It Might Have Been
Buffalo’s Lost Season.
by Tony Bogyo
November 11, 2003

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
the saddest are these, "It might have been!"

-John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

By the time you read this you’ll probably have read an entire collection of articles talking about Sunday’s crushing loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Unless you’re a serious masochist, you’ve probably had your fill of pundits tell you how bad things were and how the loss effectively closes the Bills hopes on making the playoffs.

I wish I could offer a counterpoint to these sentiments, but I can not. I sit here, rage beneath the surface, as I attempt to digest the swill fed to me on CBS on Sunday afternoon. In the hours that have past I have come to see my rage transform into a deep sadness over the loss of a promising season – It might have been.

It might have been that the Bills lived up to their talent and potential. It might have been that the Bills used the bye week to find the fire they so desperately needed to plot a different course in the second half of the season. It might have been that the Bills atoned for the horrible losses to Philadelphia and the Jets by wining some tough games in the second act of the season. It might have been that an elderly owner saw his investment in the team pay off – win now rather than later. It might have been that members of Bills Nation could hold their heads high again as we did a decade ago.

It might have been.

Some may say that my terminal diagnosis of the team is premature – there are 7 weeks left in the season, after all. While anything could certainly happen, those of us who have followed the Bills for their last 9 games know the end is all but written at this point – it might have been.

Witness a team that has not played up to their level of ability since Week 2. Only two months ago, those first games now seem like they took place decades prior to today. A team that has suffered not just from poor play on the road, but downright ineptitude and paralysis outside of the cozy confines of Ralph Wilson Stadium. Witness a team that is statistically no better in the categories they sought to improve upon in the offseason – takeaways, sacks, yards per game on the ground and big plays. Witness a team that can’t score a touchdown. Witness a team without the personality to go out and make it happen. Witness a team that continually “just needs to execute better”. Witness a team that knows it’s all over for this year.

If the bye week didn’t get the Bills to do any productive soul searching, perhaps their fifth loss will. Sure, you still have to prepare for and play the next 7 games, but with an outcome all but certain it does afford one the time to look into next year.

Certainly the coaching must change. Bills fans have shown they are unwilling to support the ineptitude and arrogance of the current regime. Tom Donahoe may have been able to keep Bills Nation at arms length a few weeks ago when he refused to consider a petition to dump Gregg Williams, but he’s intelligent to know that he can’t survive if he keeps the current team of mental midgets aboard any longer than necessary – even Ralph Wilson won’t stand for that.

What kind of coaching staff takes two weeks to field the type of shoddy game plan we saw against Dallas? What kind of coaching staff gets blitzed like Pearl Harbor in the first half and comes out in the second half without making any adjustments to the pass blocking or scheming some plays to beat the blitz? What type of coaching staff calls 2 consecutive runs only once in the entire game? What type of coaching staff allows a running game averaging 4 yards per carry take a backseat to a passing game averaging 3 yards per completion? What type of coaching staff, faced with a 3rd and 10 situation late in the game calls a two-yard out pattern? What type of coaching staff allows their players to looked scared and shaken every Sunday? What kind of coaching staff invariably lacks the answers week after week?

Tom Donahoe must take some of the blame for bringing in a coaching staff that can’t get the job done and one that fails to utilize the tools they were given. How maddening is it to see one of the best blocking fullbacks in the game, Sam Gash, get split wide as a receiver week after week? If the Bills wanted a pass catching fullback they should have kept Larry Centers – he’s the best there is in that aspect of the game. Simply put, the Bills coaching staff is not buying into the smash mouth football philosophy upon which its personnel decisions were made. If nothing else, Kevin Gilbride should be fired for insubordination – it’s clear his bosses in the front office wanted a power running offense, not a group dying with a floundering passing game.

Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that Drew Bledsoe has been average at best in his tenure in Buffalo. He’s put butts in seats, brought excitement to the fans and has shown us all what a class act he is in his personal life, but he hasn’t put up a winning record. He has shown that he is inconsistent – he can carry a team on his back or he can single-handedly bring it to its knees. For the most part he’s predictably inconsistent – fair to great at home and abysmal on the road.

Bledsoe failed to drive the team to a touchdown on Sunday, the 17th consecutive quarter on the road without hitting pay dirt. He fumbled twice while being brought down – both as a result of trying to make something happen when all hope was lost. In his last four away games he has thrown 6 interceptions, had 5 fumbles and thrown no touchdowns – that’s a –11 turnover to touchdown ratio. In that stretch he has thrown for an average of 139 yards a game which is even more dismal than it looks when you consider in each case the team was playing from behind and the buffoon calling the offensive plays is obsessed with passing. These stats are worse than Rob Johnson’s, and he’s barely playing backup for a struggling Raiders team now.

Perhaps it is time to realize that our scouting may not be as good as it should be. The Bills brought in a number of big names (Sam Adams, Lawyer Milloy, Takeo Spikes) who have not lived up to their reputations. Lesser-known players who were supposed to have the talent to shine (Jeff Posey, Chris Kelsay) have been virtually invisible this season. Perhaps it is time we stopped drafting projects on the offensive and defensive lines – guys with “good motors” who just aren’t panning out. Perhaps it is time to admit that better coaches (Bill Belichick) knew what they were doing when they jettisoned some of their top names in exchange for younger players with smaller salaries.

Perhaps it is time to realize that this team desperately needs a pass rusher to pressure opposing quarterbacks. The Bills have been woeful at harassing opposing signal-callers and it has hurt them – give a guy like Trent Green or even Quincy Carter some time and he’ll hurt you.

Perhaps it is time to realize that the offensive line is one of the worst in the NFL. Ruben Brown has been overrated for years, and Mike Williams has yet to show just why he was such a high draft pick with a high price tag. Trey Teague is not a center. Sullivan and Jennings are average at best – if they were to leave the Bills they would likely not be starters elsewhere.

Perhaps it is time to jump into next year right now by firing the coaching staff and playing some younger guys who need the time. Anything sacrificed this year may well pay dividends next year and a coaching change would at least show that the organization is serious about winning, even if that means next year rather than the present.

Next year may not be as kind to the Bills. New England is the pacesetter in the division and they may only get stronger when they get some of their players back from injury next year. The Dolphins may also be a tougher team if they spend time with their talented but inconsistent quarterback and get over their reluctance to feed Ricky Williams the ball 30+ times per game (were Kevin Gilbride and Norv Turner separated at birth? Why the aversion to the run?). The Jets with a full season of Chad Pennington and Santana Moss are certainly due to put up better numbers in the win column as well.

The window of opportunity in today’s NFL is very short. The salary cap brought about parity and the demise of the dynasty. You can’t keep a group of highly talented players together for long – eventually they want more money than you can give. Ralph Wilson made the decision to win now and take a shot at going the distance by bringing in guys who had the talent and the paychecks (not a bad move for a man in his 80’s), but the opportunity now seems lost.

Starting back at square one again next year hurts – it hurts badly to abandon a plan that must be executed quickly. There’s a good chance that the window will close and the Bills will be rebuilding again before they have it all together enough to make a run at a championship.

It might have been. It might have been.