In 2001, after trying to come to an agreement on an extension, team owner Ralph Wilson realized that John Butler had no interest in staying on as the General Manager of the Buffalo Bills. As a result, Wilson chose to fire Butler and announced his retirement as President of the organization. He then handed the reins of his franchise to Tom Donahoe, who would act as team President and General Manager. Donahoe would then make several decisions that would set this once storied franchise back for nearly a decade.
Mistake #1: Hiring Gregg Williams as head coach
Before Donahoe would accept the job at One Bills Drive, one of two events took place; either Donahoe informed Ralph Wilson that he didn't want to take over with lame duck coach Wade Phillips in place, or Wilson decided he'd had enough of Phillips' stubbornness when it came to redoing his staff. The end result was that Wade Phillips was fired, Tom Donahoe was hired, and his first move as President/GM would be to find a new head coach. Donahoe compiled a list of candidates that included Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, New York Giants defensive coordinator John Fox, and Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Williams' preparedness and terrific interview impressed Donahoe enough that he gave Williams the job. One has to wonder where this organization would be right now if John Fox or Marvin Lewis had been given the job. Fox and Lewis reportedly gave a poor interview due to having to coach their respected defenses in Super Bowl XXXV.
Mistake #2: Switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3
Donahoe's next mistake was allowing Williams to change the team's base defense from the 3-4 style they had run for years under Marv Levy and Wade Phillips to a 4-3 style that Williams preferred from his days with the Titans. At the time, the 3-4 defense was losing popularity. The NFL is a copy cat league, and when one team finds something that works, others tend to try and follow suit. In my opinion, teams that find something that works, stick with it through thick and thin, and ignore what everyone else is doing are the franchises that consistently have the most success. Prior to 2001, the Bills' defense was one of the best in the league and performed as follows:
1998 - #6 overall ranking, 293.2ypg (#14 vs. pass 199.9 ypg / #5 vs. rush 93.3ypg)
1999 - #1 overall ranking, 252.8ypg (#1 vs. pass 167.2ypg / #4 vs. rush 85.6ypg)
2000 - #3 overall ranking, 276.6ypg (#4 vs. pass 179.2ypg / #6 vs. rush 97.4ypg)
In 2001, the first year under Williams after changing over to the 4-3:
2001 - #21 overall ranking, 330.8ypg (#13 vs. pass 197.4ypg / #16 vs. rush 133.3ypg)
Mistake #3: Letting DT Pat Williams leave
In Williams and Donahoe's defense, the Bills did rebound to become the #2 ranked defense in both 2003 and 2004, but it then plummeted to number 29 overall in 2005. Part of that rapid decline has to be attributed to the loss of defensive tackle Pat Williams. After the end of the 2004 campaign, Donahoe had a chance to re-sign Pat Williams for the paltry sum of $4 million per year - an amount that, by today's standards for a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive tackle, would be seen as a bargain. Donahoe, however, felt that Williams had little to nothing left in the tank and allowed him to walk. And walk he did - to the Minnesota Vikings, where he has been selected to three consecutive Pro Bowls (2006-2008) and has been named a second team All-Pro (2007). Meanwhile, Donahoe made several more draft day gaffes, including the drafting of Chris Kelsay while Osi Umenyiora and Cory Redding were still on the board, and trading up in the second round of the 2002 draft to select Ryan Denney. But all of that pales in comparison to his handling of the offensive line.
Mistake #4: Neglecting the offensive line
Through the years, Bills fans have endured the struggle that has been the Bills' attempt to piece together a cohesive offensive line. Names like Mike Gandy, Bennie Anderson, Chris Villarrial, Marcus Price, and Mike Pucillo have brought nightmares to Bills fans. Rather than try to fix the line through the draft, Donahoe would take fliers on late round linemen like Dylan MacFarland, Ben Sobieski, and Justin Geisinger. When Donahoe did try to draft the big offensive tackle this team has needed for years, he struck out by selecting a player considered by many to be the fourth biggest draft bust of all time, in the form of Mike Williams.
Mistake #5: Dancing the QB Shuffle
Not all of the team's struggles to protect the quarterback have fallen on the offensive line's shoulders, however. Part of the blame has to fall on the shoulders of the quarterbacks themselves. After his first year on the job, Donahoe quickly realized that Rob Johnson and Alex Van Pelt were not the answer to the quarterback situation in Buffalo, so he traded a first round draft choice to the New England Patriots for QB Drew Bledsoe. After Bledsoe burst onto the scene, his star tailed off and the Bills traded up in the 2004 draft so they could select J.P. Losman. Three years after dealing a first round pick for Bledsoe, the Bills cut him, handing the reins of the franchise to Losman. However, after Losman struggled, he was benched in favor of journeyman Kelly Holcomb. Despite investing two first round draft choices into the quarterback position over a five year span, the Bills still didn't have the QB of the future.
Mistake #6: Replacing Gregg with Mike Mularkey
After the 2003 season, Donahoe fired Williams. Knowing that he needed to hit a home run, Donahoe reached back to his Pittsburgh roots and tabbed then-Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey for the job. While I can't rip the job that Mularkey did as head coach for the Bills simply because he quit before it was finished, I can, however, say that when coaches like Lovie Smith were also available to be hired, this qualifies as another Donahoe blunder.
Mistake #7: Choosing Tom Clements over Ken Whisenhunt
Then-Steelers coach Bill Cowher told Mularkey that he could have his pick from the Steelers staff to be his offensive coordinator - either QB coach Tom Clements, or tight ends coach Ken Whisenhunt. Mularkey wanted Whisenhunt, but Donahoe, who apparently thought he knew the Steelers staff better then a man who was a part of said staff for eight years, overruled Mularkey and took Clements instead. Over the next three years, the Steelers would never have an overall offensive ranking below 16. Meanwhile, the Bills never got above 25. Whisenhunt is now the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, and took one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL to the Super Bowl last year. Tom Clements is now the Green Bay Packers' quarterbacks coach.
While the Bills did have their opportunities to make the playoffs in the Donahoe era - most notably the 2004 season that ended by losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers' second string players - the plethora of horrible decisions and poor drafting set this team back much longer. I can't blame him for everything that has gone wrong over the last decade, and of course the three 7-9 seasons turned in by Dick Jauron are not his fault, although he should shoulder some of the blame for the first one at least. But one has to wonder where this team would be if John Fox was the head coach of a team running a 3-4 defense with Pat Williams as its anchor and Osi Umenyiora on the outside.
I used some pages from Wikipedia to refresh my memory: