The stronger Doug Whaley turns out to be as a leader, the better for the Buffalo Bills.
Will Whaley prove to be a forceful, “full-service” general manager? We don’t know. You never know what you’re getting when a man steps into the GM post for the first time.
But the more Whaley asserts himself — even though we don’t know about his ability to push the right buttons — the better the Bills’ football results stand to get.
Why? Whaley’s resume is as good as you’re going to get for a first-time general manager. He’s now the man with the best eye for talent in the organization. His resume and title say that’s the case. In reality, sometimes that might mean he’s judging which of his scouts is sending the best evaluation across his desk. So be it. He needs to parlay his judgment into getting what he wants.
It’s encouraging that he brought in two of his own top lieutenants right away. The Bills hired Jim Monos from New Orleans and another Pittsburgh guy, Kelvin Fisher, from the Steelers. Monos, formerly Southeastern scout for the Saints, becomes the new right-hand man. The Saints picked five Pro Bowlers in the third round or later over that span; no other team has more than two. Fisher, a scout in the West for the Steelers, becomes the new overseer of college scouting.
A skeptic might wonder: Does this give the Bills three guys new to their positions, all of whom are in over their heads? We’ll see. But the hirings are an example of Whaley putting his stamp on the football department. He wanted his guys in place.
Good GMs have to get their start somewhere. Baltimore’s Ozzie Newsome, the New York Giants’ Jerry Reese and Atlanta’s Thomas Dimitroff all were unproven young GMs at one time. Now they’re three of the five or six best in the business.
Talent evaluation is the most important part of the job. Whaley needs to keep talent coming through the pipeline of the draft, especially in Buffalo, where it’s harder (no matter what anybody says) to woo free agents than it is in Miami.
However, the best general managers are more than just glorified scouts. The general manager also needs to have a forceful personality. The GM is operating in a world of forceful personalities, both inside and outside the organization. Administrators, coaches and scouts in the NFL all tend to be passionate and convinced their judgment is correct. Job security is tenuous in the NFL. Those realities breed a “protect-my-turf” mentality. All of that works against a cohesive, smooth-running football department.
It’s up to both team president Russ Brandon and Whaley to breed organizational trust. The coaches aren’t complaining: “We’re teaching them but the scouts aren’t getting us the right guys.” The scouts aren’t complaining, “We’re finding talent but the coaches don’t know what to do with it.” Communication among a player, his agent, his coach and the general manager flows freely. People aren’t talking behind each others’ backs.
A lot of that is eliminated if the general manager is setting a commanding tone. The Bills’ organization was in lock-step with Bill Polian when he was running it, and that was a good thing. It wasn’t just because he ruled with an iron fist. Tom Donahoe ruled with an iron fist in Buffalo, too, but the team didn’t have organizational trust.
At least when it came to his football staff — his coaches and scouts — Polian was listening to and empowering his people enough that a good consensus was reached over and over. (It helped Polian that his personality was balanced by Marv Levy in Buffalo and Tony Dungy in Indianapolis, both of whom enhanced organizational trust.)
So a good GM is a great communicator within the organization. A good GM has relationships with agents to enhance the credibility of the organization. A good GM also has a good handle on the salary cap and the true market value of players.
This is an area where Whaley potentially could be an improvement over Buddy Nix. Nix was more involved in the cap and negotiations than Levy, who took a Sgt. Schultz approach to that sphere. But the perception here is Nix wasn’t as influential in those areas as Dimitroff, Newsome and Reese. Not that Whaley should be lording over Jim Overdorf, the chief cap analyst and negotiator. But he has to be an important part of the decision-making, and he must have a good handle on planning three and four years down the road.
Whaley seemed very comfortable letting Nix be the front man and in letting Nix deliver the organization’s message to the fans. Nix was good at it. Is it a sign Whaley is too low-key? Ex-Bills executive Tom Modrak said he never saw Whaley back down from a tough spot. Hopefully that holds true. It would be good if Whaley communicated clearly and well in public, because that’s part of setting the tone inside the organization.
Nix set a good tone within the organization. People trusted him, from the players to the owner. The Bills spent money, in part, because there was faith that Nix’s evaluations were on the mark. To that end, Whaley is starting out on good footing with Brandon.
Make no mistake, Brandon holds the ultimate power in the Bills’ organization. He’s the president. He’s a forceful personality. Brandon says he takes pride in delegating power to his top lieutenants. There’s plenty of evidence that happens in regard to other Bills executives.
It’s in Brandon’s interest to see Whaley succeed. Brandon executed the transition of power from Nix to Whaley. Whaley is going to have to be very good at selling his views to Brandon, especially when times get tough. In that regard, his job is similar to that of his predecessors in the GM seat. They dealt with Ralph Wilson, who was hands-on. So is Brandon.
Is Whaley up to all that? Is he the total package as a leader?
We’re going to find out.