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On Shocking Picks and Christmas Ghosts
A humorous commentary on the McGahee pick.
by Tony Bogyo
Bills Daily Correspondent
Apr. 28, 2003

“With the 23rd pick of the first round, the Buffalo Bills select running back Willis McGahee of the University of Miami”
-Paul Taglibue, NFL Commissioner

“Was there anybody in Buffalo that wasn’t in shock?”
-Tom Donahoe, Bills General Manager

The pick was made, and it shocked everyone. Far beyond Buffalo, every last member of the Bills faithful was stunned. Fans went speechless. Others could only repeat the word “wow” for minutes or even hours on end. Emergency rooms treated people for severe jaw bruising – seems like you’ll do some damage if your jaw falls all the way from your face to the floor.

It seemed pretty simple prior to the draft. The Bills had been very active in the off-season, shoring up a defense that ranked statistically near the bottom in a number of categories. A stud linebacker, Takeo Spikes, was lured from the woeful Bengals. Run stuffer Sam Adams was signed to a workable contract. Pass rushing linebacker Jeff Posey was signed minutes into the free agency period. Izell Reese was added to help in the secondary. Indeed, this would be a stouter defense in 2003, but there was still a need to go after some big men on the defensive line. Adams and Pat Williams would need someone to rotate in on downs to help block up the middle. A top pass rusher to pressure opposing quarterbacks would do wonders for the defensive takeaways. And this draft was deep in defensive linemen. Yes, it would be a defensive lineman at number 23.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Bills pick in the first round – 9 defensive linemen were taken in the first 18 picks of the draft. By the time the Bills selected they might have had to take the 5th best defensive end on their board or the 6th best defensive tackle. Drafniks projected more than 9 defensive linemen worthy of first round consideration – so what if some of them were gone at number 23? – Surely someone would be there to fill the need.

As the Bills went onto the clock I drew closer to my TV set. Chris Kelsay? Rien Long? Mel Kiper liked those guys – they must be good. Then the camera shot broke to Willis McGahee talking on the phone. Damn telemarketers – a guy is waiting to be drafted on national TV and someone is trying to sell him vinyl siding – man, those guys are annoying. The Commissioner stepped up to the podium and said something that sounded like it was in slow motion or in a huge tin can or both. He said that the Bills had taken Willis McGahee – the college phenom with the bum knee. They guy who suffered a “gruesome” (is this term completely overused for this particular incident?) injury in the last few minutes of the Fiesta Bowl. The rubber band that powers my mind snapped and my wife gave me that “Are you OK? I’m going to call 9-1-1 now” look.

In hindsight we should have known this was possible. After all, Tom Donahoe said what countless other general managers and coaches say prior to draft day – we’ll take the best guy on the board when it comes time to pick. What this usually means is “we’ll take the best guy on the board when we pick, so long as it’s a position we really need”. Funny how the best available player in the draft can sometimes be the consensus third best tight end if a team really needs a tight end and two have been selected already. Donahoe seems to have missed the memo and took his own words literally – wow.

So the Bills didn’t take a defensive lineman. They might have taken another receiver to compensate for the departed Peerless Price or even a tight end to replace Jay Riemersma. You can never have enough big men on either side of the ball – any lineman could have been the pick. But somewhere the Bills draft board showed Willis McGhee was by far the best player available at number 23 and before you know it that guy is wearing a Bill hat.

This wasn’t a “throw-away” pick. The Bills were obviously very high on McGahee. At number 23 he represented a player head and shoulders above others at their respective positions, even if those positions represented areas of relative need for the club. The draft experts all said that McGahee would be taken by a team that was already set at running back and could afford to develop the injured star patiently as he rehabbed his knee. Were not the Bills just such a team? Everything fell into place for this pick, - lack of value on the defensive line, stability of current running back situation, ability to be patient, belief in taking the best available athlete regardless of position. And yet we were all stunned because none of us saw it coming – like the Iraqis who believed their own Information Minister while U.S. troops marched into Baghdad. Like it or not, upon closer examination its not as far-fetched as originally thought.

Ok, now what? What’s the best possible outcome in this situation? This is where the crystal ball starts to get cloudy. It’s like the dog that chases cars all the time and finally catches one – be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. Undoubtedly, the Bills hope that current running back Travis Henry continues his high level of play. Coming off a Pro Bowl season as the fifth best back in the league, Henry is surely a premium player. Fumbling problems aside, the Bills ponied up some money last week to extend his contract - a vote of confidence for a guy they don’t want to let slip away. The Bills also undoubtedly hope that McGahee returns to his old record-breaking form and becomes the top running back people have compared to Walter Payton. So now the Bills have two top guys. The options are things all Bills fans have seen in the past:

1. Tom Donahoe proclaims that there is no “#1 running back” on the team. Instead, there are now “1A” and “1B” backs and both guys are highly valued. What he doesn’t say is that there is no way you can pay a “1A” and “1B” guy at the position with today’s salary cap unless everyone else on the team pulls in only slightly more than the guy who makes sure all the cups are filled with Gatorade on game days.

2. One running back is the starter and the other guy sits on the bench. Each will be paid a good sum and one guy will gradually get more vocal about “saving the franchise” and then being made to ride the pine. The team will split as players begin to side with one back or the other. With any luck, one back will be injury prone but will retain his starting position on the few occasions he is healthy and the pouting back will eventually exit to San Diego.

3. Running back by committee. Neither guy is happy because he can’t put up big numbers and go to the Pro Bowl or get his own video game. Fantasy football players deluge One Bills Drive with hate mail and pleas to “just pick somebody – you’re killin’ my fantasy team”.

Somewhere around Christmas I expect Tom Donahoe to be visited by three ghosts, each representing one of the above scenarios. When he awakes on Christmas morning he’ll have discovered that there is actually a fourth scenario – one where the Bills trade one of their running back studs to another team for multiple high draft picks a la Ricky Williams. The team builds a dynasty with these draft picks and the remaining stud running back, the Bills win at least one Super Bowl, and Tiny Tim gets funding for a new crutch. We can only hope that this is what actually happens and that this is the master plan of the Bills brain trust. If it does unfold this way there will be a happy nation of Bills fans.

God bless us, every one.

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