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.
Economic bubbles all seem to have a few things in common. First, they seem to always involve a surge of new product or information that, for the most part, investors and lay people don’t really understand. Second, the market continues to value that product higher and higher, even thought the underlying product doesn’t actually support the price. Third, eventually the actual value (in one way or another) comes to light, and the bottom drops out.
The most recent economic bubble isn’t much of an exception. Banks began loaning money to people to buy homes they couldn’t really afford. To compensate for the risk, they play with the interest rate (making it low, but switchable to high under certain circumstances). With more people qualifying for loans, and more homes being sold, the prices all go up. Eventually, after prices have skyrocketed, those people who really couldn’t afford the homes they bought get behind on their payments. Loans default, and banks cannot sell the houses to cover the cost of what they’ve loaned out. The property just isn’t worth what people were paying for it, or what were banks were loaning for it. A few very smart people (as chronicled in books such as Michael Lewis’s The Big Short) made a lot of money because they knew the model was unsustainable, but most people are left with a terrible product they can’t afford and isn’t worth what they paid for it anyway.
What does this have to do with the Buffalo Bills, or more importantly their drafts? The 2004 season is remembered by many Bills fans the same way many homeowners remember those last few months before the value of their houses. Most will remember the campaign as the one winning season in the decade (9-7) and for a team that won nine of its last twelve games.
Things, however, looked a lot better than they actually were. The 2004 season represents the Buffalo Bills football bubble-a shining moment that had consumer believing the team was a lot better than it was-including many people in the front office. A confluence of events gave the Bills a shine that made them look on the verge of playoffs, and being a good team.
In many ways it was the worst thing that could happen to the Bills. Much the way that investors got into real estate at the height of the bubble, convinced that prices would go up for ever, the team would enter the ’05 season with a sense of optimism that wasn’t really warranted. A team that performed more poorly would have been more apt to take measures that were necessary to fix a broken team-not simply skate into the 2005 season expecting the same results.
A team aware of it’s value would have focused more on their 0-4 start, and record against winning teams, than their amazing finish against some of the poorest teams in history.
2005, however, is ahead of us. We are still well within the bubble of 2004.
The 2004 Season
The 2004 campaign started with a lot of questions-How would new head coach Mike Mularkey, an offensive coordinator, change the team? How would new wide receiver Lee Evans fit into the offense? Would rookie QB, and heir apparent, JP Losman see some playing time? How would Willis McGahee fit into a backfield already staring Travis Henry? Would the strides the defense made in the previous year be undone under the new team direction?
The first four games of the season provided answers-none of them very appealing, and none of them the team would ultimately accept by the end of the year.
Buffalo started by losing back to back games 13-10, first to Jacksonville, on the last play of the game (a far cry from the shellacking they gave them just a year before) and then to Oakland (a team that finished 5-11). The real problem, however, was how they lost. Buffalo managed just 95 yards on the ground and 153 the air against Jacksonville (giving up 78 in penalties). It was much worse against Oakland-Buffalo managed just 67 yards on the ground and Bledsoe was sacked 7 times for 46 yards.
After an early bye in week 3, things did not get better. Buffalo dropped another one to New England, 31-17. They did rack up nearly 400 yards in offense, but another 6 sacks for 33 yards. (Note: Henry ran for 98 yards on 24 carries in a week when he didn’t share the ball with McGahee. Shockingly, a single back-despite the constant refrain from Bills brass-seemed to perform just fine).
Buffalo dropped it’s fourth in a row against the Jets, 16-14. Buffalo was, again, anemic on offense-earning just 277 yards in offense, giving up 83 yards in penalties and another 4 sacks for 25 yards.
In just four weeks, Buffalo had scored 51 points, given up 18 sacks for over 100 lost yards (that’s a pace for 72 sacks and 400 lost yards). Buffalo’s line trouble, particularly up the middle, was costing Buffalo yards on both the ground and in the passing game. The run game could barely sustain one back, let alone two backs splitting time costing both of them any sense of rhythm. The passing game, forced into longer passes, was stalling with sacks. The big play rookies (Evans, McGahee, potentially Losman) were not contributing the way they were supposed to.
As many remember, Buffalo did pull its season together-finishing 9-7 overall. The great misleading fact about the turnaround, however, was the quality of the opponents they played. Buffalo took 4 games from the NFC West, the worst division in 2004 and perhaps one of the worst divisions overall in the history of the sport (at least that year). The entire division just won 25 games (that’s an average of 6 games per team) and 12 of the 25 wins came against each other, (Leaving just 13 wins out of 40 chances against the rest of the league).
Buffalo also took two of the nine games against a 4-12 Miami team, and one more from 4-12 Cleveland. The only teams Buffalo beat with records of .500 or better were the aforementioned Rams and Seahawks (much weaker teams than their record indicated) and 1 win against a 10-6 Jets team, and another against an 8-8 Bengals team.
The hallmark of the 2004 season was the final game of the season. With playoffs on the line, Buffalo was unable to beat the second string Pittsburgh Steelers. Resting their starters, Pittsburgh eliminated Buffalo from contention before they could even qualify-proving that even the second best players on a good team were better than the best players on Buffalo’s team.
This means the Buffalo Bills beat just two teams with an offense in the top 15-Seattle, who of course got to play six games against the rest of the NFC West, and the up and down Bengals. Only the New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals had a top 15 defense and a loss to Buffalo (Arizona also playing six games in the NFC West).
Buffalo’s "successful" season (their only above .500 campaign of the decade) wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, but the front office chose to turn a blind eye calling the team’s turn around a brilliant success. In an NFL where a "win is a win," it wasn’t fashionable (or profitable) to point out Buffalo had fed upon the dregs of the NFL. After the 2005 season key players in the Front Office would be gone-largely because Buffalo’s second place finish and the rotating NFL schedule put the team against much stiffer competition. Had that schedule been part of the 2004 season, it is possible Buffalo would have been started restructuring one year sooner.
McGahee had finished with 1128 yards and 13 touchdowns running, filling in for an injured Travis Henry for most of the season-demonstrating, in their minds, that they were right to take him two years ago (Ignoring, of course, that his numbers weren’t particularly different or better than Henry’s had ever been). It was true that Evans had reignited the passing game somewhat, catching 48 balls for 843 yards and 9 TDs (as well as Moulds’ 88 for 1043 yards and 5 TDs). It was clear however, that Buffalo was (again) playing weaker competition, and one couldn’t count on those numbers stay up the following year.
Bledsoe, who was clearly in the doghouse with the new coaching regime (anxious, of course, to try out their new toy J.P. Losman) saw his production go down, but not completely bottom out. (256/450 2932 yards, 20 TDs 16 INTs and 37 sacks). He would be gone before the start of next year, refusing to be a backup to Losman, and playing in Dallas (where he showed he still had a little something in the tank, if not a lot).
Perhaps a Bills team a little more aware of its talent levels wouldn’t have just handed the starting job to a young player who hadn’t proved much of anything. But that is a discussion for the 2005 season.
The sum total of the 2004 illusion was that Buffalo had been doing things "right." Fans and employees at One Bills Drive alike suddenly weren’t worried about having traded two 2004 picks to get a young QB, and a 2005 draft with no first round pick at all. Buffalo’s "luxury" pick the year before in Willis McGahee was paying dividends, and seemed like a smart move. Instead of a team that struggled against good, let alone elite, football teams, and could only beat on the weakest of the weak-OBD chose to assume they were only a few pieces away from being a playoff team-hopefully that one piece being a young QB that was far more mobile than his predecessor, and not nearly as prone to get sacked.
A few pieces they could get in the draft.
The 2005 Draft
Round 1, Pick 20 Nobody: No discussion of the 2005 draft is possible without understanding the impact the 2004 draft had on it. As discussed in the previous post, Buffalo had traded away two picks from ’04 and the first pick in the ’05 draft to the Dallas Cowboys. They did this so they could pick J.P. Losman, the young many they would name their starting quarterback in 2005-and would be done by 2008. Picks are dependent on where teams finish, and Buffalo’s 9-7 finish was good for the 20th pick overall in the 2005 draft.
Fair or foul, J.P. Losman will always be compared to three draft positions. Two were discussed in the 2004 post, the last one is here-pick 20, round 1 of the 2005 NFL Draft. The people who pulled the trigger on this trade, committing perhaps the biggest drafting failure in the span being examined here, will forever have who they could have taken around their neck.
Ready to be sick? For the princely sum of not drafting J.P. Losman, Buffalo could have had two more draft picks in 2004 and in 2005 could have drafted Aaron Rodgers (24), Jason Campbell (25-who admittedly didn’t pan out, but would have cost Buffalo a lot less than Losman) if they wanted to go QB. They also could have picked up Heath Miller (Their long missing solid TE at 30), Logan Mankins (32- 2x Pro Bowler), David Baas (33) or Michael Roos (41) if they wanted to improve a woeful offensive line. Lofa Tatupu (45- 3x Pro Bowler LB) and Nick Collins (51- 2x Pro Bowl Safety) if they wanted to upgrade the defense. They also could have even taken Roddy White to replace an aging Eric Moulds if they wanted to.
I cannot imagine there is anything else that needs to be written to demonstrate what a monstrous mistake trading up in 2004 was.
Round 2, Pick 55 WR Roscoe Parrish: Usually, the first three picks that are the only ones that you can really get a read on whether someone missed or not. After the third round, you’re simply hoping to get a few guys that can contribute. Of the top three picks in 2005, only the non-pick in round one can be spoken of with any certainty.
The second pick overall, Roscoe Parrish, has certainly had plenty of positives in his time with Buffalo-but overall, he’s hard to get a read on.
On one hand, he’s been exactly who he was supposed to be-a speedy return man, capable of making a play at just about any moment. He’s scored three touchdowns in six years as the punt return man in Buffalo, and lead the league twice in punt return average. Only in 2009, when he was in Dick Jauron’s doghouse for a fumble, did he average under 10 yards a return-largely because he didn’t play.
He’s also posted 122 catches for 1352 yards and 6 TDs in those six years. He’s an exciting player to watch, and certainly a fan favorite of sorts.
On the other hand, he’s an undersized WR drafted to a team that already had Josh Reed, Eric Moulds and Lee Evans. He’s been described as a "gadget" player, a spark, but not a regular contributor. For a team that has a lot of pieces in place (which, remember, Buffalo was fairly certain they did) he’s a smart pick-a luxury guy. A play-maker taken only to make a few select type of plays.
For the type of team Buffalo actually was, however, the team would have probably been better served by taking an actual full time player. Vincent Jackson (61) is 6’ 5" scoring machine for San Diego. Channing Crowder (70) is very good LB in Miami, and Justin Tuck (74) is a Pro Bowl DE.
It’s hard to say that Parrish is a bad pick, but he is. He’s a good player and a bad pick, if that makes sense. Buffalo was in a position to add a key player, an everyday, every play kind of guy, and they didn’t. As far as being a bad pick, though, he isn’t a bad player to be stuck with.
Round 3, Pick 86 TE Kevin Everett: This pick, for very famous and obvious reasons, is nearly impossible to evaluate. A total of two catches and four yards over two years, it was clear that Everett hadn’t made an impact at TE over his first few years. Whether attestations that he had made great strides at his position were true, or simply something the coaches were saying after his horrific career ending injury is impossible to tell. I choose to believe that he had made those strides, if only for the amazing strength of will required to recover as he did. A person that can do that was almost certainly giving his all to playing football.
Round 4, Pick 122 C Duke Preston: Preston is probably exactly who he was supposed to be. Not a great lineman, but a person who could fill in on a poor team when needed. He’s appeared in 59 games, starting 20. He left Buffalo in 2008, and has since reappeared with the currently terrible Dallas Cowboys.
Round 5, Pick 156 CB Eric King: King managed to defend four passes and made 27 tackles before being let go by Buffalo after his rookie year. He played four years in Tennessee for four years appearing in 36 games and making just 24 tackles. He’s currently in Detroit.
Eric King, long and short, is a not very good cornerback.
I do have his Topps Rookie card though, so there is that.
The story of the 2005 draft is really the story of the 2004 draft and the 2005 season. Buffalo disastrous ’04 draft not only impacted that year, but the draft the following year. With just six picks, the first being number 55, Buffalo was in a precarious position to do well in the 2005 draft to begin with. Add to that the fact that Buffalo was falsely hopeful with regards to its position, and it becomes easy to see why Buffalo used its one pick of worth on a gadget receiver. The misses in 2004 made the misses in 2005 exponentially worse.
Only the most careful of observers, however, could see that the Bills were extending credit on players that weren’t going to be able to pay off. The value of the team was drastically overestimated, and the careless way they were approaching the draft would cost them greatly-and soon. Buffalo simply didn’t have the intrinsic worth to fritter away picks they way they had been, and the payments were coming due.
When you mortgage the future for the present, and miss, it is costly.
It was 2005. The bubble was about to burst.