Around a decade-and-a-half ago, I was a serious Buffalo Bills fan. And I mean serious as a nine year old kid can get, uninhibited by cynicism or defeatism. I had just missed the apex of the team's conquests (the four straight AFC titles), but they were still a seriously feisty team. They won a lot of games. They ran the ball exceptionally well. They played good defense. They had a fun offense to watch. They weren't the best team in the world, but I got behind them and always expected they'd give it a good fight before the eventual loss came to rang in each season's end.
And then slowly but inexorably, they started to suck. Our quarterbacks got worse. We went from Jim Kelly to Todd Collins to Doug Flutie to Rob Johnson back to Doug Flutie back to Rob Johnson to past-his-prime Drew Bledsoe to the J.P. Losman Bank to the Furdie Trent Edwards to Ryan Fitzpatrick. The offensive line went from being one of the most efficient in the league to a cast of aged veterans. Our team missed the playoffs one season, then the next, then two more after that, then three more after that.
At some point during this decade-long playoff drought, I checked out mentally. It wasn't that I wasn't a Bills fan. I just took it down a level of interest with each year, like a kid who starts neglecting his toys with each passing week. For the sake of my sanity, I had to tone things down when things got rough. (Translation: I have no idea how the dudes at Coug Center do it.) Ten years later, I'm still waiting for the team to be anything more than a passing fancy on Sunday, and my only curiosity seems to be piqued when I ponder which quarterback to draft to start over in 2011. The point is indifference can strike your fandom if (a) the team isn't exciting and (b) the team sucks. Why do you think people appreciated Nellie's 30 win Warriors teams?
I'm not close to that that point with Jeff Tedford's California Golden Bears. I'm not mentally checking out on this team as a whole. But for the fifth game in two seasons, I had to turn the brain off at least for the rest of the afternoon. And if my diehard self is checking out of these games, I can only imagine what the rest of our Golden Bear faithful are thinking.
What's worse is I can see the trends starting to form between Bears and Bills. The road doesn't look pretty.
I'm not sure when I mentally checked out of this one. Maybe it was when David Dropsberry leaped over Marc Anthony and plucked the ball out of the sky. Maybe it was when the Trojans got into the backfield for the umpteenth time and buried poor Shane Vereen in the backfield. Or when Kevin Riley threw those two god-awful interceptions to basically turn a rout into an embarrassment. All I know is by the third quarter I had already coped and begun playing a completely different game in my head, one that involved Allan Bridgford and Keenan Allen hooking up for their second score in AT&T Park in 2011.
(In some sort of twisted and pathetic way, I know why Tedford sounded so pleased he won the final two quarters 14-6, like some proud soccer mom who was happy his daughter's team scored. At that point, as a coach, as a player, as a fan, you search for every victory you can find. It's cringe-inducing, but it's the only positive reinforcement you can find from a game that had absolutely none. "Oh look, there's a penny on the ground! I feel less homeless than I was ten seconds ago!")
I doubt any of us would've minded a loss. It would've hurt like hell if we had fought hard and came up short, like in Arizona, but we would've respected the effort. But this was a total no-show, a game that inspired memories of last season's defeats, of another team that let us down at the most crucial times. In no world I know are the USC Trojans 42 freaking points better than us at any point, much less at halftime. Even if we might be the less talented teams, losing games like this should be unacceptable, especially for a coach as seasoned as Tedford. Yet they're happening more often, and at an alarming frequency.
Just look around the conference for examples of teams that are doing things better and smarter. The Beavers fell into a similar hole against the Huskies (trailing down 21-0), but rallied to force double overtime. The Trojans lost their previous two games, but they were a few seconds from winning each of those. The Cardinal (the f#(*%&g Cardinal) at least hung up 21 points early before getting blasted off the field by the Ducks. At least those teams put in plenty of hits before going down. We got knocked around like Ernie Terrell after he called Muhammad Ali "Cassius" before the fight. (You could hear Lane Kiffin screaming "WHAT'S MY NAME, TEDFORD?" afterwards.)
For now, we haven't had a losing season and we're still ending up in bowl games, and for now we still have the Axe. But I'm sensing we're dangerously close to that tipping point where the disinterest spreads into the fanbase en masse. The passing game, once a Tedford staple and something to appreciate, is ultimately sporadic, and at other times non-existent. Our offensive line play is some of the worst in the conference. The defensive schemes were exposed yesterday and they couldn't cope with experienced playcallers for the second time this season.
This is a team that hasn't inspired anyone two years running, and has been mired in four years of up-and-down play. The only good thing about these seasons is that we've been winning. We might not have that luxury very soon.
If that happens, although the team won't quit playing their games, the fans might stop caring enough to go to them. That's a dangerous sign, especially for a sport where the fans drive everything. We'll probably be pumped up to play for the Axe, but the students and alumni might begin looking toward other ways to enjoy their Saturdays. Which is pretty much what the pre-Tedford era was like. Ruh-roh.
As we begin to get ready for basketball season (only a month away) I think back to this last season with Monty's boys. Even when they were getting torched by the big boys or screwed by the Beavers and the Bruins, they went back and executed the gameplan. They played together with purpose, with vision, with smarts. They bounced back from defeat and got better as the season went along, peaking at the crucial moments instead of fading from the spotlight. There was true brotherhood and camaraderie on the court, players shielding their deficiencies and embracing each other as a team. It wasn't exciting or as flashy as the things some of our other hoops teams have done, but they executed and they won. And it earned them a conference title.
And I'm starting to wonder if Cal football under Tedford will ever experience the same thing.