2002 - Escape from Salary Cap Prison
8-8 record, 4 of 4 in AFC East, 10 of 16 in AFC, 17 of 32 in NFL
For coach Williams' second season the Bills made several key changes. Kevin Gilbride came in as the new offensive coordinator. DE Phil Hansen retired and the Bills cut some dead weight from the roster by releasing injury-prone QB Rob Johnson and former top pick DE Erik Flowers. LB Sam Cowart also did not re-sign after missing 2001 with an Achilles injury. Now that they had some salary cap space, the team also brought in some free agents signing Rams linebacker London Fletcher and Broncos OL Trey Teague. On draft day Buffalo selected massive Texas tackle Mike Williams fourth overall. In the second they picked WR Josh Reed and traded up to pick DE Ryan Denney before selecting Coy Wire in the third. Prior to day two of the draft Buffalo sent the Bills 2003 first round pick to New England in exchange for QB Drew Bledsoe. Bledsoe had become expendable with the emergence of Tom Brady the year before. The NFL also had a notable addition with the arrival of the Houston Texans. A division was added in each conference and both conferences were re-aligned. The Seahawks moved to the NFC. The Colts moved from the AFC East to the newly created AFC South leaving Buffalo, New York, Miami, and New England as the four teams in the division.
In the season opener, the Bills special teams could not compete giving up two kickoff return touchdowns including the game-winner in overtime to the Jets. Week 2 saw overtime as well but this time a Bledsoe to Price 48-yard bomb won it for Buffalo in the extra session. After a loss to the Broncos in week 3 the Bills found themselves in overtime again vs. Chicago. This one would end favorably and Drew Bledsoe's dump off to Travis Henry turned into a 28-yard touchdown reception. After a shootout loss to eventual AFC Champion Oakland the Bills got back on the winning track beating the expansion Texans and followed that with wins against Miami and Detroit. The 5-3 Bills then took on the defending champion Patriots in a highly anticipated game featuring Drew Bledsoe facing his old mates. Unfortunately Brady had four touchdown passes inlcuding two to former Bill Antowain Smith in a Patriot rout. Following the bye the once-hot Bills lost by one to Kansas City to even their record at 5-5. After a loss to the Jets the Bills were in real danger of completely collapsing but Bledsoe would have none of it. The next week against Miami he threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns as the Bills knocked out quarterback Ray Lucas to get a win over visitng Miami. Buffalo won despite a huge game from Ricky Williams, who carried 27 times for 228 yards and two scores. The following week Bledsoe threw four INTs against his old club and New England beat Buffalo 24-17 in a game that was never really that close. At 6-7 heading into week 15 the Bills needed to win out to have any chance at the playoffs. With Doug Flutie and the Chargers coming to town the Bills had to be ready. After Flutie tied the score in the fourth quarter Travis Henry ran in the winning score and Buffalo at 7-7 was still on playoff life support. That is until Vonnie Holliday sacked Bledsoe five times, forcing three fumbles in a 10-0 loss to Green Bay that eliminated Buffalo from the playoffs. The final week saw the Bills hand the Bengals their 14th loss of the year and even Buffalo's record at 8-8.
Bledsoe had a monster year throwing for the most yards in team history (4,359, second in the NFL) on the most completions (375) and attempts (610). He also endured the most sacks in team history (54). The Bills' passing offense ranked fifth in the league and overall the Bills offense was 11. Travis Henry rushed for 1438 yards, the most by a Bills running back since Thurman Thomas in 1992. Eric Moulds set a team record that still stand with 100 receptions and Peerless Price matched the previous team record with 94 receptions. Both also exceeded 1250 yards; Moulds with 1292 and 10 touchdowns, Price with 1252 and 9 TDs. The defense, Williams specialty in Tennessee, was still giving up too many points ranking 27 of 32 in scoring defense. With the potent offense if the defense had been more capable this team could have gone places. Drew Bledsoe, Travis Henry, Eric Moulds, and Ruben Brown were named to the Pro Bowl. Moulds and Brown were second team All-Pros. In 2002 the Bills added Super Bowl center Kent Hull to the Wall of Fame. Hull retired after the 1996 season. Also prior to 2002 the Hall of Fame welcomed QB Jim Kelly as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Kelly joined O.J. Simpson and Billy Shaw as the only Bills players to gain enshrinement. Coach Marv Levy is also enshrined in the Hall of Fame.