Russ Brandon showed up Tuesday morning with a strong message and sounding like a bundle of energy, but actually he was exhausted. He had the tired eyes of a man who had tossed and turned all night or spent the morning crying before arriving at One Bills Drive having reached the height of his career.
As it turned out, it was both and more, an extended ride on life’s emotional roller coaster that led to him taking full control over the Bills. Owner Ralph Wilson had never given absolute power over his team to anyone before he summoned Brandon to his home in Grosse Pointe, Mich., on New Year’s Eve and handed over the proverbial keys.
Frankly, it was about time for Wilson to get out of the way. He no longer was capable of steering the Bills in the right direction. It had been 13 straight seasons of him getting towed out of ditches and driving the Bills into another one.
In a sad way, the Bills dictate so much of our communal psyche even though they’re largely irrelevant in the NFL. How much more could anyone take?
The change was needed whether the role was filled by Brandon or anybody else who had two eyes and a shred of common sense. He will remain chief executive officer. The important shift was replacing Wilson as president. Brandon has total control over the franchise with no restrictions.
It begins and ends with him the way it did with Ralph.
For numerous reasons, Brandon cried while meeting with Wilson. It’s understandable if you know Brandon, even more if you believe in him. He has spent his career striving to climb the sports ladder while desperately wishing to be perceived as one of you, an honest and humble person who wants nothing more than a Super Bowl.
It must have been emotional for him to hear Wilson had entrusted him with his baby, an organization for which he paid $25,000 and turned into an $800 million empire in the most powerful league in sports. Brandon has always viewed himself as a sports-loving kid from middle-class East Syracuse who wanted the most out of life.
And now ... this.
“To have the mantle of running his franchise, in totality, is almost hard to fathom right now,’’ Brandon said moments after his news conference. “There are so many elements to what we’re trying to do that it’s also overwhelming ... the fact that it all rests on my shoulders to get this franchise working.”
Brandon deserves a few moments to collect himself, but the best way to get the Bills turned around would be to remove sentiment from the equation. The Bills need a cold, harsh evaluation that starts at the top. Wilson’s failure to properly assess personnel has been a problem for years and is the biggest reason they ran amuck.
Now, the 94-year-old owner is out of the way.
Brandon had an inauspicious start to his presidency Tuesday. His message sounded much like the usual sales pitch, customary for an organization that often missed the point. At a time fans begged for heads to roll down Abbott Road, he announced Buddy Nix would be retained and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s future would be determined by the next head coach.
Finally, after 25 mostly uninspiring minutes of his news conference, he arrived at his moment of greatest significance. He didn’t sell hope, for a change. He took responsibility for failure and practically pleaded for people to stop listening to what he said and start watching what he did.
Again, it’s about time.
“I can sit up here and talk all day, you know that, but we’ve got to prove it,’’ he said. “That’s the bottom line. I remember sitting in training camp and everyone talking about a culture change. We talked about it then. We had high expectations for the year and we didn’t meet those expectations. We will do a full evaluation of why.
“There’s been too many unfulfilled promises. Where we’ve been for the last decade is completely unacceptable to everyone in this room associated with the Buffalo Bills.”
For now, all you can do is enjoy the show. Brandon planned to implement an analytic (see: Moneyball) approach in an effort to sign contracts commensurate with player production. The Bills continue to have a recruiting problem that will force them to overpay for personnel, but it sounded like a 21st century way of thinking.
It beats the archaic mind-set along One Bills Drive, with Wilson dipping into his shrinking network of football men and coming away with failure. The plan calls for Brandon to eventually replace Nix with assistant GM Doug Whaley, considered by many as a bright up-and-coming football evaluator.
Brandon’s and Whaley’s combined ages are nearly a decade shy of Wilson’s, for heaven’s sake. Brandon is 45. Whaley is 40. Nix is 73. Changes are coming – the sooner, the better.
The first will be hiring a coach to replace Chan Gailey, counted as one of several mistakes Nix made in three years. Brandon was anxious to address a short list believed to include, among others, Lovie Smith, Ken Whisenhunt, Ray Horton, Doug Marrone, Russ Grimm, Hue Jackson and Chip Kelly.
Getting smarter and younger helps, but the biggest upgrade is having someone involved in daily operations who can evaluate daily operations. It’s a terrific concept, wouldn’t you say? Whether it was geographical distance or an obvious generation gap, Wilson had been mostly out of touch while some wondered if he was out of his mind.
“Now, I’m in a position where I get to evaluate the evaluators,’’ Brandon said. “I’m in a position where I get to evaluate every single thing that we do in this organization. And if I don’t like it, we’re going to change it.”
You’re not going to find my name on the list of Wilson admirers, but give him credit for finally stepping away. He should have relinquished control 15 years ago, if not more, before souring an entire generation of fans. The Bills have lost more credibility in the past decade than any team in the league over the same span.
I’m suspicious of every Wilson decision, and his choice to hand full control to Brandon was met with a certain amount of skepticism. However, almost anybody but Wilson and top aide Jeffrey Littman would be deemed an improvement, a sign of progress for a franchise that has gone in the wrong direction for far too long. The Bills’ money-first reputation for years drove away good candidates who wouldn’t consider coming here so long as Wilson and Littman were involved. It led to inferior coaches and general managers. It led to losing. Investing in good people would have led to more winning and more revenue.
Bills fans don’t want to read this, but they enabled years of mediocrity under threats of relocation. The Bills played before packed stadiums while revenue from merchandise poured into their coffers. State and local governments provided assistance to a team that needed little given its minimal, if any, debt load.
The Bills turned annual profits that ranged from $30 million to $40 million while fans dipped into their Christmas money and retirement plans. In return, the fans longed for a competitive product on the field, a trip back to the playoffs if not the Promised Land.
Overall, the business plan worked.
The football plan failed.
Brandon was part of a hierarchy that lowered the standards of success. There’s no getting around that fact. He’s a marketing genius and business whiz who could sell sunlamps in South Beach. For years, he was assigned to sell false hope. At a time in which players failed in their jobs, he performed at an All-Pro level.
Now, he has an opportunity to get everything right with innovative thinkers who can pull the Bills from the dark ages. If he’s successful, he would go a long way in repairing Wilson’s reputation as a miser who cared little about winning.
As the cliche goes, with opportunity comes responsibility, but let’s flip things around when it comes to Brandon. With this responsibility comes a great opportunity. Brandon has the job of every frustrated fan who ever sat in a recliner, yelled and screamed at the television, and insisted he could do better.
In his quietest moments, such as Monday evening when he was trying to sleep, and Tuesday morning when he was driving toward the stadium, Brandon tried to comprehend that reality. The Bills are his team. Now, he has a chance to take them for a ride and let his mind wander.
“I spend a lot of time daydreaming what it would be like going down Delaware Avenue with that [Lombardi] Trophy,’’ Brandon said. “I’ve grown up in this region. I’ve been in the Brick Bar. I’m a man of these people. I want, more than anything in my life, other than the health of my kids, to bring a championship to this town.”
Russ, don’t say it.