Doug Whaley made it clear what the goal for the Buffalo Bills was in 2014 back in May during the NFL Draft.
To acquire Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins with the fourth overall pick in the first round, the Buffalo Bills’ General Manager had to trade his team’s first-round selection in 2015 to the Cleveland Browns.
“We thought what he brings to us now is worth the low one that we’ll be giving up next year,” Whaley said.
A “low one,” of course, is where teams that have made the playoffs pick. Whaley made it clear that night that anything less than that will be a disappointment.
Given the impending ownership change, pressure to win at One Bills Drive would seem to be at an all-time high.
With the season kicking off Sunday in Chicago, Whaley sat down with The Buffalo News to discuss that pressure, the development of second-year quarterback EJ Manuel and much more during a wide-ranging interview.
The Buffalo News: What are your general feelings heading into Chicago?
DW: Excitement. Very much excited. It’s always exciting when you open a new season. Especially with the offseason we had, we think we got some nice acquisitions that help us get over the hump.
BN: What in particular excites you?
DW: The defense. The maturation of our quarterback and the playmakers we have surrounding him.
BN: Let’s talk about the quarterback since everybody has been. The five preseason games, was the production where you want it to be?
DW: The finishing part is what we have to improve on, but we moved the ball. A lot of games, we moved the ball up and down the field, but the name of the game is scoring. We’ve got to score touchdowns to win games, so that’s a point of emphasis I’m sure the coaching staff is going to stress this week. Hopefully between the execution and the game-planning, we’ll make that happen.
BN: Going back to last season, the red zone touchdown percentage was a problem. How do you guys think you’ve fixed that problem?
DW: We think with the acquisition of Mike Williams, who is a big red-zone threat, Sammy Watkins – hopefully he gets the ball and we don’t even get in the red zone – so that’s where our thought process was. We’ve got to get people out on the field that can score touchdowns. That was the impetus of a lot of our moves that we made.
BN: Where are you with EJ Manuel? What kind of growth have you seen?
DW: The confidence factor that he has – not only in the command that he has over the offense, but in his abilities, what he can do and what he needs to do to be successful. There are areas that he has to work on, but any quarterback is always striving to improve. He’s probably his toughest critic, but I do see more confidence coming out. Even the way he walks out of the huddle, you can see, “Hey, I’ve got a handle on everything that’s going on.”
BN: Do you sense the worry or skepticism from fans based on the issues Manuel had in the preseason?
DW: I totally understand where they’re coming from. They haven’t had a quarterback here since Jim Kelly, and he’s a young quarterback that has had some injury history. He hasn’t had that exceptional growth that everybody is expecting. It’s a please-me-now society. We understand that – especially in sports. … There’s going to be some struggles. I’m not preaching patience to the fans – that’s been preached to them for a while – but we have to have patience. I think the way we’re going to use him and the way we’re building our offense, the fans, once we roll it out there the first game, will see why we weren’t in the panic mode that the fans are.
BN: C.J. Spiller has hired an agent. That was something you were waiting on, is that process (of a possible contract extension) moving forward?
DW: The process is moving forward. Once he finalized, we reached out to the agent and had a nice conversation. We’ll get the ball rolling from there.
BN: In regards to Marcell Dareus, have you heard anything from the league about a possible suspension?
DW: Just sit back and wait. I mean, look at the Josh Gordon situation. Aldon Smith. We just wait for the edict to come from the sky. We have not heard anything. … You prepare business as usual. The way we’ve constructed our team, hopefully we have the backups that can come in, and if he’s gone for a game or two, can step in, and the level of expectation won’t drop.
BN: What went into the Kyle Orton signing?
DW: We look at it this way. Every time we go into a season we have an emergency list, a ready list. We have one for every position. He was at the top at the quarterback position. When the backups that we thought going back to last season performed like we assumed a second and No. 3 quarterback could, we were like, ‘OK, we hope they continue to progress.’ Well, they regressed. We gave them as many opportunities as possible to stake their claim to those jobs, and it’s a results-based business. They didn’t produce the results we wanted, so it’s our job as an organization to make sure we have someone behind our starters, that if something happens to the starter, the level of expectation doesn’t drop. He was our No. 1 target.”
BN: Orton has started 70 games in the league. Is there a message for EJ Manuel there?
DW: It doesn’t change anything for EJ. If anything, it helps EJ. It helps EJ to have a sounding board, it helps EJ to have a guy that’s been in the fray of a game, someone who can teach him the little nuances of being a professional quarterback that a coach can’t teach you, but he can learn and lean on from a veteran quarterback. If anything, we believe it’s a positive. It was something we tried to do in the first place with the Kevin Kolb signing. Unfortunately it didn’t work out. So this is an extension of that thought process.
BN: How disappointed were you to see what transpired with Alan Branch given that the organization did make a pretty big commitment to Branch in December?
DW: It was highly disappointing. But the one thing we will not do is not admit to our mistakes. In this business, you’re not going to be 100 percent. ... You can’t put a numerical value on a guy’s temperament, his “want to” and his desire. The way he came back and the way he performed, it wasn’t up to our standards and if you ask him, it wasn’t up to his standards. We just had to move on.”
BN: The Jerry Hughes trade (for Kelvin Sheppard) was a home run. Are the backup quarterback situation and the contract extension given to Branch examples of swings and misses?
DW: Again, when you’re dealing with human beings, you can’t predict everything. Here’s the thing when you’re in our position – which is good for you guys because we’re never going to be 100 percent, so you can always second guess us, and you’ll always have something to write about – but you try to be as consistent as possible. When you do make a mistake or something doesn’t work out, then you’ve just got to log that in your brain and you use that information when you’re making decisions down the road. We just try to be as thorough and complete as possible, but when you’re dealing with human beings, you never know how they’re going to respond in certain situations. Because you look at the backup quarterback, we always said we want a backup quarterback that will keep us .500. Thad went 2-3 and could have been 3-2. So we’re thinking, “All right, he’s young, and he’s going to keep growing and getting better, so you know you’re going to have two young quarterbacks and you don’t have to worry about anything for a while.” It didn’t happen. He regressed. It’s hard to predict a guy that’s going to regress. ... You always have to have a plan, but you have to be light on your feet if that plan doesn’t work out, to get another plan. Lucky for us, Kyle Orton was out there.”
BN: Are playoffs the expectation for this team?
DW: Ask me one team that isn’t expecting to go to the playoffs. That’s why I kind of chuckle when you guys say, “Well, he’s predicting playoffs.” Would you be upset if I said, “You know what, we’re going to be in the top 10 again?” That’s what I’m saying. It’s kind of funny. You get criticized for predicting playoffs. We’re not predicting it – that’s our goal.
BN: Is there more of an internal pressure to win this season?
DW: Everybody says that, but in this business, when wouldn’t it be win now? Especially if you haven’t been in the playoffs in 14 years. ... Here’s the way I think I about it. … No matter what we do, there is going to be pressure of “win now.” If we traded up, “Well, why would you trade up?” If we stayed there, “Well, see, it’s the same-old Bills. They’re not aggressive. They won’t trade up to get a player.” We just make decisions based on what we think can get us to a championship level.
BN: So the impending ownership change doesn’t have anyone here on edge?
DW: In this business it’s all about winning. Winning takes care of all. I would have been on edge if it was Mr. Wilson. We want to win. When we’re winning, whoever comes in, I can’t control what they decide. They plucked down a billion dollars, so I’m not going to tell them who to hire. But I know this much: If our job is to put a team out there to make the playoffs and win and compete for a championship, that’s all I can do. All I can do is worry about what I can control.