Bills’ Free Agency – Does This Seem Familiar?


Last week just after the NFL lockout was declared over and the labor deal was finalized, Buddy Nix spoke about the Bills’ plans going forward. He reiterated the organization’s philosophy of building the team through the draft and not being overly aggressive with the free agent market.  If we could remove all the negative emotions these words elicit, this basic philosophy is solid. Most successful NFL teams in recent history, the Steelers and Chargers come right to mind, have drafted and developed their own players and simply supplanted this talent with the occasional outside signing. One only should look to the Washington Redskins under Dan Snyder to realize that just throwing around money to the chic free agent player doesn’t work. 

However if you listen really close to the message itself and take out the strong southern accent, it all sounds oddly familiar. That’s because they were Darcy Regier’s words the last 4 or 5 years BP. That’s “Before Pegula”.

It’s been observed by many a fan and media member lately that Terry Pegula’s triumphant entry as the Sabres owner has illuminated the faults in Ralph Wilson’s operations. In reality, the old guy probably could care less what the Sabres are doing, but it truly changes the landscape here a bit. Even Joe admitted in his recent post that our set in stone football town is slowly losing its luster to buzz of the crossed swords. I think the free agent market is such a clear-cut example on the differing approaches of the organizations. The Sabres have become a big-market team willing to take risks and throw big bucks at top free agents such as Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino, while Ralph is not willing to overpay for anyone, either due to getting burned in the past or because of the bottom line. 

Buddy Nix will take most of the heat for the inaction of the last few days. He’s the GM after all. But just as people are coming to admit that Darcy Regier’s hands were tied under Tom Golisano and Larry Quinn since the NHL lockout ended, perhaps we need to consider that Buddy is limited here. Let’s take a look at some of the parallels.

Posluszny/Clabo Negotiations – Now I’m not sure I would have signed Poz to 7 million a year, and the Bills were reported to have made a competitive offer to their starting ILB, but in the end he chose Jacksonville over staying here. Whether it was dollar amount, years of contract, or playing in the 3-4 as his agent noted, what the Bills presented just wasn’t as appealing as journeying to the south and starting anew. The comparison to the Golisano run Sabres years is quite clear – player after player left the doors of HSBC to pursue better opportunities elsewhere. I wouldn’t draw analogies to Drury and Briere as I don’t think Poz is at their level in importance to the organization. But you could make analogies to 2nd tier players like Tallinder and Lydman. Last summer these two players walked, reportedly because of the term of the contracts offered. As important cogs to the Sabres defense, the team missed them great and suffered the first part of the season. Pegula even made note of Hank and Tony being one of Golisano’s big mistakes when having his meeting with The Buffalo News. Players of this caliber may not seem critical at the time they are lost but it tends to show in the little things eventually, especially on positions that are thin. Poz is far from a superstar, but he still is younger than Barnett and has more upside. It’s definitely not a talent increase swap at this point in Nick’s career; you can only hope that his leadership and passion can overcome these things. It’s still a risky assumption.

Shortly after having Poz bolted to the Jaguars, the Bills were turned down again, this time by Falcons right tackle Tyson Clabo who decided to re-sign with Atlanta for 5 million a year. Now as far as I know, there’s been no indication of how much the Bills offered, whether they matched this price or came in lower. But in the end, they were rejected. As close as Darcy Regier kept things close to his vest during these many years, we haven’t heard of player after player turning down the Sabres. The theme of this post is that free agency wasn’t used in those days after all. But I seem to remember hearing a few years back of Paul Kariya choosing to sign with St. Louis over the Sabres, and I’m guessing there were a few others here and there. When you’re not a big-time player in the free agency market, it’s easy to not be committed, not be ready to go that extra mile that other teams are. After all, you can always fall back on, “This is not the way we’re putting our team together, so oh well.” In all likelihood this is Buddy Nix’s attitude and it puts the Bills on a lower plane that many of the other NFL teams.

Focus on the Draft – I’ve already mentioned that focusing on the draft is not a bad philosophy, but there is such a thing as doing this too much to a fault. There are three ways to add players: the draft, free agency and trades. Now trades aren’t a big tool used in the recent NFL so I can excuse the Bills for not tapping that market. But that leaves our two avenues, and the Bills for the most have put their eggs in the homegrown talent and only dipped into free agency under Nix for veteran depth. Last year it was Dwan Edwards and Andra Davis and this year so far Tyler Thigpen, Brad Smith, & Nick Barnett. None of these players are bad and Barnett if healthy can add a lot to the defense, but they aren’t going to be difference makers on your team. Once again, sound familiar? How about Mike Grier, Patrick Lalime, Rob Niedermayer, Jordan Leopold, Cody McCormick, etc? Until T-Pegs came along, the Sabres ruled the market on safe buying: players that wouldn’t hurt you necessarily but also wouldn’t push you to the next level.

The only difference to be made here is Darcy Regier did draft well: players like Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Ryan Miller and Jason Pominville became core players in the Sabres organization. So while they didn’t choose to tap deeply into free agency and trades, the successful junior scouting provided them with players that gave the team success. The Sabres may not have been true Stanley Cup contenders the last three or four years, but they did have some nice players that helped them push their philosophy of team building. So if Buddy Nix is going to beat his chest and talk endlessly about building through the draft, he has to do it really well. His first draft did not have one immediate impact player in the top half of the draft. I’m hopeful players like C.J. Spiller, Torell Troup and Alex Carrington will show great growth in their second season, but as first year players they were close to invisible. This year’s draft received a lot of kudos for defensive players like Marcel Dareus, Aaron Williams, and Sheppard, but we need to see them perform first. I do actually trust Nix as a player evaluator and I have faith all the players mentioned here will pan out. And they have to.

Frugal Owner – Let me preface this by saying as a general rule, I don’t think Ralph Wilson has always been cheap. When Jim Kelly was signed, he was made the highest paid player in the league. He allowed GM’s to present a big payday to Takeo Spikes, Derrick Dockery, and Terrell Owens to name a few. But I think he has become reluctant to take risks like this anymore when many times it didn’t work out. Takeo was solid in his short time here, but Dockery was a nightmare. And T.O. was great for P.R. but nothing much more beyond that. When Ralph gets burned, he becomes reticent. He wants this team to remain profitable and isn’t willing to commit too much in guaranteed money to big names any more. It’s the same reason he won’t release complete control to his head football guy anymore – Tom Donohoe made some key errors when given reins to the whole ship and Wilson won’t go there anymore. He plays the role of scared (and meddlesome) owner more often than not.

Now Tom Golisano tied his GM’s hands in similar ways. His focus was all on the bottom line to the point of sacrificing Stanley Cups. Players left and out of the box thinking to replace them wasn’t allowed. Too often we heard Darcy say that they weren’t ready to match the desperation of other teams on July 1. Like the Bills, it put the Sabres at a competitive disadvantage. With the Sabres often finishing in the middle of the pack, they didn’t have the star players at their disposal in the draft as teams like the Penguins did, so they couldn’t take their team development approach to the highest levels. Until the Bills picked 3rd in this year’s draft, they faced a similar conundrum. It was a vicious cycle.

To wrap up, I’d like to point one big difference in hockey vs football on the free agent front. That’s the difficulty of recruiting to Buffalo. Football players prefer the big city, a happening night life, and options and options of social options. And usually warm weather. That’s why we’ve heard bashing of our fine little spot on this earth from the likes of Willis WcGahee. We may be okay with the bars on Chippewa and our beautiful parks and family life, but young millionaire pampered athletes are looking for the bright lights and to be entertained non stop. I don’t think this necessarily true for hockey players. I think it’s a little easier to draw them here. Especially since many grew up in small towns in Canada and are used to a slower lifestyle and wintry locales. Some are older with families and settle in quite nicely in Clarence while others embrace places like the Chophouse and the Elmwood strip. 

So if the Sabres have to overpay free agents just to play the acquisition game, I think the Bills have to shell out even more to lure guys to an outpost that isn’t attractive to them on the surface. And this is one thing Ralph Wilson will probably never advocate. So if you want to bury Buddy Nix in your criticisms, realize that like Darcy he is a great evaluator of talent. Unfortunately, he won’t be able to completely tap into that talent due to his marching orders. And sadly, that won’t change with our wizened founder in charge.