Inside Bills Report

The NFL coaching carousel is spinning freely and the Buffalo Bills have hopped aboard. Twenty-four hours after announcing that he would not renew the contract of Gregg Williams, who went 17-31 in his three seasons capped by this season's disappointing 6-10 mark, president and general manager Tom Donahoe released an early four-man list of replacement candidates he hopes to interview.

On top are New England Patriots coordinators Romeo Crennel (defense) and Charlie Weis (offense), along with St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith and Donahoe's own defensive coordinator, Jerry Gray.

The NFL coaching carousel is spinning freely and the Buffalo Bills have hopped aboard.

Twenty-four hours after announcing that he would not renew the contract of Gregg Williams, who went 17-31 in his three seasons capped by this season's disappointing 6-10 mark, president and general manager Tom Donahoe released an early four-man list of replacement candidates he hopes to interview.

On top are New England Patriots coordinators Romeo Crennel (defense) and Charlie Weis (offense), along with St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith and Donahoe's own defensive coordinator, Jerry Gray.

With the Patriots and Rams in the playoffs but having a bye this weekend, Donahoe needed to move quickly in requesting (and getting) permission to speak with Crennel, Weis and Smith. After Friday, they are off limits until their team's playoff runs end.

Also on Donahoe's wish list: fired former head coaches Jim Fassel (Giants), Tom Coughlin (Jaguars) and Dick Jauron (Bears).

After striking out with Williams, it's believed Donahoe favors a candidate with NFL head coaching experience this time around, particularly since he likely won't get another mulligan in three or four years if this hire doesn't work out.

But Donahoe isn't painting himself into a corner.

"It's always nice when you can get that, but I don't want to say we need, A, B, C, D to have a head coach," he said. "We need to get the right head coach and I need to do a better job of doing that this time around."

It was Williams' solid resume after an 11-year run as an assistant in the Tennessee Titans organization, plus a strong interview, that swayed Donahoe in 2001. That season's Super Bowl coordinators, John Fox and Marvin Lewis, were passed up. Fox's Carolina Panthers won the NFC South this season and Lewis' Cincinnati Bengals made a big leap to a .500 finish.

It was the Titans' 1999 Super Bowl run and their No. 1 defensive finish in 2000 that made Williams a hot candidate, but in Buffalo, he never could match results on the field with his big talk off it.

Strapped with a weak roster hamstrung by a salary cap purge, Williams' 3-13 rookie season was a throwaway, but it did bring in top rookies such as Travis Henry, Nate Clements, Aaron Schobel and Jonas Jennings.

In 2002, Donahoe had cleared enough cap room to land such players as Drew Bledsoe, London Fletcher and Mike Williams. With Bledsoe reviving his career and players like Henry and Peerless Price enjoying breakout seasons, the Bills improved to 8-8 and were in the playoff hunt until the final two weeks. The future was indeed bright.

When Donahoe went out and spent upwards of $20 million on defensive free agents Takeo Spikes, Sam Adams, Jeff Posey and Lawyer Milloy -- and upgrades were made to the coaching staff -- the Bills were poised to compete for the AFC East title, with some in the national media even picking them as a Super Bowl contender.


After opening the year with lopsided wins over New England and Jacksonville, the Bills went into an unexplained tailspin they never pulled out of. Buffalo was 4-3 in mid-October. Then -- with Bledsoe struggling mightily with 22 turnovers and the loss of a healthy Eric Moulds at wide receiver -- the Bills lost seven of their final nine games, failing to score an offensive touchdown five times down the stretch and seven times overall.

Buffalo's defense improved to No. 2 in the NFL but that kind of offensive drought was too much to compensate for in a critical stretch of games where the team lost games by margins of 4, 2, 3 and 2 points.

"We just didn't feel we had made enough progress this year," Donahoe said. "We felt the first year Gregg was here there were a lot of extenuating circumstances, that it wasn't fair to judge him on the roster and the salary cap situation. The second year, we made significant progress and we felt we had improved the roster to take another step this season. We did not. We have regressed this year and I just didn't have the confidence going forward that we could get that turned around."

Wrapping up the season with 20-3 and 31-0 losses to division rivals Miami and New England, coupled with some player unrest, sealed Williams' fate.

Buffalo's offense wound up 30th overall and 30th in points scored while the defense was No. 2 in yards and No. 5 in points given up.

Buffalo was 2-6 on the road and lost 10 of its last 12 road games under Williams. The Bills were 2-4 in the division, making Williams 5-15 for his career. In that same span, New England's Bill Belichick is 15-5.

Adding up the numbers, Donahoe had no choice but to conclude his team had veered too far off course to salvage the career of his hand-picked coach.

The Bills finished with the fewest takeaways in the NFL (18) for a second straight year; were minus-16 in turnovers (18-34); allowed an NFL-high 51 sacks; were minus-13 in sacks (38-51); and didn't score a touchdown in seven games.

"Gregg was a pleasure to work with from beginning to end. I have no complaints," Donahoe said. "I can't say anything publicly bad about the guy, other than we didn't win enough football games."

Williams originally was offered three-, four- and five-year deals by the Bills and he chose three. Last summer, he was offered a one-year extension with a team option to extend it beyond that, and he also turned that down, banking that were the Bills to make the playoffs, he'd have more leverage to negotiate a richer deal.

The gamble backfired.

"We weren't able to do as well as I thought this year, to be able to continue on," Williams said. "But he (Donahoe) has done a very good job of positioning the team to take the next step, and hopefully the Bills will do that. I've taken some great experiences from this job, and I'm just sorry I didn't get an opportunity to take it to the next level."

Players reacted with mixed feelings.

"I like Gregg," linebacker Takeo Spikes, who saw plenty of upheaval during his five year in Cincinnati. "I don't think a lot of stuff that went on was his fault, but whenever things aren't getting done in an organization, you have to look to the top. It's just the way it is."

Said tight end Mark Campbell: "Obviously, I prepared myself for it because of the year we had, but it was disappointing for me because (Gregg) was loyal to the players. I feel bad because if we had played better, he would still have his job. But it's a bottom-line business."


--Many Bills observers don't think it was Gregg Williams who should've gotten the boot, but rather, QB Drew Bledsoe. Bledsoe completed his worst statistical season since his rookie season of 1993, throwing for a mere 2,860 yards with 11 TDs, 12 interceptions, an NFL-most 49 sacks and a 73.0 rating, 13 points lower than last season. Bledsoe committed 22 turnovers himself (10 fumbles), which is more than the Chiefs, Titans, Colts and Jets had as a team. GM Tom Donahoe continues to lead the blocking for Bledsoe, and it's better than the blocks his line gave him. "He took more bullets than a '30 Packard in one of those Al Capone movies and I don't' think it was fair," Donahoe said. "I think some other people on our team should've stood up, some of our coaches should've stood up. I don't think Drew deserves to be treated the way he was treated this year. He's a quality quarterback and he's an even better person and we didn't help him enough. We put him in too many situations where he couldn't win." Coordinator Kevin Gilbride can take that as a sign to cancel the in-ground pool.

--LB Takeo Spikes had no problem with New England coach Bill Belichick throwing the ball with a 31-0 lead last weekend or putting his starting defense back in the game for a successful goal-line stand to preserve the shutout in the closing seconds. "If had a chance to run the score up, I'd run it up," Spikes said. "If the other team is not prepared, it's not your fault. In that respect, Bill Belichick is a coach that if you play for him you love him, but if he's not with you, you're against him. That's his mentality. I like him."

--The Bills and New York Jets each finished 6-10 but the Bills wound up third in the AFC East by virtue of their 2-4 record in division games. New York was 1-5. The third-place finish pits the Bills against the third-place teams from the AFC South (Houston) and West (Oakland) next season. Buffalo will be wracking up some serious frequent flier miles with three West Coast trips -- San Francisco, Seattle and Oakland.

--P Brian Moorman, a Pro Bowl alternate for a second straight year, established three team marks this season: highest punting average for a career (42.83), for a season (44.56) and for a game (56.6). Paul Maguire (42.12, 44.50, 55.14) held the old records.

--New England called its 31-0 victory over Buffalo poetic justice, matching the score the Bills beat them by in the season opener. It was nice of kicker Adam Vinatieri to clank a 24-yard field goal attempt off the left upright then later making a 24-yarder to make the score come true. It marked just the 18th time in NFL history that two teams played two games in a season that ended with identical scores.

--RB Travis Henry capped a courageous season with 62 yards rushing in the Patriots loss, giving him 1,356 for the season, the seventh-best total in Bills history. Henry, who missed one game with torn rib cartilage, played the final 6 1/2 games on a broken right fibula. "There are going to be some changes made," Henry said. "Last year we worked on defense, this year it's offense. We didn't play very well." He did. For his three-year career, Henry ranks fourth on the Bills rushing list with 3,523 yards and needs 923 to top Joe Cribbs.

--Bills assistant GM Tom Modrak will interview with the Miami Dolphins, perhaps as soon as Friday, for a newly created GM-like position. Modrak, a 27-year veteran of the NFL personnel wars, is a leading candidate each year at this time for any top personnel job but he's not eager to make a move. He has often said he's content staying in Buffalo and assisting long-time friend Tom Donahoe and this season's disappointing 6-10 record has left a taste of unfinished business in Modrak's mouth. "Absolutely. It's my only focus, really, as it's been said 100 times," Modrak said. "We feel like we've got a good team and we just have to get a few things straightened out and changed to get ourselves right. Like I've said, there's nothing like the taste of winning in the NFL."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "As far as the future, you can't predict the future. Hopefully, I'll have the opportunity to continue to coach in the National Football League. That's what I want to do. I've had a good run so far and hopefully that will continue, we'll just have to wait and see. As far as immediately, maybe I'll land a radio talk show job and second-guess everybody from the East coast to the West coast before I get on the coaching circuit again." -- Gregg Williams, fired as the Bills' 12th head coach after three seasons and a 17-31 record.


Ruben Brown's season ended on a mysterious and controversial note, perhaps befitting of the Gregg Williams Era where a lot of unexplained occurrences were the norm.

While Williams said Brown missed the regular-season finale at New England for "personal reasons," Brown's agent, Eric Metz, said it was for disciplinary reasons stemming from Brown being late for practice.

It appears those personal reasons Williams' alluded to were his and not Brown's. Brown had voiced his displeasure with the work of coordinator Kevin Gilbride and, according to some teammates, the two had a confrontation in a team meeting.

After being late for practice last Tuesday -- Brown did not have an excuse and apologized profusely, according to Metz -- he was sent home. When he showed up on time the rest of the week, Williams wouldn't allow him on the field or to board the team's charter the day before the game.

Brown was not suspended and received a full game check.

"Ruben's a professional who made a mistake and he's been made -- in my estimation -- to overpay for that mistake but it's not my team," Metz said. "He'll live with it and move forward." When players cleared out their lockers last Sunday, Brown asked GM Tom Donahoe if he would be allowed to attend the last team meeting and Donahoe said, "Yes, you're part of the team."

Where it goes from here is open to conjecture. Yes, Williams has been fired but this is Donahoe's decision now. Brown is due a $1.8 million roster bonus in March and despite Brown earning his team-record eighth consecutive Pro Bowl berth, his play has slipped and the team may release him.

"When things settle down, Ruben and I can sit down and come to some type of resolution," Donahoe said.

Brown welcomes that day. "It's just going to be me and him so we can get an understanding of where the team is going and where I fit into the whole situation," Brown said.

Brown was coy on why Williams refused to let him play against the Patriots, but said: "I wanted to play. They asked me not to play, and I respected that. I never quit. I'm sure everyone who comes to the games, knows me or played with me knows I never quit."

Brown, who played much of the season with a badly injured elbow, remains one of Buffalo's most popular and civic-minded players.

"Ruben is determined to help these guys win again," Metz said. "His professionalism over a long period of time speaks for itself. It'd be a shame to have anything damage that. I don't want people thinking this was something that it's not."

COACHING CAROUSEL: All of Gregg Williams' 14 assistants are under contract through 2004 and Donahoe insists none will be forced upon the new head coach. But while that's true, there will be plenty of arm twisting and polite suggestions that the new man retain some of Williams' people in the name of fiscal sanity. Releasing everyone would cost owner Ralph Wilson about $3 million in salary.

Considering the results of 2003, the offensive staff is on shaky ground, headed by beleaguered coordinator Kevin Gilbride, while the defensive staff can expect some serious consideration of remaining on board. There are some solid coaches on that side of the ball, led by coordinator Jerry Gray, veteran assistant head coach Dick LeBeau, and defensive line coach Tim Krumrie.


CB, Antoine Winfield (URFA. Pound-for-pound among best tacklers in the NFL and can cover, but lack of interceptions hurts his chances of signing top deal, particularly with players like Charles Woodson also hitting the market. Bills will make attempt to re-sign Winfield, but won't go overboard and he has sent off plenty of signals that he's ready for a change).

--RB Sammy Morris (URFA. Serviceable third-down back coming off injury plagued year. Not a high priority, especially with coaching change).

--FB Sam Gash (URFA. 12-year veteran can still lay the lumber and somebody's got to block for Travis Henry and Willis McGahee).

--FB Philip Crosby (URFA. A cheaper, younger version of Gash. Food for thought).

--LB DaShon Polk (URFA. Excellent special teams player and versatile backup, Bills will make him an offer).

--DE Keith McKenzie (URFA. Eight-year veteran was active for just four games but deserved more playing time given the very average play of rookie Chris Kelsay. In his brief action, showed he could still be effective on pass-rush downs. Signed a one-year deal and won't re-sign with Buffalo unless he gets a guarantee of more work. Then again, he might not have a lot of takers.)

--OG Ross Tucker (RFA. Former Dallas Cowboy started last five games and held his own. Bills are hurting for guard play, and he'll get a solid offer).

--OT Marques Sullivan (RFA. Lost his starting right guard job in camp then was switched to tackle. Started last four games at left tackle for an injured Jonas Jennings and got mixed reviews. Still has great upside and should get an offer).

--QB Travis Brown (RFA. Bills like his potential as No. 2 backup and he'll get an offer).

--DT Ron Edwards (RFA. Former starter played just five games after rotator cuff injury. He's a solid player and worth retaining).

--RB Joe Burns (ERFA. Hard-nosed backup and solid special teams player, he'll be re-signed).

--LB Dominique Stevenson (ERFA. Top special teams hitter. He'll be retained).

FEELING A DRAFT: The Bills will select 13th overall and there's no shortage of needs to fill. GM Tom Donahoe has already come out saying that finding a quarterback of the future to groom in the wake of Drew Bledsoe's struggles is a "priority." It's not likely that Miami of Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger or Mississippi's Eli Manning would slip out of the top 10, but the Bills would be waiting with their mouth's open. It's more likely they would hope to land the likes of a Phillip Rivers (N.C. State) or Josh Harris (Bowling Green) later on.

Aside from QB, finding immediate help at WR, offensive center or guard, TE and defensive end would help nicely. Buffalo needs speed at wideout to stretch the field, take the heat off Eric Moulds, and make the running game work.

MEDICAL WATCH: The season ended with starting tackles Mike Williams (knee) and Jonas Jennings (hip/toe) out injured. Williams appears to be fine and isn't expected to need any surgical procedures. Jennings missed the final four games after going on injured reserve with a broken right big toe. His injury also didn't require surgery and he should be fine heading into next season, but the 2001 third-round pick will be watched closely by the team's medical staff. Jennings also struggled with a painful hip flexor that caused him to miss another game.

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