Every so often we all get a sense of Déjà vu, and for me, Saturday was one of those days. It felt much like April 26, 2003 when an NFL official stepped up to the podium in New York and said, “With the 23rd pick of the 2003 draft, the Buffalo Bills select running back Willis McGahee from Miami”. I still have a scar from where my jaw hit the ground and I reinjured it when I received a text message from the Bills at 5:45pm – “The Buffalo Bills have called a 6:15 press conference”. I knew instantly what it was about, and I couldn’t believe it. Aside from my aching jaw I felt like my head was going to explode like something out of the movie “Scanners”.
Free agency had started frustratingly slow for Buffalo last week. Fans like me were disillusioned with the way the 2008 season ended and the retention of Dick Jauron as head coach. Having decent cap money to spend even under Buffalo’s “cash to cap” system and with owner Ralph Wilson placing the blame for the Bills’ poor performance on a lack of talent, many thought the Bills were in place to make a splash in free agency.
The splash never came. The Bills hosted several free agents who left without contracts and did not entertain some of the premiere free agents Bills fans believed could shore up several positions of need. After a week of visits the Bills had signed Geoff Hangartner, a utility offensive lineman who may not have started for his former team, Drayton Florence, a cornerback coming off a poor 2008 season, and Ryan Fitzpatrick, a perennial backup quarterback. For a team with an admitted lack of talent Buffalo certainly wasn’t taking tremendous steps to address that issue.
No sooner had Terrell Owens been released from the Dallas Cowboys, than the usual suspects on fan message boards suggested the Bills acquire the malcontent receiver. Never happen, I thought. The Bills, ever the team of high character guys, would never bring in a player as flashy and controversial s Owens. Sure, Owens was arguably the best wide receiver talent available this year and the Bills needed a legitimate second option at that position, but they were busy signing Ivy League grads of questionable talent. They may not amaze you on the field with their football talent, but the Bills were not going to let anyone have a better discussion of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in the locker room after the game.
Many have called the Owens deal bold – it is not. The deal is dramatic unexpected and shocking, but not bold. A bold deal would have been signing someone to a huge 6 year contract, putting a stake in the ground that someone out there was going to be part of the team as they build for and realize the next level of success. The Bills are more than a single year away from greatness – a bold move is putting money into solving that problem in the long term.
So why DID the Bills make such a dramatic move on Saturday by signing Owens to a 1 year, $6.5 million deal? Was it a good move? Are fans right to be euphoric about this development? To answer these questions you need to look beyond the surface of the move – once you cut through the hype the answers become quite clear.
I’m thrilled that the Bills front office finally showed some sign of life this offseason. I had feared that the team had given up and thrown in the towel, content to complain about lack of talent rather than actually do anything about it. It’s a startling move, but one that shows the Bills have some fight.
Overall, I believe signing Owens is more hype than substance. I know I’ll get blasted for that from euphoric Bills fans getting T.O. tattoos – see me in December and we’ll have a conversation.
Make no mistake about it, bringing Owens to Buffalo is a fantastic marketing move for the team. It puts Buffalo back on the NFL map – suddenly people are talking about the Bills and they should continue to see national interest in the team now that Owens is a part of the Bills. Need proof that the Bills are planning on reaping the marketing benefits of signing Owens? Within an hour of announcing the receiver as the newest Bill the team broadcast that they would be extending the hours of the ticket office the next day. Less than 24 hours after the press conference the Bills e-mailed their list of fans to let them know they could pre-order Terrell Owens jerseys, a bold move considering those jerseys have the shelf life of one season.
From a marketing perspective I like the Owens signing. If the Bills can convince people to buy tickets, jerseys, bobblehead dolls and self-help books I’m all for that – small market teams need all the revenue they can generate. The Bills lack star power on a national level that allow other teams to generate revenue – Owens allows them to tap into streams that have long been reserved for teams like New England, Washington, and the Giants.
From a football perspective I am not a huge fan of the Owens deal. How I ultimately feel about it will depend on the 2009 season – if things go poorly (and there’s ample opportunity for that) I’ll hate the deal, but even if things go very well I’m going to have a hard time loving it. There is simply too much possible downside to the Owens deal and not enough upside to make this a good football deal.
The downside risks to signing Owens are tremendous. The team lacks the coaching staff and player leadership to withstand a major flare-up of Owen’s volatile personality. If Owens decides to throw one of his legendary tantrums do you honestly think Jauron or Trent Edwards is going to force him back into line? Jauron isn’t exactly the most forceful personality to ever be a Bills head coach, and most of the players are too young and star struck to challenge his antics (its hard to step up to a guy who lead you fantasy football team to the league championship when you were in high school in 2000). With Owens’ entire contract guaranteed, if he tires of the work and wants to phone it in he won’t be losing any money.
Do I think it’s likely that Owens will become an off-field distraction or a lazy player? Not likely, but possible. Owens knows there’s a reason he’s playing for a small market team for less money that some other free agent wide receivers. He knows he has to audition for bigger things to come next season or face the possibility his paychecks and opportunities may be limited or non-existent in 2010. In theory he should be a guy trying to prove how well he can be a team guy and how much value he can be both on and off the field, but a volatile personality is just that – volatile.
Rather than focus on the possible negative, let’s look at the possible positive. Let’s look at a best case scenario for 2009. Owens proves to not be an off-field distraction and has a season on par with the best of his career – 1500 yards and 16 touchdowns. We all know that sets Owes up nicely for 2010, but what does it do for the Bills? Not enough, in my opinion. In this scenario the Bills offense is more potent and entertaining than it has been in years, but I think it is crazy to think that it translates into the four more wins the Bills need to make it to the playoffs. I don’t care how good Owens is, the Bills are too many players away from 11 wins, especially in a division where other teams either have (New England) or are building (Miami, Jets) good stores of talent.
The Bills pass rush is in need of a complete overhaul, especially if Aaron Schobel does not return to form. The secondary is counting on Florence to be as good as the departed Jabari Greer. The linebacking corps needs shoring up. The offensive line needs to maintain or improve its performance from last year and is currently lacking a left guard. Owens can be a great receiver, but he isn’t going to solve these problems and it is questionable whether the Bills can make all the necessary improvements.
I have my doubts that Owens puts up career numbers in Buffalo. I believe the jury is still out on Edwards – 2009 is going to show whether he’s Jim Kelly or JP Losman. I certainly would not yet put him in the same league as Owens’ last 3 quarterbacks – Tony Romo, Donovan McNabb and Jeff Garcia. The supporting cast around the Bills (both offensively and defensively) also isn’t as strong as it was on some of Owens’ former teams.
Don’t get me wrong – I’d love to see T.O. put up career numbers as a Bill and I’ll be cheering for him to do it, but even if it does what does it get the team beyond next season? The answer – nothing. Owens will be in high demand by A-list teams and I don’t see any way the Bills can afford to re-sign him in that scenario. I’d bet my Whammy Weenie that Owens’ contract with the Bills includes a no franchise clause, assuring that he can escape Buffalo after one year. Frankly, I don’t see how Owens would choose to stay in Buffalo when bigger, flashier teams come calling – it’s just not going to happen. Then what happens? James Hardy steps in in 2010 and puts up similar numbers leading Bills fans everywhere to say, “Terrell Who?” Is anyone that delusional?
So, while Owens is a good marketing deal, it is not the fantastic football deal that is creating fan euphoria. Does it surprise anyone that the Bills front office is run by marketing folks and not football folks? The Bills front office would like nothing better than to confuse you into believing that this deal changes everything from a football perspective, but it doesn’t. The Bills may (and I stress MAY) be able to improve upon 3 consecutive 7-9 seasons, but at the end of December we’ll be where we have been for the last decade – looking at other teams in the playoffs. Don’t be fooled or blinded by the hype – this deal embodies the current Bills front office – it’s about marketing, not football. Nothing wrong with good marketing, but don’t confuse it with good football. The sooner we realize that the easier it will be to stomach another year missing the post season. Owens will likely help the Bills off the field increasing revenue and on the field beefing up an anemic offense, but he is not going to take the Bills to the Promised Land – be thankful he is here, but please withhold from nicknaming him Moses.