Marketing vs. Good Old Fashioned Winning

The Bills in recent seasons have clearly made an enormous above-and-beyond effort to market the team and sell season tickets. Many of these efforts involved reaching out to extended communities such as neighboring Rochester and vicinity. Most have increased good will from the Bills in one form or another. Moving the training camp to Rochester was brilliant.

The decision was made not to increase ticket prices for this upcoming season which is fortunate given a 6-10 finish and the fact that the team appears to be significantly behind in their rebuilding effort begun three seasons ago now. While the Bills are among the three lowest average ticket prices in the league, the Buffalo region is also amongst the lowest cost of living regions of NFL franchises and one of the most economically depressed as well. Only Arizona and Atlanta, both areas where the cost of living is higher not to mention more vibrant economies, are the average ticket prices lower. The reasons for that are relatively clear.

The attitude of the more optimistic fans towards the recent coaching changes is one of giving Mularkey & Co. the benefit of the doubt while simultaneously expecting a competitive product on the field beginning this fall with little if any "grace period." However it is very safe to say that whatever the Bills do this offseason, the acquisitions made either via through the draft or via free agency, they had better translate to positive results in terms of generating wins but quick.

Why would I even mention this? Is this not simple common sense? Well, one would think so, however, it certainly is not the approach followed by GM Tom Donahoe over the past few seasons. Of 18 draft selections from the past two drafts, only four players started this season for the Bills all possessing their share of issues that fans and media were critical of. None of the other selections appear to be on the cusp of cracking the starting lineup anytime soon barring some personnel changes such as Winfield's seemingly imminent free-agency departure. None are expected to dominate at their positions with the possible exception and completely "unknown quantity" and extremely high risk Willis McGahee.

GM Donahoe's methods seem to have been focused on a "best available" approach in the drafts and on a ticket-selling approach in free agency with the "value" seemingly in name recognition over performance. All the while, the teams biggest needs, namely both lines, were largely and practically neglected in favor of draftees such as Willis McGahee who did not even see the field this past season and whose status remains tenuous until proven otherwise.

Mike Williams, the fourth overall selection in '02, took his share of heat this season and did not improve significantly following his rookie campaign if at all. Ryan Denney surely did not make fans forgive Donahoe for trading up swapping two picks to acquire him while ‘preempting the Steelers' in their desire to select Denney only picks later. Meanwhile, starters Josh Reed and Mike Pucillo were judged "less than stellar" by most fans.

Last season's free agent acquisitions produced starters Bobby Shaw, Mark Campbell, Takeo Spikes, Jeff Posey, Sam Adams, Lawyer Milloy, and Izell Reese. At the times of their signings Bills fans were all treated to the typical Donahoe marketing schtick circus as to how each would improve the level of play at their positions for whatever reasons were offered in the press releases. This would be fine if the performance actually matched the hype. Most of these however did not accomplish that.

On offense, Shaw's play was appropriately criticized for dropped passes of well-thrown balls and below average play otherwise. Campbell played very well, showed that he has the hands of a wide receiver, but was simply not used nearly as much as he should have been for several reasons having nothing to do with him.

On defense, Spikes quietly played very well and was extremely consistent and justified the contract received. Adams' play ranged from exceptional to poor throughout the season with no particular trend other than his better play having come versus the weaker offensive opponents on the schedule with the poorest play coming versus the better offensive teams raising questions as to how useful he would be in the playoffs. The Bills' defensive line related stats in those games reflected that.

Posey's play was average at best while Reese's play was below average easily. Posey appears to be a proverbial ‘fish out of water' in a 4-3. This is the result of yet another risk taken and presumably assumed by Donahoe and the Bills at his signing, nevertheless resulting in more dollars spent in an unwise fashion producing less for more. Milloy's play was average or slightly above average. In fact, statistically he was only marginally better than the rookie Coy Wire that he replaced, and in no way to a level of the contract that he signed and certainly not proportionally better than the difference being paid him vice that being paid Wire. There is no reason to think that he will improve to the level of his forthcoming salaries and cap hits as he ages and is past his prime.

So what does all of this have to do with marketing you might ask? Clearly Donahoe's approach to staffing the team over the past two seasons has been to sell tickets if we are to judge by the name recognition of players and methods by which they were acquired, contrasted with their corresponding and less-than-proportional contributions on the field. Ticket sales did in fact increase particularly following the "Bledsoe deal" last season Fans initially went nuts over the "theft" of Milloy from the Patriots this season in spite of the obvious questions regarding the move at the time. Bringing Spikes to Buffalo will pay dividends for years.

As a result of those high profile moves, ticket sales definitely increased. However, those same ticket sales were also predicated on the Bills returning to the playoffs this season and playing competitive ball, neither of which happened. So questions remain as to how well the same ticket sales will go for this coming season.

More importantly, what will be the approach of the organization in acquiring players? Tom Donahoe has clearly and consistently demonstrated some very significant errors in judgement in overpaying for aging and/or overrated talent. The signing of players like Milloy to a rich contract last season will reduce the team's ability to sign players this year and dollar for dollar will not optimize the money spent there. As a result, the Bills would be best advised to make wise use of every penny of their precious cap dollars.

Making wise use of those dollars will not include worrying about which players acquired may increase ticket sales initially, while having their play on the field not match the hype otherwise and while tying up precious cap resources which would otherwise yield a bigger bang for the buck. In fact, the opposite is true. While this might result in short term euphoria for fans, if it does not put a more competitive product on the field and beginning with this season, then efforts to sell tickets possibly as soon as this season may be hindered.

My concern is that the Bills dig themselves too big a hole to climb out of in the short term should "marketing efforts" once again precede tactical improvements to the team and not result in wins due to improved performance. Fans have begun to see through this charade and a collapse in Donahoe's judgement this season may very well insist that the team first put a competitive team on the field for a season prior to the good fans in Buffalo investing in season tickets again. Then of course there are the easily understood long-term concerns regarding the general competitiveness and overall welfare of the Bills generally speaking.

Translation: Instead of signing players presumably to increase ticket sales, the team should sign players who will clearly provide the greatest impact on the field. This would thereby improve the on-field product, which would result in wins, which will in turn lead to ticket sales due to improved play and winning ways that have eluded the Bills for four seasons now. Once fans begin to see some wins accumulating in conjunction with the ability of the team to beat quality opponents vice merely the dregs of the league, the tickets will sell themselves. Otherwise, having ‘brand name players' who are past their primes on the team, if performance does not follow, only exasperates matters.

Ironically, the team may be fighting somewhat of an uphill battle in this respect. It remains to be seen, but it may also be that it will be the Bills that will have to first prove that they have put that team on the field before ticket sales follow, quite possibly lagging performance by a season. My concern here is that this would represent a conflict of interest for Donahoe between the short term welfare of his own seemingly tenuous status as GM vice the longer term welfare of the team.

Perhaps unfortunately for fans desirous of offseason excitement generated by high profile skill position signings, those ways include the acquisition of offensive and defensive line personnel and spending limited cap resources to acquire them will likely preempt the acquisition of any big name skill position players. Barring some significant cap cuts between now and April, the Bills do not have the biggest budget to work with this offseason given the broad range of immediate key needs, particularly on both lines.

Eight million dollars is not a fortune in today's free agency market. That is about what the Bills are currently reported to have in cap space barring some releases (cap cuts) or restructurings which help for the current season but generally merely push cap liabilities to later years. The single cap cut that would free up the largest amount of cash without losing anything significant in terms of cap hit would be the release of Bledsoe, which would free up $6 million. However, that appears to be a move that is not in consideration since few things were made clear by the incoming coaching staff other than that Bledsoe would be retained.

This may be the single pivotal decision of the incoming coaching staff dictating how competitive the team will be in both '04 and '05. It could and may also be the single biggest decision separating the incoming coaching staff from solid decision-making and Tom Donahoe "stoogedom." Such a decision falls into the "make or break" category given all the circumstances at present and thereby presenting an enormous degree of risk for both the competitiveness of the team as well as the perceptions and tolerances for the new coaching staff.

Furthermore, an approach and strategy as mentioned above would be a departure from that which Donahoe exhibited last season raising questions as to whether or not this is the approach that will be taken. For a marketing oriented GM such as Tom Donahoe this may be a difficult thing to acquiesce to. Yet, it is something that while on the surface does not exactly make fans run out and buy jerseys, it is just what the team needs in order to have the ability to put a winning team on the field beginning this fall. As a case in point, how many fans are present on game day with Jennings, Brown, or Pat Williams jerseys vice those of say Moulds, Milloy, Bledsoe, Henry, Spikes, Clements and the host of players at the skill positions.

This team has some extremely significant decisions to make starting right at the top with Donahoe. His judgement errors have already addressed team needs in less than optimal fashion to say the least. At present, generally speaking, this team appears to be trading youth for aging vets with their best seasons now gone, yet who at one point were among the best at their positions.

This is the approach that the Raiders and Redskins have tried in recent years, with futility I might add. Again, if the goal of the team is to have a roster full of overpaid superstars past their primes, then that is one thing. If it is to put an ultimately competitive team on the field, then it is yet another. Donahoe is seemingly skilled at providing the first, not the latter.

In support, as a very recent case in point, all one needs to do is to look at the Patriots who have now won two Super Bowls in three seasons. This year they send three players to the Pro Bowl down in Hawaii. Richard Seymour, Ty Law, and Willie McGinest will all represent the world champions there. That's it from New England, only three players from the Super Bowl champs and only existing team that could qualify as a dynasty. This further testifies that top-shelf talent is not necessarily needed and supports the notion that great coaching and team chemistry are the more important ingredients to creating a winner.

McGinest is even a replacement for an injured Peter Boulware thereby reducing the number of players from New England originally voted in to only two. How did New England acquire these players? Was it "shrewd" deals whereby they believed they were stealing top talent "brand name" players from intradivisional teams? It was in fact to the contrary. All three of those players were drafted in the first round and as a result of careful low-risk scouting and assessment of their talents. Nor were they overpaid.

They were brought on young, before their primes not after them, and worked into the system via solid coaching and instruction otherwise. While some players do make the Pro Bowl on name, those three players did not make the Pro Bowl because of their names and past reputations. They made it due to their performances this season.

Meanwhile, the Patriots have two picks in each of the first two rounds and an additional three selections in rounds three and four. They have not only built a winner for this season at the cost of future seasons, but they have built a winner now as well as setting them up for the future and not at the expense of it. Donahoe's strategy seems to be quite the opposite with more signings of aging players at top dollar both now and future in attempts to win now at the expense of the future. With issues already existing on the defensive line, defensive tackles Adams and Williams will be 31 and 32 this season respectively. Even if the talent on the team steps up this season, the Bills will likely still have perennial offseason needs on the defensive line due to a lack of quality youth.

What the Bills do not need is more signings of well known name players at the skill positions while further neglecting both lines. As well, they do not need "brand names", but serviceable players who cost less due to their not possessing a brand name and preferably players at the front edge of their primes, not on the tail end of them. This of course also requires someone in the organization to spot such talent. Tom Donahoe apparently is clearly not that someone if his recent history with the Bills is to serve as the guide. It is these types of acquisitions however, that will transform this team into a winning unit and one that will optimize scarce cap resources for both immediate as well as future seasons.

While not as exciting, fixing the lines will put the most competitive team on the field and address the team's two biggest performance issues. Put a 12-4 team on the field that is fully capable of beating the best teams in the league, and the merchandise and jerseys will sell themselves perhaps even a faster rate than they are now. Things often change in the NFL over time, but one thing that has not changed is that the game is largely won or lost "in the trenches." Putting the most competitive team on the field will increase the chances of winning games. Winning games will sell tickets all by itself thereby killing the "marketing bird" with the same stone!


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