By Rick Anderson
In one of the most shocking events in Buffalo Bills history, Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson fired his GM Tuesday. Butler was at the end of his contract in February and was a highly sought commodity in the NFL for a GM position with other clubs. Wilson made it easy for Butler to start his search immediately by cutting his ties with Buffalo.
The reason for the sudden firing was given when Wilson held a press conference to announce his decision to terminate Butler's contract. Since Butler's contract was to end after this season, Wilson has been on Butler's case to sign a new contract since training camp began last July. Butler kept putting Wilson off, never giving him a definite answer. Wilson claims that he approached him 6 times and could not get him to agree to terms.
"I could never get anything definitive from him," the Bills owner said. "I had a very uneasy feeling. Maybe he didn't want to be with the Bills."
Wilson supposedly offered Butler a salary comparable to the 8 top General Managers in the league and then upped his ante even more with no response from his GM.
"John Butler has refused to give an answer and it is time to move forward.," Wilson said. "I talked to him on 6 occasions and have not been given a definite answer. I spoke to him Friday and couldn't get anything definitive."
"Yesterday (Monday) I asked him, ‘What do you want' and he wouldn't say anything definitive. I was shocked," Wilson related.
"I said, generally speaking, 'John, if you can't give me an answer that you're going to be the general manager of the Bills, now, not in the future, not after the last game, then I'm going to have to look elsewhere,' " Wilson warned Butler. "He was just nonchalant about it and left."
Wilson, not getting the answer he wanted from Butler, decided to let him go before the regular season ended. Whether this was a "knee-jerk" reaction, or an attempt to save face in the light that he probably would not have been able to pay what Butler demanded, is in line for a big debate. One thing is clear, it shocked not only Bills fans, but the players and Butler himself.
"Mr. Wilson, I guess, wanted an answer a lot faster than I was prepared to give one at that time," said a shocked Butler. "When you make decisions like that, I need to consult my family and other people. That's the way sometimes things end. But John Butler's got to do what John Butler's got to do for his family and himself."
For a lot of Bills fans, Wilson may have given the wrong man his walking papers. There has been up-swell of calls for Wilson to axe Bills head coach Wade Phillips after he has turned a playoff team into a mediocre lot of players. Phillips has made a lot of bizarre statements this season, the strangest on when he threw in the towel even before the Monday Night Football game with the Colts. Here's what Wade said on ESPN before that game:
"I think both teams are out of it basically," Phillips said on national TV. "But, it's a Monday night game, everybody is watching."
Phillips committed a mortal sin for a head coach - you NEVER EVER concede defeat, especially your teams chances of making the playoffs when they have a mathematical chance.
Then there was that classic Wade's witticism: "Chris Watson... he's not a punt returner he's a punt catcher and that's basically what we have to live with."
Phillips firing of specialty teams coach Bruce DeHaven and replacing him with Ronnie Jones has to go down as one of Phillips biggest mistakes in his entire coaching career. Jones had never before coached special teams and everyone could tell right from the get-go. Jones' special teams did not get much better as the season wore on. To make matters worse, Phillips gave his entire staff a vote of confidence, including Jones.
Wilson was asked if there could be other changes to the front office, especially Wade and his staff in light of the Butler firing and the bringing in a new General Manager.
"I'm here to talk about John Butler – not about the coaching staff – I hope you understand that," Wilson responded.
Wilson did indicate that he was canceling his trip to go to Palm Beach, but instead will fly with the Bills to Seattle and be there with the team on the way back to Buffalo. There is great speculation that Phillips is walking a tight rope and the only way to save his job is if the Bills put in their first solid performance in five weeks. Being on a 4-game losing streak does not bode well with Wilson and if the team puts in as sorry a performance as it has the past few weeks, then Phillips will be following close behind Butler out of town.
Even if Butler had been kept on until his contract ended, it is likely this was his last season with the Bills anyway. A number of teams were seeking his services, which included a great eye for talent in the draft. He drafted such players as Thurman Thomas, Henry Jones, Ruben Brown, Phil Hansen and practically molded the four Bills Super Bowl teams. His first NFL job came with the Chargers as a scout and then was hired as director of scouting for the Bills in 1987.
It is ironic that San Diego may be the very place where Butler is headed. There have been rumors flying the past few weeks that San Diego was extremely interested in getting him back. Wilson now made it much easier for that to happen.
Butler did have to face a lot of wrath after last season when the Bills were forced to cut the Big 3, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Andre Reed because of salary cap restrictions. In fact, the Bills were forced to let go (or lost to free agency) 14 players. Butler's history of paying the stars top money put Buffalo in a financial hole where the salary cap was concerned.
The Bills will find themselves in a similar situation after this season. The latest projection has Buffalo $11 million over the salary cap. It could force the Bills to choose between quarterbacks Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson, both of whom command $5 million per season. That is also a stone in a lot of fans shoes about Butler. He didn't have to renegotiate Flutie's contract after his first year. Flutie was under contract for a much lower salary, but Butler rewarded him with a huge boost in pay. Now the Bills are stuck with two $5 million quarterbacks and neither of them have performed up to what they're being paid.
After the season is over, Wilson will conduct a search to replace Butler. Wilson likes to promote from within the organization. Two choices Wilson could make from within are Dwight Adams, the VP of player personnel and A.J. Smith, director of pro personnel.
It will be interesting to see how the Bills players respond when they take on the Seattle Seahawks Saturday night in Seattle. If they fall on their faces like they have the four previous games, Wade can expect to hear about it from team owner Wilson on the flight back to Buffalo.
Copyright © 2000 Bills Thunder & Rick Anderson, all rights reserved.
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