ORCHARD PARK — In a bygone era, Chris Kelsay would be beloved by Bills fans.
Rumored to be Buffalo’s first-round target in the 2003 draft (rather than Willis McGahee), Kelsay wound up slipping to the second round. He was activated for every game as a rookie, and was starting before the midway point of his second season. That year, the Bills had an elite defense and came within one win of the playoffs. Since then, Kelsay has been nothing but available and accountable, always prepared and eager to work. He’s started 92 of the team’s last 94 games, and after every agonizing loss, the defensive captain stands up to face the music in the locker room.
In the offseason, the Bills made the switch to a 3-4 defense that didn’t seem to have a place for an undersized defensive end who’s clumsy in coverage. But Kelsay committed himself to becoming more agile and learning the fundamentals of playing linebacker. He set out to have a solid season, get a new contract, and retire as a Bill. In training camp he convinced a new set of coaches what the previous staff already knew — he’s more reliable than Aaron Maybin and Chris Ellis, the youngsters drafted to take his place.
Kelsay is hardly a Pro Bowler. Even if the Bills had been to the last four Super Bowls, he isn’t the type of player that would one day have his named etched on the Wall of Fame. He is, however, the type of player that blue-collar football fans like to identify with, and if his team had inspired a few talkin' proud moments over the years, Kelsay would be as popular with fans as he is inside the locker room.
But the Bills have been embarassing themselves and their followers since Kelsay was in high school, which is why there was so much vitriol this week when fans learned the 31-year-old had received a four-year contract extension that could be worth as much as $24 million.
I spent the last few days trying to come up with ways to defend the deal. Then I focused on Kelsay on Sunday, and his performance was indefensible. The Jets exploited him on almost every play of their opening drive. He moved from the left to right side and back, but couldn’t hide. If he wasn’t getting engulfed by tackles, he was getting okie-doked on option runs and play fakes. Later on, he had trouble generating a pass rush against the Jets’ backup tight ends.
This is the first incumbent player to get a big money extension from the new general manager? What’s next, a franchise tag for Donte Whitner?
In dollars and cents, the Kelsay deal makes sense. He reportedly got a $2 million bonus up front and a few hundred grand added to his 2010 salary so that the Bills could retain his services beyond this season without committing too much money long-term. Kelsay’s base salary for next season is $2 million, a meager sum for a starting linebacker. Beyond that, his base salary is about $3.5 million per year. It’s doubtful that much, if any, of the future money is guaranteed. The $24 million is an agent-inflated figure that includes incentives unlikely to be earned, and bonuses that could facilitate the contract being terminated early.
If the Bills find a capable replacement by the start of the 2012 season, don’t expect to see Kelsay on the opening day roster.
From the club’s standpoint, the deal rewards an employee for doing things the right way. As Bob Sanders, Kelsay’s position coach the past two seasons, said, Kelsay is “good people. An honest, family man. You know what you’re going to get every day. He’s going to work every day. He’s going to give everything he’s got. He wants to be coached.”
No teammate is ever going to shout across the line of scrimmage during training camp that Kelsay needs to give back some of the money he hasn’t earned yet.
Problem is, no amount of hard work can get Kelsay to overcome his lack of playmaking talent. Never a stout run stuffer, nor a disruptive pass rusher, he’s now proving that pass coverage wasn’t a hidden skill. He stays true to his alignments and assignments, and gives maximum effort. Those attributes go a long way at the high school and college level, and in some ways embody what it means to be a professional.
But pro football is all about production and winning, and Kelsay’s career has been about a lack of production and losses. Even in the years he had decent sack totals, his quarterback hurry and hit totals ranked well below average. When he missed two starts in 2007, Buffalo won both games.
That’s why the extension rubbed so many fans the wrong way. It endorsed an era of ineffectiveness. Bills backers are in a “throw the bums out” state of mind. They’d rather see a guy like Maybin fall on his face (while celebrating a meaningless assisted tackle) and find out he’s not a building block for the future than watch Kelsay give his all and realize the current foundation was built on a faulty premise of “football character” trumping talent.
When asked how the Jets were able to run for 273 yards on Sunday, Kelsay said “I wish I knew. I really don’t have any answers.”
Because the answer he’s always given has been proven wrong. Getting back on the grind and putting in more work isn’t going to turn this franchise around. In fact, it could make things worse if the Bills squeeze out a few surprise wins and compromise their draft position.
It’s long past time to start over. Without the leaders of this loss parade. As admirable as their approach has been.
Contact reporter Jonah Bronstein at 282-2311, ext. 2258, or email@example.com.