How much has changed at One Bills Drive?
That's a question that we've been asking for over a year now - ever since Russ Brandon inherited the team presidency from owner Ralph Wilson - and while the answer remains "not enough," an opportunity for change now exists.
Tim Graham of The Buffalo News did some serious work on the reporting front over the weekend, shedding light into a growing disconnect between the "new guard" of the Buffalo Bills - GM Doug Whaley and head coach Doug Marrone, specifically - and the "old guard" they're struggling to work with, namely CFO Jeffrey Littman, Senior VP of Football Administration Jim Overdorf, and even Senior VP of Communications Scott Berchtold.
The reporting began on Saturday, when Graham penned an article about the desire of the coaching staff to replace long-time head athletic trainer Bud Carpenter. That report dealt mostly with the practices of Carpenter and his staff in rehabbing injuries, but hinted at the bigger-scale report that came out overnight.
In that account, Graham details specific issues that Whaley and Marrone have had in their first year-plus in charge - at least in name - of the Bills' football department. You're encouraged to carefully read both reports, but these are the key passages to pay attention to:
But team sources tell me executives such as Littmann, Overdorf and Berchtold still hold too much sway and haven't afforded Whaley or Marrone as much control as either feels he needs to correct a losing culture.
These sources tell me Marrone and Whaley would like more control over personnel decisions, especially free agents.
The sources say Marrone and Whaley feel they've been hung out to dry in certain media situations that made them and the team look bad.
The fact that disgruntled sources are speaking to Graham means two things: political posturing is ongoing from the so-called new guard; and however one-sided things may seem now, there is clearly a level of frustration in the building at One Bills Drive that shouldn't be there.
Which brings us back to Brandon.
When Wilson gave his presidency to Brandon on January 1, 2013, he also gave him "full authority over the entire organization's operations," to quote the team's press release on that date. That's as cut and dried as NFL language gets: Brandon is ultimately responsible for every aspect of the organization.
This disconnect, presumably, has existed in his building for longer than one weekend, considering that Whaley and Marrone aren't even in said building right now (they're in Indianapolis at the NFL Combine). One would expect Brandon to be aware of such a rift. With things now coming to a head, we're about to see how much influence Brandon truly exerts.
Brandon is the same guy that, at least publicly, has shown signs of wanting to back out of the long-hated Toronto Series (though we have yet to see any resolution on that front) for football performance reasons. But that series is a recent development in the team history books - much more recent than Carpenter, Littman, Overdorf and Berchtold rising to power; all have been with the Bills since at least the late 1980s. Littman was Wilson's right-hand man during the team's stretch of Super Bowl seasons; all of those names were on board for those championship runs, and have been in positions of power during the team's 14-seasons-and-counting playoff drought, as well.
The reports don't make clear exactly what changes are believed necessary by Whaley and Marrone. Those details are less important than the idea that they don't believe they have every tool they need to pull off one of the hardest jobs in pro football: turning around one of the league's worst franchises of the past two decades. Ultimately, that's a goal of the leaks to Graham - to posture Whaley and Marrone as the clean-up crew, fighting the good fight in trying to return the franchise to its winning ways - but it doesn't change the fact that the only man with the power to give them those tools is Brandon.
Brandon has a situation to defuse here. Fans are less (read: not) concerned about the political workings of the front office, focusing instead on the on-field product. That's the area of the team that should be under the sole jurisdiction of Whaley and Marrone. If these reports hold truth, and those two men don't have complete authority over how their team is built, then the solution for Brandon is clear: make damn sure that they have that authority. Investigate the rest, but be absolutely certain of that. Let your football men succeed or fail on their own intuition and decisions, and not those colored by less important figures in the stagnant portions of the front office.
That question we asked the day Brandon was promoted is highly relevant today: how much has changed at One Bills Drive with Wilson passing the torch to Brandon? This seems like a prime opportunity to find out.