What Is Terry Pegula’s Plan For The Buffalo Bills?

Just a few short months ago the Buffalo Bills’ fan base was over the moon.  They had a new owner and finally had long term stability in Western New York.  The team was moving in the right direction with a winning attitude and they were in the playoff hunt the latest that they had been in years.  For the first time since 1996 the Bills never fell under .500 during the entire season.  While a late season loss to the Oakland Raiders in the black hole knocked them out of playoff contention they finished with their best record in a decade.  It seemed like the Bills were heading for an optimistic off-season in which the Pegula regime was ready to turn the corner of the most down-trodden franchise in the NFL over the past 20 years.

Bills owner Terry Pegula

Bills owner Terry Pegula

It’s been 5 days since the Bills’ season ended on a high note with their first ever win at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.  In those five days their starting quarterback has abruptly called it quits, their head coach walked out the door with $4 million of Pegula’s money due to a clause in his contract that was written by another ownership group and the man that Pegula had wanted to be his “football czar” decided that he was all set after the former all had happened.  Now you can surely question whether or not Kyle Orton was the correct long term answer at quarterback or Doug Marrone was the long term answer at head coach.  Was Bill Polian really the right guy to lead football operations for the Bills over two decades after he was fired from that job the first time?  I’m not sure that the answer to all of the above is yes but I can tell you that’s it’s quite clear right now that Terry Pegula’s initial plan involved all 3 of those men.  Now he will move forward with none of them.

So what’s plan B?  I certainly hope that Pegula has one because he is going to have to act fast on it.  The team has already missed out on interviewing one coordinator, New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, since they were only able to start scheduling interviews with a two-day window to see those coaches that were on their respective playoff byes.  Further, if you’ve lost your top pick to head football operations who is going to head the search now?  All signs point to GM Doug Whaley who, until today, seemed like he was on the outs in Buffalo.  It really is a weird situation and what makes it sad is that all the momentum that the franchise had picked up in the last few months has seemingly all gone up in smoke.

Bills GM Doug Whaley

Bills GM Doug Whaley

Now the question is how do they get back on track?  I’m not sure if it’s that Pegula doesn’t think too highly of Whaley or he just trusted other people more but right now he’s his best option.  He’s young, smart and he’s already laid the ground work on the current roster.  I’ll get into who was more to blame between the two Dougs for some personnel failures at another time but I think anyone who doesn’t think that Whaley has put together a fine roster of players in the less than 2 years on the job is extremely short-sighted.  Even if Pegula was angling to replace Whaley the right thing to do now is to tell him to let bygones be bygones and to go find him a coach that can get the 53 guys on his roster into the playoffs.  Give him a chance with his own guy this time around.

The apple cart has already been upset but this Bills’ situation is screaming for some type of continuity.  Doug Whaley is the last best hope for that and Pegula would be wise to give him the keys now and let him lose the training wheels on his own.

@ErikVenskus

The “Rooney Rule” Is Starting To Look Like A Sham

The “Rooney Rule” was implemented by the NFL in 2003.  Named after it’s benefactor, Steelers owner and chairman if the NFL diversity committee, it requires NFL teams to interview at least 1 minority candidate whenever they fill a head coach or general manager position.  Some saw it as a token act of affirmative action.  Others saw it as a trailblazing move by the NFL to promote diversity in business.

Marvin Lewis was the first minority head coach hired under the "Rooney Rule"

Marvin Lewis was the first minority head coach hired under the “Rooney Rule”

The Rooney Rule seemed like a success in the early going.  In the first 7 years – between 2003 and 2009 – 9 African-American head coaches were hired.  Prior to the Rooney Rule there had only been 7 head coaches in NFL history dating back to 1921.  Additionally there were 3 new African-American candidates to be hired as General Managers, joining the Ravens’ Ozzie Newsome and the Cardinals’ Rod Graves who were the only African-American GMs in NFL history at the time that the Rooney Rule was implemented.  For some reason things curtailed badly after the 2009 season.  Since then only 4 minority head coaches were hired and of the three two of them, Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel and former Raiders coach Hue Jackson, have already been fired and another, Panthers coach Ron Rivera, was on the fence until the decision was made to retain him a week after New Year’s Day this year.  Only one minority, Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, has been hired to a General Manager position since 2009.

So what is the problem?  Is it a lack of success?  There have been 13 minority coaches hired since the Rooney Rule have been implemented.  6 of them – Marvin Lewis, Lovie Smith, Herman Edwards, Mike Tomlin, Jim Caldwell, and Leslie Frazier – have made it to the playoffs.  That is exactly 50% when you consider that Crennel is counted twice (12 minority coaches for 13 opportunities).  Additionally one of the minority coaches hired during the Rooney Rule era, Dennis Green in Arizona, had previous head coaching playoff experience with the Vikings.  Tomlin won a Super Bowl in 2008 with the Steelers and made another one in 2010.  Caldwell made the Super Bowl in 2009 with the Colts.  Lewis, Smith, Tomlin and Caldwell all qualified for the playoffs multiple times in their coaching careers.  After the firing of Crennel and Smith on “Black Monday” on New Year’s Eve last month only 4 minority head coaches remain – Lewis, Tomlin, Frazier and Rivera.  Two of those (Lewis and Frazier) were in the playoffs this season.  Tomlin’s Steelers failed to qualify for the playoffs for only the 2nd time in his 6 year tenure in Pittsburgh.  Despite being on the chopping block Rivera’s Panthers wound up finishing 7-9 and in 2nd place in the NFC South.

Cards DC Ray Horton had 3 interviews but no offers this off-season

Cards DC Ray Horton had 3 interviews but no offers this off-season

Despite there being 8 head coaching vacancies, precisely a quarter of the league, during this off-season none of the vacancies have gone to a minority candidate.  With Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians being named the new Cardinals coach this evening minority candidates have officially been shut out.  Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton landed 3 interviews – with the Cardinals, Bills and Browns – but was shut out by even his own team.  Lovie Smith, who was 16 games over .500 during his tenure in Chicago, interviewed in Buffalo, Philadelphia and San Diego but was shut out as well.  Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker interviewed for the head coaching job of his own team for the 2nd year in a row but was passed over again.  Falcons special teams coach Keith Armstrong interviewed the Bears and Chiefs but was passed over as well.  All of these interviews satisfied the Rooney Rule but none of them produced a minority head coach.

Of the 8 head coaches hired this off-season 2 were NCAA head coaches, 1 an NFL head coach fired earlier in the off-season, 1 a CFL head coach, 3 were NFL offensive coordinators and 1 an NFL defensive coordinator.  There are 6 African-American assistant coaches who have previously been interim NFL head coaches – Falcons WR coach Terry Robiskie who had interim stints with both the Browns and Redskins, Falcons secondary coach Emmitt Thomas who was interim coach of the Falcons in 2007, Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell who served as Bills interim head coach in 2009, Broncos running backs coach Eric Studesville who served as interim Broncos head coach in 2010, Eagles defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who led the Dolphins on an interim basis in 2011 and the Jaguars Tucker.  Of the 6 only Tucker got any interviews for a head coaching vacancy this season.  3 of the other 5 interim coaches – Robiskie, Thomas, and Studesville – were coaching in the playoffs this post-season.  Another – Fewell – won the Super Bowl as defensive coordinator of the Giants last season.  Somehow none of these men warranted interviews.

Newsome was seen as a trailblazer but only 5 minority GMs have followed him in a decade

Newsome was seen as a trailblazer but only 5 minority GMs have followed him in a decade

The general manager picture is a whole different story.  Newsome was named the 1st African-American GM in NFL history in 2002.  The Ravens have qualified for the playoffs in 7 of the 10 years that Newsome has been at the helm.  The Cardinals Rod Graves was the 2nd African-American GM, elevated a year after Newsome.  His Cardinals made the playoffs twice, in 2008 and 2009, and were the first ever Cardinals team to make a Super Bowl in ’08.  The first three minority GMs hired since the advent of the Rooney Rule – The Texans’ Rick Smith, the Giants’ Jerry Reese and the Lions’ Martin Mayhew, have all run teams that have qualified for the playoffs.  Reese’s Giants won the Super Bowl last season.  The only minority general manager to never have a team qualify for the playoffs is current Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie who was just hired by the club last off-season.  Despite all of the success there hasn’t been a minority hired in any of the 5 GM vacancies and with Seahawks assistant GM John Idzik poised to be the Jets new GM only the Cleveland post will remain.

What has changed in the NFL that is preventing minorities from getting high profile jobs?  Is it a lack of candidates?  Lovie Smith brings a veteran edge and has a winning track record and he will no doubt be back on the sidelines next season but why didn’t any of the other 7 clubs not see him as a fit this year?  Horton and Armstrong were hot names with multiple interviews but both went unhired.  Many of the other high profile minority coordinators including Caldwell, Fewell, Bowles, and Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams weren’t even on anyone’s radar.  There doesn’t seem to be a specific reason for the slow down in minority hires but the trend is certainly disturbing.  Of 15 new head coaches hired since last off-season only one, Romeo Crennel, has been a minority and he has already been fired.

Luckily for the NFL the 1st executive hire of the new league year will likely be a minority when Bills general manager Buddy Nix steps down some time between the NFL draft and the start of training camp.  His replacement will be assistant GM Doug Whaley, an African-American.  Judging by the frequency of minority hirings in the NFL these days it might be a long wait for the next one.

Follow me on Twitter

Bills Hire Syracuse Head Coach Doug Marrone

The Bills have made a splash in the head coaching carousel by hiring much sought after Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone (per Adam Schefter of ESPN).  Marrone had interviews with the Bills, Browns, Eagles, and Chargers and was on the top of the list of both the Browns and Eagles who were also meeting with Oregon coach Chip Kelly.  Marrone is a 48-year old native of Bronx, NY and has coached the Syracuse football team for the past 4 seasons.  He had a 25-25 record but had turned around a program that was 10-37 in the 3 years prior.  Before coaching Syracuse he spent 3 seasons as Sean Payton’s offensive coordinator in New Orleans.

New Bills HC Doug Marrone

New Bills HC Doug Marrone

Bills team president Russ Brandon talked about being an innovative, progressive, forward-thinking organization.  The Marrone hire is proof that Brandon is backing up what he said at his press conference.  They could have played it safe with an experienced guy like Ken Whisenhunt or Lovie Smith but they went with Marrone who runs an innovative offense.  The coordinator hires will be important for the Bills.  There are already rumors that Marrone may try to pry current Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael away from New Orleans.  With Sean Payton coming back he will resume play-calling duties which means Carmichael would have a better opportunity in Buffalo.

Of interest is the fact that senior quarterback Ryan Nassib is one of the top rated QBs in the draft this year.  It will interesting to see if the Bills draft Nassib and have him implement his college offense, much like the Dolphins did last year when they hired former Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman and drafted his QB Ryan Tannehill.

I like the aggressive and forward thinking move by the Bills but will reserve judgement until I see the staff on whether or not I think Marrone is a good hire.

Follow me on Twitter

Breaking Down the Bills’ Head Coaching Candidates

This year’s Bills head coaching search seems to be a lot more fluid compared to the search 4 years ago.  They only conducted 4 interviews in total last time and one was a sham interview that Mike Shanahan used to leverage a higher price from Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.  This time around they’ve already got 5 interviews lined up only 2 days after firing former coach Gailey and more rumored as well.  Russ Brandon went to work quickly after his introductory press conference as Bills Team President yesterday, catching a plane to Arizona along with GM Buddy Nix, assistant GM Doug Whaley, and VP Jim Overdorf to start conducting interviews.  Here is a primer of who’s interviewed, who will interview, and who’s on the radar.

HAVE ALREADY INTERVIEWED

Former Cardinals HC Ken Whisenhunt

Former Cardinals HC Ken Whisenhunt

Former Cardinals HC Ken Whisenhunt – Whisenhunt has a pretty good resume.  He’s won a Super Bowl as the offensive coordinator of the Steelers and then lost one against his former team as the head coach of the Cardinals.  Whisenhunt has ties to Buffalo’s GM-in-waiting in Doug Whaley from their time together in Pittsburgh.  The concern with Whisenhunt is that in the last 3 seasons his record in AZ was only 18-30 which is just 2 games better than the recently fired Chan Gailey.  He’s also struggled to groom a young QB after he lost veteran Kurt Warner to retirement.  On the positive side he could presumably bring in good experienced assistants and implement a similar system to the Steelers.  There is said to be strong mutual interest between the two parties but the Bills have set up several interviews behind him so they’ll have to go back to him if he’s the guy.  This front office has been high on experience so he has that going for him.

Cardinals DC Ray Horton – Horton is a veteran of the Cardinals and Steelers staffs.  He is a candidate for the Cardinals head coaching job but may be running behind Andy Reid for that spot.  Horton is well-regarded as an up-and-coming assistant.  His young Arizona Cardinals defense was the catalyst for the team’s 4-1 start before the bottom fell out.  As a matter of fact Horton and his entire defensive staff were retained after Whisenhunt and his offensive staff was let go on Monday.  Horton will give you what Whisenhunt will as far as that Pittsburgh philosophy goes but you get a fresh face in Horton.  The only drawback to Horton is that he has been a career 3-4 coach and that would mean moving from the 3-4 to the 4-3 back to the 3-4 in a 4-year span.

SCHEDULED TO INTERVIEW

Oregon HC Chip Kelly

Oregon HC Chip Kelly

Oregon HC Chip Kelly – Kelly is considered the “holy grail” of potential head coaches this off-season.  He was rumored for months to be interested in a job in the NFL and has already set up three interviews for after his bowl game tomorrow night in Arizona.  The Bills will meet up with him on Friday.  When Brandon talked about being a forward thinking, progressive organization Kelly was the first name that came to mind.  Kelly would be the big splash that the Bills desperately seek to become relevant.  Kelly would also represent great risk, as would any college coach taking his first crack at the pros.  Running back C.J. Spiller would be a superstar in a Chip Kelly offense.  The Bills will face stiff competition from Philadelphia and Cleveland for his services.

Broncos OC Mike McCoy – McCoy was a hot name last season after he brought the Tim Tebow-led Broncos offense to the divisional round of the playoffs.  He’s done it again this season albeit he doesn’t get as much credit with Peyton Manning as the QB this time around.  He’s still considered one of the premiere young offensive coordinators in the league and with Josh McDaniels staying in New England he is getting lots of looks.  The main concern with McCoy would be his ability to put together an experienced veteran coaching staff which is a must for the Bills.

Syracuse HC Doug Marrone

Syracuse HC Doug Marrone

Syracuse HC Doug Marrone – Marrone is one of those guys with success as a coordinator in the NFL and then as a head coach in college.  It could be the perfect mix for a team looking for someone with a lot of experience but not someone who would be considered a retread.  He worked with Sean Payton in New Orleans and helped turn around a downtrodden Syracuse program.  The success that he had in Western New York could attract him to the job but, again, the Bills will face competition for him from the Eagles and Browns as well.

ON THE RADAR

Former Bears HC Lovie Smith – Smith is said to be interested in the Bills head coaching job and it sounds like he may get an interview.  Smith is exactly what the Bills have been looking for in a head coach – a guy with a track record of success and lots of experience.  He finished 18 games over .500 in his 8 seasons in Chicago.  He’d also be able to put a good coaching staff together although his Achilles heel at the end of his Chicago tenure was the lack of a productive offensive coordinator.  He also missed the playoffs in 5 of the last 6 years.  Still he has a wealth of experience and would probably love a chance to coach the front 4 of the Bills defense.

Former Cardinals OL Coach Russ Grimm – Grimm was rumored to be on the Bills list in Arizona but it doesn’t sound like an interview has been set up yet.  Grimm turned down the Bills 3 years ago and his stock hasn’t exactly risen since then.  It would be surprising to see Grimm get the job ahead of either Whisenhunt or Horton but it could be conceivable that he would be part of a staff if one of them was hired.

Bengals DB Coach Hue Jackson – Jackson actually did a hell of a job last season with the Raiders, going 8-8 with a dismal team.  He did however give up the farm for Carson Palmer.  He will be hampered by the fact that he won’t be able to interview while the Bengals are in the playoffs.

There have been other names such as Redskins DC Jim Haslett but I’d be shocked if the Bills went too much further from the above list.  There are certainly some good names to choose from and if Russ Brandon wants to make a splash he can go all in for Kelly.  I think Smith or Whisenhunt end up in the roll if Brandon can’t woo Kelly.  It will still be a thorough process.  I don’t think they have a coach by the end of the weekend but I don’t see it going to far into next week either.

Follow me on Twitter

Breaking Down The Bills New Year’s Day Press Conference

I am going to get to the Bills coaching search later tonight but I wanted to share some thoughts on the much bally-hooed press conference at One Bills Drive on New Year’s Day.  One thing is for sure – I’ve never seen such a divide between the national media and the local media regarding a move as I did following the news of the Buffalo Bills re-structuring of their front office.

Russ Brandon took control of the Bills following his press conference yesterday

Russ Brandon took control of the Bills following his press conference yesterday

I can see both sides of the argument.  The local guys have a “I’ll believe it when I see it” mentality when it comes to any significant change within the organization and to be frank the Bills have earned that reputation in the area.  On the flip side the national guys are reacting very positively to the elevation of new Team President Russ Brandon as well as the pending elevation of current assistant GM Doug Whaley.  You can’t really criticize either side.  Russ Brandon is seen by many in the Buffalo area as a mainstay of the failed past decade – he’s been with the Bills for 17 years and had a stint as GM in 2009 before hiring Buddy Nix to do the job full-time.  There is also skepticism regarding how much will actually change.  National reporters see the other side of the coin – they see Brandon as an up-and-coming exec who is hungry to make his mark and is an intelligent and innovative mind.  Whaley has a great reputation around the league as well.  We’ll see which of them turns out to be right in the end.  Here are a few personal takeaways from the PC:

  • Russ Brandon was asked several times if things will be different with Ralph Wilson no longer needing to sign off on his decisions.  He deflected all those questions which could mean one of two things – either he doesn’t plan on changing up too much and didn’t want to admit it or he realizes the mistakes that Ralph was making and plans to change them yet didn’t want to throw the guy under the bus the sentence after he compared him to a father figure.  I’d lean toward the latter because the media gave him a chance to back away from the pointed comments about the lack of direction for the Bills for 13 years but he stood by him.  Then there is this…
  • Brandon announced a state of the art “analytical team” in the front office to try and take advantage of work done by the likes of web sites like Football Outsiders or Cold Hard Football Facts, football sabre-metrics if you will.  Are we to believe that it is coincidence that Brandon rolled this thing out the same day that Ralph handed him the keys to the car?  Questions – Who is running this new team?  Who has the front office added to contribute to this new team?  How will this new team be structured?  The answer is no one knows yet because Russ Brandon just rolled it out yesterday.  It has all the makings of something that Brandon had in his back pocket waiting for his opportunity to take over.  Let’s face it, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that Ralph Wilson is as old school a football guy as it gets.  He’s 94 years old.  He’s been involved in football operations since the advent of the AFL.  Just look at his last 3 personnel hires – Tom Donahoe, Marv Levy, Buddy Nix.  All old school football guys.  An innovative analytical team is the opposite of old-school football.  There will be big changes in the Bills’ personnel department.
  • Buddy Nix will relinquish his role as Bills GM in the near future

    Buddy Nix will relinquish his role as Bills GM in the near future

    Another question that went unanswered was when Buddy Nix will officially turn things over to Doug Whaley.  Nix played southern dumb, which he does well, and basically said eventually and didn’t give much more.  It’s clear that there is a plan in place and it will happen sooner than later.  It seems like it’s information that a head coaching candidate is going to hear before the media does.  Conventional wisdom says that he stays on through the draft which has always been his bread and butter.  I would not be shocked to see him go into semi-retirement and continue to work with the Bills through a few more drafts.

  • Brandon exuded aggressiveness during the PC and he and the football ops team have come out aggressive in their head coach search.  They headed right to Arizona where they will conducted at least 3 interviews before conducting another in Denver this weekend.  I’ll write more on the coaching candidates later tonight.

The future remains to be seen in Buffalo but one thing is certain – change is definitely coming.  People who are expecting the same old Bills will likely be disappointed.  Now let me be clear, I am not necessarily saying that the Bills will be better but it’s pretty clear from where I’m sitting that things are going to be different from here on out at One Bills Drive.

Follow me on Twitter