Buffalo Bills: The Rise and Fall of the Bills Franchise

Billy DakidContributor IIIMay 18, 2011

4 Oct 1998:  Defensive end Bruce Smith #78 of the Buffalo Bills in action during a game against the San Francisco 49ers at the Bills Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. The Bills defeated the 49ers 26-21.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

The following is a sad but true story. 

In the early '90s, the Bills ran a fierce no-huddle offense orchestrated by All-Pro quarterback Jim Kelly, taught by all-time great coach Marv Levy and supported by the running game led by All-Pro running back Thurman Thomas. 

The merciless defense was led by Bruce Smith and anchored by Darryl Talley.

Things were going well. In 1991 they played in their first Super Bowl, losing in a close game to the New York Giants. They came back in 1992 to play in another Super Bowl, coming up short in a late rally to the Washington Redskins.

1993 marked the third Super Bowl in a row for the Bills, tarnished by yet another Super Bowl loss—this time in blowout fashion at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys. 1994 was historic in the sense that it was a Super Bowl rematch and the Bills' fourth straight trip. The Bills walked away from the Super Bowl for a last time without a victory. 

To go to four straight Super Bowls is quite the feat and has not been repeated, and most likely will never be repeated. To lose four straight? Well, that tarnishes things. I liken it to being the first person to climb a mountain—after the first person did, that is. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of the franchise and certainly exhausted the roster and the fans. 

The fall was quick and painful. They placed last in their division the following year, finishing 7-9—the team's first losing record since 1987. 1995 and 1996 were signs that this down year was a fluke. With a pair of 10-6 records and playoff appearances and playoff exits, Marv Levy was marked as a coach that couldn't get it done. The franchise was being teased, spoiled with Super Bowl riches but never being able to spend the money. 

Levy's coaching days in Buffalo were numbered. 1997 marked the last time he would coach a Buffalo Bills team. The team finished 6-10, missed the playoffs and was labeled underachievers. The roster was talented but couldn't win the "big games."

A change of regime took place. 

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Ownership had promoted defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to lead the team. With immediate success, Phillips led the only (true) New York football franchise to a familiar playoff berth and 10-6 record. But again, the team came up short.

The following year, however, was an improvement on an already good year. The team finished 11-5 with a playoff berth—and, in true Buffalo Bills fashion, came up short in the postseason. Phillips had one year left in Buffalo, and he finished it with a .500 record: 8-8.

Fired. Gone. For an 8-8 record. That's a painful thing to know now as a Buffalo Bills fan. Because in the next 10 years, the team would only finish better than 8-8 once. One time. Uno times. (I have absolutely zero clue how to say "times" in Spanish.)

Gregg Williams was hired away from his position of defensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans to coach an underachieving Buffalo franchise.

It's pretty much all downhill from here, folks.

With a plethora of draft picks, Williams was enabled with the ability to try to build a dynasty. His first two draft picks, Nate Clements and Aaron Schobel, would play at a Pro Bowl level for the Buffalo Bills for years. Both players would be consistent starters for the Bills. Schobel immediately made an impact with a 10-sack season, Clements doing the same, forcing six turnovers his rookie season.

2001 was a strange year. The top two rookies were playing well, but the offense was playing at a terrible level. Rookie Travis Henry was one of the bright spots with over 700 yards. Antoine Winfield and Pat Williams were playing solid. But even with these bright spots, the Bills finished 3-13—the team's worst record since 1985.

After a good draft in 2001, many expected the same in 2002. Armed with the 4th overall pick in the draft, they were put in a great position to do so.

To all the Bills fans, this year marked the year the Bills started preventing the franchise from growing with bad draft picks and roster moves.

"With the fourth pick in the 2002 NFL draft, the Buffalo Bills select Mike Williams, offensive tackle, Texas."

You can't blame them. They had just drafted Travis Henry, and they drafted a bulldozer of a lineman in Williams. But Williams would never play close to his run-blocking potential. He would play at a backup's level while making a star's money for his entire career. Weight issues, work ethic and overall lack of athleticism would mark his career a failure. The Bills had swung and missed with this draft pick.

To make it worse, the next best player at a position of need that was drafted? Bryant McKinnie, who would hold down the left side of the line in Minnesota for years—and currently still does.

2002 still had high hopes, as they didn't know that their "franchise player" in Mike Williams was going to get their newest asset, Drew Bledsoe, killed—figuratively speaking, of course. Clements, Schobel, Pat Williams and Winfield played well. Travis Henry broke out this year, with over 1,000 yards and racking up 14 touchdowns. WR Eric Moulds put up impressive numbers, with 100 receptions, 10 TDs and over 1,000 yards.

So we had a star blooming at running back, a star at WR and a solid defense. What was the problem? Sacks. Anyone who has ever watched football, played football or heard about football understands that a sack is a drive killer. Mike Williams and the rest of the Bills offensive line surrendered 54 sacks on the year. Bledsoe was often running for his life, playing scared and hoping for the best. The Bills had spent a fourth overall pick on a liability. 

I can't go out and say Mike Williams ruined the Bills season, as they improved to 8-8. But he certainly was more trouble than he was worth. His above-average run-blocking skills were overlooked due to his horrid pass-blocking talents.

Still, the Bills had a mildly successful year. .500 certainly was an improvement. Armed with hope, promise, a young star running back, solid defense, a smart QB, a reliable No. 1 WR and the 23rd overall pick in the upcoming draft, the Bills were supposed to be able to take the next step. Instead, heads were scratched.

"With the 23rd pick in the 2003 NFL draft, the Buffalo Bills select Willis McGahee, running back, Miami."

A running back? A running back? I don't get this. I will NEVER get this. You don't draft backups to franchise players. You don't draft for luxury when you have needs. Imagine you're a starving child, and your father goes out and comes home with a new car and no dinner. That just doesn't happen. Sane people don't think that way. You'd certainly think people put in charge of a multimillion-dollar franchise would know better.

On top of all this, McGahee was injured—so injured he didn't play in his rookie year. The team drafted a luxury that it couldn't even drive.

2003 was an interesting year. Not only was it the mark of Gregg Williams' last year as the head coach of the Bills, but it also marked what was a failed investment in Mike Williams. Travis Henry, along with the defense and Eric Moulds, played well. The problem this year was that Drew Bledsoe, after a year of beatings, was playing scared. Releasing too soon, leaving the pocket too soon and sometimes just throwing the old Brett Favre "chuck and pray."

Bledsoe was sacked 49 times. The offensive line couldn't protect the most important position on the field. The Bills were in jeopardy unless they had this taken care of. After completely wasting a first-round pick on a player that wasn't seeing the field until 2004, the Bills regressed to 6-10.

Now we had a talented Bills roster, lacking a piece or two from a playoff run, a new head coach and a luxury player coming into the picture. Things were looking hopeful. However, the team made its first of many bad decisions. The team chose not to sign Antoine Winfield to a long-term contract despite his years of consistent play, leaving a hole in the secondary.

The Bills left the 2004 NFL draft with two first-round picks: Lee Evans, a WR from Wisconsin, and J.P. Losman, a QB from Tulane. Now while the career of Lee Evans prevents me from saying many bad things about him, offensive line was clearly a bigger need, and the team passed on Pro Bowler Shawn Andrews for him.

J.P. Losman, however, was a project player. He was coming from C-USA and was not playing competition near the level he would see in his NFL career. This is also important because had the Bills stayed where they were and Losman been taken by some other team, the team would have been in position to draft Matt Schaub, who received higher grades from a lot of scouts and sources at the time of the draft. He didn't have the "upside" Losman had, but he had all the tools.

The departure of Winfield had less of an impact I thought it would, as second-year player Terrence McGee would fill those shoes nicely.

Travis Henry had faded into the shadow of Willis McGahee. (Which, let's be honest, didn't need to happen. It just didn't. I'm not sure what to say here. They went from a productive running back to a different productive running back. There was no need for the switch. Many Bills fans give the team credit for knowing Henry was having a down year. I feel they forced his down year by replacing him with McGahee during what was the prime of his career. Confidence is key in this game.)

Lee Evans and Eric Moulds were very valuable assets to the team, as both had good years receiving, and Bledsoe saw his sack total drop to 37—his lowest since his arrival in Buffalo. Behind a defense that sent four players to the Pro Bowl, the Bills improved to 9-7 under first-year coach Mike Mularkey.

The Bills seemed to be a team on the rise, but they had invested too much in J.P. Losman, as in the 2005 NFL draft they were missing a first-round pick, which belonged to the Dallas Cowboys. Had they just sat still and even passed on a QB all together in 2004, they would have been in a prime position to draft Aaron Rodgers (QB would be a need if that had happened) or even Roddy White, who wasn't a "need" per se, but the Bills drafted a WR in Roscoe Parrish anyway.

Which leads me to this statement:

What in the actual Hell, Buffalo? A wide receiver? It's as though the franchise is drafting off their "Don't draft these positions, we're set here" lists. On top of that, they drafted Roscoe Parrish, who has had quite the below average career. The next highest-rated WR on the scouting list that year? Vincent Jackson—which would only make sense to match a big-bodied possession receiver with the newly acquired speedster Lee Evans and the veteran route runner Eric Moulds.

I just don't get it. How can a team that can't make it to the playoffs be drafting luxury picks? Best player available. I get it. It's a strategy. But there is a formula there, and the Bills aren't even pretending to look into what that formula might be. 

During the same offseason, the Bills decided not to re-sign Pat Williams. Sam Adams had a very good year the year prior, so I can't entirely blame them for this. But I still do, for the sole reason of he wanted to play in Buffalo. He liked playing in Buffalo—and the Bills passed on him anyway. Why wouldn't you want to keep a working formula together?

With a new receiver and no franchise QB, the Bills struggled in 2005. Only the punter made it to the Pro Bowl that year. McGahee had a good year and was a model of consistency at this point, almost justifying his draft pick. Almost.

The year was marked (tainted) by Kelly Holcomb and J.P. Losman—neither of whom could find a way to pass the ball to the rookie Parrish. Moulds, the Bills' offensive MVP the past five years, had had enough of this and was not going to be taken for the ride that a rebuilding franchise was going to go through.

Moulds left in the offseason, which makes you almost think the Bills did the right thing by drafting Parrish. After all, replacing a player before he leaves or has a drop-off in production is sort of the Bills' thing. The Bills dropped to 5-11 and readied for yet another April draft. 

With a need of defensive tackle and safety, the Bills were in prime position to draft two of the finer prospects in the draft at those needs: Haloti Ngata and Michael Huff, respectively.

When the Raiders came on the clock with their seventh pick, they took Michael Huff. This must have been the Bills' option A, B, C and D, because the Bills panicked so much that instead of actually just moving on to the best value at an even bigger need, they drafted Donte Whitner. Whitner was seen a mid-late draft pick by most experts, while Ngata was a sure-fire top-10 talent to come out of Oregon. 

Oh, Buffalo.

They apparently thought defensive back was such a need that they passed on many other needs and more talented players to draft three defensive backs with their first four picks. This just spelled disaster for the team. Even if they drafted four Pro Bowl players (which they didn't), none of their other needs were satisfied.

Surprisingly, the Bills finished 7-9 under new coach Dick Jauron, behind a sack-filled year from J.P. Losman, another good year from Willis McGahee (who at this point hated Buffalo, the town, the team, everything) and a now aging defense that was led by the lone Pro Bowler outside of the punter in Aaron Schobel.

Jauron proved to be a players' coach as well. He was well liked but was not particularly demanding, which led to many of the young players slacking off and the veterans being disgruntled and wanting to leave Buffalo. Many key ones did because of this. That year they lost London Fletcher, Nate Clements and Willis McGahee in the offseason.

This marks the first year I can honestly say I was happy with whom the Bills drafted, Marshawn Lynch. The problem was it was yet another running back. They had mishandled the roster so badly that they were fixing the holes in the wall and never able to build a new wall. The NFL is a business. You can't sell a cold-weather fanbase on 3-13. You need to do whatever it takes to be competitive.

After Marshawn Lynch, the Bills drafted fan favorite Paul Posluszny, a linebacker from Penn State. 

With a new, retooled roster, the Bills were looking to improve on a 7-9 year and make a push for the playoffs. But despite a solid year from Aaron Schobel and Marshawn Lynch, QB play derailed the team's goals to improve, as Trent Edwards and J.P. Losman could only lead the team to yet another 7-9 record. Fixing the hole in the wall prevented the team from another top-10 pick. 

At this point, the way the roster looked, there was a need for a pass blocker. Ryan Clady was available to pair up with a developmental player the team had high hopes for in Jason Peters. Instead of walking away with what would have been bookends for years, the Bills drafted yet another defensive back in Leodis McKelvin.

Now the pass defense wasn't fantastic, but it wasn't dreadful either. It was clearly the QB play that was preventing this team from moving forward, and it was the lack of protection that was preventing the QBs from moving forward.

After another hole in the wall season, the Bills finished 7-9 again. The only thing I can say about this 7-9 season was that they were expected to do much worse. Many expected a big drop-off in production due to the QB play. But for the first time in years, it was the Bills defense that had let them down. There were clear needs for a pass rusher, as Schobel had significantly slowed down.

Marshawn Lynch was the lone bright spot outside of Jason Peters this year and thus carried the Bills into another offseason of mediocrity. 

In the 2009 NFL draft, the Bills passed on a more complete player in Brian Orakpo from Texas for more of a pure pass rusher in Aaron Maybin. Little did they know then they were drafting one of the biggest draft busts of all time. Once a top-10 pick, the Bills couldn't find a reason to play him during his first two years with the team, while Orakpo (who had a higher draft grade, mind you) is one of the premier pass-rushing OLBs in the game today.

The team had traded away Jason Peters due to contract issues and drafted Eric Wood with the pick they received for him. While Wood hasn't been bad, he certainly hasn't been great. With their second-round pick, they struck gold in ball-hawk safety Jairus Byrd. 

So after three 7-9 years in a row, the Bills were finally expected to make the leap. This year they had to be clicking on all cylinders. But nine weeks into the 2009 season, they fired coach Dick Jauron, naming Perry Fewell the interim coach. With a surprisingly bad year from Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson stepped up and played surprisingly well. The small school, NFL Europe product provided hope in the running game to form a duo with Lynch for years to come.

Defensively, the team had absolute nightmares trying to stop the run, but Byrd made the Pro Bowl off his ability to nab the ball mid air and force the turnover. A 6-10 season was marked with inconsistency at almost every position the team had to offer. 

Surprisingly, owner Ralph Wilson decided to "clean house" and rid the Bills of any remnants of those 7-9 seasons left behind by Jauron, hiring Chan Gailey to lead the team. Armed with a top-10 pick, a pair of running backs, a ball-hawking safety and an inability to stop the run or rush the passer, the team was headed into the NFL draft with a plethora of needs and "taken care ofs."

However, these are the Buffalo Bills we're talking about here. Some people do drugs, some people cheat, some steal, some even beat their wives. But me? What terrible thing do I do? I root for the Buffalo Bills.

They drafted dynamic pass-catching running back C.J. Spiller from Clemson. No franchise would draft a running back with a player on the rise at that position, but the Bills did it with McGahee. But with two running backs on the rise in Buffalo, they added another. You just can't have enough, I suppose. Every regime has brought in new defensive backs and running backs. None have solidified the line the way they should have.

The team used the next two picks on much-needed defensive line help, which would appear as though they were finally rebuilding the hole in the wall. But they used their greatest draft asset on a gadget, leaving holes in the wall while failing to get the pieces needed to rebuild the very same wall. 

2010 ended not too long ago. We know how it went. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick played average to below average. C.J. Spiller did nothing, and the defense couldn't stop anyone from running the ball right up the gut. Byrd was prevented from ball-hawking due to nobody needing to pass against us because of the ease of running.

Everything went wrong. Steve Johnson sacrilegiously dropped a touchdown-winning pass against Pittsburgh, and we couldn't catch a break. Add it all together, and we were 3-13, drafting third, with a need at defensive line, OLB and QB. (Despite what you may think, Fitzpatrick isn't the answer. I'm not saying Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, Colin Kaepernick or Ryan Mallett were, but Fitzpatrick is not.)

GM Buddy Nix did this town, this team, these fans, right. He is rebuilding the wall—with a man named Marcell Dareus. Now while I don't expect a 3-4 defensive end to wreak as much havoc as, say, a QB would impact an offense, I do expect him to play at a high level for years—to anchor a defensive line the way Ngata could have for us.

Pair Dareus up with Alex Carrington, Torell Troup and Kyle Williams. All of a sudden our porous run defense is a young core of high-upside players looking to make an impact. We are building from the inside out. They didn't reach on an offensive tackle or a CB (thank God, Steve Johnson, thank God). Instead, they did what every good franchise does: They took care of their needs.

Do I think this is the turnaround for Buffalo? 

Do I think one player is going to change a franchise beset by misfortune?

No.

But I do believe that this is the first step in the right direction the Bills have taken since drafting Nate Clements and Aaron Schobel 10 years ago. A decade of misery, followed by a successful decade of misery. (If you weren't miserable in the '90s, you aren't a Bills fan.)

Here's to hoping a franchise gets turned around. They've had some surprises, for better or worse. But the Bills are a hard-working franchise. I hope they got it right.

I know hindsight is 20/20, but I'm not looking at all these moves from that perspective. I went into my memory and emotional bank and took out the investments I had put in at the time. When you read it, most of these moves didn't make sense. Dareus just "does." I have high hopes for the Buffalo Bills.

Funny how 7-9 was miserable, and now I long for it. That's the NFL, folks. That's the Buffalo Bills.