Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the 2003 NFL season. Settle
in. Kick back. Enjoy. But keep antacids by your easy chair. Ten
years after unfettered free agency was instituted and the
leveling of the playing field began, the NFL landscape looks
like the Great Plains. In Week 1 of Parityfest a New England
Patriots team captain was allowed to jump to the archrival
Buffalo Bills five days before the teams met in their season
opener, a move that may have ultimately determined the outcome
of the game. The Bills, who lost to the Patriots by 31 points
last November, won by 31 on Sunday. Elsewhere, the second-year
Houston Texans, two-touchdown underdogs to the Super
Bowl-contender Miami Dolphins, pulled off a stunning upset (page
49). The Detroit Lions scored in the 40s for the first time in
six years (page 50). The Cleveland Browns, with three new
starters at linebacker, kept the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton
Manning and Edgerrin James out of the end zone--but still lost.
At Lambeau Field the Minnesota Vikings made Brett Favre look
like anything but a three-time MVP (page 53), and ... well, you
get the picture.
Nothing, however, could match the drama in Buffalo, where the
faithful set some sort of an NFL record for generating excitement
over a team that was 8-8 the year before. The parking lots at
Ralph Wilson Stadium don't officially open until 7 a.m. on
Saturday--30 hours before kickoff, mind you--but last week seven
Winnebagos dotted the gravel lot nearest the stadium by 3:30 p.m.
Walking smack into this already intense scene was the subject of
the biggest story of the week: four-time Pro Bowl safety Lawyer
Milloy. Though still in his prime at 29, Milloy--who started 106
consecutive games in his seven seasons with the Patriots--had
been cut on Tuesday, Sept. 2, for salary-cap reasons (the player
and the club could not agree on the terms of a restructured
contract), and two days later he signed with Buffalo. Milloy
grabbed a Bills playbook last Thursday and stuck his nose in it
until 3 a.m. Friday, falling asleep in his hotel room with his
clothes on. As he ducked in and out of team meetings on Friday
afternoon, he looked spent. "I wouldn't wish this week on my
worst enemy," Milloy said, still downcast over leaving the only
pro team he'd ever played for.
He didn't feel that way much longer. In a 2:44 span of the second
quarter on Sunday, Milloy made two big plays and earned his props
from the raucous home crowd of 73,262. First, with Buffalo
leading 21-0 and New England showing its first signs of life on
offense, he deflected a pass in the end zone, and the tipped ball
was intercepted by cornerback Nate Clements. On the next Patriots
possession Milloy sped past an ole block from tight end Christian
Fauria and dragged down quarterback Tom Brady with one arm for
his first sack since 2001. While Milloy's role in the 31-0
victory--the Bills' first shutout since '99--was significant, the
impact of his move was just as strong off the field.
September 14, 2003
For starters, seeing their defensive captain whacked for cap
reasons just days before the start of the season devastated New
England players, undermining the morale of even ultimate team
guys such as safety Rodney Harrison and linebacker Tedy Bruschi.
Hours after Milloy was cut, Harrison called some of his young
defensive teammates together and told them to take care of their
money; it's a hard business, Harrison said, and the same thing
will happen to them someday. Veterans usually make those speeches
in the off-season, not when the team is knee-deep in game
preparations, but the players were so distressed that Harrison
felt obliged to say it.
Probably nobody was more disappointed than Bruschi, one of the
most dedicated players in the NFL. "I'm not as fully committed to
the Patriots as I was to my team at Arizona or Roseville [Calif.]
High," he said last Thursday. "[The Patriots] took a franchise
player and kicked him to the curb five days before the season."
He paused, then continued more passionately. "I wish--I wish--it
was the old days in this game, and I could put my heart on the
line for something. But how do you do that in a place where guys
who've established what this team is about just come and go?"
After practice on the day Milloy was released, Brady and Patriots
cornerback Ty Law went to Milloy's condominium to commiserate.
"It was like a wake," Milloy said later.
New England coach Bill Belichick, an NFL head coach or assistant
for 27 years, should have been smart enough to know the
consequences of waiving a leader as popular as Milloy at the 11th
hour. Belichick, who makes all player personnel decisions, said
last Saturday, "If we had known this was going to happen,
obviously this isn't the way we would have handled it." Surely
the Patriots had to have known that Milloy's hard-line agent,
Carl Poston, would balk at drastically cutting the $4.4 million
salary of a player who had been to four of the past five Pro
On the other hand Milloy told SI that he had a lucrative offer
from the Washington Redskins before the Patriots had released
him, and the magazine reported that on its website last Saturday.
The Redskins denied negotiating with Poston before Milloy was
cut, and on Sunday the safety said he had no contact with another
The Patriots weren't convinced, however--"He'd be playing for us
right now if there wasn't tampering," said a team official--and
on Monday the league announced it would investigate the
possibility that there had been tampering. Poston said on Monday
that there was "no way" a team tampered with Milloy through him,
adding that "Lawyer didn't know what was going on" before his
In the meantime Buffalo and New England tried to focus on their
game plans, which were now affected by how much Milloy could help
his new team with the knowledge he had of the Patriots' systems.
While Bills coach Gregg Williams and offensive coordinator Kevin
Gilbride were debriefing Milloy, they learned how to beat the
Patriots' secondary with a deep seam route they love to run with
wideout Eric Moulds. Milloy told the coaches that fourth-year
strong safety Antwan Harris, the man who replaced him in New
England, would be assigned to provide deep help on Josh Reed, the
wide receiver working across the middle on the play. And he said
by the time Harris realized that quarterback Drew Bledsoe was
going deep to Moulds up the left seam, it would be too late for
him to recover and help Law.
"When Lawyer told us that," says Bledsoe, "we knew Ty would be
out on an island against Eric and it would be a great play for
The perfect time to run it came midway through the first quarter,
with Buffalo leading 7-0 but facing a first-and-20 situation on
its 11. Bledsoe's execution was brilliant. He first looked to his
right, then at Reed flashing across the middle from the left.
Then Bledsoe suddenly looked down the left side and threw to
Moulds, who had a step on Law. By the time Harris recognized the
play, he was three steps late, and the ball settled into Moulds's
arms for a 49-yard gain. Law made the tackle, then angrily
gestured to Harris that he should have been there to help. "That
was a big play," Law said. "[Harris] should have been there. But
I screw up some plays too."
Bledsoe then continued what turned out to be a 15-play drive,
eating up almost eight minutes on the clock and cashing in with a
seven-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dave Moore.
"Lawyer would have gotten there in time," says Williams. "In
fact, he would have killed Eric. He would have knocked his block
off, and we probably wouldn't have completed the pass. Antwan was
just a step slow."
Ultimately Milloy's abrupt change of address may have shifted the
balance of power in the AFC East in the Bills' favor. In the
off-season Buffalo president and general manager Tom Donahoe
shrewdly upgraded a defense that last year ranked 27th in the
league in points allowed by signing free agents Sam Adams at
tackle, and Takeo Spikes and Jeff Posey at linebacker. The
secondary, however, was relatively untouched. But when Milloy
became available, Donahoe says he immediately phoned owner Ralph
Wilson to ask if he could stretch his budget and pursue the
All-Pro safety. (Buffalo was $4 million under the cap.)
"I said to him, 'Are you kidding me? Go! Go get him!'" says
Wilson, who called his G.M. 10 times over the next two days for
updates on where negotiations stood. The two sides agreed on a
four-year, $15 million contract, with $7 million in salary and
bonus in 2003. And by Sunday afternoon Milloy didn't look at all
downcast about leaving New England.
It was hard to believe while watching the Bills dominate the
Patriots that New England had whipped Buffalo 38-7 on the same
field 10 months earlier, its fifth straight win in the series.
The main reason for the Bills' about-face: defensive speed. "We
really only had one linebacker, London Fletcher, last year,"
Donahoe says. Now they've got three. Posey didn't have great
numbers on Sunday (four tackles), but he's an explosive player
who, at 249 pounds, is big enough to take on tight ends. Spikes
played like a man possessed, with six tackles, three passes
batted down and the first two-interception game of his career.
Forty-five minutes after the game, he was still so revved up that
he looked like he could play another four quarters. "We're just
as fast as any defense in the league," said Spikes, who signed
with Buffalo after five seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals.
"Then we add Lawyer, and that got everyone juiced. We want to be
one of the great defenses, like the 1985 Bears or the 2000
The Bills got an unexpected boost from the 330-pound Adams: In
the second quarter he jumped to catch an ill-timed pass from
Brady, then rumbled 37 yards for a touchdown that made the score
21-0. ("My factor back," Williams called him after the game.) On
the Pats' next play Adams shot through the line to sack Brady for
a nine-yard loss. "Nobody gives me much credit for being an
athlete," Adams said afterward, "but I am."
Said Bledsoe, "You have no idea how sweet it is to have a defense
It's the defense that Williams, the third-year coach and former
Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator, hoped he could build in
Buffalo. As he left the field on Sunday to the cheers of a
fanatical crowd, Williams draped an arm over Milloy's shoulder
and yelled over the din, "How sweet is this?"