The Bills haven't made the playoffs since Doug Whaley officially took over for Buddy Nix as general manager in May of 2013. But it's not for lack of spending.
According to ESPN statistics, the Bills are seventh from the bottom of the NFL in available money under the salary cap. They have a bloated, top-heavy salary structure, the kind you'd expect from a team that had made a Super Bowl run.
Actually, Whaley has spent more on his high-end players than the team that won the Super Bowl. Let's take a quick look at what the Patriots committed at certain key positions this past year and compare it to where the Bills are for 2017:
All-world tight end Rob Gronkowski counted $6.6 million against the cap last season. The Bills have Charles Clay on the books for $9 million in 2017. Running back LeGarrette Blount was a $1 million bargain for the Pats. LeSean McCoy's cap figure for next season is a cool $8.8 million.
Alan Branch, a former Bill, was the Pats' top-paid defensive tackle at $2.75 million. Marcell Dareus is a $16.4 million cap hit next year. Jabaal Sheard, the Pats' top edge rusher, cost $6.8 million in cap space in '16; Jerry Hughes has a $10.45 million cap hit. Left tackle Nate Solder, $10.2 million last season; Cordy Glenn, $14.2 million cap hit in '17.
Even quarterback Tom Brady, at $13.8 million, had a lighter cap hit than the $15.9 million the Bills are facing if they kick in that extension for Tyrod Taylor.
New England paid the four members of its starting secondary, one of the best in the NFL, a combined $10.6 million last season. That's a shade less than the $11 million that Stephon Gilmore commanded in the final year of his original contract.
This a roundabout way of saying the Bills need to stop overpaying players and start operating more like the team that has dominated the AFC East for the last 16 seasons. Stop throwing top money at good players who have never won a thing in the league but expect to be paid like elite guys at their positions.
They can start, of course, with Gilmore, a decent cornerback who has spent more time lobbying to be paid like a star than actually performing like one.
On Wednesday, teams can slap franchise and transition tags on pending NFL free agents. Under a franchise tag, Gilmore would be paid the average of the top five players at the position, which would be roughly $14.3 million.
That's a ridiculous amount. Gilmore isn't close to a top five cornerback in the league. And even if he were, the Bills are at a point where they have to make tough decisions in the name of roster balance and fiscal sanity, the way Bill Belichick has done throughout the Pats' pesky whipper-snapper run of dominance.
The Pats have their financial issues, like any team. They have 13 unrestricted free agents (the Bills have 24), including six starters. Belichick will bid an impassive goodbye to some key players, as he always does. But they have $65 million in available cap space, an amazing amount for a team that has won two Super Bowls in three years.
Players compete for money. The free agent payoff is the contract of a lifetime. But over the last two years, it became tiresome hearing Gilmore declaring that he deserved to be paid like the top cornerbacks. He seemed to put his financial future ahead of the team. It certainly looked that way later in the year when he showed no appetite for sticking his head in against the run.
Gilmore is an indifferent tackler and a very good but inconsistent cover man. His game against the Jets in Week 2 was the worst I've ever seen by a Buffalo corner. He got torched repeatedly by Ryan Fitzpatrick and had several crucial penalties on third downs. He was also bad in losses to the Seahawks and Patriots. He got better as the year went on, but not $14.3 million better.
At one point, Gilmore whined about playing man-to-man in Rex Ryan's system, and how it left a cornerback exposed. Sure, he's better in zone, where there's more shared responsibility. But if you want elite money, shouldn't you be a willing, dominant man defender who relishes individual battles with the best wideouts ?
In the past, the Bills were often criticized for "not keeping their own "players," for refusing to pay the going price for their top free agents. There are times when it makes sense. But it's an even bigger mistake to overpay players to give the false appearance of a roster populated with stars.
That's what Sean McDermott inherited when he took over as coach last month. McDermott needs to change the culture, not by supporting knee-jerk raises, but by showing the financial restraint that allows you to build the roster depth required to survive a grueling NFL season and make a real playoff push.
McDermott is a former defensive coordinator. He's naturally inclined to look out for that side of the ball. He saw what happened when the Panthers let star cornerback Josh Norman get away to the Redskins in free agency for five years, $75 million. Carolina's defense fell all the way to 29th in pass defense without him.
Washington's pass defense was bad with Norman, too, so there's no guarantee the Panthers would have remained good if he stayed. McDermott had a reputation as a coordinator for getting results out of average defensive talents, and for making the whole be greater than the sum of the parts.
If McDermott is as smart as people think, he realizes how Whaley had mismanaged the roster and what needs to be done to correct it. The Bills should resist the urge to overpay Gilmore -- and Taylor, for that matter. Stop making moves that create a splash and do the smart, visionary things that create a winner.
They can continue to do it Whaley's way, or emulate the team that wins the division every year and just won another Super Bowl. Sounds like a pretty easy call to me.