On Tuesday, ESPN's Gregg Easterbrook published an article entitled "How To Win Big By Losing Cheaply," and unsurprisingly mentioned the Buffalo Bills as a team that makes money without being good based on the NFL's revenue sharing system. Normally Easterbrook is spot on with his analysis, in my opinion, but this time there were some serious holes in his argument.
I think I need to say this before we even get started: this has nothing to do with the mainstream media picking on the Bills. I've received tweet after tweet about how it's another example of that practice. This is simply misinformation, and it's not a bias against one team or another. If the Bills were good, they'd get better coverage. The best announcing team was always calling the Bills games in the early '90s.
Getting back to the Easterbrook article, the main point is that teams that lose cheaply make just as much money as teams that win by spending money. Each seat that's paid for results in a net gain of somewhere between $20 and $30, according to Easterbrook's numbers, and he backs it up with data from the Green Bay Packers' books. No matter how good you are, that number stays the same.
Easterbrook also notes that most teams, including Buffalo, are going to sell 90 percent or more of their seats regardless of record. If an NFL team can gain $1 million or so by selling a few more seats, it's not really worth it to spend $10 million more on a better product, because you'd actually be about $9 million behind.
Those figures make perfect sense. The league's teams make their money from the TV deals. The stadium experience is a distant money-maker.
After that initial information is where Easterbrook completely loses me. It's not because I don't understand. It's because he uses terrible information to make his point:
For Buffalo, this is a recent pattern. Just before the 2009 season began, the Bills waived their starting left tackle, Langston Walker, and the team's highest-paid offensive player. Two games into the 2010 season, the Bills waived their starting quarterback, Trent Edwards, their second-highest-paid offensive player. Both actions increased profits while setting up an excuse for a losing season.
Easterbrook fails to mention that the Bills didn't cut Walker to save money. They cut him because he was bad. The team's mistake wasn't in releasing the guy to save money, as he implies, but in signing him in the first place. Releasing Walker was the right football move and pretty much everyone agreed to that fact despite the struggles of the Bills' offensive line. Walker started two games for the Oakland Raiders that season. That's how good he was - an injury fill-in.
Last year, the Bills released Edwards after three weeks, not two. (Edwards only played in two of those weeks, so maybe that's the confusion.) That's an honest mistake to make if you go look at Pro Football Reference and see a "2" next to Edwards' name. The other part of that sentence is so grossly incorrect it totally turns me off to the entire article.
Edwards was not the second-highest paid offensive player in 2010. In fact, he was far from it. As a former third-round pick playing out his rookie contract, Edwards was making a pittance compared to some of his offensive teammates. Here's a brief list of folks who made more than Edwards' $1 million in 2010 (the numbers are the yearly averages of the contract, unless better information was available):
- RB C.J. Spiller (Approx $5M)
- WR Lee Evans (Approx $4M)
- OT Cornell Green (Approx $3M)
- QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (Approx $3M)
- OL Geoff Hangartner (Approx $2.5M)
- WR Roscoe Parrish (Approx $1.5M)
- RB Fred Jackson (Approx $1.5M)
- OL Eric Wood (Approx $1.5M)
Edwards was the second-highest-paid quarterback on the team behind Fitzpatrick, whose $3 million salary was three times what they would have paid Edwards. They didn't release Edwards in a salary dump. It was purely based on play. They re-signed QB Levi Brown, who made less than $400K, and saved roughly $600K by doing so. That's not exactly breaking the bank, especially when the Bills would have made up that difference if they had been better and sold out all their games.
To Easterbrook's point of both of those moves setting up excuses for the Bills having a bad season, did it really hurt that Edwards wasn't under center? Nobody was pining for Edwards or Walker to be back on the team. He completely misses the validity of both of these moves.
Easterbrook mentions all of this in the wake of the Evans trade, which he says is just the latest example of how the Bills are cutting expenses without any care for on-field performance. This trade is the only three of his "salary dumps" that actually may have made the team worse, but he still fails to land a blow:
Buffalo, 11 consecutive years out of the playoffs, just traded one of its few established performers, Lee Evans, to the Ravens for a middling draft pick. Unloading Evans and replacing him with a minimum-salary young player cuts the Bills' costs by about $3 million this season, which is more than profits would rise if every seat were sold. Trading Evans makes a winning season less likely, but the odds of a profitable season go up -- and a built-in excuse is created. How long until a Buffalo team official says, "We knew we'd have an off year when we lost Lee Evans," as if he had been swept from the practice field by helicopter-borne commandos, rather than deliberately traded away.
While it's true that the Bills will save a little under $3 million this season by jettisoning Evans, it also needs to be noted that it wasn't merely a cost-saving move. Head coach Chan Gailey has been calling out Evans' route-running for more than a season, saying he needed to develop more underneath routes to become a complete receiver. That sentiment hasn't been disputed in the media or by fans.
At the same time, if Buffalo was so concerned about dumping his money, why didn't they cut Evans before the league year ended and his $1.5M roster bonus would need to be given? If that last bit of money is so important, as Easterbrook suggests, the Bills certainly shouldn't have paid it to Evans at the start of the league year.
While those previous statements were questionable, his comments on Aaron Maybin blow my mind:
During the offseason, coach Chan Gailey and general manager Buddy Nix repeatedly criticized defensive end Aaron Maybin, the 11th overall choice of the 2009 draft. Then this summer, they tried to trade him. The public criticism meant other teams knew Maybin would be waived, so no one made a trade offer, leaving the Bills with nothing when they released Maybin last week. So was the public criticism nonsensical? Not if the goal is to lose cheaply.
Making a great show of discussing how bad the previous regime's high draft pick was creates an excuse for Gailey and Nix to present a losing team in 2011 -- "What did you expect, when the guys who came before us blew the team's 2009 first-round pick?" Since arriving a year ago, Nix has waived, traded or let go four recent first-round draft choices (Maybin, Evans, Marshawn Lynch and Donte Whitner), cutting costs while shifting blame backward to the previous coach and general manager.
Let's start with Maybin, since Easterbrook did. Nix and Gailey have criticized Maybin publicly since they came on board. They were also surely doing it behind the scenes in an attempt to motivate the Penn State product. I highly doubt public criticism of Maybin led to his not being traded, and it had more to do with his zero career sacks. Drafting and not playing Maybin is not my idea of losing cheaply. It's my idea of blowing a first-round pick and spending a lot of money. The previous regime certainly deserves the blame for this, and Buddy Nix hasn't thrown them under the bus publicly.
Nix and Gailey haven't "made a great show of discussing how bad the previous regime's high draft pick was". And as for "cutting costs," Evans was the only one on his second deal - and the only one making a significant amount of money. Lynch was second-string behind Fred Jackson. There was little drop-off when Whitner was replaced by George Wilson. It seems like he's trying to make a point more than actually making football sense.
And that's the crux of my opinion on this article: Easterbrook is shoe-horning specific Bills into his argument for cutting costs, instead of making the easy points to make about trading Evans and talking about what the team spent on their total roster. It's not difficult to prove that the Bills are cheap, but he went out of his way to do that and got caught in some details.