The bottom line is he didn't.
It's effortless for a fan to use those three words, or terms such as "in hindsight" or "the draft is one big crap shoot."
To some extent it is. Not even the most peerless draft guru knows exactly what they’re getting when the card is turned in. Some players exceed expectations. Some never live up to them.
But the best teams in the league are the ones that are right more than they’re wrong. Take Indianapolis for example. They’ve become regular contenders every season due large in part to successful drafting. Sure, they already had Manning, Edge and Harrison in tow as well as Reggie Wayne. But they built an entire defense between 2002-04 around the draft. During that span they took Dwight Freeney eleventh overall, a move many considered a reach. He wasn’t and look at other players the Colts grabbed during that three-year span: Larry Triplett (42nd), Mike Doss (58), Robert Mathis (138), Cato June (198) and Bob Sanders (44).
For the prototypical fan who's hobby is mock drafting, you have nothing to lose. When you’re the general manager of a NFL football team, it's your job. Let me emphasize that again.. it’s your job. It’s what your compensated to do and do well. If my column calls for the Bills to take Mike Williams and he’s a bust, shame on me.
When Donahoe selects Williams and he’s a bust, shame on the entire organization.
There’s abundant reasons the Buffalo Bills are sitting in a very unappealing position in 2006 and Donahoe has his signature on most of them. But if you want to put your finger one specific reason, your examination will start and end with the 2002 NFL draft.
I won't commence the second guessing until after laying out some ground rules. It's elementary to say he should have taken this guy or that. First, certain circumstances need to be put in place.
* Realistic selections- In retrospect, Buffalo should have taken Freeney. Thirty one other teams should have as well. The fact was not a single GM in the league were going to take Freeney fourth overall. He wasn't rated that high, not by Buffalo or any other team. Indianapolis wouldn’t have taken him fourth. Most well publicized mock drafts had him going in the second half of the first round. You can argue a scenario of trading down for him, but then that would REALLY be hindsight.
* Team needs - This won’t help Donahoe much. Coming off a 3-13 season, what didn’t they need? There wasn’t a player on the board Buffalo shouldn’t have explored. The best talent at each pick made perfect sense.
* Timely picks- You can only put a claim on someone else being taken if he was selected within eight picks after the Bills choice.
Distinguished teams always seem to find outstanding players past the first round. When Buffalo went on its Super Bowl run in the early 1990’s it was built on solid drafting. Nate Odomes and Thurman Thomas were second round picks. Don Beebe went in the third. Andre Reed and Leon Seals were fourth rounders. Howard Ballard didn’t go til round 11.
So without further ado, a closer look at the Tom Donahoe led draft of 2002.
First Round (fourth overall)
At this pick, Buffalo was to take either a franchise offensive tackle, defensive end or safety. Donahoe selected Mike Williams. From a necessity perspective it made good sense.
Unfortunately, Williams will be looking for work in a matter of weeks. Everyone knows the inability of Williams to stay healthy and the unstable play when he was. He’s been beaten out of his spot by an undrafted, converted tight end (Jason Peters).
Bryant McKinnie was running neck and neck on draft boards with Williams. Today, McKinnie is a well established left tackle with Minnesota. You do the math.
Buffalo could’ve also went safety at this choice (Pierson Prioleau and Tony Driver were starters then) and selected Roy Williams. Both went within four picks after "Big" Mike.
(When you pick at the top, you simply can’t afford to miss. It can set your franchise back for years. Look at Cleveland. Compared to the Browns. In a three-year span the Brownies took Tim Couch and Courtney Brown first overall and chose Gerald Warren third. Did you know the Browns could’ve had Donavan McNab, Chris Samuels and LaDainian Tomlinson instead, just by filling out their draft cards differently?)
Second Round (36th overall) -
Peerless Price was still a year away from his breakout season, but in 2001 he had 895 yards and seven touchdowns receiving. While Josh Reed came with rave reviews from LSU, a third receiver was hardly what the club needed this high in the second round.
(This is as worthy a time as any to write this. Even after signing Trey Teague prior to the draft, the Bills offensive line was deplorable. Jonas Jennings started 12 games as a rookie and played well at tackle. After that, you had an aging Ruben Brown and a line filled out by the likes of Bill Conaty, Mike Houghton, Marcus Price and Marquis Sullivan. Progressing the rehabilitation of the offensive line should’ve been Donahoe's biggest priority. Even if Williams was the horse Donahoe counted on, one guy wasn't going to shape up that unit.)
Donahoe went with Reed and four years later, never panned out.
Eight slots after Reed, New Orleans was on the board. They selected a guard. His name was LeCharles Bentley.
Round 2 (61st overall)
This would have been a more suitable spot to go receiver after taking two starting lineman with the first pair of selections. Buffalo instead went for an undersized defensive end, Ryan Denney. In four years, he produced 10.5 sacks and a pair of fumbles. Now an unrestricted free agent, it's debatable he's even wanted back.
Interestingly, three wide receivers went in the next four picks after Denney; Antwan Randle El, Antonio Bryant and Deon Branch. Take your pick.
Round 3 (97th overall)
Prioleau and Driver didn't induce memories of Ronnie Lott so it's hard to fault the selection of Coy Wire based on need. The only problem is that in four years Wire has done next to nothing with the club. That is unless you count five career sacks and no interceptions as good value. Just one year after his selection, Donahoe paid big money to bring in Lawyer Milloy. Total waste of a pick.
This could’ve been a good spot to go defensive end. Chidi Ahanotu and Grant Irons were on the other side of Aaron Schobel. Seven picks following Wire, Chicago took an end from Florida named Alex Brown. He's worked out pretty well.
For those keeping score at home.. That's Mike Williams, Josh Reed, Ryan Denney and Coy Wire on day one. It's likely none of them will be a Buffalo Bill in 2006.
For the woulda, coulda, shoulda fans, you're browsing at Bryant McKinnie, LeCharles Bentley, Deon Branch and Alex Brown.
(Just as a refresher, every one of those picks were positions of need and picked in the same round, within eight spots of Buffalo’s choices.)
Adding insult to draft day injury, the fifth round saw Donahoe decide on a defensive tackle. Justin Bannan was brought in to provide depth behind Pat Williams. Six picks later Seattle also took a tackle. His name is Rocky Bernard.
Rounding out the draft class of 2002 are Kevin Thomas, Mike Pucillo, Rodney Wright, Jarret Ferguson and Domique Stevenson. By the time free agency is over, the possibility is not a single player drafted will be on this roster.
What do Tiki Barber, Steve Smith, Tom Brady, Clinton Portis and Hines Ward have in common? Well besides being on playoff teams, none were taken in the first round they year they turned pro. Again, celebrated teams know when to find great pros at all levels of the draft.
With the exception of Terrence McGee (fourth round in 2003) you can plead Donahoe’s never executed that.. once.
Donahoe's bumbling in 2002 wasn't restricted to draft day mistreatment. He pulled off a trade on April 21, 2002 that sent shock waves through Buffalo. He traded their first round pick in 2003 to New England for Drew Bledsoe.
The trade came with much hype. Three years and zero playoff games later, we recognize how that worked out. Then again, if you put Bentley and McKinnie on a line for him that likely isn’t the case.
Coulda, woulda, shoulda.
There's an irony in Bledsoe. Great organizations place a wager with quarterbacks even if they don't make sense to fans at the time. The Rams took Kurt Warner when nobody wanted him and they won a Super Bowl. Tampa Bay took Brad Johnson when nobody wanted him and they won a Super Bowl. The Giants took Kerry Collins when nobody wanted him and they went to the Super Bowl.
My point? There was a restricted free agent in 2002 nobody, including his own team coveted. No team even made him an offer, an offer New Orleans wouldn’t have matched. They already had Aaron Brooks. He went on to throw 10 passes in four games that season, became unrestricted and eventually signed with Carolina. His name was Jake Delhomme.
Coulda, woulda, shoulda.
Donahoe's free agent moves in ‘02 were nothing to write home about. While the signing of London Fletcher was quite the coup, he made up for it by signing the likes of Chris Watson, Charles Johnson and Eddie Robinson as free agents, and trading for Charlie Rogers.
To make matters worse, Donahoe dropped the ball again in '03. Bledsoe was sacked 54 times in 2002, due in part to a guard tandem of Ross Tucker, Mike Pucillo and Marquis Sullivan. Picking 23rd and with guard Eric Steinbach on the board, he passed.
Despite Travis Henry running for 1,438 yards and 13 scores the year before, Donahoe used his first round pick on another running back. Willis McGahee would have been a top three pick, but blew his knee out in the BCS championship versus Ohio State and would miss at least a year. This was Donahoe’s most futile attempt at showing the world he was smarter than everyone else.
Meanwhile, another running back would finish his collegiate career with 5,045 all purpose yards, breaking his school's record. He went four picks after McGahee. Today he is known as "LJ." Back then he was just Larry Johnson.
Coulda, woulda, shoulda.
(Of all the discreditable things Donahoe did, this one still gets me the most. You have a gun slinging quarterback, a power back who goes for over 1,400 yards, and two receivers who grab 194 passes combined the year before. Now it’s far too early to tear down McGahee. He can still become one of the best in the league. But if you're going offense in the first round, how could you NOT consider the best offensive lineman available your top priority? Steinbach was the perfect fit in this situation. It was just another in a extensive stream of Donahoe’s stupid mistakes)
Here’s the biggest satire. At the time of '02 draft, Buffalo was the talk of the league. This is what Sports Illustrated's "Dr. Z" had to say about the Bills.
"Is it fair to count Drew Bledsoe? I mean, the deal was done on a draft day. But my gosh, look at the help they're giving him -- Mike Williams, 375 pounds of tackle, and Josh Reed, the Fred Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver who could have been a first rounder. They got him in Round 2. Their second pick in the same round, Ryan Denney, is a 6-foot-7 DE with great potential. Coy Wire in the third round is a good, sturdy, Adam Archuleta-type safetyman. Hell of a draft to go with the big trade. Grade ... A "
Anyone can judge how good a player is coming out of college. Only the finest general managers can translate it to a professional level.
That’s where the problem lies. Guys like Dr. Z are paid big bucks to analyze and critique football drafts. Tom Donahoe was paid big bucks to be successful at it.
He failed miserably and though he’s since departed, we're still paying for it today.