Fans brave enough to trek out to New Era Field on Sunday should take a good, long look at the visiting sideline.
That’s what a total rebuild in the NFL looks like.
The sad-sack Cleveland Browns are threatening the NFL record for futility, just three losses away from matching the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams in league history to go 0-16 for an entire season.
On the other sideline, the 6-7 Buffalo Bills are mired in mediocrity. For the last 16 years, they’ve been stuck on the same treadmill – good enough to beat the likes of the Browns and proving time and again to be incapable of hanging with legitimate, playoff-caliber teams. During the team’s playoff drought, which is soon to stretch to 17 seasons, the Bills have won between five and nine games 14 times.
In coach Rex Ryan’s two seasons, the Bills have beaten just two playoff teams – the Houston Texans last year and the New England Patriots this year. In that game, New England started a rookie, third-string quarterback who was placed on injured reserve the next day. Here’s a good topic of conversation for your friends: See if you agree on what the Bills’ best win this season is. Chances are, “none of the above” becomes a popular choice.
That has led to calls for a complete teardown of the football operation. A true rebuild, the thinking goes, can’t begin until things have been stripped down to the foundation.
But make no mistake: The process would be painful, as the Browns can attest.
“I see value in it, and I think it’s tough,” Cleveland coach Hue Jackson said of his team’s chosen path. “Losing is never easy for anybody. Nobody makes the decision to just lose and it wasn’t ours; we didn’t go into this saying we’d be 0-13 at this point. I think we’re all surprised, but we get it. We understand where we are and where we need to get to, because this is no fun. Let’s be honest, nobody is having fun right now. At the same time, if you can come out the other side, there’s a better tomorrow and that’s what we’re chasing.’’
Jackson thought he knew what he was getting himself into when he took the Browns’ job in January, but he admitted during a conference call with the Western New York media this week that he didn’t see the depths of the Browns’ despair reaching this level.
“No, I honestly did not. I was forewarned it could be, but I didn’t want to think that,” he said. “At the same time, what a tremendous opportunity. Nobody likes to lose and it’s tough, but if this is the pain we have to pay to have the reward at another time, I’m ready for that.”
Are the Bills? What about the team’s ever-loyal “mafia” of fans?
“As a fan, I'm not sure there's anything I can do BUT sign up for a rebuild if that's the direction ownership wants to go,” said Del Reid, one of the co-founders of The Bills Mafia, a fan group with more than 85,000 Twitter followers. “I guess I'm game for it, if that's what happens.”
With a season-ticket base again pushing 60,000, the Bills enjoy almost unwavering support from their fans. But with tickets being available for $6 on the secondary market for Sunday’s game, it’s clear that satisfaction with the current product is low. Surely, the woeful opponent, weather conditions and proximity to Christmas all factor into tickets being available for such an embarrassingly low amount, but there is no doubt that price is a reflection of the frustration that comes with being perpetually “in the hunt.”
“We didn’t deliver for our expectations this season, and certainly not for our fans,” linebacker Jerry Hughes said. “Their frustration is certainly understandable. They should have it. I mean, we’ve got to play better.”
That angst would reach a whole new level if the Bills managed to lose to the Browns. The two teams that share the shores of Lake Erie have also been a pair of the league's worst since the turn of the century. Fittingly, they’ve been involved in some memorably awful games.
There was the 8-0 Cleveland victory in a blizzard in 2007, then a 6-3 Browns win in Orchard Park in 2009. In that game, Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson completed two passes. Yes, two.
“Those are some of my best memories of my professional career,” said Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, a sobering thought if there ever was one.
The Browns are 85-184 since 2000, a winning percentage of .316 that is the worst in the NFL. The Bills are 111-158 over that time, a .413 winning percentage that is 28th in the league.
It’s been more than a calendar year since Cleveland won any kind of game, preseason included. Painful, indeed.
“I think we’re very realistic about what we’re trying to do, where we are and where we’re trying to head,” Jackson said. “More so than that, we try and focus on ourselves to make sure our process is right.”
For all the similarities between the Bills and Browns, there is one key difference between the two franchises. That is, the Browns have embraced a drastic rebuild, one the likes of which has rarely been seen here in Western New York.
A 3-13 season in 2015 represented rock bottom for Cleveland, and led to the firings of General Manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine. Owner Jimmy Haslam promoted Harvard-educated attorney Sashi Brown as the team’s Vice President of Football Operations. One of their first moves was to hire former baseball executive Paul DePodesta as the team’s “chief strategy officer.” DePodesta is known mostly for his reliance on analytics, a strategy made famous in the book “Moneyball.”
In an interview earlier this season with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Brown made it clear that analytics won’t be the sole determining factor for the Browns’ decisions, but would play a role in the process.
"We are relentless in our drive to uncover any competitive advantage," he said. "Some of that may be data-based analytics, but internally we just view it as research. We don't have all the answers, but we want to see what we can find."
The Bills, meanwhile, have never truly bottomed out. Even in 2010, when the team started 0-8, it closed 4-4, costing itself the potential first overall pick in the draft and quarterback Cam Newton.
“Admittedly, it's difficult to take big leaps forward when you're always drafting in the middle of the first round,” Reid said.
A huge part of Cleveland’s rebuild centered on the hiring of Jackson as coach. The former offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals had been a candidate for other head-coaching jobs, including with the Bills, and has received plenty of credit for the work he has done with quarterbacks, most recently Andy Dalton.
“One of the keys for any organization is continuity and having the opportunity to put your process in place. I’ve been very fortunate with the people here, Jimmy and Dee Haslam, that they are going to give me that opportunity,” Jackson said. “I feel very comfortable with the people I’m working with, that we all have the same vision, goal and we are headed toward the same direction.’’
Here in Buffalo, any total rebuild would have to start with the ouster of not only Ryan, but also General Manager Doug Whaley. The biggest question, however, would center on the status of President Russ Brandon. Given his steady rise in the Pegula Sports and Entertainment Empire, which includes holding the title of president of the Buffalo Sabres, Brandon has clearly gotten favorable reviews from his bosses for the work he’s done. The company line is that Brandon is not involved in “football decisions,” but that idea is a falsehood as long as he’s interviewing head-coaching candidates and taking pictures on the Pegula family yacht after signing Whaley to a contract extension. Those are the biggest football decisions an organization can make.
Brandon’s tenure dates back to November 1997, so it stretches the entirety of the playoff drought. So, too, does that of Jim Overdorf, a key member of the Bills’ front office in charge of negotiating player contracts. He’s been with the team for 30 years.
The Bills have often pointed to a lack of continuity inside the football department as being a part of the team’s on-field failures. That’s an easy case to make when considering that if Ryan is replaced, the team will have had six head coaches since 2009.
The fact is, though, that there has been continuity at the most senior levels of management.
One reason to start over, if Terry and Kim Pegula are so inclined, would be make sure the football department is on the same page. During Whaley’s tenure, there have been signs of a fractured working relationship with both former coach Doug Marrone and now Ryan. It must be concerning for the Pegulas that, an hour before a must-win game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 14, reports that Ryan could be fired as soon as the next day started to trickle out of New Era Field.
Those reports don’t just surface out of thin air – they’re emanating from somewhere inside One Bills Drive.
While a lot must be done to ultimately prove it is a success, say this for the Browns: At least they seem to be on the same page with their plan. The Bills’ plan, if they have one, seems to fluctuate depending on the day of the week.
“I definitely think this team and organization's headed in the right direction,” Thomas said. “Of course, they took the path of a very deep rebuild, which is their prerogative, and in the short term there's a lot of pain, but I think what they are doing is setting this team and this organization up for some long-term success.
“That's why I'm so optimistic about our future, because I think Jimmy Haslam has finally committed to this organization, this management team, this coaching staff, and he's going to see it through for several years, and it's going to give these coaches the ability to implement their system. These players we draft who maybe don't get it in the first year or their second year, have a chance to get it their third year and turn into productive players.”
Players under contract don’t necessarily have a choice, but electing to go through a rebuild isn’t always going to be met with a seal of approval like Thomas has given.
“I want to move forward,” Bills receiver Sammy Watkins said this week. “I don't want to keep going through all this craziness. … That kills the players, the team and the organization.”
Judging by the Browns’ results this season, Watkins is right. Opposing teams have nearly doubled Cleveland’s scoring output, 375-207, the second-fewest points scored and second-most points allowed in the league.
The Browns have an incredible 19 rookies on their 53-man roster. A total of 29 players have less than three years of NFL experience, more than half the team. Comparatively, the Bills have only five rookies on the roster and 13 players with less than three years of NFL experience.
Cleveland made the decision not to re-sign veterans like center Alex Mack, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, wide receiver Travis Benjamin and safety Tashaun Gipson, electing instead to fill out the roster with young players.
Jackson signed on for the rebuild only after basically turning around his own job interview and asking Haslam some tough questions.
“At the end of the day you take these jobs because people will support you through tough times,” he said. “It’s been a tough time, but their support has been unwavering. They share in the disappointment and heartache but they’ve showed me they’re made the right way and they’re the right people for me. There’s no going back, only moving forward.
“I think we’re closer to the other side more than people recognize. We’re in eye of the storm right now, we just got to get ready to come out the other side.’’
In Thomas, they have an ideal leader to help the young players on the roster navigate the choppy waters.
“I have a lot of pride in my own performance, and I've always been taught to do everything I can to help my team win and focus on that,” he said. “I think that's kind of been my mantra this season -- to focus on what I can do to help my team win. A lot of times it comes back to play as well as I possibly can, lead during the week, get these young guys on the offensive line up to speed as fast as possible. That's kind of been my goal rather than measuring my success or failure by the scoreboard every week.
If the Bills did opt for the Browns’ model, they have leaders in the locker room like Kyle Williams, Eric Wood and Corey Graham who could help to see it through.
“His frustrations are the same ones that I have, going out every week, laying it on the line, and most of the time just coming up a little bit short,” Williams said of Thomas. “He’s probably the same way I am. I’m just going to get prepared every day the best way I can, help my teammates prepare and just keep digging away, keep working until we do break the glass.
“If you have your preference, you’d want to avoid something like” a total rebuild, “but if that’s the cards you’re dealt and you still want to be part of the team, you go in and you prepare the best way you can and you help teach those guys. It’s hard to have a firm opinion on something that may or may not happen.”
Williams, who has one year remaining on his contract, reiterated his goal is to spend his entire career with the Bills.
“It’s important for me to be here, because even if I were to move on and go do good things or go to the playoffs somewhere else, it wouldn’t be as satisfying,” he said.
When the 2016 season started, the Browns had the second-youngest roster in the league at 25.08 years old, while the Bills were 22nd, at 26.3.
Going so young has opened up a massive amount of salary-cap space in Cleveland – an estimated $110 million for 2017, by far the most in the league. That gives the team the flexibility to do just about whatever it wants in free agency. By contrast, the Bills have an estimated $32 million in cap space, which is the ninth-lowest amount in the league.
Buffalo has a chance to get substantially younger this offseason with an NFL-leading 24 pending unrestricted free agents – 14 of whom have started at least one game this year. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, wide receiver Robert Woods, outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander and inside linebacker Zach Brown are just some of the names on that list.
Building through the draft
A series of trade downs at the 2016 draft netted the Browns a boatload of picks the next two years, including two each in the first two rounds of the 2017 draft. It’s possible Cleveland could have two of the top 10 picks – it’s own at No. 1 overall and Philadelphia’s, which right now is No. 9.
The Browns’ decision to build through the draft – which is hardly a novel concept for struggling teams – started in earnest this year, when all 14 of their drafted players made the 53-man roster.
“The more people that follow the draft, the more they realize the draft is kind of a crapshoot,” Thomas said. “It's a gamble, so the only way to give yourself the best chance to succeed in the draft is having more draft picks.
“The Browns’ organization was taking the path that had the highest probability of sustained long-term success, and that was to have some short-term pain, have some down years, but get the young talent that you need. Once you're within striking distance of being a good playoff team, then you sign a couple of good free agents, and now all of a sudden you can make your good five- to seven-year run.”
Draft capital is not something the Bills have a deep supply of. As it stands, they are scheduled to have seven draft picks in 2017, with two picks in the fifth round (they own Dallas’ fifth-round pick after the trade of Matt Cassel) and no fourth-rounder (which was traded to Chicago last year as part of the deal for Reggie Ragland). They may acquire additional compensatory draft picks after the season when the NFL awards them.
If the Bills want to add more ammunition, they’ll have to pursue trading down, or be willing to move players. Here are some potential trade targets other teams may be interested in.
• LeSean McCoy: The running back is well on his way to another Pro Bowl season, with nearly 1,300 yards from scrimmage and 11 total touchdowns in just 12 games. At 28, McCoy is on the older side for his position, but he keeps himself in excellent condition. He’s under contract for three more years, with base salaries of just about $6 million in each season. The Bills would only save about $1 million against the salary cap by trading McCoy, but he does play a position that is considered easy to find players.
• Hughes: He’s had run-ins with each of the last two head coaches, and has a maddening propensity to take personal-foul penalties. He’s due a roster bonus of $2 million on the fifth day of the league year, so the Bills would want to move him before that. Trading him would save the Bills $1.75 million on the 2017 salary cap. Hughes is under contract for three more years, with his base salary not exceeding $6.35 million during that time. Like McCoy, he would be affordable, and at 28, he should have a few more years of his prime remaining.
• Watkins: This might be the toughest name for fans to stomach, but remember, the idea is that the rebuild will be painful. Trading Watkins, who has one year left on his rookie contract, plus a team option for 2019, would save the Bills more than $3.1 million. If there are long-term concerns about his foot injury, moving on from Watkins could be a consideration.
• Wood: The veteran center will be coming back from his third major leg injury next season, but should be able to make a full recovery. Like Williams, he’s one of the Bills’ best leaders and may very well want to finish his career in Buffalo. He does have a reasonable price on his contract for a Pro Bowl performer, just $4.125 million in base salary for 2017, and the Bills could save $3.2 million in cap space by trading him.
• Richie Incognito: The left guard has been one of the best values in the league in the two years since the Bills brought him out of the NFL abyss following the bullying scandal in Miami. Incognito, who is one of Ryan’s biggest supporters, is one of the older players on Buffalo’s roster at 33. That may impact his desire to go through a deep rebuild, as would Ryan’s departure in that scenario.
Who plays quarterback?
One similarity between the rosters of the Browns and Bills is the apparent lack of a franchise quarterback on either.
Cleveland has started a hilarious 26 quarterbacks since 1999. That includes five different starters in the five games spanning the end of the 2015 season (Johnny Manziel and Austin Davis) and the three games to start this year (Robert Griffin III, Josh McCown and Cody Kessler). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s only the second time that has happened since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, joining the Atlanta Falcons in 1986-87.
The Browns held the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft and a guaranteed chance to land either of the consensus top-two quarterbacks in Jared Goff or Carson Wentz, but elected to move down to acquire more picks. That decision will be closely scrutinized as Wentz, who ultimately was available after Goff went No. 1, develops in Philadelphia. The Browns eventually drafted Cody Kessler in the third round. He’s made eight starts this season, with limited success.
“It’s still to be decided, but it’s a very important decision moving forward,” Jackson said when asked if his quarterback for future seasons might currently be on the roster. “We got to know who that guy is. If he’s here, we got to know that and if he isn’t, we got to know that, too. I think over these next several weeks we’ll get to that point where we’ll have a clear picture of what we need to do at that position.’’
The Bills find themselves in the exact same situation with Tyrod Taylor. His looming contract option has been a huge topic of discussion in recent weeks. If a full-scale rebuild were to occur, one of the first decisions the new front office will face is what to do with Taylor.
What would the Bills be looking at if they don’t elect to follow the Browns?
If continuity is more than a buzzword, it would mean Ryan is back for a third year, presumably along with Whaley and Taylor aboard, as well.
Ryan was on staff when the Ravens went through a rebuild back in 2002.
“I had one starter and one backup left and the rest of them were gone,” he said. “You name them, they’re all gone. And so after you cry a little bit, then you’ve got to realize that, ‘hey look, I’ve got to get to work.’ So we did. And we changed things up and you know, guys got better. I forget how we finished, but we were competitive as hell. I think that’s it. You know, you just try to get better each day, and that’s really how you approach it. No different than right now.”
Of course, the Ravens had won a Super Bowl in 2000, so their fans likely had a little more patience than Western New Yorkers might at the moment.
“At the end of the day, I just want to see this team succeed,” Reid said. “Whatever direction ownership wants to go, my hope is that they stick to it and follow through to the very best of their ability and not change it up halfway down the path.”