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For generation of Bills fans, 17-year playoff drought has been a lifetime

WILLIAMSVILLE, N.Y. -- All Joe Dagonese remembers is yelling.

As the 15-year-old stood in the weight room at Williamsville South High School last month, his mind did not fondly recall Jim Kelly touchdown passes, Bruce Smith sacks or even an aghast Buffalo Bills sideline witnessing the Music City Miracle.

Born in 2001, Dagonese (pronounced da-gone-ease) has no memory of his favorite franchise's high points in the early 1990s -- or of the Tennessee Titans miraculously extinguishing Buffalo's hopes in that AFC wild-card game in January 2000, which remains the franchise's last playoff game.

Instead, Dagonese's earliest recollection of watching the Bills is of his dad, Tom, yelling at the television. Most Sundays, Tom Dagonese vented his frustration at Trent Edwards, the 2007 third-round pick who led Buffalo's march of failed starting quarterbacks until he was benched in favor of Ryan Fitzpatrick during the 2009 season.

Interceptions. Missed passes. Checkdowns to receivers short of first downs. Edwards made a habit of it all, and that was Joe Dagonese's introduction to being a fan of the Bills during their playoff drought.

With the Bills' loss Saturday to the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo's postseason absence reached 17 consecutive seasons. The Bills' drought is the longest among the four major North American professional sports leagues. It is tied for the fifth-longest playoff drought in NFL history and is the longest that has taken place entirely after the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

The playoff drought is a drag on all the team's fans, but especially young fans such as Dagonese who have experienced nothing but stagnation and futility in their lifetime when it comes to the Bills. The team's failure to crack the AFC's six-team playoff field from 2000 through 2016 has created a cynicism among the Bills' youngest generation of fans, which could become an increasing problem in coming years since no end of the drought is in sight.

"When you watch TV, you never see a Bills commercial," Dagonese said last month. "It's always some other big team. It's kind of what you come to expect. You go into a Bills game hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. It's year after year of the same thing. Our best record was 9-7 over the past 17 years. That's horrible. That's bad. Something has to change."

The 2016 record: 7-9.

Sitting at his locker Thursday, Bills receiver Sammy Watkins was blunt and honest about what he perceived as a lack of discipline and cohesion in the locker room. In the wake of Rex Ryan's firing Dec. 27, Watkins called for a culture change and added, "We got to think like the fans -- be all-in."

Fans would welcome that sort of thinking. While the Bills have struggled to sell out their stadium at times during their playoff drought, fan support hasn't eroded. The team sold a record 60,000 season tickets in 2015 and that number dropped only to 58,535 in 2016, the second-most in franchise history.

The Bills, despite their losing, remain the main attraction in Buffalo.

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The weight room is a bustling hub of activity on a Tuesday afternoon at Williamsville South High. Football players lift weights, track athletes run on treadmills, and the cheerleading team finds some empty space to practice. For most of the room, Jim Kelly might as well be Jim Brown, and the Bills' Super Bowl teams of the early 1990s might as well be the 1927 New York Yankees. In other words, ancient history.

At one point, the only person in the room with any memory of the pre-2000 Bills is football coach Kraig Kurzanski, who also teaches at the school. Kurzanski, who proudly wears a Bills T-shirt for his workout, was employed as a ticket-taker at Bills home games from the early 1980s until about 10 years ago.

If Kurzanski stood at the gates of New Era Field for the Bills' final two home games this season, he would have scanned tickets that deflated fans were struggling to resell for dirt-cheap prices as low as $6. As it turns out, people won't pay for a bad product.

Just ask Joe Dagonese. When Edwards was slinging passes to receivers Lee Evans and Josh Reed in 2008, the quarterback found a fan in then-8-year-old Dagonese, who would don a friend's Bills helmet and pretend he was Edwards. Dagonese asked his dad to buy him an Edwards jersey, but he was met with a response that served as a life lesson about the Bills.

"It was, like, $100 for the jersey," Joe Dagonese said last month. "My dad would say, 'He's a bad quarterback. He's not worth all that money.' To be honest with you, he told me this: There is no [Bills] player that is worth over $20 for the jersey."

More than eight years later, Dagonese still does not own a single item of Bills-themed clothing, even as other fans have emptied their wallets on fleeting stars such as Fitzpatrick. At least for those No. 14 jerseys, there is duct tape.

Not only is Dagonese reluctant to purchase merchandise, but his family has pulled back on attending Bills games. He went to his first game when he was about 4 years old, but hasn't been back since he was 8 years old.

"We haven't been going lately because when you go there, they lose," he said. "It's a waste of money. It's $6 or something just for a bottle of water. And $25 for a parking [spot]? My dad always jokes around that they should at least pump up your tires a little bit for $25. It's just ridiculous."

The cost of attendance and the Bills' lack of a playoff appearance have not stopped a large number of Bills fans from buying into the team. One of Dagonese's classmates, 16-year-old John Montgomery, doesn't hide his allegiance as he enters the weight room. He is wearing a bright blue Bills T-shirt and a Bills-themed winter hat, a frequent sight around Buffalo even as football seasons slip away in December.

Montgomery has attended at least one Bills game per season since he was in about fifth grade. This year, he went to three but kept his expectations tepid.

"I love the Bills," he said. "When they lose, I'm upset about it, but it's the Bills. What's to be expected? It's not as heartbreaking. It's annoying, but it's not upsetting. It's like, 'Oh, they lost, that kind sucks, but it's the Bills.'"

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Luke Tasker has a unique perceptive on the Bills' past two decades, but when the 25-year-old thinks of his earliest memories involving his favorite team, the mental pictures are limited.

He remembers sitting in the stands at what was then called Rich Stadium, waving to his dad -- former Bills special-teams ace Steve Tasker, who was a seven-time Pro Bowler. Luke remembers his dad lifting him over the wall of the stadium and bringing him onto the field to play catch. He remembers the rich red carpeting of the Bills' locker room and his dad's stall in the corner of the room.

He remembers virtually nothing about what happened on the field. He was 4 years old when the Bills last won a playoff game -- an AFC wild-card victory over the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 30, 1995. He hadn't yet turned 2 years old when the Bills completed the NFL's greatest comeback on Jan. 3, 1993, recovering from a 35-3 deficit to defeat the Houston Oilers in the playoffs. He was born nine days before the Bills lost Super Bowl XXV to the New York Giants, their first of four consecutive Super Bowl losses.

After Steve Tasker retired and became an analyst for CBS Sports, his family remained in Buffalo. Luke, who played football at Cornell and is now a wide receiver for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League, grew up immersed in Buffalo sports. By the time he entered middle school in the early 2000s, the Bills' success from his father's playing days was drifting deeper into the past.

As an eighth-grader on Jan. 2, 2005, Tasker and his brother sat among the crowd at Ralph Wilson Stadium and witnessed the Bills lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers and bungle what was Buffalo's best chance at making the playoffs during their 17-year drought. The Steelers had rested their starters because they entered the game with a 14-1 record and had clinched the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

That was the fifth year of the Bills' playoff drought. As Tasker grew older and the drought reached double-digit years, the mood around the team darkened.

"Buffalo sports throughout my middle and high school years had just a flavor of bitterness for me," Tasker said. "It was always, like, some false excitement. I remember when Drew Bledsoe came around [in 2002], kind of a veteran quarterback, everybody wanted to hang their hat on that. [QB and 2004 first-round pick] J.P. Losman did good for a little while and everyone eventually lost hope.

"It was just the ups and downs, but the ups were only really potential -- or thoughts of the potential -- that we might have, as opposed to the success. As the drought has gone along through my high school and into my college years, you kind of got this idea of stagnation, that people were not content with losing, but so used to it that they didn't expect anything else."

Tasker is hardly alone among the children of the Bills' former stars who have no recollection of their fathers' success. Gabrielle Talley was born Jan. 6, 1993, three days before the Bills' divisional-playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on their path to a loss in Super Bowl XXVII to the Dallas Cowboys. Her father, former Bills linebacker Darryl Talley, did not want to miss her birth, so her mother Janine scheduled a C-section around the Bills' playoff schedule.

Now 23, Gabrielle's first memory involving the Bills came after the 1996 season, when her father held his retirement party at Rich Stadium. She did not attend a Bills game until 2003 -- the third year of the playoff drought -- when her father was inducted onto the team's Wall of Fame.

"I remember going on the field during the halftime ceremony, and it was so cold my tears were freezing on my cheeks," she said. "I hid in my dad's jacket to stay warm for most of our time on the field."

By the time Gabrielle began college as a volleyball player for Virginia Tech in 2011, the Bills' playoff drought had reached 11 seasons. The bottom had fallen out on the franchise in 2010, when first-year Bills coach Chan Gailey led his squad to a 4-12 record and the team's third of six consecutive last-place finishes in the AFC East.

"I used to have people make fun of me for watching Bills games alone in my dorm room and cheering for them," she said. "Anytime I would declare I was a Bills fan, people would always remark with something along the lines of, 'You must hate to admit that out loud.'"

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What has gone wrong for the Bills over the past 17 years? What needs to be done to fix them? You will be hard-pressed to find a consensus around Buffalo.

In the Williamsville South weight room last month, 16-year-old Will Lacey said a lack of continuity has been the problem. The Bills change coaches too often, he noted. Nick Huber, 16, lamented the lack of a franchise quarterback. Matt Tiedeman, 16, saw a lack of motivation from players, who need to be pushed harder by coaches. Montgomery pointed to a lack of chemistry and team identity as the issue. Alex Urbaniak, 15, kept it simple: The Bills just flat-out need better players.

Despite the Bills' flaws, sports fans in Buffalo don't have many alternatives. The Buffalo Sabres have not made the playoffs since 2011 and posted the NHL's worst record in 2013-14 and 2014-15. The few Division I college athletic programs in the area receive little attention. Even the Buffalo Bisons, the Triple-A minor league affiliate of the Blue Jays, have the International League's longest playoff drought.

How long will fans' sense of community buoy a franchise mired in mediocrity? It is tough to tell, but what seems clear is that Bills fans -- especially the youngest generation with no memory of winning -- have developed a rational pessimism.

"Sadly, when I go to a game against an accomplished team in any season, there is always that ping in my gut that things may not go that well for us," Talley said. "But that only makes those surprise victories that much sweeter."

"A lot of the time people do get excited. There are all sorts of predictions about how far we're gonna go." Lacey said. "I've kind of gotten used to those not being true. After a couple of weeks of the season, it's just, 'Yeah, OK. Not this year. Maybe next year.'"

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