Russ Brandon executed an impressive and remarkable turnaround this week in getting himself elevated to president of the Buffalo Bills.
Just three years ago, Brandon saw his influence over the Bills’ football department cut back.
Brandon was general manager of the Bills in 2009, but the season collapsed under the weight of bad talent and bad leadership by coach Dick Jauron. When Buddy Nix was hired as general manager at the end of that season, Brandon’s influence on football decisions essentially was eliminated. Nix was the one who picked Chan Gailey as head coach. From then on, it was the Buddy and Chan Show in the football department at One Bills Drive.
Now the decision by Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. to cede final-say authority to Brandon has given the 45-year-old executive the opening to work his way back into the decision-making process on football matters. Brandon made it clear this week that he’s not the GM. Doesn’t want to be. But make no mistake, Brandon considers himself a protege of late Bills GM John Butler and someone who is capable of providing input in the football arena. His voice will be heard.
How much difference will it make? And can Brandon fix the Bills?
Here are key factors potentially in Brandon’s favor:
• He has a better football department under him than he did in his one official year as GM, in 2009. The Bills lacked leadership during Jauron’s tenure. Tom Modrak was the top personnel man but didn’t have final say. Pro scout John Guy had influence. Jauron sometimes got his way. Brandon was GM but didn’t have as much clout as he has now.
Fast forward three years and Nix has bolstered the scouting operation. It’s bigger and more experienced. Doug Whaley, the GM-in-waiting, has shown talent in bringing in both expensive and lower-cost pro free agents.
• The team has more talent than in 2009. The Bills are good on both lines of scrimmage, despite the underachieving results of the defense this season. Solid teams are good at quarterback and in the trenches. The Bills have the latter. The overall roster is deeper.
• He has the opportunity to get a better coach. We’ll see if he has done it. Reports early Sunday indicated that the Bills hired Doug Marrone as the team’s next head coach. Ultimately, Brandon decided that the process that produced Gailey as the Bills’ coach in 2010 wasn’t good enough. So the Bills have a different process. Brandon is running the search, not Nix. Joining Brandon in the interviews this time around were Nix, Whaley and Jim Overdorf, the cap chief and top contract negotiator.
• Power. Brandon doesn’t have to worry about anyone going over his head or behind his back. He has total job security until the team is sold, which means he’s set for roughly the next seven years. That will be the optimal time for the Bills to be sold, because the penalty for moving the team essentially goes away after seven years under the terms of the new lease agreement. If the football team fails, it will be the coach or GM who take the fall, not Brandon.
Here are the keys to Brandon succeeding. They may be obvious, but none of them are necessarily easy to achieve:
• Get the coaching search right. Some recent Bills coaches weren’t quite comfortable enough in their own skin as a first-time head man (Gregg Williams and Mike Mularkey), and some ran too loose a ship (Wade Phillips and Dick Jauron). Gailey did reasonably well on offense (his area of expertise), but his defenses stunk. Brandon and his team need to find a strong leader who doesn’t have the glaring weaknesses of his predecessors.
The resumes of the men being interviewed look pretty good. But as Wilson often likes to say about hiring coaches: “You’re never exactly sure what you’re getting until you get him here and start working with him.”
• Build organizational trust. The pressure to win and the lack of job security in the NFL both conspire to erode trust in front offices. It’s easy for the coach to start saying, “They’re not getting me the players.” Or for the scouting department to start saying, “The coaches aren’t developing our draft picks.”
There will be a new coach. Whaley is expected to ascend to the GM job sooner rather than later. Those two need to be “joined at the hip,” the way Nix and Gailey were and the way Bill Polian and Marv Levy were. Will Whaley want a little more influence in salary cap management, like a lot of GMs? Brandon must ensure the coach, Nix (for now), Whaley and Overdorf all work seamlessly together. It’s easier said than done.
For example: There will be a new analytics department. It’s a good idea. More teams are using advanced data collection to help in scouting and coaching. On whose turf does the department sit? What if the coaches become hesitant to implement data? It’s up to Brandon to manage it.
A side note on analytics. It’s part of every industry, so why not the NFL? But it can’t replace the value of a scout “smelling a player’s breath,” as Nix likes to say. Former Bills’ No. 1 pick Mike Williams was a winner, according to every metric. But some at his college thought he was soft. It turned out he loved being in the NFL, but he didn’t love the game enough to be great. He was a bust. Only old-fashioned scouting could have forecast it.
Organizational trust was one of the cornerstones of Levy’s philosophy, and he was a genius at building it.
• Find a quarterback. History shows there only are about 12 to 16 people on the planet who are really good at playing NFL quarterback at any given time. The Bills don’t have one of them. The Bills will try their hardest to pick a QB in April’s draft, but none of the QBs in this year’s draft class are as highly regarded as the top two in last year’s class. It’s not likely the Bills will draft a QB who is ideally suited to start from Day One of his career.
Better men than Brandon have struggled to solve the QB problem. Even coaching legend Bill Parcells didn’t truly solve it during stints in Dallas and Miami.
Maybe the thing to do is draft a QB prospect this year, then take another one in the 2014 Draft. Better to have too many QB options than too few. Or none.
Unfortunately, finding a great QB is not a scientific process.
“It’s always been my philosophy you’ve got to be lucky in life in anything you’re doing,” Wilson said when he hired Nix three years ago. “Whether you’re crossing the street or whatever job you’ve got, you have to have luck.”
Brandon can use all he can get.