Detroit. 

It would be nice to see the Bruins pull it off. It’s hard to pick against goalie Tuukka Rask, who has a 1.93 goals against and .938 save percentage in 23 playoff games — and an amazing .973 save percentage in elimination games. He’ll almost surely win the Conn Smythe if the Bruins win at home on Wednesday. 

But the better story would be St. Louis winning its first Cup and allowing the Post Dispatch to celebrate on line for real. The Blues have been a remarkable story this season, going from last in the NHL in January to one game from winning the best trophy in sports. 

Yes, there’s also the Ryan O’Reilly angle, which might have Sabres fans rooting against St. Louis. O’Reilly has been terrific in the Finals. He’s been a big factor in all three wins and would be the likely Smythe winner if the Blues won Game 7. 

That would be embarrassing to Buffalo, which shipped O’Reilly to St. Louis after he admitted he had become accustomed to losing last season. Mike Harrington of the News has heard two big questions while covering the finals: How the heck could they trade O’Reilly? And the last two days, they were asking how they could pay so much for Jeff Skinner. 

Yep. NHL Network was trashing Skinner deal pretty good yesterday on the basis of what it meant for others in free agency. Pretty shared view from lots I talked to here the last two days.

We know the answer on the last one: They gave Skinner eight years and $72 million because they had no choice. At least, the hockey media in this town have repeated that “no choice” line so many times it takes on the ring of truth. After awhile, it almost seems it’s the Buffalo apologists who have no choice in the matter.

Of course, the Sabres had a choice. They could have refused to overpay O’Reilly, admitted they weren’t close to contention and look to build a real contender by signing reasonably priced free agents who play good defense and developing the talent in their own system. 

But they’re all-in on Skinner and now the pressure is on Jason Botterill to fill out the roster with players who can win right away and justify overpaying Skinner to such a degree. Ralph Krueger, the new head coach, says they’re close to contention. This move backs it up. Now they need to do it on the ice. 

A $72 million contract will have serious consequences down the road. Jeff Skinner has never played in a Stanley Cup series. He has played the most games of any NHL player without reaching the postseason. The Sabres, meanwhile, have the longest playoff drought in the league. 

When you watch the Bruins and Blues play for the Cup on Wednesday, ask yourself, do you see this Sabres team in that spot? Do you really think they’re a couple more tweaks by Botterill from competing on the sport’s biggest stage?

Well, the pressure is on now. Botterill’s job is on the line. He took a chance on an unconventional coach and will be paying $9 million a year for a one-dimensional winger who has never won.

They’d better win, and soon. 

___

THE COLUMN

6/6/19

So what do we make of this NBA Finals? When it started, the big question was whether the Warriors could win a third straight championship without Kevin Durant. 

On Wednesday night, it was whether Stephen Curry could win a game basically by himself. 

The answer was an emphatic no, though Curry put on the most noble one-man show by a losing player in the playoffs since Jerry West won MVP against the Celtics. Curry scored 47 points, but it wasn’t nearly enough as Toronto rolled, 123-109, in Oakland to take a two games to one lead in the series. 

Durant was out again with his injured calf. Klay Thompson was questionable before the game, but Steve Kerr decided to sit him with a mild hamstring strain. Kevin Looney is out for the series with a fractured ribcage. 

Not surprisingly, it was an ugly game, unless you were a Raptors fan. The team that Golden State put on the floor wouldn’t have made the Western Conference playoffs. TV ratings haven’t been good for the Finals, and I’m guessing it won’t change until Durant comes back.

I didn’t expect Thompson to play Wednesday. My theory was that Kerr would decide, we have to win three of the last five games to win it all, this one isn’t vital. I’d rather not risk injuring Klay more and win those three games with the most healthy possible team.

Kerr said Thompson will likely play in Game 4 on Thursday. They’re still not sure about Durant. But as someone who roots for the best story, the greatest drama could be yet to come — Durant coming back to save the day, maybe with the Warriors one game from elimination, and prove once and for all that they needed him to win the title. 

Still, if anyone believed the Warriors were better with Curry playing and Durant sidelined — as opposed to the other way around — they won’t change their tune after Game 3, when Curry tried to carry the team on his back. He’s the best pure shooter the game has ever seen, and a remarkable competitor. But I still don’t think Golden State can win this thing if Durant doesn’t make a significant contribution. 

The Raptors shot 52.4 percent from the field — 17 of 38 from three after going 11 for 38 in Game 3. It seemed Toronto had any shot it wanted, which should tell people how much they missed Thompson, one of the best defensive guards in the game — never mind Durant and Looney.

But the Raptors took care of business. If they had lost this game, it would have been an utter embarrassment. They might as well have packed it in if they couldn’t beat that ragtag outfit. 

But Toronto doesn’t have to apologize for beating a crippled opponent. That’s sports. Injuries are part of it.  Did the Warriors need to apologize for winning that first title over the Cavs when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were hurt? When people talk about their run of dominance, their three titles in four years, no one mentions that. There’s no asterisk next to the Cavs’ title because Draymond Green was suspended for a game.

Injuries are often a factor in who wins and who loses in sports. Magic Johnson was hurt in the final two games when the Bad Boy Pistons won their first title in 1989. They had won the previous year’s Finals thanks largely to a serious ankle injury to Isiah Thomas. 

The Patriots might have two more Super Bowl titles if Rob Gronkowski had been healthy. They won one last season in large part because Todd Gurley was a shell of himself because of a bad knee. 

When Canadiens fans look back on the 1993 Cup title, do they remember Alex Mogilny and Pat LaFontaine being hurt for Buffalo in the second round? As Mike Harrington wrote today, Sabres fans aren’t feeling any sympathy for the Bruins because of all their injuries to defenseman in this year’s Finals. Not after what happened in ’06.

History records the name of the winners, not who didn’t play. The Raptors have a lot of work to do. It feels like they’re the underdog — they were somehow the underdog last night — and that they’re going to have to face the full might of the two-time defending champions before the series is through. 

You have to give the Raptors credit for pushing the action, attacking and defending the rim and making open three-pointers. Until the final minute, you wondered if Curry was going to pull off a miracle. But when he scored his 45th point with eight minutes left,  he seemed spent. 

When a rejuvenated Serge Ibaka blocked his sixth shot of the night, I thought to myself, They could really use Kevin Durant. When Kyle Lowry answered Curry with a three-pointer, I thought, And Klay Thompson, too. 

Kawhi Leonard scored 30 points for the Raptors, a modest total really. In  the game after Toronto’s previous six losses this postseason, Leonard had scored more than 30 each time and averaged 36.4 in those games.

Leonard is a great two-way player. You beat who they put in front of you, but if he’s going to win another title, I’d like it to be against a Warriors team at full strength — or close to it — with its two great two-way stars, Durant and Thompson, in his way. 

Golden State is still better with Durant, of course, and the better team. It’s going to be quite a story — the best story, however it plays out — when he finally comes back. 

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THE COLUMN

6/4/19

Back in the day,  whenever I spoke in public, there was one question I was sure to get every time: What’s going to happen to the Bills when Ralph Wilson dies? Is the team going to leave Buffalo?

No one knew for certain at the time. That’s why I always dreaded getting the inevitable question. Wilson fanned people’s concerns with his periodic public pleas of concern. I remember him taking out a full-page ad in the News urging fans and the community to support their team.

But when Ralph died, we found out he had, in fact, put in place a succession plan that ensured the team would stay in Buffalo when he passed. Terry Pegula stepped forward and paid a record $1.4 billion for the team in 2014, outbidding the likes of Donald Trump in the process.

Still, the people of Western New York get those occasional reminders that the Bills aren’t guaranteed to stay forever. Every so often, I feel like I’m hearing Ralph Wilson’s voice from the afterlife, telling fans not to take their beloved football team for granted.

On Monday, it was commissioner Roger Goodell, who once again appeared at Jim Kelly’s annual golf tournament at Terry Hills and taking the inevitable questions about building a new stadium. 

Goodell assured us that he’s supportive because “I want to make sure this franchise remains stable here, and continues, and remains competitive. And I think it’s great for this community. And we’ve been able to do these stadiums in such a way that it creates a tremendous economic benefit, too. I want the Bills to be successful and I want them to continue to be competitive here in Buffalo.”

It sounded a little bit like a threat. Goodell is basically saying the Bills won’t be stable and competitive — whatever that means — without building a new stadium. This makes four times that the commissioner has made comments about the team needing to be more viable or competitive by building a. New place.

Pro Football Talk attempted to fan the unsettle the masses with a tweet that read: “The drums are getting louder, Buffalo. And the message from the league is clear: Pay for all or part of a new stadium, or else the Bills eventually will move.”

Look, we’ve been through this before. The Bills aren’t going anywhere. And they’re going to build a new stadium at some point. That’s pretty clear by now. The only questions are where and when and who pays for it. After the Bills hired a firm to research the matter, Kim Pegula said the new place would be a “game changer.” More renovations at New Era — which underwent $130 million in renovations awhile back with state help — aren’t anyone’s definition of a game-changer.

Mark Poloncarz, the county executive, weighed in as usual:

“Commissioner Goodell’s comments are the same thing he’s said for years now. It should be noted as Commissioner he is beholden to a group of 32 very wealthy team owners, including those with teams in many larger markets, with very different stadium situations in their communities than the Bills have here in Buffalo. His interest lies not with our community but with the owners that employ him and the highest level of profit he can deliver for them.”

When Goodell talks about the Bills being competitive, he’s not talking about their passing game. He means their ability to generate the sort of revenue you derive from a new stadium, to further stuff the pockets of the owners and feed their insatiable desire for profit.

That’s the NFL. That’s the league the Pegulas bought into, and the one Buffalo fans are so proud to be a part of. It’s an exclusive club, and it’s a stadium-building league. Pegula knew that when he paid big for the right to be in the club. There had to be an understanding that, some day, he would submit to the realities of ownership and build a new stadium in Buffalo.

You can’t have it both ways. My guess is that the Pegulas will eventually build it downtown, as part of their little empire. They’re treated as if they were king and queen, saviors of the city. They’re not without ambition and ego. You can’t bow to them and deny them the ultimate trappings of NFL ownership.

For better or worse, Buffalo people cling to their identity as an NFL town. It connects them to the big-time. Thinking about the Jim Kelly golf classic and all those celebrities, it struck me that this really is an iconic NFL franchise, the charming small market team with passionate fans that reflects the league’s presumed self-image. 

I believe the NFL wants to preserve this piece of its culture. But an identity as an NFL city comes with a high price. You can’t have it both ways. Sooner or later, Buffalo fans will be asked to chip in their share. Personal seats licenses, to be specific. 

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THE COLUMN

6/3/19

So it’s been what, four days now since we were told the Skinner deal was on the verge of being done, that it was merely a matter of time, a tweaking of numbers. Of course, I’ve been hearing that since February. 

But if Skinner is so eager to stay in Buffalo, why is it taking so long? Maybe it’ll get done during our show. But could it be that his agent is trying to squeeze the Sabres, knowing Botterill is in a fix and this is where he can be overpaid the most?

I’ve lost count of the time that someone in local media said they “have to sign” Skinner, no matter the cost. His leverage grows, along with the pressure on the GM and owner. If I were his agent, hearing this chorus of chatter saying the Sabres absolutely need to keep him here, I’d demand $10 million. So what if Skinner, like that other $10 million star Jack Eichel, has never won a thing or made the playoffs.


I get the arguments, how they’d have to replace Skinner’s production, how they’d be overpaying for another wing on the open market, and how a $9 million hit isn’t out of line with what similar scorers are being paid.

There’s never a lack of rationalizations in Buffalo sports, where we’re always supposed to think the best of management, no matter how dysfunctional. The Bills had to sign Mario Williams and Terrell Owens and hire Rex Ryan and hand $100 million to Marcell Dareus.

They had to trade Ryan O’Reilly, right? People have recited that so many times it’s become accepted fact. Yes, O’Reilly admitted he had gotten used to losing. So he became a convenient target for all the Sabres’ ills. But did Botterill really have to trade him? Couldn’t he have sat him down, told him he understood how a player could feel that way in his team’s losing culture and promised to build a winner around him?

How much should we blame a franchise that lost on purpose to get a “generational player”? 

I know this puts me in a distinct minority, but I don’t think it’s so outlandish to think overpaying Skinner might not be in the team’s best interests. Sure, he scored 40 goals once. He’s also a weak defensive player, a career minus player who has never won. 

Ask Carolina if it’s impossible to carry on without him. The Hurricanes scored 225 goals in 2017-18. Skinner had 24. They decided he wasn’t their type of player, traded him to Buffalo and somehow scored 253 goals the next season. They also allowed 32 fewer goals, ended a 10-year playoff drought and went to the conference finals. 

I’d hate to leap to conclusions, but they were better off without him.

The ‘Canes got 10 or more goals from 13 players. So did St. Louis, which made the Cup final with O’Reilly. Maybe you need to tank for a superstar, but apparently defense and balance go a long way. 

If the Sabres have to overpay for a one-dimensional scorer, it’s the sign of a desperate organization. Botterill is desperate to avoid the embarrassment of trading assets for Skinner and seeing him walk for nothing. His agent knows that. 

He knows Botterill is under fire after two failed seasons under Phil Housley. He’s prone to the kind of short-sighted moves that Tim Murray and Doug Whaley made late in their tenures as GMs for the Pegulas, when they were trying to save face and their jobs. 

I’d respect Botterill more if he decided the price was too high for Skinner. I feel the same way about the new coach, Ralph Krueger. If he’s such a genius, couldn’t he watch film and convince management that Skinner isn’t worth it, that he reflects too much of what’s wrong with this team?

The Sabres need to stop making moves out of desperation, to create the illusion of progress for a disaffected fan base. Krueger is wrong if he thinks they’re close. Outside of a fluke 10-game streak, the Sabres were the worst team in the NHL last season, again. 

Skinner made a great salary drive, but he was a virtual, but he disappeared when the Sabres fell apart in the second half. He went through the motions on defense, like the rest of their so-called stars.  Word is, he wants to stay in Buffalo because it’s close to home and he’s comfortable here. Too comfortable, perhaps, like Ryan O’Reilly?

Keeping him here might make them better in the short run. But his 40 goals didn’t get the Sabres anywhere. A massive long-term deal will weigh down the franchise for years to come. There might come a time when fans look back and wonder, did they really have to sign him?

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THE COLUMN

5/31/19

OK, it’s only one game, with a home team holding serve in a seven-game series. You can’t over-react to what happens in the opening game. The Blues-Bruins Game 2 is only the most recent example.

But I’ll say it again: If you think the Warriors are better off without Kevin Durant, you don’t understand basketball. 

Thursday night in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Raptors took full advantage of a Golden State team playing without its superstar forward, shooting 50.6 percent from the floor — 26 for 44 from inside the arc, mind you — to beat the two-time defending champs, 118-109, in the first Finals game in their history.

There’s a point in any NBA playoff where inside play becomes critical. I don’t care how popular the three-point shot has become. If you don’t defend near your own basket, and if you don’t create matchup problems inside the arc, you’ll eventually be exposed.

That’s why Durant’s absence was bound to be critical in this series. This isn’t Portland, which relied heavily on two small guards and had one of the weakest front courts I’d seen in a conference final. It was a big, talented Toronto frontline that was capable of attacking Golden State at both ends. 

The Raptors have unusual size and length inside with Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol. They’re all strong post defenders and can also create matchup problems on the other end. Last night, they combined to shoot 25 for 41 from the floor (7 of 13 from three) and made 18 of 20 foul shots.

It brought back memories of the old Celtics-Lakers bigs. Pascal Siakam, in his first Finals game, shot 14 for 17 and scored 32 points. He had 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks. That’s the kind of stat line you would expect from, oh, Kevin Durant. 

Casual hoop fans make it all about offense. They gush about one-dimensional, overrated players like James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Durant is the best pure scorer in the game. He’s also an elite post defender when he puts his mind to it. Durant was the leading shot-blocker in the 2017 and ’18 Finals, when he won MVP and lead the Warriors to two championships. 

Boy, do you think they could have used KD’s D? On offense, of course, they really missed him. Matchup are vital, and the greatest matchup problem for Toronto is Durant. His mid-range jumper is impossible to block. He’s a force in transition. He would occupy Leonard and create opportunities for Curry and Thompson. 

The Warriors had two players score more than 10 points, Curry and Thompson. They had a number of hustle baskets and their bench played well. But overall, they struggled in the halfcourt and the offense didn’t look so fluid and efficient without Durant — as it was fashionable to suggest in the previous five games without him. 

Golden State made up three 15-point deficits against the Blazers, by attacking the basket at will. This was different. Draymond Green was bad. There was no one to challenge the Raptors with mid-range shots, which is Durant’s specialty. One on possession in the third quarter, the Warriors got a 24-second violation.

Seconds later, Siakam and Leonard teamed up on a fast-break score and Mark Jackson reiterated that it’s silly to suggest the Warriors are better off without Durant. “He makes life so much easier”, Jackson said. 

Jackson was right. Every possession seemed like a labor for the Warriors, especially on defense. Siakam really turned it into a half-court affair in the third, scoring 10points in the first 5:15. He made 11 shots in a row at one point. 

Like many other playoff opponents in recent years — and like LeBron James and the Cavs in the last three games of the 2016 Finals — the Raptors aren’t intimidated. They didn’t wilt when Golden State seemed to be going on one of its runs. That’s what great defense does in basketball. It prevents streaks. Like a good starting pitcher in baseball, it restores order and calm and confidence.

Obviously, the series is far from over . As Curry said, “We’re down 0-1, but it’s not the end of the world.” Durant might come back soon, perhaps for Game 2, though it’s hard to imagine him being close to top form. 

But the Warriors don’t look like a heavy favorite any longer, even with KD. The Raptors are a worthy challenger, like the Cavs team that beat the Warriors three years ago. They won without Leonard playing his best game. Toronto is better defensively than that Cleveland team, which stifled the Warriors in the biggest moments that year. That’s why they signed Durant, remember?

I’ll end by reprising  my prediction from Monday’s Niagara Gazette: “One way or the other, by the time the Finals end people will no longer be saying Golden State was better off without KD. They’ll be wondering what the heck they were thinking. “

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THE COLUMN

5/28/19

When Scott Norwood missed his kick at the end of the Bills’ loss to the Giants in the first of their four Super Bowls, I remember thinking, “Well, now poor Billy Buckner has some company.”

Like Norwood, Buckner had earned lasting and undeserved infamy for one fateful failure in the biggest moment in his sport.

Buckner, who died on Monday of Lewy body Dementia, a degenerative brain disease, was remembered for one unfortunate error in the 1986 World Series. In the bottom of the 10th inning of Game Six, he let a slow roller by Mookie Wilson go between his legs to give the Mets a 6-5 comeback victory.

Instead of winning their first World Series since 1918, the Red Sox were pushed to a Game Seven at Shea Stadium, where they blew a three-run lead and lost the Series to the Mets. 

Like Norwood, Buckner was blamed for his team’s loss, and tortured over the years. In some ways, it was worse for Billy Buck. He didn’t get an adoring return to Boston in the town square. He was ridiculed and scorned, so much so that he was forced to move his family after receiving death threats from fans.

I’m a Red Sox fan and I never blamed Buckner. First of all, I’m not that sort of fan. I don’t hate the Yankees, for example. I root for them when the Red Sox aren’t in the postseason. And as a Sox fan who had learned as a kid to expect the worst, I saw Buckner’s error as the natural culmination of many other failures that preceded it — same as Norwood’s missed kick in early 1991.

If anyone deserved blame, it was manager John McNamara, who had replaced the hobbled Buckner at first base for defensive purposes in every win that season. He left him on the field that night. Some feel McNamara, a miserable man, did it out of sentiment. I’ve always believed that he simply forgot. 

Boston’s relievers failed badly that night. Calvin Schiraldi, a weak closer, was over his head. Bob Stanley was wild. There were 13 pitches that could have clinched the Series. Finally, Stanley threw a wild pitch — which I thought was a passed ball by Rich German. 

As replays showed, there’s a good chance that the speedy Wilson would have beaten the slow-reacting Stanley to first if Buckner fielded the ball. Baseball Reference says the Mets had a 1 percent chance to win when the Red Sox recorded two outs in the ninth — and 60 percent after the wild pitch tied the game. 

As a seasoned Sox fan, I assumed they were finished after the Mets tied the game. The Buckner error was a predictable conclusion. I was sure they would have lost the game later if he had fielded the ball and flipped to Stanley covering first — which was no guarantee.

Anyway, history was harsher. Buckner, who had 2,175 hits in a 22-year career — more than Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx or Manny Ramirez — struggled with the goat’s horns, as Norwood did. But like Norwood, he mostly remained silent and never stooped to blaming any of his teammates for the loss.

In 2006, Buckner refused to attend a celebration of that ’86 team at Fenway Park. But in 2008, he agreed to throw out the first ball when the Sox raised the banner for the 2007 World Series champions. The fans gave him a four-minute standing ovation and Buckner stood there wiping tears from his eyes. He was over it. 

Later, he and Mookie Wilson even appeared in public together and co-autographed thousands of photos of the play. They were in a beer commercial. Buckner appeared in an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” with Larry David, in which he caught a baby that fell from a burning building and drove away as a hero.

In a press session after throwing out the pitch in 2008,  Buckner called the reaction to his error as “the ugly part of sports.”

“I don’t think that in society in general that’s the way we should operate,” he said. “What are you teaching kids? Not to try because if you don’t succeed then you’re going to be buried, so don’t try?”

I choose to remember Billy Buck as a classy ballplayer and man, with his bushy Seventies mustache and thick black eyebrows.

He was a batting champion who was also was a swift runner and fine fielder until ankle and knee injuries compromised him physically. In 1986, he needed nine cortisone shots just to get through the season. He drove in 102 runs that year and hit .340 in September that season. 

That’s what I remember, Buckner the driven, determined player, hobbling around on bad knees in that unforgettable 1986 season, the one in which I watched more Sox games than in any year since I was a boy.

Buckner never struck out three times in a game. Not once, in 2,517 career games. He never struck out 40 times in a season. There are 102 players who have already struck out this season. The only player with more hits in the 1970s and 80s: Pete Rose.

It’s a different game today. Heck, the Red Sox have won four World Series since Buckner’s error. Winning has a way of healing all wounds. Some day, maybe Scott Norwood can lead the charge out of the locker room before a home game after the Bills win the Super Bowl. 

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THE COLUMN

5/24/19

Can you imagine the Raptors being one game from their first NBA finals without Kawhi Leonard … can you contemplate anyone saying his team might be better off without him, like the Warriors without Kevin Durant?

I didn’t think so.

Leonard reminded sports fans once again last night that he’s the best clutch shooter in the NBA. When the pressure goes up and the lights shine brightest, no modern player steps up like this guy.

In Game 5, at Milwaukee, Leonard scored 35 points as the Raptors stunned the Bucks, 105-99, to take a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals. On Saturday at the Air Canada Center, the Raptors have a chance to move on the face the Warriors for the NBA championship.

You don’t hear people talking about Drake’s antics today. They’re talking about Leonard’s heroics, how he scored 15 of his points in the fourth quarter as Toronto became the first team to win in Milwaukee this year when trailing after three quarters. 

It was time to act like they’ve been there before, and the Bucks and the great Giannis Antetokoumpo weren’t up to it. They lost three in a row for the first time this season. You know who has been there before, who has risen up to the biggest challenge time after time in the playoffs? 

Leonard, who added 7 rebounds and 9 assists and some terrific defense on Giannis, who has a lot of support for regular-season MVP. Yeah, defense is kind of vital at this time of year, and Kawhi might be the best defensive player in the sport. 

MVP? Leonard never gets his due. The voters get all giddy about the Russell Westbrooks and James Hardens of the world, guys who put up gaudy numbers and dominate the ball, but don’t play great defense and tend to get exposed in the postseason. 

Leonard plays great defense, initiates the offense like a point guard and raises his offensive level in the postseason. He’s averaging 31.2 points in the playoffs and shooting 51.8 percent. That’s astounding (as I’ll point out later in the hour). 

Leonard is a career 41.8 percent 3-point shooter in the playoffs, and he takes a lot of them. That’s better than Steph Curry, or Klay Thompson, or Harden, or just about anyone in the game. The only active player of any significant with a higher 3-point percentage is the Bucks’ Khris Middleton. What did he do last night in the biggest game of his career? Six points, 0 for 2 from three.

A lot of players don’t want the big shots in the postseason, including Kawhi’s own Raptors teammates at times. He’s taken the big shot time and again. He has 11 30-point games in these playoffs, often with Toronto seeming to wobble. 

They lost the playoff opener to Orlando, Leonard scored 37 in Game 2 to settle things down. They were down 2-1 to the Sixers, he scored 39 in a win. In the seventh game, he scored 41 and made the first buzzer beater to end a seven-game series in NBA history.

Down 2-0 to the Bucks, being written off (yeah, I thought they were toast), Leonard goes for 36 in a Game 3 win. Then last night, he takes over in the fourth. 

As Charles Barkley said in the post-game on TNT, “He brought this bad boy home”.

Yeah, the way he did in the NBA Finals in 2014, when he shot 61 percent from the field and led the Spurs over LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and the Heat, winning Finals MVP at age 22. 

Yeah, Leonard is only 27. He’s being called the best two-way player in the NBA, which I’ve believed for years. Doesn’t that make him the best player in basketball today, period? All right, maybe second-best until we find out if LeBron James, the best of all time, has enough left to make another title run or two.


Maybe they can make a run together. Leonard is a free agent after the season, and while Canadians are hopeful he’ll re-sign with Toronto, he’s more likely to take off, perhaps to his native Southern California. People say he’s leaning toward the Clippers, but it would be fun to see him bring some needed sanity to the Lakers and unite with LeBron. 

At any rate, he’ll be a much sought-after commodity in the offseason, regardless of what happens the rest of the way.  You can have Westbrook’s triple-doubles, Harden’s string of 30-point games, or Antetokoumpo’s rousing dunks — or Durant. He has never carried a team the way Leonard has this offseason, which is one reason he’ll probably leave Golden State to prove it. 

If Leonard gets the Raptors to the Finals, they’ll be a solid underdog to the Warriors, with or without Durant. They’re simply too good and motivated to win a third straight championship and fourth in five years. Keep in mind, LeBron couldn’t beat them the last two Finals. Leonard would have his work cut out for him. Of course, as we’ve found out yet again, that’s when he’s at his absolute best.

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THE COLUMN

5/23/19

Last night, for the first time since April 9, there wasn’t a single NHL or NBA playoff game. That’s six weeks and a day, sitting up late at night watching meaningful sports in my recliner.

Meaningful? Every game has meaning. Sometimes, you just kick back and enjoy a baseball game. Remember what that was like, to simply revel in a regular-season game, with nothing huge on the line, a lazy night in late May?

Some people think baseball is boring. I say only to boring people. The wonderful thing about baseball is that if you really pay attention, you’ll see something that distinguishes it from every other baseball game you’ve seen. Each one is different, like a snowflake. 

Luckily, the was a Mets-Nationals game, a matchup of the last two Cy Young winners in the National League — Washington’s Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom of the Mets. 

On Monday, if you recall, I was crushing the Mets after they became the first time in two seasons to get swept by the Marlins over the weekend, with Robinson Cano failing to run out ground balls twice and writers (our boy, Mike Vaccaro of the Post) calling for manager Mickey Callaway’s head. 

Well, that all went out the window Wednesday night, with the resurgent Mets looking to sweep the fading Nats. In a year of record home runs (more on that later), I was ready to see some good pitching, which is never boring to me. 

Neither Scherzer nor deGrom was at his best, but they battled through six. DeGrom gave up a leadoff homer to Adam Eaton and shut down the Nats after that. Scherzer , his breaking ball sharp in the toughest moments, struck out nine and was up 1-0 after six.

The fun happened when both were gone, no surprise since Washington has the worst bullpen ERA in baseball.

Down 1-0, after seven, the Mets struck for six in the eighth and won a game for the first time all season when they trailed after the seventh.  With the bases jammed, Juan Lagares drilled a 3-run double up the left-center field alley off closer Sean Doolittle. 

Then we got one of those moments that make baseball so great, and a delight for us trivia nuts. The Mets walked Wilson Ramon on purpose, bringing up 38-year-old Rajai Davis, who hadn’t batted in National League game in more than 10 years.

Davis, in fact, had started the day in the minor leagues. Late that afternoon, he took batting practice for the Syracuse Mets at Lehigh Valley in Allentown, Pa. Then his manager, Tony DeFrancesco, told him to get to New York. Brandon Nimmo had gone on the IL and the Mets needed a player.

Davis thought it was a joke. It wasn’t. He showed and called an Uber for the 112-mile ride to Citi Field. It took two hours and cost him $234. He said he got to know his driver, Jason, a Brooklyn native. Davis said he’ll expense the bill. I think the Mets will pay it. They’re his 10th team, by the way, if you count Cleveland twice.

Davis hit a 3-run homer to make it 6-1. It was the first pinch-hit homer of his career. He doesn’t hit a lot of home runs. He leads all active players in stolen bases, by the way. But you might recall his dramatic 2-run, 2-out homer that tied Game 7 of the 2016 World Series against Aroldis Chapman — the Indians wound up losing to the Cubs in the 10th. 

Mets manager Mickey Callaway, in a lot better mood than last Sunday, said after the win that he never even saw Davis until the fifth or sixth inning. Davis arrived at the park in the third. He said Davis, who got his first career curtain call after the homer, didn’t know how to get to the home clubhouse afterwards.

So after embarrassing sweep by Marlins, ending with the Cano controversy, the Mets turn around and sweep the Nats. They’ve now won six in a row at Citi Field and are just two games behind the wild-card spot in the NL.

Baseball, you gotta love it. 

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THE COLUMN

5/22/19

For the first time in 42 years, a Buffalo Bills is wearing the No. 32. Running back Senoris Perry was given the number, which had been taken out of circulation since O.J. Simpson left Buffalo.

Perry told Tim Graham that he assumed the number was retired when he joined the Bills as a free agent. He had worn 32 as a younger player, but 32 was taken when he played for the Dolphins. He wore 34 in Miami, but knew that number was retired in Buffalo for Thurman Thomas. 

But when he was told that 32 was available, “Boom, I took it.”

Evidently, the Bills have decided that O.J.’s number has been on the shelf long enough. Late owner Ralph Wilson did not want 32 to be reissued in deference to the Hall of Famer. 

But Simpson’s number was never retired, and there was no way it was going to happen after O.J.’s infamous trial for the double murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. He was acquitted of the murders but later found liable for the killings. Simpson later spent time in a Nevada prison for a 2007 armed robbery.

It’s about time the Bills put No. 32 back in circulation. Simpson is still on the Wall of Fame in the stadium. If having a player wear the number was seen as embarrassment, what about about the number and his name being honored atop the stadium, with all the other famous honorees from the team’s past?

Some Bills fans will see Perry or another player wearing 32 as an insult to the team’s history. Really? Could there be any greater insult than Simpson’s sordid history, the double murders and his disgusting attempt to profit from the murders through a book and TV interview called “If I did it, Here’s How It Happened?”

When word of that arrangement broke in 2006, I called for the Bills to take Simpson off the wall, though I realized that would never happen. But it was a further affront to the Bills and their fans. The objections were so great that the book and TV special were canceled. Footage was eventually aired in March of 2018.

So I’m supposed to think it would tarnish the Bills’ glorious history to put the No. 32 on another player? By keeping the number in mothballs without retiring it actually magnified the team’s embarrassment. Bringing it back is an acknowledgment that the Bills have moved on and aren’t hiding from the memory.

“Whatever they do is fine with me,” Simpson told Graham. “That’s how I feel. When I played there, I tried to honor the team. Since I left, I always tried to honor the Bills.”

Yeah, right. Killing two people really honored the Bills. So did planning to capitalize by telling people how he might have committed double murder, and by orchestrating an armed robbery for sports memorabilia that landed him in prison.

Greg Tranter, president of the Buffalo History Museum and owner of a huge collection of Bills memorabilia, told the Athletic he was “disappointed” to see Perry get No. 32. “Forget O.J.’s off-the-field issues. In my opinion, he’s the greatest player in their history.”

No, I don’t think we can forget O.J.’s off-field issues. But if we’re in the mood for forgiving, and as long as the Bills aren’t going to be taking him off the wall, how about finally putting Cornelius Bennett up there?

Bennett is the best player not on the Wall. There’s a clear reason. I know because I was in a meeting in which he was discussed and the sole reason for his absence is the jail time he serve in Buffalo for a vicious sexual assault of a woman at the Hyatt 22 years ago this month. 

True, it was a revolting crime. But Bennett paid for it. He spent 35 days in jail for it. He performed 100 hours of community service, paid the victim’s medical bills and underwent anger and substance abuse counseling.

The main concern about putting Bennett on the wall was a fear that women’s groups would protest at the stadium on the day he was inducted. It’s a reasonable concern, but after 22 years it’s time to concede that Biscuit has atoned and to put him on the Wall. And if protests are such an issue, how come no one has ever picketed outside to call for O.J. to be taken off?

Bennett has become a solid citizen since paying for his crime. He became a player rep for the colts and after retirement, became involved with the Players Association and was elected to the Former Players board of directors, where he served for a decade. He served on the alliance between the NFL and NFLPA looking for improved care and quality of life of former players.

Bennett also hosts a charity golf tournament to raise money for a children’s center in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, plus Ronald McDonald Houses across the South. He and his wife are frequent speakers at events in the South Florida community.

He was, of course, a great football player. At his best, Biscuit was one of the most dynamic linebackers ever to play, though injuries and inconsistency cost him a chance at Canton. But he was a key piece to the Bills’ four Super Bowls, maybe the best trade acquisition of Bill Polian’s.

The time is right. By putting O.J.’s number back in play, the Bills are saying they’re not worried about negative public perception. That should extend to Cornelius Bennett. No. 32 is back on the field, and No. 97 belongs on the Wall.

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THE COLUMN

5/20/19

Well, Brooks Koepka won another major golf championship on Sunday. Koepka wobbled on the back nine and saw his record 7-stroke lead dwindle to just one with three shots to play. But he held off Dustin Johnson to win the PGA Championship by two shots.

That’s back-to-back major titles for the 29-year-old Koepka. Next month, he’ll go to Pebble Beach as the two-time defending U.S. Open champion. He’s the first man ever to be the reigning two-time champ in two majors. He’s the only one ever to go back-to-back in both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship.

Isn’t it about time we started calling Koepka the best golfer on the planet? We kept hearing that Dustin Johnson was the No. 1 ranked player in the world during the PGA. At the Masters, it was Justin Rose who held that statistical honor. Dustin, Justin … come on, we know who’s the real No. 1, the true Terminator. 

Koepka has now won four majors in his last eight starts. He missed the 2018 Masters with a wrist injury. The only other golfers to win four out of eight are Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan. That’s pretty elite company, indeed.  

Woods has 81 PGA Tour victories. Nicklaus had 73, Hogan 64. Koepka has 6 wins on tour, same as Jeff Sluman, Dan Sikes and Rory Sabbatini. The thing is, four of those six came in majors.

There’s something about the biggest events that brings out the killer in Brooks Koepka. To him, there’s the majors and everything else is a 9-hole scramble at the employee picnic. His other two PGA wins, by the way, were at the Waste Management Open and something called the CJ Cup at the Bridges. 

Koepka seemed almost human in Sunday’s final round. A man who rarely makes bogey in a major made four in a row on the back nine. Suddenly, Dustin Johnson was a stroke back. Golf fans had visions of Jean van de Velde at the British. I told Melinda, ‘See, at some point when it starts to seem easy, golf reaches down and torments all of us. No one is immune.”

But he won. Koepka said he heard the crowds at Bethpage chanting “DJ, DJ” when Johnson birdied to get to within one. The classic athlete’s “no respect” gene kicked in. He’s not a fan favorite. He’s too robotic, too good. 

“We’re still in the lead!” His caddie, Ricky Elliott, told him. 

Koepka pulled it together, parred 16. Johnson bogeyed it. Despite a back-nine 39, he won by two. Essentially, he had won it the first two days, when he shot 128 over the first two rounds, a record in a major. He spent the last two days on cruise control, as he winds picked up at Bethpage. But at least we got some momentary drama.

Maybe, in addition to calling Koepka the best in the world, they should start asking him about Jack Nicklaus’ record. After all, it’s the majors that truly matter, right? Tiger Wood has made it that way over the last two decades, as he chased Jack’s record of 18 majors. When Tiger finally won another major at the Masters, we heard about him reaching 15, and maybe taking aim at Nicklaus again. You didn’t hear much about his 81 PGA Tour wins.

When Rory McIlroy won four majors at a young age, people talked about him maybe catching Nicklaus. They said it about Jordan Spieth for awhile, too. 

People who know Koepka say he definitely thinks about Jack’s record, and about Tiger’s 15 majors. He thinks he can reach 10 majors, and why stop there?

Chris Molloy, who recruited Koepka to Florida State, told Ian O’Connor that Koepka has a chip on his shoulder about the issue.

“It pisses him off that he isn’t asked that question,” said Malloy, who communicates often with Koepka. “That will make him feel great if you ask him about Jack. … I promise you he absolutely thinks of both Tiger’s [15] majors and Jack’s as targets. That’s not 99 percent, it’s 100 percent. Guaranteed.”

Koepka is a phenomenal athlete with great athletic genes. His uncle, Dick Groat, was the 1960 National League MVP for the Pirates and was an all-American basketball player at Duke. Koepka is an amazing competitor with an icy focus and incredibly high standards for himself. 

After shooting that record 128 over the first two rounds at Bethpage, he didn’t exult, he went to work on his swing.

“I’m not hitting it well, we’re going straight to the range,” he informed his swing coach Claude Harmon III.

Funny, but you don’t hear any more talk about how Koepka hurt his game by losing too much weight. Announcer Brandel Chamblee criticized him for the weight loss. He also questioned his toughness. The only thing in question is Chamblee’s credibility. 

Imagine how scary Koepka will be if he actually toughens up a bit, or if he gets better when he hits 30. Hogan was 34 when he won his first major. So was Mickelson. Nickalus won 11 of his 18 majors after turning 30.

Koepka probably won’t catch Jack or Tiger. The competition is too stiff nowadays. Then again, he just won four out of his last eight majors. And for the time being, he’s the favorite every time he tees it up in one of them.

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THE COLUMN

5/17/19

I’m sure Ralph Krueger won over a lot of Buffalo fans when he revealed that he bounced around some of the downtown bars during a recent visit to the city, making a sort of undercover survey of our long-suffering sports community.

Presumably, they gave him an earful. I hope his eyes were popping out like old Ralph Kramden when people offered him a harsh, honest evaluation of the town team. Realistic Sabres fans, their lips loosened by a pint or two on Chippewa or the Swanee or 716, would have told him he was inheriting a team that was soft, overentitled, lazy and unaccountable defensively. 

Of course, Krueger could determine that by watching film of the team over the last two seasons, when outside a fluke 10-game winning streak last November, the Sabres were the worst team in the NHL. Watching too much film might make the new head coach want to drown his sorrows downtown again.

Let’s hope Ralph isn’t coming into this situation with rose-colored glasses. I have to wonder. In his conference call with the Buffalo media on Wednesday, Krueger said that “above all, this group is ready to become a contender … I’m confident that we can become that kind of team quite quickly. I like the way Jason has been putting this group together and the way he thinks.”

Really? Ready to contend? Look, I know the new coach needs to put on a happy, optimistic front. After all, the fans are disillusioned and the team needs to sell tickets. But what they don’t need now is a new coach who tells people want they want to hear, who paints an unrealistic picture about how good this team can be.

That goes double for the owner, general manager and players. If Krueger is such an expert on hockey and leadership, he has to make it very clear that what they’ve put together isn’t nearly good enough, that the Sabres aren’t that close, that they have a thin roster, bad defense, non-existent secondary scoring and average goaltending.

You know who put together the right kind of team? I know fans don’t want to hear it, but Boston, the team that always seems to have a better idea about winning hockey. They just swept Carolina and are in the Cup finals. They had 19 different players score goals in the conference finals. They lost Zdeno Chara for Game 4 and didn’t miss a beat. They goaltending and special teams are fantastic. Their third- and fourth-line players have been terrific in the postseason. 

I hope Krueger has the sort of power the Pegulas bestowed on Sean McDermott when he came in as coach. He has the resume of a man who could be leading an NHL team as president, who could make the kind of hard, unsentimental decisions of a leader whose heart and reputation aren’t attached to any player.

The Sabres need changes. They need to move some people out and alter the competitive makeup of the team. Ryan O’Reilly wasn’t the only guy who got accustomed to losing. This wasn’t all Phil Housley’s fault. Botterill has spent two years assembling a losing roster. He has demonstrated little understanding of the importance of defense, and if Krueger is a master of defensive structure and winning strategy, some things have to change.

That starts with shooting down the notion that they have to keep certain players. On a chronic loser, there are no indispensable players. If Krueger understands defense, he has to know that Rasmus Ristolainen is miscast as a first-line defenseman who plays 25—plus minutes a game. That’s a sign of desperation and misplaced hope. 

The Sabres will never win with Ristolainen impersonating an elite defenseman. Krueger should be looking to trade him or at the very least, reduce his role and start developing a young defense that knows how to play responsibly in its own end. 

Then there’s Jeff Skinner. If Krueger is smart, he’ll resist the prevailing belief that Skinner has to be re-signed, that the Sabres have to overpay him because he’s a proven goal-scorer, their only 40 goal-scorer in more than a decade. If they don’t re-sign him, then have to replace his production, is the standard cry. So spend that money wisely and put together a deeper roster of scorers, the way they Bruins have. 

This guy is supposed to be a modern thinker. So stop being a slate to conventional thinking and make some bold, creative moves. Stop rationalizing small-minded decisions. That’s how these two franchises became such losers in their sports. 

Krueger shouldn’t be looking to talk Skinner into staying. He should persuading Jason Botterill to let him go, because what the Sabres don’t need know, after handing Jack Eichel a $10 million contract, is to make a thin roster top-heavy by pay $18 million or more on two players, one of them a limited defensive player who has never been on a team that made the playoffs.

Eichel hasn’t won, either. It’s fashionable to talk about how much he hates losing, and how frustrating it is to be the top player and face of a franchise that has been the joke of the NHL for most of his four years in the league. 

They say Krueger is a master communication. He has written books on leadership. He needs to get a clear message to Eichel: He hasn’t done nearly enough. He talks about wanting to win and to be a responsible leader, but his actions don’t always reflect that. If he really wants to be a superstar and winner, he has to be more consistent on and off the ice. 

He can’t float defensively. He has to stop projecting a defeatist attitude when things aren’t going well. If he’s the voice of the team, he can’t come across as snide and defensive in interviews, as if dealign with the media is an imposition and a chore. Show some real personality, Jack. Stop acting like you’re playing the role of a young leader. Become a real one. 

I hope Krueger heard some of this from the fans in the bars. I’ve always felt that the real fans aren’t afraid of the hard, objective truth. Get around people over a beer and they don’t wave the pom pons, they tell you what’s wrong with their teams, and what needs to change. 

Of course, Ralph shouldn’t need to go to talk to fans in bars to find out what’s wrong with his new team. You know what Marv Levy, Buffalo’s last Hall of Fame coach, always said: If you listen too much to the fans, pretty soon  you’ll be out there sitting with them.

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THE COLUMN

5/16/19


Sabres fans know all too well what it’s like to have a huge Stanley Cup playoff game decided by a non-call in overtime. After what happened late last night in St. Louis, I imagine Blues fans know how Buffalo fans felt after Brett Hull’s No-Goal 20 years ago.

The Blues won in OT in Game 3 of the West Conference finals when Erik Karlsson slapped the puck past goalie Jordan Binnington at 5:23 of overtime, giving San Jose — which trailed with a minute left in regulation — a 5-4 victory and a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Replays made it clear that the Sharks’ Timo Meier had directed the puck to Karlsson in front of the net with his right glove while sliding to the ice. Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester kicked out his leg to stop it, but it went to Gustav Nyquist, who fed Karlsson for the winner. 

The Blues were irate, they went to the officials, aware of the illegal hand pass. The Sharks skated to the dressing room. The Blues remained, hoping for a reversal. There was none. Hand passes are not reviewable. Going to Toronto for a ruling wouldn’t help.

Binnington slammed his stick on the boards.  Brayden Schenn smashed his stick in half on the end boards. Blues players waved their arms on the bench in disbelief. The officials, knowing the call had to stand, left the ice, protected by a canopy from cups and cans being tossed by outraged fans in the Enterprise Center, who had watched replays of the hand pass on the jumbotron.

Shouts of outrage were audible deep in the arena. St. Louis general manager Doug Armstrong could be heard pounding on the door of the officials’ dressing room, yelling that the decision was “f—ing garbage.”

Again, it brings back memories of 20 years ago, when we heard Lindy Ruff cursing outside the door of the officials room after the Hull goal gave Dallas the 1999 Stanley Cup in the third OT in Buffalo. That night, of course, most Sabres fans weren’t aware of the skate in the crease controversy until they got in their cars.

I’m sure New Orleans Saints fans can also commiserate with the Blues’ faithful. They got screwed when the officials somehow missed a blatant interference by Nickel Robby-Coleman of the Rams in the NFC title game, costing the Saints a berth in the Super Bowl. The NFL responded by changing its replay rules. They saw an embarrassing situation and rectified it. 

This one is just as bad. How could four on-ice officials not see the hand pass? How is no one in position to make that call, or at least have a question? Could it be that one of them did see it, but didn’t have the guts to bring it to Toronto’s attention and create a controversy for the NHL? Well, that’s exactly what they got.

This is a sport where a guy being one inch offsides can be reviewed and nullify a goal — even when it has virtually no bearing on the play. The Vegas-San Jose game was decided by a five-minute penalty after a fairly incident cross-check.

Changing the rule on NFL interference hasn’t  erased the resentment in New Orleans, and it will take St. Louis fans awhile to get over this officiating gaffe, especially if they fail to advance to the Cup finals for the first time in 49 years.

Blues coach Craig Berube said in the post-game presser he had nothing to say about it. Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo:

“I didn’t really get an explanation, other than it’s a different set of rules for two teams. So I’m sure they’ll lose some sleep after looking at it. That’s all I’m going to say about it.”

It’s understandable. The Blues don’t want to seem like poor losers.  Berube needs to get his team past the call and focus their attention on Game 4 Friday night. The Blues were 14 points behind the Sabres on Jan. 1. They’ve been a great comeback story this season. It’ll be sad if a bad call comes to define their season.

But that’s where the NHL has put itself with an ill-advised replay system. We’re in an era where just about everything can be reviewed — they can even disqualify the winner in the Kentucky Derby. NHL rules stipulate that all goals scored in the final minute of regulation or at any point during overtime are automatically reviewed by League Hockey Operations. I don’t understand how they couldn’t notice a play that led to it.

Clearly, this wasn’t about the goal itself, but what preceded it. The NHL instituted coaching challenges last season, but evidently it doesn’t cover hand passes. But if hand passes are illegal, why couldn’t they allow coaches to challenge other things? What good is having the geniuses in Toronto if they can’t fix something this egregious? The umpire misses the tag at second? They can review it. A hand pass is just as easily identifiable and reviewable.

It would help if the announcers on these national games showed a little more outrage. But they acted as if they were protecting the sport that feeds them. This is an embarrassment, and it makes hockey come off as smalltime. 

The Robey-Coleman play was the talk of the NFL right up to the Super Bowl. Maybe it was an overreaction, but the league reacted and changed the rules. Garbage call. Twenty years after No Goal, the NHL again comes off like some garage league.

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THE COLUMN

5/15/19

All right, I was wrong about Jason Botterill. Clearly, the Sabres general manager wasn’t looking to protect his reputation and make the safe, conservative choice to replace Phil Housley as his head coach

In the end, Botterill did make a bold, risky pick. He ended an exhaustive search by landing on a man with the most unconventional resume in hockey, Ralph Krueger, who has spent the last five years as chairman of Southampton FC of the English Premier League — yes, a soccer team.

Krueger, who was born in Winnipeg to German immigrants, said in a recent profile in The Athletic that he hoped to return to the NHL some day. In fact, he told Pierre LeBrun the first thing he did every morning, even in soccer season, was look at the NHL scores in the paper.

LeBrun said Krueger was most likely to come back to the NHL as an executive, as a team president or president of hockey operations. 

In fact, Krueger described his “idea model,” a “strong triangle of the head coach, the general manager and the president in a professional sports organization. If you get three people that have different strengths to fill each other’s weaknesses, which we all have, and they work in unison toward a goal on a regular basis, that for me is the basis. It took me a few years to really get that right here.’’ (with Southampton).

That sounds like the model the Pegulas had with Pat LaFontaine, a management structure that has become common in the NHL. I would have endorsed bringing in Krueger to supplant Kim Pegula as president and create a more diverse management structure and have him help hire a coach. But Botterill convinced him to take on the challenge of coaching an NHL team and in a way they get the best of both worlds.

In Krueger, they certainly get a man with a fascinating history and a reputation as an innovator and leader, a man who relishes a new challenge. And God knows, it’s about time the Sabres had a more dynamic, innovative leader and communicator as their head coach.

Krueger played professionally for 11 seasons in Germany, including a year as a player-coach. He became head coach of VEU Feldkirch in 1991-92; he led that team to five straight championships in Austria from 1994-98. He led Switzerland in 15 international tournaments over 13 years, earning a reputation as an creative strategist, a coach who knew how to create a defensive structure but also an engaging offensive mind.

That caught the eye of NHL types. He was scouting consultant for the a Hurricanes under GM Jim Rutherford, Botterill’s former boss in Pittsburgh. He became an assistant with Edmonton in 2010. The Oilers power play went from 27th to third in his second year there. 

Krueger was head coach of the Oilers in the lockout-shortened 2013 season — so if Botterill really wasn’t going to hire anyone without NHL head coaching experience, he does meet that criterion. Edmonton went 19-22-7 with a young roster. They were top 10 in both power play and penalty kill. He got credit for motivating young players and putting together a defensive structure, but he was let go after one season.

Team Canada thought enough of Krueger to put him on Mike Babcock’s staff as an advisor for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, where the Canadian played stellar defense and won gold. In 2016, he stepped away from soccer to coach Team Europe, which made a spirited run to the World Cup final and gave Canada all it could handle in the championship game.

Krueger wrote a best-seller in German on leadership and motivation —  “Teamlife: Over Setbacks to Success.”  He was a core member of the World Economic Forum’s council on new models of leadership. 

I have to give Botterill and the Pegulas credit for this hire. There’s no guarantee it will work. He inherits a thin roster with a brutal defense and a bunch of players who have done nothing but lose in their time in Buffalo. He needs to transform a losing culture and win back a disaffected and dubious fan base in Buffalo.

But at least the Sabres weren’t afraid to think out of the box — while finding an intriguing head coach who checks a lot of boxes. In a way, this is like what the Cavaliers did by hiring John Beilein. They were willing to defy the small-minded conventions of their sport.

One thing is for sure, Krueger will be a lot more engaging with the team and the public than Phil Housley. He won’t stammer out his responses and might actually have some spirited and intelligent exchanges with the media. Press conferences could be fun again.

Krueger sounds like a guy who will be the smartest man in the room. The Sabres could use that. Maybe the young guys on this team will respond to a coach who is bright and creative and a people person, someone who’ll show them they’re not as smart as they’d like to think they are, as young men and hockey players. In the end, players respect coaches who help them to be better.

Krueger said recently that he’s eager for a new challenge. He said hockey has a special place in his heart. Buffalo, which has been the joke of the NHL for six years, represents the ultimate challenge. It can also be a special hockey place, a great hockey town that deserves much better than the Pegulas have given them over the last eight years. 

Good for Botterill. He’s taking a risk here. Maybe the Sabres finally got it right. He might even be hiring the team’s future president. 

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THE COLUMN

5/14/19

As a sports writer, I’ve always told people I don’t root for teams. I root for the best story. Well, we just got the best story we could ask for in the National Basketball Association. 

Kevin Durant strained his calf in Game 5 of Golden State’s win over the Rockets on Wednesday night. Durant, widely regarded as the best player in the game right now, will not be able to play in the rest of the conference semifinals — which resume Friday night with Game 6 in Houston. 

Now … we get the best story. A Warriors team that was seen as vulnerable heading into this postseason — especially against a Houston team that took them to seven in last year’s conference finals — is wounded and staggered and ready to be dethroned.

It’s not likely Durant will be back back in time for the start of the conference finals, either. Dr. Alan Beyer, an orthopedic surgeon in Newport Beach, Ca., told CBS Sports on Thursday that a mild strain means “somewhere between a Grade 1 and Grade 2 strain, which is going to likely keep him out for two weeks in a best-case scenario.” Beyer also pointed out that a strain is the same thing as a tear.

Two weeks would fall between Games 5 and 6 of the West final, which is slated to get under way on May 14. That assumes, of course, that the Warriors win one of the next two against MVP James Harden and the Rockets. 

Suddenly, the NBA playoffs got a lot more interesting. If ratings suffered from the notion that a third straight Warriors title was a certainty, the drama and intrigue go through the roof of those NBA arenas, now. 

Oh, did I mention that we have a couple of Game 7s coming up this weekend in other conference semifinals? Portland won at home last night to force a Game 7 in Denver. The Sixers did the same at home and will go back to The North to face Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors in Game 7 in the East. 

So think about it. With Durant out of the picture for two weeks, there are SEVEN teams with a legitimate chance to win the NBA title. When was the last time we could say that? Milwaukee is certainly a threat, even if Durant had not gone down. 

But the best story now is the Warriors carrying on without Durant (not to mention DeMarcus Cousins) and winning without him — or at least until he’s ready to make a Willis Reed-style comeback and lead a threepeat in the Finals on his rested calf.

Really, why couldn’t they win? Remember, Golden State won a record 73 games before Durant arrived in 2015-16. They were led by Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, who averaged 30 points a game, set the 3 point shooting record and won league MVP. They also had Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. People were calling them the best team ever before they lost to the Cavs.

You don’t think they’re motivated to win without Durant and prove to the world that they’re a great team without him? Adding Durant, who won the last two Finals MVP awards, sapped a lot of the drama out of the NBA playoffs and earned the league criticism for players ganging up to create super teams and hurting competitive balance.

Now the pressure goes squarely on Harden and coach Mike D’Antoni and the Rockets. A week ago, they were whining about the officiating and pointing to a team audit that suggested they had been victimized by close to 100 bad calls in Game 7 against the Warriors in last year’s West Conference finals. 

Well, there’s no room for whining now. With Durant gone, Harden is the best scorer in this series. It’s about time James came up big in an elimination game. Two years ago, facing elimination, he shot 2 of 9 from three and 2 of 11 overall. Last year in that Game 7, he was 2 of 13 from three and Houston missed 27 straight 3’s at one point. He’s 21 for 62 from three in this series.

Harden has to dominate now, be better than either of the Splash Brothers, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. If you ask me, there are at least five more valuable players alive in the playoffs — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid and yes, Durant.

The conference finals should be great. Think of the possibilities. Harden against Nikola Jokic; or Joel Embiid going up against Giannis Antetokoumpko; Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors looking to get to their first NBA finals against Giannis and a Bucks team that hasn’t been there since the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Steph Curry going up against the Blazers and his brother, Seth.

At least the Finals won’t be the Warriors and Cavs for a fifth straight year. And for once, watching Golden State try to get there could be the best story of all.

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THE COLUMN

5/9/19

Well, former Sabres are having a marvelous postseason. The West Conference finals will feature two guys who departed Buffalo after the 2017-18 season, Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane. The Hurricanes will take the ice in the Eastern finals against the Bruins tonight despite the absence of Jeff Skinner.

Meanwhile, the Sabres still don’t have a head coach. I guess we’re supposed to believe that they really didn’t want Joel Quenneville or Alain Vigneault or Todd McLellan. They were retreads, old ideas, unworthy of handling the bounty of talent that the Sabres have assembled under the Pegula reign.

Then again, it could be that Buffalo has become a less than attractive hockey destination. It seems to me that the Sabres have become a franchise that canny coaches use to leverage more salary out of other prospective employers, the way Mike Babcock and McLellan did. 

And really, why would anyone with an alternative want to come to work for the Sabres, a misbegotten franchise that has finished dead last in the NHL in three of the six years and, outside of one fluke 10-game streak, was the worst team in the league this season? Do you think people in the hockey world believe O’Reilly was the problem here, or that Pat LaFontaine left because he was some raving martinet, or that Dan Bylsma got fired because he wouldn’t have coffee with his players and forgot how to coach?

But there was one guy I figured would come to Buffalo, who was eager to get his chance as an NHL head coach and would see the Sabres as a golden opportunity, not a hockey black hole. 

Rikard Gronborg. 

Full disclosure. I was prepared to endorse him as the Sabres’ next head coach this morning, until the news broke that Gronberg had signed to coach Zurich in the Swiss League.

Gronborg, who is head coach of the Swedish national team and has coached his native country in the Olympics, World Cups, World Juniors, World Championships — where he has led Sweden to its first ever back to back gold medals — and Under 18s over the last nine years, wants to be a head coach in the NHL. He wants it badly. At 50, he believes he is ready for the challenge.

“Absolutely,” he said recently. “I do feel ready, for sure.”

Gronborg has been preparing himself for such an opportunity for years. He has coached in North America. He has dual citizenship. He began his career as an assistant at St. Cloud State, coached in the WHL.

When Sweden dangled a three-year contract extension last year as head coach, he turned it down. Yes, he thinks it’s his time to give the NHL a shot. He has been thinking about it for more than a year now.

Gronberg seemed like an ideal choice for the Sabres, albeit and unconventional one. Jason Botterill has said he wants a coach who is a communicator. Gronborg has a master’s degree in management and leadership. He is known as a communicator, able to communicate well in English. He has coached most of the Swedes on the Buffalo roster at some point in their development.

Botterill is currently at the World Championships in Slovakia, he was part of the group that put together the Canadian roster. He was expected to speak with Gronborg, who supposedly became a candidate when all those “retreads” became unavailable for the Sabres. 

According to John Vogl of the Athletic, Botterill never even spoke to Gronborg. That tells me the Sabres weren’t interested. That’s the only conclusion I can draw. If Gronborg was desperate to coach in the NHL, it’s hard to fathom that he wouldn’t have been interested in the Sabres. 

Either way, it looks bad for the Sabres and Botterill, who has apparently decided against a fresh idea, a coach who would represent a bold vision and a chance to steer a staggering franchise toward a promising future.

Yes, hiring Gronborg would have been seen as a risk, as flying in the face of safe, conservative hockey thinking — the most common sort of thinking in the sport. No European coach has been hired by as an NHL head coach since 2001. There’s still a lingering, tired belief that European hockey players and the European game are somehow “soft.” 

Really, my idea of soft was Phil Housley, as a player and a coach. He was a risk, a bad idea that cost Botterill two years. Housley was a bad mark on his record as some rising hockey management star. 

Botterill looks like an executive who defies the myth of soft European players, one who favors the swift, skilled game now thriving in hockey. He has drafted 10 Europeans for Buffalo, all but one from Sweden or Finland. The Sabres have 15 players from those two nations in the organization.

So Gronborg seemed like a fit. Botterill could have made the courageous, creative decision. Instead, it seems he operated out of fear, afraid to take a risk, more willing to take the safe path to protect his sagging reputation. He comes off as a weak leader who is more concerned with perception than doing the right thing.

Every head coach is a risk. Ask the Pegulas. Housley was a risk. So was Bylsma, and Rex Ryan, who had won before. So were Doug Marrone and Sean McDermott, who had never been head coaches. You can’t run scared from the unconventional. The Pegulas didn’t hire Botterill to hide from pressure and criticism and a bold, inventive idea. 

Who is it now. Chris Taylor, their AHL coach? Sheldon Keefe — really, the coach in waiting in Toronto would go to Buffalo instead? Jacques Martin, anyone? A college coach?

The Sabres have lost every which way. They’re the joke of the NHL. They have the longest playoff drought in the league. If any team needs to try the bold, it’s this franchise. Gronborg struck me as just that kind of choice, a great idea that would have showed a rare creative vision for a franchise in desperate need of one.

Is it any surprise, then, that the Sabres decided against it?

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THE COLUMN

5/8/19

I took a little nap on Tuesday afternoon. Maybe I knew what was in store, that it might be one of those long nights in front of the TV set. After all, is there anything in sports quite like Game Seven of a Stanley Cup playoff series?

How about a Game Seven overtime?

Late last night, St. Louis and Dallas staged the latest hockey playoff epic. The Blues, who dominated for much of the night while being continually stymied by Blues goalie Ben Bishop, finally won it, 2-1, on Pat Maroon’s goal 5:50 in the second OT to advance to the Western Conference finals. 

The Blues will face the winner of tonight’s conference semifinal Game 7 between Colorado and San Jose. Maybe that one will go overtime as well. As it is, there have already been three overtime Game Sevens in these playoffs — an NHL record. 

We’re seeing a lot of history in this amazing Cup postseason. All four top seeds going out in the first round, three Game 7s in overtime, a lot of stunning goaltending. As always, you find yourself watching with a Buffalo perspective, thinking back to the Game 6 against the Stars in 1999, and Dominik Hasek’s 70-save shutout in 1994, and watching Ryan O’Reilly shine for St. Louis.

Ben Bishop nearly stole this game for a dreadful Dallas offense, which had a combined FOUR shots on goal in the second and third periods. Bishop faced 54 shot, becoming the fifth goalie ever to face 50 or more shots in a Game Seven.

I have to admit, I was nodding off at one point in the third period. But no one sleeps in a Cup overtime. The crowd buzzing comes through the screen. You can feel the incredible tension of OT, when one shot can end the drama. You become part of a community of tense observers. On Twitter, Dirk Nowitzki tweeted “nerve wrecking.” Josh Reed of Channel 4 said he wouldn’t leave the office ’til it was over. I was talking hockey by text with my nephew back in Rhode Island, a Bruins fan rooting for a replay of the famous St. Louis-Boston Cup final of 1970. I saw it. 

The Blues continued to carry the play in the first overtime. Bishop made a save on Alex Pietrangelo. It was after 11. I decided to record ahead on my TV, to record something called Monster Jam, just in case. Now Dallas had a flurry, Jordan Binnington made a big stop on John Klingberg, another defenseman joining the rush.

O’Reilly made a couple of nifty passes. Bishop stood tall. The fans in St. Louis were waving their white towels. I had a flashback to James Patrick hitting the post in the second OT against Dallas. Bishop has made 43 saves in a row at this point. Another stop on O’Reilly from a tough angle on the Blues’ 50th shot.. 

The crowd is singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. John Denver? A Brayden Schenn shot from point blank range hits the back leg of Star and Bishop covers up as three teammates pile on top of him. Shot attempts are 94-38 now. 

Alexander Radulov skates in on goal and collides with Binnington, knocking the net off. Dallas is pressing, a couple of saves by Binnington. Back and forth they go. The pressure is excruciating. Bishop loses his stick at one point. O’Reilly is winning face-offs and making crisp passes.

The first OT ends. Mike Harrington tweets that the Blues have 99 shot attempts and one goal through 80 minutes. I walk around the house to stay awake. Binnington makes the save of the night, as Jamie Benn tries a wraparound from his left and he gets there just in time. It looks like the puck went right along the goal-line before he covered up. I wondered if they would review it.

Moments later, Maroon — a St. Louis native — banged in a rebound to win it for St. Louis,   which lost to the Sharks in the West final three years ago. O’Reilly, who was 0-5 in playoff overtimes before this, goes to a conference final for the first time, one year after talking his way out of Buffalo by admitting he had grown accustomed to losing.

The players went through the ritual handshake line, one of the great traditions in all of sports. Some of the Blues took a little longer congratulating Ben Bishop. I looked down at the clock on the box and noticed it was exactly midnight.

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THE COLUMN

5/7/19

Thirty years ago last month, I wrote my first column ever for the Buffalo News. I went to Toronto to write about the floundering New York Yankees and their slumping captain, Don Mattingly.

The Yankees had opened that season 1-7 and were fast becoming the joke of baseball. While I was covering that series — the last the Yankees ever played at the old Exhibition Stadium — one of the players compared them to the misfit toys.

It’s easy to forget all these years later, but the Yankees truly were a bunch of misfits back in those days. From 1989-91, they were the laughingstock of baseball. Then-commissioner Fay Vincent gave George Steinbrenner a lifetime ban from baseball for conspiring with a gambler to get dirt on Dave Winfield.

The sorry Yankees lost 95 games in 1990, the most losses they’d suffered since changing their name from the Highlanders to the Yankees in 1913. A year later, they lost 91. They were a model of dysfunction and mismanagement. But during Steinbrenner’s ban, they began to turn things around and return baseball’s most fabled franchise back into a consistent winner, one that reached the postseason 17 times in 18 years from 1995 to 2012.

By the second half of the 1990s, I had the thrill of covering the Yankees as they won four World Series in five seasons, led by four of the franchise cornerstones who had been drafted and developed by the Yankees during their rise from the ashes — Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera.

Bill Pennington, the award-winning author and New York Times journalist, has chronicled the Yankees’ rise in the 1990s. His book, “Chumps to Champs”, was released today. It’s an absorbing and exhaustively researched account by a writer whose recent life of Billy Martin was one of the finest sports biographies I’ve ever read.

Here in Buffalo — a Yankee town – we know a thing or two about franchises falling into dysfunction after periods of greatness. At the time the Yankees were falling apart in the late Eighties and earlier Nineties, the Bills were entering a period were they went to four straight Super Bowls. Soon after, they suffered a 17-year playoff drought. The Sabres currently own the longest playoff drought in the the NHL.

So maybe Chumps to Champs can be instructive for Buffalo sports fans, and a hopeful reminder that a few wise personnel men can take a struggling sports franchise and, with patience and a keen eye for young talent, restore it to its former prominence.

The greatest lesson of all, perhaps, is that good things can happen when ownership gets out of the way and lets the experts do their jobs — because the Steinbrenner suspension in 1990 was one of the best things that ever happened to the Yankees.

I’m pleased to say that Bill Pennington has been kind enough to join us for a few minutes to talk about his new book on the morning of its publication. Bill also covers the NFL in New York, so he might have some insight into a current model of dysfunction, the Giants.

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THE COLUMN

5/6/19

After sweeping the Islanders to finish a stretch of 11 playoff games in 23 days, the Carolina Hurricanes get a well-deserved rest before playing in the East Conference finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

The Canes could get a break as long as eight days, depending on how long the Bruins-Bluejackets game goes. They’ll have time to rest and nurse some injuries, including goalie Petr Mrazek, who left Game 2 of the conference semifinals with what is believed to be a groin injury and has been listed as day to day since.

While the Hurricanes rest, Sabres fans can contemplate the embarrassment of seeing Carolina reach the Final Four of the NHL after ending the league’s longest playoff drought at nine seasons. 

Yeah, I know that Sabres fans would rather whistle past the graveyard and dismiss any of the obvious connections here. But isn’t it a little embarrassing to see them take over the distinction of longest NHL playoff drought from the Canes, the year after trading for Jeff Skinner — and then watch them storm to a conference final?

Meanwhile, Skinner remains unsigned, while Sabres fans cling to the fanciful hope that Jason Botterill will convince Skinner to remain with a second team that’s mired in the NHL’s longest drought, one that outside of one fluke 10-game streak, has been the worst in the NHL for the last two seasons.

Of course, it’s become a reflex for Buffalo sports fans to always assume the best about their teams, especially when they’re marching to the tune of the radio station that carries the team’s games. I actually heard someone suggest the other day that the Skinner deal was a “good deal” regardless of what happens. 

Really? If the Skinner trade was a good deal for the Sabres, it was the trade of the millennium for Carolina. To review: The Sabres traded Cliff Pu and three draft picks — a second in 2019, third and sixths in 2020 — for Skinner early last August.

So the Sabres didn’t appear to give a lot for Skinner, assuming you don’t value draft picks that highly. But what did it get them? They didn’t win. They were the worst team in the league in the second half of the season. Skinner scored 40 goals, but was a virtual non-factor while the team was falling to pieces. 

Prevailing wisdom says the Sabres desperately need to re-sign Skinner. Who will score goals if he’s gone? Who will profit from the generational playmaking of Jack Eichel? Who will be the leading goal-scorer on a team that has no secondary scoring and was the joke of the NHL the last two years?

You know who didn’t feel it was desperate to keep Skinner, to pay him elite money? The Hurricanes. A year ago, they missed the playoffs for the ninth year in a row and decided he might not be the answer. They had 10 double-figure goal-scorers a year ago (he had 24), and they figured they could make it work without him.

I’ll say they did. If you ask a Hurricane fan today, they’d say they would have unloaded Skinner for nothing. Evidently, they didn’t think it was in the organization’s best interest to throw big money at one player, a one-dimensional player who didn’t play good defense and hadn’t appeared in a single playoff game.

So tell me again why the Sabres “desperately” need to re-sign Skinner? Any objective Sabres fan has to be worried that they’ll sign him for the wrong reasons, because they’re so bereft of scoring elsewhere and — this is the big one — Botterill has to sign him to avoid the humiliation of getting nothing for him. 

I’d respect Botterill more if he decided to do the courageous thing and not give Skinner top money, even if he gets grilled in public. That would be a welcome sign that he’s a strong general manager and willing to make the tough calls necessary to turn this misbegotten franchise around once and for all. 

Buffalo teams are famous for taking on shiny objects from other teams that have decided they’re not worth the money or trouble. Drew Bledsoe comes to Buffalo when he’s virtually shot and we throw him a parade. Mario Williams signs for $100 million after winning nothing in Houston and Bills fans still think it was a good deal. Now we’re supposed to believe it’ll be a great thing for the Sabres to give Skinner some eight-year, $55 million contract.

If Skinner was such a great idea, you’d have thought some other NHL would have grabbed him before the Sabres did, some team that was a legitimate playoff contender and could use a goal-scorer. How come he wound up in Buffalo for such a cheap price? Maybe because smarter NHL teams understood his flaws?

I’m not saying Skinner was the problem in Carolina. But they’re in the conference finals, the story of the NHL, after giving up on him. The Hurricanes are the latest proof that hockey can be a game of nuance and team chemistry, of the parts being greater than any one star player or gifted scorer. 

The Sabres and their fans should take a good honest look at what happened in Carolina and learn from it. 

Maybe it’s unkind, but the fact is that as soon as Skinner left a chronic loser it had its best season in a decade. The Sabres should consider that before giving him the big money. Someone is going to overpay the guy. Let it be someone else.

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THE COLUMN

5/2/19

Only one of the top 10 goal-scorers from the NHL regular season is still alive in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. That would be Nathan MacKinnon of the Avalanche.

Six of the top regular-season scorers in the NBA remain alive in the playoffs. That includes Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and the sport’s leading scorer, James Harden, in a Western Conference semifinal series between the Rockets and Warriors.

A problem? The TV ratings for hockey in the first round were the highest in seven years. Meanwhile, the ratings for the NBA playoffs were down a whopping 19 percent in the first round.

Maybe it’s not all about big scorers and big names in the playoffs. I’ve been watching more playoff hockey than ever. The first round was one of the most compelling in years, with all four top seeds getting upset in the first round and Columbus stunning the Lightning in a sweep.

Are basketball fans finally getting sick of the Warriors and the notion that they’re unbeatable until Kevin Durant leaves? Or is the absence of LeBron James, who had gone to eight straight NBA Finals, having a negative effect? It certainly wouldn’t hurt if the Lakers and Knicks were playing in May. 

Hockey seems to be slowly gaining a larger foothold with the American public. Still, let’s keep things in perspective. NBA ratings are well ahead of hockey. The NHL still isn’t on ESPN and its playoff games are on a secondary NBC network.

I’m not sure hockey will ever approach the other three majors sports in this country. Yes, the ratings are up slightly, but I still think the sport suffers from not having more star power, more recognizable players who draw in the average sports viewer.

I love the hockey playoffs, though I still prefer basketball, where the stars are more likely to take center stage and express their extraordinary talents in the biggest games. I miss Alex Ovechkin and Sid Crosby and Patrick Kane in May. It would be nice if Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid became playoff fixtures. And even though Columbus is a great story, part of me wanted to see Nikita Kucherov and the Lightning light it up in a Stanley Cup run.

I’m already hearing mutterings in the hockey world about how the NHL suits could be worrying about ratings in the Finals if smaller markets like, say, Columbus and St. Louis, get there. Can the average American fan name a player on either of those teams?

The NHL shouldn’t have to apologize. There’s nothing quite like hockey playoffs, the tension of a close game. As Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post told us the other day, the crowds in Colorado have been far more electric for the Avalanche games than the Nuggets. 

There’s no trophy in sports like the Cup, no ceremony quite so iconic as the handshake line. I imagine hockey fans get sick of having to defend their support and hear critics remind them how the NBA ratings are twice as high or more. At some point, you just shrug and ignore the criticism and enjoy the show. When you love a musician who isn’t that popular, it feels a little bit more like your own.

I watched that Carolina-Islanders game last night, choosing it over the NBA game. It was gripping. I can still see Justin Faulk exiting the penalty box, knocking the puck to the ice and skating in to beatRobin Lehner for the goal that made it 2-1.

Later, it was Mr. Game Seven, Justin Williams, firing home the game-winning goal in the third period for Carolina. Williams might not be a household name, but he’s a star in his sport, especially in the postseason. It’s guys like that, who raise their game in the spring, who can make playoff hockey so endlessly captivating.

Marginal players become heroes more often in hockey. Could Buffalo fans ever forget guys like Curtis Brown and Dixon Ward rising up for the Sabres in big playoff games, meeting the playoff pressure and finding another level in their competitive character?

Stars matter, of course. Fans were glued to Game of Thrones to see John Snow and Arya and Daenerys, not the faceless white walkers. But playoff hockey, while still featuring astonishing individual talents, is more a celebration of the sport itself, of teamwork and grit and giving yourself up in the playoff crucible.

That’s a wonderful thing, no matter how many people watch. It’s what makes hockey fans puff their chests out and insist their game is the best in the spring. This is their time of year. 

Carolina is one game from reaching the East Conference finals, after a nine-year playoff drought. After winning Game 3 at home on Wednesday night, the Hurricanes players stood together on the blue line and saluted the ecstatic crowd. It was a great sports moment, almost like they were saluting the matchless drama that is playoff hockey.

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THE COLUMN

5/1/19

Well, it’s May 1 today. May Day. It’s officially known as International Workers’ Day, or Worker’s Day, a celebration of laborers and the working class promoted by the international labor movement. It’s a national holiday in some countries, though we celebrate Labor Day in September. 

Of course, when Buffalo sports fans hear the phrase, “May Day,” they think of Rick Jeanneret’s famous call of Brad May’s overtime goal in the 1993 playoffs against the Bruins. That actually took place on April 24, 1993. 

I’m a big fan of labor. But As I’ve said before, April is my favorite sports month. I’ll miss it. It was a fabulous April and if you don’t mind, I’d like to say goodbye by reflecting on some of the great things that happened in the last month. 

Tiger Woods won the Masters. It was the sports story of the year and will probably be that way when people make their lists at the end of December. One of the best comeback stories in golf history, and maybe all of sports, and made the golf season a whole lot more interesting. 

We saw the most amazing first round in Stanley Cup history — which sadly, didn’t include the Sabres for the eighth year in a row. 

All four division winners went down. That included Tampa Bay, which was coming off one of the best regular seasons in NHL history. The defending champion, Washington, and defending runnerup,  Vegas, went down.  

The Isles, who had missed the previous two years, swept the Penguins. Columbus won the first series in its history by sweeping the Lightning in the first round and just went up 2-1 on the Bruins in Round 2 last night in the latest they’ve ever played in April.

Carolina broke 10-year playoff drought by shocking the Caps; Colorado won a series first time in nine years. There were 13 overtime games in April.

All the favorites won as usual in an NBA first round that didn’t include LeBron James. Did you miss him? Scoring and three-pointers continued to soar. Steph Curry set career playoff record for most three pointers; the Rockets set the league record for threes in the regular season. Kevin Durant, the best player in the world, averaged 40 points over a five-game playoff stretch.

Baseballs flew out of ballparks at record rate in April, as home runs soared again to all-time highs. The Mariners set an MLB record by homering in the firs 15 games of the season. The Orioles set a record for homers allowed in the month. Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich set the record with 14 homers before May 1, and Bellinger broke the record for RBIs.

The Bills continued to rebuild their roster and raise expectations. Last week, they got a gift when defensive tackle Ed Oliver fell to them in the first round. Kyler Murray became the second straight Heisman winner from Oklahoma to go first overall. Miami traded for Josh Rosen, which means three of the top four QBs from last year’s draft class are in the AFC East. 

In college basketball, Virginia won the NCAA title, one year after becoming the first time in history to get bumped off by a 16 seed in the first round. Baylor won the women’s title in a gripping 82-81 final over defending champion Notre Dame. Arike Ogunbowale, who had won both Final Four games with buzzer-beaters the year before, missed one of two free throws with two seconds left for the Irish.

UB hired Jim Whitesell, its veteran assistant,  to replace Nate Oats as head coach. Whitesell lost some recruits, but he’s bringing in top replacements and we’ll find out of the UB brand can again withstand the coach leaving. 

Meanwhile, Felicia Legette-Jack stayed with the UB women, which is a very good thing. Her star player, Cierra Dillard, became the first local college player taken in the WNBA draft when the Minnesota Lynx took her in the second round,.

I hope the month of May can be nearly as exciting. 

Oh, by the way, if you missed it, they moved up the PGA Championship this year. It’s two weeks from tomorrow. Tiger, Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari will be playing together at Bethpage Black on Long Island in the first two rounds.

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THE COLUMN

4/30/19

During Monday’s show, while getting ready for an interview with Byron Dafoe, I was looking over the 1999 Sabres, who made their run to the Stanley Cup final that season. I was marveling anew at Dominik Hasek’s amazing run as the best goalie in the world, when he won five Vezinas in six years.

Yeah, those were some days in Buffalo sports. You know what else happened in 1999? It was the last time the Bills won 10 games in a season. Twenty years since they got to 11 with Doug Flutie and Wade Phillips on the way to Home Run Throwback. 

Winning 10 was the standard back then. The Bills won 10 games in nine of 12 seasons from 1988-99. We took it for granted after awhile, the way they must do in New England. The Patriots have won 10 or more games 16 YEARS IN A ROW. Sixteen!

It is so much to ask for the Bills to go it once? I don’t think so. It’s time to lift the standard again, to set 10 wins as the expected target for the 2019 season. This is the NFL, after all, where things are set up for bad teams to get good and where half of the 12 playoff spots turn over every year on average. 

Ten wins? Since the last season ended, virtually every local media person who came on this show said the Bills should be expected to at least have a winning record in Year Three of Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott. Nine or 10 wins? That’s fair, has been the general theme. 

Beane has signed 15 free agents — at least, that’s how high I could count, it’s probably more. He’s built talent and depth into his offense, remaking his offensive line, adding two veteran wide receivers in John Brown and Cole Beasley, and a couple of veteran running backs in Frank Gore and TJ Yeldon.

Most draft experts rated the Bills’ haul last week as anywhere from an A to a B-plus. In our poll Monday, 57 percent of the respondents gave them an A. Sure, fans always assume the best about their team’s draft, assigning value and hope to college players they’ve probably never seen play in a live football game.

But if they had a very good draft after a very promising free agency period, when people were tagging them as a 9-10 win team, shouldn’t the standard be ticked up to a solid 10 at least. Come on, what’s fun about the judges holding up cards that say 9.5 on them? Ten wins. That’s the standard for 2019, folks. 

It should be that high. This is the modern NFL, where there are no five-year plans. Three years is plenty, though I’m sure Beane and McDermott wanted the public to give them another year after they slipped into the playoffs on a fluke two years ago. Sorry, but that season simply confirmed that McDermott knows how to coach a defense and keep a team focused in the second half of a season.

Josh Allen is in his second season as the franchise quarterback. No more coddling. The Eagles won the Super Bowl in Carson Wentz’s second year. The Rams got there in Jared Goff’s second year as the starter. Patrick Mahomes threw for 50 TDs and got the Chiefs to the AFC title game in his second NFL season and first as a starter. The Bears won 12 games and made the playoffs in Mitchell Trubisky’s second season a year ago. 

You get the picture. The standard has been raised for teams and for young quarterbacks. The Bears did it with a strong defense and with Trubisky having a good, but not great, second year. The Bills return a defense that ranked second in the NFL in yards and first in passing yards against. They added a stud rookie tackle in Ed Oliver, who has to fill Kyle Wiliams’s shoes, but we’re talking about Kyle Williams at the end of his career,  not the middle.

Top defense, strong draft, refurbished offense, promising young head coach, second-year franchise quarterback who set team scrambling records as a rookie — doesn’t this sound like a team on the rise, one that should be expected to win 10 and make a serious playoff run? 

Look at the schedule. It’s not hard to count to 10. They play only four teams that had a winning record last season. The Dolphins are tanking. They face only one of the top 10 rated quarterbacks from a year ago. OK, Tom Brady was 12th, but why shouldn’t they beat the Pats at least once now that Brady is pushing 50 and Gronk is gone and they get them at New Era in late September?

I’m not looking to plan any parades, but wouldn’t it be nice to go into a Bills season expecting good things to happen, the way it was two decades ago? Eight or nine wins wouldn’t be a failure, but it’s OK to suggest that it would be a disappointment. Fans need to stop shielding themselves from what seems like the ultimate letdown. 

Put the pressure on them to come through. Hold their feet to the fire. That’s what they deserve. That’s what tough fans do. Beane and McDermott should welcome the higher expectations. They created them, and it beats the alternative.

Ten wins. There it is. Ten. I’m marking it down and nailing it to the clubhouse door.

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THE COLUMN

4/29/19

Well, it’s hard to quibble with the Bills first-round pick in the NFL draft. They got a gift when Ed Oliver fell to them at ninth overall. Oliver, who was seen as the best player in the country at the start of the last college football season, should fit right in as the 3 technique defensive tackle in Sean McDermott’s defense.

It was no surprise that the Bills grabbed Oliver. In his first two drafts, McDermott added a rising young star to his secondary (Tre White) and linebacking corps (Tremaine Edmunds). Now he has a defensive stud at all three levels of his defense.

What’s also no surprise is how Brandon Beane has refurbished his offense in one year. The offense, which was the worst in team history for much of last season, has undergone an almost complete overhaul — which makes it clear that while McDermott wants to win with defense, it still comes back to the quarterback in the modern NFL. 

Good defense only gets you so far in the league. The immediate and long-term future of the Bills is riding on the development of their 2018 first-round pick, quarterback Josh Allen. The majority of Beane’s maneuvers, in free agency and the draft, made that evident.

In total salary, the Bills’ nine highest-paid free agents were on offense. That included a slew of offensive linemen, veteran running back Frank Gore and and a couple of wide receivers, John Brown and Cole Beasley. Beane and McDermott understand that their reputations are tied to Allen, and they’re doing all they can to fortify his supporting cast.

After grabbing Oliver, it was back to helping the offense. They took tackle Cody Ford in the second round, running back Devin Singletary and tight end Dawson Knox in the third. They didn’t take a wide receiver with any of their eight picks, which tells me they have a lot of confidence in Zay Jones and Robert Foster.

The offense will look radically different from the one that struggled so badly to score a year ago. There’s a chance all five starting offensive linemen will be new. There could be occasions, hard as it is to fathom, when Allen has more playing time as a Bill under his belt than any other player on the field. 

That, I’m sure, is how the brass wants it. They want Allen to be the unquestioned leader of the offense — and the team. It’ll be a lot easier when the kid, who showed promising leadership skills as a rookie, glances around the huddle and sees a bunch of faces who are new to the team, or the league, or both. 

It’s Allen’s team now, for better or worse. It makes you wonder about LeSean McCoy’s future in Buffalo, which became even more murky when the Bills drafted Singletary — after adding veteran running backs Gore and T.J. Yeldon earlier.

All last season, Bucky and I talked on this show about McCoy and how they should ship him out when he still had value.  Bucky was more radical on Shady than I. He never felt the guy was worth what the Pegulas invested in him, at a time when the running back position was being devalued in the league. 

Beane cautioned reporters not to read into it when he drafted Singletary. He said McCoy is still the starter. Really, why would McCoy, who averaged 3.2 yards a carry last season and is a shell of the player he was a couple of years ago, warrant a guaranteed starting spot on a team with a stable of capable backs?

McCoy is the one face that no longer fits on a roster that has been almost completely reshaped under Beane. He’s over the hill. People talk about his decline last year; but it was actually two years ago that he suffered the worst one-season drop in yards per carry of any 1,000 yard back in NFL history.

He’s an inconsistent, self-serving leader who avoids the media when it’s convenient and got benched for a play for the season finale a year ago. He’s also in the final year of his contract (at $6 million) and has a couple of civil suits pending.

I’d cut McCoy and be done with it. They should have traded him before the deadline last season, but apparently he didn’t have much value. The thought of Shady hanging around as some sort of leader, worrying about his stats and Hall of Fame prospects in a supposed team culture, seems like a very bad fit.

If this is Josh Allen’s team now and management is doing everything it can to clear out any obstacles to his leadership, keeping McCoy seems incongruous. He never really seemed to fit the process and now he’s lost the sheer talent that made him worth the trouble. More than anything, McCoy now seems like he’s in the way. 

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THE COLUMN

4/18/19

Expectations are rising for the Buffalo Bills. They’re generally expected to contend for the playoffs next season and have a winning record. Everyone in the media who comes on this show agreed the standard should be nine or 10 wins. 

Yes, the Bills are becoming relevant again, with competent leadership, a strong defense and an exciting, athletic young franchise quarterback in Josh Allen.

But do you know who doesn’t think the Bills are relevant? The NFL. The football-football-watching public. The people who decide the marquee matchups on prime-time TV. NBC. 

The NFL schedule came out Wednesday night, and once again, the Bills were not considered worthy of an appearance on the league’s elite prime-time slot — Sunday nights on NBC. That’s destination entertainment in this country, the game that caps off the big football Sunday in America.

In fact, the Bills were the only team in the league not given a prime-time night game — on Sunday, Monday or Thursday. They did get a Thanksgiving Day game at Dallas.

I can’t say it’s a surprise. The Bills haven’t been on Sunday Night Football since 2007. They haven’t won on Sunday since 2000 — the first year of the drought. They haven’t won on Monday night since 1999. They’ve lost their last 11 games on Sunday night.

Look, people like big names and offense. The Bills still have a long way to go in that regard. Their passing game is consistently among the worst in the league. Over the last 15 years, they’re last in the NFL in passing yards. They were 31st in passing last year, 31st the year before that, 30th in 2016. You get the picture.

Josh Allen could become a star, a true franchise guy. He’s a dynamic runner, but he was 33rd in completion percentage a year ago. He didn’t pass for 250 yards in any game as a rookie. He didn’t complete more than 20 passes in any game. 

The people who invest big money in TV games need more evidence than that. They need star power. Elite receivers certainly help. Do you think the average football fan in this country could name on Bills receiver? They certainly know who’s going to be catching passes from Baker Mayfield in Cleveland this season.

Still, it comes back to the quarterback. We know that. The last time the Bills were destination TV in prime time, Jim Kelly was the quarterback. They won 10 games on Sunday and Monday nights between 1990-1993, the four-year Super Bowl run.

Primetime loves big-name quarterbacks and marquee franchises. The big Thursday night opener on NBC? Aaron Rodgers at Soldier Field against the Bears and Khalil Mack. The Sunday night opener? Pats-Steelers. Brady vs. Big Ben. Week 2 on Sunday night? Carson Wentz and the Eagles at Matty Ryan.

Did I mention Baker Mayfield? He set a record for passing TDs by a rookie last season. He’ll be throwing to Odell Beckham Jr. this season. America wants to see more. In week 3, Cleveland gets its first Sunday night date in more than a decade. The Browns have FOUR prime-time night games. They also have increased pressure. 

The Saints and Drew Brees vs. the Cowboys in Week 4 (the Cowboys matter no matter who’s the quarterback, America’s team). In Week 5, Andrew Luck and Patrick Mahomes go at it. Then it’s Big Ben and Philip Rivers. Rodgers and Mahomes hook up two weeks later. Brady and the Pats go to Baltimore to play Lamar Jackson in Week 9. Yeah, America is more interested in Jackson and the Ravens than Allen and the Bills. 

Russell Wilson against Wentz, Brees vs. Ryan, Brady and Deshaun Watson, Wilson vs. Goff and the Rams, Mahomes at the Bears on the final Sunday night to cap it all off. 

Can you blame the league for not wanting the Bills in prime TV position? Yes, Allen has great possibilities, and one day the Bills might again be a sexy option for the big national games. But they’re 2-19 in their last 21 big national appearances. 

That includes scoring 3 points two Januarys ago in their only playoff game in 19 years, in what might have been the worst offensive show in modern NFL playoff history (Blake Bortles was the quarterback for the other team, remember). 

They got a Monday night game at New Era last season against the Patriots, their first home game on Sunday or Monday night in 10 years. They lost 25-6 and didn’t score a touchdown. That makes two straight prime games where they didn’t score a TD.

Here’s what the Bills have scored in their last five appearances on Sunday nights: 0, 7, 5, 6 and 10 points. The last was here in 2007 against the Patriots. They lost 56-10. They haven’t been invited back. Again, can you blame the league for not taking a chance on a team that struggles to score 10 in an increasingly offensive game? They scored in single digits in five losses last year and lost by 19 or more points in all of them. 

Buffalo fans are accustomed to seeing their team dismissed and disrespected. It makes the Buffalo Mafia even more resolute and committed, eager for that time when the Bills rise again and show the world what they’re missing, when the nation is clamoring to see the offensive stars on this resurgent football powerhouse.

America remains skeptical. Well, the Bills did get a game on Thanksgiving — for the first time since 1994. They’ll provide fodder for the Cowboys in their annual Turkey Day show. Maybe the league is trying to remind the Pegulas that they’re supposed to build a football palace like the one Jerry Jones has in Big D.

By then, maybe the Bills will be pushing for a playoff spot and be the talk of the NFL. But let’s be honest,  it’s not Sunday night. Thanksgiving isn’t what it used to be. Otherwise, why would the Lions be on every year? 

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THE COLUMN

4/17/19

Well, as of tomorrow we’ll be one week away from the NFL draft, or the “annual selection meeting” as they like to call it. 

I have to say, I can’t wait for it to be over. For me, it’s like waiting for the tax season to be over. I see it as a necessary annoyance. I love the draft so much I’m leaving the country this weekend. .

Brandon Beane had the Bills’ draft luncheon early this week, that annual exercise where the general manager fields questions from the media while not trying to lie even more blatantly than the President. 

Beane acknowledged that predicting the draft, in which many experts pretend to have a strong opinion on guys they’ve never seen play, has become something of an obsession among fans and media.

“I know there is a lot of stuff out there. Everybody has a mock so you don’t know what people are making up and what their intel is,” Beane said. 

Everybody doesn’t have a mock draft. I don’t do them. I leave that up to the “experts”. No one knows what the Bills are going to do, though sometimes it’s fairly obvious — like the fact that they had to get a franchise quarterback last year after deciding not to take a shot at Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson the year before.

At times, it seems like the flavor of the week with the Bills’ top pick. For awhile, it was a wide receiver. Then there was a run on mocks that liked them taking an offensive tackle, or a defensive lineman or edge rusher. Lately, there’s been a trend toward taking a tight end with the ninth overall pick next Thursday.

That about covers it. My educated guess? They’ll go for a defensive lineman — a 3 technique defensive tackle or a rush end. Beane said he’ll take the “best player,” which is generally the case. I don’t recall any GM ever drafting someone in the first round and saying, “We took this guy, but he’s not the best player.”

I could be wrong. If my predictions weren’t wrong close to half the time, I’d be gambling in Vegas for a living. But logic and observation leads me to conclude that the most likely pick for this franchise at this time is a young stud to fortify the defensive front.

More specifically, it’s the the right pick for this head coach. Let’s not forget, Sean McDermott was given the most power of any head coach in Bills’ history when the Pegulas hired him early in 2017, and it’s his football vision that drives this operation.

Remember, it was McDermott who ran the draft in 2017, when he was hired before a real general manager. It was McDermott who traded back to get extra picks and delay the quarterback decision for a year, and who took a young cornerback, Tre’Davious White, with the first pick. Every new head coach since Marv Levy has gone defense with the first pick of his first draft.

Last year, after grabbing Josh Allen, they moved up to get Tremaine Edmonds, a young and dynamic inside linebacker who could anchor the middle of the defense for a decade or more. 

So McDermott, an old school coach who believes you can win with defense, has added a young stud to the back and middle levels of his defense. That leaves the front, specifically a tackle or end who can rush the passer. They haven’t taken a pass rushing three-technique tackle or defensive end in the draft since McDermott arrived. Not a first-rounder, but any pick at all.

This draft is loaded with those kind of players. It’s been called “off the charts great” by some experts, with the likes of Bama’s Quinnen Williams, Houston’s Ed Oliver, Nick Bosa of Ohio State, Josh Allen of Kentucky, Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat and Rashan Gary of Michigan all potential top 10 choices.

Beane wouldn’t concede the off-the-charts characterization. “I’d have to really go back and look,” he said. He admitted the defensive line group was “solid.”

The need isn’t urgent for the Bills. Beane said he has no “glaring holes” on his roster after spending the last couple of months filling them in free agency. The overwhelming majority of those acquisitions were to help the offense: The top nine in total salaries were on offense — three wide receivers, five offensive linemen and a tight end.

Come on, Brandon. It’s pretty clear what the plan is here. You spent almost all your resources in free agency on the offense. Now McDermott, whose vision of defense rules, gets to add another young jewel to his defense — this time, at the level which hasn’t yet been addressed since the “Process” got under way.

Kyle Williams, one of the best penetrating D tackles of his era, has retired. Jerry Hughes has been inconsistent in recent years; he’s 31 and in the final year of his contract at a cap hit of $10.4 million. Shaq Lawson is also in the last year of his deal and the Bills might not decide he’s worth an extension. 

Keep in mind, Hughes and Lawson are two of the few remaining players from the Rex Ryan regime. McDermott and Beane have been methodically weeding those players out and constructing a roster of their own making, with defensive players chosen by the head coach.

It’s not glaring, but the one position yet to be addressed is a defensive lineman who can get after the passer, a high draft pick for the first level to go along with White and Edmonds. 

McDermott will get his man. I have to think they have one or two players in this draft identified as franchise-changers for the D line. It wouldn’t shock me if they even traded up to get him. 

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THE COLUMN

4/16/19

As a transcendent sports story, it’s not quite Tiger Woods winning the Masters. But one day after the most amazing comeback in golf history, I watched the greatest one-game playoff comeback in the history of the NBA. 

How great are sports right now? One of the best regular-season teams in NHL history, Tampa Bay, is on the verge of getting swept tonight in Columbus. Five teams that haven’t won a playoff series in years are leading their divisions in baseball. Both seventh seeds won openers in the NBA playoffs for the first time ever.

But what happened last night in Oakland was truly stunning. The mighty Warriors, two-time defending champions, had a 31-point lead midway through the third period and lost to the eighth-seeded Clippers, 135-131.

Basketball fans have come to see the Warriors as unbeatable, as a team that should cruise to a third straight NBA title — and fourth in five years — before sending Kevin Durant on to greater challenges as a free agent after the inevitable title.

It doesn’t seem so inevitable now. The Warriors are more vulnerable than in the past. They’re older, weaker on the bench. The rest of the West has gotten better. There’s a creeping sense of unease about the team. In a group interview Sunday as part of a 60 Minutes piece, they seemed sullen and disconnected.

They seemed that way on the court Monday night. “We stopped playing,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “We kind of disconnected (there’s that word again) kind of mid-third quarter, lost our defensive edge. They scored 85 points in the second half.”

Golden State led 73-50 at halftime. Early in the third, Draymond Green hit a 3-pointer to make it 86-58. The Oracle crowd went wild. Green, in typically self-aggrandizing fashion, gestured to the fans, waving his arms. 

It looked like it was going to be easy, like so many games in recent years for the Warriors. They’re 16-2 in first-round games the last four years. It’s been one long shootaround. They played like a team that’s used to it being easy, that wants things to be easy. That’s the problem. 

Doc Rivers’ Clippers weren’t going away. Rivers calls this team the most resilient he’s ever coached, and it showed Monday night.  You could sense it, even when they fell behind by 31 points, 94-63 They were battling, playing defense, making things difficult for Golden State, which played along by making sloppy plays with the lead.

Rivers never got enough credit for winning in Boston. He’s a very good coach. This was his 163rd playoff game as a coach. If you don’t think he can coach, watch film of the Clippers playing defense. Watch Patrick Beverly jumping onto Kevin Durant and making his life miserable. 

The Clippers are a tough, relentless team. They were tougher than the Warriors. They beat them on the boards and got 36 points from Lou Williams, one of the best pure scorers and sixth men the game has seen. 

Lazy turnovers, indifferent post defense. The Clippers kept coming. Yes, the Warriors lost DeMarcus Cousins with a quad injury that could be serious, but he’s never been mistaken for a great post defender. You can attack Golden State inside and have your way. 

Power forward Montrezl Harrell, one of the most underrated players in the league, dominated inside in the second half. He shot 9 for 9 on the night, scored 25 points and had 10 boards. He’s shooting 87 percent and averaging 25.5 points in series.

Williams made 7 shots in a row. The lead was cut to 23, to 19, to 16 on an amazing hanging three point play by Williams. The Clippers outscored the Warriors 31-14 in the last eight minutes of the third. The Warriors were getting tight, turning the ball over, forcing shots. 

The Warriors went up 16. Rivers called time with nine minutes left. Harrell got an easy dunk out of the timeout. Coaching. Danilo Gallinari, the Italian sharpshooter who’s a force when he’s healthy, hit a 3 to cut it to eight. Steve Kerr looked stricken on the bench, like Francesco Molinari after hitting it in the water.


Harrrell scores again at the rim. Down to six. Steph Curry missed badly. Williams drove for a 3 point play. Three. It almost seemed a matter of time. Golden State tried to hold on, but was struggling to get shots in the half court. Durant’s 3 point play made it 128-123. But Williams wouldn’t be denied. He hit a ridiculous fallaway to tie it at 128. Curry buried a 3, his first basket in awhile. Then Williams scored again and it was 131-130, Warriors.

The Clippers got the ball back after a Klay Thompson miss. Rookie Shea Gilgeous-Alexander got the ball on top and found another rookie, Landry Shamet, who drilled a three-pointer to give the Clippers the lead, 133-131. Curry missed a 3, Harrell hit two free throws and it was over. Stunning.

Yeah, you wouldn’t have known it this season, with all the attention paid to the other team in the town, to LeBron James and the imploding Lakers. But that other LA team is pretty good, too. I don’t know if they’re capable of upsetting the Warriors. But one thing is for sure, they’re not going away.

Either way, the NBA playoffs got a lot more interesting. If the last few days are any indication, we’re in for a remarkable spring in the sports world. 

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THE COLUMN

4/15/19

I’ll admit, I didn’t think this was possible. Tiger Woods suffered through a decade of physical pain and personal embarrassment. Two years ago, after undergoing back fusion surgery, his fourth in four years, even he wondered if he would ever play competitively again. He could barely walk, sleep, or sit down. 

Eleven years ago, I was at Torrey Pines when Tiger won his 14th major, on a bad knee in an epic playoff over Rocco Mediate in the U.S. Open. Passing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors seemed like a formality at the time. Ten years later, it seemed unlikely he would contend in any tournament, never mind win a major. 

But after what took place on Sunday in Augusta, who can doubt him now? Woods turned back the clock, winning a fifth green jacket and a 15th major title with a 13-under performance at the Masters. At 43, he again makes the extraordinary seem possible. 

Hey, he’s the early betting favorite in the U.S. Open — the only man alive for a Grand Slam! And we can again contemplate whether Woods can catch Nicklaus in majors — if his back holds . I used to believe he would be the first to do it at 50 years old. 

Woods’s victory was every bit as dramatic as Nicklaus’ win in 1986, when he won his final major and sixth Masters at 46. 

I envisioned a memorable Masters on Thursday, when so many players in a packed field finished under-par. After Saturday, a record day for low scores, we were set up for a day of exceeding high drama — and the players didn’t let us down.

Even if Woods hadn’t won, it would have been a great Masters. They say the tournament doesn’t truly begin until the final nine on Sunday. During that final nine, many of the biggest names in golf were shuffling in and out of the leader board.  

At one point, there was a five-way tie for the lead at 12-under par: Woods, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Francesco Molinari and Xander Schauffele. Patrick Cantlay briefly took the lead with an eagle. Rickie Fowler made a birdie run to minus-11. Former champ Bubba Watson made a stirring late run.

Pro golf has continued to thrive without Woods, who inspired a lot of the young players who dominate the sport today. But it’s always more compelling when he contends. In the end, against a formidable field, he grabbed a major by the throat while the rest of the players fell away, like a bunch of impostors.

It was like watching a young Tiger again. This was the fifth time in 22 Masters that Woods entered the final round at 11-under or better. Every time, he won. As in past majors, he didn’t need to be great on Sunday because no one made a serious run at him. 

All Woods needed to do was shoot 70 to win by a shot. None of his closest competitors could do better than a 68. Molinari, who had the lead after 54 holes, faltered to a 74. Tony Finau, the third man in the final group, could manage only a 72. 

You could feel the Tiger mystique at work. He was his old steely resolute self on the course, never smiling or betraying his feelings until he tapped in the final putt on 18 and the pent-up emotion came pouring out of him. He kept grinding, and the guys in his group eventually cracked, just like the old days. 

Molinari played 50 straight holes without a bogey at one stretch, but he was scrambling to save pars and never put together any kind of run. His undoing came at the par-3 12th — yes, the same hole where Jordan Spieth came unglued in 2016.

Molinari left his drive short in the water. He had this stricken expression, staring at his yardage book in disbelief. Then Finau hit his tee shot in the water, too. They never recovered. You could see Woods walking up the fair on 12 and spinning his club in his left hand, clearly relishing the shift in his rivals’ fortunes.

Players rarely were able to stare down Woods in a major when he was in his prime. In the decisive moments, it seemed that the Tiger aura was back, overwhelming some of the best golfers on the planet.

Woods was energized by seeing the other guys go in the water. He birdied 13, 15 and 16. On 15, he hit a laser from 227 yards to the middle of the green and two-putted for the outright lead. On the par-3 16th, he hit an 8-iron that nearly rolled in for a hole-in-one. He stood there and didn’t crack a smile, still locked in. 

He was two shots up, and it was now a mere formality. There were no more heroics from the rest of the field. It felt like a submission, like the rest of the players were bowing to Tiger’s renewed legacy.

The fans loved it, too. All over America, people cried when Woods hugged his mother and his two children. He wasn’t the best husband as a younger man, or a very engaging personality, but his struggles have humanized him and his return to the top of the golf world is something for sports fans to treasure.

America loves a comeback, especially after a hero has fallen and gotten back up despite trying circumstances. This is sports, after all, and at their best they remind us of man’s ability to rise above his pain and tribulations and triumph once again.

Watching Woods win on Sunday, you were reminded of just how great he was at the very top of his game. You recalled a time when you learned never to doubt him — and you wanted even more.

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THE COLUMN

4/12/19

Did I tell you early this week what I missed about the Stanley Cup playoffs? Well, the first two nights of the playoffs reminded me what I was missing. If the rest of the tournament is like this, we’re in for a heck of a two-month ride. 

On Thursday night, I watched the Lightning shoot out to a 3-0 lead against Columbus, which has never won a single Cup series in its 19 years as an NHL franchise. 

Tampa Bay, of course, had one of the greatest regular seasons in league history, piling up 128 points and setting countless records. So at 3-0 — and it could have easily been 5-0 — I flipped the channel and penciled them through to the next round.

What was I thinking? Had I forgotten that nine of the last 10 President’s Trophy winners had not won the Cup, and that the last three hadn’t even reached the conference finals?

The Bluejackets came back to win, 4-3. John Tortorella, who coached the Lightning when they won the Cup 15 years ago, had given his players a stirring pep talk beforehand about never stepping back in any situation. Afterwards, he came into the presser and started joking about someone’s body odor.

Game on. This is not the regular season, people.

So last night, when the Capitals went up on the Hurricanes, 3-0, I didn’t make the same mistake. I stuck with the game. Five minutes into the third period, Andrei Svechnikov scored to make it 3-1. Two and a half minutes later, Svechnikov scored again and it was 3-2 in Washington. We had ourselves a hockey game.

Svechnikov just turned 19, by the way. The Russian was the second pick in last year’s entry draft — yeah, right after the Sabres’ Rasmus Dahlin. No playoff is complete, in the NFL or NHL, without us being reminded that our team isn’t involved.

Did any Sabres fan watching the game sigh and say, that could have been Dahlin, coming of age in his first Cup playoffs as a mere teen-ager?

By the way, Rasmus Dahlin turns 19 tomorrow. Wish the kid a Happy Birthday. Now, back to last night’s game.

You could feel the crowd buzzing through the screen from Capital One Arena, the palpable nervousness of a home crowd wondering if its heroes might be blowing a Game One that seemed in the bag, like Tampa Bay the night before.

Two plus minutes left, Carolina pulls Petr Mrazek. The Canes are pressing in the offensive zone. Szechnikov is out there, hoping to get a hat trick. Who’s the youngest player to score three in a playoff game, by the way? 

The defending Cup champs are furiously trying to protect the lead. Players are dropping down all over the place to block shots. Niklas Backstrom, who scored two goals for Washington, blocks two shots in a span of about 10 seconds. This is what you see in the playoffs, guys giving up their bodies, feeling the pain.

Finally, the Caps cleared the puck. Twice, they barely missed the empty net. The crowd was going nuts, sensing the end. These final seconds seem like an eternity in these situations. Justin Williams, one of the great clutch players of his generation, a guy who played against the Sabres in the 2006 conference finals, is on the ice for Carolina, hoping for a chance.

Again, the Caps barely miss the empty net with 45 seconds to go. Finally, with 36.6 left, Lars Ellers takes the puck three feet inside his own blue line and finds the empty net to make it 4-2. The crowd exhales and exults.

The Hurricanes and Caps play against Saturday. On Monday, Carolina will host a Stanley Cup playoff game for the first time since losing the conference finals in 2009 — 10 full years.

I’ve argued with hockey fans over the years who tell me the Stanley Cup playoffs are the best in sports. I tell them I’ve been at NBA playoffs and they’re just as good. But hockey playoffs have a quality all their own, and there really is nothing like it, as I’ve rediscovered over the last two nights. 

It’s great theater, as Buffalo fans, whom the ratings show watch more than any others, well know. But how much better would it be if games were being played in our town, not just on our TVs?

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THE COLUMN

4/11/19

Half an hour ago in Augusta, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player began the 83rd Masters with the ceremonial opening tee shots. 

This is the 60th anniversary of Nicklaus’ first time playing in the Masters, when he missed the cut by one shot as an e amateur in 1959. At 79, with a record 18 majors, the Golden Bear remains the most revered figure in the sport. 

Nicklaus wrote a “A Love Letter from Jack Nicklaus” on the eve of the Masters: 

“The drive up Magnolia Lane, even 60 years later, still gives me chills. So, thank you Augusta National. Thank you for a lifetime of memories. Thank you providing the perfect background for 60 years and six opportunities to feel the overwhelming satisfaction of slipping on the green jacket.”

“It has been and will continue to be the utmost honor to have won your great tournament and to be forever called a Masters champion.”

Sixty years. I’m sure Jack and everyone else in Augusta will dearly miss a man who had covered 68 straight Masters and loved it as much as anyone:

Dan Jenkins, the great golf writer and humorist, who died on March 7 at the age of 90. Jenkins, who was a very good golfer in his own right and played with Ben Hogan about 40 times, went to 232 major championships in his life. His first was the 1941 U.S. Open as a 12-year-old boy in his native Fort Worth. He covered his first Masters for the Fort Worth Press while on the TCU golf team in 1951.

Jenkins was admired by golfers, fans and writers alike. If you were a sports writer, you envied his enormous talent. His legendary editor in Texas, Blackie Sherrod, called him “the most effortless writer I’ve ever known.” 

His daughter Sally, a fine sports columnist for the Washington Post, wrote in her eulogy,  “He made the profession more honest, and more descriptive forever after. And he did so for a longer period of time than any other influential writer. “

As Sally said, her dad wrote for seven decades. I agreed with her that he was the greatest sports writer who ever lived.  I read his account of the famous Oklahoma-Nebraska football game in Sports Illustrated when I was 16. I read his books and read him in Golf Digest right up until the end. 

Jenkins made his early fame as an NFL writer and humorist. His novel “Semi-Tough” was made into a movie with Burt Reynolds. He wrote “Dead Solid Perfect” and “Baja Oklahoma” and a number of other books — my personal favorite, and the favorite of many sports writers, was a hilarious novel about a cynical, dissolute sports magazine writer called “You Gotta Play Hurt.”

Jenkins was a smoker who liked to have an occasional scotch. After a particularly rough night on the road, some of us fans of Jenkins might remark, “Hey, you got to play hurt!”

He was more than a sports writer. I considered him the funniest writer alive. Every time I read him, I laughed out loud. Go find “You Call it Sports, but I say It’s a Jungle Out There” and get back to me.

He once wrote about slow play in golf: “A round of golf should not take more than three and a half hours. Anything longer than that is not a round of golf, it’s life in Albania.”

Jenkins was best at golf, and that’s mainly what he wrote after leaving SI for Golf Digest in the 80s. He could also be dead serious and knew the sport. He had an ego and thought he knew more about the sport than anyone.

“I tend to go to major championships the way Dorothy Kilgallen used to go to murder trials,” Jenkins wrote in Golf Digest in 1986. “I don’t cover tournaments anymore. I preside over them.”

Jenkins knew Hogan and Nicklaus, but he might have admired Arnold Palmer most of all.  

In his book, “The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate,” Jenkins wrote of the “nobility Palmer brought to losing.” He wrote of “the pure, unmixed joy he brought to trying. He has been, after all, the doggedest victim of us all.”

Yes, we’re all victims out there, that’s one of the sport’s endearing charms, that no matter how much you struggle, you know every other golfer has been though it, from Hogan to Woods on down to Jordan Spieth, who seems to have lost his game. 

Jenkins could be the crusty old guy at times, a little politically incorrect. But he also changed with the times and took to Twitter with glee in his 80s. It was perfect for Dan. No one could be quicker or wittier in a few characters.

Three years ago, Jordan Spieth went to the 10th hole at the Masters on Sunday with a 5-shot lead. While the rest of us were declaring how for once, the tournament wouldn’t come down to the final nine on the last day, Jenkins tweeted

“I should remind folks that Jordan Spieth is five water holes from victory.”

Minutes later, Spieth hit two balls in the water on the par-3 12th, took a quadruple bogey and lost the Masters. 

As usual, the master of the typewriter was Dead Solid Perfect. 

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THE COLUMN

4/10/19

Four years ago around this time, then athletic director Danny White was about 30 seconds into his introduction of Nate Oats as his new head basketball coach when White reminded a gathering in Alumni Arena that UB was “America’s next big-time college brand.”

I was skeptical at the time, saying that White had gone “generic” with Bobby Hurley’s successor, rather than reach out for another “brand” from a recognizable national power.

I called Oats a “virtual no-name” and said Quaker Oats had a bigger name in this town. In the space of six months, White had hired two relative obscurities to coach the teams — including Lance Leipold as head football coach from Division II Wisconsin Whitewater.

Yeah, no-names instead of big names, I said. But Oats said they were going to win and continue to build the program. No one knew who Brad Stevens was before Butler made its back to back runs to the NCAA title game, right?

Oats said that day, “we got the program to another level by playing int he NCAA Tournament. We can sell that now.”

White and Oats were right. The brand did continue to grow. The evidence was clear during the past season, the greatest in UB’s sports history. Leipold’s football team set a school record for wins and went to a bowl. Oats’ team won 32 games, a record for any local program, and won an NCAA game for the second straight season. 

And let’s not forget the UB women, who went to a second straight NCAA tourney and won a game again, continuing a terrific four-year run under Felisha Legette-Jack.

Of course, White moved on to a major DI at Central Florida. Oats has left for Alabama. Legette-Jack is getting courted by bigger Division I schools. This is what happens when you make history at the “mid-major” level. People notice. They want to borrow from your success. Your coaches become targets. It’s a good thing.

So UB has hired Jim Whitesell from within to replace Oats. I’m not going to make the same assumption this time, not going to accuse UB of thinking small and not looking to find some coach with a big name from a high DI program. 

Maybe it’s time to stop assuming that when successful people leave UB, they take the school’s success with them. Maybe Danny White was right. Maybe the new UB athletic brand is the real star here, not any individual coach or player or administrator.

It’s UB, not the Bills or Sabres, who have reminded Buffalo sports fans that success can be an expectation, not a hope, that competing for championships can be the standard, instead of hoping to simple be “relevant” and settling for merely average.

Jim Whitesell is a good coach, a veteran who began coaching in the early 1980s, before the three-pointer or the shot clock. He’s seen it all; he’s seen the game evolve over four decades. He’s been a Division I head coach (at Loyola of Chicago) and was a wise mentor for Nate Oats, who hired him as soon as he got the head job at Buffalo in 2015. 

Whitesell will be 60 in December. So what? He’s younger than Marv Levy was when he became the Bills head coach. He’s younger than Joel Quenneville, the guy Sabres fans wanted to be their new coach. He’s 15 years younger than Jim Boeheim, and the same age as Bruce Pearl, who just took Auburn to its first Final Four. 

Look, the Bulls aren’t going to win 32 games again. We’ll never see another season like the last one. Winning four MAC titles in five years is asking a lot. But UB had never won the MAC in men’s or women’s basketball before 2015. Competing for conference titles and NCAA berths is the new standard, and there’s no reason that can’t continue under Whitesell.

Alnutt said UB is more of a brand than it was four years ago. He had a list of 40 candidates for the job and pared that down to six worthy candidates. But in the end, he decided the best guy for the job was right in front of him — that continuity was a good thing when the man you’re hiring was a critical presence on the bench during the greatest run in the program’s history.

You don’t always have to look outside Buffalo for the answer. We found that out with Nate Oats. No name? Hardly. Ask basketball fans around the country about UB. Everyone recognizes it now. 

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THE COLUMN

4/9/19

Well, the Stanley Cup playoffs get under way tomorrow night. Once again, for the eighth straight year, the Sabres are not a participant. They have the longest playoff drought in the NHL, now that the Hurricanes have made it into the field.

There’s a lot of reasons to be upset with the organization, which is  again looking for a new head coach. But at this time of year,  Buffalo hockey fans are resentful because the Sabres stole playoff hockey from us yet again. 

For the eighth straight year, I’ll find myself missing the playoffs, with the Arena silent in spring. Well, except for the Frozen Four this week. Sorry, but it doesn’t quite compare.

I miss the playoffs, and I know Buffalo fans miss them too, because the ratings here are generally the highest of any city without a team involved — even higher, in some cases. 

Yeah, I miss hearing Rick Jeanneret get excited in moments when it really matters. I miss the team being “scary good.”

I miss playoff beards. I miss the Party in the Plaza, and having to weave my way through the crowds outside as I weave my way to the press entrance two hours before puck drop.

I miss that point in a series when Bucky and I would fight to see who could get the words “genuine disdain” into a column first.

I miss going down to morning skates, and chatting with players eight hours before the game

I miss the palpable buzz that goes through the crowd when overtime is about to begin, and the unbearable tension in OT when a team is pressing for a winning goal. 

I miss Game Sevens, and Game Ones.

I miss seeing Sabres flags show up on cars on the cars, like flowers blooming in spring. Somehow, I can’t stand seeing them in  the middle of winter in another losing season.

I miss checking out the other playoff scores around the league, thinking ahead to matchups in the next round.

I miss the resounding hit that sets the tone of a series. Remember Brian Campbell on R.J. Umberger in 2006? 

I miss the Goo Goo Dolls singing “Better Days” on the video board in pre-game. I miss Doug Allen on the anthems.

I miss how the fans get crazed over an opposing villain, like Ray Emery, or Zdeno Chara or Sean Avery. 

I miss traffic in front of the net, scrums in the corner, the dirty areas. I miss the handshake lines after a series, one of the very coolest things in sports.

I miss the edge in the coaches’ voices in press conferences as series go along and feelings get raw. Lindy Ruff was great in the postseason. Remember when Ken Hitchcock told him to F off that time after a blowout loss?

I miss the Canadien writers descending on our town, because Buffalo is supposed to be a really relevant place in their sport.

I miss the mad dash for the press elevator after a game. I miss hanging out until real late with the writers at the Swanee after a really big playoff game. I miss the road at playoff time. 

I miss Chris Drury. Dixon Ward. Vaclav Varada. Michael Peca. A young Jason Pominville. The Dominator. Mike Ramsey. Rob Ray joking the room on off days between games. Afternoon playoff games.

I miss trainer Rip Simonick taking a shot at that Flyer from the bench one Sunday afternoon. I miss afternoon playoff games.

I miss playoff games, period. Please, guys, could you get the thing right this time? Before this feeling gets to be 10 years old?

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THE COLUMN

4/8/19

For once, I have to give the Sabres credit. Admittedly, it’s a pretty low bar nowadays. But whoever made the call — and we’re supposed to believe was entirely Jason Botterill’s decision — they made the right call by firing Phil Housley on Sunday.

I had wondered if Terry Pegula might stick with Housley out of stubborn arrogance, to show the media he wasn’t going to be pushed around. Or maybe Botterill would bring Phil back on the proverbial “short leash,” keeping himself out of the firing line for the time being.

But they had to make this move. There was no denying that Housley as over his head, that the Sabres’ season was an utter embarrassment and that they couldn’t possibly sell a failed head coach to an increasingly disillusioned fan base. This is about business in the end.

When Pegula bought the team more than eight years ago, he said the sole reason for the Sabres’ existence was winning the Stanley Cup, or Cups. He said he wasn’t one for firing people. But the next coach will be his sixth since taking over. He hasn’t had a coach last more than two full seasons since becoming owner.

Now the pressure is squarely on Botterill, who is fortunate that Pegula didn’t execute a double firing as he did with Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray two years ago. He and Kim still believe in Botterill. They have to at this point, but where is the evidence?

Botterill was supposed to be some personnel genius. But he didn’t do Housley many favors. Look at the players he brought in: Vlad Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu, Conor Sheary, Carter Hutton. Not one of them exceeded or even met expectations.

Even Jeff Skinner, who was seen as some kind of coup. Really? Skinner scored 40 goals, yes, but what if they don’t re-sign him? Will it have been worth it to have given draft assets for a guy who was the top scorer on a team that collapsed and got its coach fired? Skinner left the Hurricanes and they broke the NHL’s longest playoff drought without him. Now, at least for the moment, he’s on the team with the new longest drought — Buffalo.

When you look at the players Botterill brought in — including Brandon Montour — and the miserable defense his team played in his two years running the roster, you have to wonder if the GM really respects the importance of defense in his sport. 

Now we’ll find out what sort of hockey vision Botterill possesses, because the pressure is on him now. If the Sabres miss the playoffs again, he could be out of a job. Now it’s the GM who is on a short leash.

This disaster reflects badly on Botterill, on the Pegulas, on any fans who embraced the tank five years ago and were foolish enough to swallow the notion that losing on purpose for one player could change the fortunes of a franchise. 

Do you know who else it reflects poorly on? Jack Eichel. This makes two head coaches who have failed to win in Buffalo with this young franchise player and generational talent. How long before Eichel gets the reputation as coach killer in the NHL?

Do you think any top coaching candidate would think twice before taking the Sabres job, knowing that Eichel was widely seen as a force behind Bylsma’s dismissal two years ago, and was a presumed leader on a team went totally to pieces in the second half of the season and got Housley shown the door as well?

Fair or not, this is what happens when you’re a superstar, the highest-paid player in Sabres history, a kid the franchise tanked to get. Every circumstance, good or bad, falls at your feet. And when the smoke clears, it’s still about Jack, it’s his legacy at work.

Eichel will always be linked with Connor McDavid, the real prize in the tank. Last week, McDavid talked about his mounting frustration after Edmonton — which at least has made one playoff in his time — missed the postseason for the third time in four years.

There are swirling reports that McDavid wants out of Edmonton. On a podcat, Elliotte Friedman said the Oilers need to realize that “that they have maybe two years to get this right or else there’s going to be a very unpleasant conversation where Connor McDavid says he’s done.”

Is it so far-fetched to imagine if the Sabres might soon be facing a similar issue with Eichel? The McDavid story reminds Buffalo fans that one presumed generational players guarantees nothing; the longer it goes the more pressure there is on everyone involved.

Five years after the tank, the pressure continues to mount for Botterill, for Eichel, for Kim and Terry Pegula. 

If Botterill doesn’t get this one right, he could be the next one out the door.

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THE COLUMN

4/4/19

Way back in 1992, an obscure young college basketball coach from LeMoyne got the head coaching job at Canisius. The Griffs, who were in a 5-year spiral that saw them average 10 wins a season and drop to the bottom of the MAAC, decided to take a chance on a Division II guy.

His name was John Beilein, who was a scion of a legendary Western New York coaching family, the Nilands, but had never been coached at the Division I level, or been an assistant anywhere. 

It turned out to be the best move Canisius ever made. After one losing year, he turned them into the class of the MAAC and delivered the school its first NCAA tourney bid in 40 years.

During that run, I remember telling national writers that one of the best coaches in America was at a little school in Buffalo. John proved it. He left Buffalo and succeeded at every stop. He has taken four different programs to the Big Dance and got Michigan to two national title games. 

Early this week, his son, Patrick, took the head job at Niagara He also arrives after a successful run at DII LeMoyne, where he took a .500 program and went 77-41, tying the record for most wins in a four-year period — his father’s record. He also reached the NCAA tournament in his three final seasons.

And Much like Canisius a quarter century ago, the Purple Eagles have fallen on hard times, coming off a six-year stretch where they averaged 10 wins and became the worst team in the MAAC.

Patrick Beilein is 36, three years younger than his dad was when he took the Canisius job. I’m not saying he’s as good as his father, or that Niagara will be competing for the MAAC title in two years. But he brings a renewed optimism to Niagara, and if he’s anything close to John, good times could be ahead on Monteagle Ridge.

If there are doubters, well, people have underestimated Patrick Beilein before. No one thought he could play at a high Division I level. But he became a very reliable contributor and clutch shooter for his father on a West Virginia that made the Elite 8 and came without an overtime of getting to the Final Four.

For one thing, Patrick understands this town. He’s a Buffalo kid at heart. He spent a chunk of his childhood here. I did a column on him during one of West Virginia’s NCAA runs and all he wanted to do was talk about the Bills and Sabres. When he was hired this. week, he said he was going to the Sabres game and going to bring them a win.

OK, so the guy isn’t a miracle worker. But his heart is in the right place, and he knows how to coach, and with his father’s help, I imagine he has the sort of contacts that can bring solid recruits to Niagara and lift them back to prominence. 

“I promise you one thing: We are going to win at an extremely high level,” Beilein said at his introductory press conference. “We are going to do it the right way. We are going to win championships. As you come to games, you’ll see a team that’s fun to watch, with high IQ. We will not turn the ball over. And we are going to guard. … Our culture will hang a lot of banners going forward.”

John Beilein, who grew up in Burt and coached at Newfane, was in the seventh grade when he attended his first college game at the Gallagher Center.  He called this a “no-brainer” and a “dream come true” for his son. 

Niagara fans are hoping Patrick can be like another coach who took over after a long period of losing and brought the Purple Eagles to their greatest triumphs since the Taps Gallagher era: Joe Mihalich. Mihalich made Niagara a consistent winner and brought them to two NCAA tourneys in three years.

Mihalich got good players, and he got the best out of them. John Beilein is more of a technical coach, one of the best offensive minds in the sport. Both both are supreme motivators and both possessed their own special hoop genius. 

Maybe Patrick Beilein can be a combination of both. Niagara basketball has a proud tradition that goes back to Taps Gallagher, Larry Costello, Hubie Brown, Frank Layden and Calvin Murphy.

Niagara and Canisius are Buffalo’s oldest, fondest hoop rivalry. Now Niagara is reaching into the storied past of its biggest rival — the Niland-Beilein dynasty — to restore it to new heights. 

They could do a lot worse.

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THE COLUMN

4/3/19

Well, the Sabres lost again last night, 3-2 to Nashville at KeyBank Center. Evidently, they didn’t get booed by the home fans. That was the takeaway afterwards on the TV broadcast that always sees the best of any Sabres performance.

That’s the standard now, with two games left in an embarrassment of a season. They played commendably at home in a loss and didn’t get booed off their home ice at the end. 

But look on the bright side. They’re going to get another high draft pick. Yesterday, I saw a story that referred to the “Lose for Hughes” projections, you know, a tongue in cheek update on the teams scrambling to finish near the bottom of the NHL.

Instead of contemplating the first playoff series in eight years, and who they might match up with in the first round, Sabres fans are once again left to ponder their odds of getting the top pick in the drat for the second year in a row. 

The Sabres, who first No. 1 overall in the league on Nov. 27, have 72 points in 80 games. They’re 28th, two points ahead of the Devils, three up on the Kings, with two games left. They could actually finish 30th, though that would mean losing at home to Ottawa — which has sewed up 31st — at home Thursday night.

I wonder, will Buffalo fans cheer for the Senators, root for their team to lose and get a higher draft pick, the way they did four long years ago, jeer when the home team scores a goal on Fan Appreciation Night.  

Why not? Entering Tuesday night’s game, they had an 8.5 percent chance at getting the top pick in the draft lottery — and what was described in an ESPN story as “the next generational American forward, Jack Hughes.”

Generational player? Does that ring a bell? Do fans remember the campaign to tank for one of the first two picks, when they celebrated the runs to last place in 2013-14 and 2014-15, those 52 and 54-point seasons? 

How does it feel now, four years later. Was it all worth it? Was Jack Eichel worth it? Would Connor McDavid have been?

The Sabres are 1-13-2 in their last 16 games and have not won in regulation in 18 games, since their Feb. 23 upset of defending Stanley Cup champion Washington. They haven’t won two games in a row since mid-December, or two in a row in regulation since October. 

How could this have happened? Four years into the Eichel era, the Sabres are once again the worst team in the league. Generational player? Is it starting to hit home that one player rarely makes that great a difference in hockey, that we shouldn’t throw such a term around so loosely? Was Rasmus Dahlin generational?

There’s no way Eichel could have lived up to it. By tanking for him, the Sabres created enormous expectations that he couldn’t possibly reach. It required them to pay him superstar money when he wasn’t worth it, to make him captain when he wasn’t ready, to invest him with leadership qualities that weren’t really there. 

It’s unfair, I guess, but this disaster falls on his shoulders. There was a belief that his disdain for Dan Bylsma led to Bylsma’s firing, which led us to a soft player’s coach in Phil Housley. So while the standard for Eichel is impossibly high, it’s also justified. He and the fans and organization have to live with it. They created it.

But it’s becoming clear that Eichel isn’t close to that standard. He’s a good, often very good, player but far from a great one. Eichel isn’t an elite goal-scorer or playmaker. He’s an average defensive player who has a tendency to float, which has been the case far two often the last two months.

There are 43 NHL players with 30 goals, the most in 13 years. Eichel isn’t one of them. He has 27 goals, the same as Ryan O’Reilly. If he better than O’Reilly, by the way?

As for leadership, Eichel doesn’t strike me as a very inspirational figure. Oh, he goes through the motions — the way he does on the ice at times. But if he’s such a leader, how could his teammates be so fragile, so quick to lose confidence and fall apart in games and yes, in seasons? Are they following him? Where?

Generational player? Go back over recent drafts? None of the last 10 No. 1 overall picks has played in a conference final. Only three have played in a winning Cup series. It’s hard for one player to carry the hopes of a franchise, to live up to the generational tag.

Eichel has fallen far short. In a way, I feel sorry for the guy. And you know who else I feel sorry for? Jack Hughes.

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THE COLUMN

4/2/19

Do you remember the Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a movie from 10 years ago about a man who ages backwards? Well, I think it’s happening to me. I feel like I’m 8 years old again — at least when it comes to baseball.

Yeah, I have no raging issues to address here this morning, no coaches to fire, no suggestions for the Bills in the draft. It’s April, spring, the best time of year. I know it’s the time when some people’s thoughts turn to love, or flowers. Mine turn to baseball, my first sports love.

When I was a boy, it seemed baseball was everyone’s first sport. Everyone played, no matter your skill level. It was a natural rite of passage. Baseball was still the national pastime. Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and Warren Spahn were still in the big leagues.

I remember putting the season schedule of our town league, “The Sunset League” on the wall next to the calendar when I was 8 … I’ve loved schedules ever since, the logic and order of baseball, how it carries you over a six-month season. 

I remember going to the Sunset League games at Cardines Field in downtown Newport, which was right across the street from the big doors of the main fire station. My father was a fireman. On some nights, I could climb to the top of the first-base stands and see him sitting outside, the fire trucks looming inside. 

Now and then, a foul ball would go rolling into the fire house. When the shaggers — we called them shackers — arrived, Dad might shrug his shoulders and pretend he hadn’t seen the ball go under the fire engines. Then he’d bring it home to me the next day. 

I remember going to my friend Brian’s house for the first time. He was a batboy in the Sunset league and had a collection of bats and balls and gloves. He gave me a couple of bats that day.

I remember joining Little League for the first time, and wearing my uniform for an entire day, how my mother had to tell me to take off my cap at the dinner table. I recall waiting eagerly for those 6 o’clock games and being devastated when there was a rainout 

I miss being 8 or 9 nine years old. I miss going to my kid’s games at Shoshone when I became a dad and he was 8. I miss the parade down Hertel Avenue on opening day; that’s why my oldest daughter, Emily, wanted to play softball. She sat on the porch watching the kids walk by in their uniforms when she was six and wanted to be on a team.

My second daughter, Abby, played tee ball for the Rebels. She thought she played for The Rubbles, you know, like from the Flintstones. I remember my son pitching for the first time, getting the final out in the rain.

I miss the feel of a baseball in my own hand, when you’re on the mound and imitating the action and maybe, in one of those zones where the ball goes right where you intend. I got to pitch games in that old stadium across from the firehouse when I was a teen-ager, by the way. 

It’s Jack, who’s 21 and a senior at UB, who loves baseball the way I now, one of those father and son baseball connections. I think of him as old school, a millennial who loves baseball. We get bummed after the World Series and start counting the days to pitchers and catchers soon after Christmas. He joined my fantasy baseball league for the first time this year and helps with my Strat-o-Matic team. I remember my brother sitting him down for his first Strat game one summer when he was a little boy.

Did I tell you I’m like a kid again? Baseball grounds me, connecting my present to my past. It keeps me young. The first thing I look for every morning is the box scores. The universe seems right again when I can pick up a newspaper — ok, or on the internet — and see the boxes, those pleasing mathematical recreations of 3-hour baseball games the day before.

There’s plenty wrong with the game nowadays — not enough balls put in play, games too long, too many pitching changes, home runs and strikeouts at all-time highs. Critics say it’s too slow and boring and not engaging the younger generation. 

But I still love it, and feel more alive in April. All right, so my Red Sox are off to a brutal start, with the starting pitchers getting lit up like Christmas trees. Well, the first full year I rooted for them they lost 100 games and were last in the AL in ERA. I’m aging in reverse, and baseball has come full circle … 

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THE COLUMN

4/1/19

The three Division I men’s teams with the most victories in the history of college basketball are Kentucky (2,263 wins), Kansas (2,248) and North Carolina (2,232). In NCAA Tournament wins, Kentucky is first all-time, Carolina second and Kansas fourth.

Auburn beat all three of them in its last three games to earn its first-ever trip to the Final Four next weekend. Bruce Pearl’s squad beat Kansas in its second game — after surviving by only one point against New Mexico State in the first round. The Tigers blew out North Carolina by 17 on Friday in the Sweet 16.

Then on Sunday, Auburn beat Kentucky and John Calipari in overtime, 77-71, to win the Midwest regional and a meeting with Virginia , which needed overtime to get past Purdue in the Sweet 16 on Saturday, next Saturday in Minneapolis. 

In the other national semifinal, it’ll be Michigan State, which knocked out Duke on Sunday, against Texas Tech, another team going to its first-ever Final Four after beating Gonzaga — my choice to win it all, by the way — in the West regional final on Saturday. 

There’s no Loyola of Chicago, VCU or George Mason this year, no Cinderella who struck a blow for all the mid-majors and the little guy. But it’s still a satisfying Final Four, with two schools going for the first time ever, Michigan State going after taking down Zion Williamsn and Duke, and only one No. 1 seed surviving — Virginia.

And it’s nice to see Virginia and Tony Bennett finally break through after become the first team ever to lose to a 16th seed a year earlier against Maryland-Baltimore County — and falling behind by 14 to another 16 seed, Gardner-Webb, in their first game this year.

But Auburn is the best story of all. With its most famous alum, Charles Barkley, cheering them on from the TV set, the Tigers have won 12 straight games and eight in the last 18 days, including a four-game run through the SEC Tournament. 

On Sunday, they beat Kentucky, which had smoked them by 27 one month earlier. And they did it without their best player, 6-8 sophomore forward Chuma Okeke, their third-leading scorer and top rebounder and the only real elite recruit on the roster. Okeke tore the ACL in his left knee in the Sweet 16 win over North Carolina, he’s slated to undergo surgery Tuesday in Alabama.

Okeke wasn’t there when Auburn fell behind Kentucky by five at halftime, after a miserable shooting first half. The kid couldn’t bear to be at the game and unable to help his teammates. He told teammate Bruce Brown, “Emotionally, I’m in too much pain to come.” 

So he stayed at the team hotel with family. But watching the Tigers on TV, he decided he wanted to be with them after all. So at the start of the second half in Kansas City, Okeke was wheeled into the arena and behind the Auburn bench, where he cheered his team on to victory. The team allowed Okeke to paste Auburn’s name on the Final Four line in the tournament bracket at center court after the game. Around his neck, he was wearing a net that his teammates had cut down from one of the baskets. 

There are always great stories in an NCAA tourney, and Auburn is someone to root for. Pearl went there in 2014 after getting in trouble for NCAA violations at Tennessee. Auburn had gone a decade without reaching the NCAAs when Pearl got there and the program was an afterthought at a football school in the SEC.

So Auburn is a reminder of the corruption that exist in the sport. College basketball is currently involved in a recruiting scandal that’s still unfolding and involved such powers as Arizona and Oregon, an investigation that transcends basketball and has engaged the authorities at the Southern District of New York and even Stormy Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenati. 

But the NCAA tourney is still a wonderful event; at its best, it remains a great sporting event that captures the imagination of sports fans and gives us some of our most indelible athletic memories. UB gave us a season to remember, winning a record 32 games under Nate Oats, who left to chase the big money.

I’ll be rooting for Auburn and Texas Tech, two teams in their first Final Four, to win next Saturday and reach the title game. Either one winning would be a terrific story. And if it’s Texas Tech, we can always say that UB lost to the team that won the whole thing.

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THE COLUMN

3/29/19

Remember in November, when the Bills were struggling, had the worst offense in team history and Josh Allen was hurt? At the time, Buffalo fans were taking solace in the fact, well, at least we have the Sabres.

Seems to be the case a lot over recent years. When it got really grim for the hockey team, it seemed the football team was about to turn the corner. Or when optimism about the Bills proved to be inflated, the Sabres showed signs of coming around — or at least triumphantly tanking for the first or second pick in the draft.

Just think, if not for a miracle pass by Andy Dalton in the final seconds of the 2017 regular NFL season, we’d be on the verge of having the two teams with the longest playoff droughts in both the NFL and the NHL.

In case you missed it, the Sabres lost again last night, losing at home in overtime to the Red Wings. At least they got a point. They’re now 14-38 in their last 52 games and haven’t won two straight games since December. The last time they won two straight in regulation was in October.

Well, at least we have the Bills. People think I’m relentlessly negative, but like most people, I’m actually encouraged by what’s going on down at One Bills Drive. I’m not ready to put them in the Super Bowl, or even the playoffs, but the football team appears — and we’ll take appears — to be headed in the right direction.

Brandon Beane has cleaned out most of the salary cap burdens he inherited from the previous regime. It was painful, but necessary. Going back to Feb. 12, Beane has made 17 transactions to reshape a roster that was sadly ill-equipped to build on that fluke playoff run of two seasons ago.

He’s done a nice job of refurbishing his offensive line, getting a solid veteran center in Mitch Morse, the prize in free agency. He added flexible parts to his O line in Ty Nsekhe and Jon Feliciano, LaAdrian Waddle and Spencer Long.  He added a promising tight end in Tyler Kroft and another in Jake Fisher.

Beane bolstered a sorry receiving corps with Cole Beasley and John Brown. He brought in veteran Frank Gore to back up LeSean McCoy. He reacquired cornerback E.J. Gaines. He grabbed a couple of special teamers in Maurice Alexander and Senorise Perry.

The thing is, he didn’t just open the vault and throw money at people. Beane was judicious with his deals, giving the Bills lots of flexibility in coming years and the option of moving on from some of these guys. 

As Mike Rodak pointed out on ESPN.com, the Bills spent $77.25 million in guaranteed money on 11 signings in the first week of free agency. The Jets spent $103 million in guarantees to three guys –  ($35 million), linebacker C.J. Mosley ($51 million) and wide receiver Jamison Crowder ($17 million). 

Morse got 4 years, $44 million, but only $20 million is guaranteed. Only the first year of Brown’s deal is guaranteed — and I have reservations about him as a No. 1 wideout. The same goes for Beasley. Beane recognizes he need to show immediate improvement in Year 3, but he knows that ultimately you build an NFL contender through the draft, by nailing draft picks that become value pieces to supplement free agency.

It’s fair to expect this team to win nine or more games next year. But I think that in his heart of hearts, Beane thinks his team needs another draft to be truly ready. He and Sean McDermott wish fans would think of this as a four or five-year plan.

Beane is being careful, I imagine, to make sure he has the resources when it comes time to re-sign his own draftees who become stars in the league. That’s how any wise GM hopes to spend the big bucks, on guys they identified and developed.

They have promising core of kids in Josh Allen, Tremaine Edmunds, Tre’Davious White and Matt Milano. But there’s very little left from the drafts from before Beane and McDermott got here. They have 10 picks in the next draft and that’ll be critical in the continued attempt to rebuild the Bills into a real contender.

It still comes down to Allen’s development. If he doesn’t develop, Beane won’t be remembered for all the smart little tweaks he made to the roster, but missing on the most vital position of all.

But he has a plan, and that gives Buffalo fans legitimate hope. And at least they’re not the Sabres.

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THE COLUMN

3/28/19

THE COLUMN

3/26/19

Well, the Sabres lost again last night, 3-1 at the Devils. Silly me, I got my hopes up and was thinking they might win back-to-back games for the first time since mid-December. After all, the Devils are last in the Metropolitan and tonight’s foe, Ottawa, is last in the Atlantic Division. 

That’s what we’ve come to — where winning two games in a row against two of the worst teams in the NHL is seen as some kind of achievement. 

Watching that hockey game, I really began to miss UB basketball. After the loss at UConn on Sunday, Cierra Dillard was defiant, proud to have given UConn a scare but not content to have given the sport’s greatest program its toughest second round game in 20 years. The UB women EXPECTED to win

It was the same for the UB men. That’s what was so hard to take on Sunday night — the fact that we’d expected them to make the Sweet 16, to take the next step, or at least to put on a show that made WNY proud.

But in retrospect, the UB teams achieved something very rare in Buffalo sports nowadays. They raised the standard. They made winning an expectation, not a distant hope. Two years in a row, both teams didn’t just get to the NCAAs, they won a game.

UB basketball has become the competitive standard in a football and hockey town, where for far too long people have settled for second-rate, where long-suffering fans have come to see simply competing for the postseason an achievement, where getting there is the goal.

The Sabres were eliminated over the weekend. Carolina is now 20 points ahead of Buffalo — without Jeff Skinner — and will probably make the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. That means the Sabres will have the longest NHL drought at 8 years.

Just think, if not for a miracle Andy Dalton pass at the end of the 2017 NFL season, Buffalo’s two pros franchises would have the longest playoff drought in their respective sports.

Thank heavens for UB, which reminded us that if you get the right coaches and raise your sights, and don’t accept mediocrity, you can rise faster than you even imagined. Winning can become commonplace. Your little town can become a destination, rather than a joke. 

The Pegulas should pay attention, maybe go over to Amherst and take notes, meet some of the key people. They own the two major pro sports teams in town. But the two most successful franchises are the UB men’s and women’s basketball … actually three, if you consider the football team.

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THE COLUMN

3/25/19

Over the years, Bills fans learned to despise Rob Gronkowski. The big reason, of course, was that Gronk didn’t play for them, that the best football players Buffalo ever produced wound up with the team that tormented Western New Yorkers for two decades.

But Buffalo people couldn’t deny that when healthy, Ground was the best tight end who ever lived, a rare combination of size, speed, agility and competitive toughness. Gronk was the perfect weapon for Tom Brady and the Pats. You never knew if they were going to come out with a relentless running game or tear you to shreds with a precise, persistent passing attack.

Either way, Gronk was right in the middle of it. He was a tight end who could dominate as a blocker or kill you by stretching the field like few guys who ever played the position. He had amazing hands and he always seemed to make the crucial catch at the big moment — whether it was against the Bills in an early-season game at the Ralph or in a Super Bowl in a heroic comeback.

Gronk retired yesterday at 29 — too soon, though it was time — with a pile of NFL records. It’s a long list, which includes most catches by a tight end in Super Bowl history (23), only tight end with 1,000 yards receiving in postseason history, most touchdowns by a tight end in a single season (18, 2011) and most seasons with 10 or more touchdowns by a tight end (five).

Imagine if he hadn’t been hurt so often. My favorite stat is TDs per game. Gronk is tied for 28th all-time with 79 touchdowns. He played 115 games in the regular season. That’s .687 a game. Jerry Rice, the all-time leader, averaged .650. Antonio Gates, the career leader for TEs, .491. Tony Gonzalez, who’s right behind Gates, had .411 TD average. You get the picture.

Gronk was no angel. He was a goofball and a party boy off the field. He took that terrible shot at Tre Davious White here a couple of years and ago and when he came back from a concussion before the Super Bowl that year, wouldn’t admit any empathy for White in retrospect. 

But there was no real scandal, no drug arrests, no mistreatment of women, no driving 120 miles and hour. He was an endearing knucklehead, a guy who made you laugh and knew how to play the clown for the cameras. Remember “Yo Soy Fiesta” on Super Bowl Day? I love to party. 

He was our knucklehead, though, and if he played for the Bills we would have seen him as the perfect Buffalo guy. I think what bothered Buffalo fans the most was what could have been — if instead of taking Torell Troup with the 41st pick of the 2010 draft, they’d pick the kid from Amherst. He went to the Pats at 42.

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THE COLUMN

3/22/19

Anyway,  it’s the first day of new show, but here’s hoping it’s not last day of a remarkable UB basketball season. The men and women finally get to play in the NCAA Tournament this afternoon, Nate Oats’s team against Bobby Hurley’s Arizona State squad in Tulsa at 4 and then Felisha Legette’s Jack’s women take on Rutgers in Storrs, Conn half an hour later.

I’ve railed about that fact that both our teams would be forced to play at roughly the same time, making it difficult for Bulls fans and administrators to fully appreciate both. But I suppose in the end we have to celebrate the fact that they’re playing at all. 

This makes three times in four years that the UB men and women have both made it to the Big Dance. Last year, along with St. Bonaventure, they gave us the most memorable week of local hoops since Bob Lanier and Calvin Murphy nearly half a century ago. The Bona men won a play-in game, the UB men stunned Arizona as a 13 seed, the UB women went to the Sweet 16.

I remember the days when getting any team in the NCAA Tournament was a triumph. I came to Buffalo 30 years ago as a national NBA writer from the Big Apple, and soon realized I had landed on the college basketball beat in what could well have been the worst basketball town of its size in the nation. 

I waited seven years to get a team in. I can still remember the 1996 Canisius team, breaking a 39-year drought. Then it was Niagara going twice in three years. Bona had a great run in 2000. But this recent UB run with Oats and Jack feels like a hoop lover’s reward for all those years of waiting for Buffalo to be truly relevant again in hoops, like those Little 3 days I hear so often about.

So enjoy the day, folks. Treasure it, because you never know how long it’ll last. We can’t take the NCAA tourney for granted, like they do in place like North Carolina and Kentucky — or like Bills fans did back in the Super Bowl era. 

Maybe UB will sustain it and become a little hoop dynasty, like Gonzaga in men’s hoops and UConn in the women (and can you believe UB will play Upon in the second game if they win). I have to admit, I never thought Oats and Legette-Jack would both be here after last year’s runs. I figured some bigger place would steal them away from us. 

But Nate and Felisha say they want to stay in Buffalo, that they love it and want to build a mid-major empire. They really seem to believe it, and I want to believe it. Imagine that, after 30 years, working in a real, honest-to-goodness, basketball town!

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THE COLUMN

3/21/19

Well, the NCAA Tournament began last night. Two games. The First Four, as they now call it, because the phrase “play-in” seemed unfair to the teams that landed on those lines, as if they weren’t really in the field. 

But it’s still a 64-team tournament to me, and to a lot of people who will fill out their brackets today. Thursday and Friday are the best two days in sports, the 32 games that take out half the field and give us our best chance at those wonderful upsets, the little guy rising up to slay the giant — Princeton over UCLA and Valpo over Mississippi and Lehigh over Duke and Maryland-Baltimore County over Virginia and yes,  Buffalo over Arizona.

For many of us, it’s the buildup that’s the real fun, though, filling out the office pools, trying to design the perfect bracket, trying to find the right upsets and the predictable favorites. Is there anything quite like an NCAA bracket. That wonderful rectangle, eight by eight … leading to the four names in the middle … 64 is the perfect number, isn’t it … four times four times four … every spot on the paper a tiny little piece of destiny 

I’ve been making prediction in public for 30 years. I’ve had some high moments — like picking Loyola to make the Final Four — and a lot of embarrassing gaffes, like picking Houston in 1990 and seeing them eliminated in the first game of the day, before the afternoon paper had even arrived on most readers’ doorsteps with my fateful Final Four prediction waiting inside.

I love this tournament, despite all its flaws and commercialism and bias against the little schools in conferences that have to grovel for crumbs. Covering the Big Dance gave me some of my fondest memories — I was there when Christian Laettner hit the shot against Kentucky, when he led Duke over UNLV in the Final Four, when John Belein won as a 14 seed at Richmond, when that kid David Messiah Capers hit 3 free throws with no time left for St. Bonaventure to force a second OT against Kentucky, when UB stunned the world with a first-round blowout against an Arizona team that had the No. 1 pick in the draft.

It’s fun. Keep that in mind when you fill out your brackets. For me, the fun was seeing a huge upset under every rock, believing that any little school could do the impossible. After all, they shoot the 3 well! They have a good turnover ratio! They played tough against a major power in Maui back in November! They’re good at the line. Never mind that the school from the power conference has much better athletes, guys who will go to the NBA.

But what fun is it to pick the favorites? Anyone can pencil through all the No. 1s and 2s to the Sweet 16. You miss all the fun that way. You also miss some great upsets. Did you know that in each of the last five years, half the No. 2 seeds didn’t reach the Sweet 16? Did you forget what happened to Virginia last year? Remember some unknown school called Florida Gulf Coast reaching the Sweet 16 as a 15 seed a few years ago?

Go find this year’s Gulf Coast. I dare you. Reach for the stars. Ask the prettiest girl in school out on a date. Apply to the Ivy League school. Throw a hundred on that skittish horse running for the first time. Believe in miracles. 

Enjoy the tournament, folks. I know I am.