A lot of Buffalo Bills players will be playing for their jobs the next two months. That's the reality of playing on a losing team the second half of the NFL season.
This year, however, the Bills may be playing for the job of their president and general manager, too.
The stakes are high for everyone at One Bills Drive today, when the Bills meet the St. Louis Rams, and over the final seven weeks of the season.
Bills President and General Manager Tom Donahoe has a contract that runs through the 2005 season. He has as good a relationship with owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. as any general manager who ever worked for the team.
But if the 2004 season heads much further south, he could be in trouble. The Bills' overall depth of talent is markedly better than in 2001. But it is becoming increasingly more difficult to convince the fans, based solely on the results, that the team is making significant progress.
Donahoe's status is a subject people in the Bills organization are loath to discuss but one that's on the minds of front office people.
And it's a concern for Donahoe, who has told at least one NFL executive he's fighting for his professional life.
Wilson likes and respects Donahoe. Wilson, like most owners, does not like to buy out future years of a contract. Donahoe makes about $1 million a year.
So the picture is going to have to look very bleak at season's end for Donahoe to be removed before his contract runs out. The problem for Donahoe is the 3-6 performance of the Bills has been a big disappointment. What if they don't win more than one more game before their regular-season finale Jan. 2?
Donahoe declined to comment on the overall assessment of the club, saying it's premature to do so and the end of the season is the appropriate time.
The Bills' overall record under Donahoe's stewardship is just 20-37. Of course, Donahoe inherited a salary cap problem that devastated the roster and prompted a complete rebuilding project. Wilson still feels a strong sense of gratitude toward Donahoe for the fact he was willing to accept the job, knowing the depth of the Bills' cap problems.
But that's old news for a lot of Bills fans, who are lamenting what seems sure to be a fifth straight season out of the playoffs.
Donahoe's top mistake so far was the hiring of Gregg Williams, let go after last season, as his head coach. Donahoe's biggest trade, the acquisition of Drew Bledsoe, looks just as bad at the moment. Bledsoe's production has been poor since the middle of the 2002 season.
The combination of the Williams firing and the quarterback situation is forcing the Bills, in Year Four of the Donahoe regime, to start over to a large degree. Mike Mularkey brought a new system this season, and J.P. Losman probably will take over at quarterback next season, barring a giant recovery by Bledsoe.
One might argue that Bledsoe has been hamstrung. He needs an above-average offensive line to be effective. But that issue rests with Donahoe, as well. He has addressed the offensive line continuously the past four years. But the moves apparently have not been enough to give Bledsoe the kind of protection he needs to have a chance to excel.
Donahoe's signing of free-agent right guard Chris Villarrial last March was a good one. Villarrial has played well. But the Bills stood pat at left guard after releasing Ruben Brown. Why they did not move to upgrade that spot is a prime subject for second-guessing.
The right tackle position on the offensive line also has been a source of criticism for Donahoe. Mike Williams, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2002 draft, has been a disappointment. Williams has been a powerful run-blocker at times. But he still has had problems in pass protection. Williams showed improvement the past month. He pass-blocked well against tough Jets rushers two weeks ago. But the jury is still out on him.
Donahoe's 2002 draft as a whole has disappointed. The top No. 2 pick, Josh Reed, has struggled at receiver. The second No. 2 pick, Ryan Denney, contributes on defense but not as much as expected. The next four picks, Coy Wire, Justin Bannan, Kevin Thomas and Mike Pucillo, are reserves.
It's too early to make a definitive statement about Donahoe's four drafts as a whole. The 2001 draft was exceptional, producing Nate Clements, Aaron Schobel, Travis Henry, Ron Edwards and Jonas Jennings.
The 2003 draft is looking promising this year. Top pick Willis McGahee, Donahoe's big gamble, looks brilliant. Second pick Chris Kelsay has supplanted Denney as starting defensive end. Fourth pick Terrence McGee is a game-breaking return man and looks like he could be a high-quality starting cornerback.
Donahoe could argue he has the cornerstones of a dynamic Bills offense in place with McGahee and this year's two first-round picks, Lee Evans and Losman. Evans has been everything the Bills expected so far. It probably will take two or three years on the field to find out if Losman is a franchise quarterback. Losman will get good instruction. The team of Tom Clements, Sam Wyche and Mike Mularkey should get the most out of him.
Mularkey compiled an impressive staff of aides, and Donahoe is confident the coaching issue is solved.
Donahoe unquestionably has the Bills well-positioned for the future financially. As promised, he got the Bills' salary cap problem fixed, and the team is in good cap shape the next several years.
The decisions to resist expensive re-signing of Bills free agents look good in retrospect. Those include Sam Cowart, Marcellus Wiley and Peerless Price. Overall, the big-ticket free-agents Donahoe has acquired have been good contributors -- Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher and Sam Adams.
The Bills have a solid organization off the field and have been a success at the box office, playing before almost full capacity the past three years.
Still, the bottom line in the NFL is wins. Disregarding the 3-13 season of 2001 as a consequence of the salary cap, the Donahoe record stands at 17-24.
Donahoe has repeatedly stated that patience is required when a new coaching staff is implementing its system in its first year.
The presence of Mularkey further helps Donahoe's chances of fulfilling his five-year contract. Bringing in a new general manager and matching him with a coach he does not know for the next four years (Mularkey has a five-year contract) is an undesirable situation. One alternative might be to have Assistant General Manager Tom Modrak run football operations and have Russ Brandon, vice president of business development and marketing, run the off-field operations. But that probably would only happen if the team's finish was so bad that from a business standpoint, Wilson felt he could not sell the product to the fans with Donahoe at the top.
Given the ugliness of so many of the Bills' losses this year, one has to wonder: Will it get that bad?
THE TOM DONAHOE SCOREBOARD
1. Shaped up salary cap. Depth is much better and team is well positioned for 2005 and 2006.
2. Spent wisely in free agency with Spikes & Co. Said goodbye to the right players.
3. Looks like good coaching staff in place. Mularkey has experienced cast of aides.
4. McGahee, Evans represent cornerstones. Gamble on Willis looks like it will pay off.
1. The record. Team is 17-24 the past three years, 20-37 the past four.
2. Hired Gregg Williams. Not the right man for the job.
3. Drew Bledsoe's performance. Offense has been almost unwatchable.
4. Continuing offensive line woes. Mike Williams & Co. have disappointed.