Rob Johnson must have been laughing his ass off somewhere. I assume it was after he bench-rode his way to his Super Bowl ring with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he was laughing somewhere along the line.
I don’t think I have to bring up the mess that preceded the 2002 Buffalo Bills season. The Bills, a hapless and luckless team for the first 25 years of their existence, made a serious bid during the late 80’s and 90’s to change their fortunes for good. Even though the team pulled the trigger on Rob Johnson after the ugly quarterback controversy between Johnson and Doug Flutie, and Johnson proved to be a disaster, the Bills were still so closely removed from respectability that the horrific 2001 season could have come off as an aberration. In fact, that’s what most onlookers dismissed it as. It was a little hiccup from a rebuilding team which would be back in the playoffs quick. It seems funny nowadays that Bills fans were that optimistic, but it seemed perfectly feasible back then. But the Rob Johnson fiasco did lead to one of the quirkiest eras in Bills history when general manager Tom Donahoe tried to make up for Johnson by trading for New England Patriots All-Star quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
Drew Bledsoe was a Bill for three years, and I never quite thought he got a fair shake from Buffalo. Fans continue to pile blame onto him for the circus act the team turned into. That happens for a couple of reasons: He was the quarterback, and as the quarterback, he was credited for setting the tempo during games; and he DID have one disgusting year in Buffalo – his second one – which set the tone for every Keystone Cop and Monty Python incident the Bills have endured since. I can even theorize that Bledsoe’s reputation even played a part in his lasting image in Buffalo. It wasn’t that Bledsoe had some obvious character issue which spending-crazed owners like Jerry Jones or Dan Snyder would have ignored. Bledsoe was always a stand-up good guy and a class act who took his licks after every game, but that habit sort of started and ended at the post-game press conference. He seemed willing to take all the undeserved media punishment that came his way, which may have turned him into the typical non-leader in fans’ minds. When he finally got fed up and lashed out during his final season in Buffalo, it was a little late, but it did manage to light a fire under the team’s ass.
Bledsoe was a victim of circumstance more than anything else. His years in Buffalo were a little on the odd side because in the three he was there, he ran the full gamut of possible types of records in the NFL: An even record, a losing record, and a winning record respectively. The even and the winning records are two of only four non-losing records the Bills managed to pull in the millennium. Despite not making the playoffs – even the winning record was a 9-7 effort in which the Bills were denied a tournament appearance because they couldn’t beat the Pittsburgh Steelers’ third-string players – he is the owner of ten team passing records, including most yards in a single season and most yards in a single game. His own famously dominant show against the Patriots which opened 2003 is one of only three victories against them since Tom Brady usurped Bledsoe and enabled Pats fans to become the worst people on Earth.
Let’s look at Bledsoe starting in 2002, his best statistical season in Buffalo. The 2002 season put an 8-8 tally on the board, but that year was an 11-5 year in disguise. Jim Kelly himself couldn’t have run the offense any better. Bledsoe, Ruben Brown, Eric Moulds, and Travis Henry all went to the Pro Bowl. The Bills’s offense was second in the NFL only to the AFC Champion Oakland Raiders, and they seemed to do it all: There were comebacks, blowouts, narrow escapes, game-changing plays, no-huddles, and he-can’t-possibly-be-able-to-do-that heroics and plays. There were about two plays which prevented the Bills from ten wins and the damned AFC East crown. (I know what you’re thinking, and here’s the answer: The Patriots went 9-7 that year.) In 2002, Bledsoe was also assisted by an army of excellent receivers which included Eric Moulds, Peerless Price, Larry Centers, Josh Reed, and Jay Riemersma. And when Price, Centers, and Riemersma split after the season, Moulds was suddenly the constant target after Reed fell into the league’s traditional second-year slump.
One of the better methods of building a team is to figure out your strengths, then fill out the roster by getting players who are good where the team is weak. In one way, the Bills prepared for 2003 by doing just that. Despite signing London Fletcher in 2002, the defense was garbage. So after the season, the Bills quickly signed linebackers Jeff Posey and Takeo Spikes. Unfortunately, Buffalo’s coach happened to be Gregg Williams, the former defensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans. And the problem with defensive coordinators being head coaches is that they think they can get by with a smash mouth offense no matter what they have in position. No one is blaming Price, Centers, and Riemersma for taking their talents – and their collective total of around 100 receptions in 2002 – elsewhere. But one can point at Williams and Donahoe for replacing Centers and Riemersma – respectively a receiving fullback and tight end – with blocking fullback Sam Gash and blocking tight end Mark Campbell. Their sudden issues at wide receiver were ignored, and Donahoe’s first round draft pick was a damaged goods running back. Despite Bledsoe’s talent, this was clearly an offense built for punching holes in the forward lines.
With the offense rebuilt from the ground, Bledsoe had all of one threat to throw to. Travis Henry regressed, and newfound kicker Rian Lindell was missing so many kicks, you’d think he had a mob boss to pay off. Although the defense boasted All-Star talent like Spikes, Nate Clements, and Antoine Winfield and put on a hell of a show, the suddenly frail offense went through a stretch of several games without scoring a touchdown. The Bills went 6-10 and Williams was fired after the season. The new coach of the Bills became Mike Mularkey, who won the job in the traditional NFL fashion of convincing the team that he was some sort of guru. They also addressed their recently-bad passing game by drafting receiver Lee Evans. Aside from that, though, they didn’t do a whole lot to upgrade their roster, which showed when they started 0-4. It was around that time they pulled Travis Henry and plugged in running back Willis McGahee, their 2003 draft pick. Although McGahee was still slowed by a severe injury that he was hit with during his last year of college football, his installment sprang the offense to life. The Bills won their first game in week five, against the Miami Dolphins, then lost to the Baltimore Ravens – Deion Sanders scored the final touchdown of his career in that game – and then won two more before getting killed by the Patriots again just because some things don’t change. It was around this time that the media and locals started to harass Bledsoe again, and this time the mild-mannered Bledsoe responded by flying into an angry rant. The Bills finally woke up, swept the NFC West, and rattled off a six-game winning streak which placed them in playoff position. Their advance was finally stopped by the Steelers in a win-and-in game, and the Bills hit the golf course with a 9-7 record.
Although Bledsoe seemed to enjoy playing in Buffalo and liked the idea of ending his career there, the Bills suddenly deemed him expendable after drafting quarterback JP Losman in 2004. Bledsoe naturally didn’t want to sit on the bench when his team was on the verge of contending again, and you can’t really blame him. Management thought different, and that was the end of the Drew Bledsoe era. Bledsoe reunited with coach Bill Parcels on the Dallas Cowboys for a couple more years before calling it a career.
As for the Bills, a five-win 2005 in which upper management meddled every which way with what Mike Mularkey tried so hard to establish the previous year forced Mularkey to walk off after the season in frustration. If there was a single point where the Bills were clear that they would never again be the dynamo my generation in Buffalo grew up knowing, that was it. That point on was a welcome return to a sort of football irrelevance the Bills hadn’t known since the early 80’s, just before Marv Levy turned them around. There weren’t a whole lot more stars and keepable keystones – just a revolving door of players and coaches picked out by general managers trying to outsmart themselves. There are 122 professional sports teams in the big four leagues, and of those 122, 121 have made their playoffs during the millennium. Even perennial trash teams like the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh Pirates, Los Angeles Clippers, and Florida Panthers have been to the playoffs. The Bills haven’t, and they’re now setting themselves up to create a new brand name as the NFL’s lovable losers. And sure, with Donahoe in charge of player movement, this may have been coming no matter what. But we can’t lay the blame for it at Drew Bledsoe’s feet. If anything, he prolonged the team’s respectability while Donahoe was hard at work destroying everything it built up in the previous decade and a half.