Since the departure of Jim Kelly in 1997, it’s safe to say the Buffalo Bills have had a “rough go”. Now in year 14 of their postseason drought, current QB E.J. Manuel is the 10th starter since the K-Gun era.
We’ll take a look at the 17 years since Jim Kelly retired, looking at each of the 10 starting quarterbacks for the Bills – from Todd Collins to present-day E.J. Manuel. We’ll evaluate each player’s contract to determine how much money each player earned as a starting QB for the Bills, then compare to the number of wins each were able to produce.
Not only was he the perfect fit for the Buffalo community, but he was the perfect leader for a Buffalo Bills franchise. Kelly started all 160 games over his 10 NFL seasons, earning $28.715M in total. Since his retirement, only 3 Bills’ starters have earned less per start than the $179,468.
Related: View Jim Kelly’s Contract Breakdowns (premium)
The Next 10
The Bills’ have “missed” in pretty much every possible method of acquiring talent: be it a high draft pick (JP Losman), a blockbuster trade (Drew Bledsoe), a high-risk with no clear possible return trade (Rob Johnson), a fan-friendly free agent signing (Doug Flutie), or a value draft pick in hopes of a steal (Trent Edwards). At one point they even attempted to make their 6 year backup QB the next starter of the future (Alex Van Pelt). The process hasn’t come without excitement to say the least.
Why 2013 Was Different
The selection of E.J. Manuel, though a reach at #16 overall in many experts eyes, comes at a much lower risk in terms of their long-term financial future. The strict rookie wage scale implemented in the 2011 CBA gave teams peace of mind with their draft picks – knowing to the dollar what each should cost before the selection is even made. While Manuel’s $8,885,300 is fully guaranteed – it’s only $8,885,300. In 2009, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Josh Freeman with the #17 overall selection, and signed him to a 5 year $26 million contract – an average of $5.2M per season. Manuel’s truncated rookie-scale contract takes some of the pressure off the Bills organization – especially in the instance that he doesn’t pan out long term.
Related: View NFL Draft Signings Since 2005
Financial Breakdown of Bills’ Starting QBs Since 1997
||Earnings As a Starter
|Alex Van Pelt
In 1997 the Buffalo Bills found their first taste of life without Jim Kelly, turning the keys over to 3rd year quarterback Todd Collins, whom they selected in the 2nd round of the 1995 draft. Collins started 13 games that season, winning 5 games, while throwing 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He earned $393,000 for his efforts. Alex Van Pelt started the Bills remaining three games, as the Bills missed the playoffs for just the second time since 1998. He was cut by the Bills following the season, picked up by the Chiefs, and would play 9 more NFL seasons – but starting just 4 more games.
Now reeling at the QB position, the Bills moved quickly in the pending offseason, trading their 1st and 4th round picks in the upcoming 1998 draft to acquire Rob Johnson from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Johnson signed a 5 year $25 million contract and was immediately announced the starting QB for the upcoming season. But Johnson’s career as a starter ended quickly, as the well-paid acquisition suffered a Week 1 concussion, and a Week 5 tear to his rib cartilage. Johnson Went a respectable 3-3 in 1998, throwing 8 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions while completing nearly 63% of his passes. But the injuries allowed for the Bills’ other offseason acquisition, Doug Flutie, to take the field. Flutie started 10 games in 1998, posting a 7-3 record, while throwing for 20 TDs, and rushing for another. He led the Bills back into the postseason and recapture the fan-base along with it. Flutie earned just $275,000 for his 1998 efforts, while Rob Johnson brought in a whopping $8.85M as an oft-injured backup.
Flutie signed a 4 year $21.8 milion prior to the 1999 season. He held onto the starting role and led the Bills to a 10-5 start before head coach Wade Phillips made the call to give the reigns back to Rob Johnson. It’s been widely reported that the decision came from the late Ralph C. Wilson, assumedly forcing Phillips to play the man being paid in an effort to save face on the risky acquisition/signing. While Johnson would win easily in Week 17, the Bills would be ousted from the playoffs in the wild card round, thanks to the now infamous "Music City Miracle". Flutie $6,400,000 as the starter for much of the season, while Johnson reeled in $1,750,000.
Johnson maintained the "starting" role into the 2000 season, but injuries and poor play found him in only 12 games, the rest of which were given to Doug Flutie. Johnson’s production dipped rapidly this season, completing just 57% of his passes while throwing for 12 TDS in 11 starts. Flutie wasn’t much better in his 5 starts, also completing just 57% of his passes while throwing for 8 TDs and rushing for another. All things considered, the Bills decided to part ways with Flutie after the 2000 season after earning $2.99M, to Johnson’s $4.25M. The release of Flutie left $4,706,667 in dead salary cap for the upcoming 2001 season.
The decision to release Flutie gave Johnson room to breathe in the start of the 2001 season. The Bills picked up his $800,000 option bonus, bringing his 2001 earnings to an even $4 million. He would start the first 8 games, throwing just 5 TDs, and 7 INT before giving way to long-time backup QB Alex Van Pelt. Van Pelt finished the season adequately, posting 12 TDs, 11 INTs, and a 58% completion pecentage. Realizing the Bills were no better off with or without him, Rob Johnson was released following the 2001 season, leaving behind $5,075,250 in dead salary cap for the upcoming year.
Now back at square one, the Bills made a splash in hopes of replenishing their most important position. On April 22, 2002, the Bills traded their 2003 1st round draft pick to acquire veteran QB Drew Bledsoe from the New England Patriots, who had signed a blockbuster 10 year $103 million contract just a year prior. Bledsoe performed well in 2002, completing nearly 62% of his passes while throwing for 4,400 yards, 24 TDs and 14 INTS. Bledsoe earned $5,000,000 with the Bills in 2002.
Now confident with their veteran QB, the Bills entered the 2003 on an upswing, starting the season 2-0. But injuries across the board factored heavily into a late season plummet and the Bills compiled a 6-10 season. Bledsoe’s numbers dropped considerably due to the loss of his many weapons, totaling just 2,860 yards, 11 TDs, and 12 INTs over 16 full games. He earned $5.5M for the season.
Eyebrows across the NFL nation were raised during the first round of the 2004 Draft, when the Bills traded back in to select Tulane QB J.P. Losman with the #22 overall pick. Clearly Buffalo was preparing for the decline of Bledsoe’s career, hoping Losman would be the next man in. The Bills also restructured Bledsoe’s monster contract down to a 3 year $18.5 million deal. Bledsoe would go on to start every game in the 2004 season, throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and 20 TDs as the Bills fell one game short of the postseason. Losman was used sparingly throughout the year, but was kept at bay for the most part. Financially speaking Bledsoe would earn $8.75 million in the 2004 season, his last paycheck from the Bills. Losman reeled in $1.078M during his first year in the league.
The Bills parted ways with Drew Bledsoe on February 22, 2005, adding $4,333,334 in dead salary cap to their upcoming season.. The move gave J.P. Losman the keys to the truck in just his 2nd NFL season, and exercised a $4.17 million option bonus on his contract as well. He would go on to start the first 8 games of the season, posting a miserable 49% completion rate, 1,300 yards passing, 8 TDS and 8 INTs
before being benched in place of Kelly Holcomb. Holcomb went 4-4 in the final 8 games of the season, completing nearly 68% of his passes, while earning a fraction ($2,665,000) of Losman’s $4.475M 2005 cash.
A new front-office and head coach brought in new chances for everyone in 2006, and in the end, JP Losman regained the starting QB role. He would start all 16 games in 2006, completing nearly 63% of his passes, while throwing for 19 TDs and running in another. But a 7-9 record didn’t sit well in Buffalo, and this proved to be the beginning of the end for Losman, who earned $993,500 for the season.
The Bills began the process all over again in 2007, selecting Stanford QB Trent Edwards #92 overall in the 3rd round. Despite the new competition, Losman again won the starting role out of camp. He’s play the first 7 weeks before injuring his knee against the Patriots. The absence gave Edwards an opportunity to start, and he didn’t look back from there. Edwards compiled a 5-4 record through the remainder of the 2007 season, throwing for 1,600 yards, and 7 TDs. Losman earned $1.8M for his half season of work, while Edwards brought in $916,000.
The job was now clearly Edwards’ entering the 2008 season, and he did not disappoint, leading the Bills to a 4-0 start. He was heavily concussed in Week 5 against the Arizona Cardinals, came back for a Week 7 win, but would be injured again late in the season as the Bills dropped 8 of 10 matches. This was the beginning of the end for Edwards’ winning ways in Buffalo., who earned just $570,000 for his bumpy season, a third of what backup Losman reeled in ($1,900,000).
Injuries plagued Edwards throughout the 2009 season. Combined with inconsistent play, he would start just 7 games before giving way to newly signed backup Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick would start 5 of the Bills 6 wins in 2009, hypothetically signing the release form for Trent Edwards out of Buffalo. Edwards earned $660,000 for his bumpy 2009 season, while Fitzpatrick brought in $2.99M (thanks to a $1.17M signing bonus).
Surprisingly, Edwards won the starting role out of camp, beating out Fitzpatrick and newly acquired Brian Brohm. But with just 152 yards passing through two weeks, Edwards’ was benched, and released just a few days later. The move meant Fitzpatrick would have the reigns from here out. While the wins weren’t piling up, statistically speaking Fitzpatrick performed well. He threw for 3,000 yards, 23 TDs and 15 INT to finish out the 2010 season, while earning $2,365,000.
Now supplanted in the starting role, Fitzpatrick had a productive but not efficient 2011 season for the Bills. He threw for 3,800 yards, 24 TDs, and completing 62% of his passes. But the numbers translated to just 6 wins – the norm for Buffalo in recent years. Despite the jaded performance, the Bills rewarded Fitzpatrick with 6 year $59 million extension in October of 2011, including $15 million guaranteed. The contract handed him $13.22M in 2011, and $8 million in 2012 (including a $5 million option bonus that was exercised). Fitzpatrick put together a carbon copy of 2011 for the 2012 season, throwing for 3,400 yards, and 24 TDs while winning just 6 games. He was released prior to the start of the 2013 season (when his $3M roster bonus was due), leaving $10 million in dead money across the Bills’ 2013 and 2014 salary caps.
Once again back at square one, the Bills selected Florida State QB EJ Manuel with the #16 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. The pick warranted a fully guaranteed 4 year $8,885,300 contract, with the option for a 5th year. Manuel was named the Bills starter immediately, performing adequately before injuring his knee in early October. He would start a total of 10 games in 2013, throwing for 1,972 yards, 11 TDs, 9 INT, and completing 59% of his passes. His first round contract handed him $5,247,036 in cash for his debut season.
Despite the up and down rookie campaign, the Bills didn’t address replenishing the quarterback position until late August of 2014 – when both backups (Thad Lewis, Jeff Tuel) were released to make way for the signing of veteran Kyle Orton. Orton penned a 2 year $11 million contract, $5.5M of which he’ll earn in 2014 – 5 times more than the $808,877 Manuel is set to earn this season. Despite the move, Manuel has the Bills off to a surprising 2-0 start, who sit alone atop the AFC east early on in 2014.