There was a brief silence over the telephone when I told Russ Brandon the reason for my call. For once, the Bills’ president seemed at a loss for words.
“Until you just said that, that hadn’t even crossed my mind,” Brandon said Friday. “I swear to God, on my three kids … ”
I had asked Brandon if he felt a sense of pride that, having elevated Doug Whaley to general manager, he suddenly had a franchise quarterback and GM who were both African-American.
Brandon said he was proud for Whaley, a long-time friend who worked his way up from NFL scout to GM, and who had great mentors along the way. The implication was obvious, that Whaley was a football guy who paid his dues. It’s not the color of his skin that defines him, but the quality of his character.
“We have great respect for the Rooney Rule and the implementing of the process through the league,” Brandon said. “But when it comes to evaulating individuals and talent, Doug Whaley certainly was on top. He created a high-water mark.”
It’s for the rest of us to decide what it means for the Bills to have black men in two of football’s most vital, cerebral, positions. And as Brandon was quick to point out, the Bills’ new director of college scouting, Kelvin Fisher, is also African-American.
Perhaps it’s coincidental. But just months after Ralph Wilson gave him full control, Brandon has changed the essential makeup of the organization. People are saying it feels different these days. It certainly looks different.
The Bills are younger, more vibrant and diverse. That doesn’t guarantee success on the field. The roster is still deficient in many areas. The new coach, Doug Marrone, has a lot to prove. But at least it’s a sign that the franchise is emerging from a dysfunctional old-boys network into a more hopeful, progressive era.
It’s a big deal, just as it was a big deal seven years ago when the University at Buffalo became the first school in Football Bowl Subdivision history to have African-Americans (Warde Manuel, Reggie Witherspoon, Turner Gill) in the three most visible positions in the athletic department (it just occurred to me that all three are now gone from UB).
We can pretend it doesn’t matter to have a black GM in a mythical “post-racial America.” But it does matter. It surely matters to people in Buffalo’s black community, who have watched white executives mismanage the team for more than a decade and waited since the brief James Harris experiment in the late 1960s for another black quarterback.
You can’t tell me most black Buffalonians won’t be rooting a little harder for their own.
Robert Griffin III was seen as a long-awaited hero for the black community in Washington, D.C., when he burst onto the scene as the Redskins’ quarterback last season. Black parents pointed to Griffin, as they would to Barack Obama, as evidence that anything was possible.
Griffin didn’t want to be defined by his race, either. He said, “You want to be defined by your work ethic, the person that you are, your character, your personality. That’s what I’ve tried to go out and do. I am an African-American in America. That will never change. But I don’t have to be defined by that.”
Later, a black ESPN commentator named Rob Parker suggested Griffin was a “cornball brother,” that he was “not one of us” and pointed out that Griffin “even has a white fiance.” Post-racial, indeed. Parker was fired by ESPN.
Progress is slow and complicated in these matters. The NFL instituted the Rooney Rule in 2003 to mandate that at least one minority candidate be interviewed for every head coaching and senior operations job. That was one year after Ozzie Newsome became the first black GM in league history.
Whaley is the seventh African-American to get a GM job. Six are still on the job. Two of them – Newsome and the Giants’ Jerry Reese – ran the last two Super Bowl winners. So might it actually be an advantage to have a man of color running the personnel department in a sport whose players are roughly 70 percent black?
There were 15 openings for NFL head coaches (eight) and GMs (seven) after last season. None was filled by a minority. Whaley was the GM-in-waiting since coming to Buffalo from the Steelers in 2010. He got the top job when Buddy Nix stepped aside this past week.
Nix, 73, said he would leave after drafting a franchise quarterback. He got his guy in Manuel. But it’s hard to believe that Nix was the driving force in April’s draft. Why would you let him run the show, knowing he was on his way out? As far as I’m concerned, it was Whaley and Doug Marrone’s draft.
I know Nix wanted a quarterback. He wanted Cam Newton two years earlier. But Manuel had to be Whaley’s guy. He was on the verge of taking over as GM. I suspect Whaley was the one leading the move toward Manuel, a raw but athletically gifted quarterback with tremendous upside.
Manuel was seen as a reach. He had been criticized as a passer who had trouble reading defenses, who wasn’t the quickest decision-maker on a football field. One draft analyst said he had “slow eyes,” whatever that means.
Skeptics in the black community heard “slow eyes” and wondered if it was the latest code for dim intellect. Manuel was an honor student at Florida State. He seemed bright and quick on his feet at his opening press conference. Manuel joked that he didn’t know what “slow eyes” meant, either.
Of course, even in a supposedly “post-racial” world, where Newton and Griffin are thriving in the NFL, there’s still a tendency to pigeonhole players by race. Manuel was mentored by Donovan McNabb before the draft. They had some long talks at dinner. Evidently, the subject of race came up.
Later, Manuel told a Philadelphia reporter, “They try to fit us all into the same category, as African-American quarterbacks. We’re always going to be compared to players similar to us.”
Generally, that means blacks are seen as primarily runners. The white quarterbacks are pocket passers. The league has become more open to mobile quarterbacks, but the black quarterbacks still fight the stereotype that they’re not as adept at reading defenses.
The Bills looked beyond the stereotypes and put their faith in Manuel.
It’ll be convenient to blame Nix if Manuel falls flat on his face. But Whaley’s reputation is the one on the line here. He has to own this pick. Marrone and Brandon, too.
Brandon promised he would take the franchise in a bold new direction when he took over on New Year’s Day. He has entrusted his personnel department to the team’s first black GM. At some point, the team’s on-field fortunes will be in the hands of its first black franchise quarterback.
After 13 years, fans can only hope the Bills got it right. For Brandon, it’s not so much about skin color but the fact that, this time, his new GM might actually be the smartest guy in the room.