Ralph Wilson, the risk taker? Surely, people didn't see this one coming.
To say there's been a communal firestorm of anger among Buffalo Bills fans spanning recent months is an epical understatement. The Bills become the first team since the NFL merger to finish dead last in their own division after starting 4-0. Fan faith was an all-time low. Bills nation outwardly hit rock bottom when Wilson retained head coach Dick Jauron, after deservedly got a barrage of criticism from media and fans for some coaching decisions best described as bizarre.
Jauron signed a three-year extension after the team's hot start and Wilson not supplanting him after the free fall left most fans blistering.
"We'll be better served by continuity in the coaching staff rather than a disruptive overhaul," read Wilson's statement following the end of the regular season.
Wilson also said the team didn't have enough talented players on the roster, and improving the talent would be more beneficial than replacing its battered coach. Most skeptics, including myself were anything but convinced he'd actually go out and significantly address the problem.
Over the past week after a couple of early signings, a slew of players visited One Bills Drive only to leave without a contract. It seemed fans were ready to throw in the towel on 2009 during the first days of March.
That was severely altered on Saturday when Wilson stayed true to his word and took a chance by landing Terrell Owens, just two day after he was released by Dallas.
This time, Wilson made a proclamation most Bills fans wanted to hear.
"We all know of his tremendous ability and look forward to what he will bring to our offense," Bills owner Ralph Wilson said in a statement to the media. "This is a very exciting day for the Buffalo Bills."
I've been one of the harshest critics of Wilson over the years. I've felt his commitment to selling stadium seats has far outweighed his desire for a championship. At times he's held the city of Buffalo hostage with the franchise, directly insulted its hard working, blue-collar fans and has been blatantly cheap with front office and coaching staff hires.
Terrell Owens instantly pumps life into Buffalo.
But now it's time to give him credit. This is a great signing in which the rewards outweigh the risk. The implications are huge on the field, off it and in the team's perception. Maybe his looming Hall of Fame induction inspired him to roll the dice. Perhaps his 90-year old body tells him it's now or never. Whatever the case may be, Wilson made one of his boldest statements ever Saturday and should be commended.
Owens' biggest negative perception is being a locker room cancer and disrupting team chemistry. But how much chemistry do the Bills really have? How much good chemistry can you possibly have after three consecutive seasons at 7-9 and not a whiff of a playoff game since 1999? If anything, the only chemistry the Bills have this decade is a uniform acceptance of mediocrity.
Owens has and still does take offense to the notion he's a selfish teammate.
"That's all hearsay," Owens said at his press conference after local reporter Adam Benigni asked about his perceived selfishness. "If you look at all the comments coming from my teammates with the Cowboys the last three years, it's all been positive. Prior to that, I really don't want to get into it."
Just the announcement of the signing alone ignited a fan base seemingly in shambles.
In just one day with one new player, the Bills suddenly go from an afterthought around the league to having relevancy. Merely minutes after the news broke (and congratulations to friend and media member Sal Capaccio for being the first to break the Bills interest in Owens) team message boards were buzzing, phones ringing off the hook, text messages piling on cell phones and people at taverns were talking Buffalo Bills football. There's no denying on this day Owens was the big news in town.
"We got one of the premier playmakers in a playmakers league," Bills chief operating officer Russ Brandon said.
While Brandon's football pedigree is yet to be determined, he's regarded as a marketing guru for good reason. Owens will sell tickets. He'll move merchandise. His jersey will sell like hotcakes. Major media outlets will be more focused on the Bills than before.
Most importantly, he should help immensely on the field.
At 35 years old his best days statistically are probably behind him. But Owens is still very productive – one who impacts and changes games. You don't take an offense with no identity and add a guy fifth all-time in receiving yards (14,122), second in touchdown receptions and sixth in receptions (951) and not improve. His 139 career touchdown receptions are three more than Andre Reed and Eric Moulds had – combined.
Of all the things the Bills need to compete with the better teams in the conference, none is more vital than a big, strong receiver who scores touchdowns. How much Owens' play has degenerated is arguable, but factor in his 25 touchdowns over the past two years compared to the 15 total for all Buffalo receivers combined over the same time frame and you get the impression Buffalo's 22nd ranked passing offense from a year ago is on the rise.
Owens will produce and in the Lee Evans better in the process. Nobody in the organization is more excited about Owens than Evans.
"‘Wow!' was my first reaction," Evans told the Associated Press. "I know we were looking at some different receivers out there. When he was cut by the Cowboys, I didn't know if we were going to make the move for him or not. We did and it worked out. I'm very excited for everybody."
Evans has been saddled with double teams throughout his career, but that's not going to happen often with Owens lined up on the other side of the field. Getting Evans more single coverage could result in a year similar to 2006, when he had 1,292 yards and 15.8 yards per catch.
Josh Reed will lose his starting spot with Owens on the roster but should benefit as well.
Reed is a good route runner with reliable hands who's better suited as the third receiver in the slot. It also gives the Bills an extra year to develop young receivers James Hardy and Steve Johnson. Hardy tore his ACL last year and had surgery, and wasn't expected to be much of a factor in the first half of the season. It's the main reason the Bills pursued Owens when he became available after talking to Joey Galloway the past few days. The Bills were definitely bringing in a veteran receiver; it's just that nobody expected it to be Owens.
The running game should prosper as well, with eight-man defensive fronts being few and farther between with Owens and Evans on the field. This could only help the talented running duo of Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson.
The extent of success the offense has still ultimately comes down to Trent Edwards, and his relationship with Owens undoubtedly plays an vital part. Owens has had past relationships with Jeff Garcia, Donavan McNabb and Tony Romo that were dubious at best.
Owens has had problems with all of his past quarterbacks.
Owens said he's looking forward to working with Edwards.
"The way that I work, the way that I practice, play — the way we'll communicate throughout practices, we'll help each other," Owens told Buffalobills.com. "I'm pretty sure I'll be an ear for him, and he can be an ear for me. That's the only way we'll get better. That's the only he expects to get better. Learn from my experiences. Every day is going to be a growing process for us. I'm looking forward to the opportunity."
How the Owens experiment pans out in Buffalo is anyone's guess. People have opinions on both sides of the fence, and they're sure to expressed loudly in the coming days, weeks and months.
Even with the addition of the biggest free agent to ever come to Buffalo, the Bills are anything but the favorites in a rugged AFC East. The bold move may narrow the talent gap with New England, New York and Miami but there is still plenty of work to be done. There are other holes in dire need of filling, including a pass rusher, outside linebacker, left guard and tight end.
But if the Bills want to end a playoff drought approaching a decade, they had to throw caution to the wind, and they don't come windier than Owens.
Owens cares about his perception and he's not afraid to let anyone who will listen know. Whenever a player signs with a new team they always call it a "great opportunity." With Owens, it really is.
It's an opportunity to cement a reputation as a dreadful teammate, one who throws quarterbacks and coaches under the bus and is far more trouble than what he's worth.
But it's also an opening, perhaps his last, to carve a different legacy. If Owens says and does all the right things, produces on the field and helps get the Bills back in the playoffs, he'll be revered as one of the most beloved athletes the city has ever had—whether his time here is short lived or not. A lot of his negative reputation; well earned or not throughout the league would go a long way towards fading.
However it plays out, Wilson took his chips and moved them all in, and Bills fans will indeed get their popcorn ready. Now that he's a Bill, he can switch the popcorn to chicken wings.
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