How to build a winner – what’s Buffalo been doing wrong all of these years?

What’s it take to build a team? I’m not looking for just any team. We know how to build that team – we’ve been doing it for years. That team doesn’t win – that team doesn’t make the playoffs.

What’s it take to build a winning team, a team like last night’s Giant club that’s now won two rings in four years? Plenty of people will look at that question and simply say ‘players,’ but it’s never that easy. If that were the case, the ‘dream teams’ would win it all every year – those who load up on name free agents and try to just let things work. Truly, it’s not a perfect science. That’s the great thing about sports, and the NFL specifically – so many factors can and do go into creating a team that it’s impossible to really say what it takes to field a solid unit. Between coaches, scouts, executives, trainers, and players that each team employs, everyone within an organization plays a part in the success – or lack thereof – that the on field product has on a yearly basis.

Finding who to bring in, promote, retain, and even part ways with is a constant task for those in the upper echelon of decision makers in each of these organizations. In Buffalo, the hierarchy runs from team owner Ralph Wilson Jr. through general manager Buddy Nix before moving on down the chain to head coach Chan Gailey. There are other men in the mix here and there, but these three are the main ones with final say and responsibility for the moves made throughout the year to shape the Bills into how we see them on a weekly basis. The common conception over the years is that Wilson is incapable and unwilling of spending money on the team that he’s owned from its upstart in 1959. Even if that was the case throughout the early 2000’s, he’s seemed to ease back on that stance in recent seasons which has allowed the team to utilize a previously untapped resource in the negotiation department – the ever-important dollar sign. Not to say that all of these athletes are superficial, but when early spring comes around and the league year is just about to start, Bills players whose contracts are coming to an end have long understood that if they want to get paid what they’re worth, it won’t be here – and other team’s quality free agents can’t often find a reason to even recognize Buffalo as a legitimate option. They don’t win, they don’t pay, why would you go there?

It’s a valid thought process. Or is it now, in 2012? Last year, the team could have gone into the season with their starting inside linebackers 33-year-old Andra Davis and career backup Reggie Torbor but made a strong push in the free agent market to pursue San Diego free agent Kevin Burnett. Burnett ultimately chose the Dolphins before visiting Orchard Park, and everyone thought that Nix would give up and settle on what he had, as is the Buffalo way. Two days after Burnett signed his four-year deal with Miami, Buffalo made their splash and signed former All-Pro linebacker Nick Barnett from the Green Bay Packers. Barnett had been on the market for less than 72 hours when he made Buffalo his first visit on a long list of interested teams – and Nix wouldn’t let him leave the building without a deal. Barnett signed a three-year, twelve million dollar deal to come to Buffalo and immediately become their best veteran player.

Sure, the excuses are there already – he was coming off of an injury, the Packers cut him, he wasn’t Kevin Burnett – but this is something new for the Bills. Lately, when they’ve doled out the money for a ‘big time starter’ in free agency, it’s been a massive overpayment for someone who even the average Joe could see wouldn’t work here (Terrell Owens, Cornell Green) while they’ve let quality home-grown talent (Travis Henry, Antoine Winfield) simply walk to another team, further making a mockery of the Bills in league circles. Barnett’s willingness to cancel visits to other cities and immediately sign here shows something to other free agents – this place may be viable. Doesn’t hurt that the Bills looked like one of the league’s best throughout the first half of the season, either. Still, considering how they finished, it may not be the easiest to get new guys to come here.

That’s one of the things that the team has to be able to shift the perception of heading into the offseason. Last year, it was common knowledge that Shawne Merriman’s starpower, status, and recruiting were integral in getting Barnett, now the team’s starting weakside linebacker, to commit to spending his time in Western New York. This year, they’ve got to play on that and Buffalo’s impressive beginning to the 2011 season to pull in quality players. Barnett, Merriman, and to a slightly lesser extent, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams should be able to have a bit of that ‘I want to play with those guys’ pull on free agent defenders, but what’s the draw on offense? I don’t foresee the team chasing any big time offensive players outside of the wide receiver position and possibly tight end if they let Chandler test the market (I think they’ll look for an upgrade at backup quarterback this offseason as well, but you’re still not signing a name there), so what would get them here?

There’s the obvious opportunity to start, which heightens with a potential departure of Steve Johnson for another team. Still, guys like Dwayne Bowe, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Lloyd will be signing to start anywhere they go. This will attract the lower-tiered guys, like Mario Manningham, the other Steve Smith, Robert Meachem, and others. These are guys that have talent but are buried on their team’s depth charts behind the types of guys that we actually want. Past that, though, there’s not a lot that’s going to make a Wayne, Lloyd, or perhaps someone of Vincent Jackson’s caliber come here, unfortunately. While Fitzpatrick looked great throughout a good chunk of the season, he still passed for less than 4,000 yards and his top receiver (Johnson) had just a hair over 1,000 yards receiving. He spreads the ball around a lot, which doesn’t benefit a lot of the guys looking to get the ball multiple times in a series. Players like Johnson and Fred Jackson are some of the best at what they do in the league, but they don’t quite have that pull that Barnett and Merriman would have, especially considering they are home-grown talents that came up through the ranks as Bills and have never played elsewhere. That’s where the money situation comes into play, and you can bet that if this team really wants to contend in 2012 that they’ll have one of the top-paid starting wideout tandems in the league. It’ll take a significant number to get Johnson to return, and an even bigger one to get a quality counterpart on the opposite end of the field.

To me that’s not a bad thing, though, as long as they spend the money wisely. So long as the team can be smart, they’ll avoid Langston Walker and Derrick Dockery-esque signings and bring in quality players who can actually help the team improve. Later in the week, we’ll look at who they should pursue, and who they’ve got a decent shot at landing. After that, we’ll dig into draft preparation. Hope you’re as excited for that as I am. Until next time, Bills fans.


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