My, how they might have fallen – and I’m not talking about Michael Jordan

Once a proud franchise and the AFC representative in four consecutive Super Bowls during the early ’90s, the Buffalo Bills are now the owners of an abysmal 1-9 record, their worst start in 17 years. Their most recent home loss to the Miami Dolphins demonstrates just how far the Bills have fallen. Up 27-17 with just over eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Buffalo allowed the ‘Phins to mount a comeback capped by quarterback Jay Fiedler’s 32-yard touchdown pass to rookie wideout Chris Chambers. Going into Buffalo was once an imposing task for visiting teams, but with its most recent defeat , Buffalo has now lost five straight at home, tying its longest home losing streak since the mid-eighties. Say what you may about their Super Bowl troubles, but no one could have imagined such a swift fall from grace for a team that once represented the pinnacle of NFL football.

Utilizing the no-huddle offense to near perfection, the Bills went nearly unchallenged during their four-year reign atop the AFC. But after losing Super Bowl XXV by a single point (and a single foot), Buffalo was never able to mount a serious challenge in the Big Game. The following year, the Bills were picked apart by MVP Mark Rypien and the Washington Redskins (37-24), and then they ran into what turned out to be the Dallas Cowboys’ short-lived dynasty in SB XXVI and SB XXVII.

Because of their failures on football’s grandest stage, the accomplishments of such players as Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and the entire Buffalo organization have been largely, and undeservedly, unappreciated. To make four straight, much less back-to-back Super Bowls is no small feat in itself, as the Baltimore Ravens will readily tell you. To do so takes more than just great players, and that’s just what Kelly, Thomas and Smith were; it also takes a sophisticated scheme, excellent coaches and a devoted front office. Or, to put it more precisely, it takes an outstanding football organization.

But the Bills’ fall from grace has been long coming. The combination of allowing Thomas and Smith to sign with other teams, along with the retirement of Kelly and Head Coach Marv Levy, spelled out the Buffalo demise years ago. But it was a less publicized move that may have more to do with the current struggles in Buffalo: the departure of General Manager John Butler.

Although he received little or no credit during its championship drive, Butler masterfully brought in the right players for the Bills’ system and resigned those who were needed. One only needs to look at Butler’s new team, the San Diego Chargers, to see the type of impact he can have on a franchise. Taking over a 1-15 team, Butler traded away the top pick in the draft (Michael Vick), picked up stud running back LaDainian Tomlinson and also managed to draft the #2 available QB in Purdue’s Drew Brees. But Butler wasn’t done yet. He then went out and signed Doug Flutie and Marcellus Wiley (two former Bills) and filled the Chargers’ vacancies at cornerback with Ryan McNeil and Alex Molden. All these Butler-led changes have helped San Diego to a stunning 5-6 record thus far this season.

So, while the Chargers are enjoying one of the greatest turnarounds in NFL history, Buffalo is left with much maligned Rob Johnson (instead of Flutie) as its starting quarterback. And while San Diego’s future looks bright, Buffalo is left to contemplate whom it should take with the #2 pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. But the Bills have already made a decision that no draft pick can cover up: the decision to hire someone other than John Butler as their General Manager.