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Picking Last (Part III): 2003 The First Signs of Insanity

 

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.

 

One of the things that becomes immediately apparent when assessing the drafts of the Buffalo Bills from 2001-2010 is that you cannot grade a draft right after it is done.  Next April, when Kiper & Co.  handout their post draft grades minutes, or even weeks, after it is over, consider doing just about anything except paying attention.  Drafts analysis in the short term is only a measure of whether the team in question took the players the experts thought they should have taken.  It isn’t an assessment of whether the players are any good, and certainly not a predictor of how the team will do.

 

As we saw in part I, the 2001 draft turned out to be the best of the decade-but lead to a 3-13 team.

 

The 2002 draft (chronicled here in Part II) would ultimately prove to be one of the worst drafts in the history of the Bills, and so naturally was followed by an 8-8 season engineered by one of the most dynamic Buffalo offenses ever. 

 

Backdrop

 

The team was bolstered not so much by any draftees that year but a solid pick up at the most important position on the team-quarterback. Drew Bledsoe, out of favor in New England, came to Buffalo in exchange for Buffalo’s first draft pick of 2003.

 

Many fans that were skeptical at first came around to the idea after the season began.  Bledsoe had been injured the year before, heralding the coming of one Tom Brady, and the worry was that the Bills were getting fleeced by giving up a first round pick.  Bledsoe then went on to put one of the best single season performances by a quarterback in Buffalo Bills history.  On the way to qualifying for the Pro Bowl, Bledsoe set single season team records for completions, attempts, and  yards at a 61.5% completion rate, 25 TDs to 15 INTs.  Certainly Jim Kelly had "better" seasons regarding wins, productivity; etc.-but 2002 Bledsoe needs to be in that conversation.

 

After just four years in Buffalo, Bledsoe would throw over, 10,000 yards (fourth over all) and 55 TDs.  By the time he left Buffalo, most fans were frustrated with his inability to take Buffalo to the next level (and his inability to avoid a sack)-but a sober review of events clearly indicates that since Kelly left, no QB has been nearly as good as Bledsoe.

 

The Season

 

The 2002 season featured Buffalo’s only 100 catch season by a wide receiver.  Eric Moulds broke the triple digit plateau (1292 yards, 10 TDs), and his counterpart Peerless Price finished tied for second all time among Buffalo Bills with 94 balls (1252, 9 TDs).  Larry Centers and Travis Henry each caught 43 balls, more than Josh Reed’s 37-only five more than Jay Riemersma’s 32. 

 

Although it was clearly a pass first offense, the run game was very much present.  388 rushing attempts (vs. the 610 pass attempts) produced 1596 yards and 17 touchdowns.  The bulk of this was done  by star second year running back Travis Henry who averaged 4.4 yards per carry on his way to 1438 yards (good for fifth in the league) and 13 touchdowns (His best season, and good for the 5th best season in Bills history). 

 

The team didn’t just move the ball either, but also scored a lot of points.  Only 5 games were the Bills held under 20 points, and only twice under 10 (including a game I remember against Green Bay that just baffled me a 10-0 shut out.).  The other 11 games featured five games in the 20s, five games scoring more than 30 points, and one where they put up 45.    

 

The season ended 8-8, just one game behind the other three teams in the AFC East (all at 9-7).  The main reasons Buffalo could not move out of the basement (shallow of a house though it may have been) in 2002 were two fold.  First, Buffalo’s offensive line was not good enough for a team that was going to throw the ball 610 times.  Trey Teague, aging Ruben Brown and Marques Sullivan proved to be a horrific middle line with almost no depth.  Bledsoe was setting passing records while being sacked 54 times.  True, Bledsoe was a bit of a statue in the pocket, but the Front Office knew that going in.  He wasn’t very mobile as a young player, and now at 30 coming off an injury season he was only less so.  Better protection would seem to only increase the productivity of a very good offense.

 

The other problem, of course, was the defense.  As good as Buffalo was at scoring points, they were as bad at giving them up-a real black eye for Gregg Williams, a defense-minded head coach.  The team would give up 3279 yards passing, 24 TDs and only getting 10 picks.  The run defense was worse, giving up 2122 yards and 20 TDs on 4.5 yards per attempt.  Nine fumble recoveries were also pretty poor, even though 30 sacks did speak to an okay pass rush.  There was plenty of room for improvement at most positions on the defense. 

 

 

The 2002 Buffalo Bills seemed just one or two pieces away from being a playoff team.  The draft and free agency class would prove vital, particularly without a first round pick, to get to the next stage. 

 

Other Important Details

 

The front office, at first, seemed to have more defensive needs than offensive needs going into 2003,  Two key developments on offense, however, made the draft a little trickier than it was supposed to be.  Peerless Price, feeling fairly confident after his 94 catch season, was about to get a lot more money in free agency than Buffalo wanted to pay him.  Rather than lose him to free agency, Buffalo placed the franchise tag on Price to ensure that, if he did leave, they would be getting something back for him.  Atlanta picked up Price for their first round draft pick, number 23 overall.  This was great value, given Price’s inability to repeat the type of season he had without a competent second receiver to play with, nor an All-Pro type QB to throw to him. 

 

Riemersma was also a problem.  Declining production and multiple injuries left Buffalo not wanting to resign him.  Donahoe offered him a significant pay cut, which Riemersma declined.  He was cut in February, a few months before the 2003 draft. 

 

Going into the draft then, Buffalo was clearly counting on Josh Reed to fill in for Price, and Mark Campbell (coming from a dismal career in Cleveland) to fill in for two departing starters.  It is safe to say that there was some, if not a lot, of need at these positions as well as others.  Buffalo seemed set with QB, RB, some WRs, DB, OT (Remember, Williams isn’t a bust-yet) and Punter.  It would be insane, therefore, to pursue players at these positions when pressing needs were presenting themselves at other points on the field.    

 

The 2003 NFL Draft

 

Round 1, Pick 23 RB Willis McGahee:  If there is a dominant theme to Bills drafts throughout this decade, this is probably signature pick to illustrate it.  A harbinger of the "stacking talent" and "big splash" swings Tom Donahoe et al. would take at the plate, McGahee left more than Bills fans scratching their heads-it had Bills players wondering what was going on as well. 

 

Buffalo needed pass rush, stop the run and catch the ball.  They did not need run the ball and they certainly didn’t need to use the 23rd pick overall to select an injured guy that might never play-let alone a guy who’s talents would be redundant on the current team.  By any and all accounts, this pick was insane-particularly if you asked Travis Henry.  "Slap in the face" was his quote that needed to be walked back a bit the entire time the two shared a backfield, but it frankly and accurately described how Henry did (and ultimately, should) have felt. 

 

Buffalo has been talking about a two running back team since this pick, and, as we’ll see later (and you know now), they’ve constantly retried this experiment-each leading to dissention, failure, and eventually getting rid of one of the backs.

 

McGahee’s pick is particularly baffling in light of the fact that he had been famously injured in the National Championship Game against Ohio State.  Some people were convinced he would never play again, let alone play at the level he had.  In fact, he did not contribute to the team at all in his rookie season of 2003 because he was still recovering.

 

Now let’s be fair.  McGahee was (and still is) a good back, and Travis Henry would ultimately be out of the league by 2007 (having just one good season with the Titans in 2006).  He clearly had off-field problems that would contribute to his downfall-but none of this was apparent in 2003.  There was no indication that Henry was causing trouble, and one might wonder if being downgraded by the Bills contributed to those problems.  He had, in fact, just been signed to a one year extension through 2005-a season he would ultimately play in Tennessee. 

 

As good as McGahee was, however, he wasn’t ever any better than Henry.  They were roughly interchangeable statistically, and so it is no great boon that he was good.  When you take him 23 over all and you already have a solid running back, he really needs to be better than "as good."  He needs to be the best. 

 

McGahee would ultimately leave Buffalo in 2007 (when he would have his turn being "McGahee’d" by Marshawn Lynch), having never really liked the small town of Buffalo. 

 

With a departing wide receiver and tight end, Buffalo might have used that pick for any number of players that would have been much more likely to improve the team.  Dallas Clark was taken with the next pick, which in and of itself makes me want to hit my head against the stone walls of One Bills Drive.    Nnamdi Asomugha is a three time pro bowl cornerback with the Raiders, taken at 31.  In the second round, Anquan Boldin and Osi Umenyiora were taken with 54 and 56. 

 

Hindsight, of course, is 20/20-so we could "woulda, coulda, shoulda" until the end of time.  Still, the fact that Buffalo categorically didn’t need to use a first round pick on a running back opens them up this line of criticism.  Even if you didn’t know these guys would be as good as they are, they are the types of guys at the positions Buffalo should have been taking a chance on.    

 

Unlike Williams before him, and others after, it isn’t fair to call McGahee a bust.  He is a good player, and continues to be productive.  He just wasn’t right for the Bills. Where Williams was a great pick of a bad player, this was a terrible pick for a good player. 

 

 

Round 2, Pick 48 DE Chris Kelsay:  At the time, folks figured Kelsay was a good pick.  In seven years with Buffalo he’s wrapped up 3 picks, 313 tackles and just 22 sacks-that’s three-ish a season.  An incredible disappointment as a second round pick, particularly when comparing him to Aaron Schobel from two years ago, Kelsay has consistently underperformed and been kept around for so long only because Buffalo fails to bring in the bevy of talent that is better than him.  He just signed his second contract extension with the Bills, now playing outside linebacker in the new 3-4 defense. 

 

In the longer view, it seems insane to me that Buffalo constantly upgrades the positions it is already good at (DB, RB) and fails to make a dent in positions that consistently under perform.  Kelsay is a typical Buffalo Bill for the 2000s-perhaps the prototypical player.  He is a consistent starter that, on any other team, would be a solid back up or change of pace player. 

 

Also, if you are wondering, in addition to passing on Boldin and Umenyiora in the second round, Buffalo also didn’t pick up Jason Witten (who would catch Bledsoe passes on the regular when he went to Dallas) and All-Pro LB Lance Briggs.  To ask them to have drafted these guys is a bit unfair, of course.   Unlike McGahee, Kelsay was at least an attempt to fill a need Buffalo had. 

 

 

Round 3, Pick 94 LB Angelo Crowell:  To get an accurate read on how good of a pick Crowell could or should have been is difficult because of his constant state of injury.  He was a solid back up his first few years until filling in for Takeo Spikes in 2005.  His season was productive, recording two picks, three sacks, one forced fumble, and 120 tackles over 15 games in 12 starts.  His ’06 was cut short by injury, but the numbers are very similar to his ’05 status.  The ’07 campaign was his first full season as a starter, where his numbers were again in the same range. 

 

Things get hairy here.  He had surgery on his arm after a last game injury in 2007 (His second in two years) and after a strange offseason where the front office and Crowell seemed to disagree about a contract extension or not, Crowell decided basically last minute to have knee surgery that would end his year.  He was placed on IR, and was a unrestricted free agent for the 2008 season-leading many to believe he didn’t to play for Buffalo anymore, preferring to prep himself for a new team than playing for Buffalo. 

 

Crowell has continued to be injury plagued, signing but not playing for the Bucs-tearing his bicep in the preseason.  He was a member of the Omaha Nighthawks in the UFL pre-season, but is not currently on the team. 

 

I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the front office here and say that Crowell would have been a good linebacker had he not been plagued by injury.  A should-have-been good enough pick for a late third rounder. 

 

Round 4, Pick 111 DB Terrence McGee:  McGee is one of the few successful draft picks of the 2000s.  A two time All-Pro and one time Pro Bowler, McGee has been the consistent, solid defensive back over years of constant turn over.  Drafted for depth, and probably never as good as Antoine Winfield or Nate Clements, he has been a solid professional player on a largely unprofessional team.  In addition to 17 interceptions and 4 fumble recoveries, (1 each for a touchdown) McGee has run back 5 kickoffs of touchdowns as well. 

 

He and Kelsay are tied for second on the longest current tenured Bills, and one of very few players to both perform well and want to continue to play in Buffalo

 

For the record, Asante Samuel is a better cornerback and was taken nine slots later, but you can’t say the Bills did poorly in taking McGee.  

 

Round 4, Pick 127 WR Sam Aiken:  Aiken proved to be an okay 4th receiver and special teams player for Buffalo (and New England) but never much more.  His 11 catches for 148 yards was a best in Buffalo in 2004, and 20 catches for 326 in New England.  He’s scored two touchdowns, both with New England.  Don’t know if I’d call him a bust (he did, after all, make the team even if he had almost no impact). 

 

 

Round 5, Pick 151 OG Ben Sobieski:  In what might be a strange, low round, Bizzaro-world version of the Mike Williams story a year ago, Buffalo once again went with the wrong lineman in the 5th round.

 

One might argue that Buffalo’s failure wasn’t in selecting a guard, but waiting until the fifth round.  Indeed, Sobieski was a bad player-in his three years with Buffalo only saw him play in one game.  Still, the idea of getting a fifth round player to be good, let alone a starter.

 

Unfortunately, the pick of Sobieski proved to be a double whammy.  Not only did they wait too long to probably draft a guard, they also missed the two All-Pro Pro Bowl linemen taken in the 5th round of the ’03 draft.  David Diehl has started 112 games for the New York Giants at tackle, including his 2009 Pro Bowl year and the Super Bowl XLII championship team.  Dan Koppen has started 106 of the 107 games he’s played in, winning two Super Bowls with the New England Patriots.  He also has been to a Pro Bowl and been selected to an All Pro Team for his 2007 campaign at Center for the Patriots.  Both were taken after Sobieski, and either would have likely played himself into a solid starter for years with the Buffalo Bills.  

 

Round 6, pick 187 LB Lauvale Sape:  Sape never amounted to much of a player in the NFL.  He recorded 8 tackles and a fumble recovery in 11 games over two years with the Buffalo Bills, and then left the NFL for NFL Europe, before getting opportunities with the Raiders and Titans.  He did not play for either team, and then spent time in the AFL and UFL.  Cato June at 198 would probably have been a better pick. 

 

Round 7, Pick 228 LB Mario Haggan:  Haggan, for a seventh round pick, turned out fairly well.  He played five years with the Bills as a back up linebacker recording 79 tackles, three sacks, forcing two fumbles and recovering two.  Not a great player by any stretch with Buffalo, but serviceable. 

 

Haggan now plays for Denver, and started sixteen games in 2009 at LOLB.  He’s recorded more tackles and sacks in three years with Denver than five with Buffalo that may speak to the fact that he was let go a little early-particularly with the switch to 3-4 Defense a year after his departure.  

 

From great to horrible to insane-Buffalo’s first three drafts of the decade essentially ran the gamut of possibility.  If the first draft was a huge surprise and the second a horrendous failure, this third smacked of madness.  This type of maniacal, almost villainous, type of crazy routinely lands folks in Arkham Asylum or Belle Reeve, and but for their fictional nature, would have been the place most of Western New York would like to have Tom Donahoe committed.

 

Sadly, that madness was not contained to One Bills Drive, but has been slowly infecting the fan base for the last seven years.  Rather than being the aberration, the 2003 draft proves to be more like the remaining drafts than either the 01’ or 02’ draft, much to the chagrin of the hairlines of Bills fans.  Even if Buffalo stuck with the ’02 model, fans would probably be more forgiving than the repeated abuse of the ’03 system.  Shooting for players that are highly touted and that stand to directly improve your team are going to be hits at least some of the time.  It is impossible to imagine missing on so many linemen in early rounds (or linebackers, or pass rushers, or defensive tackles) that each draft would turn out as big a bust as the ’02 draft.

 

Up next, The 2003 draft-more moving up to take questionable players, more upsetting of veteran players that are playing well and more crazy. 

 

Just another great fan opinion shared on the pages of BuffaloRumblings.com.

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