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London Fletcher's retirement recalls perplexing 2003 Bills season

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Whenever someone reflects on the 2003 Buffalo Bills season, I marvel at that team's inability to win.

Over the years, I've reminisced with a few of those players. They'll throw up their hands as they rattle off the stars on that roster, especially on defense. In a Sports Illustrated Q&A piece that ran online this week, London Fletcher mentions their assistant head coach that year, future Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau, has the greatest football mind he's ever worked with.

Former Bills President Tom Donahoe gets a lot of grief around these parts, but he seemed to have assembled a sensational team that season.

The Bills shellacked the New England Patriots, 31-0, on opening day at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

But the Bills finished 6-10, eight games behind the Patriots and four games out of the wild-card derby. One team in the whole league scored fewer points, but only four allowed fewer points.

Let's stop for a moment and recall what those Bills looked like on paper.

Backfield

Running back Travis Henry had rushed for 2,794 yards and 23 touchdowns over the previous two seasons. Sammy Morris was his backup. Fullback Sam Gash was at the end of his career, but the two-time Pro Bowler was a formidable blocker.

Passing game

Quarterback Drew Bledsoe and receiver Eric Moulds were coming off Pro Bowl seasons. Moulds caught 100 passes for 1,292 yards and 10 TDs the year before. Josh Reed was entering his second season after a promising rookie campaign.

Offensive line

Left guard Ruben Brown was about to make his eighth straight Pro Bowl. Right tackle Mike Williams wasn't a full-fledged bust yet after being drafted fourth overall the previous year. This probably was Buffalo's thinnest unit, but it wasn't a smoldering wreck.

Defensive line

The defensive tackles were Sam Adams and Pat Williams, six career Pro Bowls between them. Backup defensive tackle Justin Bannan would play 12 NFL seasons. Right defensive end Aaron Schobel hadn't reached either of his two Pro Bowls yet, but he recorded an 11.5-sack season. Defensive end Chris Kelsay was entering the first of his 10 NFL seasons.

Linebackers

Two-thirds of the starting unit were Fletcher and Takeo Spikes, who would make his only two Pro Bowls with the Bills. They combined to play 31 NFL seasons, is all. The other linebacker was free-agent signee Jeff Posey, a new player many were excited about.

Secondary

The Bills had one of the NFL's best cornerback tandems in Antoine Winfield and Nate Clements. Terrence McGee was a rookie backup. When the Patriots made star safety Lawyer Milloy a surprise cut before the season began, the Bills signed him. All of the above were or would be Pro Bowlers.

Special teams

Rian Lindell was on his way to establishing himself as the most accurate kicker in club history. Brian Moorman, a future two-time Pro Bowler, was the punter. Jon Dorenbos, also a future Pro Bowler, was the long snapper.

Coaching staff

Third-year head coach Gregg Williams was coming off an 8-8 season. In addition to LeBeau, his staff included Kevin Gilbride as offensive coordinator and Jerry Gray as defensive coordinator. Gilbride has won two Super Bowl rings as the New York Giants' play-caller.

That's a slew of Pro Bowl talent that tied for last place in the AFC East.

The Bills escaped Week Seven with a 4-3 record but lost four straight games, won a couple to get to 6-7 -- and possibly make a late playoff run -- but then dropped their final three games.

The Bills parted ways with Williams after the season.

  • Jeff Bloom

    You give Donahoe credit - So why not mention that the BEST players on that D were holdovers from the John Butler era? nnAnd why not mention that he LET THEM become free agents and DID NOT make an effrot to resign them because they were not his guys!nnPat Williams and Winfield and even Clements for that matter went on to have great careers and were sorely missed by Buffalo.

  • WHAT?

    I was under the impression at the time that the offensive scheme from Gilbride that year simply did not work with the talent. Bledsoe was also fading very quickly. The defense should have been much better. I do believe that Williams had completely lost the team at that point. I always thought his behavior, with his methods changing dramatically from one year to the next. It also makes me wonder if have two assistants that are very highly thought of might have undermined Williams authority with the team, intentionally or not. It's absolutely impossible to say from here, this is all speculation based on past experience.

  • W.T. Beef

    Great article to save for the eternal optimists who pop up at the beginning of every season trying to convince everyone that this is the year the Bills will be back in the playoffs. Nobody circles the drain like the Buffalo Bills!

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About the reporters

Vic Carucci returned to The Buffalo News as a Bills beat reporter in September. Carucci covered the Bills for 17 years before joining NFL.com as a columnist in 1999. Prior to rejoining The News, he spent three years as a senior editor for the Cleveland Browns.

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida.