The first air horn of training camp will blare in a week. Yet the Buffalo Bills’ front office and coaching staff might be virtual goners already. ¶ The Bills soon will have a new owner, and whether the transaction is finalized before the end of the year or shortly thereafter, time is ticking away on everybody’s opportunity to prove he deserves to stay. ¶ Bills President and CEO Russ Brandon knows this. So does General Manager Doug Whaley. Head coach Doug Marrone and his assistants do, too. ¶ Key players such as quarterback EJ Manuel, running back C.J. Spiller and pass-rusher Mario Williams will be under heavy scrutiny. ¶ Each of them was endorsed by Bills founder Ralph Wilson. He died in March, and the trust Wilson directed to sell his beloved team began the process within days. ¶ The goal is to sell swiftly, to have a new owner in place this year.
That person will want to hire his own people and identify faces of the franchises that reflect a new vision.
And when an organization hasn’t reached the playoffs for 14 straight seasons – analysts expect the NFL’s longest active slump to continue for at least a 15th season – what’s worth keeping?
The Bills have acted with a sense of urgency the past few months. They are trying to win now. Whaley traded away next year’s first-round and fourth-round draft choices to move up five slots and take Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins fourth overall.
The Bills also acquired troubled Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Mike Williams and picked up the option on headache defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. They’ve added two running backs in case Spiller or Fred Jackson get hurt. They’re trying to provide Manuel the biggest possible safety net.
“This is a results-based business,” Whaley said the night he drafted Watkins. “Every year we’re out to win as many games as possible and to make the playoffs.
“So that does not factor into what we do day-to-day, the ownership issue. Our issue is making the playoffs. That could be last year, this year, next year.”
Whaley might be whistling past the graveyard.
History shows new owners don’t hold onto the previous regime’s employees very long.
The last four NFL teams that were bought by a new owner (not by someone who was a minority stakeholder and purchased controlling interest), got rid of their top personnel man and/or head coach within a year.
Not even legends are safe. The day Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys, he fired Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry.
“You know it’s coming,” Ted Cottrell said this week from his home in Atlanta.
Cottrell, the Bills’ defensive coordinator the last time they reached the postseason, was with the Minnesota Vikings when Zygi Wilf bought them from Red McCombs in 2005.
The Vikings went 9-7 that season. The coaching staff wasn’t retained. A new GM was hired.
“We went on a run, and we really played hard, and we played together,” Cottrell said. “Was it good enough? No, because the owner had already made his mind up when he purchased the team what he wanted to do with it.
“You know that more than likely the new owner – because they have a plan even before they purchase the team – has it all mapped out what direction they’re going to go in, how they want the team to look, who they want to run it.
“Billionaires don’t go into something without a plan in mind about their operation.”
Similar situations occurred with the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012 and the Miami Dolphins in 2009.
Dolphins football boss Bill Parcells, beholden to previous owner Wayne Huizenga, drifted away from the club when Stephen Ross took over. Ross kept coach Tony Sparano for two seasons but didn’t want to. Ross was forced to do so after a blundering courtship of then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh after the 2010 season.
One of the rare times a new, outside-the-family owner held onto an incumbent coach was when Daniel Snyder bought Washington in 1999.
Washington went to the playoffs that season, so Snyder retained Norv Turner. But Snyder fired Turner with three games left in the 2000 season despite a 7-6 record.
Cottrell insisted the added pressure is too much to block out. The specter is difficult to escape. Even at home, wives and children are anxious about packing up and moving to a new city, changing schools and leaving friends behind.
“That’s a big burden,” said Cottrell, who was on the same New York Jets staff with Marrone in 2002 and 2003. “People tend to forget about how it affects the families.”
Coaches and scouts often stress to fringe players the importance of putting forth their best effort in training camp and preseason games because the players are auditioning for the NFL’s other 31 clubs, too.
Cottrell agreed with the sentiment that GMs and coaches find themselves in that position when a new owner assumes control.
“The only thing you can control is the product you put out, that your players are playing hard, that you stay competitive,” Cottrell said. “Other people will see how hard they play. You hope for the best.
“You want to make it difficult for the new owner to replace you.”