A Look Back At Dreadful Recent History
Poor job of talent evaluation and personnel moves has team spinning its wheels
by Tony Bogyo
November 2, 2006

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve sat down to write about the Bills, so I suppose its time to get back to the keyboard. Events in my personal family life trumped my ability to watch and report on the Lions game. Watching the Patriots game and then living amongst Patriot fans after the drubbing received in Orchard Park really put me off writing. Truth be told, I’ve tired of writing pieces about how Buffalo should have won a game they didn’t or failed to show even a small spark in a game they were expected to lose – after awhile gallows humor thins.

Then there is the dreaded bye week – the time when many Bills fans get reacquainted with things that were back-burnered for the first 7 weeks of the season – household chores, getting together with friends, family, sanity – in short, life itself. This season perhaps the respite was merciful – neither I nor the team appeared ready for another football game a short 7 days after showing so little to so many fans in our own house.

So what’s the problem with the Bills, anyway? It’s been 7 years since we made the playoffs and we still don’t seem to be on the upswing. The salary-capped NFL is supposed to by cyclical, right? When then do we always seem headed for a trough rather than a crest? The answer, I pose, is talent; more specifically, Buffalo’s inability to find and maintain talent on the field.

Over the last 7 years, many teams have gone from rags to riches and vice versa. Chicago and Cincinnati look good this year, while past Super Bowl participants Tampa Bay and Oakland are some of the worst teams in the league. Buffalo has been in the bottom half of the league for years and could actually be one of the worst teams of all this season. Unfortunately, I do not have great hope that next season will see the Bills return to greatness – I believe they are still years away, IF they can do a better job of talent selection.

It seems there are 3 main opportunities to infuse talent into an organization these days – use your top draft picks on guys who play up to their potential and produce as expected, uncover some later round players who produce beyond expectations, and acquire free agents who bring talent commensurate with their reputation/salary. To put it more bluntly – don’t pick high draft pick busts, find some gems late in the draft and get free agents who can play well today, not just on tapes of games past. Buffalo has not done well enough in any of these phases, nor have they held onto the talent they have had and this has mired the team in mediocrity for years.

Let’s take a look at personnel move by the Bills since 2000 – it hasn’t been a pretty picture.

Drafted: DE Erik Flowers, S Travares Tillman, LB Corey Moore, WR Avion Black, RB Sammy Morris, DT Leif Larsen, WR Drew Haddad, LB DaShon Polk.
Notable Free Agent Signings: None
Notable Losses: Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, Sam Gash.
Wow! That is one ugly draft class, huh? My apologies if you were eating when you read that – it’ll make your stomach turn. None of these guys amounted to much of anything. Flowers was supposed to be the replacement for Bruce Smith, but was a complete bust – the defensive line never developed as planned as a result – a tremendous setback to the organization. Corey Moore was one of those guys with great ability in college but seemingly only the Bills failed to see that he didn’t have the skills to succeed at the NFL level. None of the drafted players became reliable starters for the Bills or anyone else - -truly awful. The loss of Thomas, Smith and Reed hurt more emotionally than their loss of talent on the field – each was on the downside of a great career. Sam Gash had been a great blocking fullback and made the Pro Bowl in 1999 – his being cut was puzzling.

Drafted: CB Nate Clements, DE Aaron Schobel, RB Travis Henry, DT Ron Edwards, OT Jonas Jennings, LB Brandon Spoon, OT Marques Sullivan, S Tony Driver, TE Dan O'Leary, CB Jimmy Williams, WR Reggie Germany, DT Tyrone Robertson.
Notable Free Agents: P Brian Moorman, FB Larry Centers
Notable Losses: DT Ted Washington, QB Doug Flutie.
A very solid draft class – the top 3 selections have been quality starters for their careers. Originally drafted to be a Phil Hansen type player to Erik Flowers’ Bruce Smith, Schobel was forced to play the Bruce Smith role. Pass-catching FB Centers was a good addition and Moorman continues to be one of the top punters in the league today. The loss of big Washington hurt tremendously as Pat Williams became the sole big man in the middle in a division with several franchise running backs – Buffalo fell to 27th in the league against the rush. Flutie’s departure turned the ball over to Rob Johnson, a guy who was always hurt and, when healthy, was frequently on his back after being sacked. Handing Rob Johnson the offense was a devastating blow to the organization and a clear example of how poor talent evaluation killed the Bills.

Drafted: OT Mike Williams, WR Josh Reed, DE Ryan Denney, S Coy Wire, DT Justin Bannan, CB Kevin Thomas, OG Mike Pucillo, LB Dominique Stevenson.
Notable Free Agent Signings: QB Drew Bledsoe (trade of 2003 1st round draft pick), LB London Fletcher.
Notable Losses: LB Sam Cowart
Another horrific draft class for the Buffalo Bills, particularly when you consider Williams was drafted at #4 overall. While many teams other than Buffalo believed Williams was a top tackle and would be a solid NFL player, his status as a colossal bust did immeasurable damage to a team desperately in need of premium offensive line talent. Reed has finally grown into a #2 or #3 receiver, but hardly worthy of the #36 pick in the draft. 4 years after the draft Denney has shown some ability, but certainly was not worth trading up for in the draft. The other draftees are not NFL starter quality. The loss of Cowart hurt the Bills but was offset by the acquisition of Fletcher – probably a wash when you look at the talent lost vs. gained (particularly when you factor in the injury Cowart suffered – he was never the same). Drew Bledsoe certainly helped fan morale and sell seats, but he had a very short honeymoon in Buffalo. In the end the Bills simply didn’t have the offensive line talent to maximize an immobile pocket passer.

Drafted: RB Willis McGahee, DE Chris Kelsay, LB Angelo Crowell, DB Terrance McGee, WR Sam Aiken, OG/C Ben Sobieski, DT Lauvale Sape, LB Mario Haggan.
Notable Free Agent Signings: S Lawyer Milloy, FB Sam Gash, K Rian Lindell, DT Sam Adams, LB Takeo Spikes, LB Jeff Posey.
Notable Losses: WR Peerless Price.
A decent draft class and a very active year in free agency. McGahee has proven to be a very good running back and may be a top back in the league – can the Bills hold onto him and give him a decent offensive line to run behind? Crowell has proven to be a solid starting linebacker and McGee has shown he can be an exceptional return man and starting caliber cornerback (although he’s had a terrible year as a corner this season – can he regain his form?). Posey never lived up to expectations and Lawyer Milloy was clearly beyond his best days when in Buffalo (too bad the Bills paid him a huge contract). Lindell has improved to be a very solid kicker now that he’s had more practice with the swirling winds in Buffalo. Adams was a tremendous run stuffer in the middle with Pat Williams – the Bills finished 2nd in the NFL in defense in 2003. Spikes was a tremendous addition to the team both on the field and as a leader, but injuries have slowed him and there are questions about his ability to return to top form. The loss of Price was more than overcome by the first round draft pick ceded by Atlanta (this was used to select McGahee).

Drafted: WR Lee Evans, QB J.P. Losman, DT Tim Anderson, TE Tim Euhus, DT Dylan McFarland, WR Jonathan Smith.
Notable Free Agent Signings: CB Troy Vincent, OG Chris Villarrial, TE Jason Peters.
Notable Losses: FB Sam Gash, QB Alex Van Pelt, CB Antoine Winfield, OG Ruben Brown
2004 was possibly the most important year in the future of the Bills. The Bills made a good choice with their first round pick and finally found a “gem” in Peters. Evans has shown signs of being a very good starting receiver, but has suffered from instability at the quarterback position. Peters, signed as a TE, has blossomed into a good right tackle and is now going to play the premium position of LT. If his development continues and he continues to anchor the offensive line the Bills got a steal out of the undrafted free agent.The jury is still out on Losman – what he does for the remaining games in 2006 will determine whether he’ll stay on with the Bills or whether the Bills will watch another first round draft pick leave the team without living up to expectations. The Bills once again paid for a big name in the secondary whose best years were behind him – they paid cornerback money to a guy who quickly converted to safety. Ruben Brown had a Pro Bowl name but much diminished skills and was replaced by Villarrial who was average on the Bills offensive line (and that’s not saying much). The Loss of Winfield hurt the secondary but he probably wasn’t worth the money it would have taken the Bills to keep him.

Drafted: WR Roscoe Parrish, TE Kevin Everett, C Raymond Preston, CB Eric King, G Justin Geisinger, RB Lionel Gates.
Notable Free Agent Signings: QB Kelly Holcomb, OL Mike Gandy, OL Bennie Anderson.
Notable Losses: DT Pat Williams, QB Drew Bledsoe, OT Jonas Jennings.
Another poor year in the draft. Without a first round draft pick (traded to Dallas to select J.P. Losman in 2004), the Bills drafted a small receiver in Parrish who is really more of a #3 WR (and certainly a luxury pick given the other needs of the team). Bennie Anderson and Mike Gandy were terrible pickups – neither distinguished himself on a very sub-par offensive line and neither is really NFL starter material. The loss of Jennings hurt, but he certainly wasn’t worth the money he got from San Francisco. Bledsoe had worn out his welcome in Buffalo and clearly was no longer the answer under center. The loss of Williams was huge – the Bills suddenly found themselves back to a single wide-body to block up the middle and the run defense suffered. In all, a step backward in terms of talent level.

Drafted: S Donte Whitner, DT John McCargo, CB Ashton Youboty, S Ko Simpson, DT Kyle Williams, OT Brad Butler, OLB Keith Ellison, OT Terrence Pennington, G Aaron Merz.
Notable Free Agent Signings: G Tutan Reyes, QB Craig Nall, WR Peerless Price, TE Robert Royal, C Melvin Fowler, DT Larry Triplett.
Notable Losses: S Troy Vincent, C Trey Teague, LB Jeff Posey, OG Bennie Anderson, WR Eric Moulds, DT Sam Adams, S Lawyer Milloy, OT Mike Williams.
Too early to tell how the 2006 draft class will fare, but Whitner has shown flashes and could be a very good safety – time will tell. McCargo showed little before getting hurt but could still blossom. Simpson and Ellison have played well in extensive playing time this year. Once again, free agents on the offensive line have failed to show much. Royal has been unspectacular but also underutilized. Price was a nice addition as a #2 WR but QB play must improve to get more value from him. Triplett, supposedly the best DT for the Tampa 2 defense the Bills instituted has shown very little to date and has been a disappointment. The loss of Adams leaves the Bills without a big run stuffer and it shows – they are very weak against the run this year. Other losses haven’t hurt too badly as some veterans and their salaries needed to be pared to give younger players a chance.

So there you have it – the last 7 years in Bills personnel moves. Certainly the Bills have made some good moves, but they have also made some bad moves and the overall talent level is too low to make this a playoff team now or in the near future. 2 first round busts killed the defensive and offensive lines – guys who should have been Pro Bowl quality anchors for those units are not here – they never materialized. If Losman does not prove he is the quarterback of the future the list of poor first round selections increases to 3. Far too few second day picks have exceeded expectations – many failed to even live up to being serviceable NFL players. The lack of gems here certainly hurt the Bills. Finally, the free agent signings of the Bills have been very suspect – too many cut rate offensive linemen who weren’t the answer, too many big name guys on the downsides of their careers. The Bills have been unwilling to hold onto proven defensive run stuffers and cornerbacks (many believe Nate Clements will no longer be with the Bills next season) and this has hurt. Going by the formula for talent success I noted earlier, it is not so surprising to see the Bills do as poorly as they have in the recent past – the questions still remains, however – just when will the Bills have the talent to return to the playoffs?