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Doug Whaley says he was "a cog" in a "well-oiled machine" with the Pittsburgh Steelers scouting staff.

It was time for him to strike out from the organization that had groomed him for more than a decade.

That's a big reason why the 37-year-old Whaley accepted the job as the new assistant general manager for the Buffalo Bills.

"The main reason was the professional challenge," said Whaley, "and to take what I've learned in a successful organization and try to implement it on the ground floor with a great group of guys -- with Buddy [Nix] and Chan [Gailey] and Tom Modrak and the scouting staff. To see if I can take that and implement and hopefully get this thing moving in the right direction."

Whaley spent the past 10 years as the Steelers' pro scouting coordinator and has been identified in league circles as an up-and-coming general manager candidate the past couple of years.

The Bills also gave Whaley the title of director of pro scouting, a position held by John Guy in Buffalo the previous eight years. Whaley will oversee the team's pro personnel department as well as assist Nix, the general manager, in all football-related administrative duties and in the college talent evaluation process.

Whaley's input will be crucial right away, since the NFL's free-agency signing period begins Saturday.

Whaley was a safety and linebacker for the University of Pittsburgh. He broke into scouting in 1995 as an intern with the Steelers under Modrak, the Bills' vice president of college scouting.

Then he spent three years as a college scout for the Seattle Seahawks before returning to Pittsburgh.

"Being a former football player and a competitor, I look at it as a competitive challenge," Whaley said of his new job in an interview at the NFL Scouting Combine workouts. "What better way to do it? The organization is very similar to Pittsburgh. The towns are very similar, the passion of the fans, the long history of the organization. It was very similar. It didn't seem like that big of a leap to me. As a professional, you want to take that next step.

"In this business there's so few chances like this. But I wasn't going to take something just to take it. It had to be the right situation, and everything fell right with this opportunity."

Whaley was planning to be a stockbroker when he got out of college. He was working for a firm in New York City nine months after graduation when he got an offer for an internship with the Steelers. (Whaley's high school coach in Pittsburgh had encouraged him to send his resume to the team.)

"Talking to the guys that I worked for, the stockbrokers, they said, 'Well, you have a year of inactivity on your license where you won't have to take the [broker] test again,' " Whaley said. "The internship was for a year. They said if you don't like it, just come back. So I had a job in waiting. I went there, and the rest is history."

Whaley said his mentors in scouting include Bill Nunn, who has been a Steelers scout for 42 years; Modrak; former Steelers and Jaguars scout Charles Bailey; Steelers football operations director Kevin Colbert; former Seattle executive Randy Mueller; and Tom Donahoe, the former Steelers and Bills executive.

"Those are the guys who were my bosses that I worked for that I learned a lot from, and I picked their brains about what they like and how they do certain things," he said.

Whaley has two Super Bowl rings from his Steelers tenure but he doesn't wear them.

"It's too much of a conversation piece, and I'm a low-key guy," he said. "I like to be in the background."

What was his contribution to the Steelers that gives him the most pride?

"Just being a team player," Whaley said. "Being able to fit in. That's a well-oiled machine right there. I was just a cog. Hopefully, I did it to the best of my ability. Obviously, attaining the two championships is the creme de la creme, and that's when you look at the owner and say, 'I finally earned my paycheck.' "

Pittsburgh has had much success this decade in identifying which free-agent veterans to retain. Key free agency signings during Whaley's tenure were Pro Bowl linebacker James Farrior, center Justin Hartwig, safety Ryan Clark and defensive tackle Chris Hoke.

"What we looked for -- and I hate to say it because it's nothing against the superstars -- but it's more of a family, team-oriented place," Whaley said. "The guys who come in, buy into the Steeler way. It's not an individual-honor thing, because they know individual honors will come if the team success comes. We always felt that we pick our stars in the draft and we retain those guys. Free agency was always more of a complementary piece, to help us fill in different holes or bridge the gap in certain ways."

Whaley said the Steelers' success centers around "one singular focus."

"That is to do what you can to put a competitive team on the field, a team that competes for a championship every year," he said. "Everyone has that single goal.

"That was an intriguing thing about talking to Buddy. He said we're going to have one focus, one voice. I said, 'That's what I'm used to.' He's an old-school scout where he believes the only way to do this job is to watch the tape and get on the road and do it. So we clicked automatically."

Whaley sees great potential in Buffalo.

"The organization as a whole is very similar to where I came from," he said. "Everybody's in it together, everybody's out to do whatever they can to contribute to helping us get that competitive team on the field for the fans. The community is behind us. The fans are behind us.

"You look at any team in the NFL, and everybody has a chance the next year, if you do the right things, and things click the right way and you make the right decisions.

"Our goal is to be out there to compete for a championship every year, and it starts with winning our division. With Buddy and Chan, those two have a great plan in place that we're going to try to act on this offseason to get out there and get that as soon as possible," he continued.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com