I don't know if you've noticed, but in the span of about a week, the Miami Dolphins have suddenly become the laughingstock of the AFC East. Maybe this was a slow decline that started when their team had one of the worst records in the beginning of the season. Maybe it suddenly happened that Mario Williams joining Buffalo made us look good long enough for people to realize how dysfunctional Miami was. Either way, some truly brutal criticism has been directed the Dolphins' way recently:
- A group of Miami Dolphins fans organized a protest today against the alleged mismanagement of the franchise by GM Jeff Ireland and Owner Stephen Ross.
- Free Agent Safety Ryan Clark recently remarked how the Dolphins were a franchise that no one wanted to play for.
- Sports Illustrated writer Peter King wrote Monday about the failure of the Dolphins to field a consistently competitive team for a decade.
- ESPN AFC East writer James Walker wrote recently about the Dolphins' failure to acquire a decent quarterback in free agency and their terrible offseason.
- Miami Herald writer Armando Salguero penned an opinion piece questioning the entire offseason plan of the Dolphins and how it made the team worse.
In short, there's a lot of people suddenly realizing that Miami is a bad team in a bad plan for the future. Let's now have a moment of silence to reflect on the schadenfreude of seeing so many people hating on the Fish.
Now, why is this relevant? Well, seeing so many people beating up the Dolphins, it really reminded me of the final days of the Jauron regime and the aftermath. Buffalo was a laughingstock, a place up north that snowed 10 months a year, where the prime entertainment was a waterfall, the team that couldn't go to the playoffs in a decade (okay, we're still not there, but that's going to change). Here's some of those memories:
- Buffalo attempted to interview Brian Schottenheimer and he declined. They offered a job to Jim Harbaugh and he declined. Buffalo made strides towards Bill Cowher, but he declined (although it was more that he wasn't interested in coaching than not being interested in Buffalo). Mike Shanahan interviewed with the Bills, but ultimately spurned them to coach with Washington.
- Buffalo, with Jacksonville, topped a list of potential teams to relocate to Los Angeles.
- Buffalo hired Chan Gailey, to the extreme skepticism of the fanbase after a long coaching search. Yahoo Sports panned the move as bland and Peter King also questioned the effectiveness of the hiring process.
That's just the tip of the iceberg for a team that, for years, was panned for having no direction or action plan. Buddy Nix, Chan Gailey, and Russ Brandon had a big job ahead of them. But two years later, I think we can say that this franchise has been transformed almost completely. It is truly amazing how far we've come.
Buddy Nix brings stability and steadfastness to a long-neglected role
Nowadays, it's hard to remember just how dark the times were between Bill Polian and Buddy Nix. Between Tom Donahoe, Marv Levy, and the GM-less times, Buffalo had no success for a number of years, and no accountability in the recent years. That we can forget those times is a testament to how much Buddy Nix has stabilized the GM position in Buffalo. He came in following a regime in tatters. Despite his age, he steadied the ship early. The hiring of Chan Gailey turned out to a be a shrewd one which stabilized the team and kept the fans and media from having too-high expectations early. It also left Buddy with the power to build the team as he wished instead of having to defer to a powerful coach like Mike Shanahan.
Buddy's drafting style is simple but effective. He dislikes trading - he values each of his draft picks. Trading up removes his ability to maximize the value of picking as many players as he can. Trading down removes his ability to pick a player that is rated highly enough to be picked at the original spot. This means that on draft day, he has been boring, but effective. Scouting players has been mixed through two years, but greatly improved between 2010 and 2011, which gives hope that the 2012 draft will be just as good at finding capable starters.
Buddy's free agent style for two years was to fill in depth with proven veterans and not to overspend on hot talent. This was changed greatly in the third offseason of his regime, when Buffalo went all-out pursuing the All-Pro DE Mario Williams. Nix showed that he was not against going after truly exceptional players when he wanted to improve his team, and the carefully-orchestrated gambit worked, getting Buffalo a player who can make a difference in the future.
Most importantly, what Buddy did was build up a succession plan. The hiring of Assistant GM Doug Whaley implemented a clear successor who fits into Buddy's style of team building. Key staffers and policies have been added to define a system for scouting players and building the roster. He has a style of drafting, a style of signing players, and a style of negotiating contracts. Agents, players, and coaches know what they're getting with Buddy Nix - which is part of the reason he's been able to get players like Mario Williams and coaches like David Lee to join the team.
Chan Gailey brings an attitude of winning and family to a muddled team
Chan Gailey was not a popular hire. On our own website, he had around a 25% approval rating the day his hiring was announced. After a decade of futility from names like Jauron and Mularkey, fans were hoping for a big impact - Bill Cowher, Mike Shanahan, or Brian Billick. Instead they got the former offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, who hadn't head coached the NFL in ten years. Chan Gailey is not a stellar leader like Marv Levy was. He is smart, but hasn't been good enough to string together a great season yet. He also is no master of secrets like Bill Belichick.
What Chan is, is his own man. Known by his players as "Megamind," his penchant for constructing effective offenses and plays to work with any group of players is astonishing. While his gameplanning has its ups and downs, when he's on his game, Chan is able to make incredible halftime adjustments that turn the tides against opponents. Chan is not beholden to anyone's coaching tree - he has worked with many different coaches and developed his own style.
A big change Chan brought to the team was in personality. The Jauron years were muddled, with weak comments and a team identity of disappointed coping. Chan Gailey is frank, blunt, and straightforward. He does not lie, he does not hide. He says things exactly as they are. He loves winning, and he expects to win. Football is "a tough game for tough people." He expects his players to be tough, both physically and mentally. Gone is the attitude of complacency. Another change came with the turnover of players from Jauron's regime. This new Bills team is a scrappy one (with our Goon Squad and all the forgotten and undrafted players on the roster), and it is a family. Remember the Bills of the 90's? Jim, Thurman, Bruce, Andre, Steve, Kent... They were all one big family, and they still are. Our Bills are getting that identity back. Fitz, Stevie, Kyle, Fred, the offensive line, all these players are growing together. Chan's guidance as the mentor that brings them in is a big reason why.
Chan Gailey is not the perfect coach. However, he is one of the most innovative minds in football, and a straight talker. He attracts all varieties of coaches to work with him, and is well-loved by his players. He inspires winning, toughness, and accountability in a team. He is not the perfect coach, but he is exactly the coach that Buffalo needs.
Russ Brandon: The Master of Marketing
Russ Brandon was one of the most-panned figures from the Jauron regime. As a businessman being placed in a football role, he largely failed to achieve any success during the draft or offseason. When Buddy Nix took over as GM, Brandon was promoted to CEO, and many people were wondering why he wasn't fired instead. Brandon has proved the haters wrong with some truly innovative techniques to market the Bills doing what he does best - running the business.
To see the impact Russ Brandon has had, you have to understand where Buffalo's team was a couple years ago. In 2009, we were a team of dwindling respect that was lined up as the next franchise for LA to absorb. Instead, marketing efforts to play games in Toronto spread the team up to the Great White North to grab even more support, and renewed contracts with St. John Fisher kept the team's presence in the Rochester area. What could have been a team for the city of Buffalo is instead one supported by a wide swath of Western New York and Southern Ontario.
Brandon has overseen many successful changes in marketing the Bills as well. New uniforms, unveiled for this past season, gave Buffalo a fresh look after years of ugliness. The stadium field was redone with fresh turf including blue endzones, to brighten up the touchdown scores. Collaborations with local companies like Tops and M&T Bank continue to be successful. The Buffalo social media has remained up to date also.
Then there is Brandon's expertise with the business side of signing a player. Working with Jim Overdorf, he has built up a successful contract negotiation operation that signs players fairly and effectively. Contracts for players like Stevie Johnson may have taken time, but the final results are well-crafted and frugal, while still supporting the player. Even Mario Williams got a contract well-balanced between absolute guarantees, salary cap troubles, and frugality. There's also the effort Brandon put together in his all-out-blitz to secure the services of Mario Williams. A private jet, dinner with the GM and DC, time with the team ambassador Jim Kelly, hotel accomodations, a Sabres game. Brandon pulled out all the stops to impress Williams, and it worked.
Yes, Russ Brandon is not perfect, and many of his marketing ploys have backfired. The Toronto series was panned for essentially "giving away" a home game each year, as well as low attendance. There was the infamous Bills postcard sent out, featuring Brian Moorman punting from within his own endzone. And then there was the failed "white-out" against the New York Jets this year, in which wearing away uniforms backfired when the team started weakly, leading to a blowout loss. However, each of these marketing opportunities, while being unhelpful on the football field, also led to a great deal of revenue (especially the Toronto Series), which benefits the Bills in their own way when trying to put together $100 million contracts.
Russ Brandon was panned for his lack of football expertise in the Jauron Regime. But with an effective Football Man in place at the GM position, Brandon has been able to truly shine as a master of business for Buffalo. Effectively marketing the team to the whole region, he continues to find new income streams and is a big reason why so many people continue supporting the Bills through all the hard times. As the third piece of the puzzle, Russ Brandon brings together Buffalo's marketing to match their identity on the football field.
Change we could believe in
So this is a lesson for not just Bills fans, but Dolphins fans, and all fans of football teams out there. Your team may be in the darkest of dark times. Someone may get hired that you've never heard of, that couldn't possibly be the right fit for your team, that hasn't even worked in over a year. A personnel member on a sinking ship may get a promotion instead of a pink slip. Times will be dark, but stability will, ironically, bring change. This was possibly Ralph's greatest gift to the franchise: A team of hard-working, knowledgeable, loyal staffers who truly want to make this the best team in the league. We may not have approved of them when they were brought in, and we may not approve of things they do down the line. There may be players drafted or plays drawn up that leave you scratching your head and wondering why we hired who we did. The answer to that, above all else, is that we changed the culture. It took a couple of years, and we aren't done yet, but we did it. Buffalo is going to be a city of winners. And Buddy, Chan, Russ, and Ralph are going to lead us there. It's going to be a bumpy ride on the Whagon Blaster, but climb aboard now, because soon it's gonna be crowded.