Silence in Buffalo is Deafening

Buffalo is a quiet place these days insofar as the Bills go. Too quiet for many. The Bills' free agency moves have been limited to two middle-of-the-road although helpful signings.

Chris Villarrial was brought in from Chicago where he started all 8 of his seasons in the NFL. He will certainly solidify the right guard spot on the Bills 2004 line for several seasons. However, Ruben Brown's departure leaves a spot to be competed for by the lesser-experienced younger players on the team that came up empty last season. It also removes an element of stability and chemistry on the line and at the left guard spot. How will this affect Jennings' play at left tackle and how it impacts the left side of the line remains to be seen.

The second signing was that of the standout Troy Vincent whose signing is not without its share of risks. Vincent will enter the season at the age of 33 and while demonstrating the ability to generate more interceptions via better coverage than Antoine Winfield, Vincent has only had 8 interceptions over the past three seasons with no more than three in any given season. How well Vincent holds up also remains to be seen. His big play ability is there however and he will no doubt provide better coverage than Winfield did. He has also expressed an interest in playing free safety at some point in the future which bodes well for his staying in Buffalo for more than a few seasons of the six seasons on his contract. .

Fans appear to be split as to what the current silence and lack of initial activity other than those two signings actually means. It may not mean a thing. It may mean that Tom Donahoe realizes that he is treading thin ice and wary of making yet another risky move that pans out in the fashion of a worst case scenario. Many fans are upset with the organization has not signed anyone from the "brand name" category yet. Do not count me in amongst that group however, as I am perfectly content with the "no news is good news" mantra on one hand. On the other however, the Bills have missed out on several players that would have fallen into the "value acquisition" department.

Chris Bober, and extremely versatile offensive lineman and 2-year starter was recently signed by the Chiefs to a bargain contract. Even if desirous of playing tackle, Bober would have enabled the Bills to move Jennings to left guard and provided a top notch line for the Bills at a very reasonable cost. He also would have provided an enormous degree of flexibility in the event of injuries to the line and have been a fixture on the Bills line for seasons to come during his prime years.

Darrell Jackson also recently signed a very reasonable contract for a top wide receiver. Jackson was a bargain because he has played behind Koren Robinson for three seasons whom the Seahawks have predetermined to be their "forced" star at WR while the better of the two WRs got less acclaim and consideration in the Seahawks' offense. Had Jackson been "ordained the man" in the Hawks' wide receiving corps, he would have posted much more impressive numbers during his initial seasons.

My opinion is not one of those insisting that the Bills need a wide receiver, however, if a top WR was to be had, the contract that Jackson received was more than reasonable for the Seahawks. Common sense would have indicated that he likely would have signed for a little more elsewhere or at least considered it. The risk associated with Jackson contrasted with any rookie is minimal. He is also of the caliber and age to have been in a position to replace Moulds in the future.

Deon Grant was also signed to a very nominal contract for a free safety by the Jaguars. Given that the Bills are in need of a solid starting free safety, this may have been a nice acquisition for them as well, even for a little more than the contract that Grant had signed with the Jags.

As well, the Chiefs re-signed Eric Hicks to a very reasonable contract for a defensive end. Hicks plays the LDE spot that Buffalo has sorely been lacking even average play at and would have provided an enormous upgrade even with average play which would have been a given, likely with significantly above average play however.

These are exactly the magnitude of signings and caliber of players that the Bills should have been seeking. Players either just entering their primes or on the front end of them who have played very well yet are not considered to be marquee or brand names. This is where value is to be found without breaking the bank. Signing Chris Villarrial was a solid signing, but not one that falls into this category. It was equitable going both ways. If the Vincent signing works out optimally, then the same can be expected there.

The silence in Buffalo is a sign of several things. First, some of the silence is impatience because Tom Donahoe has not joined in the extravagance of overspending in the Daniel Snyder fashion. Now that Snyder's annual sum of "sucker money" has been spent, the market has settled down somewhat. Snyder was aided in part by some other franchises as well, but the Skins always lead the field in silly-money if recent history is the guide.

But while some fans remain unhappy that the Bills have not overspent on marquee players, their counterparts are relieved for the same reason. Yet there is a third group, those hoping tentatively and being left wondering what Tom Donahoe and the front office have on their minds. There is plenty of money left for Donahoe to yet make an outrageously unwise move and fewer value players of the type mentioned above left for the Bills to sign to bargain contracts. Given Donahoe's seeming desire to make headline generating moves as the primary motivator, Bills fans will remain concerned for good reason until the team's cap and roster situations settle down somewhat.

June 1st cuts also loom following the draft. However, those released following June 1st are primarily older veterans in the final year(s) of outlandish contracts and players generally more suited to helping out for only a season or so instead of for five or six seasons. There is a sense of worry amongst Bills fans that Donahoe will end up pursuing yet another Patriot and possibly soon-to-be castoff in Ty Law. Law is throwing a tantrum regarding his "unfair" treatment in New England in spades.

While Law is arguably one of the best cornerbacks in the game today, he is also 30 years old and apparently seeking to be the highest paid cornerback in the game today. This coupled with his statements regarding his former team raise questions as to his team commitment. Surely, his little tantrum puts Ruben Brown's in a very favorable perspective. So fans expecting to see Law in a Bills' uniform should not hold out hope if the Bills are to apply the same logic that they laid out for releasing Brown to any possibility of signing Law.

Law is arguably coming off of his best season ever. However, history suggests that signing him to anything more than another season or two at top money would be unwise. Yet, this is exactly the type of player that Tom Donahoe would sign to more money than should be spent on such a player who likely will only be at the top of his game for another season or so prior to entering the declining years. Bills' fans can only hope that Belichick sticks to his guns and does not put this option on the table for Donahoe. It is likely the very strategy that Belichick may be contemplating in order to assist in bailing the Patriots out while further burdening the Bills, a team that has already hindered its future progress via signings of ex-Patriots at costs greater than contributions, again, if history is any sort of guide.

So while many fans are happy that the lion's share of the Bills' salary cap space was not spent on a single high-profile player, plenty of opportunities likely will exist for such unwise decisions to be made. As well, the diminishing pool of true "value acquisition" players ups the stakes for the signing of average players to contracts richer than they should be due to simple supply and demand dynamics.

Indeed there is an optimal time in the signing of free agents prior to the draft. Spend too early and you get caught up in the free-spending euphoria of Daniel Snyder type of signings. Wait too long and the best value-acquisition players evaporate thereby often generating salary inflation for the next tier of players who remain after the players in the other two categories are all signed. Signing those players, while not nearly as risky as the grossly overpaid single players, consumes more cap space than would have been necessary had better acquisitions been made and usually results in players only brought on board for one, two, or three seasons as role players.

The point in free agency where that occurs varies dependent upon team needs, the number and types of players available at each position, pending cap cuts for roster bonus reasons, and overall and individual team budgets. Free agency is currently at the tail end of that mid-state however where decent value-acquisitions are rare as the pool is clearly diminishing per the players mentioned above. At some point however, all that will be left is average or below average players getting in many cases better than average money because their teams did not react quickly enough following the initial period of Redskin-led craziness or players like Law who are in negotiating modes with their former teams, or in Law's case, his current team. That point may be now.

Under any circumstances, finding bargain value players at that stage of free agency is rare. Teams missing that time frame must then either simply pay market value for average to below-average role players, overpay for the top remaining talent, overpay and give top money to malcontent top players such as Ty Law, or await June 1st cap cuts. The Bills waited a few days too long to begin pursuing Billy Volek and it may very well have cost them his acquisition, which is speculative and arguable no matter how you slice it.

While that middle time period is still on the books, the Bills certainly have not capitalized on several players that would have cured what ails them at very reasonable contracts. So the Bills' forthcoming acquisitions will have to be monitored closely. At present however, the Bills have not improved significantly from last season. Players lost can be placed in the inconsequential category with equal or close-to-equal swaps between Brown and Villarrial or Winfield and Vincent with only possible chemistry changes being the difference.

Perhaps the Bills have lost the aura of being a team where players desire to come and play for, who knows. But what is known is that the Bills ever since the new millennium, are a combined 25-39 with no winning seasons in four tries and nothing to suggest that they are or have been competitive. Worse is that the Bills appear to be regressing as they enter their fourth season of rebuilding under Tom Donahoe. It is easy to assume that there will be an improvement in this 2004 season, however until that happens there are plenty of questions and concerns to Donahoe's present and past approach(es).

This offseason will bear out to be pivotal in both the shaping of the team's future as well as in whether or not the Bills make the leap to being a competitive team or a bottom dweller as they have been in the new millennium. Young players not ready to contribute and players signed at positions where depth vice starters are the primary need will not push the Bills in the latter direction of being competitive. Thus far however, the net status for the Bills is that they appear to be idling and in a static state. At present, team needs equal those of the team at this same time last season. Meanwhile, the silence continues.


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