2004 - The Mularkey Era Begins
9-7 record, 3 of 4 in AFC East, 8 of 16 in AFC, 10 of 32 in NFL
After finishing the previous season 6-10, Bills coach Gregg Williams was not retained. Then-Bills GM and former Steelers GM Tom Donahoe went back to his former team to find Williams' replacement, hiring Steelers Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey as the team's new head coach. Because of the defense's success, most coaches on that side of the ball were retained, including coordinator Jerry Gray. Mularkey brought in seasoned league minds Sam Wyche (QB coach), Jim McNally (offensive line), and Tom Clements (offensive coordinator) to coach the offense.
The Bills lost Pro Bowl Guard Ruben Brown in free agency as well as cornerback Antoine Winfield. With their first pick in the draft, the Bills picked speedy WR Lee Evans as a compliment to Eric Moulds. The team then traded back into the first round to get Tulane quarterback J.P. Losman, costing them second and fifth round picks along with 2005's first rounder. After the draft, Buffalo signed several undrafted free agents as well, including CB Jabari Greer, RB Shaud Williams, and TE Jason Peters. The Bills also were finally able to see what Willis McGahee could do after he spent a year on injured reserve. After long-term injuries to Losman (broken leg) and Travis Brown, the Bills signed QB Shane Matthews to back up Drew Bledsoe.
In week one Buffalo lost on a last-second touchdown pass from Byron Leftwich, 13-10. After a loss in Oakland behind an anemic offensive output the Bills hosted New England. Buffalo jumped out to an early 17-10 lead in the second quarter on a Terrence McGee kickoff return touchdown and a Bledsoe to Moulds touchdown pass. The Bills then allowed 21 unanswered points on two Brady touchdown passes and a fumble return touchdown to lose 31-17. A week 5 loss to the Jets dropped the Bills to 0-4 and it looked like another 6-10 season might even be hard to reach. But in his first career start McGahee, in relief of injured Travis Henry, rushed for 111 yards and Aaron Schobel had 2.5 sacks in a 20-13 win over Miami. Five turnovers and no touchdowns helped the Ravens beat the Bills for the team's fifth loss of the year. Buffalo's offense came alive the next week behind McGahee's 102 yards and two rushing touchdowns. Terrence McGee also returned a kick for a score in this game and Buffalo hung 38 on Arizona in a big win. The momentum carried over and McGahee once again set the tone running around and through Jets defenders all day in a 22-17 win over New York. And then the Patriots came and ruined everything. Buffalo fell behind 23-0 and lost by the score of 29-6, the only points coming on a Jonathan Smith punt return touchdown. The Bills were outgained 428 yards to 125 and trailed in time of possession 41:22 to 18:38. The Bills sat at 3-6 and a longshot for a winning record let alone a playoff birth. But that's when Buffalo turned it on winning six straight games to get to 9-6 and on the verge of the playoffs. A 37-7 win against the Rams (thanks to Mark Campbell's three TD receptions) was followed by a 38-9 win over the Seahawks (four McGahee touchdowns) and Buffalo's offense was finally humming along. The following week the Bills played Miami in South Florida. The offense was at it again and Bledsoe threw four touchdown passes in a 42-32 win. Cleveland came to town the next week and Buffalo put their Lake Erie neighbors in their place. The Bills allowed only 17 offensive yards. Let's repeat that stat. The Bills defense allowed 17 yards of Browns offense all game. It was the fifth-lowest number in NFL history. To get there the team allowed negative 12 yards passing. How's that? The Bills registered 8 sacks and forced five turnovers. Thanks to the turnovers the Bills scored 37 points and in doing so set a franchise record for points in a four game stretch (154 or 38.5 points per game). The Bills fell short of that average the next week managing only 33 points in a 16 point win over the Bengals. Buffalo scored in all three phases of the game on a Lee Evans TD reception, a Takeo Spikes interception return, and a Jason Peters punt block recovery. The team was now 8-6 and riding a five game win streak on the back of a high-scoring offense. In week 16 the Bills pushed the streak to six games with a 41-7 demolition of the Niners. The Bills scored 30+ points in their sixth straight game, a new team record, and were now one win away from the most improbable playoff birth in team history. The Bills, 9-6, hosted the Steelers in Week 17 with Pittsburgh having secured the number one seed in the playoffs. They literally had nothing to play for where Buffalo would make the playoffs with a win. Playing a roster of backups the Steelers shut down the Bills offense, holding them to just 267 yards, and Buffalo lost the game - and a chance at the playoffs - by the final of 29-24.
The Bills offense led by Willis McGahee and Drew Bledsoe ranked seventh in the league in scoring with 395 points but ranked only 25 in yards. This discrepancy can be largely attributed to excellent field position from Buffalo's special teams units led be returners Terrence McGee and Nate Clements. Bledsoe barely missed throwing for 3000 yards and fired 20 TDs while McGahee rushed for 1128 yards and 13 TDs (4th in the NFL) in only 11 starts. Eric Moulds was once again solid eclipsing 1000 yards receiving (1043) for the fourth and last time of his career. Rookie Lee Evans contributed right away with 48 catches and 843 yards, a remarkable 17.6 yards a reception. London Fletcher led the second-ranked defense (for the second year in a row) with 94 solo tackles, Schobel recorded eight sacks, and Clements recorded 6 INTs (good for third in the league). Even Brian Moorman had something to brag about, booting an 80-yard punt in 2004. Terrence McGee made the Pro Bowl on the strength of his 3 TD returns. Joining him in Hawaii were members of that excellent defense; DT Sam Adams, LB Takeo Spikes, and CB Nate Clements. Spikes and McGee were both named All-Pros as well. In 2004, Guard Jim Ritcher joined the Bills Wall of Fame. Ritcher was a first round pick for Buffalo in 1980 and played 14 seasons for Buffalo, earning two trips to the Pro Bowl.