Two years ago, in his first season as Buffalo coach, Gregg Williams inherited a team with $21 million in dead cap space and a crying need for a quarterback. The Bills finished 3-13. Last year they still had $18 million in dead cap money, and they had solved the quarterback problem by trading for Drew Bledsoe, but the defense was shaky. They finished 8-8, one game behind the AFC East-winning Jets, in the most competitive division in the NFL.
Williams is now in the last year of a contract that has not been extended. The dead cap money has just about cleared up, defensive help has arrived, and the buzz around Buffalo is that the Bills have to go at least 9-7 and make some kind of a playoff run for Williams to keep his job.
"Not so," says president and general manager Tom Donohoe, who holds Williams's fate in his hands. "We want to be fair to the coaches regarding things they have no control over, like injuries, but at the same time we want to see an improved, competitive team."
The top priority was fixing the defense, and the first of the free agents to arrive was Jeff Posey, an outside rusher who led the Texans in sacks last year. Two weeks later the Bills showed the world they were serious by putting together a $32 million package to land the Bengals' Takeo Spikes, the most highly sought defensive free agent and the finest linebacker never to have been chosen for the Pro Bowl. Call it his misfortune for having spent five years in Cincinnati.
"The Buffalo fans are one reason I was so happy to come here" Spikes says. "Last year we played them in the last game of the season. When I came on the field, I got this big cheer. There were fans in Bengals jerseys. After the game I asked one of them, 'Aren't you a Bills fan?' He said, 'Today I'm a Spikes fan.' I mean these fans knew I was going to be a free agent, and it was their way of telling me they wanted me here."
A gifted pass defender from his weak-side spot, instinctive and explosive filling the hole on running plays, Spikes, teamed with Posey and London Fletcher, gives Buffalo one of the best linebacking corps in football. Something had to be done about the defensive line, though, so the Bills drafted Chris Kelsay, an outside rusher, in the second round, and made their third big free-agent move by picking up Sam Adams, the gigantic tackle.
This is where the plan might break down. Adams, who has been hailed as some sort of savior for the Bills, gradually wore out his welcome after a six-year run in Seattle, got his game in order and put together two Pro Bowl seasons with Baltimore, and then spent a nonproductive 2002 season with the Raiders, who cut him. He's on the downside of a basically underachieving career. "Not here, he won't be," Williams says. "Have you ever heard of a coach we have named Tim Krumrie?"
Krumrie is one of five new coaches the Bills hired this season. Two of them, Dick LeBeau (assistant to the head coach) and Les Steckel (running backs), have been head coaches in the NFL, giving Buffalo three former top men among their assistants. (Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride is the third.) Krumrie, the defensive line coach, is the most colorful member of the staff: a former collegiate wrestler, 12 years as a Bengals nosetackle, a booming voice that can be heard all over the practice field, a fitness maniac at 43 and good for three full workouts every day at camp. "I need them to clear my head from the meetings," he says.
In February, Williams came up with the idea of Chemistry Day, in which each position coach would take his guys out on some getting-to-know-you project. "They took 'em out to play pool, to go bowling," Krumrie says. "I took my 10 linemen into the shed. One-on-one against me, bull in the ring. I took 'em on one at a time, roughed 'em up, put it to 'em a little bit. That was my way of them getting to know me.
"Big Sam? Oh, he'll work," Krumrie says. "We'll see to that."