“I like collaborative organizations.” —Terry Pegula, this morning.
Three years after buying the team, it’s time that Terry and Kim Pegula, the now-so-new Bills owners, get around to actually building one. Because no matter how you slice what has happened over the last four months, or where you want to place blame for the firing of a coach in December and a GM four months later, it’s clear to anyone paying attention that the dysfunction inside that organization isn’t the work of one person.
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GM Doug Whaley was dismissed less than a day after the Bills put the finishing touches on the first draft class to be integrated into Sean McDermott’s new program. Minutes later, Terry Pegula gave boilerplate answers to a barrage of questions as to how and why this went down when it did.
He didn’t directly address the larger truth in the process. But he has to know. The kind of chance McDermott and the next GM will have at finally turning around a once-proud franchise rests squarely on Pegula’s shoulders. His issue hasn’t been that he’s overbearing or meddling, a common early problem for the billionaires who buy teams. It’s the opposite: He hasn’t done nearly enough to align his organization.
That much was on display to those inside the Bills draft room over the last three days. One source who was there described it as, “the weirdest three days.” It was unclear who was carrying the hammer, and that affected the efficiency it takes in the high-pressure environment of the draft. Rumors loomed over everyone. Whaley couldn’t so much as sneeze without the feeling someone else was hovering.
And over the weeks leading into the draft, McDermott’s growing influence became obvious to all inside the building. The new coach was empowered to pull prospects off the board who didn’t fit the character parameters he was looking for. With a GM left in limbo, it was increasingly the coach’s show, and while McDermott wasn’t running the draft, nothing was happening without his O.K.
That kind of confusion isn’t new in Orchard Park. It started three months after the Pegulas took control of the team, when they were caught off guard by Doug Marrone enacting an escape clause in his contract and taking $4 million of their money, and organizational chaos began to brew with the arrival of Rex Ryan in January 2015. Without strong leadership from the top, the Ryan/Whaley arranged marriage was destined to fail.
The disorganization of Ryan’s program boiled over with scouts last fall. One embarrassing circumstance in October had the Patriots converting a third down as players were shuttling on and off the field—Buffalo actually had 12 guys out there and still couldn’t get a stop. Another arose in December, when Dolphins tailback Jay Ajayi put away a Miami win in Orchard Park with a 57-yard run in overtime, facing just 10 Bills defenders on the play.
On the flip side, coaches felt like Whaley and his staff weren’t doing enough to find players to fit the schemes they wanted to run, and brought in too many guys who were damaged goods (like 2016 first-round pick Shaq Lawson).
And both sides were complicit in the case of Sammy Watkins’ lost 2016 season. Whaley had sold the farm for the receiver in the 2014 draft, trading the following year’s first- and fourth-rounders to move up from nine to four to get him. Watkins’ foot injury was so severe last September that he couldn’t get through walkthroughs. No one stepped in. He was allowed to push through. The foot worsened, and the Bills soon had to shut him down for two months.
It all came to a head on December 11, when the Pegulas walked away miffed that Ryan declared the playoffs out of reach to his players after his defense was shredded by Le’Veon Bell for 298 yards from scrimmage—despite a manageable schedule ahead gave the team a real shot at still getting in.
Ryan’s ouster hardly stopped the bleeding. Whaley was put out there to explain firing, and simply said it was the decision of owners who weren’t there to give their side of it. Interim coach Anthony Lynn was left to address the media on the Week 17 benching of Tyrod Taylor, even though it was a call that actually came from the front office.
Time and again, the lack of direction from above has been painfully obvious. Now, that’s not to say that this latest move came out of leftfield. The fact that the team didn’t hire Whaley’s choice for head coach—willingly letting Lynn go to the Chargers—was the first sign that the GM who “led” the coaching search was in trouble. The hiring of McDermott, who Whaley didn’t really know, was second. Third was Whaley’s disappearance from the public eye.
After that, there was the decision to bring Taylor back, a move that, as I understand it, went against Whaley’s wishes and played into what new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison wanted. And then there was the departure of E.J. Manuel, who had been stamped as Whaley’s guy inside the building.
You get the picture. The good news is that now the Pegulas get a fresh start. They’re wrapping up the process of hiring their first NHL GM as Sabres owners, and have admitted they made a mistake in not being involved in the hire of the one they just fired, Tim Murray. Once that’s done, Terry and Kim will turn their attention to running the Bills search.
Part of that will be the obvious: finding the best talent evaluator they can to stock the roster. But if their first three years of NFL ownership mean anything to the process, it should show the Pegulas that getting a good scout is just the start of what they need to look for. Here’s hoping, for Buffalo’s sake, they finally realize that.