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.
Half way through the first decade of the new millennium, the Buffalo Bills had yet to make the playoffs, and posted only one winning season. It was clear that for the few drafted players that could be called a success, there were just as many that counted as busts. The upcoming season, 2005, would be the last for many faces familiar to Orchard Park, but for all the change that was coming, things would sadly stay the same.
Before the 2005 Draft, the Buffalo Bills informed quarterback Drew Bledsoe that second year player, JP Losman, would be the starting quarterback for the team. Thy asked him to stay on the team in a backup capacity, but Bledsoe declined. He was put off by the drafting of Losman in 2004, but accepted that the team would ultimately want to groom his replacement. 2005 was simply too soon. Bledsoe felt he had gas left in the tank, and wanted to start at quarterback. He was granted his released in February of 2005, quickly rejoining the man who drafted him, Bill Parcells, with his new team in Dallas.
After the draft, in July, Travis Henry demanded to be traded from the team. Henry was also unhappy with the Bills for taking first round replacement talent, Willis McGahee, in 2003. He got along well in 2003 when McGahee didn’t play due to injury, but lost his job, due partially to injury, to McGahee in 2004. Henry also felt he was a starter and was unwilling to share the backfield with his replacement, and Buffalo obliged. He was traded in July to the Tennessee Titans for a third round pick in the 2005 draft.
Two of the three most dynamic offensive players of the first half of the decade were gone. The changes were just the beginning.
If 2004 was the stock bubble of Buffalo Bills football, 2005 was the market crash correction. Action and consequence, the story of the Mike Mularkey Bills took on the qualities of a grand stage tragedy. The build up of the 2004 season(promise, hope), only to have reality rudely rip it from their hands a year later. As Bills fans know all to well, nothing makes heartache worse than hope.
The first game of the season acted as a musical interlude between two acts-a tidy sum up of the 2004 season. The Bills, and JP Losman, recorded a 22-7 victory over the Houston Texans, with the young QB throwing his first touchdown pass to Jason Peters. Optimism abounds after a week 1 win, but upon close inspection (and a little hindsight) it should have been clear that this wasn’t a particularly good Bills team.
Despite winning the turnover battle 5-0, Buffalo had to settle for one touchdown and five field goals against a team that would finish 2-14 and ranked DFL in points allowed.
With the orchestral entr’acte over, the real curtain opened on our protagonists in week 2. What followed was either horror, or tragedy-take your pick. After three straight losses, Losman (or the Lose-man as he would come to be known) was benched in favor of Kelly Holcomb in week 5. Buffalo added two wins (Miami and New York, at home) under Holcomb, before dropping two more-entering the week 9 bye at 3-5. An agonizing "in between" record that wasn’t good, but not so bad that all hope could have been abandoned.
Like all good shows, it kept the audience hooked.
After Holcomb sustained an injury, Losman returned to triumph in week 10-throwing big touchdown passes to give the Bills in a 14-3 win over the Chiefs (one he was, sadly, not credited with because Holcomb started the game). Rather than a triumphant return to form for Losman, however, he continued to lose until he lost his job again to Holcomb. The team would split time between the two for the rest of the season, winning just one (at Cincinnati) of their last seven games. Losman would finish 1-7, Holcomb 4-4, the Bills 5-11.
Playing a much tougher schedule, three of the Bills five wins came against teams with winning records-only the Bengals, however, were a playoff team (that promptly lost their opening round game). Buffalo finished 0-4 against the NFC South (including a 3-13 Saints team), 1-3 against the AFC West (including losing to a 4-12 Raiders team for the second year in a row) and 2-4 against the rest of the AFC East (including giving 4-12 New York a win).
Other than the Texans game, the Bills only seemed to win by taking people by surprise. They didn’t do anything particularly well-finishing 24th in total Offense and Defense. Comparatively, Holcomb was the better quarterback, by quite a bit, but he wasn’t good by any stretch of the imagination. Losman finished a dismal 113 for 228, 1340 yards, 8 TDs and 8 INts (26 sacks). Holcomb managed to finish a slightly less dismal 155 for 228, 1509 yards, 10 TDs and 8 picks (17 sacks). Put together, they made for one solidly poor to average QB.
McGahee put up Travis Henry-esque numbers on the ground (325 carries, 1247 yards 5 TDs), but did have 28 catches for 178 yards. Moulds lead the team with 81 catches for 816 and 4 TDs, with Evans playing the long ball guy (48 catches for 743 and 7 TDs). Josh Reed managed just 32 catches for 449 yards, and TE Mark Campbell had just 19 catches for 139 yards.
The offensive line was the root of a lot of the offense woes again. Mike Gandy, Bennie Anderson, Trey Teague, Chris Villlarrial, Jason Peters and Mike Williams were responsible for 42 sacks and an under 4 yards per carry.
The defense racked up 38 sacks, 17 picks and recovered 25 fumbles-one of the reasons they finished in the top 15 in turnover differential. Given they only won five games all year, one can imagine what might have happened if they had finished just a few spots lower on that chart.
The problem with the defense was, apart from the turnovers, they couldn’t get off the field. The defense gave up a gaudy 5496 yards (4th highest) , over 5 yards per play and 343 first downs (2nd highest). The pass defense was only slightly below average, giving up the 14th most yards-but when the run defense gives up 2205 yards (2nd highest), 4.5 yards per attempt (4th) and 146 rushing first downs (DFL) teams don’t have to pass. Teams were not scared of an interior defensive line anchored by Tim Anderson and Justin Bannan. Had Buffalo’s offense been able to put up points, other teams might have passed more-exposing a weak passing defense as well.
2006 Offseason (The End of Tom Donahoe)
The season ended New Years Day, 2006, and Mr. Wilson promptly took the holiday to heart. Promising swift and dramatic changes, Tom Donahoe was released from his position as general manager just four days later. In an effort to bring in a guy he knew and trusted, and someone that would play well with the fans, Mr. Wilson hired Marv Levy to be the general manager going forward. The zeal of the new hire was tempered, particularly by those in the know, because while Donahoe himself was gone, all of his people were still in place-particularly Tom Modrak and Buddy Guy.
The Bills finished with just 31 wins over the length of his tenure, and was the only NFL team (other than the expansion Texans) to not make the playoffs.
Under Donahoe’s direction, the Bills drafted 42 players. Of those players taken in 2001, only Clements and Schobel were still with the team in 2006. With draft bust Mike Williams gone, Josh Reed, Ryan Denney and Coy Wire were the 2002 class still on the 2006 team. Sure, McGahee from 2003 was on the team-but his drafting directly lead to the loss of 2001 draftee Travis Henry. Kelsay, Crowell, McGee and Aiken were also on the team from 2003. Evans, Losman (who cost them more than McGahee), Tim Anderson, Parrish and Duke Preston were the only guys from the last two drafts still on the team. That’s 15 players out of 42, and only six of them would be regular starters.
Of those 15, who wants to count Wire, Aiken, Tim Anderson, Losman, Ryan Denney or Duke Preston as any good? Josh Reed, Angelo Crowell and Chris Kelsay are barely better than those guys. McGahee is a good player, but a player Buffalo didn’t need and ultimately didn’t want to be in Buffalo. He was gone after the 2006 season. Clements would also leave in 2007. That is 11 players who were either no good, barely good or gone by 2007.
McGee, Evans, Parrish and Schobel are all solid players, good at what they do, but they are not the types of players you can build a club around. One and half receivers, 1 defensive end and 1 cornerback do not a core make. Even being generous and counting Clements and McGahee/Henry (I think it’s only fair to count one) it` makes for 6 players who are good starters. Not necessarily great, and none at a key position on the field. No Offensive linemen. No Linebackers. No defensive tackles. No quarterback.
Of the Donahoe picks, only Terrence McGee, Lee Evans and Roscoe Parrish remain on the 2010 team. Despite a few hits, it is clear that Donahoe failed to build a franchise that could continue to win. He missed big for the most part with high draft picks, and didn’t find supplemental or depth talent in the middle rounds. The little supplemental talent he did find was forced into starting roles where they were overmatched and ill-prepared to play on a regular basis. Not one player taken in the bottom half of the draft amounted to anything on the team.
After meeting with Marv Levy and Ralph Wilson, who apparently gave him the okay to stay on as head coach, Mularkey resigned from the position on January 13th. On January 24, 2010 the Bills hired Dick Jauron as the head coach.
In March, long time wide receiver Eric Moulds was traded to the Houston Texans for the first pick in the fifth round of the 2006 draft. Moulds was set to count as a serious cap hit, and the restructuring of his deal fell through.
2006 NFL Draft
With ten picks in the 2006 draft, Buffalo was set to restock a team depleted of talent. Under the direction of new GM Marv Levy and HC Dick Jauron (even if Guy and Modrak were still there) there was hope that Buffalo would finally right the ship.
Round 1, Pick 8 S Donte Whitner: Whitner, by almost all accounts, was a "reach" at the eight pick overall. Reach, of course, is a way that pundits on draft day can say that while a player might be good, he isn’t good enough to warrant taking with that pick. Largely, I find that a dismissible phrase-if a player is good, he is good. The idea of "reaching" is only relative to that pundit’s draft board-the same draft boards that, in 2006, had Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Vince Young all ahead of Mario Williams (who the Texans, thankfully for their sake, were smart enough to "reach" for).
That said, a review of Whitner’s career bears out almost exactly that-he is good, just not that good. Not eighth overall good. While the Bills staff was hoping to find the next Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed, they only found a pretty decent safety. He’s good at tackling a guy in front of him, but he routinely takes bad angles to receivers and often times comes in late to a play. On almost any tackle that is 5-6 yards from the line of scrimmage, you can see Whitner throwing his body (he was dinged by pundits because he was undersized) at a player that is already headed out of bounds or being held up by another player.
He’s not a play maker. Just 4 interceptions in five years (and a number of images of footballs bouncing right out of his hands) and two forced fumbles in four and a half years does not an All-Pro safety make.
The real problem, however, is the philosophy of the selection to begin with. Apart from the All Pro Reed and Polamalu types, safeties (particularly strong safeties) aren’t meant to be big play players. They are the last line of defense between the ball carrier and the end zone. Unlike quarterbacks, or linemen on either side of the ball, safeties are not by default involved in every play of the game. They are only involved in plays where the first 6-8 guys have missed, or where a cornerback has blown his coverage.
Even as the solid safety that he is, Whitner can only do so much to impact a football game-so why was he taken with a top ten pick? A pick you only get when you are missing an impact player at some critical position.
With a defense that struggled so mightily against the run, why not use the number 8 pick on Haloti Ngata? Antonio Cromartie was available at cornerback, and David Joseph at G. Nick Mangold is a Pro Bowl center and DeMeco Ryans a Pro Bowl linebacker. Any of these players would have not only been excellent personnel choices, but would have shown that the new tandem of Levy and Jauron were familiar with where the biggest needs on the team were.
Round 1, Pick 26 DT John McCargo: The Bills, for the second time in three years, traded back up in to the first round. This time it only (ha!) cost them their second and third round picks for the 2006 draft to get back in to Chicago’s low first round pick. With it, they took John McCargo-who has certainly thrown his hat into the "worst draft pick of the decade" contest. He was small, but hopefully explosive, when he was drafted in 2006. In 2010 he remains small, but non-explosive, and currently unable to get on the field.
McCargo has been a huge disappointment to the Buffalo Bills, almost immediately after he was drafted. He has only started one game in his four years playing with Buffalo. The only season where he played in all 16 games he recorded just 2.5 sacks (his only sacks), 1 fumble (his only fumble) and 29 tackles.
Let that sink in. 29 of his of 46 tackles, over four years, came in just one year…as a defensive tackle. The epitome of his uselessness came in 2008 when the Bills traded McCargo to the Colts-only to have him sent back as damaged goods. Not healthy enough to play for his new team, and already publicly deemed unwanted by the Bills, McCargo was forced to go back and play for the people who had just tried to get rid of him. Miraculously, after such a public shaming, he remained on the team in 2009 and 2010-tho he has been deactivated for recent games.
Again, Buffalo’s game plan is troubling. Why take another "reacher" at a position, particularly at the cost of two more picks? Much like Losman, if McCargo had anything worth a second and third round pick in him he probably would have been taken. In light of the Bills wanting a DT, Ngata at eight seems to be a much better idea. At 26, Mangold and Ryans were available. Without trading up, Buffalo could have taken Pro Bowl Safety Roman Harper or Pro Bowl tackle Marcus McNeil with the 43 pick.
Imagine a scenario where Buffalo invests its higher pick into a "more certain" pick at a higher impact position, doesn’t trade back up into the first round, and then takes another defensive player to beef up the safety position. How much better is the team if they take Ngata and Harper instead of Whitner and McCargo?
It’s worth noting that of the 16 Pro Bowl players selected in the first two rounds of the 2006 NFL draft, Buffalo didn’t draft one.
Round 3, Pick 70 CB Ashton Youboty: Buffalo had two third round picks (one from the Henry trade) and took Ashton Youboty with this one. Youboty has proved to be an injury prone cornerback that has not really provided depth to the cornerback position. He’s never started more than three games in any year, and never played in more than eleven in any year. He’s posted 57 tackles, one interception, two sacks and seven defended passes in 31 appearances over four years. After struggling with the playbook the first year (he got a late start because he needed to finish up school) he hasn’t produced much. He was routinely beat on plays when in the game. I was, frankly, surprised to learn that he was still on the team (he’s mostly been on Injured Reserve this year)
No one is looking for starts in the third round, they are just looking for people who can contribute. Once again, Buffalo failed to find depth or help in the middle rounds.
Not that he really is comparable to Youboty, or would it be fair to compare, but for the record Owen Daniels was available with this pick-he was taken at 90 by the Texans.
Round 4, Pick 105 S Ko Simpson: Dick Jauron showed his former DB colors when he took his third DB out of four picks by taking Yokota "Ko" Simpson. Like Youboty taken before him, he ultimately did not provide too much depth to the defensive backfield-though he did do a sight better than Youboty. He finished with a sack, two picks 6 passes defended a forced fumble and 142 tackles over 33 games. He also started 21 games and played in each game for 2006 and 2008 (he was injured in week one of the 2007 season). Ultimately, I think Simpson proved a good pick for the fourth round.
He was traded in 2009 to Detroit for a seventh round pick where he has seen some playing time. He is currently, however, on IR.
Round 5, Pick 134 DT Kyle Williams: The Bills first of two fifth round picks came from Houston for Eric Moulds. With it, the Bills took their second DT and fifth defensive player out of five-Kyle Williams. In all the ways that John McCargo was a huge miss at DT, Williams has been a moderate success at the position. While he in no way is the ultimate solution, or best possible fit at the DT position, he has played well given what he has been handed-and given what was expected of him in the first place.
Williams earned the starting job his rookie year, starting 11 of his 16 games and played as the RDT starter in 2007-2009 (missing only two games). He has 11 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, and 251 tackles (solo and assists). These are not amazing number, by any stretch-but as a fourth round pick he was never meant to be the starter. He was meant to provide relief to starters who were to carry much more of the load. Unfortunately, Buffalo continues to miss on the people who were supposed to be starters and backup talent gets thrown into the regular mix-playing above their head.
The switch to the 3-4 has relieved Williams of his starting duties, but he has appeared in all seven games thus far this year. He has 3 sacks and 37 tackles-precisely what you want from your backup DT.
Round 5, Pick 143 OT Brad Butler: The first offensive player of the 2006 draft, Butler filled in admirably at OT in his time with the Bills. He appeared in just two games in his rookie year, but much like Kyle Williams, was thrust into a starting role at right guard for the 2007 and 2008 seasons. He miss just three games in 2008, and started the first two in 2009 at right tackle before a knee injury ultimately ended his season.
Butler decided to retire at the end of the 2009 season. While he wasn’t a start at right tackle, he was a solid player-one that a talent deprived Bills team would miss. Butler, like Williams, provides another solid pick-this one, unfortunately, cut short.
Round 6, Pick 175 LB Keith Ellison: Ellison is another solid fill in guy for a bad football team. On most football teams, he wouldn’t be playing as much as he is in Buffalo, but he has managed to fill in for injured players adequately since 2006. He filled in for the injured Takeo Spikes and Angelo Crowell in his rookie season in 2006, started 9 games in 2007 and 14 more in 2008. He’s been offered one year contracts both in 2009 and 2010, proving the staff finds him to be an adequate depth guy on the team.
Currently, he has 2 interceptions, 2 sacks, and 255 tackles (solo and assisted).
Round 7, Pick 216 OT Terrance Pennington: Pennington started 9 games and played in 11 in his rookie campaign with the Buffalo Bills, but was cut the following year. He wasn’t very good and was only playing tackle because, frankly, there were no good players to cover that position after Jason Peters moved to the other side. He appeared in five games with the Falcons in 2007, but has since to make an NFL game appearance.
Round 7, Pick 248 G Aaron Merz: A compensation pick at the end of the seventh round, Aaron Merz played in seven games and started one in his rookie year. He was let go the following year. He joined the Peace Corps, volunteering in Zambia.
For as big as the misses were in the first half of the draft, the 2005 draft does have the distinction of being one of the few (and the only one written about here, so far) where each player taken saw playing time and started a game for Buffalo. Again, Buffalo drafted decent depth players to come off the bench in the middle and late rounds. Again, Buffalo’s inability to secure top level talent pushed that weaker talent to the forefront-where they could flourish only so much.
The difference so far between the Donahoe and Levy years is that while Donahoe had an occasional top end hit, he never hit near the bottom. Here, it’s arguable that Levy didn’t really have a hit-but he got production out of all the guys drafted.
That comparison, however, is premature. Buffalo’s new direction was only one draft old, and hardly yet comparable to Donahoe’s body of work. Act I of this disastrous decade was behind them, but Act II still lay ahead.