Wednesday evening's confirmed report that the Buffalo Bills are set to hire Doug Whaley as the team's new Assistant General Manager has me excited. To be fair, it doesn't take a lot for me to get excited about Bills football, but it's the actual football that gets me riled up, not the organization itself. As a life-long Bills fan, it's what happens on the field that I am much more optimistic about on a year-to-year basis.
Granted, the football in Buffalo has been subpar over the past decade. Only the lowly Detroit Lions have missed the playoffs for as many consecutive years as our lowly Bills. The team has swapped out players and coaches as quickly as a chain smoker rifles through packs of cigarettes, but the end result has been the same for a full decade: no post-season. When what happens on the field is the same no matter what you change, it's pretty clear that the men putting the product on the field are to blame.
For a decade, Buffalo's front office has, in general, been a failure. They've tried things there, too, from hiring a proven talent evaluator in Tom Donahoe, to bringing back a former coach in Marv Levy, to developing a consensus approach between departments spearheaded by Russ Brandon. This is an area that I have, in general, been eternally pessimistic about; I don't often get overly critical in my postings here, but this post, while temporarily cathartic at the time, still rings true.
Or, at least, it rang true until December 31, 2009. That's when Wilson hired Buddy Nix as his new General Manager, promoted Brandon to CEO, and let Nix go to work. I like what's happened to this point, which includes the hiring of Whaley and the firing of former pro personnel chief John Guy. There is obviously more work to done. But in order for the Nix regime to achieve its goals and turn the Bills into a winning franchise, it's Brandon - yes, Russ Brandon - that holds the most important key.
That's not to say, of course, that the men Nix has hired or will hire - new head coach Chan Gailey chief among them - aren't critical to the turnaround effort. It'd be insane to suggest otherwise, and I'm certainly not doing that here.
Every decision Nix makes is critical - that's the nature of his position. Every decision he makes is open to scrutiny (though I'd suggest waiting for actual changes to the team we see on the field to be made before firing up the hate wagons). His decision to fire Guy, a holdover from Donahoe's regime, was pretty universally accepted as a good move. It's conceivable that Whaley, Pittsburgh's pro personnel coordinator for the last decade, will assume Guy's role plus additional college-oriented responsibilities as Nix's top understudy.
Gailey has a huge role to play - he is the head coach, after all. Every assistant he hires will be important to the effort, and I feel quite certain his decisions on game days and the nature of his coaching style and schema will be closely monitored.
Tom Modrak, who is still the team's scouting director and another Donahoe holdover, has a role to play, too - even if Nix ultimately decides to replace him and his staff after the 2010 NFL Draft. Nix will be running the draft room for the foreseeable future, and he does plenty of scouting himself, but Modrak's advice will still be heard for at least one more draft weekend.
I'm being rather obvious here. Decision-making hierarchy; prudent player acquisition; good, fundamental-oriented coaching and creative game-planning. Winning teams can't survive without all of these. Until proven otherwise, the Nix regime - which includes Whaley, Modrak, Gailey and their assorted staffs, potentially with more changes and faces to come - have a legitimate shot to achieve those goals and lay the foundation for the turnaround.
Here's the point I'm ultimately trying to make, however. The Nix regime doesn't stand much of a chance unless Russ Brandon wisely plays his CEO role to its fullest extent.
I love Ralph Wilson. I get frustrated by fans who bash the man at every opportunity, because really, the man is Buffalo Bills football. Ultimately, no matter how frustrated we become with his decisions or the mediocrity of the teams he authorizes, we're indebted to the man. Without Ralph Wilson, we're not even here talking about these problems in the first place. He's a Hall of Fame owner, he's responsible for over 50 years of football in Western New York, and the man has my utmost respect for all of that.
That said, it's no secret that Wilson has flaws. They're rather major flaws, and they've prevented the team from winning for a while now. Some of the (relatively) minor flaws include the fact that he has been generally averse to handing out power; he gave up his team Presidency exactly once, to Donahoe for a five-year window, and that'll never happen again after the way that particular era ended. Wilson also likes to hire people that he's familiar with, which has been cited as the biggest beef for his hire of Nix in the first place.
But Wilson's biggest flaw - and, at least in my opinion, it's an almost admirable one - is that he's involved with the football operation. He signs off on major and minor decisions alike, he offers his input, and he's involved in the day-to-day operation of the club. I have no problem with that - it's completely his prerogative (he kind of owns the business, so he can do whatever he wants), and it's indicative of the fact that he wants to be on top of things. I have no problem with that, aside from the minor fact that it hinders his top executives from doing their jobs the way they should be doing them.
The often-cited term assigned to Wilson's behavior? "Meddlesome."
That's why Brandon is so important. Again, I have no problem with Wilson remaining involved - it's not going to change, so wishing that behavior away is an exercise in futility anyway. But with Brandon installed as the CEO, things change - and, if Brandon carefully perfects his craft, that could be a change for the better. If Wilson keeps tabs on the organization through Brandon - who will continue overseeing the marketing aspect of the franchise, as well as maintain some form of authority over the football organization - it'll take some of the pressure off of Nix and his staff members.
It's a delicate balance that Brandon has to strike. It won't be an easy balance to find. Wilson will still sign off on decisions, but if Brandon can find a way to get that clearance while letting Nix run the football operation his way, Buffalo is already ahead of where they've been for the past decade. That's easier said than done, obviously, and you can certainly make the argument that what Nix and his staff does is far more critical than Brandon essentially babysitting Wilson. I'm telling you right now - as much as I like Nix, and as much as I like the decisions he's made to this point, nothing is going to change in terms of wins and losses unless Brandon flexes his muscles as CEO and finds a way to keep his owner happy while letting Buddy run the ship his way.
I'm choosing to read the Whaley hiring as a sign that the pieces are working in an ideal manner at the moment. Whaley's hiring gives the front office a solid infrastructure for the first time since Donahoe's reign, and more importantly, it gives the Bills the semblance of a succession plan for when the 70-year-old Nix decides to retire to the golf course. I'm sure Wilson signed off on the Whaley hire, but this feels like a Buddy Nix idea - he was an Assistant GM himself, and therefore understands the value of having one. It's a good start. I urge you, however, to remember that for all of the work that needs to be done, it's the balancing act that Brandon is undertaking that could very well make or break what happens in Buffalo over the next several years.