A smiling Chris Hogan stood Sunday night under the lights of Gillette Stadium, red and blue confetti falling around the New England Patriots’ receiver as he donned a white "Conference Champions" hat and took in the moment of advancing to the Super Bowl for the first time in his career.
About 450 miles west in Hogan's former home of Buffalo, there was no confetti falling on New Era Field or free hats being passed among teammates. Instead, the Orchard Park, New York home of the former Bills receiver's fired coach, Rex Ryan, hit the real-estate market last week. A few miles away, a yellow for-sale sign still sat outside the house of his fired former Bills offensive coordinator, Greg Roman. Hogan's old Bills receivers coach, Sanjay Lal, was in employment limbo after failing to secure a job on the Philadelphia Eagles’ staff. And Hogan's last quarterback in Buffalo, Tyrod Taylor, could also be looking for a new gig this spring.
As the Bills licked their wounds from their 17th consecutive season out of the playoffs, Hogan found acres of open space during the Patriots' 36-17 AFC Championship Game win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and made the most of it, catching a 16-yard touchdown in the first quarter and a 34-yard flea-flicker touchdown in the second quarter to kick-start the Patriots' blowout win.
Hogan's nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns gave him exactly the same stat line as All-Pro Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones from Sunday's NFC Championship Game and begged the question: How did the Bills ever let Hogan get away to the Patriots as a restricted free agent last March?
The short answer? Money. The long answer? The Bills were yet again a step behind their long-dominant AFC East counterparts, and the Patriots sure made it sting Sunday.
After spending three seasons with the Bills, Hogan became a restricted free agent following the 2015 season. Buffalo's front office -- headed by general manager Doug Whaley and longtime salary-cap administrator Jim Overdorf -- faced a decision on whether to tender Hogan with a first-round tender (one year, $3.6 million), a second-round tender (one year, $2.5 million) or original-round tender (one year, $1.65 million).
The Bills were dealing with one of the NFL's tightest salary-cap situations, the product of heavy spending during the 2015 offseason, and some older, bloated contracts (e.g., Mario Williams). Having to pinch every penny, the Bills assigned Hogan the $1.65 million tender, and because Hogan went undrafted, they risked receiving no draft-pick compensation if they did not match another team's offer sheet.
Soon after, the Patriots swooped in with a three-year, $12 million offer that included a $5.5 million salary-cap hit in 2016. If the Bills matched the deal, it would virtually have eliminated their cap space for the 2016 season. Not surprisingly, Buffalo declined to match the deal and Hogan packed his bags for New England.
At the time, not matching Hogan's offer made sense for the Bills. Catching 36 passes for 450 yards in 2015, he was a steady but unspectacular No. 3 receiver for a team that attempted the NFL's second-fewest passes that season. The run-first philosophy continued this past season, when Buffalo attempted the NFL's fewest passes (474). Hogan, who finished the 2016 regular season ranked second in the NFL in receiving average (17.89 yards per catch) behind Washington's DeSean Jackson, might have been worth $4 million per year for Tom Brady and the Patriots, but his value was not viewed at that level by the Bills.
The Bills' mistake was not protecting Hogan by spending about $850,000 more and assigning him the second-round tender. That might not have guaranteed the Patriots would not try to pry him away -- New England traded second- and seventh-round picks to the Dolphins in 2007 for then-restricted free-agent receiver Wes Welker -- but at least the Bills would not have come away from the situation empty-handed.
Without Hogan, the Bills entered training camp with oft-injured speedster Marquise Goodwin elevated to their No. 3 receiver role and no proven options lower on the depth chart. Goodwin stayed healthy and posted career numbers, but Sammy Watkins and No. 2 wideout Robert Woods both battled injuries, forcing the Bills to find emergency options. Journeyman Justin Hunter was among the fill-ins, and for a brief period in November, the Bills lured Percy Harvin out of retirement before migraines ended his season.
Think Hogan would have helped the Bills' 30th-ranked passing offense? Hindsight is 20/20, but the answer is a resounding yes. Keeping Hogan certainly would not have fixed the Bills' broken defense and likely would not have affected the outcome of the Bills' season, but at the very least, it would have avoided the stinging embarrassment of their former receiver's success Sunday night for a division rival that yet again appeared a step ahead.