back to Niagara Falls Reporter archive
Tom Donahoe doesn't seem like the type of guy who would risk a dollar for a scratch-off lottery ticket, but over the past few weeks, the Buffalo Bills' president and general manager showed the guts of Arnold Rothstein.
But unlike the only gambler to fix the World Series, Donahoe didn't have to pay anybody off to win his bet. All he had to do was wait.
The patience paid off Sunday, when the Bills scored a one-year-same-as-cash bargain by landing the National Football League's most established available quarterback in return for an unnamed player who won't actually take the field until 2003.
When a trade for deposed New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe didn't materialize Saturday, the first day of the NFL's annual rookie draft, analysts in Buffalo, Boston and around the country declared that he'd remain No. 2 on the Patriots' depth chart, behind Super Bowl hero Tom Brady, until training camps opened, or maybe longer.
But early Sunday afternoon, the words Bills fans had been waiting to hear since the team mercifully released Rob Johnson in February appeared on newenglandpatriots.com, the team's official Web site, under the headline "Bledsoe traded."
"The Patriots and Buffalo Bills have reached an agreement in the Drew Bledsoe negotiations. The Patriots will receive the Bills' first-round pick in 2003 for Bledsoe."
With half-hearted apologies to Alex Van Pelt, a genuinely nice guy perfectly suited to the backup's job, the deal immediately skyrockets expectations for the Bills from improvement to contention.
And Donahoe did it his way. Knowing he was the only serious suitor, he refused to give up any picks from this year's draft. Once no one else came up with the 2002 first-rounder the Patriots required until Sunday, he struck with an acceptable offer before anyone else could get in the bidding.
Donahoe faced second-guessing almost from the moment he took over Buffalo's football operations last January. First, he jettisoned Doug Flutie in favor of Johnson. Then he drafted cornerback Nate Clements instead of offensive tackle Kenyetta Walker.
Well, it's more than a year later. Flutie's legendary ability to win in the face of all odds, all by himself, produced nine straight losses to end the Chargers' 5-11 season. Clements looked like a potential All-Pro after displacing Ken Irvin in the starting lineup, while Walker struggled mightily in Tampa Bay.
After Johnson flunked his audition for the role of franchise quarterback, Donahoe cut him loose and landed the quarterback with the most passing yards in the NFL over the past nine seasons. And he did it without losing anything that will impact his team this year.
Now, with free-agent signings that bolstered Buffalo's depth chart at linebacker, kicker, tight end, on the offensive line and in the return game, along with this year's draft choices, Donahoe has already remade the Bills into a team that will bear little resemblance to last year's 3-13 disaster, regardless of what their new uniforms look like.
You can't know until fall how many wins the new-and-improved product will look like. But this much is certain -- you don't want to get yourself into a poker game with Donahoe.
Years will pass before we know for sure if Mike Williams was worth the staggering contract he's sure to get from the Bills.
One thing's for sure, though. Pound-for-pound, Buffalo got the most value from its first-round selection of any team in the NFL. At 375 pounds, Williams becomes the second-heaviest player in franchise history the second he signs the gargantuan deal that comes with being the fourth player selected.
Former offensive lineman Jamie Nails may not have done a lot on the field, but the dinner table was another matter. The 1997 draft pick still holds the franchise mark at 387 pounds. At least officially. Other past Bills super-heavyweights like Ted Washington and Jerry Crafts regularly swelled to 50 pounds or more above the weights listed on the Bills roster. With Nails and Crafts, size barely mattered.
During his unfortunate, yet mercifully brief stint as Buffalo's starting left tackle, the latter earned the nickname "Route 66," since he provided the most direct path to the quarterback. Then there was the time (while on a strict eating itinerary set up by the Bills' training staff) that Crafts ordered a pizza delivered after curfew to his dorm room at the team's former summer training facility at Fredonia State. It arrived at the right room number, but in the wrong building.
Sadly for Crafts, the pizza was delivered to a trainer's room.
Nails' greatest accomplishment -- proving the strength of the stuff from which uniform pants are made in the National Football League.
Washington, though, showed the danger of out-of-control weight on even the largest frame. In each of his last few seasons in Buffalo, Big Ted started the year playing like an All-Pro. But in playoff games in Miami and Tennessee, he spent the decisive moments of each contest huffing on the sidelines, trying to ward off a massive coronary.
Such concerns don't figure to become an issue with Williams. Judging from our first glimpses of the mammoth offensive tackle from the University of Texas, Williams ranks as a very big guy, but not a big, fat guy.
Buffalo's personnel evaluators, from Donahoe on down, don't see Williams' size as a potential problem.
"He's never had a weight problem," said Bills coach Gregg Williams. "When you look at him, his weight's not out of control now. He's a big human being. But he's got a tight, compact, good body."
ESPN displayed Mike Williams' allegedly compact figure in an ad for the cable network's draft coverage late last week and over the weekend. As Chris Berman repeatedly gushed Saturday, the rookie-to-be's personality won as much admiration from football types gathered in New York City for the draft as his stature.
Such wasn't the case with Buffalo's precedent as a frighteningly large man who could also play offensive tackle without getting his quarterback killed -- Howard Ballard.
"The House" occupied the right tackle spot through Buffalo's Super Bowl era and the Bills never adequately replaced him after he left for Seattle as a free agent following the 1993 season.
As an interview, though, he was a walking root canal.
You learn things like that the hard way. After the second Bills game I ever covered, Buffalo's 42-0 disemboweling of the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Stadium (remembered fondly as "The Mistake by the Lake"), a Ballard quote seemed like the perfect touch for a story on the visitors' thorough physical domination.
With Buffalo ahead by only 7-0 early in the second quarter and deep in Cleveland territory, Ballard pulled from his right tackle spot and led Thurman Thomas up the middle on the Bills' trademark counter-trey. The point of the counter-trey was to sucker some poor, dumb defensive sap into a gap left by another pulling Bills lineman, so that Ballard could destroy him.
Unfortunately for Browns safety Thane Gash, it worked perfectly. The 200-pound Gash raced up to the line, visions of a Sportscenter-worthy hit dancing in his head. Then he saw Ballard. The 340-pound House didn't so much block Gash as stomp him. Thomas had to jump over the prone Cleveland defender on his way to an 11-yard touchdown run.
Since Ballard's only significant publicity had come a year earlier, when Jim Kelly publicly blamed the then-first-year starter's missed block for an injury that knocked the future Hall-of-Famer out for three weeks, I figured The House would be happy to gloat a little.
Ah, there's no one quite as stupid as a young reporter.
As I approached the biggest human I had ever seen up close at his locker immediately after he emerged from the shower (first mistake), he turned, with what must have been a beach towel wrapped around his waist, and glared as if I was trying to steal his dinner.
"Got a minute?" I asked in a voice I hadn't heard come out of myself since age 12.
His response -- the sort of grunt you hear from a rhinoceros right before it drives its horn through your sternum.
Can't recall the exact wording of my question, except that it was so long even I got bored and confused while asking it and that it had something to do with whether or not his "eyes lit up" -- nice use of cliche there -- when he came around the corner and saw Gash standing there, waiting to be knocked into Lake Erie.
Pause (surely while he tried to decide whether or not to kill me with his bare hands, or at least figure out what the hell this idiot reporter was talking about).
End of interview.
Having learned the importance of not asking questions that can be answered with a "yes" or "no," I tried a few more times with Ballard over the years, with similar results.
With Williams, though, you hardly have to even ask a question. During his first session with the local media after being drafted, someone mentioned the extraordinary number of "pancake blocks" (one of those pseudo-stats college sports information directors invent to justify their salaries, but a term that perfectly describes what Ballard did to Gash) Williams recorded at Texas, and asked what it felt like to deliver such a pummeling.
"It feels great. You just grab him and you got him. You look in his eyes and he's like, 'Oh please, let me go. I'll never do it again.' And I say, 'Oh, no, no. You're going down.' And then all of a sudden, you feel his body make a horrible shift, sort of like he's been hit with a 12-gauge shotgun. And he's going back and back and back. And when you land on top of him, you use all your weight and kind of press him into the ground. You kind of want to make an imprint on the ground to remind him that every time you lock up against me, this is going to happen to you."
That, folks, is a quote.
It's impossible to say with certainty what kind of NFL player Williams will turn out to be, but I can guarantee you this much -- if he keeps talking like that, the area media will grant him an exceptionally long honeymoon.
For Peerless Price, though, Buffalo's second selection was a hint utterly lacking in subtlety that he may have to spend part of the 2003 offseason looking for work.
The Bills surprised just about every draft watcher by taking LSU wide receiver Josh Reed. Reed was honored as the nation's top wideout as a senior, but Buffalo had glaring needs at defensive tackle and safety, with plenty of highly rated players remaining at both positions. Having signed the richest contract in Buffalo's football history before last season, Eric Moulds isn't going anywhere. And teams coming off a 3-13 season don't use their second pick (the 36th overall) to pick up a third wide receiver.
Price's stats improved in each of his first three seasons, and last year he seemed to mature from his days as a brash rookie who talked about running Andre Reed out of town. But Buffalo's 1999 second-round pick continued to show a knack for dropping passes and delivering his biggest plays in garbage time (which, for the Bills, was most of 2001). His lackluster effort on punt returns, a chore for which he voiced and showed disdain during Wade Phillips' tenure, doesn't help.
Price's contract status rates as the biggest strike against him, though. A free agent after this season, the fiscally conservative Donahoe doesn't figure to blow up the salary cap to keep a No. 2 receiver.
Enter Josh Reed. At 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, Reed's abilities to break tackles after catching the ball and block downfield drew raves from scouts, many of whom had him ranked as the third-best wideout in the draft behind Tennessee's Donte' Stallworth (who went to New Orleans with the 13th selection) and Ashley Lelie of Hawaii (taken at No. 19 by Denver).
But since Price's next contract, whoever gives it to him, will be largely based on his performance this year, pouting wouldn't be in his best interest. Which, in the world of professional sports, doesn't mean he won't do just that.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||April 23 2002|