In sports, we often talk about the “clutch gene.” You know, the players who always come through in the clutch. When the chips are down, they’re at their best. They rise to the occasion. Tom Brady. Derek Jeter. Michael Jordan. Patrick Roy. Joe Montana. That’s what we say about them.
I’ve often believed something different about the clutch gene or clutch players.
I actually don’t think they rise up and play better than they already are. They’re great. They just keep playing great.
But what happens is those around them start to wilt in the moment. Because if you really think about the greatest players and the greatest teams in sports history, it’s not the ones who did it here or there on occasion. It’s the ones who did it consistently, who were always good, and who maintain a standard of consistent, excellent play.
Sometimes it doesn’t happen right away, but it can.
Brady won a Super Bowl his first year as a starter for the New England Patriots after taking over for Drew Bledsoe that season. Jeter won Rookie of the Year and the New York Yankees won the World Series his first full season.
However, it took Jordan and the Chicago Bulls seven years to even get to the NBA Finals. Montana went 2-6 as a starting quarterback his first two years with the San Francisco 49ers.
This even applies to coaches.
Did you know what Mike Krzyzewski‘s record at Duke was his first three seasons as head coach? 38-47! Think about that for a moment. 38-47. That gets you fired in today’s sports landscape.
The great ones aren’t always great right away.
As for the best teams, the ones who we remember for sustained runs of excellence, they usually have some pain and tough losses along the way before they ever actually get there.
We can draw on an example right here in Buffalo. The Super Bowl Bills teams of the 1990s.
Despite having quarterback Jim Kelly, defensive end Bruce Smith, wide receiver Andre Reed, and linebacker Darryl Talley, the Bills still missed the playoffs in 1986 and 1987 before finally making it in 1988. They were 11-20 those first two seasons after Kelly arrived.
Then it took two more years to get to the Super Bowl. 1988 saw the Bills lose in the AFC title game to the Cincinnati Bengals, then 1989 was a step back with a loss to the Cleveland Browns in the divisional round.
Buffalo was able to finally break through in 1990, but it took some pain. It took some learning. It took getting better as individuals.
I’ve often felt this particular Bills team, and the one we’ve seen over the last few years, reminded me of those late ‘80s teams. How general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott have built their program, their vision and philosophy. They stayed the course, continued to build, enjoyed some success along the way, but also heartbreak. Two playoff appearances in three seasons, but both were losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017 and the Houston Texans in 2019.
Now they’re onto the next stage.
We’ve all been saying it since the offseason: This Bills team needs to take the next step. It’s time.
Win the division for the first time in 25 years, get a home playoff game, and above all, win a playoff game. If they don’t advance and go one-and-done again, this season won’t be looked at as a success by most, including a lot of people in their own building.
I have no idea if the 2020 Bills are going to accomplish all of those goals, but I know this: This team isn’t going away.
They’re about to, or maybe already have, entered an era of consistent playoff appearances and division championship aspirations. Maybe even conference titles. Who knows from there?
They have a quarterback who, despite early struggles in his career and doubters from every angle who just refused to see, or at least acknowledge, that he was consistently growing, has elevated his game to among the best in the sport. He played, arguably, the best game of his career last night, on a national television stage, against a really well-coached 49ers defense. San Francisco was a team that was in the Super Bowl just 10 months ago.
That’s not because Josh Allen rises to the occasion and plays better in big games. He deserves more credit than that. He’s had a really high level of consistency and performance throughout this year.
That’s what the best of the best do. They’re the best almost all the time, not just when it matters most, even though we think about it that way sometimes.
They have a head coach who understands how to play new-school football and relate to young athletes, while maintaining an old-school toughness, mentality, and principles. Just like they had in those late 1980s and early 1990s years.
We went 17 years here of wandering through the wilderness, shouting through the forest for someone to notice the Bills. But why would they? No playoff appearances. Very few star players. No franchise quarterback, the guy who really moves the needle.
Now it’s different. They have that quarterback. They have that coach. They have that organization.
Bills fans need to adjust their own mentality. For the next four weeks, the stakes are higher, and then they’ll climb even more. That’s because the standard is higher, and so are the expectations. That’s what comes with being good.
This is what good feels like. Get used to it, because the Bills are going to be here a while.
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