The initial exclamatory response of Buffalo Bills quarterback E.J. Manuel said it best.
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!— EJ Manuel (@EJManuel3) May 9, 2014
When the Bills traded up in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft to grab Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, it became one of the most discussed transactions of the entire weekend. It was definitely the boldest. Even though general manager Doug Whaley predicted such a move leading up to the draft, it stunned NFL analysts and fans alike. Including Manuel.
The cost was high, but that story's been written several times over since the first round ended a few weeks ago. The Bills traded the No. 9 overall selection as well as the team's first- and fifth-round selections in the 2015 NFL Draft to move up five spots. The price alone places major expectations on Watkins, as it does for any athlete who commands such a bounty to acquire him, but that pales in comparison to the overall burden awaiting the rookie sensation in Buffalo.
Levels of Losing
Every descriptor is an understatement. Referring to the Bills offseason as "tough" or "frustrating" or even "sorrowful" fails to adequately describe the grief most Bills fans have felt since the season ended.
It all starts with one of the NFL's worst losing streaks. While the Bills are nowhere near the league's record for longest playoff drought (25 seasons shared by the Cardinals and Redskins), Buffalo is in the top ten. Y2K was a real concern the last time the Buffalo Bills made the playoffs in 1999. Fourteen seasons have passed in that time, the longest active streak in the NFL. In fact, the Cleveland Browns, the next team on the list, would have to miss the playoffs for the next three seasons to match the Bills' current level of losing (the year E.J. Manuel could become a free agent).
To put such a losing streak in perspective, the NBA's longest active postseason drought belongs to the Minnesota Timberwolves at 10 seasons. In the NHL, eight seasons have passed since the Edmonton Oilers made the playoffs. Only baseball has been crueler to its fan bases with the Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays holding at 28 and 20 consecutive years, respectively. That's it. Only two other major sports franchises have waited longer for playoff action than the Bills.
A long offseason
The losing streak, however, only tells a small part of the story given the mournful headlines of the offseason. From the death of team owner Ralph Wilson to the recurring cancer plaguing franchise icon and Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, Bills fans have struggled with off-the-field news as much as they have with the on-field product.
Wilson's death came in late March and cast a long shadow over the entire NFL. Wilson was responsible for bringing professional football to Buffalo in 1959, and he was well-loved for his charitable work outside of football, as well. He was the only owner of the Bills until his death, and he was enshrined as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
Before and after the news of Wilson's passing, Bills fans were already dealing with the news regarding Kelly. The former QB was originally diagnosed with Squamous-cell carcinoma in his upper jaw nearly a year ago, and he was declared cancer free within weeks. However, Kelly's cancer returned, and he's been undergoing aggressive treatments throughout the offseason.
In addition to all of this is the consistent question marks that hang over the Bills' permanent location. The Bills are often brought up in concert with a potential move to Toronto, and the smaller market makes them a target for other cities, too. The NFL's constant efforts to increase its audience (i.e. the UK investment) will always place pressure on small-market teams. And given the poor returns in the standings, it's hard to fault the fan base for any lack of support.
For Bills fans already frustrated by yet another losing season, the tragic news of the offseason involving two vital figures of football in Buffalo has given them a lot to digest.
The pressure on Watkins
Enter the trade up for Watkins. It's not hard to understand why Whaley went all-in this offseason, given the abundance of bad news in recent months and years. Yet this draft class was deep at wide receiver, and Whaley paid a significant price to get his man. Make no mistake: Watkins is an elite talent, and should provide instant dividends for Doug Marrone and his staff. The question is whether or not Watkins is the tipping point.
The path to the playoffs likely lies in the Bills' performance against their own rivals in the AFC East. The Miami Dolphins have young talent in key places, but they're also a mess in the headlines and along the offensive front. The Jets boast a stout defense, but Rex Ryan has been sitting on the hot seat for a reason. Both teams are wild cards (not in the playoff sense), and the Bills could conceivably jump both if Manuel develops as hoped.
The key, then, is the New England Patriots, a team with a legend at quarterback that keeps winning no matter how great the turnover on the roster becomes. As long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are in place, the Bills are always going to be relegated to second, at best, until proven otherwise. However, the Patriots continue to lose valuable pieces and age is a funny thing in the NFL, where decline in performance comes suddenly for most.
Given the price paid, Watkins is the man in the crosshairs for the Bills. He cannot be a contributor. He must, instead, become a game-changing star. The talent is there. The game tape is there. Even the talent around him is considerable enough to imagine a dynamic offense -- from a solid running back corps with new addition Bryce Brown added to Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, to fellow wideouts like burner Marquise Goodwin and second-year pro Robert Woods.
If Manuel can make the leap, limit his mistakes and take advantage of his shiny new weapon, Watkins could be the key acquisition that brings a playoff appearance for Bills fans. It would also provide a bit of good news for those who need it most.