One Bills Drive
The Buffalo Bills last made the playoffs in 1999. Their last playoff game was played on January 8th, 2000. Buffalo opened the new millennium with a soul-crushing loss, now known as the Music City Miracle.
Not long before that, the Bills made four straight Super Bowls, and lost all of them. No other team has won four straight conference championships, but the Bills still fall on the list of championship-less franchises.
After the success of the 90s, the Bills' appetite for ineptitude grew, and their 15-year playoff drought was born. Drafting kick returner after kick returner, Trent Edwards after JP Losman, and settling for Chan Gailey and Mike Mularkey all became typical expectations for the team.
To many younger football fans, the Bills are only associated with inadequacy. However, that is finally changing. The past 28 months have been intriguing, complex, transformative, and utterly different than what people have come to expect from the Bills, and it all came to head in 2014.
The Buffalo Bills' 2014 season started on April 25th, 2013.
With the 16th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills select:
EJ Manuel, Quarterback, Florida State.
It immediately became clear what the Bills were trying to do. Missing a franchise quarterback since the legendary Jim Kelly retired in 1997, the Bills tried to fill the hole that had plagued their team for almost two decades.
His first seconds as a Bill were narrated by Rich Eisen, and an air of doubt became immediately clear.
The first quarterback taken is not Geno Smith. It is not Matt Barkley. It's not even the quarterback that the current coach of the Buffalo Bills coached in college. It's EJ Manuel, out of Florida State, who is now going to go to Western New York.
The reaction was a common one over the remainder of the pre-season. Experts generally viewed Manuel as a project quarterback with a low floor but a high ceiling. Given what had recently transpired in the Bills' off-season, it was obvious that Buffalo expected Manuel to start right away.
The Making of the 2014 Season
General Manager Buddy Nix's tenure in Buffalo was full of tumult, confusion, and a general "Bills gonna Bills" type of performance. After coaching at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for eight seasons (he recruited Terrell Owens), Nix scouted for the Bills in the late 90s before becoming assistant GM for the San Diego Chargers from 2000-2008. He came back to Buffalo as a national scout in 2009 and was eventually promoted to GM by the end of that year.
Nix opened his tenure in Buffalo with a wildly confusing move - choosing Chan Gailey to be the Bills' next head coach. Fans everywhere resoundingly said "who?".
Still laughing.... Bills
turn to Chan Gailey as new head coach (Reuters) http://viigo.im/286f— Chad Hamm (@chamm21) January 19, 2010
Not a good look when u spend half a press conference answering ?'s on what coach didn't get hired. Chan Gailey welcome to Buffalo.— David Pollack (@davidpollack47) January 19, 2010
Hiring Chan Gailey is akin to hiring Conan O'Brien to do the Tonight Show ... you are going to have to fire him in nine months anyway.— Adam Rank (@adamrank) January 19, 2010
Appreciating context is important in understanding why this move was so bad. Buffalo had the only head coaching vacancy in the 2010 off-season. They had their pick of the litter so to speak, and the new GM prided himself that he could have hired "35 or 40" people, due to the high quality of candidates. Marty Schottenheimer, a big name who has since left the NFL, reportedly desperately wanted the job. Leslie Frazier, a seasoned defensive coach for the Vikings at the time, was a top candidate whom most fans preferred, but he didn't make Nix's cut.
Following the questionable-at-best coaching selection was a questionable-at-best draft, picking C.J. Spiller with the #9 overall pick. Few doubted Spiller's talent or promise, but that early in the 1st round was a bit of a reach, even after the back was coming off of a stellar senior season at Clemson. Spiller was projected to be a first-round pick in 2009, but he returned for his senior season as a Tiger and the waiting paid off.
What made the pick more confusing was that the Bills had just drafted Marshawn Lynch in 2007 with the 12th pick. Lynch was drafted into a similar situation, after Buffalo had drafted Willis McGahee in the bottom of the 1st round only four years prior.
Perhaps the Bills are part of the reason most teams have stayed away from 1st round running backs. None of those three were particularly bad players in the league, but all but Lynch were certainly reaches, especially for Buffalo in their situation each time.
Spiller excited fans because he was and has always been an electrifying player. His first two seasons were solid but unspectacular. 2012 saw an explosion in Spiller's game, netting him a Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade of 23.4.
Spiller was second only to Adrian Peterson that year, who had a historic season, nearly breaking the single-season rushing record. Peterson's PFF grade that season was 26.3.
Despite Chan Gailey's remarkable utilization of Spiller, Nix fired the former Georgia Tech coach after three seasons. Along with terminating Gailey, Nix established that he would be stepping down as GM following the 2013 draft.
One of Nix's last actions at the helm was releasing Ryan Fitzpatrick, in an attempt to cut his losses from the year prior when Buffalo extended Fitzpatrick with a massive contract mid-season. Fitzpatrick's release would eventually lead to the EJ Manuel pick in the 1st round that season.
But before Manuel was picked, or even before Fitzpatrick was released, something happened to Buddy Nix that would effectively serve as the microcosm for his time in Buffalo.
The Nix Call
On Friday, March 8th, Buddy Nix chatted up Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik. They talked free agency, which started the following week, and quarterbacks. A pretty expected discussion to be having in that stage of the off-season.
Except that neither of the two initiated the call.
Deadspin reported four days after the fact that the call was initiated by a pair of pranksters. Essentially, they placed two calls and merged them together. Remarkably, the trick worked, and these pranksters recorded the phone call.
All told, it's not a particularly interesting call. One of the biggest things most Bills fans took from the incident was that Nix in fact did not have Dominik's contact information at all. How are you supposed to be an effective GM if you don't know the other GMs?
The most interesting aspect of the Nix Call was the wildly conspicuous timing surrounding the whole event. At noon on Tuesday, audio files leaked of Nix talking pretty frankly about needing to move on at the QB position. At 4pm, free agency o pened, and by 4:30 the Bills had cut ties with Ryan Fitzpatrick.
So maybe Nix wasn't the slickest GM around. But as long as he had a plan for the upcoming draft--the last of his career, presumably--Buffalo could have snuck out mostly unscathed. Maybe make some moves, maybe take a pass at that West Virginia QB Geno Smith in the first round, and see what would have happened.
Enter EJ Manuel
The reaction to drafting Manuel wasn't exactly confusion, but instead doubt. No way could he start right away, no way could he be better than Fitzpatrick was, no way could he develop soon enough for him to be worth a first round pick.
However, the Bills were faced with a complicated conundrum. With a 6-10 record, the 2012 team had a lot of talent. Fitzpatrick's tawdry performance overshadowed many of the team's positives, including an incredible performance by C.J. Spiller. So fix the QB.
After two years and only 14 starts, Manuel hasn't been the fix, exactly. But Manuel is not the only new player from the 2013 draft.
An often overlooked footnote in the drafting of Manuel was the draft-day trade down with the St. Louis Rams. The Rams traded up to Buffalo's #8 pick in exchange for their #16 pick as well as other picks. Looking three years after the fact allows us to look at these draft picks as real players:
|Bills Receive||Rams Receive|
|E.J Manuel||Tavon Austin|
|Kiko Alonso||T.J. McDonald|
Tavon Austin, Geno Smith's electrifying Mountaineer teammate, was actually predicted by plenty of analysts to the Bills at the #8 slot before the draft. Austin ended up going at #8 to St. Louis instead, and has been impressive in flashes but ultimately has disappointed.
Kiko Alonso had one of the best rookie seasons from a linebacker in recent memory. He played every single snap on defense, and finished 2nd in AP Rookie of the Year voting to the Jets' Sheldon Richardson.
Marquise Goodwin has had a similar career to Tavon Austin. Goodwin, an Olympic long jumper, has clear athletic ability, but his team has not found the best way to use him just yet. It'll be interesting to see how Goodwin's career progresses moving forward, but at this point he is certainly worth a roster spot.
Chris Gragg is a blocking TE who is helpful in certain roles, but certainly not a starting talent just yet. T.J. McDonald has turned into a solid starting SS for St. Louis.
It's improper to think about EJ Manuel in a vacuum. Yes, he was a reach even at #16. But at least Buffalo traded down and got Alonso and Goodwin out of the deal. That's effective management. And that's something that has been unbelievably foreign in Buffalo in the 21st Century.
The 2013 Season
For a team that went 6-10 with a new head coach, this was a remarkably interesting season. The first game--a 23-21 nail-biting loss to the Patriots--showed the Bills were coming out firing. EJ Manuel led the Bills to a 4th quarter comeback in Week 2 against a Panthers team that would finish the season 12-4.
In Week 4, Buffalo picked off the defending Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco four times to beat the champs.
The season turned in Week 5, during a 37-24 loss at Cleveland. The Thursday Night contest saw both starting quarterbacks suffer season-ending knee injuries. Browns out-of-nowhere phenom Brian Hoyer tore his ACL on a hit from Alonso, and Manuel followed suit, spraining his right knee soon afterwards. After a strong start in the game, Brandon Weeden rose from the ashes and led the Browns to victory.
After betting heavily on Manuel, HC Doug Marrone was immediately without the QB he drafted. The next best option on the roster was Thad Lewis, the Duke product who played well in Buffalo, but was never great.
Despite starting the season 2-4, the buzz was palpable around this Bills team. Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Jerry Hughes all played tremendously well for a defensive line coached by new DC Mike Pettine. Pettine's trademark exotic blitz packages gave Buffalo 57 sacks, good for 2nd in the NFL.
4-7 at the bye week, it was evident that Buffalo had an uphill battle for playoff contention. Coming off the bye, the Bills trekked across the Niagara River to play the Atlanta Falcons at a "home game" played in Toronto's Rogers Centre.
This game eventually brought about the end of the much-maligned Toronto Series for the Bills. The game legitimately sounded like a Falcons home game. Falcons S William Moore was even quoted saying, "It didn't feel like we were in Canada."
The Bills squandered an early lead to a then 2-9 Falcons team who were able to force overtime. In what seemed like a decisive drive down the field, Bills TE Scott Chandler fumbled the ball and Atlanta recovered, marched the ball back into Buffalo territory, and kicked the clinching field goal.
The low-point in the 2013 season was a 27-6 loss at Tampa Bay to a decidedly worse Buccaneers team in Week 14. Both teams' seasons were over by that point, but Buffalo's awful showing in Tampa made the off-season a welcomed event.
But before the off-season really set in, a piece of much-needed good news awaited the Bills in February.
For most football fans, the Bills are best known for making four straight Super Bowls. Despite losing all of them, this is a feat that no other team has ever done and is widely considered one of the hardest records to break in sports.
The players part of those early 90s Super Bowl teams are to this day pieces of legend in western New York. Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, James Lofton, Joe DeLamielleure, and Billy Shaw, along with coach Marv Levy, all reached the Hall of Fame for their performances on these stellar teams. The group wasn't quite complete, however.
Andre Reed, undoubtedly the best WR in Bills history, was facing his ninth year on the Hall of Fame ballot. The timing of Reed's career provided a frustrating logjam of other wide receivers who were undoubtable first ballot locks. Art Monk, Cris Carter, Jerry Rice, and Tim Brown made the wait arduous but unavoidable for the Kutztown Kid.
Reed finally got his chance in 2014, joining his Super Bowl era teammates in Canton. News of his induction was met with absolute elation among Bills fans. After such a poor season on the gridiron, it was a treat to rejoice over something unquestionably positive.
At the time his career ended, Reed was the 3rd leading receiver in league history with 951 receptions. His 13,095 reception yards remain a Bills record. He excelled in getting yards after the catch, becoming an early master of the craft so frequently seen in today's game.
It was also announced soon afterwards that the Bills
would be playing the Giants in the annual Hall of Fame game. The game takes place the day after the induction ceremony on Fawcett Field in Canton, Ohio.
While the late summer weekend of festivities loomed on in the distant horizon, the front office still had to make sure they had a team to field for the upcoming 2014 season.
Part of Buffalo's stagnant-at-best motion through the last decade or so has been an apparent disregard for free agency. The biggest move the team made was signing Terrell Owens in 2009, for an expensive one-year contract that "earned" TO the Key to the City of Buffalo, contingent on Owens scoring 10 TDs and the Bills making the playoffs (neither happened, of course).
2014, however, seemed to be a different tale for their off-season ventures.
With founding owner Ralph Wilson, Jr. aging quickly, he let go of the operative reigns in early 2013, handing them over to Russ Brandon. As President, Brandon changed how Buffalo operated, perhaps most notably in free agency.
Of interest to most Bills fans heading into free agency was how the young, phenomenal safety Jairus Byrd would be handled. Byrd was tagged in 2013 and vocally frustrated about it. He held out of camp when a long term deal could not be reached, and was "injured" for the first five games of the season, though he still made the Pro Bowl.
Smartly, Byrd flew the coop to New Orleans where he got a massive $54 million deal over six seasons, making him the highest paid Saints defender. Byrd played in only four games in 2014 after a torn meniscus sidelined him for the season. While no one roots for injuries, the situation seemed to indicate that Buffalo made the right choice letting him go, and indeed Byrd made the right choice because he never would have gotten that kind of contract as a Bill.
Byrd's replacement in the secondary was Aaron Williams, the cornerback-turned-safety out of Texas that the Bills drafted back in 2011. Williams signed a sizable four-year/$26 million contract right before free agency started.
One of the first moves Buffalo made in free agency was yet another move for the secondary. Corey Graham, a Super Bowl winning cornerback with the Ravens, received a four-year/$16 million contract. The veteran promised to bring a new look for the perpetually young secondary, and was one of the marquee free agent signings for Buffalo.
The biggest move in terms of "star power" was grabbing Brandon Spikes, a linebacker who had spent his first four seasons with the division rival Patriots. Expecting big things from Alonso in his rookie season meant they wouldn't spend heavily on LB depth, so Spikes' deal was for just one season. Nevertheless, Spikes was ecstatic to be a Bill.
He didn't always see eye-to-eye with Bill Belichick during his time in Foxborough, and he definitely wasn't afraid to mince words on the subject:
4 years a slave— BrandonSpikes55 (@brandonspikes55) April 9, 2014
While Spikes' analogy was questionable at best, Bills fans seemed to love his fire. The former Patriot spent the next few months vocally blocking New England fans on Twitter. He was a Bills fan favorite before he even stepped on the field.
Another guy that most in Buffalo fell in love with seemingly instantly was Anthony "Boobie" Dixon. The former 49er was the bell cow in Greg Roman's ground and pound offense from 2010-2013, and signed with Buffalo a few days into free agency. Boobie promised to complement the oft-injured running back duo of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, the latter of which had been the acting bell cow despite not really having the appropriate skill set to compliment that type of load. Dixon was probably one of the first people truly excited about the 2014 Buffalo Bills.
I wish da season started today Jus wait on it tho 2014 will be a year to remember there is a storm comin It will be draped in Buffalo blue..— Anthony Dixon (@Boobie24Dixon) March 16, 2014
Jus look at March Madness people....Anything is possible....#BillsMafia— Anthony Dixon (@Boobie24Dixon) March 22, 2014
Dixon joined what was on paper the biggest need-filling acquisition of the free agency period: guard Chris Williams. A former 1st round pick, Williams offered a veteran presence at guard to challenge the barely-above-replacement Urbik and Pears. Williams signed a four-year/$13.5 million deal including $5.5 million guaranteed.
Drafted by the Bears in 2008, Williams' career progression had a distinct downturn the past few years. After numerous injuries in Chicago, Williams landed in St. Louis for two one-year deals, each under $3 million.
He was not the right guy to put hope in, and Buffalo knew this. Of his $5.5 million guaranteed, $3.5 million was in a signing bonus. Say what you will about forking over more money in one day than Williams had seen in either of the last two years, but by using the remaining 2014 cap space on providing as much guaranteed money as possible, the Bills effectively covered their bases. If Williams couldn't get back to form or found himself on the IR yet again, it wouldn't be detrimental to cut him.
Perhaps the most discussed move of the off-season was trading for Mike Williams. The Tampa Bay wideout was traded for a 6th round pick in the 2014 Draft, a small price to pay for one of the best red zone WRs in the past decade.
Williams grew up in Buffalo, and was ecstatic to return to his hometown.
Bills fans are amazing.......... i LOVE BUFFALO— Mike Williams (@CaveManMike19) August 10, 2014
After chalking up one of the worst red zone offenses in the league in 2013, scoring in only 47.76% of their red zone trips (29th in the NFL), the deal appeared to be mutually beneficial. There was no doubt the receiver was aging, but there was plenty of reason to believe that he could still produce, assuming he could stay healthy.
Top to bottom, this free agency period was intriguing. At every turn there was a player who could contribute in a big way, or, just as likely, completely flop.
Ralph Wilson, Jr.
On a sunny day in late March, after the free agency dust had settled, Orchard Park was abuzz with a renovation tour. Ralph Wilson Stadium, one of the oldest stadiums in the NFL, was getting a facelift and local press and politicians were in the building for a tour.
The Ralph had fallen slightly into disrepair, showing its age while retaining its character. Boasting arguably the best sight lines in the NFL, the suburban Buffalo stadium's renovation meant something important for the legacy of its namesake - that the Bills were there to stay.
The tour-goers were saddened to hear of the afternoon passing of Ralph Wilson, Jr., founder and sole owner of the Buffalo Bills. He was 95.
Ralph Wilson was one of the original owners in the AFL. Originally a minority owner in Lamar Hunt's Detroit Lions team, Wilson heard of potential expansion in 1959 and telegrammed "Count me in with Buffalo." The AFL accepted the Bills as its seventh team.
Wilson was an integral part of the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, and was eventually the last of the original AFL owners to stay with his team through the merger. And he remained well into the 21st century. Wilson's 54-year tenure is the 3rd longest of all time, after George Halas with the Bears (64) and Art Rooney of the Steelers (55).
It's impossible to understate the impact that Ralph Wilson had on American Football. When Al Davis was in a pinch in the 1960s, Wilson lent the Raiders $400,000. Back when the AFL comprised only 12 teams, Wilson knew the impact that a market like Oakland would have on the feasibility of the league. If the Raiders went down, so did everyone else.
He championed the idea of revenue sharing in the AFL, which NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle eventually adopted after the merger. Revenue sharing, especially once television contracts became wildly profitable, is ultimately the only reason any team could survive in a small market like Buffalo.
Wilson's Hall of Fame speech gave great insight into the kind of owner he was. He was far from just a checkbook - Mr. Wilson was the heart and soul of the Buffalo Bills, and his impact on the city of Buffalo could not be understated.
By choosing Buffalo for his franchise's home, Wilson helped ensure Buffalo stayed on the map. Wilson had plenty of chances to move to bigger markets, but he felt that the Bills belonged in Buffalo, and that's where they would stay. However, once he passed it wasn't exactly up to him anymore.
Staying in Buffalo?
It had been public knowledge for a decade or so that upon his death, Wilson would hand off the franchise to his family, who had the intention of selling it. Mary Wilson, Ralph's widow, shortly became the controlling owner of the Bills, with a sale to follow.
The sale of any NFL franchise must be approved by 75% of the other owners, so an owners' meeting must occur in order for a sale to go final. With Wilson passing in March 2014, the Bills sale could happen as early as the October meeting, though more likely the December labor meeting or March 2015 off-season owners' meeting.
Wilson's estate, led by Mary Wilson, seemed to have Buffalo's best interests in mind. That is until rumors started flying about some intriguing bidders.
Real estate mogul, golden hair aficionado, firing expert, and divisive-at-best personality Donald Trump presented himself as the savior of the Bills. One of Jim Kelly's good friends, Trump promised to keep his Bills in Buffalo. The bid gained some traction with more than one prominent Bills player.
Andre Reed -- Donald Trump Could SAVE the Buffalo Bills http://t.co/NOC8M5dpbv— TMZ (@TMZ) April 3, 2014
"It would be catastrophic, in my opinion, if Buffalo lost the Buffalo Bills," Trump told WBEN Radio in late March. He was saying all the right things. He was backed by the right people. Early in the process, the Trump bid seemed to have some validity.
If Trump wasn't a strange enough figure to include in the bidding process, why not add someone else out there? How about famous rocker and football fan Jon Bon Jovi.
When he's not busy living on prayers, Bon Jovi is majority owner of the AFL's Philadelphia Soul, a team he also founded. He has been vocal (pun intended) about his desire to own an NFL franchise, and even expressed interest in the Bills during Wilson's lifetime. His intention to bid on the franchise now that they were for sale was no surprise, but it came with a catch.
Bon Jovi's net worth was only about $300 Million. For a normal rock star, that would be plenty. But NFL franchises sell for much more than that. Before the Bills, the last outright sale was of the Cleveland Browns, who went for $1 Billion in 2012. With inflation and increased popularity of the league, the asking price for the Bills would have to exceed that hefty figure.
Bon Jovi didn't have the funds. But two friends did.
Larry Tanenbaum (Chairman) and Tim Leiweke (CEO & President) collectively head Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., the group that owns all of Toronto's sports teams. The Toronto pair joined forces with Bon Jovi to bid on the Bills.
Throughout the process of the Toronto group's bid, they maintained that they would keep the Bills in Buffalo. This, of course, was met with skepticism in Western New York. How could these two magnates and a rocker with major Canadian ties be trusted to keep the team out of Toronto?
By April, the rumors began to swirl at a higher pace about a Toronto relocation. Of course, the fickle thing with sports is that the season never truly ends. Despite the impending sale of the franchise, the football operations still had to continue. In the spring, that means Draft season.
The day was May 8th, 2014. The pick was #9. Buffalo needed help on the offensive side no matter what position they went with, with special focus on WR and OG. While EJ Manuel's rookie season wasn't exactly what the Bills had hoped for, they weren't about to draft another QB in the first round. Instead, the goal was to give last year's investment all the opportunity in the world.
The Jacksonville Jaguars chose QB Blake Bortles with the 3rd overall draft pick. The Browns were on the clock next, but suddenly there was an alert below ESPN's draft panel. The Bills traded their next two 1st-round draft picks and a 4th-
rounder for Sammy Watkins. Bills fans react, react, and react.
There's no question the price was steep. But there's also no question the benefit was huge.
Buffalo's main woes in Manuel's rookie season were determined by Marrone and company to be due to a dearth of options. Veteran Stevie Johnson was coming off his third straight 1,000 yard season going into 2013, but he never seemed to connect with the young QB.
Johnson tallied only 597 yards with 3 TDs in 2013 on a sputtering offense. After rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, Johnson was the main target for Manuel. Yet Johnson didn't capitalize, dropping a few too many balls and costing a little too much for his production. Nevertheless, Johnson was excited by the prospect of Watkins joining the corps.
About 16 hours after drafting Watkins, Johnson was traded to the 49ers for a 2015 4th-round pick.
The Bills seemed to go from having a big need at wide receiver to suddenly having a surplus. While Johnson undoubtedly regressed in 2013, he still led the team in yardage. His performance was absolutely serviceable, making the move something of a head-scratcher from a football perspective.
It's quite possible that the move was initiated by the lack of chemistry, not necessarily the lack of talent. Whatever the reason, the fan favorite got the rug pulled out from under him and said his tearful goodbye to the city he had lived in and loved for 7 seasons.
After the shift around the wide receiver room, the final six rounds of the draft still had to be completed. With Buffalo still reeling from the high-profile move, the Bills sought to remedy some of the other issues plaguing Manuel in '13.
The obvious next goal would be to upgrade the interior offensive line. Despite being anchored by center and captain Eric Wood as well as veteran LT Cordy Glenn, the Bills offensive line was remarkably porous in 2013.
Colin Brown was ranked 78th out of 81 guards by Pro Football Focus in 2013, despite only taking 400 snaps. The Bills needed to improve across the whole line.
In rounds 2-7, the Bills drafted three offensive linemen. Cyrus Kouandjio, a house of an offensive tackle from Alabama, was drafted in the 2nd round. The pick was a little earlier than most analysts expected him to go since he has suffered knee issues in his career, but most saw him as a potential starter right off the bat.
In the 6th round, Buffalo grabbed another big lineman, this time guard Cyril Richardson from Baylor. Richardson's game had a lot of room for improvement, especially in pass blocking, but he was a solid depth pick.
The Bills' final pick of the draft was Seantrel Henderson, an offensive tackle out of Miami. Henderson is of note because he was the most highly scouted tackle in his high school class, and had 1st round expectations his first few years as a Hurricane.
After declaring his eligibility, Henderson admitted that his three suspensions at Miami were a result of failing three separate tests for marijuana. He seemed to be pointed in the right direction, and even got an invite to the NFL Combine.
Which is where he failed yet another drug test.
Physically, Henderson had it all. Long arms, a huge frame, perhaps slightly overweight but nothing conditioning couldn't handle. The issue was his drug tests. Teams hopped off the bandwagon for Henderson after the Combine result, and his draft stock plummeted as a result.
Whaley jumped when they saw the big man was still available in the 7th, despite the issues. The GM was very clear with the troubled tackle.
We talked to him. He knows he has one shot.
Buffalo came out of the draft in good shape to make waves in 2014, even making a move that the franchise traditionally shies away from. With all the personnel more or less in place, eyes began looking towards the sale.
Who Owns the Team?
Late May is the dead time in the NFL offseason. There was rookie mini-camp and OTAs, but all told it was quiet from a football perspective, so it made the most sense to ramp up sale exploration now.
Bills fans have always been apprehensive about anything that would facilitate a possible move out of Buffalo. With NFL interest in London as well as Los Angeles, in addition to the aforementioned Toronto group coupled with the finally discontinued Toronto Series, the Bills had to skate on some thin ice with this sale process.
An interesting caveat in the matter was that the renewed lease with Erie County ensured that the Bills had to play at Ralph Wilson Stadium through the 2022 season, but with an opt-out clause after the 2019 season.
This was a big playing chip in Buffalo's favor, but it still meant that in only a few years, the next owner could move the franchise. Luckily, Ralph foresaw this.
By late May, Russ Brandon announced that the investment firm to head the Bills sale would be selected soon. Sources also indicated that the firm would make staying in Buffalo mandatory for any buyer.
What I was told by someone with very good knowledge of the Buffalo Bills sale situation: "Whoever buys it has to be prepared to stay there."— Judy Battista (@judybattista) May 20, 2014
I'm told a Toronto-based group interested in buying the Bills is reconsidering because moving might be too difficult.— Tim Graham (@ByTimGraham) May 20, 2014
Morgan Stanley was selected to oversee the process.
Bills have selected Morgan Stanley as the financial firm and Proskauer Rose as the legal firm that will handle sale of the team.— Tim Graham (@ByTimGraham) May 21, 2014
Soon after this news, more potential bidders came out of the woodwork. Jim Kelly, who was nearing the end of his cancer treatment, was repeatedly brought up in talks of becoming a potential owner. Tom Golisano, former owner of the Buffalo Sabres, reportedly met with NFL and local officials about the specifics of placing a bid on the franchise.
C. Dean Metropolus, owner of the Pabst Brewing Company, explored a bid. Jeremy Jacobs, owner of the Boston Bruins, was i nterested in bidding but could not due to an NFL restriction that prohibits owners from owning sports franchises in different markets. The Koch family, owners of New Era Cap, explored a bid. Donald Trump sold his stake in casinos because the NFL prohibits gambling interests.
The one candidate I haven't mentioned was always the hope of the fan base. He had virtually no baggage, had enough money, was already invested in the area, and is, by all accounts, just a cool guy.
Terry Pegula owns the Buffalo Sabres, the Rochester Americans (AHL), the Buffalo Bandits (NLL) and got his money from the natural gas and shale industries.
Pegula purchased his three Buffalo teams from Tom Golisano for $189 million in 2011. His confidence in the area was immediately portrayed when he invested even more money to build the HarborCenter, a recently completed shopping center across from the First Niagara Center, the Sabres' arena.
In his introductory press conference, Pegula made sure Buffalonians knew how serious he was about making the Sabres the best they could be:
Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres' reason for existence, will be to win a Stanley Cup.
Pegula and his wife Kim stayed mostly quiet throughout the bidding process, letting the Trumps and Bon Jovis of the world yak to their hearts' content.
I am the only potential owner of the @buffalobills who will keep the team in Buffalo, where it belongs!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 24, 2014
Meanwhile, he moved a little bit of money around.
Evidently, something was in the works. Trump kept speaking loudly and carrying a small stick.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wanted to ensure the Bills stayed in Buffalo, as the county and state helped paid for the recent renovations of The Ralph. Cuomo couldn't exactly have a say in the matter, as the sale would ultimately be private but he made it very clear in a few press meetings that he wanted the Bills to stay in western New York.
Come July, the Bon Jovi Toronto group announced officially that if they were to win the bidding process, they would keep the Bills in Buffalo. A noteworthy announcement, perhaps, but few really believed them.
July also brought the news that Edward Rogers III, chairman of Roger Communication, the biggest company in Canada and owner of the Rogers Centre in Toronto (formerly the Skydome), would not join the bidding process.
The jury was still out if the Bon Jovi group had enough money to really compete in a serious bid, but the news that Rogers would not be joining in the process at all meant that Canada's richest business wouldn't change anything about that. Rogers not being involved was especially significant given the communication giants' ties with Buffalo's Toronto Series for the past few years.
Steve Greenberg, a powerful sports broker who dealt with major sales in the past, started to get tied to the Pegulas. Still, Terry and Kim remained quiet.
One of the most interesting points of the whole sale procedure was the speculation of the price that the Bills would ultimately be sold for. Forbes valued the Bills at a "mere" $935 million. Of course, NFL teams rarely go on sale, so the price was driven up because there is such a premium on these franchises, and the NFL's earning power is skyrocketing every season.
The number thrown around most frequently, likely because of how neat it sounds, was $1 billion. ESPN's Sal Paolantonio predicted that the sale would close north of $1.1 billion. Paolantonio also reported that he felt the team had a very low chance of moving.
I don't think the team's moving. I would stake my professional reputation on it. I think people in ownership want to see the team stay here. I think they want to continue the legacy of Ralph Wilson. I think Roger Goodell is convinced.
After nearly four months of lots of people "exploring" bids on the Bills, the time finally came in late July to actually bid on the franchise. Numbers well over $1 billion flew around, with Bon Jovi's Toronto Group placing a $1.2 billion bid, Trump placing a $1 billion bid, and the Pegulas bidding "more than $1 billion."
The Toronto Group reportedly commissioned a feasibility study for an NFL size stadium in Toronto, to be built when the Bills' lease in Orchard Park ran out in a few years. Talk about a red flag.
News began to break that the bid numbers were a little off.
Both sources tell me reported $1.2 billion bid from Toronto group is quite higher than reality.— Tim Graham (@ByTimGraham) July 31, 2014
Two sources deeply plugged into the Bills sale process have told me every bid number that has been reported so far is wrong.— Tim Graham (@ByTimGraham) July 31, 2014
At this point, the only thing that was really clear was the timeline of events laid out about Morgan Stanley. July had been the opening bidding period, where any party could place a preliminary, non-binding bid on what they felt the team was worth. The deadline for that was Tuesday, July 29th.
By Thursday, July 31st, the initial bids were ready to be analyzed and the process moved forward.
It's believed everybody who submitted the non-binding initial bid Tuesday to buy the Bills is moving on to the next round of the process.— Tim Graham (@ByTimGraham) August 1, 2014
Despite the likely inaccuracy of the bid values, it seemed that three parties ultimately placed a bid on the franchise: The Toronto Group (including Bon Jovi), Donald Trump, and Terry & Kim Pegula. All three advanced to the second and final round of bidding, where Morgan Stanley and Mary Wilson would have long, hard looks at each bidder.
The timing of this bidding was especially intriguing because Hall of Fame weekend was immediately on the horizon. With Buffalo's front office and NFL management all in one place, it made perfect sense to have a meeting of the minds in between festivities.
Told by reliable source Bon Jovi expected in Canton for HOF weekend. Told visit has to do with ownership bid.— Adam Benigni (@AdamBenigni) August 1, 2014
This news was big and scary. Here's the happiest moment of the franchise in the four months since the owner and founder passed, and Jon Bon Jovi was about to go behind the scenes to use that to his advantage and move the team to Toronto.
Hall of Fame Weekend
Canton, Ohio is a small city situated about an hour south of Cleveland. The area is rich in sports history. The first professional football game reportedly took place on the grounds where Fawcett Stadium now stands, a few dozen paces from the Pro Football Hall o f Fame.
Interestingly, the Hall of Fame is not the NFL Hall of Fame, it is devoted to all iterations of Pro Football in America from its inception in 1892 to the modern National Football League. This provides an air of gravity to the Hall--context that magnifies the current reality of the NFL. It's a marvelous place.
A few miles down the road is Akron, where LeBron James was born and raised. James had just announced that he was taking his talents back home to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the region was still abuzz with excitement.
The Firestone Golf Club lies in between Akron and Canton. The Firestone Invitational, traditionally considered a warm up to the PGA Championship the following week, was also taking place July 31-August 3rd. Northeast Ohio was brimming with sports fans visiting for the weekend.
With the recent sale news surrounding Buffalo, coupled with Andre Reed's induction and the debut of Sammy Watkins and the NFL preseason, Bills fans came out in troves to be present.
I spent the early afternoon touring the Hall. The building was filled with Bills fans who made the trip to be with their team that weekend, and all of them seemed to have something to say about the sale of the franchise, particularly Bon Jovi.
The Induction Ceremony itself began just before dusk, with Reed 3rd to last. Emceeing the event was ESPN anchor and vocal Bills fan Chirs Berman. When Boomer got to Reed, he led the Buffalo-heavy crowd in a raucous "Nobody Circles the Wagons like the Buffalo Bills" chant, his favorite.
Reed was then introduced by his coach, Marv Levy, another Hall of Famer. Reed's speech in its entirety follows.
At 27:43, Reed addresses his time with Jim Kelly. Kelly, who was at the tail-end of cancer treatment at the time, was making his first public appearance in a few months. The support from the crowd was remarkable, accompanied by the sentiments Reed had for his quarterback
You know our old saying bro. 12 + 86 always equals 6.
Reed and Kelly connected for one more pass, seen at 42:02.
Around 33:45, Reed starts talking about Ralph Wilson, Jr. and his legacy. Soon after he drops a quote that lights up the crowd:
Oh yeah, and the Bills will stay in Buffalo, too.
The ownership question reared its head after Reed's speech, when news broke that Bon Jovi was indeed in Canton that night, playing Michael Strahan's private afterparty. The next day, at the Hall of Fame Game, Bills fans made sure to voice their discontent.
Bon Jovi published a letter the next day in the Buffalo News, pledging allegiance to the city of Buffalo.
Our objective is simple: to carry on the legacy of Ralph Wilson and make the Bills successful in Buffalo. We are committed to working with the State, City, County and business community to identify the best possible site in the Buffalo area for a new stadium and to then develop and implement a plan to finance and build a state-of-the-art NFL stadium for the loyal Bills fans.
This segment of the statement was the closest Bon Jovi came to committing to keeping the Bills in Buffalo.
A few days after the letter, Morgan Stanley denied the Toronto/Bon Jovi bid, removing it from consideration and easing the minds of relocation-troubled Buffalonians.
Hall of Fame Weekend was a microcosm of everything happening to the Bills. Reed finally made it to the Hall, and was enshrined next to Kelly, who was overcoming cancer, all while their team was up for sale, with a potential nefarious buyer on site that evening. The next day, a rookie phenom hit the field for the first time, and the Buffalo Bills started their most intriguing season in history.
A New Season
The Bills finished 1-4 in the preseason, with a pretty quiet training camp. Watkins was the focal point of the preseason, as expected after some considered the franchise to be essentially going for broke on the Clemson phenom. He started off with a bang in his first week of camp.
Watkins injured his rib in a Bills' loss to the Steelers in the preseason, an injury that hampered him for the rest of the month of August. Training camp kept Bills fans on edge a bit watching Manuel develop...or not develop.
The Bills offense was booed off the field during a preseason loss to the Bucs, and Manuel was quoted saying they were "saving plays" for the Week 1 contest against the Bearsin Chicago.
Concern about Manuel reached such a critical mass in late August that the Bills brought in Kyle Orton, the retired former Cowboy, to back him up. The deal with Orton was a 2-year deal with a player option after the 2014 season. Orton provided a veteran presence that hadn't been seen in Buffalo's quarterback room that was sorely needed.
Nevertheless, Manuel went into the season as the starter, Watkins went into the season mostly healthy, Marrone went into the season as curmudgeonly as ever, and the Bills went into the season, just like every other team, at 0-0.
One piece of great news that Bills fans received right before the season started was that Jim Kelly was free of cancer. A biopsy confirmed just a few days before the season started that the best Bills QB of all time had gone into remission.
The Bills could now worry about the task at hand: playing football.
Let the Games Begin
Week 1 had the Bills travel out to the Windy City to face the Bears, whom many had high hopes for coming into the season. Chicago, like Buffalo, had a lot of talent on offense but had a questionable QB in Jay Cutler.
Manuel scrambled for a TD in the game, and threw for another one. Two Bears turnovers had Buffalo leading 17-7 at the half. Chicago surged in th e second half, scoring 10 unanswered points, and the teams traded field goals before going to overtime tied at 20.
Chicago won the toss, but Buffalo only allowed one completion. After the first down on the first play, the Bills forced three straight incomplete passes and took possession.
Spiller took the ball for a 13-yard gain. Mike Williams had a stellar 20-yard catch. Then Fred Jackson had one of the defining runs of his career.
Jackson's downright manhandling of Chris Conte allowed the Bills to kick the winning field goal and start 1-0.
A lot of teams struggle coming off of a win like that. Following an away upset, a team still trying to find itself like the Bills could have suffered a hard fall in Week 2. Luckily, they got a little pick-me-up in the form of a lot of money,
Terry and Kim Pegula, as expected, agreed to purchase the Buffalo Bills for $1.4 billion. While the purchase had to be approved by other owners before it came official, Bills fans rejoiced about the implications of the purchase.
Today is the best day I've ever had being a Bills fan, thank you Pegula family!— John Krazmien (@thekrazyman) September 9, 2014
Couldn't be happier about Mr. Pegula. He's taking that region to the next level. #HowItsDone— Adam Winslow (@adam_winslow) September 9, 2014
The Bills released a statement by the team and by Mary Wilson, below:
This is a very important day in the history of the Buffalo Bills franchise. Ralph brought professional football to Buffalo in 1959 and it was his life’s passion. He loved his team and he cherished the fans and his legacy will remain for all-time. Ralph would have been pleased with the sale of the team to the Terry Pegula family, who has been so committed to Buffalo and the Western New York region. I sincerely wish Terry and Kim Pegula all the best with the Buffalo Bills and I’m happy for all Bills fans. Our hope is that this great franchise brings them as much excitement and joy as it did for Ralph and that they bring home a Super Bowl championship for Bills fans everywhere. Go Bills!
After the stamp of approval from Ralph's daughter, and seemingly everyone else in Western New York, the Bills were staying put in Buffalo. For good.
The end of relocation drama was a massive weight off the shoulders of Western New York. For more or less the entirety of the current playoff drought, Buffalo had been on the short list of potentially relocatable franchises. Now that worry had come to an end, for a long, long time.
The Bills beat the Bears on Sunday, & Terry Pegula just bought the Bills ... Sunday's home opener is going to be OUTRAGEOUS 👍🏈🎉 #billsmafia— Jennifer Miller (@_JenMiller_) September 9, 2014
Yes it would be.
The game against the Dolphins had a lot of meaning for the Bills' season. The team was trying to build off of a Week 1 win in the first divisional game of the season, and the home opener. The atmosphere was, indeed, outrageous.
Before the game, Mary Wilson had a small press conference with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Wilson thanked Cuomo and the New York State government for providing financial support for Ralph Wilson Stadium's renovations over the past year. Russ Brandon announced that over $130 million went into the renovations.
Before the game there was a ceremony in honor of Ralph Wilson, Jr. Who better to talk about the founder and sole owner of the franchise than the best player Buffalo ever saw, who had just had his own success story, Jim Kelly?
Kelly approached the podium to a minute-long standing ovation. Evidently holding back tears, Kelly spoke about his recent fight with cancer and the support he received from the Bills community. Kelly spoke fondly of his former boss and mentor:
He was a guy with integrity, a guy we all looked up to, and a guy we all considered almost like a father to us. We will forever miss him.
Kelly brought down the house at the close of his speech, igniting the crowd with a rowdy proclamation:
Now, let's squish the fish!
Buffalo got out to a 9-0 lead, and entered the locker room for halftime with that score. Miami opened the second half with a field goal to pull within a score of the Bills, but C.J. Spiller took the ensuing kickoff back 102 yards for a touchdown to keep the game in Buffalo's control.
Watkins added a touchdown in the 3rd quarter, a 12-yard reception for his first career score in a regular season game. Dan "Money Man" Carpenter went 5-for-6 on field goals, his only miss knocking off the uprights.
The 29-10 win was an important one for Buffalo, but it was a little concerning that only one red zone trip of six resulted in a touchdown. The Bills won the game with special teams. Aside from Spiller's electrifying return, Boobie Dixon blocked a punt in the first quarter and Carpenter scored over half of Buffalo's points on the day. But the offense would need to improve in order for the Bills to remain competitive moving forward.
Nevertheless, Buffalo started 2-0 for only the sixth time since 2000.
Week 3 saw the San Diego Chargers come into Orchard Park for a high-pressure affair for both sides. The Chargers led 13-3 at the half, and scored first in the 3rd quarter to push the lead to 20-3. Buffalo responded with their best drive, start to finish, in the season. Nothing went wrong, and Buffalo pulled back within 10 points.
After the Chargers' touchdown in the middle of the 3rd quarter, Buffalo did not allow another 1st down in the game. This meant that the entire 4th quarter was Buffalo's defense remaining tough and not budging, allowing the team's offense the opportunity to strike and get within a possession.
They couldn't do it. Manuel overthrew receivers, Jackson and Spiller ran into the backs of blockers, and nothing went right. It just wasn't the Bills' day.
If the lack of scoring wasn't enough, the nail in the coffin came with 3:28 left in the 4th. The Bills were still down by 10 and had to drive the whole field after a great punt pinned them at their own 9-yard line.
EJ Manuel dropped back, the pocket collapsed yet another time that day, and he threw the ball away while he was standing in the end zone - which counted as a safety and two points for the Chargers. Ralph Wilson Stadium emptied out.
Of course, it's hard to expect perfection from a quarterback making his 13th career start. Nevertheless, it was frustrating to watch four separate drives in the 4th quarter implode due to poor offensive execution.
The problem didn't only lie with Manuel - realistically it was a coaching issue - but Manuel was the scapegoat, the easy target, the problem.
Buffalo next traveled to Houston to face the 2-1 Texans, a game in which they scored the first 10 points of the game but allowed an 80-yard TD drive right before halftime, which kept Houston knocking on the door. Manuel threw a pick-six to JJ Watt, who thundered his way down the sideline and grabbed all the momentum for the contest. The Bills stayed close, but 8 penalties and another Manuel INT late made the effort futile.
It was clear something needed to change. Manuel wasn't attempting very many passes, and when he was he looked entirely unsure of what he should be doing. The run game was adequate, but not nearly stellar enough to make up for the entirely lacking passing game. Is this how they were going to use Sammy Watkins? Sparingly, at best?
Enter Orton (5-8)
Orton's first game was in Detroit, right before the owner's meeting to confirm the Pegulas as owners. Detroit, of course, is where Ralph Wilson grew up. A fitting place as any to end his family's tenure as owner of the Bills.
The game was defensive in nature, with the teams combining for 7 field-goal attempts. At halftime the score was 14-3 in Detroit's favor. Both teams had an interception, including a Rashean Mathis pick-six for the Lions.
Injuries to Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush left the Bills some room to strike, and "strike" they did. Orton
marched sauntered his way down the field but stalled at the Lions' 7-yard line, allowing Carpenter to push his second field goal through to cut the lead to 14-6.
The beginning of the 4th quarter saw a flash of Orton's true prowess. Lots of short check-downs and draw plays got the Bills past midfield, when Goodwin caught a 42-yard bomb that brought Buffalo to the 4-yard line. After a penalty, Chris Gragg caught a 2-yard TD pass from Orton. Fred Jackson punched in the 2-point conversion, and all of a sudden the score was knotted at 14-14.
Football is often a game of luck, and over the past fifteen years the Bills have almost never been on the right side of luck. Maybe it was the injury bug at the right time, and maybe the Lions held on to their kicker one week too long, but luck struck the Buffalo Bills in Detroit.
The Lions drove down the field but had to settle for a 50-yard field goal attempt with :26 remaining. Alex Henery, who had already missed his first two attempts, shanked it. Buffalo took over at their own 40 and Sammy Watkins showed why they invested two draft picks on him.
Carpenter nailed a 58-yarder with :09 left and earned himself the nickname "Money Man." Buffalo won in Detroit, moved to 3-2, and honored Wilson's legacy in the final game with the Wilsons at the helm of the Bills.
The Detroit game was also the return of Jim Schwartz to his old stomping grounds. This time his defense led the Bills to a victory. Back in training camp, Schwartz joked that he would get carried off the field in Detroit if the Bills won. Turns out, he wasn't joking.
As if the defensive coordinator getting carried off the field after a sloppy win wasn't bizarre enough, a few days after the game news broke of a Lions fan shining laser pointers in the eyes of Bills players during the game. Carpenter, holder Colton Schmidt, and Orton were the most affected, and complained to the refs on the field.
The fan who did it was eventually found, cited, and banned for life from Ford Field. Never a dull moment in the NFL.
Their next game was at home against the Patriots. Led by old-yet-somehow-new Orton, and charged up by the Pegula purchase, the Bills seemingly had a real shot at taking down their archrival. New England was favored by only 3 points, which in and of itself was already a victory for Buffalo.
The game didn't exactly go according to plan. Orton threw for 299 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, and got sacked 5 times. Buffalo lost two fumbles, Orton with one and Spiller with the other, allowing the Patriot offense to command the game. The Bills were 3-for-3 in the red zone, but 3 red zone trips evidently weren't enough. The 8 penalties for 107 yards probably didn't help either.
Brady threw for 4 TDs, and Stephen Gostkowski added 3 FGs. Buffalo made a late surge in the 4th quarter, getting within striking distance at 30-22 with 5:58 remaining, but it was too little, too late.
It felt as though Buffalo beat themselves. They lost 37-22, but with 5:58 left they were only one score away with all three timeouts. Brady connected with Brandon LaFell for a 57-yard TD and the Patriots locked it up.
The Bills typically lose to the Patriots, so that wasn't a huge shock, but this was still a kick in the pants. There was a new energy surrounding the franchise after the sale. The first home game of the Pegula era, but still at Ralph Wilson Stadium, just like always. Yet the Patriots were still beating the Bills, just like always.
It was around here, Week 6, that something started to smell funny in the locker room. Reports began circulating that the team was shopping Mike Williams. Right before the New England game, Chris Williams landed on the IR with his nagging back injury. Marrone, who was never really a happy figure, seemed especially salty to the media.
On top of that, the play from Watkins was underwhelming. The receiver had grabbed 2 TDs a nd 330 yards, averaging 12.7 yards per catch, or 5.9 yards per target. Good, but not #4 overall pick good.
The season marched on, and the next matchup was with the Minnesota Vikings at the Ralph. This game went a little more the way the Bills had planned. Bridgewater was sacked 5 times, Leodis McKelvin grabbed two picks, and Buffalo kept the game close - 16-10, Minnesota - when the Bills got the ball with 3:07 left in the game.
It was clear that Orton was not a good quarterback, but he was definitely good enough with the way the other pieces around him were playing. On his three-minute drill, Orton hit Watkins to get to midfield, then got sacked and found himself at 4th-and-20 with 1:27 remaining, needing a TD to win.
Chandler pulled in a 24-yard catch, slanting across the middle of the field. Watkins caught two passes to keep the drive going, and then Hogan made an acrobatic catch to bring the Bills to the 2-yard line. A Watkins TD catch as time expired sealed the 17-16 victory for Buffalo.
The above win probability graph from Pro-Football-Reference.com shows the heroics of Buffalo's 3-minute drill. The Chandler catch on 4th & 20 and the Hogan catch with :25 remaining made the win possible. Buffalo got hot at the right time, which was made possible by the defense keeping the game close.
With :41 remaining, Buffalo had a 0.90% chance of winning the game. Good teams are never out of the game until it's over, and this was a case of Buffalo being down, but not out. The persistence to overcome penalties and turnovers and still pull out a win like this showed what this team could do.
The win came with two major injuries: Spiller and Jackson would both miss considerable time, a major blow to the backfield. Spiller was hurt on his only carry of the game - a 53-yard run down the sideline - when Robert Blanton took him down by the shoulder pads at the 15. Spiller was carted off and word came out that he broke his collarbone. Spiller was placed on the IR Designated to Return, which meant he would be eligible for the Week 16 contest at Oakland.
Jackson, the ageless back, suffered a groin injury that would sideline him for 3-5 weeks. With the bye week around the corner, Jackson's injury wouldn't hamper the Bills quite as much as Spiller. The two injuries meant more time for Boobie Dixon and Bryce Brown, each talented backs who would have to help out the sputtering offense.
At 4-3, the Bills were set to travel to New Jersey to face the "New York" Jets. The 1-6 Jets were in the midst of an awful season, shrouded in front office and coaching doubts. Geno Smith, EJ Manuel's draftmate, was being sent through the wringer in 2014, and the first game against Buffalo was no exception.
Smith's day was basically over before it began. Buffalo picked him off 3 times in the 1st quarter, before Michael Vick was put in out of desperation. Aaron Williams, Stephon Gilmore, and Preston Brown intercepted Smith on his first three drives. Vick fumbled once in the 1st quarter, and Buffalo was out to a 14-0 lead. By halftime, there was another Jets fumble, but New York edged closer, with the score 24-17 Buffalo at halftime.
The Jets were by no measure a good team, but with the away divisional rivalry game immediately preceding Buffalo's bye week, this was a typical game that the Bills would lose. But not this year.
Carpenter was money again, adding 2 more field goals in the 3rd quarter. Orton finished the day with 4 TDs, likely because of the injuries to Jackson and Spiller. Dixon got 22 carries but only racked up 44 yards - not exactly encouraging from a team that was starting a senior citizen at quarterback.
Buffalo finished +6 in turnover differential on the day. From a Jet perspective, this game was a M-E-S-S MESS MESS MESS.
The Bills got their Week 9 bye week at 5-3, their best start since 2011, when they finished 6-10 after starting 5-2. Encouraging, but with the AFC playoff picture already shaping up to be jam-packed, and with Buffalo's treacherous December schedule on the horizon, November was the time to capitalize and get more wins.
In Week 10, the rested Bills welcomed the Kansas City Chiefs to Orchard Park to mark the seventh consecutive season the teams met in the regular season. The Chiefs, also 5-3, represented a major hurdle for the Bills. A win against KC would help their record against AFC teams - at that point a tawdry 2-3 (with both wins coming in the division) - which often comes into play as a wild card tiebreaker.
If I had to show someone a game that represented the Bills as a franchise in the last 15 years, it would be this one. The importance of the game was not lost on any fan or player, so it made it that much worse when they beat themselves.
The game was remarkably vanilla, as one would expect from a Chiefs-Bills game, with a riveting 14 punts total. Buffalo found the end zone in its first drive of the afternoon, but ended 0-for-4 in red zone attempts on the day.
The first turning point of the game came in the first drive of the second half. Buffalo received the kickoff, and drove down very methodically, mixing Dixon carries with Hogan receptions and Brown check downs. Orton led the drive to Kansas City's 17-yard line. Brown got the ball on a draw play, charged ahead for 12 yards, and then Ron Parker knocked the ball out of his hands. The ball fluttered out of the back of the end zone - with the help of a kick by Chandler - before Brown even noticed it was missing.
Red zone fumbles like that hurt a lot, but with Buffalo up 10-3 with 25 minutes of football left, it was a palatable blow.
Buffalo was succeeding in limiting the Chiefs offense, especially Jamaal Charles. To that point in the season, the Bills had only allowed two rushing touchdowns and it came in the blowout against the Jets. This was a Chiefs team whose receivers hadn't reached the end zone yet (and never did in 2014), so stopping Charles was the key to winning.
As the game entered the 4th quarter, the Chiefs were driving, slowly but surely, and were just across midfield when Charles found a hole and took it 39 yards into the end zone. The play was on 4th-and-1, and a stop would have given the Bills command of the game. Instead, the Chiefs pulled the score to 13-10.
The final big play that really lost the game for Buffalo was on a punt return with 9:57 remaining. McKelvin fielded the ball for the Bills at his own 31, made a couple of cuts, and fumbled the ball. Kansas City recovered, and scored two plays later to take a 17-13 lead.
But there was still time. There's always still time in Bills losses, just to make them that much more excruciating. Teasing the fans with a modicum of hope is always more thrilling than getting blown out...or so it has been explained to me.
In what was perhaps the most Bills drive of the season, Orton led the team down to red zone with 3:27 remaining. Sitting at the 15-yard line, needing a touchdown to take the lead, Hackett called for 4 straight fade routes into the end zone. And there were 4 straight incompletions.
The loss to Kansas City was especially frustrating because of how well the Bills played outside of their three fatal errors. If they could have made the play just one time, they would have gone to 6-3, in the driver's seat of a wild card spot. Instead, they fell to 5-4, Kansas City moved to 6-3, and Buffalo saw little reprieve in their upcoming schedule.
McKelvin was, understandably, frustrated at his fumble:
I take this shit to heart. I fumbled the ball. It hurt us. But we still had a chance to come back and win the game. Shit happens in the game. But you've still got to overcome it.
The cornerback also went on to guarantee a win in the next game, a Thursday night contest in Miami.
The first game against the Dolphins was supported by the news of the Pegula sale, but now, in the thick of the season, the Bills had no such luxury. Another vital AFC game, this time away, and on a national stage.
Miami's offense lost two fumbles, but tallied 24 first downs in their bulldozing of Buffalo's defense. The party really got going in the second half, whenRyan Tannehill tossed TDs to Brandon Gibson and Jarvis Landry. The Dolphins also brought down Orton in the end zone for a safety.
The underwhelming play in the 22-9 loss was frustrating in a completely different way than in the Chiefs game. The previous week, the Bills had it and lost it. This week, they never had it, despite a guarantee from their scorched earth cornerback.
At 5-5 with dwindling enthusiasm, Western New York stopped worrying about football for a few days; partially because the team was frustrating to watch and partially because Buffalo was about to be hammered with one of the worst winter storms in American history.
There was a game scheduled against the Jets in Buffalo for Sunday, November 23rd. Over a course of about 48 hours from Monday through Wednesday, the Buffalo area received over 70 inches of snow. Six feet of snow. In two days.
Orchard Park, home of Ralph Wilson Stadium, got nearly the worst of it, with approximately 71 inches of snow. Snowvember cancelled Bills practice on Tuesday, the same day Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency and instituted a travel ban for the county.
Who doesn't love a snow day?
On Wednesday, the team was still pining to have a game on Sunday:
Want to help clear the Ralph? We're looking for snow shovelers. Pay is $10/hour + game tickets. Call 716-636-4840 for details.— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) November 19, 2014
You don't get that in Miami, that's for sure.
As the week continued, it became clear that holding a game in Buffalo that weekend was wildly impractical, and frankly a matter of public safety. On Thursday evening, the team announced that the game would take place on the following Monday in nearby Detroit.
So Buffalo got a Monday Night Football game after all, and in Detroit, where they clearly had some luck earlier on in the season.
Apparently, all the weather made the perfect storm for the Bills, because they refused to let the Jets have an inch on "Monday Night Football."
The game was all Buffalo from the start. An opening drive TD by Woods started what would be a career night for the 2nd-year receiver. Chandler caught a TD before halftime and unleashed the greatest touchdown celebration in snow-displaced-game history:
In the second half, Boobie Dixon showed his skill. On New York's first drive of the 3rd quarter, Dixon blocked a punt that Manny Lawson recovered in the end zone for a TD, putting Buffalo up 24-3. Duke Williams intercepted a Vick pass, and a Jackson TD got Buffalo to 31-3.
Woods put the exclamation point on his night with a David Tyree-Odell Beckham, Jr. hybrid catch that showed his talent:
Woods finished with 118 yards on 9 catches and a TD. Dixon capped off his day with a 30-yard TD run, and he finished with 54 yards on 12 carries plus the score.
The 38-3 dismantling of the Jets was an important win for the Buffalo Bills, but it was just as important a win for the Buffalo community. The storm claimed 14 lives, with countless more displaced and trapped. While football is hardly a consolation for the seriousness of the situation, Buffalo got a small pick-me-up from such an emphatic win.
The second-to-last home game was next, and Ralph Wilson Stadium was ready to go well in advance of kickoff this time.
Week 13 saw the Cleveland Browns travel to Buffalo. The Lake Erie Rivalry of late had been a little disappointing. Not too long ago, the Browns beat Buffalo 6-3 in a game that saw 750 total yards of punting. Cleveland was also 7-5, and trying to buck their 12-year playoff drought. The winner of the contest would gain serious traction in the AFC wild card race with four games remaining.
In true Bills-Browns fashion, the first 14 drives of the game saw 8 punts, 3 field-goal attempts, and 3 interceptions. For a while it felt like another battle of incompetence. Who wanted to lose the least?
Buffalo finally put together a solid drive in the 3rd quarter, capped off by a Hogan TD catch, and the Bills were up 7-3. After the ensuing kickoff, Terrance West took a swee p to the left sideline, and appeared to be down, but the ball squirted out and Hughes picked it up and took it 20 yards for a touchdown.
There was some confusion on the play, but Hughes ended up capitalizing on the mistake and Buffalo was suddenly out to a 14-3 lead in a span of 10 seconds.
The Bills added two field goals and another interception off of Brian Hoyer, whose day was done. Mike Pettine, in his return to Buffalo, put in rookie Johnny Manziel for the last 12:01 of the game, when the Browns were already down 20-3.
In his first drive, one could say that Manziel was money. He scrambled effectively, went through his progressions, and looked like an adequate NFL quarterback. He even tallied his first NFL touchdown, a 10-yard scramble through the Bills front seven.
In his second drive, one could not say that Manziel was money. In fact, anything but.
On the third play of the drive, Manziel learned why they call the defensive line the Cold Front. After a fumbled snap, Kyle Williams greeted the rookie QB to the NFL:
The play was initially ruled a Bills touchdown, but was reversed to be an incomplete pass. Buffalo tacked on another field goal, cementing a 26-10 win to move to 8-5. Additionally, the above play birthed a new meme: Manzieling.
The Bills entered December knowing they had some of the hardest final four games of any team in the league. Three of four away games, three of four games against teams invariably in the Top 5 of the league, with a week playing at Oakland thrown in there. At 7-5 heading into the season's final month, the Bills needed to perform to have a shot at the playoffs.
The first game was at Denver. The Broncos were known for their Peyton Manning-led offensive onslaught, and Buffalo would have to quell that attack in order to have any hope in the game. Manning had thrown touchdown passes in 51 straight games, so slowing down the passing game was the major priority for Buffalo's Cold Front.
For a game in early December out in Colorado, the weather was surprisingly mild. A low-60s, sunny afternoon greeted the Bills and Broncos as they emerged from the locker rooms. Football weather.
The Bills didn't really have a chance against Denver's defense, but they held their own for the first part of the contest, allowing two CJ Anderson touchdowns in the first half, which ended with the score at a respectable 14-3. Buffalo was clearly focused on keeping Manning at bay, as they held the quarterback to only 20 pass attempts in the game.
A pair of interceptions nabbed by the Bills kept the Bills in it, but two more thrown by Orton made it Denver's game to lose. The Bills were down 24-3 at the start of the 4th quarter, but all hope was not lost yet.
The 4th quarter of the Broncos game turned out to be a brilliant microcosm for Buffalo's season - warts and all.
Kyle Orton led a 5:21, 80-yard touchdown drive to open the final quarter, pulling the score to 24-10. The drive was capped off by a Chris Hogan 14-yard catch, his 4th and final TD of the season.
Of the 13 plays in the drive, only one was not a passing play. The penultimate play of the drive was a reversed interception ruling, followed by a reversed touchdown ruling, followed by the real touchdown. The Bills were trying their damnedest to ensure they couldn't win the game, but Orton had other thoughts.
The Broncos had a drive that was stalled by Buffalo's defense, then a tremendous Britton Colquitt punt pinned Buffalo at their own 8. A Cordy Glenn false start moved the Bills to their own 4. The resulting 3-and-out was anything but a surprise.
Denver got the ball again, this time just shy of midfield, but ran into a Cold Front. Anderson, despite having 3 scores to his credit on the afternoon, couldn't get past Buffalo's front seven. Dareus swallowed him on 1st down, Hughes ransacked him in the backfield on 2nd down, and Powell assisted Brown on a tackle on 3rd down.
Buffalo burned its remaining timeouts, and got the ball on their own 10 with 4:20 remaining, down two scores.
90 yards of desperation offense eventually got the Bills in the endzone, but it was too little, too late. The game ended after a failed onside kick attempt and the Bills left town defeated 24-17.
Sitting at 7-6, the Bills had a 3% chance to make the playoffs according to FiveThirtyEight. 3% may sound like nothing, but it's pretty substantial for a Buffalo team with only 3 games left. The only way the Bills would be making the playoffs would be to win out - which included the last home game in Week 15 against the Green Bay Packers.
Facing future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in consecutive weeks is tough on any defense, but the Bills needed to slow down Aaron Rodgers to have any chance of making the postseason. After beating their other 3 NFC North opponents, the Bills went for the division sweep on a chilly but snow-free day at the Ralph.
The game started as a defensive struggle, with the Pack going up 3-0 in the middle of the 1st quarter. On Green Bay's next possession, the Cold Front forced a 3-and-out and Tim Masthay was out for his 3rd punt of the day. Marcus Thigpen grabbed the punt and went to work:
Thigpen's TD immediately gave Buffalo control of the game. Green Bay punched it in in the early 2nd and Carpenter added a field goal to knot the score at 10 at halftime.
Buffalo received the kickoff to open the 2nd half, and had a methodical drive using all three running backs effectively. The drive resulted in a 51-yard field goal after the offense sputtered before the red zone. 13-10, Bills. Their next drive included a Bryce Brown 40-yard reception, but stalled in the red zone and Buffalo went up 16-10.
Great quarterbacks are never out of games, especially with 20 minutes of football remaining, down less than a score. Rodgers seemed ready to go out and lead a comeback to get this pesky Bills team off his back. Then this happened:
The second play of the drive was intercepted by Bacarri Rambo, a safety whose name is somehow not fictional. Rambo started the season with Washington, but was waived after Week 2. The Bills picked up the safety on November 17th following an injury to McKelvin.
Rambo played 10 snaps of mop up work against the Jets earlier in the season, but this game was his first real opportunity to show what he could do. Safety Duke Williams left the game earlier, and Rambo filled in at SS.
The startling thing about this play is that when Rodgers throws interceptions, they are almost always off of tipped passes that ultimately aren't his fault. This interception was a slightly underthrown ball and Rambo jumped the route at the perfect time.
In true Bills fashion, Orton failed to generate any points off of the turnover - but special teams kept Buffalo in a great position. Easley downed a punt at Green Bay's 2-yard line, giving Green Bay a tough start to the final quarter.
Rodgers began marching his Packers down the field, seemingly taking controlling the field. At least before Rambo struck again.
Unlike his skillful first pick, this was really just being in the right place at the right time. The pass was tipped right off of Jarrett Boykin into Rambo's hands. The 28-yard return was later converted to a 48-yard field goal, putting Buffalo up 19-10.
Green Bay responded with a field goal to trim Buffalo's lead to 19-13. The Bills punted on their next possession, pinning the Pack at their own 10.
A real Bills team would let the Packers drive 90 yards and come back late in the game and win 20-19. But this season, and this game, was different. Super Mario took control and ensured the game would be Buffalo's.
After a long referee's conference, it was deemed that Lacy was down in the end zone when he recovered the fumble, leading to a safety. Here's another angle of how it happened:
The Bills were finally able to do something that good teams do somewhat frequently: kneel down to win a game.
This win was the crown jewel in Buffalo's season. They beat the best team in football despite producing only 253 yards of offense and 0 offensive TDs. They did it with 2 INTs, a punt return TD, and a strip sack safety.
Heading into Week 16, their playoff situation wasn't all that rosy. FiveThirtyEight gave the Bills a 5% chance of making the playoffs, up from 3% the prior week. Progress!
While the situation looked dire, the one good thing about it all was that the Bills got to play the Raiders. A win in Oakland could give the team momentum into the final game, where the Patriots likely wouldn't be playing their starters the whole game since they would not be playing for anything. Hope was slim, but alive.
I'm still convinced that Oakland didn't win that game - the Bills lost it. They let an anemic offense march repetitively into field goal range, with Sebastian Janikowski nailing 4 field goals.
The script seemed to be flipped. Orton threw 3 TDs, including a great toss to Watkins for a 42-yard score. He also threw 2 INTs to keep the Raiders alive. The quarterback was beside himself when the implications of the loss came out:
When you've gone this long and you're right there with a chance, and you put it all on the line and you don't come through, it hurts.
Buffalo ran for 13 yards, their lowest since a 1997 game against the Titans where they rushed for 4 yards. This was especially startling since Spiller finally returned in this game, after being sidelined with his broken collarbone.
The loss cemented a 15th straight year without a playoff appearance, currently the longest in the NFL. After the amazing showing against Green Bay, it was like someone let all the air out.
So Buffalo headed to Foxboro to close out another playoff-less season. The Patriots indeed had nothing to play for, having secured home-field advantage the week prior. Brady played only the first half, but was sacked twice in 18 drop backs and was held to only 5.0 yards per pass attempt.
Watkins caught 3 passes for 57 yards, leaving him with 982 yards receiving on the season, falling just short of becoming the first Bills rookie to break the 1,000-yard mark. The Bills earned their 17-9 victory over the Patriots, although New England sat their starters for the entire second half.
The team departed Gillette Stadium with a winning season. Kyle Orton of all people led the Bills to a startlingly adequate season. Things were looking up in Buffalo for the first time in forever. The defense was one of the best in the league, the young offense could only improve, and it seemed that the coaching staff was finally figuring things out with how to use the weapons on the squad.
The ruckus started soon after the victory in New England. Upon arrival in Buffalo, some Bills had a few bold statements to make.
.@sammywatkins: "I would have - should have - had a 1,200- or 1,300-yard season based on the film ... I'll come back prepared"— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) December 29, 2014
Watkins: "We have a team that can make it to the championship. The defense has been great, it's time for the offense to step up"— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) December 29, 2014
The final press session of the season was filled with some questions about Spiller's fate heading into free agency, and excitement around getting started in the spring.
That is, until the "savior" himself, Kyle Orton left the building.
Kyle Orton stopped to grab his wallet around 9:00. Said he was going to a meeting, would talk later. Never came back. pic.twitter.com/8ImJP9ZvOg— Prescott Rossi (@PrescottRossi) December 29, 2014
Orton never really thrilled anyone in Buffalo, and his play was adequate at best. Nevertheless, a prevailing dark cloud of a quarterback question rose over Western New York.
In an awkward press conference, Whaley and Marrone addressed the entire 2014 season, but the questioning opened with Orton's sudden departure. Whaley expressed how unexpected his retirement was:
I was surprised. He told us this morning so we had no inclination that he was thinking and making that decision at this time or down the road so it was surprising and for the future that’s with the evaluation process, we’ll start looking at that right after this meeting.
This press conference is filled with utter apathy from Marrone, which had always been his prevailing emotion in talking to media. The 40-minute affair wrapped without Doug saying anything of substance.
It soon came out that Marrone had an opt-out provision in his contract that expired on January 1st, 2015. The option was structured in such a way that Marrone would receive $4 million regardless of whether he chose to opt-in. Even if he coached for a different team in 2015, the Bills would pay him his full salary.
So, perhaps on the heels of Orton's sudden departure, Marrone decided to exercise his financial safety net, opting out of his contract before the new year started. Players voiced their opinions en masse about Marrone's New Year's gift to the franchise.
Wow... That caught me off guard for sure— Eric Wood (@EWood70) December 31, 2014
Wow. That's crazy— Preston Brown (@PB_Number2) December 31, 2014
How quickly things can change just had a team meeting Monday and wasn't given a heads up, but guess that's how this business works— Cj Spiller (@CJSPILLER) December 31, 2014
New Years got a little interesting with that news.......— Chris Hogan (@ChrisHogan_15) January 1, 2015
And of course, Marrone's favorite
Happy New Year!— EJ Manuel (@EJManuel3) December 31, 2014
All in all, the feeling in Buffalo was betrayal. The coach who brought the first 9-7 season since 2004 to the city just walked out on them. Money was seemingly more important (or more feasible) to Marrone than bringing the Bills back to the playoffs.
As we all stepped into 2015, it immediately became apparent that Marrone left because he thought that he could find a job for next season. The New York Jets became the front-runner - Marrone often complained about the sharks in the Buffalo media, so apparently he felt the New York City media would treat him better. Talks of tampering with Marrone were flying around, and then word broke that Marrone's interview with the Jets was unimpressive.
The coach who flew the coop became a candidate for the vacancy in Atlanta, but that fell through. Reports indicated that Marrone was a front-runner for the Bears job, but he cancelled all his remaining interviews and took the OL coach position in Jacksonville, along with former Bills OC Nathaniel Hackett.
Maybe Marrone didn't know the head coaching market as well as he thought. Nevertheless, Buffalo was forced to move on. The Bills had the odd situation of searching for a new head coach after a winning season, and not by choice.
Names flew around left and right - and each came with their own intrigue. All told, the Bills ended up scheduling at least 12 interviews and requesting two more. The Pegulas quickly made it clear this process was going to be thorough - no stone left unturned. In order of interview:
Darrell Bevell - Offensive Coordinator, Seattle Seahawks - Hard to argue with his recent success in Seattle. Bevell previously worked with Favre and offered a refreshing approach to the lethargic offensive strategy that Hackett employed. Bevell would remain with Seattle.
Adam Gase - Offensive Coordinator, Denver Broncos - This young gun was in huge demand on this year's coaching free agent list, leading Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning to successful seasons. Buffalo never really had a shot at Gase, who landed the OC job in Chicago, yet again under John Fox.
Dan Quinn - Defensive Coordinator, Seattle Seahawks - Why not give one of the best defenses to one of the best defensive coaches of the past few years? The Bills liked Quinn a lot, but he ended up as the head coach in Atlanta.
Frank Reich - Offensive Coordinator, San Diego Chargers - One of the more intriguing candidates, Frank "Lloyd" Reich was the architect of the comeback, Buffalo's historic victory over the Oilers in 1993. Reich reportedly interviewed well, but reportedly wasn't too interested in the job. Reich remained San Diego's OC.
Mike Shanahan - Former Head Coach, Washington Redskins - Shanahan was fired by Washington after their dismal 2013 season, and the coach has been out of the league since then. Many felt that picking Shanahan would be settling into old ways for the Bills.
Pat Shurmur - Offensive Coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles - His head coaching experience with the Browns for 2011-12 was a double-edged sword. It was nice to have a candidate with a head coaching background, but his 9-23 record was a little less than attractive. Shurmur remained with the Eagles.
Hue Jackson - Offensive Coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals - Jackson also had head coaching experience - albeit a poor showing with the Raiders. Jackson later said he thought the fit was right, but he remained with Cincinnati.
Rex Ryan - Head Coach, New York Jets - Spoiler alert: Ryan wins. This defensive guru led the Jets to two straight AFC Championship games with Mark Sanchez, so if anyone could succeed with this current Bills roster it's Ryan.
Kyle Shanahan - Offensive Coordinator, Cleveland Browns - Shanahan the Younger has had an up and down coaching career, but remains in the spotlight because of his pedigree. He is still in Cleveland.
Jim Schwartz - Defensive Coordinator, Buffalo Bills - Definitely the most interesting candidate, Schwartz obviously had a leg up by being familiar with the defense and front office structure. His time in Detroit as head coach netted him a 29-51 record, managing a team that had just gone 0-16. The Lions made the playoffs in 2011 under Schwartz.
Pep Hamilton, Josh McDaniels, Greg Roman, and Teryl Austin were also connected to the coaching search.
Soon after his interview, it became clear that Rex Ryan was the front runner. He made arguably the most sense from a football standpoint, with an expectation of bringing the already great defense to truly elite status. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported the move first:
Filed to ESPN: Bills putting finishing touches on deal that will make Rex Ryan their next HC, per sources. More on Sunday NFL Countdown.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 11, 2015
Bills expected to hire former 49ers OC Greg Roman as new OC to go along with Rex Ryan, per sources. The two worked together in Baltimore.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 11, 2015
The Ryan and Roman combination immediately turned heads. With coaching hires like Marrone and Chan Gailey in recent years, it was apparent that this front office wasn't messing around. Buffalo was going to be a focal point this year, no matter what.
Of course, the issue with the Ryan hire was that he came from a defensive school of thought. Ryan's defenses were always top of the NFL, but Buffalo had a great success with Schwartz at the helm of the defense. Fans drooled over the prospect of having two defensive masterminds in house, but it was all a pipe dream. Schwartz ran a 4-3, whereas Ryan is a proponent of the 3-4 defense. The two can't mix.
Ryan, perpetual fan favorite, certainly didn't disappoint. The Bills announced the hiring on Monday January 12th, but did not hold a press conference for their new coach until the Wednesday. Why? Because their owner was occupied with the Sabres retiring Domenik Hasek's on Tuesday. So Rex came along for the ride.
In his introductory press conference, Rex Ryan made it clear what kind of guy he was going to be.
Is Thing On? Because It's About To Be
Jets fans know that Rex Ryan is a character on and off the football field. He thrived in the spotlight - which was especially bright because of NYC - and made news wherever he went because it was accompanied with some ridiculousness.
This did not change in Buffalo.
Upon his hiring, Rex was gifted with a pizza from famous Buffalo pizzeria La Nova. But not just an ordinary pizza:
While it may look like frosting, the red and blue colors in the topping are dyed ricotta and the bulk of the letters are spinach. Never a dull moment with Rex Ryan.
In tribute to his bride and the quarterback that got him to where he is today, Ryan sports a tattoo of his wife wearing a Mark Sanchez #6 jersey. Reports of the tattoo's existence first appeared in early 2013. So when Rex came over to Buffalo, it was a point of interest to see if he would keep the tattoo.
Ryan's thoughts on the tattoo, and his whole time with the Jets:
I mean, you’ve got to turn the page. I'm all in.
The next move by Ryan came just a few days after the Super Bowl. News of Richie Incognito signing with the Buffalo Bills broke. You may recognize Incognito's name from the bullying scandal in Miami in 2013.
Incognito's less-than-desirable past got him a year out of the league, but he evidently was ready to make a comeback. Interestingly, Incognito played in Buffalo for three games in 2009. Current C and captain Eric Wood was a rookie that year, and had insight on Incognito when the bullying scandal broke:
I've heard people say there is no place in the game for rookie nights or hazing and I think there is some. He crossed the line with some of the language that he used. I know Richie well. We have the same agent and he was here in 2009 when I broke my leg. I know Richie, he's kind of a cross-the-line humor type of guy. I think he probably had a misjudgment here, especially with the voicemail he left. That's the only evidence really that you can go by.
The pickup is undoubtedly risky, but Ryan doesn't shy away from potentially controversial moves. While the elephant in the room is undoubtedly something to keep in the mind of the coaches, the Bills had an absolutely tawdry display guard, and Incognito was by all accounts a great player in 2013 when he got suspended. The move makes sense.
When Ryan wasn't making controversial personnel moves, he was setting up his new truck.
His tattoo, his truck, his gaudy expectations - Rex Ryan was exactly what the Bills needed: an advocate. Someone to get excited about. Buffalo usually got the Dick Jaurons, Mike Mularkeys, and Doug Marrones of the NFL to coach their team. But this time was different, and Rex made sure that Bills fans knew that.
LeSean McCoy Trade
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Bills' 9-7, 54 sack team was that they did it all without Kiko Alonso, the second-year LB who played every snap as a rookie, but tore his ACL early in 2014's off-season. There was no doubt this defense was already one of the best in the league, but with Ryan coming in and Alonso coming back, expectations were as high as ever.
Free agency was right around the corner, including the potential loss of perennial fan favorite CJ Spiller, but all was relatively quiet in the NFL.
Until this piece of news came completely out of nowhere.
Filed to ESPN: Bills have notified LB Kiko Alonso he is going to be traded to Philadelphia for RB LeSean McCoy. Trade official next week.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 3, 2015
People reacted from all corners of the NFL.
Now we know why the Eagles never approached LeSean McCoy about taking less money.— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) March 3, 2015
The trade was straight-up. One player for one player with no draft picks involved - a rarity in today's NFL.
People seemed torn by the trade, which was thrust more into the limelight with nothing on the docket for another two weeks before free agency. The two players involved were fan favorites, but coming off of bad seasons.
Alonso had a lot of hope, with reports that he was rehabbing well, but he still missed a whole year of experience. While he's no Sam Bradford, Alonso tore his other ACL in 2012, and has had hip and shoulder surgeries in recent seasons. It's reasonable for anyone to be concerned about his longevity in the league.
McCoy has been a top RB for a long time, but 2014 saw some disappointment in Shady's game. His 1,319 yards on the ground was good enough for his second best in his career, and 3rd best in the league, but he only averaged 4.2 yards per carry and had his worst showing in the receiving game, with only 155 yards through the air. Many pinned McCoy's struggles on the depleted Eagles offensive line, but at 27 years old, it's hard to expect the McCoy of yore.
Each player had positive notes running into troubling doubts. Word came from ESPN's Josina Anderson that McCoy didn't want to go to Buffalo. Anderson's source, on McCoy's thoughts that night:
It'll be interesting to see how this process plays itself out because he's an interesting individual. In your mind, when you think of Buffalo you think of cold and losing games. It’s not like it’s the Philadelphia market where you’re always on t.v. and you’re playing for the division title…It was unexpected. I'll tell you that much.
Without a no-trade clause, McCoy would have no say in the trade, but he could reasonably refuse to report to camp if the problem was truly that large.
The most interesting part of the night was CJ Spiller's reaction, who had a prescheduled interview on NFL Network the evening of the trade. It was all a little surreal.
Management called me and told me that they were going in that direction and pretty much gave me a 'Thank you for your service.'
There was no ambiguity here: McCoy was going to replace Spiller as the lead RB and Alonso would become an Eagle.
After goin back and forth about the contract, McCoy was signed to a new 5-year deal worth $40.05 million. With $26.55 million guaranteed, McCoy was finally happy to be a Bill.
With the Spiller situation sorted out in a big splash, the Bills could focus on their two remaining high level free agents: Jerry Hughes and Da'Norris Searcy.
Just a day after the McCoy trade, the Bills traded for Vikings QB Matt Cassel, adding an arm in the mix at QB. The trade sent Buffalo's 2015 5th round pick and 2016 7th round pick to Minnesota in exchange for their 2015 5th round pick and Cassel. After Orton's departure, a move like this was easy to predict, and a necessity before the meat of free agency began.
Jerry Hughes is often considered the odd man out in Buffalo's defensive line. The Colts drafted Hughes with their 1st round pick in 2010, but traded him to Buffalo in 2013 for LB Kelvin Sheppars, cutting their losses. Hughes apparently underperformed as a Colt because as soon as he became a Bill he started putting up impressive numbers.
Hughes racked up 53 tackles in 2014 while netting ten sacks for his second consecutive season. With the money already tied up in Mario Williams, it would be tough to justify retaining Hughes for what he deserved.
Whaley had stated in the past that retaining Hughes was a major priority for this offseason, and he succeeded in reaching his goal.
Hughes signed a new contract for five years and $45 million, pretty significant for a guy who just a few years back was considered a draft bust. Prevailing wisdom had it that the Hughes deal, which occurred a day before free agency would open, was going to handcuff the Bills' ability to bring in talent. Au contraire.
The first news on March 10th, the beginning of free agency, was that Searcy signed with the Titans. The strong safety signed a 4-year/$24 million contract, which far exceeded what the Bills could afford to invest after the Hughes move. Searcy was the 18th best safety in the league in 2014, according to PFF, and the best in Buffalo.
As soon as Searcy signed with Tennessee, it became clear that the Bills felt they could transition Corey Graham to SS to fill in his gap. Buffalo had transitioned Aaron Williams from CB to S in the past, so moving another player, especially a veteran like Graham, wouldn't be a huge hassle.
The first day of free agency saw TE Lee Smith go off to Oakland. His blocking would have been useful, but his false starts will likely not be missed.
Buffalo's first move of free agency period was signing FB Jerome Felton. Felton blocked for Adrian Peterson during his 2,097 yard season in 2012. With Greg Roman running the ground and pound offense, getting one of the best fullbacks in the game was a no-brainer.
Two re-signings that most fans expected to see before free agency started got settled on March 12th: WR Marcus Easely and DE Jarius Wynn Easley is primarily a special teams ace, with 10 tackles last season. He's a major reason the special teams unit was so productive. Wynn is a solid role player who saw 322 snaps last season, specializing in s topping the run.
Also on the 12th, the Bills signed perhaps the most intriguing player of the free agency period: QB Tyrod Taylor. Taylor was drafted in the 6th round in 2011 by the Ravens, and has sat behind Joe Flacco his entire career. Taylor's unique set of skills gave the Bills something they didn't have: a true mobile quarterback.
Coming out of college, proponents of Manuel's game raved about his scrambling ability and ingenuity when the pocket broke down, but that didn't seem to translate to the NFL level. Taylor's four years of experience riding the bench meant he (in theory) had time to hone his skills as a scrambler and learn the necessary skills to be an NFL quarterback.
Taylor is certainly a wildcard, but in some respects being an unknown is an attractive quality to the Bills. Cassel and Manuel have their own issues and a mostly defined ceiling. With Taylor, who knows how he can bring?
From the start of free agency, Percy Harvin was linked to the Bills. The receiver ended up visiting Buffalo during the first two days of free agency and signed on March 13th to a 1-year/$6 million contract.
Like the Incognito signing, Harvin is also widely considered a locker room nuisance, but a tremendous talent nonetheless. Harvin's time in Minnesota was cut short from nagging migraines, and he was traded from the Seahawks to the Jets in the middle of last season when he refused to go back into a game.
Harvin's tenure in the league has been dotted with spectacular speed but not enough playing time, but not by fault of his coaches. If Harvin can stay healthy and remain a good teammate in the lockeroom, he can ignite the receiver corps in Buffalo which is already stacked with Watkins and Woods. Many felt that the Harvin signing signaled the end of the line for Marquise Goodwin, who has a similar skill set.
The last major signing of free agency came after a seemingly endless wait. Dolphins TE Charles Clay got slapped with the transition tag in early March, essentially making him a restricted free agent. In other words, Clay could sign an offer sheet with any other team, but the Dolphins had five days to match the offer, and Clay would be under contract with Miami if they matched.
After a titillating back and forth, the Bills gave Clay a 5-year/$38 million offer sheet. If you're thinking that's a lot, that's because it is. In fact, it's the 4th richest TE contract in the league and, with $24 million guaranteed, has the most guaranteed cash for Clay.
The five day period for the Dolphins to ponder a matching offer lasted only two days, but it felt like much longer than that.
So, Buffalo picked up an elite running back, a troubled yet talented guard, a talented yet oft-injured receiver, a solid tight end and one of the best fullbacks in the game. All while only giving up a young linebacker coming off of ACL surgery, a safety, and a running back. Pretty good haul for a team on a 15-year playoff drought.
With such a fruitful free agency period, there wasn't a lot to worry about with the draft--a nice feeling considering where the Bills have been at this point in years past.
The 2015 Draft
The 2015 Draft was going to be staunchly different from others in Buffalo's history. The Sammy Watkins trade left Buffalo without a 1st round pick for the first time since 2005, following their majestic trade up to nab J.P. Losman the year prior. Every decade they seem to go broke for a player, but after a season of Sammy in blue, it's looking better than Losman, at least.
One of the interesting aspects of trading a future 1st round pick is that teams don't actually know how valuable the pick is going to be. Theoretically, it's possible for Buffalo to have traded the #1 overall pick to Cleveland for Watkins, or the #32, and anywhere in between. With every win, the trade gets better and better. 9-7 meant #19 for Buffalo, and this means much more than saying "a future 1st round pick."
The draft meant the finalization of the Watkins trade, and now pundits can at least begin to accurately judge the trade instead of just calling it terrible because of pick value lost. The value discussion is an important one, but ultimately players are who win games, not potential value from picks. The Browns subsequently traded the Bills' 2015 1st round pick to the Vikings, so that muddies the trade a bit, but here's what it looks like for each team involved:
|Bills Receive||Browns Receive||Vikings Receive|
|Sammy Watkins||Justin Gilbert||Anthony Barr|
|Cameron Erving||David Yankey|
In terms of distribution of talent, this seems to be about even. Most analysts consider Justin Gilbert a bust after a supremely sub-par rookie campaign, but Cameron Erving is a great offensive line talent and the Browns got him at solid value using Buffalo's #19 pick. The Vikings traded down a spot for Anthony Barr, and netted Yankey who was recently cut from the roster. Each of the three teams involved got a great player who fills a need.
Nevertheless, Buffalo still had some picks in the 2015 draft. The first selection was #50, the 18th pick in the 2nd round. After a high-flying free agency period, Buffalo's main needs were at OG, LB and obviously still QB. Depth on the defensive side of the ball was also a general concern, as behind most of the perennial starting talent was pretty slim pickings for Buffalo.
After a tremendously active off-season, the Bills had surprisingly few holes to fill. The aforementioned positional issues unlikely to be solved in the 2nd round, and with a league-low six picks overall, it was hard to expect a lot from this draft. Ryan himself seemed skeptical of finding lots of help from the draft.
We'll see what happens, but yeah, it's going to be tough to make this roster. To say you're going to have every draft pick make the team, boy, I don't know, and as I mentioned it's a credit to Doug Whaley and his staff for the type of talent that they've collected here because there's a lot of talent on this team.
Unlike most teams, Buffalo wasn't expecting a lot out of this draft. The positions of need were important, but given the picks they had, it was going to be an uphill battle for these draftees.
Jim Kelly, Stronger
The 2nd round of the draft is usually generally less popular than the 1st round. The talent is adequate but not everyone can be expected to make an impact immediately. As a result, the NFL brings in legends from some teams to announce their pick. For Buffalo's first pick in 2015, they brought in the best QB in Bills history: Jim Kelly. The reaction was something else.
After a rough year for Kelly, this was one of the first national stages where Bills fans saw general NFL fans support Kelly so adamantly. This kind of response doesn't typically happen to Bills players, past or present. Granted, Kelly's situation is unique and indeed inspirational, but as a result of being bottom rung in the NFL for the past 15 seasons, Buffalo rarely saw moments like this. It was a truly touching moment for a draft that saw Commissioner Goodell being (rightfully) booed during almost every pick.
The selection whom Kelly announced - Ronald Darby, CB, Florida State - was the first of three former Seminoles picked by Buffalo. Darby will shore up the shaky secondary after the loss of free agent S Da'Norris Searcy&nbs p;to Tennessee this offseason, providing much needed depth. Buffalo's picks were as follows:
|2||50||Ronald Darby||CB||Florida State|
|5||155||Karlos Williams||RB||Florida State|
|6||194||Nick O'Leary||TE||Florida State|
|7||234||Dez Lewis||WR||Cent Arkansas|
Most of these picks were made ultimately looking towards the future. Darby provides a safety net if Leodis McKelvin can't be re-signed in 2016. Miller is immediately in the mix for playing time on Buffalo's terrible offensive line. Drafting Williams, the 6th Williams on the Bills roster, likely signals the end of the Bryce Brown "era" in Buffalo with an already full backfield. Steward will help make up for the loss of Alonso. O'Leary is a great blocker and Greg Roman is a big fan of power running schemes with multiple TEs. Lewis is now the tallest WR on a team that was last in red zone TDs last season.
The picks aren't flashy, but they make sense.
Rex Ryan just has a knack for the spotlight, even in the preseason. This Buffalo Bills squad started picking up some excitement with the additions of McCoy, Harvin and Clay, but even more exciting was Ryan, who just couldn't sit still.
The veteran (Cassel), the former top draft pick (Manuel), and the unknown (Taylor). It seemed to be a situation of choosing the least evil.
Training camp opened with less-than-exciting results from the signal callers.
Matt Cassel taking the first team reps here at #Bills training camp on day 1— Joe Buscaglia (@JoeBuscaglia) July 31, 2015
Ronald Darby picks off Matt Cassel #Bills— Joe Buscaglia (@JoeBuscaglia) July 31, 2015
Cassel was the clear favorite opening camp. The seasoned veteran had earned playoff berths for the Patriots in 2008 and the Chiefs in 2010. Manuel hadn't showed a lot of promise in his first 14 starts under Marrone, so he was certainly on the hot seat.
Also of note was McCoy's attitude heading into camp. After the reports of him being unhappy with the trade, it would be interesting to see how the veteran managed himself with his new team.
A few days before camp started, McCoy made headlines with news of a "Females Only" party in Phildelphia, which obviously received a little bit of criticism. The Bills asked McCoy to remove the advertisement because it used the team logo. The running back obliged and invited everyone to a new party. McCoy seemed to realize his mistake when he got to camp.
#Bills HB LeSean McCoy: I shouldn't have posted the thing about my party. There was no orgy or anything like that.— Joe Buscaglia (@JoeBuscaglia) July 31, 2015
The tale of training camp was undoubtedly one about the quarterback battle. This team had a lot of talent, but just couldn't seem to shake the question "But who is going to play quarterback?"
Peter King of MMQB summarized the mood around camp very well:
Though Ryan has brought a new swagger to a team muddled in mediocrity, some things haven't changed in this football-crazed city. Buffalo doesn't have a starting quarterback. In the 15 years since the Bills have made the playoffs, they have cycled through 15 leading men. This year, it's a three-way competition between 2013 first-round pick E.J. Manuel, whose growth was stunted by being forced on the field too soon, Tyrod Taylor, the longtime Joe Flacco backup, and Matt Cassel, a 10-year journeyman. None in the trio exactly excites, but Buffalo has so much talent across the rest of the roster, it might be able to win anyway.
That's the crux of the excitement surrounding the Buffalo Bills this season. They went 9-7 with Kyle Orton, a dinosaur who chewed his way to a respectable season. Orton finished 37th of 39 qualified QBs in PFF rankings for 2014. The Bills don't need great quarterback play to succeed--they don't even need good quarterback play to succeed.
One of the weirder stories of this off-season was the sucker punch heard 'round the world. Jets LB IK Enemkpali reportedly punched Geno Smith in the jaw, and as a result Smith was ruled out for 6-10 weeks. The Jets immediately released the linebacker, because, you know, you don't walk up to another man and punch him in the face.
The next day the Bills claimed Enemkpali, and were awarded his rights.
Considering Ryan drafted Enemkpali, and evidently knew the man and thought favorably of him, this move wasn't completely insane. In a vacuum, a linebacker who the coach liked was suddenly a free agent. Worth a shot, right?
The first preseason game against Carolina was like any other preseason game: barely noteworthy. Cassel got the start, McCoy looked great in his two series and Karlos Williams showed some muscle, running for 40 yards and a TD. Taylor looked solid, and after the game Ryan announced that he would start next week's contest.
Week 2 brought the Bills around the corner of Lake Erie to Cleveland. Eyes were focused on Taylor and he did not disappoint. He went 7-for-10 with 65 yards and added 41 more on the ground.
The real story of the game was how much injuries were starting to affect the Bills. Both Marquise Goodwin and Chirs Hogan went down with injuries, and Watkins, Harvin, Woods, McCoy, Jackson, Brown, and Williams were out for the game. Buffalo left Cleveland with their top five WRs and top four RBs injured.
Manuel looked great in the game, tossing a TD and 2-point conversion to win in the 4th quarter. The quarterback situation started getting muddy--did the Bills suddenly have two QBs that looked like they could actually start a game?
The Bills came out firing in Week 3's contest against the Steelers. They finally got back Fred Jackson, among the glut of injuries to their skill players, and he took his first carry of the game and showed why he deserved a roster spot.
Hype was around Taylor, the third string that day, who showed his mobility on a TD run. Manuel earned the start, likely to spread the wealth in this quarterback purgatory. In his second series, Manuel hit Clay wide open in the middle of the field for a 67-yard TD. Things were looking up for the Buffalo QBs.
Sunday September 1st at 4pm was the deadline for cutting rosters to 75 players. Cut days are always tough around NFL teams, but for the Bills, the virtually unthinkable happened.
Jackson's time in the NFL began in NFL Europe, after his D-III experience at Coe College, and he was as beloved in Buffalo as any player ever could be. A four-time captain, he exemplified what it meant to be a Buffalo Bill.
But unfortunately, he was redundant.
After drafting Karlos Williams this season, trading for Brown and McCoy the past two seasons, and adding Dixon in the mix, it didn't make sense to keep Jackson, the oldest back in the league at 34 years old. His cap hit ($2.3M) likely had something to do with the decision, as the team tries to re-sign Dareus before his impending free agency.
Thank you Buffalo!! We have loved being part of this community. The fan support has been overwhelming. The Old Man isn't done yet!!— Fred Jackson (@Fred22Jackson) August 31, 2015
The same day as the Jackson move--just a couple hours apart--news leaked that the Bills were naming Tyrod Taylor their starter.
Bills are going w Tyrod Taylor as their starting a QB— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) August 31, 2015
It was a confusing day in Buffalo. With his dynamite performance in the preseason, and decidedly different play style, Taylor had become the fan favorite to win the job. The news was a happy moment, a sign of positive change. But it was still hard to stomach the loss of one of the best Bills of the past decade.
Rumors nearly immediately came out about Jackson boarding a flight to Seattle, where former teammate and close friend Marshawn Lynch dominated the backfield. Jackson signed with the Seahawks for the veteran minimum, and was off to a new adventure.
The last preseason game came and went without much fanfare, and rosters were cut down to 53. Included in the final cuts was Enemkpali, but he would sign with the practice squad. Cassel was released and later re-signed, likely to minimize his contract.
With the season around the corner, the Bills set their sights towards Week 1, when the Colts come to Buffalo. Ryan chimed in about his thoughts on the season opener.
#Bills HC Rex Ryan: I'm so excited, it's unbelievable.— Joe Buscaglia (@JoeBuscaglia) September 9, 2015
Me too, Rex. Me too.
2015: The Time is Now
The Bills have been something of a laughingstock in the NFL for the past decade and a half. It's hard to gain respect when the team is never good enough to make the playoffs, but never bad enough to get a top draft pick. Football purgatory is a cruel maiden.
Of course, this perception assumes that the Bills' front office mentality will remain the same. Ralph Wilson, Jr., however great of an owner he was, didn't spend a lot of money, didn't take risks, and hired GMs and coaches with a similar mentality.
This Buffalo Bills team is different. The organization underwent an immense amount of change in the last 25 months, and they managed to come out of it stronger than before.
The Pegulas are keeping the Bills in Buffalo. Rex Ryan brings an electricity to Bills' football that hasn't been seen since the Super Bowl teams of the 1990s. Sammy Watkins looks to excel in his sophomore season. LeSean McCoy adds star power and a great talent to the running game. The Cold Front looks to become one of the best front sevens in the history of the NFL.
These things don't happen to the Bills. They don't happen to small market Buffalo. This a team that has missed the playoffs 15 seasons in a row, and yet they found a way to gain positive momentum towards finally breaking that mark.
Buffalo is a hard working town--a rust belt metropolis fond of cold beer, hot wings, and flurries in Orchard Park on Sundays. The Bills embody the heart and soul of Buffalo, NY. The news of staying in Buffalo meant the world to western New Yorkers, but the 2015 Bills can do one better.
Only one season stands between the Bills and the playoffs. They just need a handful of wins to do it. They have the talent, they have the management, they have the coaching, they have the fanbase. One Bills Drive is all that's needed.
This season, the Buffalo Bills will make the playoffs, ending the longest post-season drought in Bills' history, and giving Buffalo a brand new reason to shout.