Donahoe's "High Risk-High Stakes" Approach

Following the recent announcement of Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to the Bills' head post, it cannot be more obvious that Tom Donahoe seems to prefer a high-risk approach to running the team. He certainly has not put to rest the rumors that he needs to maintain a certain and significant degree of control over his head coaches.

This may work fine for a team with a recent history of success, but the Bills are clearly not that team.

Upon arriving in Buffalo Donahoe embarked upon a rebuilding plan to put a playoff caliber team on the field this past season. That failed miserably. Now, when fans, the ones buying the tickets and luxury boxes, are looking for a proverbial bone to be thrown their way they get a head coach with only three seasons experience as an offensive coordinator and whose offenses have trended downward since he took the helm as the OC there. He apparently interviewed well however. It seems as if the Bills just went through this exercise.

In order for Donahoe to stay off the hot seat, a situation that could very well spell out the end for Mr. Donahoe in Buffalo, he will have to see the Bills come out of the gates strongly this season. Patient Bills fans have tolerated the "Donahoe Methodology" for three seasons now and while I doubt that any are expecting a trip to the AFC Championship game this fall, they certainly will be expecting at least a .500 mark and possibly more. Reasonably so I might add. In fact, it should have materialized this past season, but Donahoe's risky high-level moves instead of good, solid team-building decisions preempted it.

For if the Bills cannot achieve some early success this season, then it will have put the Bills back into a rebuilding status that will extend well into next season as well, at minimum. Frankly, it is pretty clear to me that this is exactly where the Bills actually are, in yet another rebuilding phase.

For there is simply no way that a team led by a rookie head coach with only eight seasons of tactical coaching experience along with a rookie offensive coordinator will turn this horrendous offensive unit into a competitive team this fall. Throw in Bledsoe at quarterback, and there is precious little reason for fans to hold out for much more than a .500 season as a good goal. As well, how will Tom Clements, a former quarterbacks coach, perform as an offensive coordinator? Will he tend naturally towards the natural inclination to over rely on the QB in this case Bledsoe, again?

This just in, five years is a bit too long of a rebuilding program during the free-agency era for most fans Mr. Donahoe. Given that there would be no guarantee of success in the Mularkey era following that, there are risks that the Bills may not have a winning record for most of the rest of this decade.

No disrespect to Mike Mularkey intended, but Mularkey has coached in a significant capacity in this league since only 1995 when he became the Steelers' tight ends coach after a stint in the NFL as a tight end himself. He served as the tight ends coach for five seasons prior to becoming the offensive coordinator for only three seasons. This is not very much NFL coaching experience at all for a head coach. How does he expect to compete with Belichick, Edwards, and Wannstedt in the division? Granted, Edwards and Wannstedt are not exactly the Donald Trumps of NFL coaching, but at least they have been around the block as head coaches.

In fact, I was against Jerry Gray getting the job for two reasons and I am a big fan of Gray's. First, he has served the Bills extremely well as the defensive coordinator. But secondly, I am of the belief that he is simply not ready for the job and task at hand as a head coach in the NFL at this time. He has more experience than Mularkey does. How much less so is Mularkey, whose offenses have not performed to the level that Gray's defenses have, not ready? This situation will also provide an additional hurdle that the Bills will need to leap over when playing divisional rivals with very experienced coaching to say the least.

Perhaps Donahoe should have taken a less risky approach, at least insofar as the fans perceptions go. Fans would have understood a failed Fassel era, or a failed Crennel or Weiss era, and even a failed Smith era. But a failed Mularkey era under the given circumstances will not play out well in Buffalo.

Certainly this is something that Mr. Donahoe should have thought about in making his decision. The other thing that he should have thought about is hiring a coach who, conveniently and "presumably coincidentally" as we are expected to believe, "oh, by the way", also would like to keep Drew Bledsoe on in futile attempts to "resurrect the dead." Donahoe further puts the rest of his reputation and career in Buffalo if not quite possibly as a GM for any team in this league, on the line and directly attached to whether or not Mularkey can "whip Drew into all-pro shape" again.

Quite honestly, I would rather buy a Power Ball ticket and hope for the best. If you are going to reach for the stars Mr. Donahoe, then do it with a player that will alter the landscape if he succeeds, not one who will merely play slightly above average ball at best while unable to play well against the better and stiffer competition!

Furthermore, in order for Bledsoe to play average or above average ball he will need a near perfect offensive line, which is no secret. What are the odds for that occurring? The same need existed last season and Donahoe's solution was Ben Sobieski, a fifth rounder who did not start in college and journeyman and inexperienced starter Ross Tucker.

It is clear now that a part of the decision was likely a willingness on Mularkey's part to agree to keep Drew Bledsoe on as the undisputed quarterback in Buffalo. Mularky is heralded for his offenses while with the Steelers. He is noted for the emergence of Tommy Maddux last season. However, his quarterbacks in his system have produced the following numbers over the last three seasons: Stewart 14 TDs/11 INTs, Maddux 20/16 (13 games), and Maddux 18/17 this past season. This does not exactly scream out that Bledsoe, far more immobile than either Stewart or Maddux, will be headed to the Pro Bowl again next season.

This past season Mularkey's offense in Pittsburgh yielded the league's 31st ranked rushing attack and the league's 14th ranked passing attack. So he will have his work cut out for him. He may have a healthy Willis McGahee to make him look good, but even that is uncertain at best at this point. Even if McGahee does play, the fact remains that he has had three significant knee injuries in as many of his last seasons.

Moreover, if you talk to Steeler fans, many complained about the same things that Bills fans complained about with Gilbride's offense. Some statistics about Mularkey's offense at Pittsburgh this season include ranking 7th in offensive penalty yardage, 19th in 3rd-down conversions, 25th in yards-per-play.

The rumors are now that Bledsoe will stay and "be the man." I believe this to be an enormous mistake where if it succeeds will produce only an average quarterback with average production, but if it fails, will set the team back at least another season and possibly much more dependent upon who the quarterbacks behind Bledsoe are. Van Pelt's retention necessarily means one less quarterback prospect on the roster and "behind Drew" and therefore increases the likely length of time that it will take for the Bills to find a future quarterback.

Also rumored is the possible promotion of Dick LeBeau to defensive coordinator. Why Mularkey would replace Gray who has had the Bills' defenses playing incredibly well for the last 26 games is beyond me. It would also destroy the only remaining positive element of chemistry that would be pivotal in the transition to putting a competitive team on the field this season.

Yet, why retain success when you can replace it with a coordinator whose scoring defenses were ranked 30th out of 30, 31st out of 31, and 21st out of 31 during his tenure as the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati from '97 to '99. Then as head coach, 14th out of 31, 32nd out of 32, and 28th out of 32 from '00 to '02.

In case it is not clear, that would be dead last in the league in 3 of 6 seasons, amongst the bottom 5 teams in 4 of 6 seasons, and an average defensive scoring rank of 26th during his tenure.

Nothin' but the best for the Bills, eh! Perhaps someone ought to send a health department official over to One Bills Drive in order to go have a look-see at what's in the Kool-Aid there.

Another point of optimism from fans over Mularkey's hiring, one of the few I might add, is seemingly that he will bring Jim McNally a reputable offensive line coach to the Bills. I have no problem with that, in fact, it is obviously a great idea. But you are not going to make an omelet by cracking open a bunch of peanuts.

The Bills had more than minor issues on the offensive line last season in ‘02. Donahoe's solution was to draft a fifth round non-starting guard and then pick up a journeyman backup with practically no experience in Ross Tucker off of free agency. Then naturally in keeping with the trend and their own brands of wisdom, he and Williams replaced a seemingly well playing Marques Sullivan with a rookie and completely inexperienced former 7th rounder in Mike Pucillo. Then they wondered why the offensive line had regressed.

The problem with this is that if a similar path is pursued this year, then doing more with less with Bledsoe at the helm will never materialize. Mr. Donahoe could not seem to figure that out last season, so I am left to question and wonder whether he will figure it out this season. My prediction at this point is near disaster and chaos by week 6.

What will be the Bills' draft/free-agency strategy this offseason? If it turns out to be similar to last year's which did not produce one single starting player as of yet, took extreme risks, and was by and large useless for last season, the then current season, then Bills fans can expect similar play this season with few things changed and with the full support of the coaching staff behind Bledsoe.

Hiring Mularkey may prove to be sheer genius by the "genius" GM. However, reason suggests that there will be a substantial learning curve ahead and some significant and extremely consequential bumps and issues along the way. Hiring a Fassel, Crennel, Weiss, Smith or any one of several other potential options would have mitigated this learning curve quite possibly very substantially.

This team is very clearly again in a state of rebuilding although that word has not yet popped up since it would likely not be too long following that that the words "Donahoe" and "resigns" would appear in the same announcement headline. As such, 8-8 would be a good goal this season and the Vegas over-under will likely be 6 ½ or 7 given what we know at this point.

The ball is now fully in your court Mr. Donahoe. You have an uphill battle before you. You need to conduct an incredibly productive offseason while actually addressing the team's most pressing needs adequately, something that you failed to do last offseason. You will also need to give fans some tangible hope that this team can actually win some games this year against some teams that will be better than .500 and not simply win 6 games at the hands of the few teams that will just happen to be worse than the Bills.

Your political capital has been expended! The tolerance for error this offseason on your part has been reduced to almost nothing. Your good will amongst fans following your chiding of the people in the region recently, notwithstanding your self-serving apology, has diminished to almost nothing.

"Donahoe speak" and lipservice trying to pass off defensive coordinators such as Dick LeBeau off as anything other than being terrible as their record suggests, should fall on deaf ears. What will fix this team now is not signings of more high-profile skill position players including wide receivers, tight ends, and safeties. What will fix it is boring acquisitions of excellent grunt players to play in the trenches and give us the offensive and defensive lines that we so sorely need to replace your inadequate solutions at those spots.

Here, allow me to name them for you: McKenzie, Jones, Denney, Kelsay, Tucker, Teague, Pucillo, Sobieski, and Ahanatu. Jones was an injury risk, signed, and was released. Teague, at 290 lbs., you brought on unwisely to play left tackle and then moved him to center where he earns an average of $2.5 million to provide average or below average play there yet remains too expensive to release. Denney and Kelsay do not even appear to be close to average in this league. McKenzie was average on a good day. Tucker is below average easily. Pucillo improved nicely particularly as a run blocker, but is clearly only average at best in pass protection. He may develop further which remains to be seen and is not guaranteed by a long shot. Sobieski did nothing for the team this season.

You will also need to balance that out with some wins early on in the season. That sounds like a tall order to me. Yet, it is the position that you have placed yourself in through your own decisions. Your high-risk decisions will definitely require some luck in order to work out well. My advice is to not make any more of them. In the meantime, as an extremely frustrated and increasingly hopeless Bills fan, my only apparent contribution to hoping that a competitive product hits the field this fall would be to wish you luck.

Your approach to managing the Bills is high risk, high stakes, but low in the odds for success. Good luck Mr. Donahoe, good luck!


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