The Bills’ top two picks, Roscoe Parrish and Kevin Everett, hail from the University of Miami. Perhaps lightning will strike for a third and fourth time for the Bills in picking Hurricanes. Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly (1983) and 1,000-yard running back Willis McGahee (2003) turned out pretty well.
General manager Tom Donahoe’s decision to dump Gregg Williams after three seasons and hand the head coaching job to former Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey didn’t pay instant dividends. When the Bills started 0–4, it left Buffalo 17–35 under Donahoe. So imagine his relief when Mularkey righted the ship and went 9–3 the rest of the way. “(Mike) was everything we’d thought he’d be and maybe a little extra when you look how things started out and how he managed to keep the team and everybody together,” Donahoe said.
Over the final seven games of the season, the Bills scored 252 points to break the team seven-game mark of 241 set by Jim Kelly’s no-huddle attack in 1990. Defense and special teams chipped in six TDs in that stretch.
Buffalo’s six-game win streak in 2004 was its longest since winning eight in a row in 1990, its first Super Bowl year.
The Prophecy: “Lee Evans, the fastest of the marquee receivers in the draft, will allow the Bills to stretch defenses again and roll coverages away from Eric Moulds.”
The Lie: “The Bills have not lost faith in Drew Bledsoe, feeling he was the victim of poor coaching, poor line play, and a weakened receiving corps.”
— Athlon Sports Pro Football 2004
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During the second half of last season, the Buffalo Bills were scoring points in record numbers, shutting down opponents, and getting big plays from their special teams. They also were winning -- six games in row at one point and eight of 10 overall.
Unfortunately for the Bills and their loyal fans, finishing 9-7 under rookie coach Mike Mularkey after a 0-4 start wasn't enough to end a postseason drought now at five years.
"I'm glad we won six games in a row. It showed us what kind of team we are and what type of team we can be," offensive lineman Ross Tucker says. "But this is the NFL, and there's no comfort in a good try. The bottom line is that we didn't get it done, and it's really tough to swallow."
Buffalo's front office swallowed very hard, coming to the conclusion that its roster still wasn't good enough to contend with the likes of Super Bowl champ New England, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis in the rugged AFC. Overall, the Bills went 2-6 against teams with winning records.
Realizing more bold moves were necessary, coach Mike Mularkey and GM Tom Donahoe made one of the biggest of the offseason in the NFL, parting ways with veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe and naming J.P. Losman, the club's first-round pick in 2004, the starter.
Given the thin list of top college quarterback prospects in 2005, Buffalo is elated with its move to trade up for Losman a year ago. They are ahead of the curve in developing their quarterback of the future, and Losman will hit the ground running. Literally. With his ability to run bootlegs, draws and rollouts -- things the lead-footed Bledsoe was incapable of with any effectiveness -- the handcuffs are off Mularkey and coordinator Tom Clements.
And while Losman, who tossed 60 touchdown passes at Tulane, must prove he can make good decisions against NFL defenses, he can't do any worse than Bledsoe, who had 43 turnovers in his last 32 games as a Bill. Losman knows that his supporting cast is strong but that he still must earn his teammates' respect.
"For a quarterback to step into this situation, it's lucky for me, and I'm looking forward to taking full advantage of it," he says.
Should he be injured or falter, the Bills can turn to former Cleveland Brown Kelly Holcomb, who signed a four-year, $6.6 million free agent deal.
Willis McGahee beat the odds and returned from a devastating college knee injury to gain 1,128 yards and score 13 touchdowns last season while starting only 11 games. That means his best is yet to come. A hard-nosed runner between the tackles, McGahee did his best work using his vision and second gear to break runs to the outside. He had at least one run of 15 yards or better in 10 games, and his speed should improve even more with another offseason of rehab. McGahee should be able to double his 22 receptions with a young quarterback looking for the quick outlet pass.
Former Pro Bowler Travis Henry remains prime trade bait heading into training camp. The 262-pound Daimon Shelton is one of the NFL's top blocking fullbacks.
The Bills hit a bull's-eye with Lee Evans, one of seven first-round receivers selected in 2004. The speedy former Wisconsin Badger gave Buffalo the ability to stretch the field again after the loss of Peerless Price. Evans finished with a team-best nine touchdown receptions and took some heat off Pro Bowl veteran Eric Moulds. Moulds rebounded from an injury-plagued '03 to catch 88 balls, fourth-most in the AFC. With 594 career catches, third-most in club history, he shows no signs of slowing down.
While Moulds and Evans make a formidable 1-2 punch, the Bills were not happy with their depth and used their first pick in the draft (55th overall) on flashy Miami product Roscoe Parrish. The 5'9" Parrish has speed to equal Evans and will give Buffalo another dimension from the slot, where he is expected to replace Josh Reed (16 catches).
The Bills added promising tight end Kevin Everett, another downfield threat, in the draft to complement Mark Campbell and Tim Euhus, who are coming off knee surgeries.
Losing steady four-year left tackle Jonas Jennings to the 49ers was a big hit, but management made protecting the integrity of its salary cap a priority. The Bills countered by signing - at much more reasonable prices - free agents Bennie Anderson (Baltimore) and Mike Gandy (Chicago) and drafting Ray Preston out of Illinois and versatile Justin Geisinger out of Vanderbilt.
Gandy, who started 14 games at left tackle for Chicago in 2003, will be given a shot at replacing Jennings. But Buffalo also plans to experiment with moving center Trey Teague, who once started at left tackle for Denver. If Teague does take over at tackle, Anderson will be plugged in at left guard and Ross Tucker will slide over to center.
The right side of the line is well established with guard Chris Villarrial and tackle Mike Williams, the fourth overall pick in '02 who finally is living up to expectations.
Massive Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sam Adams returns to plug the middle, but he'll be breaking in a new sidekick. Pat Williams was let go in free agency and signed with Minnesota. Young veteran Ron Edwards, who had 4.0 sacks playing on passing downs, and promising second-year pro Tim Anderson, will be counted on to be at least as good as Williams and hopefully better. Even though Buffalo ranked seventh against the run, the Bills were susceptible to giving up long drives when the big men tired. After years of trying to find a bookend presence for Aaron Schobel (34.5 career sacks), Chris Kelsay, a second-round pick in '03, came into his own last season with 4.5 sacks, a team-best 15 quarterback hits, and 37 tackles.
The Bills, who play a 4-3, boast one of the NFL's best trios in Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher and Jeff Posey. Not only are they productive, but they are also durable. None of them has missed a game in two years. The emotional Spikes is the unquestioned leader of a defense that led the NFL with 39 takeaways, 21 more than the previous season. He posted 99 tackles and five interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
Despite the loss of veteran stars Lawyer Milloy and Troy Vincent to injuries for a total of 14 games, Buffalo increased its interception total from a team-record low of 10 to 24. Former first-round pick Nate Clements, who led the club with six picks, has developed into a top-shelf corner and enters his contract year motivated to strike it big in free agency.
Meanwhile, the Bills got a big assist from Terrence McGee, a fourth-round pick in '03 who took over for Vincent and wound up with 87 tackles, three interceptions and two sacks. McGee performed so well that when Vincent returned from his knee injury, he shifted to free safety, where he will start in 2005. Milloy remains one of the game's top strong safeties and run stuffers. Buffalo has developed great depth in the secondary with backups Rashad Baker, Jabari Greer, Coy Wire and Kevin Thomas each capable of starting.
McGee is one of the NFL's top young kickoff return men, taking back three kicks for touchdowns while setting a club mark for return yardage with 1,370 and putting a smile on assistant Bobby April's face. While Clements did a good job on punt returns, Parrish will get a long look at taking over those duties.
Punter Brian Moorman remains a master at handling the weather conditions in Buffalo. Kicker Rian Lindell is on the hot seat, however. He made 24-of-28 attempts but was 1-of-3 from beyond 40 yards, and his chip-shot miss in the season finale against Pittsburgh kept the Bills out of the playoffs.
Losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers' second- and third-stringers 29-24 last January forced the Bills' front office to do some soul-searching. The conclusion? While Buffalo's defense and special teams were playoff-caliber, the offense was not. And while it looks like a giant leap of faith turning the keys over to an untested quarterback in Losman, the feeling on the staff is that he can do no worse than the tired warhorse Bledsoe. And he has the potential to do much better, particularly when plays break down, because of his superior mobility. Buffalo was literally a play or two from making the playoffs in 2004. If Losman makes one or two more than Bledsoe, he and his strong supporting cast will crash the party in '05.