LeSean McCoy’s time with the Buffalo Bills is over.
In a move best described as surprising but not quite shocking, the team released the veteran running back Saturday as part of its roster reduction to 53 players.
General Manager Brandon Beane called the decision to part with his highest-profile player “tough.”
“Sometimes it comes to where you have competition and a good player has to go,” Beane said on a conference call with reporters. “We said it all along: There were going to be some tough decisions. It doesn’t get much tougher than cutting a guy with (McCoy’s) production.”
A six-time Pro Bowler, McCoy has 10,606 career rushing yards, 1,394 short of his stated goal of 12,000. If he gets there, he'll become just the 17th running back in NFL history to reach that total, strengthening his case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His future in Buffalo, however, has been the source of speculation since the end of the 2018 season -- which was the worst of his 10-year career. He had career lows with 514 rushing yards and an average carry of 3.2 yards. That production was not in line with his salary, which was scheduled to be $9.05 million in 2019.
That speculation intensified when the Bills added veteran running backs Frank Gore, T.J. Yeldon and Senorise Perry in free agency, then reached a fever pitch when the team selected Florida Atlantic running back Devin Singletary in the third round of the NFL Draft.
Publicly, the Bills continued to stand by McCoy. On the night Singletary was drafted, General Manager Brandon Beane cut off the obvious question about McCoy before it could even be asked.
"LeSean McCoy is still here. Before you ask that question, he's still the starter," Beane said early on the morning of April 27. "We roll the ball out, there's no questions about that. Devin, he'll come in here and compete. Wherever he slots when we get ready to play games is where it'll end up being."
That public stance didn't deter continued speculation.
On the first day of training camp at St. John Fisher College, Beane again offered a similar comment when asked to clarify McCoy's status, given the speculation wasn't going away.
"I mean there’s not any inside noise, so outside, it is what it is," he said. "A lot of it comes from nobody playing football. People got jobs to do, a lot of you guys. That’s one of the topics.
“When LeSean and Brian Daboll roll the ball out, LeSean is going to be the first running back to touch the ball. That’s the way we see it. Like I said, we’ve added depth, we’ve added competition at running back and a lot of other spots, but we anticipate that he’s handled the challenge all through the spring. I think he sees the competition and he hasn’t shown that he is afraid of it or he’s got a problem with it. That’s where it sits."
Things changed after training camp and four preseason games, though. A clue to the Bills’ thinking could be found in the third preseason game – traditionally the one seen as the “dress rehearsal” for the regular season. McCoy carried six times for 37 yards in that game, while Singletary took his lone carry 9 yards to the end zone. In hindsight, it certainly looks like the Bills knew what they had in the rookie.
“We believe in LeSean, and still believe he can play, but you know, you can't look at every decision in a vacuum,” Beane said Saturday. “After the draft, you know, you get a guy like Devin Singletary, who we were excited about, but some guys transition faster, some guys transition slower. That's one of the decisions – who is ready in that running back group to contribute right away?
“We just felt right now that Devin would be able to help us along with the other guys that we're keeping. So that all went into this decision. Again, it was very difficult. I believed in LeSean the whole time. It was down to the last minute that we decided to go in this direction.”
The Bills save $6.175 million by releasing McCoy, who was entering the final year of his contract. They will carry $2.875 million in dead money on the cap.
Beane described McCoy as “frustrated” by Saturday’s decision. The running back kept a low profile during the spring, speaking to reporters just once during training camp – on the final day. He reiterated what he told The Buffalo News' Vic Carucci in June – that he still expected to be the Bills' starting running back. McCoy did acknowledge the speculation that surrounded him, though.
"So many whispers about this and that, kind of about myself, about my game," he said. "It's kind of weird. Since I've been like 9 years old, I've been like the top guy, so it was even weird to hear stuff like that. But it comes along with it."
Earlier on the night Singletary was drafted, the Bills selected Oklahoma offensive lineman Cody Ford with their second-round pick. McCoy tweeted a congratulations to him, but didn’t do so when Singletary was chosen.
“He put his best foot forward this whole camp, this whole offseason. I thought he handled it well, the added competition,” Beane said. “He never said anything negative to me, so that's all I'm going to go off of. But it was a competition. We made that clear with everyone.”
Speculation about McCoy’s future with the Bills dates back to last season. With the team 2-7 at the NFL trade deadline, the veteran running back was the topic of several rumors. Beane said Saturday that there were a few inquiries made at last year’s deadline into McCoy, but nothing that ever amounted to anything serious.
Once the 2018 season ended, the Bills committed to keeping McCoy through free agency and the draft, because they didn’t want to create another hole on their roster knowing that they wanted to invest significantly on upgrades to the offensive line and at wide receiver. That put any trade talks surrounding McCoy on hold until very recently.
Once the decision was made that McCoy was no longer in the team’s plans, Beane did make some calls to see if there were any interested parties.
“Guys that have skins on the wall like him, you definitely check around,” he said. “We did our due diligence. I'm not going to go into where and how and all that, just as we've looked around for players. ... Yes, we did look around to see if there was the right fit, but we did not find that. That was in the very last, I'm going to call it the 23rd hour. This decision really came down all the way to this morning.”
The website Pro Football Talk reported Saturday that the Bills did not ask McCoy to take a pay cut. Beane declined to address that when asked about it on the conference call.
“I really don't want to get into it, what we did,” he said. “We did check around with some teams. This gives him a chance to kind of choose his destination as well, which, you know, I think he's earned that right, as well.”
Nationally, McCoy was the Bills’ most recognizable player. Beane mentioned that some of McCoy’s younger teammates probably grew up playing with him on the “Madden” video game series, and that for them, Saturday’s move might be their first realization of the cold nature of business in the NFL.
“This is not the first tough decision that the Buffalo Bills have had to make. I'm sure there will be plenty more,” Beane said. “They're not easy. The thing that the Pegulas have asked me to do is always make the best decision for the Buffalo Bills. That's every move we're making. Some of them work out great and some of them don't. We'll see on this one.”
Would the Bills’ general manager really have passed on trading away McCoy to a destination the running back may have found undesirable? If so, that wouldn’t always be making the best decision for the Bills.
More likely, there were no takers for a 31-year-old running back coming off his worst professional season.
“Last year, I don't fault LeSean,” Beane said. “I think our offense just never got in a rhythm for a lot of reasons. You can put some of that on me. Probably a lot of it. We weren't good enough up front, and it kind of snowballed from there. Hence the moves that we did this offseason. I really thought LeSean earned the right to come back in here and compete. I appreciate what he did up until today. I've got nothing but positive things to say about LeSean McCoy.
Beane said that McCoy’s age didn’t factor into their decision.
“I don't get caught up into that. I know 30 is that number, especially for running backs, that people, especially in the analytics world, throw up a firestorm about,” he said. “I just try and grade the players.”
That was proven when he signed Gore, 36, to a one-year deal.
“It's not like I was extending a guy that's 30-something years old to a three- or four-year deal,” Beane said. “You're talking about him and Frank, both were on one-year deals. You take it one year at a time when you're on a one-year deal. There was every bit of chance that we kept both those guys. It was never where I was going in saying that we're only going to keep one of the 30-year-old backs. There was a lot of scenarios where we kept them both.”
McCoy's best season in Buffalo came in 2016, when he rushed for 1,267 yards and 13 touchdowns on 234 carries – a career-best 5.4 yards per rush. The following year, he gained 1,138 yards on 287 carries, helping the Bills to a 9-7 record and a playoff berth – ending a 17-year postseason drought that was the longest in North American professional sports.
Off the field, McCoy's tenure with the Bills was eventful. Shortly after being traded to Buffalo, he intimated that race was a contributing factor in former Eagles coach Chip Kelly's decision to move on from certain players. McCoy was also involved in bar brawl in Philadelphia in 2016. He recently had to pay $55,000 to an off-duty Philadelphia police officer who was injured in the incident.
Last summer, McCoy was at the center of explosive allegations made by a friend of his ex-girlfriend, Delicia Cordon. McCoy was accused of physically abusing not only Cordon, but also his son and dog. He has denied the allegations, and an NFL investigation into the matter continues.
Story topics: LeSean McCoy