Thursday, October 21, 2010
Could a UFL team really beat the Bills?
By Tim Graham
It's been a tough season in Buffalo, where there are whispers of a possible 0-16 season by the Bills.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny laughed, but he wasn't happy to hear the question.
He kept chuckling throughout his response, although it was obvious by the tone in his voice and the look in his eyes that the topic agitated him.
How close would the game be if the Bills played the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League?
"That's saying that we're minor-league, that a minor-league team could compete with us," said Posluszny, perched on a stool at his locker stall Thursday morning. "The thing that makes me mad is we put ourselves in this situation.
The UFL has several former NFL players, like Sacramento Mountain Lions QB Daunte Culpepper.
"If we're winning games or competitive, then you're not talking to me about this. But it's our fault. It's my fault. I can't blame you or Las Vegas. We've got to fix it."
The Bills are winless through five games and have played so poorly they're already being talked about as a legitimate candidate to finish the season 0-16. They've surrendered at least 30 points in four straight games, something that never had been done in franchise history.
The trend will be difficult to alter Sunday. The Bills will visit the Baltimore Ravens in M&T Bank Stadium.
For much of the season, the Bills have been out of their league.
Some in the UFL, a five-team league comprised of many former NFL players hoping to extend their careers, believe they would have a shot to beat Buffalo.
"I don't think we could compete with the upper two-thirds of the NFL," Locomotives head coach Jim Fassel said. "The lower-echelon teams, I think it would be an excellent game."
Hartford Colonials quarterback Josh McCown, who spent eight years in the NFL, predicted: "It would be fun to watch. I know one thing: There'd be a lot more pressure on Buffalo than there would be on Las Vegas. There'd be some good give and take."
With that in mind, I asked Las Vegas Sports Consultants, the oddsmaking firm that supplies the numbers for about 75 percent of Nevada's legal sportsbooks, to provide a legitimate spread for the Bills and Locomotives.
The Bills would be favored by 10.5 points on a neutral field.
That's a comfortable margin and not necessarily a true reflection of the difference in class between teams from different leagues. Spreads factor all sorts of game situations, and this number was tempered to account for the likelihood the Bills would outclass the Locomotives early and manage the clock for much of the contest.
"If Buffalo needed to win by four touchdowns and their lives depended on it, they probably could do it," Las Vegas Sports Consultants senior oddsmaker Mike Seba said. "But that's not usually the way it goes down."
Most notable about the spread for this fictional game isn't that the Bills are favored, but the number itself.
Nine NFL games, three of them involving the Bills, have featured a spread larger than 10.5 points so far this season. The Bills are 13-point underdogs Sunday against the Ravens, were 14.5-point underdogs to the New England Patriots in Week 3 and 12.5-point underdogs to the Green Bay Packers in Week 2.
Those numbers indicate the Bills are closer to the UFL than they are to the best NFL teams.
"Even though the Bills might be having a tough time, they're still the NFL," said Daunte Culpepper, the former Pro Bowl quarterback now playing for the UFL's Sacramento Mountain Lions. "I don't think anybody should overlook that. Those players are in the NFL for a reason."
Culpepper has heard this kind of barroom and message-board banter before.
He started five games for the Detroit Lions in 2008. That team became the first in NFL history to go 0-16. People wondered if the USC team that featured Mark Sanchez would give the Lions trouble.
But Culpepper wasn't totally dismissive of the Locomotives' chances against the Bills.
"I've played in the NFL, and I've played in the UFL. The competition is there," Culpepper said. "The ability and the level of play is there. The NFL is the best of the best, but there's only about 1,500 jobs in the NFL. There's more than 1,500 guys that can play at the NFL level."
UFL investor Mark Cuban pointed out the NFL is comprised of younger talent, but because of salary-cap issues and veteran minimum salaries, teams rarely fill out their rosters with the best 53 players available to them. That leaves plenty of NFL-caliber veterans out of work.
"You can argue skill positions may be better in the NFL, but you can't argue experience," Cuban said. "The UFL rosters from the bottom up are far more experienced than the Bills are."
NFL teams are reluctant to take chances on veterans as they accrue experience. A player with four to six seasons in the NFL makes a minimum salary of $630,000. Players with seven to nine seasons must be paid at least $755,000.
The average 53-man NFL active roster had 15.7 players who are 24 or younger as of Wednesday, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The winless Carolina Panthers had 27 players in that category. The Bills had 17.
Three of the UFL's five teams had nine or fewer players age 24 or under. The Locomotives had nine on their roster. The Florida Tuskers had two.
"People are afraid to take a five-year vested veteran and pay him the minimum and get the risk that he might get injured," Fassel said. "There's no question that adds up. All you need is five or six guys get hurt and that's $5 million in your cap."
Many NFL clubs don't spend anywhere near to the salary cap anyway. They commonly save money on their reserve players.
"It's not just Buffalo. It's every team," Cuban said. "The balance of talent versus cost versus winning is not an easy one to create. Sure, some teams may spend more than the Bills, but they all go through the same decision process."
As a result, the UFL can field bona-fide players at positions such as quarterback and running back and stock their coaching staffs with NFL-weathered coaches. Fassel, for instance, guided the New York Giants to a Super Bowl XXXV appearance 10 seasons ago.
Last year, Fassel won the UFL's inaugural championship game with former Bills quarterback J.P. Losman. At the time, I got a strong impression Bills fans gladly would've traded their coach-quarterback combo of Dick Jauron and Trent Edwards for Fassel and Losman.
Still, the consensus, even among the most ardent UFL supporters, is the Bills probably would beat the Locomotives handily.
"I have a lot of respect for those guys," Bills running back Fred Jackson said. He came up through the minors as a low-level arena player and then NFL Europa. "I know there's a lot of talent in those leagues. But this is the National Football League. This is the best of the best. I've got to believe with my whole heart it would be a one-sided affair."
There are no guarantees, though, and that's why this fictional game never would take place. It would be all risk, no reward for the NFL.
The last time a "minor league" was granted such an opportunity was in 1961, when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the more established Canadian Football League beat the fledgling American Football League's Bills in a preseason game.
"As a player for an NFL team, obviously it bothers us that's even a conversation out there," Posluszny said, "that we're playing so bad right now that people think a UFL team can compete with us because they can't.
"Once again, we're 0-5. We haven't proved to anybody that we're a big-time team. It's troubling to us because we're an NFL football team and we should be able to act like it and play like it and win games."