From Nix to Whaley: Analyzing the General Manager Transition in Buffalo

By: PFC Contributor James Duignan

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I waited a week or so after the Bills promoted Doug Whaley to General Manager to let the dust settle, and try to analyze how he plans to change the culture of the Buffalo Bills. Most likely, Whaley will be expected to impliment his experience and expertise with the successful Pittsburgh Steelers front office into Buffalo. At first glance this hiring seems like a no brainer for most Bills fans, but like every other hiring, we must temper our expectations. Fans thought Chan Gailey would give Buffalo the offensive expertise they had lacked for years under Jauron, and after being highly touted by Bill Cowher, most Bills fans were very supportive of the hire. With Whaley being promoted we should look at what went wrong during the Nix era and regimes in the past, and what Whaley must do to help turn this team back into a playoff threat at the very least.

On New Years Eve in 2009, Buddy Nix was promoted to GM for the Buffalo Bills under newly promoted CEO Russ Brandon. This move was a surprise to many who hoped Buffalo would be able to land one of Bill Cowher or Mike Shannahan. Bills fans had been tortured under Marv Levy and the so-called “inner circle” at One Bills Drive who notably failed to develop a quarterback, and often missed on early draft picks. The worse part of this regime was that no one seemed to be in charge, no one took blame for any of the poor draft picks, and the status quo seemed to last much too long under coach Dick Jauron. While Buddy has been far from a superior GM for the Buffalo Bills, I truly believe he left this team in a slightly better situation than when he came, however, I feel that he was very off base last year when he laughed about how horrible himself and Chan Gailey felt the roster was when they came, and how much better it had become prior to 2012. Keep in mind the previous regime went 7-9 in each of Jauron’s seasons in Buffalo, something “CHIX” never reached in a single year. Buddy’s time in Buffalo can be summarized by a very desperate fan base begging a team (that displayed flashes of potential) for a winning product, only to fall short each season.

When Bills fans look back and remember Buddy’s personnel decisions in Buffalo we will most likely remember him drafting the safest player available, as well as rarely making any trades on draft day. The safe pick always looked great on draft day, with NFL media sources constantly giving Buffalo high grades for their picks, but come September these grades becomes irrelevant. When the Bills chose Marcel Dareus in 2010, most Bills fans (including myself) jumped for joy as the franchise finally made a correct decision at the top of the draft. However, three years have passed and the 6 picks around Dareus have all become all-pro caliber players, while Dareus is still trying to find his “niche” in the NFL. This is not to say Dareus isn’t a solid player, but to point out that taking the “safe pick” has consequences. Take the selection of Aldon Smith four picks later for an example. The 49ers knew the importance of a pass rusher, and felt Smith was the best pass rushing outside linebacker in the draft, and although he was a risky pick, he has been the most productive player on the NFL’s best defense since being selected in 2011. The same can be said for Jason Pierre-Paul in New York.  This type of pick is what the Bills lacked under Nix. They failed to address quarterback, they took safe players like CJ Spiller (who is a great player, but Lynch was and still is a top 10 NFL running back, making his selection unnecessary), Marcell Dareus, and Aaron Williams, and realized the hard way that a team can not be built around players in non essential positions. Having a quarterback, rushing the quarterback, and protecting the quarterback are the keys to building a playoff team in today’s game, not establishing a great run game, defending receivers, and playing quality special teams.

Another major criticism I have of Nix’s time here is the constant change on the defensive side of the ball. While this may not be entirely his fault, Nix should have employed a suitable defensive coordinator for the type of defense he planned to run. In 2010 the bills brought in Chan Gailey and instructed his defensive coordinator George Edwards to run a base 3-4 system. Keep in mind Edwards had never ran a 3-4 during his time in the NFL. Halfway through the season the Bills transitioned back to a 4-3 after starting the year 0-8. This changed back and forth from a 3-4 to a 4-3 for the remainder of Gailey’s time in Buffalo. It should be noted that the philosophical difference from the front office to the coaching staff was the problem, however, this sort of difference should never have happened in the first place. In 2012, the Bills finally committed to the 4-3 under Dave Wannstedt, which blew up in their face as the traditional defense could not adapt to new NFL strategies and got grossly exposed by the Patriots changing plays based on defensive alignment that Wannstedt never figured out, and both the Seahawks and 49ers that used the read option to decimate their very slow front 7. While these matters can be blamed on the coaching staff, the fact that Nix never committed to a defense during his time in Buffalo really affected his personnel, as some players like Alex Carrington, Torrell Troup, or even a guy like Chris Kelsay were restricted to only being effective in specific defensive sets. Not only did this make it difficult for some players to transition to different positions, but changing the defensive alignment hindered the development of many young players, and made it nearly impossible for Buffalo to groom players into successful starters when they are spending most of their time learning new playbooks each year. Kelvin Sheppard, once a promising middle linebacker, can be seen as an example of how much changing systems affects players, as he never improved and was eventually traded.

Finally, while many of us dwell on the negatives during Nix’s tenure as the Bills GM (most notably a 16-32 record during his three years, his extension of Ryan Fitzpatrick, or keeping Chan Gailey around), I must give Buddy credit for landing the biggest free agent Buffalo has signed since Bryce Paup in 1995. Many will attribute the $100 million dollar contract to why Mario Williams signed in Buffalo, but I will argue that at least two or three of the teams, who were lobbying for him to leave his trip to Buffalo (just ask ESPN), would have matched that contract. Buddy Nix sold Mario and his (ex) fiancé on the potential of this franchise, and signing with a team who was not considered a threat to the Super Bowl last season. Say what you will, but I don’t see players with Williams’ talent signing with sub .500 teams very often, if they ever do hit the market. Buddy used the 4-3 defense under newly hired Dave Wannstedt to intrigue Mario Williams with his fit in the defense. I will give Nix the credit he deserves with that signing, as not only did it give every Bills fan sleepless nights during his roller coaster of a free agent visit, but he also gave hope to a fan base who was in dire need of it. Resigning Steve Johnson was also a huge success for Nix, as they retained one of their best players at a much lower price than he would have been given on the market. This was a critical move for Nix, as he would have been very contradictory if he had let Stevie walk after constantly stressing the importance of drafting and retaining talent. This, to me, was always the defining moment of Nix’s time in Buffalo. I will always remember these two transactions, as something the Bills brass in years past would have rarely done.

Most assumed Buddy Nix would be fired along with Gailey at the conclusion of the season. CEO Russ Brandon was promoted to team president that day, and surprisingly decided to keep Buddy around in his GM role. Most fans saw through this and assumed they were waiting until after the draft for Buddy to retire and for the Bills to promote up-and-comer VP Doug Whaley, however following the draft, Buddy completely shot down rumors that he would be retiring any time soon. I was very skeptical myself after Buffalo drafted only a single SEC player in Chris Gragg during the 2013 draft in the 7th round. Further, when Buffalo decided not to do much in free agency (despite plenty of holes and lots of cap space), let young guard Levitre walk, and franchise tag Jairus Byrd; this could have foreshadowed Buddy’s fate, as Nix clearly did not want to make risky financial commitments knowing he was on his way out. When Buddy announced his transition to an advisor role prior to the start of the BLESTO meetings, it was only a surprise considering he blatantly denied it only a few weeks prior. Bills fans should assume that both Whaley and Marrone primarily conducted the draft, as it is doubtful Buddy would have had a significant input knowing he would be leaving shortly after. When it is all said and done, Whaley’s first pick of EJ Manuel as the unofficial GM of the Buffalo Bills could be the biggest pick of his career.

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While I am a big supporter of Doug Whaley and feel that he will bring a sense of youth and new direction to the team, there is only one real question I have with the Steelers front office philosophy that Whaley will likely be implementing in Buffalo. The Steelers are known for their ability to groom talent from within the organization. This means that instead of signing high priced free agents, or retaining old declining players on large contracts, the Steelers traditionally have called upon their developing players and trust that they can step up to be the “next in line” so to speak. A perfect example of this management can be seen with the transition from Joey Porter to James Harrison in 2007. Porter was coming off a respectable 7-sack season (10.5 the year prior), and was about to hit an escalator in his contract. The Steelers decided to part ways with Porter, and were confident in his backup James Harrison taking his place. While Porter signed a huge 5-year contract with the Dolphins, Harrison was preparing to step into a starting role, coming off of a horrendous 11-tackle season where he was mostly known for special teams and tackling drunken fans running on the field. Harrison clearly lived up to the expectations of the front office, becoming a 2nd team AFC All-Pro selection in his first year starting at outside linebacker, and winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year a year later. The point of this comparison is that this transition worked because Harrison was groomed for a number of years in the same system behind a very good player. In Buffalo there is a revolving door in depth positions, where players must be overachievers on special teams rather than being groomed for future success. This can be seen where promising young players like Naaman Roosevelt are cut in favor of special teams “aces” Brad Smith or Ruvell Martin. What Whaley must realize is that Buffalo is nowhere near ready to have depth players like Colin Brown, Lee Smith, or Mana Silva step up into starting roles if Wood, Chandler, or Byrd end up walking this offseason. It is not a secret in the NFL that players can overcome a lack of natural, physical talent with very good work ethic and knowledge of the system. The later of the two is especially important, and is a direct result of franchise and coaching stability. A team like Pittsburgh has the ability to use nearly the same system effectively each year, and by the time these third or fourth year players have developed physically (keep in mind some of these guys haven’t fully grown by the time they are drafted), they have ran the same playbook for their time with the franchise and will not have to worry about learning a new system. Think of how Torrell Troup could be prepared to be a full time starter when Kyle Williams finally succumbs to injuries if he had been developed in a 3-4 as a nose tackle his entire time in Buffalo?

Whaley will have his work cut out for him with the draft process, as noted above, one of the biggest criticisms I have of the teams previous philosophy was to find strictly special teams players late in the draft. If he wants to use the Steelers’ grooming philosophy he will need to build a strong starting unit, and start developing talent behind them. This will not happen if Buffalo can’t find more than two or three year starters, or draft effectively. Buffalo most likely had the worst linebacking unit in football last season, but still managed to cut their 5th round pick Tank Carder. While I don’t think Carder was anywhere near ready to contribute to the team on defense, I think it should be noted that if he was drafted by an elite organization he would be a depth player for a few years, while mastering the playbook and adjusting to the physicality of the NFL. A few years later Carder could have blossomed into a very efficient starting linebacker. The Bills decided to waive Carder and make room on their active roster for their special teams aces Brad Smith and Ruvell Martin who rarely contributed in any fashion last season. This is the type of philosophy that has doomed the bills for years. Players are not drafted to be contributors in the future or have a “niche” in the present. Rather, mid to late round picks are expected to either be ready to contribute immediately from day one, or they must be very efficient on special teams. This has left Buffalo with absolutely no depth, new players coming and going every season, and very little home grown talent in the mid to late rounds.

The reality of the situation is that while Whaley does have pressure and expectations from impatient fans, he is in a very good situation considering the failures of management before him. Truthfully, Buffalo hasn’t had a successful General Manager since John Butler in the mid 90’s. Donahoe was the whipping boy for some very poor Bills teams but in retrospect he did employ the notorious but successful Gregg Williams, and both Tom Clements and Dick Lebeau who still remain two of the best coordinators in football. Further, he traded for the three time Pro Bowler Drew Bledsoe. Levy/Modrak/Jauron/whoever else was in the so-called “inner circle” in Buffalo was known for horrible defensive schemes, absolutely no offensive production, poor drafting, and overall no accountability from anyone inside the organization. Buddy, as noted above, was unsuccessful due to his allegiance to Gailey, his inability to draft a quarterback (passed over both Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson in back to back years in favor of Fitzpatrick), and being very out of touch with the realities of today’s game. So how does this help Whaley? He can be a very moderate general manager and still be much better than those in years past. He already has a quarterback of the future (who he can blame on Nix if Manuel does bust…), a solid foundation of young talent, and a fresh young minded coaching staff. Most importantly though, Whaley reports to Russ Brandon who seems smart enough not to meddle with any football activities, something many Bills fans accuse Ralph of during the “inner circle” era, and in years past.

At the end of the day, Whaley’s success as the General Manager in Buffalo will be determined by bringing the Bills back to the playoffs, and developing a competent quarterback. The Bills don’t need Manuel to be Aaron Rogers, or win a Super Bowl for Whaley to be considered a competent General Manager. The reality is that if he can end the NFL’s longest playoff drought, and find some sort of stability at the quarterback position, he will be more efficient than the GM’s before him. Whaley should learn from past regimes that the NFL has changed where quarterback play determines the success of a team. In drafting Manuel, the arrow is pointing up in Buffalo, and hopefully the transition to a younger (more in touch) front office will be the cure for this team. Time will tell, but at this point I am more than happy to see Whaley lead the team for the foreseeable future.

Comments

  1. Yeah I have some questions about this guy, he doesn’t know all his facts but I think some of his points are spot on.
    First off, Aaron Williams was a 2nd round pick…
    The Bills took safe picks in Gilmore and Dareus, but CJ was anything
    but. He was a high potential luxury pick, there was no guarantee he
    would pan out. And the Bills had 2 All Pro calibre RBs already in
    Freddie and Marshawn.
    I don’t agree with his comments about Chan failing bring offense to
    Buffalo. He did, he just never had a QB who could properly execute and
    he thought he could make Fitz into Tom Brady. Chan’s over confidence in
    Fitz and his loyalty to him was the biggest issue, not a lack of
    knowledge or scheming. Put a good QB on the Bills under Chan and they
    win 2 more games per year maybe more. There was serious oversight for
    the QB position though by Buddy, and that is inexcusable.
    Fo the 3-4/4-3 debate this guy has no clue, First off George Edwards was
    not a coach at GT, he was a LB coach at Florida and before that he was a
    LB coach of a 3-4 defense in Miami. So he in fact did coach the 3-4
    but he was a rookie as a DC in his time in Buffalo. He couldn’t get it
    done in his first year so Dave Wannstedt was brought in because Chan
    only hires people he knows. Wannstedt took over play calling from
    Edwards half way though Edwards’ second year and thus the 3-4 experiment
    was over. I don’t fully blame Edwards, he had a TERRIBLE roster with
    few play makers, again that was part of the issue with the team Buddy
    inherited. It had been so mismanaged that the roster was garbage.
    The biggest criticism I have of Buddy was that he trusted Chan to hire
    and fire his own coaching staff. Chan wanted Wannstedt and it was a
    failure of epic proportions, and that is on both Chan and Buddy for
    letting Chan bring him in. The disconnect between Buddy’s drafting for
    the 3-4 and Chan running a Wannstedt 4-3 was a huge issue as well.
    Also he said the Bills don’t develop late round talent, does he know
    what rounds Stevie Johnson and Kyle Williams were drafted in? Not to
    mention guys who will start this year in Bradham and Searcy. Does he
    know that the Bills over the past decade have had guys like Jason
    Peters, Pat Williams, Jabari Greer, and George Wilson who all have been
    either All Pro or very good but were UDFAs? How about picking up waiver
    players like Chandler, Pears, and Urbik who all were big time
    contributors but were cast off from other teams.
    Nix and Whaley have done a fantastic job rebuilding this roster from the
    ground up using the draft, waivers, and FA acquisitions. I don’t think
    nearly enough credit is being given there. But Buddy did fail in many
    ways as a GM. I think he played the hand the best way he could, but the
    two biggest gaffs in my mind for him were:
    1) Not drafting a QB sooner
    2) Allowing Chan to cycle defensive coordinators which meant different
    schemes (changing schemes that often screws up drafts because you need
    different personnel)
    The biggest successes for Buddy:
    1) Picking a smart up and coming GM in waiting to learn behind him and locking him up
    2) Changing over the roster from a group of undersized tweeners with high motor but no talent to a respectable NFL Roster
    3) Identifying talent in later rounds, waivers, and FAs as stop gaps and contributors during the rebuild
    4) Acquiring FAs like Mario, Barnett, and Merriman. Though Barnett was
    pretty good and Merriman was not good at all, this is the first time
    since signing Takeo Spikes that the Bills went out and acquired talent
    in FA that really got people excited.