Picture it, New York City, April 2006.
Two years into JP Losman's career, one year into him replacing Drew Bledsoe as the starting quarterback. Losman struggled in his first season as a starter (while Bledsoe, reunited with Bill Parcells, carried the Cowboys to a 9-7 record).
The Bills have just cleaned house and rid themselves of the Tom Donahoe era. It is Marv Levy's first draft as Bills General Manager, Dick Jauron's first as head coach. The team has the eighth pick in the draft.
For those who don't remember, the draft had a lot of anticipation. It was the Mario Williams-Reggie Bush draft, and despite Williams signing a contract with the Houston Texans the night before the draft, the NFL world was intently tuned to be sure they were really passing on Reggie Bush.
The Texans weren't bluffing, as Williams was taken first, Bush went to the Saints, and the draft continued. Vince Young to Tennessee. Can't-miss offensive tackle D'Brickshaw Ferguson to the Jets (the true first player the Bills could have potentially had on their radar). A.J. Hawk to Green Bay. Another sting to Bills fans as Vernon Davis heads to San Francisco.
Anticipation mounting, one pick away, with only the Raiders ahead of the Bills. The Raiders take the best safety in the draft, and another thought to be high on Buffalo's board due to need, Safety Michael Huff.
The Bills turn. The clock is ticking. On the NFL Network, Mike Mayock begins guaranteeing they take Donte Whitner. Bills fans think Mayock is nuts. No way they move on Whitner with the eighth pick. They should trade down.
Two defensive tackles, a dire Bills' need, Haloti Ngata and Broderick Bunkley, remain on the board. On ESPN, the talking heads begin discussing Matt Leinart's fall and that Jay Cutler is going to be good.
There is no reason to discuss quarterbacks right now, the Bills are picking. The cameras cut to Cutler receiving a phone call, then Leinart waiting rather impatiently in the draft's green room. Berman, known for having a "source" within the Bills organization throughout the Polian-Butler days, hints at Cutler.
A collective "NOOOOOO" rings out from Bills land. The Bills wouldn't go quarterback again after drafting Losman just two years ago, though, right? Sure, Losman had a bad season, but the team has some faith in him still, right? Right? Ron Jaworski, quite possibly the pre-eminent quarterback evaluator in the media, discusses how good Cutler is going to be.
Marv Levy is the savior, right? He was brought in to do the right thing and draft what the team needs. Time ticking down. The stations declare the pick is in. Tagliabue to the podium—Bills take Donte Whitner. Jets fans don't boo, they laugh.
Mayock sits in a joyful bliss. The talking heads (no, not David Byrne; the media's talking heads) begin to discuss how the Bills should have traded down if they were going move on Whitner. Bills fans remain somewhat stunned.
Leinart then goes to the Cardinals, Cutler to the Broncos and Ngata to the Ravens in successive picks. Cutler being drafted by the Broncos is a bit of a surprise at the time. They have a starter, Jake Plummer, who seems firmly entrenched, who threw for 3300 yards and 18 TD's. But the Broncos clearly are looking towards the future and take who they have as best player available.
Whitner, while a solid starter and leader for the Bills, has not proven to be the impact player an eighth overall pick should be. Even at the time, his selection seemed like a panic pick after Huff was off the board and they didn't know what to do exactly.
During free agency, the Bills sign veteran Kelly Holcomb to compete with Losman for the job. The move ultimately creates another quarterback controversy in Buffalo. Sadly, similar to every quarterback controversy which has occurred in Buffalo, the end result is that both QB's stumble through the 2006 season, and neither quarterback is truly good enough.
Leinart fizzles out, Cutler becomes a franchise quarterback, and Ngata becomes a defensive force.
To get their defensive tackle, the Bills trade back into the first round by dispensing their second and one of their third round picks to move into the 26 spot to draft eventual bust, defensive tackle John McCargo. Two picks later, the Jets draft center Nick Mangold who has become one of the NFL's best centers, while the Bills continue to look for the answer at that position.
Most analysts agree that moving up for McCargo is a big reach. With the Bills second round pick, the Bears take valuable CB/S Danieal Manning. Also on the board at the time are Devin Hester, LenDale White (who the Bills probably wouldn't have considered taking), OTs Marcus McNeill, Winston Justice, Jeremy Trueblood, Daryn Colledge, WR Greg Jennings, TE Tony Scheffler and DE Darryl Tapp.
With their third round pick, Chicago takes DT Dusty Dvoracek, who has been an injury mess for the team. The Bills with an earlier pick in the round take CB Ashton Youboty. Also on the board at the time of both picks are G Max Jean-Gilles, TEs Owen Daniels, Leonard Pope and Dominique Byrd, QB Brodie Croyle, Loan Washington, Brandon Marshall, and a bunch of other players who aren't that great.
The Bills are both chastised and praised for their draft. In drafting Whitner too high and trading up for McCargo, the team looses valuable draft picks it really needs as they try to rebuild under Levy. The team easily could have kept their second and third round picks, and picked up another to move down a few spots in the draft, or taken Leinart, Cutler or Ngata where they were, players who were considered at the time a more proper pick for the 8th spot.
They are also praised for snagging Ashton Youboty, Ko Simpson and DT Kyle Williams in the third, fourth and fifth rounds. Youboty finally starts to show signs of life in the 2008 preseason, but his season ends with an injury before he can contribute to an already deep secondary. Simpson and Williams have been solid contributors to the team, especially considering their spots drafted.
That said, hindsight can be 20/20 and nobody knows what would have happened had the Bills taken Cutler. However, the Broncos showed the difference between what poorly run versus well run organizations do.
Seeing Cutler tear apart the Bills this Sunday is going to be another painful reminder of what could have been.