2001 - Salary Cap Prison
3-13 record, 5 of 5 in AFC East, 16 of 16 in AFC, 29 of 31 in NFL
After firing John Butler and Wade Phillips, Ralph Wilson needed to find a new general manager and coach. First he selected Tom Donahoe to fill the GM spot. Donahoe had led the Steelers to perennial appearances in the playoffs as general manager and was greeted with open arms by Buffalo fans. Donahoe's first act was to hire Titans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams as head coach. Donahoe inherited a team $5M over the salary cap and major changes were needed. After a substantial evaluation of the roster by Williams and Donahoe they parted ways with Doug Flutie to save $5M. Linebacker John Holecek, defensive end Marcellus Wiley, and kicker Steve Christie all joined Flutie in San Diego where Butler was hired following his release from Buffalo. Other cap casualties were RB Antowain Smith, RB Jonathan Linton, OL Jamie Nails, DT Ted Washington, P Chris Mohr, and safety Henry Jones. The Bills' draft was better than the previous year. After the Bills traded their top pick to the Bucs and moving down in the process they selected cornerback Nate Clements. (Tampa Bay selected Kenyatta Walker - not exactly an all-world tackle.) In the second round Buffalo used their pick on defensive end Aaron Schobel and the pick from Tampa to select running back Travis Henry. All eleven draft picks made the final roster after the salary purge and the complete overhaul of the roster. The only major free agent addition was fullback Larry Centers and the Bills signed a punter from NFL Europe named Brian Moorman.
Buffalo began the year with four straight losses of two touchdowns or more. It was obviously a rebuilding year with a new coach and several new players. To make matters worse the Bills lost Pro Bowl linebacker Sam Cowart in the season opener with an Achilles tear. He would be gone for the season. Rob Johnson also could not stay healthy and left both the week 3 game against Pittsburgh and the week 4 game against the Jets giving way to Alex Van Pelt. After the bye week Buffalo won their first game 13-10 over the Jaguars. The next week Buffalo would travel to San DIego to play several former mates. Doug Flutie scrambled on a broken play and scored the winning touchdown in a 27-24 loss for Buffalo that included a blocked field goal at the end of regulation. The next week saw Payton Manning run a 33-yard naked bootleg for a score in a loss to the Colts and continued Buffalo's losing streak. The streak went a total of six games mostly without the services of quarterback Rob Johnson. Three were one score games and the final was a 35-0 shutout at the hands of San Francisco in a game where the team committed five turnovers. A one point win against the 1-11 Panthers gave Buffalo an ugly 2-10 record. Following two three-point losses the Bills got their final win of the season defeating the New York Jets 14-9 capitalizing on the Jets' three turnovers. A week 17 loss in Miami with third string quarterback Travis Brown at the helm dropped the Bills to a miserable 3-13 record.
Alex Van Pelt and Rob Johnson both started 8 games for the Bills in 2001. Van Pelt threw more passes, had more passing yards, and threw far more touchdowns than Johnson. Van Pelt also had a better winning percentage (2-6 to 1-7) as starter. Both the offense and defense were in the bottom five in scoring. Ultimately it was a forgettable year for Bills players. Some moral victories could be had in Travis Henry's rookie performance gaining 729 yards in 12 starts and Eric Moulds and Peerless Price both gaining close to 900 yards through the air. Rookie corner Nate Clements started 11 games and had three interceptions and fellow rookie Aaron Schobel tallied 6.5 sacks. The future was looking all right but the present was pretty awful. Offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard was fired after a single season on the job, replaced by Kevin Gilbride. Fullback Larry Centers and guard Ruben Brown were named to the Pro Bowl. (preseason cuts DT Ted Washington and DE Marcellus Wiley also made the squad.) During the season, Jim Kelly and Fred Smerlas were added to the Bills Wall of Fame. Kelly ranks number one in every major passing category in Bills history and at the time held every major single-season record as well. Smerlas was a great defensive tackle for Buffalo in the 1980s and played 155 straight games, the second-longest streak in team history. On a completely different tone from the season, former Bills coach Marv Levy was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame prior to the 2001 season. Levy is the winningest coach in team history (123 wins), led the Bills to 8 playoff appearances in 11 years, and currently ranks 17 on the list of all-time wins. He became the third Bill to earn enshrinement joining players O.J. Simpson and Billy Shaw.