The Buffalo Bills managed to wheedle tight end Charles Clay away from the Miami Dolphins in a move that capped a frenetic and wildly expensive phase of NFL free agency for the Bills in their first offseason under the ownership of the Pegula family.
The 2015 free agency period has been a stark departure from the approach of years past, and while the contracts doled out to Clay, LeSean McCoy, Percy Harvin, and Jerry Hughes undoubtedly make the team better right now, they also come with certain risk. If all this sounds familiar, it should. This isn't the first time the Pegulas have started things out with a bang.
The first full league year of the Pegula era at One Bills Drive harkens one to the first year of the Pegula era in downtown Buffalo with the Bills' wayward sporting brother, the Buffalo Sabres of the NHL. Like 2015 for the Bills, 2011 was a year marked by big spending and big dreams. In the case of the Bills, time will tell on how these moves pan out, but in looking back at the start of the Pegulas' reign over the Sabres, we can find optimism, regardless of the immediate returns on this new era in Bills football.
Terry Pegula began his ownership in the middle the Sabres' 2010-2011 season, boldly proclaiming, "From this point forward, the Buffalo Sabres' reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup." Four years later, the 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres might be the worst North American professional sports team we've seen since the winless 2008 Detroit Lions. That, more than anything, has some Bills fans worried that this spring of spending will lead to the same doom and gloom that befell the Sabres.
From a lifelong Sabres fan, I can tell you that's all rubbish, and that there's never been a better time to hop on board with the Sabres. In truth, their story should encourage Bills fans.
In the offseason that followed that 2011 announcement, the Pegulas remained undeterred by a stagnant hockey team that really only managed to make the playoffs that year (losing in the first round) because they were so pumped about new ownership. Basically, imagine that Week 2 Bills stomping of the Dolphins this past season after the ownership announcement, but played out for a month on ice.
The Pegulas doubled down on that roster, handing out big free agent contracts and making a few trades of future assets for veteran talent while going all-out on a team whose base of talent had just never proven it was enough without something better at the core.
Like this past year's Bills teams, the 2011 Sabres had some talent on the roster, but the team's strengths didn't line up with the trends of its respective league. The quickest road to perennial contention in hockey is to have a number of good centers, because they're as close to a quarterback as it gets on the ice. Like these Bills, those Sabres lacked the quarterback, and there was nothing the Pegulas could do but build up everything outside of that position.
Sound familiar? It should. Should it worry you? Nope.
The roster that awaited the Pegulas was a lemon to its core, even with some additions. Say what you want about Ville Leino, Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Regehr, and other names from that notorious first summer with the Sabres, but those players didn't make their new team worse.
The Sabres were doomed upon purchase thanks to no top-end talent and few top prospects to step up and take those roles. Maybe the Pegulas knew that, but a new culture had to be established to fans weary of close or close enough. If they'd simply walked in and carved the team to its bone right away after they'd just made the playoffs, that would have, at the very least, been as ill-received as their free agent spending ultimately was.
Ownership gave those Sabres teams every chance to win, but they lost. It was time for the next championship plan, which involved an infamous omen of suffering that's come to fruition over the last two seasons. It also resulted in the best prospect system in the NHL. Oh, and they already have one top center prospect, with another one potentially on the way in the 2015 NHL Draft.
The Sabres won't be playoff-ready next year, but in the slower-moving NHL, the organization is primed to start moving upward once more with young players who can be groomed or dealt for more established veterans. Instead of sitting in the purgatorial middle of the NHL - the worst place to be in that league - the Sabres are aggressively pursuing top talent via the best channels found in their respective league.
In the NFL, things work a little differently; the Bills won't be tanking, of course, but the idea remains. As they did with the Sabres four years ago, the Pegulas have ignored the warning bells, and given the team at hand every chance to win right now. Where they gave long-term, front-loaded contracts to circumvent the NHL cap, they are now giving out back-loaded contracts to achieve the same purpose in the NFL.
You could argue the Pegulas are making the same mistake with the Bills that they made with the Sabres. They could be overrating their team. The Bills have a talented roster, but they still lack a top quarterback, and that could undo everything in 2015. But what's the alternative here? Blow it up? Stay not good enough? The Bills showed promise last year, and they appear to be close to the playoffs. Why not give them every chance to succeed?
Know that even if the worst happens for the Bills in 2015, you won't have to spend all summer bemoaning the status quo or worrying about being stuck with this team for years. If that happens, history suggests that management and ownership will be at it once again, seeking every avenue possible - even if it comes with daily media scrutiny - while spending every dollar necessary to make the Bills a championship team. In the end, that's what this is all about.