When this season is complete, the Buffalo Bills will have extinguished $50 million in "dead money" on their last three salary caps, and it'll be clear-sailing into the future for a team some believe may be ready to step into that future this season.
"We thought it would take more time," Bills president Tom Donahoe said of the rebuilding job he inherited in 2001. "The first year was terrible because when we saw (a player) who could help us, we couldn't even call the guy. We felt like our hands were tied."
Donahoe willingly took on $23 million of "dead money" in 2001. The repair and reconstruction of the Buffalo Bills was underway and it produced a 3-13 record and a lot of fan criticism. Last year, the Bills' "dead money" was $18 million, but it didn't show in the final record (8-8) because of the trade Donahoe made for quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
"The ability to get Drew Bledsoe speeded everything up for us," Donahoe admits. "We're very young and we'd like to think our team will grow and get better. Our scouts have done a good job of getting the roster turned over. We've had three good drafts in a row. You need free agency and you have to sprinkle guys in, but the draft is still the life blood of your team. The young guys fit better under the salary cap."
Bledsoe will lead the Bills into Alltel Stadium this Sunday for a game against a Jaguars team that is facing a similar rebuilding task, though the Jaguars haven't taken the same aggressive course the Bills have.
"Next year, we hope to have ('dead money') down to around $2 million. As our 'dead money' goes down our team gets better because it's money you can use. You can get people to increase your depth or just make your team better," Donahoe said.
That was most prominently the case recently when the Bills signed star safety Lawyer Milloy following his release from New England. Donahoe spent big for Milloy, who sparked a bidding war among a handful of teams.
"We're better. Now we have to prove it," Donahoe said.
Some believe the Bills will prove it this season. Others believe Donahoe's team is still a year away; a year away from complete cap repair and another draft class and free agency crop away from having the kind of blue-chip roster needed to compete with New England in the AFC East. And if all goes as planned, the Bills will have a fully-recovered Willis McGahee at their disposal next season, which might make next year's draft class feel like two classes in one.
But Bledsoe still has the skills to make up for whatever weaknesses the Bills have this year. That was the case last season, when Bledsoe re-claimed his career with a star performance that included 4,359 yards and 24 touchdown passes.
Buffalo has a big-play offense that features Bledsoe, wide receiver Eric Moulds and running back Travis Henry. The offensive line has developed into a solid unit that should afford Bledsoe much better pass-protection than it did a year ago.
The issue in Buffalo is not offense; it's defense. The Bills were 29th in the league against the run and 27th in points allowed last season. So Donahoe went out and signed linebackers Takeo Spikes and Jeff Posey, defensive tackle Sam Adams and, of course, Milloy. Add to that mix former Bengals head coach and Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The immediate result was a 31-0 win over New England in the season-opener.
"We'd like to be more balanced. That's one of our goals," Donahoe said of a better run-pass ratio. "We were heavily tilted toward the pass last year and it's tough to win like that.
"It's a work in progress," he added of his defense. "We'll start five new guys. Our defense should get better as the season goes on."
All of that has left a lot of "experts" to make the Bills the favorite to be this year's surprise team.
"We'd like to think we're headed in the right direction," Donahoe said.