By Budd Bailey
You’d be amazed how fast professional sports teams have to turn the page on a once-completed season. When I worked for the Sabres, I might have taken a day to mourn the lack of a championship – and then gotten to work on information for the upcoming season’s media guide. The new, reset clock starts ticking immediately.
This season’s edition of the Buffalo Bills will have to do that too, although It might take a little longer for the team’s employees to move on. They already suffered through what could be called the most difficult loss in franchise history, rivaled only by the playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans in January 2000. To me, the worst losses are the ones in which someone assumes the game is essentially over and won – but something unexpected happened and victory is snatched away. The Titans’ game flipped with 16 seconds left, while the Chiefs’ contest changed direction for the upteenth time with 13 seconds to go. It must have felt about the same. Super Bowl XXV against the Giants never felt like a sure win, even when Scott Norwood lined up for a potential game-winning field goal that many thought was just out of his range.
The Bills cleaned out their lockers on Monday and headed home instead of preparing to host the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. We come at that most basic of questions, one that’s discussed every year.
The Bills have been in the playoffs for the past three seasons and for four of the last five years. The challenge at this point is to maintain that level of play in the future. That makes the coming weeks very important, as the job for the team’s front office shifts from building the team to maintaining it.
We start with the fact that this is a copycat league. Other teams have noticed that the Bills finally figured out how to get better after 20 years, and want that to rub off on them. If they can’t get general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott, they’ll try to get the next closest thing to them. It’s already happened to the assistant general manager, Joe Schoen – the new GM of the Giants. It also refers to the team’s coordinators, Brian Daboll and Leslie Frazier.
Both have had interviews already with other teams. When asked for his resume, Daboll probably only needed to hand over a DVD of the two playoff games this season to show what he can do for an offense. He would seem to be a natural fit with Schoen, who is looking for a new coach for his new employer, the New York Giants. Frazier might not want to have someone judge him mostly on the conclusion of the Chiefs’ game. However, he is a respected, intelligent coach with great credentials after leading the top-ranked defense in the league – one without an All-Pro, by the way – last season.
The Bills figure to lose at least one and maybe both to head coaching jobs in the near future, and they may take some of the other Buffalo assistant coaches with them. McDermott obviously is good at picking assistants, and replacements for departing coaches will come soon enough. But it will be different, and different is not necessarily better.
Part Two is a little more complicated, as it involves the salary cap. Teams have finite amount of money to spend on player salaries in a given year, although that number can be bent to the point of breaking with some creative accounting measures.
There’s one big factor in the Bills’ situation that is about to change. Josh Allen has provided the team with top-flight quarterbacking for the past two years. It’s been a bargain, in terms of the cap. Think of it this way: he’s given the Bills $40 million in play, but the team paid about $10 million for it. That’s $30 million that can be applied to other positions. It’s a heck of recipe for success when you can pull it off. The Seahawks had such a bargain when Russell Wilson was a young player. He earned less than a million a year in guiding Seattle to two Super Bowls.
But next year Allen’s cap hit up goes to $16 million – still a bargain, but a smaller one. By the way, the amount of money he’ll put into his bank account is actually $47 million. Remember what I said about creative accounting; I assume the deal was structured this way to allow one more season of bargain-rate play. In 2023, his cap hit jumps to almost $42 million. That’s a lot of space, even if the overall number for each team goes up with new television deals – which it will. (Numbers in this story come from Spotrac.)
But that $6 million raise this calendar year would be relatively easy to overcome. Jerry Hughes is on top of the free agent list for the Bills, and his cap hit in 2021 was $9,450,000. If he leaves, it’s a net drop. Other free agents of note are Mario Addison, Levi Wallace, Vernon Butler and Emmanuel Sanders. You’d think that Gabriel Davis’ play last season would make Sanders expendable. But if the Bills wanted to go in another direction, they could release fellow wide receiver Cole Beasley ($7.5 million cap hit in 2021), and/or go looking for another receiver.
But that’s not the only problem. The Bills don’t have a great deal of projected room against the cap for 2022 as it is (around $10 million). The problem is that the team has been good for three years now. Someone is going to want to get paid for that, because that’s what always happens in these situations. The line might go out the door. Last year, Beane and McDermott made a conscious effort to keep as much of the team as possible together in 2021. That might be tougher this time.
Signing the checks
There is something of an X-factor in all of this: the Pegulas. You might remember that last year, Kim and Terry told the Bills staff not to expect any raises even after a season that ended in the AFC Championship Game. After all, there was a matter of a personal lifestyle to maintain. That went over as well as could be expected.
The Bills sold regular-season tickets again in 2021, but that doesn’t mean the Pegulas will act like the team is located on Easy Street and not Abbott Road. They must be losing millions on the Sabres, who are running a bad last in the NHL in attendance this season. The Pegulas seem content with working with civic authorities to work out the least expensive deal for a new stadium that’s relatively possible. They want a building across the street in Orchard Park with the league’s smallest capacity and no dome. They probably are leaving long-term money on the table in the process … which doesn’t sound like much foresight has been used. Will they be willing to get creative with the accountants again to figure out a way to improve the team in 2022? It will be expensive in the short term, but might help this group take more steps forward. That’s a question worth asking as we enter the offseason.
If we look at the Bills’ history, it’s apparent that it’s tough to stay close to the top in the NFL. The 1990’s Bills had the best peak (four straight Super Bowls), and they essentially rode that wave through 1999. Give John Butler credit for that. Buffalo had four 10-win seasons from 1994 to 1999. It took until 2019 to have another 10-win season. The 1960’s teams peaked with two championships, but fell apart quite quickly. The 1973-74 and 1980-81 teams were quite good but quickly regressed.
There is some good news in all of this. Beane and McDermott have shown over the tenure that they are solid professionals who know what they are doing. They will approach the matter with smarts and logic. OK, they will have to draft wisely, because that’s a source of relatively cheap labor – but when has that not been true?
Still, it’s not going to be easy. If you are counting on watching Allen vs. Mahomes in the playoffs for the next decade, well, you probably should cross your fingers.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)