The Method to This Madness: Having suffered for the last 10 years as all Bills fans have, and with no promise that the next ten years will be any better, I decided to sit down and really look at why these teams have been so disappointing. The answer seems fairly clear that it is a combination of coaching, personnel and ill-timed, mind baffling decisions by just about everyone from Mr. Wilson on down.
Still, one aspect of the process of building a good team that seems to have spectacularly failed like no other in Buffalo is the drafting of players. In the modern, free agent rich atmosphere of the NFL, much is made that a small market team needs to be exceptionally cunning in the draft. The presumption being that big stars won’t be attracted to cities such as Buffalo, Indianapolis or Green Bay (not to mention the likelihood that merchandising and other income streams are likely to be stifled in these markets), and so you need to pull them in from college where they essentially have no choice. Other small markets have shown that you can be competitive, even win Super Bowls, by building good teams-this hasn’t been the case in Buffalo.
For many, myself included, the hiring of Tom Donahoe & Co. in 2001 marks the beginning of the end for good drafting in Buffalo. The fact that Tom Modrak, a Donahoe hire, is somehow still in this front office is probably what inspired me to take such a close look at the drafts from 2001-2010.
To be sure, Sal Maiorana’s “Buffalo Bills: The Complete Illustrated History” covers the futility of 2000’s quite adequately (or so I’ve skimmed, I don’t have my copy yet) including the catastrophe was drafting under Donahoe. I am not trying to duplicate that type of work here. My focus will be on looking at the draft through the previous and upcoming season. The bigger picture, I leave to others.
Part I-The Set Up (2000-2001 Draft)
In order to fully understand just how bad the drafting has been from 2002 to present day, you have to understand just how good it was before hand. There is no denying that both Bill Polian and John Butler have and had their share of misses, but there is also no denying that both could build football teams. Polian built the “Kelly-era” Buffalo Bills, and the “Manning era” Indianapolis Colts. He also managed to build a Carolina Panther’s team, from scratch, that made the NFC championship team in its second year of existence.
Butler, who worked with Polian in Buffalo, continued to draft well until he left for San Diego to build the “Brees and LT era” San Diego Chargers-the same year of Donahoe’s first draft.
The distinct style of team built by the “Polian tree” of front office is almost like a thumbprint-you can just look at it and know who built it. One part Smart QB, equal parts versatile RB and great O-lines, and a dash of big play WRs for offense. Pre-heat the Oven to 375 degrees, and put in your fast, disruptive, “bend but don’t break” defensive players. Ready to serve in two to three years.
Polian and Butler teams are not only fun to watch, they are good. Real good.
To be fair, John Butler left in January of 2001, and Tom Donahoe was hired shortly there after. With a draft in April, it’s hard to say just how much of this work was Butler’s and how much of it was Donahoe’s. Donahoe was at the helm in April, but on Sesame Street this would be the draft that didn’t fit with the others. I’m prone to think that this work was built on the back of things done before Donahoe got there.
But for now, let’s fire up the TARDIS and go back to the year 2000: Despite worry to the contrary, the world did not end in Y2K; the attacks of September 11th, 2001 had not happened yet; and the Final “Peanuts” comic strip was published on February 13th (just hours after Charles Schultz died).
In relative football terms, the Indianapolis Colts were defending AFC East champs having finished 13-3 with some second year QB named Peyton Manning. Manning was coming back for his third year. Jimmie Johnson was out in Miami, replaced by defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. Oh, and Thurman Thomas was also a Dolphin. The Tuna had just left New York, putting Al Groh in charge of Vinnie Testaverde, Curtis Martin and Wayne Cherbet. Lastly, New England looked poised to return to their position as perennial bottom feeders after some good years with Pete Carroll and Bill Parcells. Most fans felt pretty justified in thinking Robert Kraft was a moron for hiring Bill “fired from the Browns” Belichick after he turned in a 5-11 season.
Maybe, in retrospect, the world did end for the Buffalo Bills. They just didn’t know it yet.
The team was in “troubled times;” Western New York was used to winning the AFC East title, and was only a few years removed from routinely making the Super Bowl. From 1987-1994 Buffalo had made the playoffs, and from 1990-1993, the Super Bowl. Failing to qualify in 1994 was disappointing, but not soul shattering, for fans. Largely it was thought to be a blip. A tired team making a few transitions. They did bounce back a little, making the playoffs in 1995 and 1996. 1997 had been the team’s first year with out Jim Kelly at the helm, and just the second time in 10 years they had not qualified for the post season. The team got back into the mix in 1998, and lost in despicable fashion in 1999 to the Tennessee Titans in a Tennessee Wild Card game.
2000 was supposed to be a year of getting back to business for Buffalo.
To the Bills and their fans, this wasn’t crisis mode… yet. Most hoped they had seen the last of Rob Johnson, and that Doug Flutie would be allowed to continue sprinkling Flutie Flakes all over the place-guaranteeing Buffalo would be in the playoffs again.
No one thought this would be the first of 10 (and likely a few more) seasons in a row where Buffalo would fail to qualify for the playoffs.
The team finished 8-8 which was good enough for 4th in the AFC East. That is to say, it wasn’t very good at all-and certainly not playoff worthy. The season was dominated by one of the first of many themes to be repeated throughout the upcoming decade-Quarterback Controversy. This particular tele-novella starred overpaid, and under liked, Rob Johnson versus undersized, and undervalued fan-favorite Doug Flutie. Neither Johnson nor Flutie really “won” the job, and the lack of consistent leadership probably cost Buffalo down the stretch. After starting 3-4, Buffalo went on a four game winnings streak to sit at 7-4. Streaky is, as streaky does, however, and Buffalo lost four in a row before beating Seattle at Husky Stadium to close out the season-narrowly avoiding a losing season.
No one was particularly happy about the result.
Heading into the 2001 draft, Doug Flutie signed with the San Diego Chargers, and figured it was finally time for Johnson (who had come from Jacksonville for a 1st and 4th round pick) to step up to the plate. Whether anyone believed he could, or not, was anyone’s guess. Having invested so heavily in him, it’s probably a safe bet that the front office was squarely behind the decision to start Johnson at quarterback rather than go fishing in the draft for a new one.
As such, here is what I will call the hybrid Butler/Donahoe draft of 2001, the last year before the new regime would have a full year to make decisions.
Round 1, Pick 21: DB Nate Clements: “Nasty” Nate Clements proved to be a top Cornerback and Punt Returner for the Buffalo Bills. A 2004 Pro Bowl selection, 23 Interceptions with the Bills (good for 8th all time) and an excellent complement (while they were both there) to Antoine Winfield, Clements solidified a secondary that, surprisingly, would remain exceptional throughout the decade. Easily the best DB taken in the ’01 draft, and arguably one of the best players overall from that draft, Clements proved an excellent player for Buffalo until his departure in 2007.
Round 2, Pick 46: DE Aaron Schobel: Mainstay Phil Hansen had just finished his 10th season, Marcellus Wiley was off to San Diego, and Erik Flowers was proving to not be the impact rookie he was supposed to be. Buffalo needed to bolster a D-line that was already thin and going from 3-4 to 4-3 defense under new head coach Gregg Williams. Aaron Schobel picked up 6.5 sacks in his first year on the team, and 78 before he finished his career in Buffalo 9 years later (that’s second only to Bruce Smith). Schobel proved an incredibly solid and reliable player over his career, making two Pro Bowls and a second team All-Pro in 2006. Schobel has more sacks than any other taken in 2001 draft, and if he isn’t the best DE taken that year he’s easily the best left on the board at 46.
Round 2, Pick 58: RB Travis Henry: Antowain Smith was already out of favor in Buffalo in 2000, and Sammy Morris and Shawn Bryson could barely combine for 900 yards. Buffalo needed a running back, especially if they were going to give their floundering QB a chance to throw the ball to his two decent WRs (Eric Moulds and Peerless Price). So, with the 58th pick in the draft, Buffalo selected its third Pro Bowl player in three tries with Travis Henry.
Many will look at Henry’s off-field problems, and the fact that he didn’t last very long in the league after leaving Buffalo, but consider this: In four years, Henry amassed enough yards to be listed fourth all-time in rushing behind just Thurman Thomas, OJ Simpson and Joe Cribbs (5th in rushing touchdowns). Whatever happened after his departure from Buffalo (a topic I intend to address a bit more fully later) his years in Buffalo were incredibly productive.
Round 3, Pick 76: DT Ron Edwards: Edwards amounted to basically “just a guy.” While never amounting to too much on his own, he was a good substitute for better DTs in the lineup. He signed with Kansas City in ’06, where he is still playing.
Round 3, Pick 95: OT Jonas Jennings: while not a star, Jennings proved a solid tackle for a few transition years in Buffalo-and not bad value for a fourth round pick. He started 12 games in ’01, mostly on the right side. In ’02, he was given a shot to play the left side. Another theme of the decade was injuries, and Jennings was the first of many to go down and never be the same. In 2003, he was hurt. In 2004 he started 14 games, but Buffalo was not impressed enough to keep him around. He played in San Francisco until 2008 and was released in 2009. Currently he is not playing.
Round 4, Pick 110 LB Brandon Spoon: Spoon represents the dividing line in the 2001 draft. As good as the first five picks proved to be, the remaining picks are predictably ho-hum for picks taken in the bottom half of the draft. In the one year Spoon played in the NFL, he “started” for Buffalo. He made 65 tackles, 2 interceptions and finished (along with the rest of the team) at 3-13. After that he was done. The fact that he started at MLB as a rookie and was the 110th pick tells you how bad Buffalo’s D was. The fact he didn’t play again tells you how bad he was.
Round 5, Pick 144 Marques Sullivan: He didn’t do much his rookie year, but had a great comeback year in 02 and then 03, earning a Most Improved Player award. He was then let go and played for Chicago and New England briefly before retiring.
Round 6, Pick 178 FS Tony Driver: Sadly, Tony doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. He was listed as a Free Saftey from Notre Dame and, according to the ESPN bio page saw action in just 11 games over 2001 and 2002, making 4 tackles and 8 Kick Returns for a 157 yards. His long was 27 yards. The End.
Round 6, Pick 195 TE Dan O’Leary: A tight-end turned long snapper that couldn’t long snap. Was a Giant and a Steeler before being out of the league in ’02. He’s listed as playing 8 games and making 3 tackles total-probably all after turnovers or on special teams.
Round 6, Pick 196 Jimmy R. Williams: Williams is a strange case. He didn’t make the team in ’01, but signed with San Fran where he played for four years, then the Seahawks for 2 years and is currently on Injured Reserve with the Texans. Not great work by any stretch, but he’s played well enough to make squads here and there.
Round 7, Pick 214 WR Reggie Germany: Twelve catches for 203 yards in his career, all in the ’01 season for Buffalo. That was the end of him. I can only hope that Buffalo took him at 214 because they were pissed that a fella named TJ Houshmndzadeh had just come off the board at 204. (I do also think that Jimmy R. Williams would have been there at 214…just saying).
Round 7, Pick 238 DT Tyrone Robertson: Another “01 and done” guy. He contributed 2 sacks, 1 pass defended and 19 tackles to a pitiful ’01 team, and never played pro ball again.
Any team in any year would be excited to have three pro bowl players taken in one draft. Hindsight being 20/20, most Bills fans would give up their Mighty Taco for a draft like this any day of the week. Three solid starters, and a fourth and fifth decent player suitable for depth (Edwards and Jennings) is a great draft. Repeat that over two or three years and you have a championship team. Even repeat it at half the success over the next two or three years and you should have a competitive team-even if you are starting from scratch.
(Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that, while not really part of the draft discussion, All-Pro Brian Moorman was also picked up in 2001. Add to the mix Buffalo’s only other consistent player over the past 10 years, and it’s an even better offseason).
Further, there aren’t too many notable players that other teams picked up Buffalo can really kick yourself over. Kris Jenkins was maybe a guy they should have taken, but not at the expense of Clements. Chris Chambers, TJ Houshmandzadeh and Steve Smith were available to Buffalo-but the team had Eric Moulds and Peerless Price already on the team. Wide Receiver wasn’t really an issue (and Housh was a late round gold mine-no one was really high on him.) In sum, lots of hits-no real misses.
Look and behold Bills fans-this is the last "A" grade draft, the last even good draft, the Bills have had. In upcoming installments, I think evidence will demonstrate how this very good draft, as well as the whole team, was completely undermined by subsequent drafts.
This amounts to the last good moment in the directing of the Buffalo Bills ship. So enjoy it while you can.
(shorter posts from here on, promise!)