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Doug Whaley’s era marked by strategic failure, tactical success

Buffalo’s now-former GM had a knack for short-term gains, but never tied them to long-term victories.

In my 2017 Buffalo Bills NFL Draft guide, I wrote up my thoughts about Doug Whaley’s tenure with the Bills. Originally, I wanted to title it “why Doug Whaley will have been fired,” given the hazy smoke that had been following him for the last season, but I decided to hold off. Within a week, that smoke burst into a conflagration that consumed Whaley’s job along with the rest of the scouting department. Here’s that article again, edited for the current situation.

Tactics and strategy are not synonymous. A great tactician is like a skilled chessplayer, someone who can see a goal, lay down an action plan, and achieve a specific objective. Doug Whaley is an excellent tactician. Shrewd and open-minded, he can make deals and take advantage of opportunities.

The LeSean McCoy trade is a classic example. A team called, offering an All-Pro running back, and Whaley was able to develop a plan with an acceptable cost to secure his services. Another example: the Sammy Watkins trade. Yes, the final cost involved a significant chunk of change from a future draft, but it allowed him to get the most refined talent at receiver and hold onto extra picks in the talent-rich 2014 draft. That’s not a bad tactic to take, especially when he was able to trade down in the second round with the pick he saved, adding another pick while still getting his guy.

Another tactic commonly attributed to Whaley, who was assistant GM at the time: the Jerry Hughes trade. Buffalo turned an underwhelming starter in Kelvin Sheppard into a high-upside pass rusher who panned out big-time.

These are the circumstances that people with a good impression of Whaley like to cite as a reminder of his skill. And they’re certainly well-executed individual events. But the issue with Whaley, which is what draws his detractors, is that he can’t see the forest for the trees. His strategy is lacking.

Tactics must follow a strategy

While tactics are the action plan to achieve a goal, strategy is the high level plan that sets the goals in the first place. We’re talking about the difference between a commander and a general, here. Who has followed Game of Thrones?

Robb Stark was an excellent tactician. With his ability to direct his men in surprising and effective ways, he won the Battle in the Whispering Wood, capturing Jaime Lannister in the process. But his strategy wasn’t on the same level as Tywin Lannister. Stark struggled to manage his bannermen’s motivations, keep his allies happy, and arrange defensive plans for his homeland.

On the other side, Lannister was an outstanding strategist. With the northern lands openly revolting against the king, he named his son as Hand of the King and instructed him to fortify the capital’s defenses. He kept his tactics flexible, retreating his army from one battle to prepare for another, and arranging marriages to secure the claim to key areas of land. With no significant tactical victories over Stark, he was able to crush the Northern aggression by layering plans of key assassinations, alliances, and politics.

Whaley is not a great strategist. Now that he’s fired, one reason is clear: He failed at melding his tactics with an effective, clearly-defined strategy. The team’s goals and priorities kept shifting, ignoring opportunities for long-term thinking to pragmatically shape the organization. This is why you hear the Bills preaching about One Voice and talking about trusting the process. The Pegulas settled on Sean McDermott as the face of their team because he sold them on a unified vision for the organization.

The entirety of the issue doesn’t rest on Whaley’s shoulders. Doug Marrone’s resignation at the end of the 2014 season shouldn’t be considered an indictment of Whaley, but instead an artifact of the uncertainty of new owners. But the decision to bet on EJ Manuel as quarterback, to double down by trading away the future for Sammy Watkins, to allow the team to shift defensive coordinators for six straight seasons, et cetera: Those should have been made with serious forethought.

Case study: Buffalo’s running backs

The 2013 Bills roster featured a two-headed tandem of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Spiller was coming off an outstanding season with Chan Gailey’s offense, (though Gailey had just been replaced with Doug Marrone,) and the 32-year-old Jackson was no slouch. Both players rushed for over 4 yards per carry in Nate Hackett’s offense, and contributed significant production in the passing game. Jackson had the better year, but Spiller was still only 26.

In the 2014 draft, Whaley was offered running back Bryce Brown in trade. Brown had played a few remarkable games for the Eagles in 2012 but was languishing on the bench in part due to fumbling issues. Whaley traded a future fourth round pick for Brown. A month earlier, he had signed Anthony “Boobie” Dixon to the roster as a special teamer who could also run in short yardage. Suddenly the depth chart was crowded. Due to injuries, Jackson and Spiller both missed time during the season, which gave Dixon and Brown playing time despite the week one depth chart. Dixon and Brown contributed a decent amount of production, but neither proved to be a valuable running back.

In 2015, Whaley was offered LeSean McCoy in a trade. He accepted, trading away former rookie star Kiko Alonso, and adding an All-Pro running back. In part to convince McCoy to play for the roster, Whaley then signed him to a major contract extension. McCoy was only 27 years old, but he had a lot of mileage on his tires as a franchise runner. Spiller was allowed to depart as a free agent, Jackson was cut, and Brown also vanished one year after he was traded for a fourth round pick. The Bills also invested a fifth round pick on Karlos Williams, which paid dividends when the rookie scored nine touchdowns. The team added Jerome Felton as a fullback on an expensive contract. Dixon remained on the roster, almost purely as a special teams player, McCoy played through some injuries in a down year, and late-season free agent pickup Mike Gillislee also finished the season strong.

The following year, the Bills drafted another running back, Jonathan Williams from Arkansas, using a fifth round pick. They cut Karlos Williams, who showed up to camp overweight and got suspended for drug usage. The team also signed Reggie Bush to nominally play as their “speed” back, though he contributed essentially no value. McCoy and Gillislee had tremendous seasons, and Jonathan Williams mostly sat on the bench until the end of the season.

To start the 2017 offseason, the Bills had Gillislee as a restricted free agent. They offered him the lowest-cost “original round” tender, despite his prior season with 8 touchdowns and 5.7 yards per carry, and lo and behold, the Patriots extended a qualifying offer to sign him away from Buffalo. Meanwhile, the team added fullbacks Patrick DiMarco and Mike Tolbert to their stuffed roster. In the 2017 draft, the team stood pat and didn’t add any runners to the roster.

In the last four years, the team:

-Spent Kiko Alonso, a 2015 4th, a 2015 5th, and a 2016 5th on running backs.

-Signed Reggie Bush to a $1.5M contract

-Signed LeSean McCoy to a $40M contract

-Signed Jerome Felton to a $9.2M contract

-Signed Patrick DiMarco to an $8.4M contract

-Signed Mike Tolbert to a $1M contract.

That’s a lot of money and draft capital spent on a position that doesn’t have very much impact in the modern NFL, and a lot of it was spent dealing with churn at the position. If the team had been more pragmatic choosing players in the draft, or determined that investing a lot in the running game wouldn’t deliver very many returns, they could’ve used those picks and that cap space for depth around the roster while retaining players like Spiller or Gillislee.

Instead, they find themselves again wondering if they need to add a running back, with no viable backups ready.

Ultimately not the leader the Bills wanted

Scenarios like this, which demonstrate a lack of vision, are why Whaley was ultimately fired from his job. Along with that, Whaley never impressed as a leader. He tried playing politics with the Pegulas, succeeding in creating bad press for Rex Ryan that led him to be fired, but making his own job vulnerable to the same. He struggled to stay on the media’s good side, and his press conferences were notoriously vague.

When the Pegulas begin their general manager search, expect them to have a few qualities in mind. They’ll want a strong communicator and a team player who works well with the entire organization. They’ll want someone who buys into the unified process and shares a vibe with McDermott, in the hopes of a long period of stability. But the crucial quality will be to identify a candidate who can build up a long term strategy to support McDermott’s vision for a team, and support it with tactics, rather than revising it.