Thursday night's game between the Jaguars and the visiting Buffalo Bills will offer an interesting clash of two teams that took opposite approaches to the same problem.
Buffalo is a team with major salary-cap problems, but whereas the Jaguars chose to retain their core players by pushing money out onto future salary caps, the Bills elected to attack the problem immediately. That's the big reason the Bills (0-4) are suffering through their worst start since 1985.
"I inherited it and I knew what I was getting into," team President Tom Donahoe said of the Bills' salary-cap woes, which include $21.5 million in "dead" money left over from the John Butler-Wade Phillips regime.
"(Owner) Ralph (Wilson) said it was going to be difficult and it's a challenge. We took a big chunk out of it this year and we'll take a little bit out of it next year, then we'll be fine. We decided we'd take the big hit this year," Donahoe added.
Taking the big hit left the Bills in a precarious position, though similar to the Jaguars'. Donahoe felt he had retained enough talent to keep the team competitive, but the shelves were bare beyond the front-line players. Then the injuries started to come.
Nearly one-fourth of the Bills' 53-man roster is either out for the season or attempting to recover from injury. The injury bug has hit the Bills hardest with key personnel, too, such as linebacker Sam Cowart and star wide receiver Eric Moulds, who has been bothered by a sprained shoulder.
"The frustrating part is we went into the season without a lot of margin for error. We had tried to structure a lot of things around Cowart. We're not the same without Cowart," Donahoe said of the Florida State product, who is lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.
Injuries decimated the offensive line, too. "Against Pittsburgh we were playing a lot with our fourth and fifth tackles. Because of that, we haven't been able to develop a lot of consistency on offense. At this stage, it's been a lot of patchwork," Donahoe said.
Buffalo's visit to Alltel Stadium will be former Jaguars quarterback Rob Johnson's homecoming. He left Jacksonville in 1998, when the Jaguars traded him to the Bills for first and fourth-round draft choices. Johnson got a $25 million contract and immediately became the Bills' quarterback of the future, but now Bills fans are wondering if Johnson's days aren't numbered.
Johnson would count $11.225 million against the Bills' cap next season; $5 million if he is traded or cut.
"Rob's not been the whole problem. The problem has been the offensive line. We're still encouraged by some things we see in him," Donahoe said. "I haven't looked at next year. I don't really care about next year right now. We're just trying to win a football game and eliminate a lot of the negativity."
The future would seem to be brighter than the present, though. The Bills have 22 rookie and first-year players on their roster, and as many as seven of those players could become long-term starters. First-round pick Nate Clements is poised to take the starting job at cornerback, and second-round pick Travis Henry has already moved into the starting job at running back. On the offensive line, Corey Hulsey, Jonas Jennings and Marques Sullivan have been pressed into early service.
All of that makes the Bills the second-youngest and the least-experienced team in the league.
"We still feel very good about our future and about our team. We hired the right coach," Donahoe said of former Titans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. "We're sound at what we're trying to do on both sides of the ball. We just can't panic. We're going to stay the course and work through these tough things.