Buddy Nix has not left the building, but he's no longer the general manager of the Buffalo Bills. A replacement has not yet been named, but it's widely expected that Doug Whaley, Nix's chief understudy for the vast majority of the past three and a half years as Assistant GM, will assume the role he's been groomed for since 2010.
This is a transition that, despite repeated denials from pretty much everyone at One Bills Drive, has been expected since Russ Brandon inherited the team presidency on New Year's Day. The rhetoric only increased - again, despite the team's best efforts to quell it - when Whaley signed a highly publicized contract extension in February. In a critical off-season for the Bills, they have made a huge effort to shed the zeitgeist of the past decade in favor of a forward-thinking, youthful approach spearheaded by three 40-somethings in Brandon, Whaley and new head coach Doug Marrone.
They even went out and acquired a talented quarterback, selecting Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. The pick was a historic moment in franchise history - the Bills had never drafted a quarterback with their top pick in any draft prior to this year, unbelievably - and the hope-restoring selection served as Nix's last major maneuver as the final decision-maker in Buffalo's football operation.
When Nix was elevated to the GM post on December 31, 2009, he'd just spent most of a year as a national scout in Buffalo's meandering front office that had no final authority. Prior to that, he'd put in eight years with the San Diego Chargers, six of them spent as the Assistant GM under former Bills executive A.J. Smith. Both of those men cut their teeth under the late John Butler in Buffalo from 1993-2000. That level of familiarity was enough for owner Ralph Wilson to hand Nix the job, and his time in San Diego - during which the Chargers drafted two franchise quarterbacks in Drew Brees and Philip Rivers - at least gave fans something to bank on at the game's most important decision.
Now Whaley will be taking the reins in somewhat unique territory: he'll be the GM of a team that's charted a new direction at the most critical levels of the organization, most importantly at the quarterback position. But he also assumes his new responsibility months after Brandon and Marrone were put in place, and weeks after Nix made the final call on Manuel. To what date can we, as fans, retroactively apply praise or blame on Whaley? If Manuel ends up being a franchise quarterback, is Whaley merely the recipient of Nix's inherited genius? Or if Manuel doesn't pan out, football gods forbid, does Whaley get a shot at finding "his" quarterback, since Manuel was a Nix pick?
Back on April 9, I wrote a column on the pending Nix-to-Whaley transition, and how it created a unique opportunity for the Bills: one in which, if they played their cards right, the existing football operation at One Bills Drive could get two cracks at finding a franchise quarterback if so required. The idea behind that post was that since Nix would be leaving at some point, the team could take the risk on a Round 1 quarterback in April, then cut bait with Nix after a year or two in the name of letting Whaley take his stab at the position if said quarterback didn't pan out. I firmly believe that line of thought played a role in the decision to pick Manuel this season, but with the transition beginning so soon, my view on the matter has changed.
When Whaley is promoted (it's almost a foregone conclusion at this point), he'll be the last shoe to drop in one of the most memorable off-seasons in franchise history. He'll be one of the four major faces of the organization, right alongside Brandon, Marrone and Manuel - and all four men will be heading into the 2013 season as the poster children of a fresh start. If the rookie quarterback doesn't pan out, there will undoubtedly be people that label it Nix's final failure as GM. I won't hear any of that. If we can give Nix credit for Brees and Rivers in San Diego, then we can absolutely credit Whaley for Manuel, no matter which way it pans out. Whaley has been at One Bills Drive for over three years; regardless of who had the final call, Whaley's level of involvement was already at an all-time high this spring. Manuel is now Whaley's quarterback. Period.
Let the Brandon, Whaley, Marrone and Manuel era begin. Godspeed, gentlemen.