Not to go all Bill Simmons here, but now that Doug Whaley has taken his boat ride with Al Neri out on Lake Tahoe, there are a few things we have to sort out about the Bills’ big front office shakeup.
First of all, none of this is surprising. I’ve listened to national media folks acting with surprise about Whaley being fired and I can’t help but think that this is anything but surprising. We all saw this coming, especially after the bizarre press conference the Pegulas sent Whaley out to handle after Rex Ryan’s firing. Whaley always looked like a dead man walking and that was especially true once reports started flying that he might be out after the draft.
The firing of the whole entire scouting staff is a little bit surprising, but the hints where there as well, especially after one scout told Pro Football Talk that they would all be out of a job after the draft. It’s no secret that Bills, specifically Sean McDermott, were looking to completely overhaul the entire front office. They’ve done that, although Russ Brandon still remains. How? I have no idea. He is Robin Swallows in Austin Powers – for some reason, he just won’t die.
Another thing to address: many people are laughing at the Bills for firing their general manager and scouting staff the day after the draft. Oh Bills, why would let people you’re firing run your draft!?!? So, why wasn’t Whaley let go when Ryan was fired? It’s really quite simple – the scouting season runs from April to April. After the draft is the perfect time to change direction here since all draft preparation is over and the new scouting season won’t begin for quite some time. Whaley, who was essentially the Bills’ chief scout, and his staff had been working on draft preparation since last summer. It’s a year-long process. You want to fire those people in January and bring in brand new personnel to do a year’s worth of work in three months? That would be laughable.
The job description for scouts is to pretty much prepare for the trade and collect as much information as possible on prospects and focus on the players who would best help your team. The last thing you want to do is have these scouts out on the open market and sharing the information they’ve gathered with other organizations in advance of the draft. It’s literally giving away your draft secrets. So yes, the Bills were right to keep this staff on through the draft, even if it made for an awkward weekend for everyone in the draft room. I imagine it was like a couple that probably know they’re heading for a breakup, but try to take a weekend trip someplace together to see how it goes.
Another question that I’ve seen people ask on Twitter is why the Bills are pretty much putting their entire organization in the hands of their head coach. It’s particularly concerning for many since he’s a first-time head coach. It’s a legitimate concern to have. Sean McDermott has never ranked higher in Philadelphia or Carolina than defensive coordinator. How are we supposed to trust this guy to run an organization?
McDermott would hardly be the first head coach to have full personnel control. You can argue that Rex had that control here when you look at some of the players they brought in for him (Incognito, Enemkpali, etc.). For a more promising example, obviously you don’t have to look any further than New England, where Bill Belichick is the de facto GM, head coach, pro personnel director, head scout, and so on. If Belichick wanted to be Pat Patriot for a day, he would be allowed to handle that as well. Of course, that’s Bill Belichick, arguably the greatest head coach in NFL history. Of course he should have full say over personnel.
New England is not the only place where Belichick has been allowed to shape his own roster. He was hired by Ernie Accorsi in Cleveland in 1991 as his first head coaching gig. Accorsi resigned as GM a year later. Guess who the Browns tabbed as their new GM? Yup, Belichick took over the role and ran the personnel side of the organization up until Art Modell ripped the team out of Ohio.
Belichick’s time in Cleveland is generally regarded as a failure since the team posted losing records in all but one season he was there, but his front office vision helped turn the Browns from a 3-win team in 1990 to a playoff winner in 1994 that was on the cusp of a Super Bowl run.
If you’re looking for non-Belichick examples of a coach reigning supreme in his organization, you can also look to Pete Carroll, Bill O’Brien, and Sean Payton (with help from Mickey Loomis). There are also less successful examples of a coach running the organization, including Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay, and Josh McDaniels in Denver. These situations are much different than the one McDermott is handling, however. Kelly had never coached in the NFL before, so to expect him to immediately be able to adapt to the duties of head personnel man in the NFL was a stretch. Smith’s time as a successful head coach had run its course by the time he got to Tampa Bay; and for McDaniels, it was simply too much too soon for a guy who thought trading up to draft Tim Tebow was a good idea.
McDermott’s story is a little different. McDermott is by no means a fast riser in the league. He joined Andy Reid’s staff in Philadelphia back in 1999 when Reid was a first-time head coach. He remained with the Eagles through 2010 before moving on to Carolina as their defensive coordinator. In Philadelphia, McDermott learned firsthand about how a successful organization should be structured and how a head coach can maintain control over personnel. Reid was given the title of executive vice president of football operations in 2001, pretty much making him the general manger of the Eagles. Reid and McDermott’s Eagles went to three-straight NFC Championship games under this organizational structure, including Super Bowl XXXIX in February 2005.
McDermott then saw how the Carolina Panthers’ ran their organization with head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman working hand-in-hand. Those two (along with the incredible Cam Newton) helped guide the Panthers to the Super Bowl two years ago. What I think McDermott sees as his vision for a winning organization is one where the head coach and the key personnel men share the same organizational philosophy and plan for team building. It’s the organizations where everyone seems to be on the same page and there’s a plan in place (New England, Seattle, Green Bay, Pittsburgh) that seem to have the most success. That and quarterbacks – all those teams have great quarterbacks that they drafted because of how they were scouted and valued and how they fit with the organizational plan. None of those quarterbacks were drafted in the top 10, nor were they drafted because those teams had to have quarterbacks and needed to take a shot on someone (see: Manuel, EJ).
It remains to be seen whether or not it’s wise to put this much faith in Sean McDermott and whomever ends of being the GM picked to work with him, but this plan seems to be a lot better than what the Bills have done in the past. The Ringer’s Michael Lombardi, who worked with Belichick in both Cleveland and New England, wrote an article that I think sums this up nicely, saying that the Bills for years have been an organization separated between the scouts and the coaching staff. Very rarely were these two parties on the same page. Look no further than Doug Marrone supposedly walking out of the Bills draft room after they made the trade for Sammy Watkins.
Again, I will have to see how McDermott handles game days before I start feeling good about him. Is he going to punt on fourth and 1 from the New England 39? Is he going to challenge plays to pick up five yards in the first quarter? Is he going to waste timeouts too early during a two-minute drill? All this has yet to be discovered. Remember, this was the same guy who talked about the mythical “culture” and “earning a right to win” when he decided that a pool table needed to be something to be addressed in the team locker room. He still has a ways to go to win me over.
Still, I can get on board with his plan for organizational structure and I don’t need to be bothered that he’s a first-time head coach with a ton of power. It’s best to figure out how to get where you need to go before you get in the car and start driving. I think it’s refreshing that McDermott is the first member of the Bills organization in a long time to pull out a GPS before putting the car into drive. Let’s hope he doesn’t turn out to be Gregg Williams.