Did Bills drop the ball on a Dockery trade?

On Thursday morning - approximately fourteen hours prior to the start of the free agent signing period - word came out of Buffalo that the Bills had released veteran OG Derrick Dockery.  A little more than 24 hours later, Dockery landed back in Washington on a 5-year, $27 million deal with a little more than $8 million guaranteed.

According to reports from the Washington Post (here) and ESPN.com's John Clayton (here), however, the Bills reportedly blew a potential trade for Dockery in a big way.

The Scenario
We heard on Friday, and it was confirmed in the Post's piece, that Dockery was set to collect on a bonus of some sort (roster, incentive or otherwise, it matters very little) once 4PM hit on Thursday.  If Post figures are accurate - and there's no reason to believe they aren't - Dockery was set to be paid $4.5 million; approximately $1.75 million of that figure is believed to be the bonus.  Combined with his dramatically reduced level of play from 2007 to 2008, these were the deciding factors in Buffalo choosing to move on without Dockery.

Prior to that 4PM deadline (and it was a deadline in the sense that if the Bills still retained his rights at that time, Dockery would collect the bonus), the Bills had reportedly worked out a trade with the Detroit Lions for Dockery's services - and even more surprising, the Lions were ready to pick up the rest of Dockery's deal and guarantee his salaries in '09 and '10, according to the Post.  Says Clayton...

The Bills didn't place Dockery on the waiver wire, and there had been interest by the Detroit Lions in acquiring him in a trade.  Dockery flew to Detroit Friday for a visit and a physical.

The next step in the process, as reported in both stories, is that the Bills failed to submit the paperwork on the trade by the 4PM deadline.  We'll let the Post handle this one...

However, the Bills failed to file the necessary paperwork with the NFL Management Council by the 4 p.m. deadline, according to a league source, and, rather than pay Dockery $4.5 million for this year, the Bills allowed him to become a free agent.

From there, Dockery was released (which still requires paperwork, by the way), the Lions and the Redskins bid for his services, the Lions offered more money (reportedly the deal he had in place in Buffalo but with more guarantees), but Dockery ultimately chose to reunite with his former team in Washington.

And that's that.  We feel sure that the reports are accurate, though there are still questions to be asked (and we'll get to them momentarily).  Even without answers to the ultra-important questions, these reports are undoubtedly a PR nightmare for a Bills front office that's on a zero-tolerance policy with this fan base.

The unanswered questions
It seems impossible that the degree of incompetency which Clayton and the Post assigns to the Bills here even exists.  It's so hard to believe, in fact, that I'm hesitant to do so without a little more information coming to light.  Particularly, I'd love to hear more information on the following topic.

Did the Lions do something shrewdly?

I believe that there is at least a possibility that the Lions knew that Buffalo was in a bind.  Obviously having agreed to pick up Dockery's contract, they were aware of its parameters, including the bonus that the Bills owed him in a matter of hours.  It's entirely possible - and incredibly intelligent on the part of the Lions - that Detroit simply "agreed" to a trade to get Dockery in the facilities, slap him into a room with their doctors and get a free visit with him before forcing Buffalo's hand.  Why on earth would they agree to trade anything for Dockery when they knew that the Bills would end up releasing him anyway?

More importantly, did the Lions get Dockery in town, "get" cold feet on the deal, and knowingly back out prior to the 4PM deadline?  That seems like a sure way to avoid compensating Buffalo for the player, forcing the Bills to release the player, and having Dockery right in town to try to coerce him into a free agent deal.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's probable that that's what went down.  Obviously, the Bills got the shaft, but ultimately, so did Detroit.

Ultimately, we may never know exactly what went down.  It's important to realize, however, that the Bills were working on a tight deadline, and the market for Dockery's services was small, mostly due to his contract.  Detroit likely played this one shrewdly to get a soon-to-be free agent into town - they are, after all, the Lions; their new regime has to be creative to get players to sign onto a franchise that hasn't won a game since 2007.  Regardless of the validity of this theory of mine, this is a PR disaster for the Bills, and with the timing of the story matching up with a less than thrilling first day of free agency, there are going to be a lot of angry fans.  My advice: don't forget about this story, but don't pass judgment yet, either.  There's more to this story than the reports indicate; hopefully, we'll hear more about this in the coming days.

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