Writing about the Buffalo Bills right now in a unique, non-redundant fashion is borderline impossible. News sources, blogs and fan sites everywhere have the Dick Jauron firing watch well in hand - even though I maintain that waiting on tenterhooks for that to happen will just lead to an increase in your frustration levels. The problems with the 1-4 Bills themselves are also well-documented, and don't change from week to week (i.e. quarterback, offensive line, run defense, special teams, penalties).
In short, talking about anything to do with the current Bills - Jauron, the front office, the team - is rather boring and repetitive. Those types of conversations don't interest me. Since the Bills clearly need fixing, however, it's quite interesting indeed to mull over the ways in which owner Ralph Wilson might do said fixing. That's what I'm going to do after the jump - that's a fair warning to those of you who'd rather not think about the future just yet. Another fair warning: this is going to be long.
And now, the nut graph: I've been told countless times by countless numbers of Bills fans that Ralph Wilson won't hire a GM. I'm going to attempt to explain to you, in my usual long-winded and convoluted way, why I don't think that's necessarily true.
In essence, everything that follows is simply me dumping my thoughts on you. Hope you don't mind. There isn't an exact science to fixing football teams - if there was, every team would be good every year. But there are several strong, smart paths the Bills can take to do so. Again, I think it's in everyone's best interests to wait until January to begin that process, even if that means letting Jauron close out the season as a lame duck coach. Hey - Rod Marinelli coached the Lions to 0-16, and they're slowly getting back on track. I'm not into moves made simply to make fans happy, so I'm more than OK with Jauron finishing out the season if, in fact, the Bills continue to lose.
Now for the interesting stuff. Interesting to me, at least. Assuming that the Bills miss the playoffs and Jauron is fired - I know, I'm really going out on a limb there - Wilson will be in a strange predicament. He'll have a front office full of people that he likes (Russ Brandon chief among them), but will have a hard time selling that front office to the fan base. He'll obviously need a new coach, too. I've already gone on record as saying that Wilson needs to bring in a General Manager, and while I'm certainly not counting on that to happen, it's freaking October, so permit me to dream fondly for at least another two months.
There are some basic truths that we need to accept as fact before we even discuss possible directions the Bills as a franchise could move in.
Wilson is still all about consensus. Marv Levy preached consensus throughout his entire Bills career, and he's still got Wilson's ear to this day. Wilson, therefore, will continue to preach consensus as well. But that doesn't necessarily mean continuity. All it means is that Wilson will look to implement a front office where power is diluted from what we might call a traditional NFL power structure. Wilson doesn't want "one voice." He wants several voices on the same page. That's tough to pull off, but it's certainly not impossible.
What Wilson needs to realize - and if we keep saying this loudly enough, he might get to that point - is that you can have consensus, but it's never universal. Ultimately, there needs to be one man with final say over personnel decisions. It's high time that that responsibility fall under the jurisdiction of someone other than the head coach - because that's exactly what we've had the past four seasons during the Jauron era.
Russ Brandon isn't going anywhere - nor should we want him to. Nor is he more than tangentially involved in football decisions. Brandon is a smart guy - he knows his weaknesses, and I'd be willing to bet that he'd have no problem deferring to someone with football clout so long as the decision could be agreed upon by the coaches, scouts and Wilson. Brandon is a key figure in the dream of Buffalo potentially hiring a GM, because he's uniquely qualified to work alongside a GM in a non-traditional way. He has Wilson's confidence, and Brandon could quite easily work alongside a football mind who has equal his power. Call it a co-GM if you wish - or, more specifically, having a GM in control of the business aspect of the team (oh! Jim Overdorf should stay too, by the way), and a GM in control of the team itself.
When Tom Donahoe was hired, Wilson didn't have that established front office presence in the fold. He gave Donahoe not just complete control of his football team, but the team presidency as well. I'm told constantly that Wilson won't do that again - and that's exactly why Brandon is so important. Wilson can bring in an outside GM with his own philosophy and culture, and Brandon is perfectly capable of working in that culture - because he has to sell it. With Brandon, you can literally insert any qualified GM into the picture; Brandon's presence preserves consensus, dilutes power, and Wilson can live comfortably knowing his front office philosophies are intact while his football team is in better hands. Brandon provides a flexibility to Wilson's decision-making that hasn't been there before.
A new culture is needed. Let's not sugar-coat the fact that there are qualified individuals currently in Buffalo's front office. Brandon is a great executive. No, he's not a traditional GM, but neither is the Jets' Mike Tannenbaum, and he's proving himself, at a minimum, competent. I think the world of Tom Modrak, and could still get behind him handling our college scouting team. Everyone else? Not so much. And I'm not married to the idea of Modrak so thoroughly that I'd let it compromise a new GM bringing a new culture to this team.
Ralph desperately needs to bring in a front office executive who has spent time with other organizations - and, far more importantly, done so within the last few seasons. The current front office folks, even the qualified ones, need a new influence to shake things up - the way they scout, the way they work, the way they do everything. Knowing that Brandon isn't going anywhere, finding that outside influence should be easy to do - and the younger and more energetic the candidate, the better, in my book. Maintaining the status quo by sticking with the current front office structure heading into the 2010 season is both unacceptable to the fan base, nor does it change much besides how the day-to-day of the team is handled by the new head coach. Yes, the latter is a culture change, but the culture change needs to extend into how personnel decisions are handled as well.
Ralph isn't going to break the bank. No, that's not calling him cheap. It's simply calling him frugal, which given the current state of the league and the upcoming labor issues isn't a bad thing. But it does, however, exclude the Bills from going out and competing for big-name hires such as Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden, Mike Shanahan, Mike Holmgren, et al. Let's face the music, folks: there are a LOT of bad football teams out there right now, and there are a lot of teams that could be looking for new coaches starting any time now. These guys will always be the first names to be mentioned for any vacancy.
I maintain that looking past the big names is the right move for the franchise. Let's use Cowher as an example. Yes, he's a terrific head coach, though I think his reputation is puffed up a bit by the fact that he coached for the greatest owners in sport, had a slew of spectacular assistant coaches (most prominent among them Dick LeBeau), and still only won one championship. I'm not saying he wouldn't be a good fit in Buffalo, nor am I saying that he wouldn't make this team better, but ultimately, what has changed? He wouldn't change the culture of the front office. In reality, he'd simply be taking over Jauron's responsibilities. That's an improvement, yes, but it does nothing to address the heart of the issue - the front office.
With all of that in mind, there are perfectly reasonable arguments to be made that could coerce Wilson into choosing to tinker with his front office before replacing Jauron. I am, and always will, maintain that that's the right decision to make - and I think it's perfectly possible for Wilson to either realize it, or have someone close to him realize it.
I've got the names of three men for you now - all are rising GM candidates, and all have unique qualities that could work in Wilson's ideal front office structure.
Marc Ross - Director of College Scouting, New York Giants (Ross reading material)
Ross is 34 years old. He's worked for the Bills before - as a national scout, under Tom Modrak. He worked as a scout for Modrak in Philadelphia, and was the Director of College Scouting there, too. Now, he works in the same capacity under Jerry Reese in New York, and has helped put together a couple of stellar draft classes for one of the best-run and easily-identifiable teams in the NFL right now. His best selection in those two years might be WR Mario Manningham, who has exploded onto the scene for New York this season.
If Wilson is looking to bring in some outside influence and culture while enabling as little shake-up to his front office as possible, Ross is clearly the best candidate. Ross is a "discovery" of Modrak's, so it's well beyond reasonable to assume that Ross would keep Modrak and his scouting staff on board - and again, that's not a bad thing. Buffalo has drafted relatively well the past few years, and Modrak is well-respected; with a different, more forceful personality calling the final shots, why can't it work? Ross is young enough to work alongside Brandon, too, and do so without complaint. As long as Ross gutted the pro personnel department - currently headed up by John Guy - he'd be a definite step in the right direction, and what's more, a beyond-plausible one for Wilson to consider.
Tell me why this wouldn't be possible, even to a mind that thinks as uniquely as Mr. Wilson:
Ralph Wilson - Owner, Team President
Russ Brandon - VP, Chief Operating Officer
Marc Ross - General Manager, Football Operations
Tom Modrak - Director of College Scouting
__________ - Director of Pro Personnel
__________ - Head Football Coach
What possible objection could Wilson have? You get the outside influence, you shake things up as little as possible, you get a football voice and streamline the efficiency of decision-making. Wilson himself, and the front office executives he'd be keeping (even if he forced Ross to keep Modrak, why would Ross object?), already have a familiarity with Ross. That's like win times a million.
Eric DeCosta - Director of Player Personnel, Baltimore Ravens (DeCosta reading material)
If Wilson's feeling a little gutsier, the 38-year-old DeCosta would be a great fit as well. The only difference in the above organizational chart would be blanking out Modrak's name, because DeCosta comes from an organization that does things in a very specific way. He'd demand a little more authority than Ross would just based on his background (in my book, that's nowhere near a bad thing). He, too, is still young enough to accept working next to Brandon, the liaison between a GM and Wilson.
If there's one team that embodies the type of play that Bills fans appreciate most on the field, it's Baltimore. You'll be hard-pressed to find a team that plays faster and more physically than Baltimore, particularly defensively. They're blue-collar. We're blue-collar. That's what makes DeCosta so endearing - that and the fact that he's essentially the right-hand man of one of the greatest General Managers in the league, Ozzie Newsome. DeCosta isn't as snug a fit if we're talking about realistic options, but again, I believe that Brandon's presence makes any GM candidate a possibility - and DeCosta has the chops to be a great one.
Ruston Webster - Vice President of Player Personnel, Seattle Seahawks (Webster reading material)
Webster, 49, is yet again slightly different from the first two names on the list in that his background has a little less to do with scouting and a little more to do with pro personnel - he's far more balanced than either Ross or DeCosta in that department. Right now, Webster is the right-hand man of Seahawks GM Tim Ruskell - and Seattle has had some success recently, and always seems to draft relatively well - but Webster was also part of the great Buccaneers teams of early this decade, that were perennial playoff contenders under Tony Dungy and a won a Super Bowl with Gruden.
Again, Webster is more of a stretch than Ross considering he'd very likely want to re-vamp both the scouting and pro personnel departments - and Wilson has a deep respect for Modrak. In that light, Webster is less realistic - but that doesn't make him a possibility worth exploring. For a third time, Webster is a candidate that could work next to Brandon while commanding full, final say over the shape of the football roster.
It should be noted right now that I have no preference about who Buffalo's next head coach might be. There are plenty of assistant coaches I think are more than worthy of consideration, and how can you not like most of the big names, even if only a little? I think it's far more important that Buffalo address their front office first, and then let the new decision-makers bring in a coach that fits in with their newly-imported culture, their football philosophies, and their personalities. NFL teams don't need to hire big-name head coaches when they bring in guys with the right attitude and when everyone's on the same page - just ask John Harbaugh, Mike Tomlin, Tony Sparano, or any of the other assistants who have proven themselves to be excellent head coaches lately (and yes, there are a lot of them).
That's it. If you've made it this far, bravo - you're either really bored at work, or you actually found all of that at least mildly interesting. I think this is an important point to be made - Wilson going out and hiring a GM is not only possible, but it actually makes a ton of frigging sense, and isn't as unrealistic as most gloom-and-doomers would have me believe. The names above are just examples; I'm sure there are other GM candidates out there that would make sense, too (though probably not as much realistic sense as Ross). Keep your dreams alive, Bills-fan-who-wants-a-GM, because it's perfectly plausible that Wilson will see how much sense it makes if the right advice, and the right man, come along.
This post, as all of our posts are, is open for discussion. Seriously - if you've got an argument to make that would convince me why these steps are not possible, I'd love to hear it. General thoughts and observations are, of course, welcome as well. Spread the word, folks - we need a GM, and if you know Mr. Wilson personally, let him know.