London Fletcher's retirement recalls perplexing 2003 Bills season
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.