During his years in Buffalo, John Butler would occasionally run into former Bills employees in his travels. Often, they told how relieved they were to no longer be working for a meddlesome owner like Ralph Wilson.
"They said it was like the weight of the world was lifted off their shoulders," the Bills' former general manager said Friday. "Now I know what they meant. I feel great. I never, ever would have believed it when I got let go, but I tell people now that it worked out for the best. It's like one chapter of my life got closed and a new one opened."
That old book is still open a crack, though. It's been a week for revisiting old story lines, for dredging up past resentments. Sunday, Butler's new team, the Chargers, will take on the Bills in a game his former employer has declared more important than winning the Super Bowl.
Butler remained silent until now. Friday afternoon, 10 months after Wilson fired him, Butler finally shot back. Maybe he's happy, but Butler clearly hasn't gotten over the circumstances of his departure. He is bitter at Wilson for painting him as a traitor who saddled the Bills with an onerous salary cap problem and conspired to get the Chargers GM job so he wouldn't have to clean up his own mess.
He insists he had no arrangement in place with San Diego when Wilson fired him before the last game of the regular season in December. And he said it's ludicrous to think any financial decisions were made without Wilson's knowledge and consent.
"He is the owner of the football team," Butler said. "He is an astute businessman. He had people surrounding him, too. (Treasurer) Jeff Littmann is so knowledgeable on the finances of the salary cap, it's unbelievable. He is really intelligent. I mean, he knows it inside and out. Mr. Wilson relied heavily on him to tell him exactly where we were at.
"There's no question there were times when we were right up against the cap, or pushing it into next year. But there was always a feeling we'd work things out to put the top product possible on the field for the fans. Mr. Wilson would say, "I know this is putting us in a terrible cap bind, but I want that player. I may not be around much longer.' . . . He wants to win badly. But he knew about all these particular things. So when you put all the onus on one person, I hope people are smart enough to know I did not have that type of power to determine how millions of dollars were spent on that football team."
It's sad it had to come to this. Butler was with the Bills from 1987 to 2000, as college scouting director, player personnel chief and general manager. They made the playoffs 11 times in his 14 seasons. Bills fans should recall Butler with fondness, not regret.
"I think it's very sad," Butler said. "Because I'm going to tell you right now, my animosity for him does not run as deep as it did when this started out. I will always, always appreciate the time he afforded me there."
A.J. Smith, San Diego's pro personnel director, was not so kind. Smith, who held the same position with the Bills until the Butler firing, has nothing but antipathy for his former boss.
"Look," Smith said, "as soon as John was out of there, (Wilson) was trying to give the community and the nation the idea that his ex-general manager screwed up the cap, jumped ship on him, took another job in the middle of the night and left them behind."
Butler denies his hiring by San Diego was a fait accompli. He said he would have stayed in Buffalo if Wilson had acted differently. I believe him. He was severely underpaid for years relative to his stature in the league. If Wilson had come to him a year earlier, ready to make him one of the richest GMs in the NFL, Butler probably would have taken it.
But Wilson didn't consider Butler a chief executive. He didn't have the president's title and the extra duties, like Bill Polian in Indianapolis or Carl Peterson in Kansas City. He saw him as simply a football guy. When he made an offer to Butler late last season, he gave him the average of the top GMs - excluding the CEOs.
The way I saw it, Butler was like a free agent player. He knew he was going to be a hot commodity and he was looking for a show of respect. The Chargers eventually gave it to him, signing him for five years and roughly $5 million.
Wilson brought in Tom Donahoe to be his CEO type, the first man to serve him as president and GM. So, in a sense, both Wilson and Butler got what they wanted. It's too bad that a great 14-year run has to be tainted by their petty little feud. It would be so much nicer if they could shake hands, thank each other for 14 great years and put this behind them.
Butler made his mistakes. He overpaid for a number of midlevel veterans, such as John Holecek, Henry Jones and John Fina. That was the price of keeping Wilson in the hunt for a championship longer than he could have expected.
"See, Buffalo is a unique place," Butler said. "Football is 365 days a year; people love the game inside and out. The team in the last 14 or 15 years has brought national recognition to that city, to that ownership. When we were getting ready to go to our fourth Super Bowl, the salary cap started. We had a lot of fine players then, and we tried to keep our core. We did everything we could to make that a tremendously strong team. But that cost a lot of money. We knew sometimes it was going to catch up to us."
Sooner or later, they were going to pay. That doesn't make Butler a villain or a bad executive. If the Bills had gotten to the Super Bowl in '98 or '99, and even won it, I don't imagine Wilson would have been complaining.
He'd have confronted his cap troubles with a big smile on his face.
Butler would have been a hero in Buffalo. Instead of tearing him down, the fans would have considered building him a statue.