Well things didn't go completely the way Buffalo projected. Defensive play was a nightmare that would emulate any Stephen King movie. The departure of Pat Williams murdered the front of the defensive line, especially when Ron Edwards couldn't fill his spot and was injured. Takeo Spikes, the biggest play maker of the defense was lost for the season in week three. Nate Clements was abused more times than Tina Turner in the secondary and Troy Vincent and Lawyer Milloy seemed to grow older every Sunday.
Offensively was no better. General manager Tom Donahoe's rag-tag signings of Bennie Anderson and Mike Gandy on the offensive line were dreadful. Mike Williams officially arrived at bust status. Eric Moulds resented Losman and it showed on game days. Losman was inconsistent at best early and coach Mike Mularkey jumped the gun, benching him too early. Backup Kelly Holcomb came in and led Buffalo to consecutive home wins against a terrible Jets team and the underachieving (at that time) Miami Dolphins, after which Mularkey created a quarterback controversy that possessed the team the rest of the season. Willis McGahee called himself the best running back in the NFL and promptly went six straight weeks without sniffing 100 yards rushing.
Off the field issues were just as bad. Donahoe became so unwanted fans started petitions for his removal and wore bags over their heads at games in protest. Mularkey totally lost his team, suspending Eric Moulds for a game and sitting Sam Adams for another, despite Adams claims he was fine to play.
But as morbid as the Buffalo Bills 5-11 campaign was last year, there's motive for optimism. For starters, Marv Levy was brought back to the organization to supplant Donahoe. Donahoe was basically run out of town due his track of bad drafts, laxity of the offensive line and general ineffectiveness to plug in to Bills fans.
Levy is the polar opposite. One of the most beloved figures in Bills history, Levy knows what it takes to win. Even at 80 years old and as a first-time general manager, Levy will get right to the grind fixing problems and bringing character and integrity back to a team which appeared to be just going through the motions. He'll also do a more appropriate job communicating to the fans, a task not lost in the passionate hearts of Buffalo's faithful. Mularkey, a Donahoe hand-picked decision for head coach, appeared over his head more often than not. His game handling and decision making were a endless source for criticism. He didn't link with the public either and more consequential, his players. Most won't say it directly, but Mularkey lost his team last season after the Miami debacle. Though he never admitted it, the carping from players and fans got to him and led to him quitting just days after Levy was hired.
That won't be a dilemma for new head coach Dick Jauron. Levy selected Jauron for a lot of the reasons he was a famed coach here in Buffalo himself. Players like Jauron and play their hearts out for him. He's a highly intelligent man and he won't be disheartened by critics. Jauron's record as head coach (36-49) is faraway from inspiring, but Levy was only 31-42 when he took over the Bills in 1986. Jauron's best season came in 2001 when coached the Chicago Bears to a 13-3 record, just one year after going 5-11. While Mike Sherman and Jim Haslett may have been the popular choices among fans, Levy is confident that Jauron can and will get the job done. If nothing else based on his track record in Buffalo, Levy should be entitled the benefit of the doubt.
Two new coordinators head up Buffalo's coaching staff; Steve Fairchild on offense and Perry Fewell for defense. Fairchild was the coordinator last year for a productive St. Louis offense while Fewell coached the defensive backs on a prolific Chicago defense. Both should bring an edge to a club that lost theirs in 2005.
Most importantly, Bills fans should know that rebuilding isn't always a long process. Glance no further than the NFC as confirmation. Of the six teams in the NFC that made the playoffs this season, five (New York, Chicago, Washington, Carolina and Tampa Bay) weren't in the post-season the year before. Only Seattle made the playoffs both years and they backed in with a 9-7 record in ‘05. In fact, none of the five teams were .500 the year before and only Carolina had even seven wins. Chicago and Tampa Bay managed only five victories, the same as Buffalo did last year. While becoming a contender swiftly is no effortless task. Buffalo has advantages over other poor teams from 2005. Buffalo is already under the cap and in position to create plenty more cap space to sign quality free agents.
It's also should be noted that despite a disturbing '05 season, Buffalo still has plenty of talent. Lee Evans is ready to emerge as a top-flight receiver and has shown a connection with Losman not seen since the glory days of Kelly-to-Reed. McGahee. despite slowing down the second half of last year showed his knee injury is well behind him and should flourish with an improved line. London Fletcher had a Pro Bowl quality season and if Spikes can make it back close to 100% , they'll again be one of the league's best tandems. Terrence McGee showed 2004 was no fluke and the special teams overall was again the best in football.
With all this in mind, the following is a precise formula that if followed to a tee, could blaze Buffalo's end of a six-year playoff drought. (Special thanks to Buffalo Bills Zone salary cap genius, Robert Balistreri, who is responsible for all the salary cap information provided.)
STARTING THE PROCESSAccording to Balestreri, Buffalo enters the off season about $6.47 million under the salary cap. This is based on an estimated 2006 NFL team salary cap of $93 million.
PLAYERS BUFFALO WILL CUTBennie Anderson, G: 900k cap savings with his release. Dreadful pass blocker that takes too many penalties.
Mark Campbell: With Kevin Everett as future starter, Campbell's $1 million in cap savings makes move a no-brainer. Even without Everett, Campbell is not a million dolars better than Tim Euhus.
Mike Gandy: Borderline starting tackle doesn't fit with borderline starting QB. $1.3 saved.
Eric Moulds: $10.85 million cap figure makes it impracticable to bring him back. Restructuring sounds logical, but has only one year remaining on contract where salary is already at $7.25 million for next season. Moulds won't restructure knowing he'd get cut after this season and being a year older. He'll want to go to a team he feels can contend if he's taking less money. Buffalo saves $4.9 million with his release and even though they'll eat $6.3 million in dead space, there are too many other areas of need.
Mike Williams: Sometimes you just have to cut your losses. Williams' $10.8 cap figure is insane and even if you cut the deal in half he'd be grossly overpaid. Maybe a fresh start somewhere else will jump start his career. $4.9 million saved with his release, though over $6 million will go into dead cap space.
Coy Wire: $650k saved with his release and no dead cap space taken. Career backup not needed with Rashad Baker.
Jeff Posey: With Angelo Crowell's new deal and Spikes expected to return, Posey doesn't fit in, especially at over $2 million. $1.75 million saved here.
Ryan Nuefeld: $510k for a third string tight end?
Others: Lauvale Sape, Jason Thomas, Mark Word.
Summary: These cuts are going to free up the Bills just about $16.69 million in cap space. Although they're eating $15 million in dead cap space due largely to Moulds and Williams, this will free up a lot of money to fix problem areas. Added to the approximately $6.5 million under the cap the Bills start the off season, they're now under the cap by about $23.19 million.
DEALING WITH OUR OWN FREE AGENTS
UnrestrictedNate Clements: At $5.8 million we'll lose a little to bring in a new corner at about half the price. However, the Bills should tag him anyway and look to trade. This was successful when former GM Tom Donahoe tagged Peerless Price and then traded him to Atlanta for a first round pick, which turned out to be Willis McGahee.
(There are a lack of quality corners in the free agent pool this year. Buffalo could trade Clements and get a second round pick for sure. A team like the Bengals or New York Giants would drool at the thought of landing him. For this article, Clements is gettting tagged and traded to New York for their second round pick)
Don't Bring BackTrey Teague: His time with team is over.
Josh Reed: Not good enough to start and we have Roscoe Parrish as No. 3
Also say goodbye to: Ryan Denney, Justin Bannan, Kevin Thomas, Shane Matthews.
Bring BackRon Edwards: Will come cheap and if healthy, will provide solid depth.
Greg Jerman: Same at tackle spot.
Mike Schneck: Hey, he's a Pro Bowl long snapper.
Total Cost: Around $2 million.
Restricted Free AgentsBring Back: Sam Aiken, Mario Haggan and Josh Stamer. All are important part of a potent special teams unit.
Total Cost: Around $1.75 million.
Exclusive Right Free Agents* Keep Jason Peters and Jabrari Greer. Peters will want and deserves a new deal. Greer will challenge for the nickel corner spot.
* Don't keep Jonathan Smith, Lawrence Smith and Shaud Williams.
Total Cost: Around $2 million.
(To this point, Buffalo is at about $17.44 million under the salary cap.)
THE WILLIS FACTORStarting running back Willis McGahee will want and get a new contract extension. His 2006 contract calls for him to make $1.76 million and with agent Drew Rosenhaus he'll probably want that doubled. He'll probably be met half way in a long-term deal which would bring his 2006 cap figure to around $3 million.
Total Cost: Around $1.25 million.
FREE AGENCYWith all these moves, Buffalo should head into free agency about $16.2 million under the cap. With a high first rounder and a pair of third round selections in the draft, the Bills need to stash about $4.2 million away for future picks. With this blueprint in place Buffalo will head into March with about $12 million to spend on free agents. The organization will look to minimize the effect on the cap during the first few years of the contract while the bigger cap hit will take place closer to the end. This method enabled Buffalo to sign players like London Fletcher, Lawyer Milloy and Takeo Spikes despite not having much cap room. Of course, it comes with a price as salary cap casualties take place during the final years of a contract, with Moulds being this year's example.
WHO THE BILLS ARE SIGNINGJeff Backus, OT (Lions): Jauron knows him from Detroit and would be a colossal upgrade at left tackle over Gandy. Backus made $2.3 million in his final year as a Lion and will command more in the open market. With left tackle being the most important position on the line to a quarterback, this upgrade is Buffalo's top priority.
LeCharles Bentley, C (Saints): One of the game's best young centers, Bentley's already made it known he won't return to New Orleans. He's said publicly he'd love to go to Cleveland (his family is from Ohio) but the Browns already have Jeff Faine. Bentley made only $455k last year and his salary will skyrocket to excess of $3 million. Buffalo is close enough to Ohio and with a long term deal they could land him without costing more than $3 million in cap space this season. If they lose out on him, Jeff Hartwig (Tennessee) or Jeff Mitchell (Carolina) would be decent options.
Ma'ake Kemoeatu, DT (Baltimore): Grady Jackson and Rocky Bernard are the two biggest names available at this position, but at 6'5" and 335 pounds, Kemoeatu would likely fit best with Buffalo. The Bills severely missed Pat Williams last year up the middle and Kemoeatu reminds many of a younger Williams. An undrafted free agent, he's gotten better every season. He made $1.43 million last year and Buffalo could land him at around $2 million this year. Other options would include Larry Triplett (Indianapolis) or Lional Dalton (Washington).
Jerry Azumah, CB (Chicago): Lost his starting spot in Chicago last year to Nathan Vasher but Jauron knows him very well. Jauron was coach when the Bears drafted him and was a Pro Bowler in 2003. Although he may not be as polished as Clements, his salary would be significantly less. If they can't land Azumah, Deshea Townsead (Pittsburgh) or Jamal Fletcher (San Diego) are possibilities.
Antonio Bryant, WR (Cleveland): 69 catches for 1004 yards and four touchdowns. That sounds about perfect for a compliment to Evans. Bryant was Cleveland's best receiver last year but with Braylon Edwards returning they won't pay him top money. He made only $455k last year but the Bills will have to pay around $2 million for his services. Reche Caldwell (San Diego), Joe Jurevicious (Seattle) or Corey Bradford (Houston) would be good alternatives if Bryant fell through.
Shawn Bryson, RB (Detroit): McGahee comes out of the game and gets banged up too regularly to not have a proven runner backing him up. Bryson would be a big upgrade over Shaud Williams. He could spell McGahee for longer stretches and is an excellent third down back. A former Bill, Jauron coached him last year in Detroit and he'd come back for around $1 million, maybe even a little less.
Summary: With these moves, Buffalo has solidified itself on the offensive line at center and left tackle with Brackus and Bentley. They've replaced Moulds and Clements with Azumah and Bryant; not quite the same caliber but more than qualified for being productive. They've also brought in a new run stuffer in Kemoeatu who can have the same effect Pat Williams did and make Sam Adams better in the process. And we've upgraded at running back with Bryson over Shaud Williams. These moves will cost Buffalo between $12-13 million in cap space for the 2006 season.
THE DRAFT1st Round (8th pick): The key to most thriving defenses in the league is getting to the quarterback with their front four. Aaron Schobel is productive at one end but defensive coordinators aren't losing sleep over him. Tamba Hali (Penn State) could change all that. While not as highly touted as Mario Williams, Hali is as complete a defensive end in the draft. He has superb pass rushing skills and he stops the run as well. Joe Paterno called him the best defensive end he's ever coached. He'd be a huge advance over Chris Kelsay and suddenly our front four would look a lot better.
Second Round (42nd pick): Kevin Everett is talented at tight end, but was injured last season and who knows even if healthy what kind of pro he'll be. Either Losman or Holcomb could use a weapon at this position, and Marcedes Lewis (UCLA) fits that bill. Lewis is considered one of the best route runners in the draft and Buffalo hasn't had an impact tight since... ever.
Second Round (56th pick/trade): This is the pick acquired for Clements from the Giants. The Bills use it on a guard who could challenge Duke Preston for a starting spot. Even if he doesn't start he'll provide quality depth. Charles Spencer (Pittsburgh) would be a great pick here. Rated on many boards as the third best guard in the draft, Spencer is athletic for his position.
Third Round (70th pick): With the health of Spikes in question and the release of Posey for cap reasons, you better have some quality insurance at the outside linebacker spot. Roger McIntosh (Miami, FL) is a great athlete that would contribute immediately.
Rounds Four-Seven: Buffalo has one of the best special team units in the NFL and picks in these spots should solidify them even more. Receivers and defensive backs who can play special teams will be of top precedence. A potential third quarterback for the likely retiring Shane Matthews will be an alternative.
POST DRAFT- SETTLE THE QB PROBLEMLosman will feel much more positive now that his three biggest obstacles are gone: A woefully inept pass blocking line, Mularkey and Moulds. With Jauron, Losman won't be asked to be the next Elway or Favre. Instead Jauron will want him to manage games successfully, such as Rex Grossman or Chris Simms did last year. With new found confidence, Losman will rise above Holcomb and settle permanently into his starting spot.
THE NEW LOOK BILLSBuffalo goes into camp with a roster that is miles above the team that finished the 2005 season.
OffenseLine: Brackus, Preston/Spencer, Bentley, Villarrial, Peters.
Receivers: Evans, Bryant, Parrish, Aiken
Tight End: Lewis, Everett
Running Back: McGahee, Bryson
Quarterback: Losman, Holcomb
DefenseEnds: Schobel, Hali.
Tackles: Adams, Kemoeatu.
Linebackers: Spikes, Fletcher, Crowell.
Corners: Azumah, McGee.
Safeties: Milloy, Vincent.
That's eight new starters, six via free agency and two with the draft. Combined with a new coaching staff and a proven leader at GM, you now have the potential for an expeditious turnaround.
Then maybe, just maybe... Buffalo football come Christmas time will be merry again.
(Patrick Moran writes for billszone.com and has wrote for Buffalo Sports Weekly.)