What would fix the Buffalo Bills?
(Warning: boring football post ahead.)
OK. How to fix the Bills? Well,
But in general, the "fix" here is simple, really, but like all simple answers, it's apparently very hard to do, because only a handful of teams have actually managed to do it lately. (Those teams are Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, New England, and the Giants.) The answer is to put in place a good football operation. What this means is (a) instituting a policy of primarily building through the draft, and (b) identifying good talent to be taken in the draft. The Bills, to their credit, over the last couple of years have done (a). They've been rather less successful at (b). The Bills don't do what the Redskins do -- toss money at every conceivable free agent who comes along because they're new and shiny and boy does Daniel Snyder like the shiny -- but while they focus heavily on the draft, they're not particularly good at identifying the talent they should be picking, and in addition to picking questionable talent, they also make picks that are contrary to what they probably should be picking, and to add insult to injury, they often make bizarre decisions about the very process of picking the wrong talent in the first place.
A good example came in Marv Levy's first draft as GM, back in 2006. The Bills had the eighth pick overall, and somehow, the draft's biggest name, quarterback Matt Leinart, was still on the board. The Bills didn't want Leinart, thinking at the time that they still had a good prospect in JP Losman, so they picked safety Donte Whitner instead. However, everybody under the sun knew that Whitner had originally been unlikely to be picked anywhere before the middle of the first round, so if the Bills really wanted him, they could have very likely traded down in that round with some team that wanted a shot at Leinart, grabbed an extra pick in the process, and almost certainly still have been able to get Whitner. Instead of doing that, they took Whitner at number eight, and then, instead of reaping the benefit of an extra pick to grab a couple of quality guys in the second round, they traded up to get back into the first round and grab a defensive lineman, John McCargo, who wasn't on anybody's list of top lineman prospects and who as yet has not come close to living up to his potential. In fact, the Bills tried trading McCargo away last year, only to have the trade nullified when McCargo failed a physical with his almost-new team.
That kind of thing happens to the Bills all the time. They are never able to identify guys who will develop into top-flight NFL playmakers, so the team is basically in a position where they're not without talent -- if they were, they wouldn't be 7-9 every year -- but where they're not able to really produce, either. The Bills are exclusively comprised of decent guys who work hard, but nobody who can really step it up and make some really impressive things happen on the field. Now, there are some younger guys who maybe are going to become those kinds of players and just aren't there yet -- Marshawn Lynch, Trent Edwards among them. But if you're a defensive coordinator facing the Bills, you know that all you basically need to do is double-team Lee Evans and play the other receivers as you normally would, and you've pretty much handcuffed the Bills' passing game. Likewise, if you're an offensive coordinator facing the Bills, you know you're not facing a "paper tiger" of a defense, but there's still nobody on defense whom you must have taken into account on every snap of the ball. All the really good teams, the ones that got good and have stayed good for a long time, have figured out how to find guys like that. The Bills haven't.
The Pittsburghs and New Englands of the world don't go out and sign everybody they can to big contracts; they develop new guys and plug in occasional free agents when they need to. (Now, I'm not sure that New England is doing quite as good a job at developing new talent as Pittsburgh is, which is one reason I believe New England's days as one the NFL's elite teams are closer to ending than most.) The Bills try to do this, but they do it wrong: instead of drafting offensive linemen every year and developing them, the Bills rarely draft OL's, instead signing free agents who then turn out to not be that good. (Derrick Dockery? Really?) One of the most damning facts about Bills' personnel management over the last ten years is the fact that when former GM Tom Donahoe was fired, the Bills' starting offensive line didn't feature a single player who had been drafted by the Bills. (At that time, Jason Peters was merely a prospect, and he'd been a free agent signee and not even drafted.) I had hoped that would end under Levy, but so far, no dice: few OLs drafted, and the one who was, Duke Preston, played center last year and has now been possibly replaced by a new free agent signee.
I have my issues with the Bills' coaching staff, but as long as the on-field talent is picked by guys who aren't really solid football guys, it won't matter.
Now. Terrell Owens.
I was shocked that the Bills signed him. Stunned. But not for the normal reasons. I've never understood the TO hate that's out there. Sure, he's a prima donna and can be a pain in the arse; at times he can be a downright distraction. But the stuff he does frankly always strikes me as "small potatoes" in a world where Pacman Jones can still have an NFL career and where you know somebody's going to give Mike Vick a training camp invite. And it can't be denied that where TO goes, better numbers in the win column follow. The 49ers were good with him; they've been crap since he left. (Not that he's the only factor there, but the correspondence can't be denied.) The Eagles lost the NFC title game three years in a row, and then they signed TO and reached the Super Bowl, which they might well have won if not for some sloppy play by Donovan McNabb and some weird coaching decisions by Andy Reid. Dallas got quite a lot better when TO arrived, and I wouldn't blame him for all the drama that's happened down there; Jerry Jones is quite good at creating drama all by himself. Remember the Cowboy dynasty teams of the 1990s? That was not a happy locker room, by any means, and it was only the fact that that was probably the most talented roster in the last fifteen years that made that team what it was, and it's been dramatic in Dallas ever since. Yes, TO brought in some extra baggage, but so what?
In terms of TO's ego, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of Bills fans think -- not without justification -- that this team actually could use an infusion of good old football arrogance. He's not exactly moving into a situation where there are already a lot of high-octane personalities ready to clash with him. The Bills are a laid-back bunch -- too laid back, I suspect a lot of people might say. Why would TO sign here, instead of with someone closer to winning? Who knows -- but maybe he saw the atmosphere in that infamous Monday night game in 2007, when the Bills dominated the Cowboys all night only to blow the game in the final seconds in one of the most heart-breaking defeats in team history, and maybe TO said to himself at one point, "Wow, these people love their team in a way I haven't seen too much." Maybe. I'm no mind-reader, obviously, but I very much doubt the Bills were the only team interested in TO.
And besides, TO will help on the field. Teams won't be able to basically have their defensive gameplan against the Bills' passing game consist of nothing but "Double team Lee Evans", knowing that aside from Josh Reed, the other receivers on this team aren't going to do anything. He'll draw some attention and open things up for other players. Hopefully, his presence here, however long it lasts, helps last year's second-round pick, James Hardy, to learn the NFL ropes faster than he's been already. Hopefully he helps open up the running game a bit, since teams will actually have to respect the Bills as a passing threat more. I think he is very likely a good addition to the team, and if he does turn out to be a massive pain in the arse, he's only sitting on a one-year deal, so it's not like the Bills are wedded to him forever. If they like what he does here, they can re-sign him to another one-year deal next year. If not, they can say, "Thanks, we'll take it from here." This was, as far as I can see, the first genuinely shrewd personnel move the Bills have made since they brought in Drew Bledsoe in 2002. (Just because that move didn't work out for various reasons doesn't mean it was a bad move. That move didn't work out basically because the Bills made that their only move.)
What interests me is the resurgence since TO's signing of the new favorite word in Buffalo regarding the Bills: relevance. It's what everybody is saying: signing TO makes the Bills "relevant". I've never been terribly sure what "relevant" means; it seems to mean "winning", but it's more than that. It's the idea that the Bills generally aren't taken terribly seriously in the NFL these days. You play them, and you need to play well otherwise they might beat you, but they're not going to the playoffs anyway. You know you won't find yourself in a bidding war against the Bills for some player or coach because the Bills won't spend big on coaches and they will spend on players but not huge money and they won't go after the big names either, preferring to wait a few weeks into free agency and grab some guys who have been sitting out there teamless for a bit. That's "not being relevant", I suppose.
But it's more than that. It's not the Buffalo Bills franchise that's seen as not relevant; I think a lot of people around here fear that the NFL sees the entire Buffalo Bills fan base, the market here, as not being relevant. And if we're not relevant, then it will be that much easier for the NFL to let the team move when Ralph Wilson dies and the team is sold. This kind of move makes the Bills relevant again. This kind of move makes Buffalo a place that should be taken seriously, when it comes to talking about football.
Bills fans crave their team being a team that is actually talked about in football circles. Well, having TO on your team will certainly get you talked about, won't it?
More answers to follow!