So just how irrelevant have the Bills become in the eyes of the NFL?
When the league's master schedule was released on Thursday, Buffalo joined Detroit, Houston and Tennessee as the only clubs not to receive at least one prime-time appearance on national television.
Buffalo is coming off a 5-11 season and hasn't made the playoffs in six years. The Bills earned a total of five prime-time games over the past three seasons, when they still weren't a playoff team but there was more optimism in the air.
It's the second time in five years Buffalo has been shut out of the limelight, and the team won't make an appearance on "Monday Night Football," the NFL's prime showcase, for a sixth consecutive year.
New coach Dick Jauron, meanwhile, wasn't shown much love, either.
His first two games leading the Bills will be on the road at AFC East rivals New England (Sept. 10) and Miami (Sept. 17), and his first three are against division opponents, counting the club's home opener against the New York Jets (Sept. 24).
Jauron likes the fact his team will get to test itself early against division foes, but clearly was miffed by the lack of respect the NFL's schedule makers showed Buffalo and new general manager Marv Levy, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Even Oakland, 4-12 a year ago, will make two Monday night appearances. A record 25 teams will play on MNF.
"We're excited about the opportunity it gives us to make an impact in our division early in the season," Jauron said of the schedule. "At the same time, we are disappointed that we are not initially scheduled to play a prime-time game this season. That is something that we will work towards in the future."
Under the NFL's new flexible scheduling plan, the Bills do have a chance to have one of their 1 p.m. Sunday games moved to 8:15 p.m. on NBC starting in November if they build a winning record and put themselves in the playoff picture.
Other schedule highlights:
--It's the first time in seven seasons the Bills won't open at home and the first time since 1990 it opens against three AFC East teams.
--Former coach Mike Mularkey, who walked out on the team citing personal and professional reasons a week after Levy was hired as GM, returns to Buffalo as the Dolphins' offensive coordinator on Dec. 17.
--A road game at Chicago on Oct. 8 will mark Jauron's return to the city where he was head coach, and Levy's return to his hometown.
--The Bills play at Indianapolis on Nov. 12, pitting Levy against his old friend and GM in Buffalo, Colts president Bill Polian.
--Bills owner Ralph Wilson, one of just two owners to vote against the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement because he said it failed to address the fundamental structure of the league's revenue sharing plan, is taking his case for small-market teams to the political arena. In a recent meeting, Wilson told New York Gov. George Pataki, "While I am committed to Western New York, the long-term viability of our franchise may be in serious doubt."
Wilson, 87, has said his wife and heirs have slim interest in operating the Bills beyond his lifespan, and it's believed the groundwork has been laid for a potential sale of the team to take place when the time comes. Forbes Magazine has estimated the Bills to be worth $600 million to $700 million. Buyout clauses in the team's 15-year lease are in effect, so conceivably, nothing binds the team to Western New York at the present time. The fear among local fans and business leaders is that an outside buyer will purchase the team and move it to the lucrative Los Angeles market. The wild-card player is native businessman and political mover and shaker B. Thomas Golisano, a billionaire from Rochester who owns the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League. He said he would do everything in his power to keep the Bills in Western New York and did not rule out purchasing the club.
"It's concerning to me," Golisano said of the Bills' future. "I'm very interested in the topic. How I would get involved is undetermined at this point."
He added that he wouldn't "rule out anything."
It's believed Wilson's big fear over the future viability of the Bills is that on top of escalating player costs due to the new CBA, the owner would be saddled with debt service on the purchase of the team and the likelihood of helping fund a new stadium, debt Wilson currently doesn't have. Wilson founded the Bills for $25,000 in 1960.
--The Bills will have 10 picks in the April 29-30 NFL draft, three more than normal and their most since 2002. The fifth-round pick acquired in the trade for Eric Moulds is the first pick in the fifth round, 134th overall. The Bills picked up an extra seventh-rounder (248) as compensation for free agent moves in 2005 and a third-rounder (70th overall) as compensation for trading RB Travis Henry to Tennessee last season.
--With the club's first voluntary veterans camp approaching April 7-9, general manager Marv Levy moved to kill a media report out of the NFL meetings in Orlando that he had placed, or was at least thinking about placing, QB J.P. Losman on the trading block. Yahoo.com used unnamed sources for its report. "There really is no substance to that," Levy said. "We've made no overtures to anyone. No one has approached us and even if they did, we have a regard for J.P. As we said before, it's an open competition at quarterback and J.P. is very much a part of it (with Kelly Holcomb and Craig Nall), and we fully intend to have him in it."
Aside from injuries striking Holcomb or Nall and the possibility that Losman will rise to the challenge and win the competition, there's another big reason it makes no sense for Buffalo to move its 2003 first-round pick: it would cost the Bills $3.6 million against the salary cap.
--The Bills added some veteran depth to their defensive secondary with the signing of veteran DB Kiwaukee Thomas. A six-year veteran out of Georgia Southern, he has played in 85 career games for Jacksonville and Miami.
--After some consideration, coach Dick Jauron said the Bills will keep Jason Peters at right tackle rather than switch him to the left side. Peters started 10 games at RT last season after Mike Williams was benched. Jauron said his film study of Peters has convinced him that he has a chance to "be a special player" if they leave well enough alone.
The Dolphins addressed depth at tackle and safety last week with the signings of Damion McIntosh and Deke Cooper. But Miami continues to have uncertainty at backup quarterback behind injured starter Daunte Culpepper.
The Dolphins reportedly have reached agreement on contract parameters with Detroit's Joey Harrington, but the Lions aren't willing to deal him unless Miami offers better trade compensation. Completing a deal may be difficult, as Miami is without fifth- and sixth-round picks in this year's draft.
The Dolphins, though, seem prepared to move in a different direction. Although a free-agent visit wasn't set, Miami has contacted the agent for St. Louis quarterback Jamie Martin to express interest.
Martin has only eight NFL starts after serving as a backup for almost all of his 12 NFL seasons. Martin, though, had a 4-1 record in St. Louis last year after replacing injured Marc Bulger.
The Dolphins would like to have an experienced backup quarterback on their roster in case Culpepper isn't ready to start the regular season as he recovers from three torn knee ligaments suffered last October while he was playing for Minnesota. With Gus Frerotte (St. Louis) and Sage Rosenfels (Houston) now playing elsewhere, Cleo Lemon -- who hasn't thrown a pass in a regular-season game during the past two seasons -- is currently Culpepper's understudy.
Cincinnati also has shown interest in Harrington and Martin.
McIntosh had started the past 30 games at left tackle for Miami but was released last month to clear more than $4 million in salary cap space. L.J. Shelton, who left Cleveland for a four-year, $15 million contract from the Dolphins, is projected as the new starting left tackle. But McIntosh could compete against 2004 first-round draft choice Vernon Carey for a starting spot at right tackle.
Cooper, a five-year NFL veteran who had 12 starts last year in Jacksonville, is expected to compete with Yeremiah Bell to become Miami's new starting free safety. Lance Schulters, who manned that position in 2005, won't be re-signed.
--Dolphins Stadium will be renamed Dolphin Stadium on April 9 at a team news conference announcing changes to the stadium. Dolphin Stadium will host Super Bowl XLI on February 4, 2007.
--Former Dolphins wide receiver Oronde Gadsden is a co-owner of a new National Indoor League Football team. The Florida Frenzy will debut April 9 in Hollywood, Fla.
Gadsden tried another minor-league football venture last year, but the Miami Morays folded before their season was complete.
--The Dolphins have finalized their preseason schedule and are set to begin play August 12 against visiting Jacksonville. The Dolphins will then play road games at Tampa Bay (August 19) and Carolina (August 24) before their finale August 31 against St. Louis at Dolphin Stadium.
--Tackle Tony Pape was reinstated to the team from the reserve/did not report list. A 2004 seventh-round draft choice, Pape has decided to resume playing football after sitting out all of last season.
Without a kicker since Vinatieri's stunning free-agent defection to the Colts last month, the Patriots' first step in filling the void was welcoming Gramatica, a 30-year-old native of Argentina, back to the NFL. The former Bucs star, who earned a Super Bowl XXXVII ring with Tampa Bay, sat out the 2005 season recovering from surgery to repair two abdominal tears on his right side.
The Patriots are banking that Gramatica's physical problems -- he also underwent hernia surgery in 2003 -- are behind him. And they're keeping their fingers crossed that the health issues were the root of his surprising fall-off, which saw him make only 27 of his final 45 kicks for the Bucs before he was released midway through the 2004 season.
The excitable Gramatica -- he and his brother Bill (now kicking in the Arena League) were infamous for their wild celebrations -- once was an upper-echelon kicker, making the Pro Bowl after the 2000 season, in which he broke or tied six Tampa Bay single-season records. In 2002 he was 32-of-39 on field goals (82.1 percent) and set Bucs marks for attempts, field goals and points (128).
That season compares favorably to Vinatieri's best efforts, but the gap between the two has widened considerably since then. Bothered by back problems, Vinatieri missed a career-high nine kicks in 2003, though he delivered when it counted most, winning Super Bowl XXXVIII with a 41-yard field goal with 4 seconds left.
Over the past two seasons Vinatieri regained his form, going 31-of-33 in 2004 and 20-of-25 in 2005. Meanwhile, Gramatica's career was spinning out of control. The former Kansas State star, who kicked a 65-yard field goal in college, lost his long-range touch, missing 17 of his 29 attempts from 30-plus yards over the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
Gramatica hasn't attempted a field goal in the NFL since missing three times (one was blocked) in a 21-14 loss to the Panthers on Nov. 28, 2004. The Bucs cut him two days later and although he hooked on with the Colts later that season he was exclusively a kickoff specialist as Indy left the field goal chores to Mike Vanderjagt.
Now with Vinatieri replacing Vanderjagt in Indy, Gramatica gets the first crack at filling Vinatieri's shoes in Foxboro.
The Patriots still might draft a kicker -- they are visiting with some of the top prospects, including Ohio State's Josh Huston -- or they could sign one as a rookie free agent. That would give Gramatica some training-camp competition and provide a safety net for the team in case Gramatica can't cut it.
--Robert Kraft of the Patriots is one of eight NFL owners on the committee that will lead the search for outgoing commissioner Paul Tagliabue's replacement. The committee will be headed by Dan Rooney of Pittsburgh and Jerry Richardson of Carolina. Kraft is on board, along with Al Davis (Oakland), Lamar Hunt (Kansas City), Woody Johnson (New York Jets), Jerry Jones (Dallas) and Mike McCaskey (Chicago).
The committee reportedly will hire an executive search firm that will interview all 32 owners to gauge what they are looking for in a new commissioner. Kraft told The New York Times that each committee member will be assigned at least three other owners with whom he will communicate throughout the process.
"There's no prototype," Kraft told the Times about the ideal new commissioner. "I don't think it's much like corporate America filling a standard position. You have to have knowledge in media, labor relations, finance and construction of new stadiums, sponsorships."
--Free-agent WR Reche Caldwell, who joined the Patriots on March 17, had one touchdown catch last season while playing for the Chargers. It came against the Patriots in 41-17 Week 4 blowout win that snapped the Patriots' 21-game home winning streak.
Caldwell made the 28-yard catch against embattled Patriots CB Duane Starks, who had a terrible season before being placed on injured reserve in November. Starks was released after the season. Caldwell's grab capped a back-breaking 75-yard drive and gave the Chargers a 31-17 lead late in the third quarter.
"It was a simple post-corner," Caldwell told the Boston Herald. "I wasn't starting. Our starting receiver (Eric Parker) was a little banged up, and they put me in. I got on top of (Starks) and (Drew Brees) made a good throw and I came down with the catch. I don't think that really influenced the game. It was a team effort. I just happened to make the touchdown."
--At age 43, QB Doug Flutie has not committed to returning for a 22nd pro season, but he is sure of one thing -- if he comes back it would only be to play for his hometown Patriots.
Flutie, who was raised in Natick, Mass., and became a New England icon at Boston College, signed with the Patriots as a free agent last year, returning to the team for which he played from 1987-89. He served as Tom Brady's backup with seventh-round rookie Matt Cassel as the No. 3 quarterback. Flutie saw minimal action (5-of-10 for 29 yards), though he was the darling of all the highlight shows after his Week 17 drop-kick against the Dolphins.
"I've got different things on the table, different avenues to go as I make my decision as to what I want," Flutie said at a recent fundraiser, according to The Republican (Springfield, Mass.). "I still enjoy playing. It's just getting to the point (where) I'm enjoying watching my nieces and nephews play, and my daughter (compete as a high school cheerleader) more than playing myself ... I just want to make sure, because once I (retire) I want it to be for real."
--Patriots fans will have wait a while for the much-anticipated matchups against departed free agents K Adam Vinatieri and WR David Givens. Vinatieri and the Indianapolis Colts visit Gillette Stadium on Sunday night, Nov. 5 in the Patriots' eighth game of the season. The Patriots travel to Tennessee to play Givens and the Titans in the regular-season finale on Dec. 31.
Other notable aspects of the Patriots' 2006 schedule: They will open at home for the third straight year and the fourth time in five years; the odds favor a 2-0 start since they have won five straight and 10 of the last 11 against the Bills (their Week 1 opponent) and six straight and eight of nine against the Jets (Week 2); RB Corey Dillon will make his first regular-season return to Cincinnati in Week 4 after playing there in each of the past two preseasons; the Patriots are playing a Monday night road game against an NFC team (Minnesota, Week 8) for only the second time in franchise history (Green Bay, 1979).
With the April 29 draft looming, the Jets still have plenty of decisions to make with the fourth pick in the first round.
Though they already have traded for Washington quarterback Patrick Ramsey to compete with Chad Pennington, pretty much taking care of that position for 2006, they have given indications that they might be interested in selecting their quarterback of the future.
The Jets already have scheduled private workouts with Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler and USC's Matt Leinart, and reportedly will also work out Vince Young of Texas on April 20. All of these workouts will take place the week leading up to the draft.
At least two of those quarterbacks figure to be on the board at No. 4, should the Jets decide to go that way.
There are questions about all of them. Is Leinart merely a product of the system at USC? Cutler has the arm strength, but is the fact that he never played for a winning team at Vanderbilt a problem? Can Young and his incredible improvisational skills fit into a pro-style offense?
Of course, the Jets also could decide to shore up their offensive or defensive lines. Virginia tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson could go to the Saints at No. 2, but if he is available, he could be the left tackle the Jets are seeking to anchor their line of the future.
North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams could be the sack specialist of the future in the new 3-4 defense, though the starting ends for 2006 appear to be set with incumbent Shaun Ellis and free-agent signee Kimo von Oelhoffen, formerly of the Super Bowl champion Steelers.
--Former SS Victor Green was ceremonially re-signed so that he could retire as a Jet. Green started nine seasons for the Jets and was named to their Four Decades team in 1993. In fact, he was so excited about being named to that team that he flew to New Jersey for the ceremonies, which were held at halftime of a Saturday night game against New England on Dec. 20, 2003. Green flew the next morning to Jacksonville and played for the Saints in a 1 p.m. game that day.
Former RB Richie Anderson, now an assistant with the team, also was re-signed this off-season so he could retire as a Jet.
--The Jets still appear to be in the market for a veteran left tackle, as they met with Mike Pearson and Anthony Clement. Pearson started 33 games in four seasons with Jacksonville while Clement, most recently with San Francisco, has started 75 games in seven seasons.
--Jets owner Woody Johnson was named to an eight-man search committee of owners appointed to find the successor to commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who recently announced his impending retirement from the position. Owners Dan Rooney of Pittsburgh and Jerry Richardson of Carolina will head the committee, which also includes Dallas' Jerry Jones and Oakland's Al Davis, both of whom have often clashed with Tagliabue; Robert Kraft of New England, Lamar Hunt of Kansas City and Mike McCaskey of Chicago.
--This will be the Jets' first visit to Tennessee since 1998, when the team still played at Vanderbilt University and still was known as the Tennessee Oilers. That 24-3 victory for the Jets is infamous for what happened after the game, when then-coach Bill Parcells closed the locker room, citing what he believed would be a safety hazard if reporters were allowed in the cramped collegiate locker room. Instead, players met with media outside the locker room. Parcells was fined $10,000 by the NFL for not giving the media proper access.