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Stefon Diggs Fixed Buffalo Before We Could Fix Him

Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills warms up prior to a game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Highmark Stadium on September 17, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York.
Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen this goddamn yard sign.

Image: Zoom Buffalo

I can’t say for sure if this was the most ubiquitous yard sign in the Buffalo suburbs leading up to the 2020 election, but it certainly felt like it was. The sign was so universally popular that the local printing company responsible for making them, Zoom Buffalo (and about a million copycats), ran it back the next year: Re-elect Allen/Diggs, Allen/Diggs ’21, or, perhaps most menacingly: Allen/Diggs ∞.

While Etsy imitators are still trying to push Allen/Diggs ’24 signs, Zoom Buffalo will now happily sell you customized vinyl stickers to edit Diggs out of your Allen/Diggs campaign sign. Stefon Diggs, who was traded to the Houston Texans earlier this month, has been Spiro Agnew’d.

Somewhere, a father of three is currently typing “Odunze,” “Thomas,” or “McConkey” into that text field and daring himself to place the order.

When the Bills traded for Diggs in 2020, they were still kind of a joke. The team was coming off a playoff appearance, sure, but the quarterback was a clown, the coach was a dumbass who decided to name Nathan Peterman his starting quarterback multiple times, and the team got spurned by Antonio Brown the offseason before. The gulf between Bills Mafia’s opinion of Our Big Special Guy and everyone else’s was as wide as it's ever been. And then there’s the city itself, which is mostly known for 1) being under a foot of snow at all times and 2) not having much going on except the Bills. As a lifelong resident, I can only claim that both of these statements are half-true.

Somehow, despite all this, Diggs made the Bills cool. Here was a bona fide superstar who wanted to play for our joke of a team, who believed in the quarterback (or was at least willing to gamble on him), who was here to validate what every Western New Yorker needs to believe to stay sane: that our town does have value, that people want to be here, that we deserve to keep our sports teams. And, of course, it was an instant home run. Stefon Diggs: good at football, it turns out. He helped a younger, greener version of Allen mature into the player he is today, and he looked happy to be here while he did it. 

Though the team has always been a disproportionately big deal in Buffalo (largely because of the aforementioned Nothing Else Going On), winning the division with a 13-3 record in 2020 took it to another level. My mother went from not caring about football in the least to having detailed opinions about Dawson Knox overnight, and it seems like everyone else’s mother did, too. Allen was the messianic figure leading the Bills Mafia cult, sure, but it wasn’t just him: it was usually Allen-and-Diggs, the two-headed god. Get your lawn sign. Put on your favorite 17+14 = 6 T-shirt. Purchase your limited edition Josh Allen JA17 Coffee Blend and drink it with eggs doused in Diggs 14 Hot Sauce.

Sure, Diggs had problems in Minnesota, but look, he’s posing with Josh for Sport Illustrated for Kids’ BFF Issue. Everything’s great! We fixed him! He’ll be here forever!

Now that he’s gone, after a season in which his production faded down the stretch and it became clear he started to check out on the team, it’s tempting to slap the “diva” label back on Diggs. I think it might be more complicated than that.

I’ve long believed that for certain jobs in sports (professional race car drivers, elite soccer strikers, high-end wide receivers, etc.), psychosis is a prerequisite for greatness. To be a receiver is to have the game rest entirely outside your own control: You can run brilliant routes, beat your man over and over again, and you still might never get the ball if the offensive coordinator isn’t giving you good looks, if the quarterback can’t put it in your hands, if the offensive line isn’t blocking. On a really good day, you might get 10 targets in an entire game; you might catch seven or eight of them. To believe in your ability to meaningfully affect the game in these conditions requires delusional confidence. The great ones always have it. Stefon Diggs has it.

I’ve never met Diggs, but allow me to psychoanalyze him for a moment: What he cares about is winning. There were zero whispers of his discontent in 2020 or 2021, which coincides with the Bills being a team on the rise. When the team is winning and he isn’t the centerpiece, he might speak frankly about how he wishes he got the ball more, but he’s not throwing fits on the sideline or tweeting cryptically. The second the team’s trajectory is shaky, when the team is losing? That’s when he gets frustrated. He wants the ball because even when the game is objectively out of his hands, he has to believe it’s still his to grasp. This is, at its core, what people identify as his “diva” behavior.

I don’t think you can “fix” Diggs. What makes him wear on organizations is the same thing that makes him great: the competitive fire, the confidence, the psychopathic devotion to his craft.

As long as you understand the player you’re getting, there shouldn’t be any surprises. Nothing about the way things ended in Buffalo should’ve been a surprise.

Ever since the Bills fled the city and established their home in the outer suburbs (thanks to a rickety WPA stadium falling apart, white flight, and cheap land in Orchard Park), Bills fans have been known for ... is “antics” the polite word? Covering themselves in ketchup and mustard? Drinking a billion beers, doing coke, and leaping naked into a pit

There are lots of reasons why this fan culture exists—the stadium’s in the middle of an empty field with little public transit access, meaning you have to drive, meaning you’re gonna spend hours in the parking lot with nothing to do but binge-drink—and it’s not a new phenomenon, but it really exploded into the broader public consciousness in the social media age (formerly great websites once made a habit of documenting this lunacy, or so I’ve been told). This is when Bills Mafia takes shape on Twitter, when the fandom grows from a minor curiosity to an NFL institution. How many times have you heard Bills fans called “the best in the league” by unaffiliated fans, media figures, or the Zubaz-wearing degenerates themselves? After all, these freaks were lighting folding tables on fire when the team was 7-9; imagine what they’ll do after a Super Bowl!

I believe there’s something special here, too, or at least something different. But if you take that passion and history of losing, then combine it with constant praise and valorization, you end up with a fan culture that’s a little more deluded than special. At some point, Bills Mafia started to believe that they aren’t just unique, but better. And when you think you’re better than everyone else, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking you deserve something. It’s easy to become convinced, for example, that this is the place where a mercurial All-Pro receiver with a short fuse will become not just a champion, but a native son. Stefon Diggs said he wanted to retire here, and we wanted to believe him.

It was all there in the open, if you really let yourself see it. I’m not even talking about cryptic tweets or juicy behind-the-scenes gossip about the breakdown of Allen and Diggs’s relationship; I’m talking about the incident at OTAs, and the murmurs from sports media figures as prominent as Stephen A. Smith. Diggs saw the team’s Super Bowl window closing (thanks to poor coaching decisions, roster mismanagement, etc.) and started acting out, just as he did in Minnesota. While Diggs’s situation here (probably) never got as toxic as it did with the Vikings, there was pretty obvious smoke.

The humiliating thing is, I never believed it, not for a second. As much as I try to pretend like I’m somehow above the median Mafia homer, I still fell victim to the one foundational lie at the heart of this fanbase: that there’s something here that’s better, or more pure than everywhere else. I believed that we “fixed” Diggs somehow, that he was going to retire in royal blue and red. Up until the morning the Bills traded him to the Texans, I believed all sides would figure it out.

What I’ve believed since 2020 is what the majority of Bills fans have, too: that our history of suffering does make us the protagonist of professional sports, the chosen few with a preordained destiny of greatness. The question has never been if, but when. As recently as last week, Bills fans have debated whether or not just one Super Bowl with Josh Allen would satisfy us. 

But the prophesized savior was never just Allen, it was Allen and Diggs, the two-headed god. He was the legitimizing agent in the first place, the divine spark that breathed life into a dead football team. Even as the team jettisoned cornerstone veterans like Mitch Morse, Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, and more, these were pieces you could slot in and out without changing the project. Nobody had Tremaine Edmunds lawn ornaments, but your aunt from Cheektowaga bought a lawn sign that says Allen/Diggs ∞. And she believed it.

Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

I was prompted to write this thing after seeing footage of Diggs working out with C.J. Stroud, which so clearly reminded me of the workouts Allen and Diggs organized that first summer after he was traded from Minnesota. The cycle begins anew; the Texans are going to get the energized Stefon Diggs, one full of excitement and optimism. I’m sure he’ll rebound for the Texans this season, looking more like the player he was in his first three years in Buffalo and less like the one who slumped down the stretch and checked himself out of plays.

And, with zero ill will or irony: I hope Texans fans enjoy this player while they’ve got him. Stefon Diggs is special, and part of what makes him so special is the knowledge that the honeymoon period can’t last forever.

Hey, Bills fans. Let’s chat for a moment, just you and me.

We’re pretty emotional right now, on the whole. I totally get that! Yesterday, I saw a photo of Tre’Davious White in a Los Angeles Rams hat and cried about it. The Diggs trade was just the knockout punch at the end of a brutal four years for us. We’re mourning a championship roster that never was, saying goodbye to a team we imagined—we knew—was good enough to bring a trophy home. We know Allen-and-Diggs could’ve gotten it done because we watched them make magic happen every week.

There are questions, obviously, about whether Diggs is leaving this franchise in worse shape than he found it. The answer will depend, in the near term, on who the Bills replace him with in next week’s draft (please, I beg you, don’t put the new guy’s name on any campaign signs). And even though so much right now is uncertain, I find myself oddly serene, oddly confident. I only realize now that I’ve been taking cues from a familiar face.

What Stefon Diggs brought with him to Buffalo, of course, was confidence. He brought unwavering self-belief, a pure, distilled bravado he could almost always back up. And while he’s gone, that self-assurance is still in my heart. It’s in our hearts. Diggs didn’t bring it here, though; it’s always been in the blood of this town. He just helped us find it again.

The championship window might look closed right now, but I believe—fuck that, I know—we’ll open it again. And we’ll be there, friends, with our folding tables, the 10 a.m. beers, and the wild, irresponsible belief that we’re meant for greatness. Never give an inch. Squish the fucking Fish. It’s what Diggs would want.

It took pain for us to find our purpose, after all. Mentally, none of this shit can phase us. All weapons formed against us will jam. God’s favor is coming.

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