Fess up, Bills fans – you probably expected that we would be 0-3 after facing the Patriots on Sunday.
Despite losing two winnable games in the first two weeks and having a bye in week 3 to regroup, most knew that the Patriots would pose the biggest challenge of the young 2004 season. It was a game we could win, but chances are we wouldn’t. It would take a flawless game from the Bills and/or poor ply by the defending Super Bowl champs to equate to the Bills first victory this year.
I myself held out hope of a Bills victory when the team started out with some big plays. The Patriots were backed up to a first-and -35 situation on their first possession, but the much-hyped Bills defense got beat on the big play and the Patriots scored on the opening drive.
Not to be outdone, Drew Bledsoe came out throwing – a 55-yard strike to Lee Evans, the play we had all been waiting for. By the time the teams went to the locker room at the end of the first half tied at 17 I thought that the Bills might actually have a shot at winning. Could it be possible to face my colleagues in my Boston-area office on Monday with a smile on my face?
It was not to be. Although I expected the outcome, the ray of hope the Bills created for me early in the game served only to lift me to a higher platform from which to fall. Had we been beat from the very get-go I would have probably taken it better – the smug confidence of knowing that I had indeed predicted the outcome of the game before it had been played would have given my ego some boost.
The destructive fashion by which the Bills lost – penalties, miscues, penalties, big plays, penalties, turnovers, penalties, bad luck, (did I mention penalties?) – really got me going. Sure I was upset that the Bills remained winless, but this time I was really angry over the loss. Judging from the reaction of other Bills fans, I wasn’t the only one.
Surely someone’s to blame for the current state of the Buffalo Bills. Surely there’s a reason why I’m going prematurely bald watching these games when male pattern baldness does not run in my family. Surely you can point to some things that are wrong and can be changed in time to salvage this terrible season. Yes indeed, it’s time to direct some of this pent-up anger towards responsible parties and let them know, in the immortal words of Peter Finch, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!
So, who’s to blame? Who is responsible for the Bills losing their last 6 games? Who is responsible for the team being 17-34 since 2001? Who is responsible for ensuring the word ‘Bills’ is never mentioned with the term ‘playoff team’? Let’s take a look at the candidates for the title of scapegoat king/bringer of weekly indigestion.
Drew Bledsoe, Quarterback: Here’s an easy choice – everyone’s favorite whipping boy - the man with the ball in his hands, the man in control of the offense (or lack thereof), the man who is 14-21 as a Bills starter. Only 5 of those wins have been outside of Orchard Park, a terrible road record. Bledsoe has been sacked 118 times since his debut as a Bill, enough to cause anyone to have posttraumatic stress disorder. Whether he’s causing a turnover, standing like a statue in the pocket or doing his best Rob Johnson impersonation,
Bledsoe certainly takes much of the blame for the recent downfall of the Buffalo Bills. The Bills gave up a first round draft choice for a quarterback who played a good half of his first season before spiraling downward. The Patriots knew Bledsoe didn’t have much left in the tank and the Bills didn’t have the personnel to get the most out of what was left so they felt comfortable trading him to a divisional rival (also the only team willing to part with a first round draft choice). At least Bledsoe got the fans excited and buying tickets.
As much as I hate to admit it (I’m a guy with an official Bledsoe jersey so I’ve got money invested in him), I think it’s time to admit that Bledsoe is no longer a guy who can get the job done. He’s a pocket passer of yesteryear who simply isn’t mobile enough for the speed and athleticism of today’s NFL. Perhaps he would fare better on a team with a better offensive line, but the rule seems to be that if you have limited mobility in the pocket today you’ll have limited success as a starting quarterback. Bledsoe’s been hit too many times – he looks shell-shocked. He’s lost his ability to make good reads on a consistent basis and make even simple throws when he does have the time. Mentally, he must hear the footsteps that have all too often been there on previous drop backs. He can still make plays from time to time, but he’s not consistent enough to get the job done. For every 55 yard pass on the money to a downfield receiver there are 4 sacks, an interception and a fumble – a losing ratio. The Bills realize this and drafted J.P. Losman, giving up a first round pick next year for him (at this rate it will be a top 10 pick they traded away). It is quite possible the rookie will see substantial playing time later in the season if the Bills continue to lose and the youngster’s broken leg heals enough – it’s time to end the Bledsoe era and start training for the Losman era.
The Offensive Line: Another favorite of irate Bills fans, the offensive line over the past 2+ seasons has been well below par. When you bring a lead-footed quarterback like Bledsoe into the fold you have to have a very solid pass blocking offensive line to protect him. The Bills of the Bledsoe era have never been close to being up to the job. Since 2002 seasons the Bills have ranked 31st and 32nd in sacks allowed – not all of that is the quarterback’s fault. Through 3 games in 2004 the Bills have given up 15 sacks, tied with the Arizona Cardinals (although the Cardinals have played 4 games) – the worst in the NFL.
The Bills have done little to address the systemic problems on the offensive line, drafting only one offensive lineman prior to the fifth round, a #4 overall pick in Mike Williams. Williams has been a bust to this point in his career – playing at only an average level. If you draft a guy in the top five picks and sign him to a $39 million contract anything less than outstanding play is a bust. Williams should be making the Pro Bowl, not coming to camp out of shape and not mentally ready to play. If the Bills scouted character in their draft picks they certainly missed the boat on this guy.
The Bills have also had some very poor offensive line coaching over the past few years. Carl Mauck (no relation to the Mike Myers character Fat Bastard), Ronnie Vinklarek and Pat Ruel certainly didn’t do much to improve the Bills up front. If you believe the hype Jim McNally is a top offensive line coach, but a chef is only as good as his ingredients. Simply put, you can’t make a gourmet meal out of Hamburger Helper, even if you paid $39 million for the hamburger.
They say that football starts and ends in the trenches – until Buffalo makes some commitment to building up the offensive line to a respectable level the team will be mired in mediocrity.
Coaching: The person most directly responsible for the success or failure of a football team is the head coach and the coaches he brings in under him. Here too the Bills have fared poorly since the departure of Marv Levy. Gregg Williams (apologies to anyone named Gregg, but the double ‘g’ at the end of his name annoys me to no end) got his first shot as a head coach with the Buffalo Bills in 2001 and helped regress the team in his three years at the helm.
By multiple accounts, Williams had a great interview process before being named head coach, beating out other contenders like John Fox and Marvin Lewis. After an 8-8 season with Wade Phillips as coach, the fans were energized that a new man was coming to bring the Bills back to the playoffs. The team went 3-13 in Williams’ first season and it soon became apparent that the new guy was in over his head.
Williams never seemed to click with his players or the fans. After a loss he would take questions from the press and repeat the mantra that the players simply needed to execute. It wasn’t bad coaching; it was players not making plays. When questioned about coaching Williams would disdainfully answer implying that he knew far more than the questioner and was being subjected to stupid inquires.
Williams was certainly stubborn. When offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride ran the team into the ground with game plans ill-suited for the personnel on the roster and a never-ending love affair with Drew Bledsoe’s arm, Williams failed to step in and take responsibilities away from his coordinator. Fans, the press and even players knew that the offensive game plans were the reason for the lack of offensive success, but still Williams refused to change course. Williams seemingly had no control over the situation and was let go after the 2003 season (to nobody’s surprise, he failed to get another head coaching job and today his job responsibilities are limited to the defensive side of the ball).
Instead of learning from the mistakes of the past, the Bills opted to offer another young coordinator his first shot at becoming an NFL head coach when they selected Mike Mularkey in 2004. While it is still very early in the Mularkey era, the new guy is showing striking similarities to his predecessor.
Few of the problems from 2003 have been solved with the new coach. There is an amazing lack of discipline on the team, even with seasoned veterans on both sides of the ball. Penalty flags rain down like lake-effect snow in the southtowns in January. After coming off a bye last week you would think the coach would have been able to eliminate some of the stupid penalties and miscues the Bills suffered in their first two games, but they instead increased. The play calling was also suspect – why in the world would anyone in their right mind feel that they could run Bledsoe on a bootleg to convert a 4th and 3 situation late in the game? In case you haven’t noticed, Bledsoe can’t run and the line can’t block – if Mularkey hasn’t seen that from all the film study he’s done he’s a far worse coach than anyone thought. I’m still willing to give the man from Pittsburgh more time to prove himself as the coach, but things need to change and need to change now. The fans are tired of following a losing team and seeing pathetic game after pathetic game.
Tom Donahoe, General Manager: One man from Pittsburgh who is not new and whose time is running short is Tom Donahoe. Whether you assign blame to any or all of the above candidates all can be tied back to the current president and general manger of the Bills. After 3+ years, the Bills have had little success and the problems start at the top.
In my personal life I hold a management position in my company and am responsible for making many hiring decisions. As a hiring manager I can tell you that selecting the best people for your team is the most important decision you can make – it directly leads to your success. Nothing hurts you as badly as making poor personnel decisions – make bad decisions on people and you’re bound to fail.
Simply put, Tom Donahoe has made some very poor personnel decisions that are directly responsible for the current state of the Buffalo Bills.
In 2001 Donahoe drafted four players who are now solid contributors to the team – Nate Clements, Travis Henry, Aaron Schobel and Jonas Jennings. This was arguably his only solid draft – players drafted on day one of the draft produced as expected.
In 2002 the bad decisions started. On draft day Donahoe traded away a 2003 first round pick for Bledsoe. Many wondered why the Bills were the only team to offer a first round draft pick for the quarterback and many more wondered why the Patriots would trade him to a division rival. We now know why – Tom Donahoe thought much more highly of Bledsoe than anyone else and it now appears his assessment was wrong. Day one of the 2002 draft also produced 4 players who currently see playing time today but have not lived up to expectations – bad value picks: Williams, Josh Reed, Ryan Denney and Coy Wire.
The draft of 2003 brought the most shocking draft pick in recent draft history. Using the first round draft pick acquired from Atlanta for Peerless Price, Donahoe and company drafted Willis McGahee, an injured running back out of Miami. While the jury is still out on McGahee’s recovery and ability to perform at the NFL, the selection of a running back was questionable at best. Buffalo already had a solid running back in Travis Henry and it has become apparent that Henry and McGahee cannot exist on the same team beyond the current year. When one is traded after this season his price will likely be reduced because other teams know the Bills have to sell.
The jury is out on the 2004 draft – it’s simply too early to tell whether any of the players drafted will live up to expectations.
Aside from poor draft picks and player personnel decisions, Tom Donahoe caused substantial harm to the team by making poor coaching decisions. The Gregg Williams experiment was a horrible failure that set the team back multiple years as it looked to return to the playoffs. He followed it up by hiring another rookie coach in Mike Mularkey – a risky move that thus far has not paid any dividends and has done little to transform the team from its losing ways of last season.
Although Tom Donahoe was touted as a front office genius when he joined the Bills, he has made decisions that have retarded the growth of the team as they try to grow back to a successful team. At this point it’s hard to keep looking at failures on the field and thinking that the right decisions have been made to put the Bills back on track. For his inability to make the decisions to allow the Bills to take the next step in their development Tom Donahoe needs to go.
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