There are a number of reasons the Buffalo Bills have been inept throughout the last decade, but failure in the draft stands out brighter than any other. These series of articles explore how the failures of the Buffalo Bills’ drafts from 2001 through 2010 have left a team bankrupt of talent, and one of the laughing stocks of the National Football League.
The 2003 season started off clicking on absolutely all cylinders. Despite an incredibly strange draft choice in Willis McGahee, (who would sit out the year recovering from a knee injury) Buffalo had a fairly productive off-season. Linebackers Jeff Posey and Takeo Spikes came aboard, as well as DT Sam Adams. Buffalo also picked up tight end Mark Campbell (who they hoped would replace Jay Riemersma), WR Bobby Shaw (to help soften the Peerless Price loss) and kicker Rian Lindell came aboard from the Seahawks.
The coup, however, was Lawyer Milloy. Just cut from the hated Patriots, Milloy signed with the Bills just three days before the home opener against New England.
The defense had new, better personnel and the unit looked much improved. The offense had suffered some loses, but there was hope that the team could produce at most of the level it had the year before.
Buffalo, on the whole, looked like they should be a better team.
For those that don’t know, the Buffalo Bills absolutely walloped the New England Patriots, 31-0. Week 1 was felt like a huge coming out party for the Buffalo Bills and their fans, complete with a Sports Illustrated cover featuring Sam Adams.
No chink in the armor could be detected the following week either, as Buffalo rolled through Jacksonville by a score of 38-17.
Reality began to set in during weeks 3 and 4, with Buffalo losing two straight to go to .500. Buffalo would play a game of "win one, lose one" until the break, when a refreshed and ready Bills team promptly lost three straight, posted two wins, and dropped three more to finish 6-10. The capper was a 31-0 loss the New England Patriots, the first of fourteen (and counting) in a row to bring the season full circle.
Despite the promising start, "setback" was the only word that applied.
The Bills defense that year did make strides-though it would have been hard not to improve on the 2001 and 2002 defense. The team gave up 118 fewer points than the year before, and around 800 fewer yards (300 passing/500 yards rushing). The problem was the offense, which shaved more than 150 points, and 1200ish yards, off of its 2002 total.
Travis Henry (who had the specter of Willis McGahee hanging over him) ran for a comparable 1356 yards, 10 TDs and 4.1 Y/A (2002 was 1438 for 13 TDs and 4.4). Arguably his numbers suffered slightly because the team was playing from behind and throwing a bit more.
The passing game, however, was not nearly as dynamic. Eric Moulds did not catch 100 balls, but a rather pedestrian 64 for 780 yards. Mark Campbell did have Rimersma like numbers, catching two more balls (34) for roughly the same amount of yards. Bobby Shaw had 54 and Josh Reed had 58, but neither could replace Peerless Price. This isn’t to say that the front office should have retained Price (who didn’t have a career to warrant his contract money in Atlanta), but clearly they underestimated the impact losing him would have on the offense.
The other problem was Drew Bledsoe exposure the previous year as being sack prone. Without having done much of anything to bolster the offensive line, he ended up throwing far fewer balls (471 vs 610) to get sacked nearly as many times (49 vs. 54). Bledsoe went from being sacked once every 11.3 attempts (dismal enough) to being sacked every 9.6 attempts. With rushing at the same level and the passing attempts going way down, the Buffalo Bills were clearly unable to stay on the field. Whereas the 2002 team could overcome sacks by getting up and completing passes, the 2003 team was being taken off the field and thus not scoring nearly as many points.
Despite the production levels, Buffalo did have a glaring offensive problem in 2002 with protecting their quarterback. Granted, the far more pressing concerns were on defense-and they did address many of those problems-but the neglect of the one thing Buffalo needed on offense was reprehensible.
The neglect seems worse in the face of Buffalo’s brash decision to take a gamble on McGahee. Make no mistake about it-the Bills essentially traded away Price for McGahee, and it was fairly irresponsible to trade away a high-impact offensive player like Price only to replace him with someone who was:
a.) not going to be able to produce anything at all for a year,
b.) was going to be duplicating talent they already had, and
c.) wasn’t going to help them where they needed help.
The sins of the 2003 draft were already immediately apparent, and the unfortunate failure of Mike Williams from 2002 was also turning the corner from "developing" to "bust." This was the first of a handful of seasons directly undermined by poor drafting. Buffalo’s talented players from previous drafts, as well as some very good additions through free agency, were held back by missing on the talent level of some players, and the failure to draft others.
That could be said of a lot of teams, sure. Buffalo, however, seems to go out of their way to pick players they don’t need in early rounds, making their misses at critical positions when they do draft players all the more damaging.
The failed 2003 campaign would cost Gregg Williams his job as head coach in Buffalo. Personally, I found his firing (and that of Wade Phillips) a bit premature. Williams had completely converted a defense to a 4-3 in a matter of three years that, by the end, was playing okay.
Unfortunately for him, Buffalo was a team that was looking for quick results, not setbacks. It did not sit well with anyone that Buffalo was missing the playoffs, and any setback was too much of one.
Enter Mike Mularkey, another hot-shot coordinator-this time offensive and from Pittsburg. Arriving in January, shortly after the end of the season, Mularkey was involved in the 2004 draft.
Round 1, Pick 13: WR Lee Evans: Lee Evans is easily, by far, the best pick Buffalo made since 2002. Of all the picks Buffalo has had since 2002, none have been universally accepted as good a pick as taking Evans.
Why is he such a good pick? After the 2003 campaign, Buffalo clearly had a need at WR (and, admittedly, at other places). The offensive production took a serious hit with the loss of a credible number 2 receiver, and Buffalo was also going to have to look to eventually replace an aging Eric Moulds as the number 1 guy.
On top of taking a guy at a position they needed, they also took an exceptional player. This isn’t to say he’s been a perfect player, but most agree that where he has lacked production it has been more of the fault of his surrounding cast than of his own doing. Currently, Evans sits very high as an all-time Bills WR: He’s third in total yards and touchdowns (behind Reed and Moulds) and fourth in catches (behind Reed, Moulds and Thurman Thomas). He has a slightly higher Yards per Catch than both Moulds and Reed, and if things keep going as they do he’ll finish slightly ahead of Eric Moulds in most of these categories.
Which is almost exactly who he is-Eric Moulds, Part Deux; a solid number 1 receiver who has been on lackluster offenses. Evans only real crime, like Moulds, is that he isn’t an elite WR, he’s just a really good one. He can’t, like a Larry Fitzgerald or an Andre Johnson, make things happen even when there aren’t a lot of other receiving threats on the field. He is susceptible to the double team, and Buffalo has never found a consistent way to make teams pay for that. He probably would have substantially better numbers on better teams, but his numbers are not awful by any stretch.
As far as the actual draft, there weren’t any better wide-outs left on the board for Buffalo to take (Larry Fitzgerald and Roy Williams were both off the board already). One could make an argument that perhaps offensive tackles such as Chris Snee and Shawn Andrews would have better investments than Evans, but that’s hard to justify. Buffalo had not given up on Mike Williams just yet (although they would move him to right tackle in 2004) and Jonas Jennings was also showing promise. On the whole, there is no fault in taking Evans over a different position and he has worked out very well so far.
Things were looking up in the 2004 draft.
Round 1, Pick 22: QB Jonathan Paul Losman: And then this happened. When you move up in a draft, you know one thing-the guy that the team takes is exactly the guy want. You aren’t taking a gamble, or a flier, or whatever. You want this guy.
When, as Buffalo did in 2004, you trade away your second and fifth round picks from the current year and your first round pick the following year, you damn well better think you are drafting a Hall of Fame player.
The Bills felt that the problem with the passing game wasn’t the offensive line, but the quarterback himself. Certainly Bledsoe was in the final act of his career (he would only play three more years) and Buffalo would have to think about who was going to replace him. Further, as seems to be the case with all new head coaching regimes, Mularkey clearly wanted "his guy" to be there.
As we all know, Losman was not that Hall of Famer. He would provide a spark here and there, and loved to throw that bomb to Lee Evans, but he was…well…kinda stupid. He ended up taking plenty of sacks himself. In 2006, his only full season as a starter he was taken down 47 times over 429 attempts-very comparable to Bledsoe. It turns out that if you are a statue and get crushed, or if you run around the backfield constantly waiting for the touchdown pass, it doesn’t matter-you’re going to get sacked.
Losman was clearly a bust, and a case can be made that he was the most costly bust of the decade. Williams, despite being expensive and awful, only cost them the one first round pick. Granted it was number 4 overall, but Losman ultimately cost them the 43 and 144th pick in 2004, and 20th in 2005. The number of available players other than Losman is fairly staggering. The aforementioned Chris Snee was available at 34, and without trading up at all Buffalo could have taken Bob Sanders, Pro Bowl center Nick Hardwick, Tight end Chris Cooley…and if you really wanted a quarterback, Matt Schaub was taken with pick 90.
But I don’t want to give it all away. Buffalo, still made picks in rounds 3 and 4 that could have been used to pick some of these players, and so we’ll stop pointing out the big misses here. (and I think I will save just who we could have taken in 2005 for the next installment-spoiler, it isn’t pretty).
The larger point is that, even with hindsight being 20/20, I think Buffalo gave up on Bledsoe too early. His statistics bear out that he had two more years left in him, and he was a veteran quarterback that knew the players and the system fairly well. Lee Evans would never have a better year than the year he played with Bledsoe-and another year with him probably would have helped. Buffalo should have identified the problem as an inability to deal with a pass rush-not a quarterback that held the ball too long.
Losman represents the middle of a quarterback chain that has only just come to an end with the departure of Trent Edwards. Bledsoe was under fire for being sacked so often, and so they drafted a young mobile "gunslinger" type of QB in Losman. (As we’ll discuss later, Edwards would prove to be the departure from Losman because he wouldn’t hold onto the ball for 6 years and opted to check the ball down now and then.)
For an incredibly funny (and poorly spelled) read on just how more awesome Losman is than Bledsoe (circa 2005) read this.
Round 3, Pick 74 DT Tim Anderson: Looking for depth at the DT position, particularly with players like Pat Williams coming into his contract year, the Bills selected Tim Anderson. The problem is that Anderson’s stat sheet reads more like a fifth rounder than a third rounder. Rather than talent to back up at defensive tackle, Anderson only made it into three games in his rookie year, recording no stats. Over the next two years with Buffalo he would appearing in 31 of 32 games, starting 17 of them-only recording only 52 tackles and one sack. Anderson was released by the Bills in October of 2007, and was later picked up by Atlanta and subsequently released at the start of the 2008 season. He currently seems to be playing for the Hartford Colonials in the UFL.
Again, it’s not the biggest sin in the world to miss with a third rounder-but the better teams do find guys to produce in these spots. More importantly, when you mortgage two other picks in the draft to move up, you need to get something out of a third rounder. In addition to the aforementioned Chris Cooley and Matt Schaub, who were still on the board, Jared Allen plays the neighboring position of defensive end and was taken at 126.
Round 4, Pick 109 TE Tim Euhus: While I wouldn’t call Euhus’ start good with Buffalo, it wasn’t awful for a fourth rounder from Oregon State. He recorded 11 catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns in 2004. His production, and appearances, went down in 2005 and by the time that Dick Jauron was head coach, Euhus was out (traded for LB Courtney Watson to the Saints) and Derek Schouman was getting drafted.
Euhus only made 11 more appearances in the NFL, with Pittsburg and Arizona, and is currently an assistant coach at Oregon State.
Note: The Bills also traded their 6th round pick, number 176, to the Cleveland Browns-although I cannot see what they got for it. It doesn’t appear to be anything in the 2004 or 2005 draft, or any particular player. Oddly, the Browns would draft Kirk Chambers with this pick, who would end up in Buffalo a few years later.
Round 7, Pick 207 OT Dylan McFarland: Here are the Buffalo Bills, addressing a need position, once again, far too late in the draft. Perhaps the coolest thing about Dylan McFarland is the fact that Wikipedia isn’t sure how much he played for Buffalo. The collective "they" of the Internet figures he played "maybe 18 snaps."
This should tell you all you need to know about Dylan McFarland, but here is a pretty cool article about his life after football in Montana (along with photo evidence that he did, in fact, play football).
Round 7 Pick 214 WR Jonathan Smith: Smith is in the running for the best last pick Buffalo took during the decade. The seventh rounder appeared in 16 games over two years with Buffalo (including starting one) making 15 catches for 198 yards and 1 touchdown. He also found a home as the back up return man on kickoffs and punts. He spent a few games in New England in 2007, but did not record stats and did not play after that.
Not that anyone could have known, but Wes Welker was still available-he went undrafted and signed with the Chargers that year. Of course, it wasn’t until New England that he became "Wes Welker"-but after being cut by the Chargers, he did do well in Miami for a few years.
2004 was also notable for Buffalo in that they picked up Jason Peters as an undrafted free agent. More of a lucky break than anything, Buffalo does deserve some credit for turning Peters into a viable left tackle-but it wasn’t as if they expected much from him (otherwise they would have drafted him).
If it wasn’t for Evans, this might amount to the worst draft Buffalo had over the decade. Evans, however, provides an exceptional talent that has unfortunately been under used. Losman would ultimately cost the team deeply, both at QB and with missed draft opportunities both in 2004 and 2005. Worse, Buffalo had experienced the first of its serious set backs from previous drafts. The first few draft failures had finally caught up with Buffalo, costing them a chance to be in the playoffs for the first time in a few years.
It was at this point that Buffalo was at a crossroads for talent, though nobody knew it at the time. Changing around their defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3, and missing big on talent in the draft a few years in a row, put Buffalo at a dangerously low level of core talent at key positions. Things needed to get better, and better soon, or Buffalo ran the risk of digging a deeper hole.
Guess what happened.