It’s been the burning question for Bills fans since Y2K. Can they get back to the playoffs? Going over this scenario and assessing the roster changes and coaching staff maneuvers each summer has admittedly grown stale. So instead we take a deeper look at the chief decision makers within the Bills organization to assess not when the postseason will be reached, but rather if the hierarchy of the club has the right approach. An approach that will not only advance the club beyond regular season play, but sustain that measure of success year over year for the long term.
General manager Doug Whaley is fast approaching his fourth full regular season as the chief personnel boss of the Bills. He has made some bold strokes with the roster (See: Trade up for Watkins, trade for McCoy, signing Clay to offer sheet, franchising and extending Glenn, re-signing Incognito, signing Taylor as a free agent). He’s also fortified the team with young talent (Darby, Miller, Brown, Watkins, Lawson, Ragland) and overachieving talent off the street (Butler, Gillislee, Mills).
He remains committed to the tried and true philosophy of building the core of the team through the draft, but isn’t opposed to pivot and swing a trade, add a free agent that’s just become available, or use the franchise tag to keep one of their own. It’s why Buffalo’s roster is one of the youngest and most talented in football.
“I think for me everywhere I’ve been you have to have a plan,” Whaley told Buffalobills.com. “Everyone has to completely buy into that plan. And ownership is the most important part of the organization that has to be committed to the plan. So much so that it drowns out all the outside noise, because once the outside noise begins to influence your plan, that’s when knee jerk decisions happen and it compromises the process.”
Knee jerk reactions by an understandably impatient Bills fan base have become commonplace. Frustrations easily boil over after more than a decade and a half with no postseason appearances. It can challenge some franchises desperate for success to change for change sake. Fortunately for the Bills organization their ownership doesn’t subscribe to such rash decisions.
"It is hard to be consistent to build a foundation and a core to set you up for winning if you’re making changes constantly," said owner Kim Pegula in an appearance on the John Murphy Show. "So I think the continuity that the organization has, I don’t see a negative in that, especially going into season two. A year is not a lot of continuity. I know that there are changes that will happen at the end of the season as they do every year, but having a key, core group that understands and communicates with one another… I really think that plays a part in winning.”
“I feel confident with the Pegulas in charge that they are committed to what we are trying to build here and they’re in it for the long term,” said Whaley. “What we’re looking to do is not a quick fix, but a long term stability fix and that means everybody buying in and setting this program up in a way where it’s running on auto pilot in the next year or two.”
Whaley’s confidence stems from his formative years in NFL personnel with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He remembers after spending three years as an east coast scout with the Seattle Seahawks returning to the Steelers organization, and the noise outside the club was calling for change at the head coaching position.
“Bill Cowher had just gone 6-10 in 1999 following a 7-9 season in 1998,” Whaley recalled. “So everybody was calling for the Steelers to fire Cowher. Guess what the Rooneys did? They extended him. So if you have that intestinal fortitude from the top down… you’re going to have up and down years in this league, but if you listen to knee jerk reactions out there… after one year (with Rex Ryan) they were ready to clean house here. How does that help turn your organization around? Another front office and coaching staff comes in and a year later they’ve got to go too?”
What’s encouraging is much like the Rooneys, the Pegulas took a similar approach. At the close of the 2015 season, despite the absence of a playoff berth, they gave Whaley an extension.
“I think they put their money where their mouth is by extending me to put me in line with coach where we have the same length of contract,” said Whaley. “I understand the fans. They’ve been sitting there on the sidelines for 16 years and they’ve heard it before, ‘This is a new regime, blah, blah, blah.’ I get it. I definitely get it and I can understand why the media is saying, ‘Get us out of here.’ That’s fine, when you don’t win… it’s a results based business. But you still have to have a foundation to build off of.”
Nobody denies that the Bills face question marks entering the 2016 season, some of which have been covered in our Camp Countdown. But there appears to be a legitimate foundation in place, one that has proven to be successful of late when it comes to Super Bowl champions and contenders.
“People say it’s a pass happy league, but if you look defenses have been winning championships lately,” said Whaley. “Running teams are doing well too. If you look at the postseason yes New England is an outlier, but besides them most of the other teams that won championships were built on defense and running. That’s the tried and true way.
“Buddy Nix told me something that Bear Bryant once said. He said, ‘The things that help you win in football never change. The only thing that changes are the excuses of why you didn’t do it.’ Protect the football, run the football, play good defense and score more points than your opponent. That’s all you’ve got to do.”
The formula is simple. Executing it in a supremely competitive league is a different story.
Every person working at One Bills Drive ultimately wants to reach the postseason, but building a team for long term success rarely translates to instant gratification. Buffalo could be ready to turn the corner this year, but everyone including Whaley is aware of the elements of the team that must come together.
“We want to continue to grow,” Whaley said. “We set the precedent on offense being the number one rushing team so we want to sustain that and be a little better in the passing game, and obviously our defense has to pick up. So it’s just about getting better and better.
“You either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same. That’s where we are. The last two years we’ve been in the middle of the pack. Now it’s time to try to take that step up from there.”