Late May is a good time in the NFL off-season to take a minute and reflect on the importance of management. This year, 2018, particularly.
Can we all just stand and put our hands together for Terry and Kim Pegula, for Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott? I mean, what these four have done over the past year and a half makes them candidates for owner of the year, GM of the year and coach of the year. Seriously.
Before recalling how the Bills have gotten where they are, let’s state the obvious: the Bills haven’t won anything, and it’s quite possible they won’t win this time. Making the playoffs after all those previous regimes had failed was nice, but making the playoffs was only a short-term goal. The Bills probably aren’t close to winning a lot for at least a couple of years (although nothing McDermott does will surprise me) and, again, they might not get there at all under this leadership. I get that, and I have doubts aplenty. I’m not anointing anyone, not yet.
But. Look back to the beginning of 2017. The Bills had just missed the playoffs, again.
Their head coach quit before being fired. He was the second head coach in a row to quit. Think about that: one of the most coveted jobs on the planet, NFL head coach, and not one but two head coaches had quit in the previous three years.
The Bills were holding one embarrassing press conference after another, caused in part by the ineptitude of management and in part by a mad-dog local press corps that nipped at the heels of any representative of the team who dared speak a word.
They had a quarterback who, it seemed, the team needed but didn’t want, or wanted but didn’t need, depending on your point of view. Once again, they would be in an off-season contract renegotiation.
One of the most commonly used words in columns about the Buffalo Bills was “dumpster fire.” Given recent history, whether you call “recent” one year or three years or five years or ten, there was little reason for optimism.
That’s when the owners took charge. Everyone knows the Pegulas are successful people, as in really, really successful. Success like they’ve had doesn’t happen by accident. That kind of success is the result of a lot of hard work and some luck, to be sure, but most importantly, it is the result of making good decisions. The Pegulas never would have been in a position to buy the Sabres and the Bills if they hadn’t made a lot of good decisions.
The Pegulas had made a remarkably bad decision hiring Rex Ryan. They were determined not to repeat that history. They changed the process, they changed the criteria and they probably changed the people who were key participants in the process. A lot changed in the first few months of 2017, a lot behind the scenes. It changed because the Pegulas demanded change and, no doubt, were instrumental in implementing it.
Outwardly, the change was apparent the day Sean McDermott was hired as head coach. This man couldn’t have been more different from Rex Ryan: on his way up instead of on his way out, buttoned down and buttoned up instead of just sayin’ whatever, disciplined instead of, well, instead of behaving like a 13-year old.
Who knew, who knows, whether McDermott was, is, destined to be a great head coach. What we knew, immediately, was that the man would die trying. That was refreshing.
If there was any doubt that things had changed within the organization, it ended with the dismissal of Doug Whaley. The message was clear: whatever the Buffalo Bills were going to be, they weren’t going to be the old Bills.
Then, Brandon Beane came aboard, everything came into focus. It wasn’t just the head coach; this entire organization was going to be buttoned down and buttoned up. The Bills were going to be professional and business-like from top to bottom. The Pegulas were successful before and they completely intend to be successful again, doing it the way they know how.
The off-field evidence of the new Bills at work is their relationship with the press, particularly the Buffalo News. By 2017, open warfare had broken out between the Bills and some members of the News sports staff. Rex Ryan was cowed by them, often introducing thoughts in his press conferences with phrase like “I know you guys won’t like this, but ….” Pieces in the News openly demeaned the abilities and intelligence of front office personnel. Writers asked leading questions, trying to catch people in contradictions, and when they did, they wrote about it repeatedly, claiming that the Bills front office was lying. For the News, it seemed like they were exposing their own little Watergate. The Bills began limiting access of writers to players and management for interviews.
The Pegulas know it’s bad business to have a bad relationship with the local press. As first McDermott and then Beane came on board, there was a true honeymoon with the press. Only four months earlier, the press had second-guessed every move the Bills made – no, they didn’t second guess the moves, they trashed them mercilessly within hours of the decision becoming public. Now, McDermott and Beane were getting nothing but softballs in their press conferences, and several positive articles appeared about them.
When Beane decided to give details of the run up to the draft, he gave the co-exclusive to Chris Brown within the organization and to a News writer. In his press conferences, McDermott calls News writers by the first name and often responds with comments like “that’s a good question, Vic.”
Is this an accident? I don’t think so. I would wager a large sum that the Pegulas had a heart-to-heart with senior management at the News, a conversation about how it was important for the Bills, for Buffalo and for the News to return to a more level-headed relationship. In turn, the Bills would be sure the News got quality access. Unspoken, I’m sure, but lost on no one was the simple fact that the Buffalo News may be, I say MAY be, more powerful than the Buffalo Bills, but the News is definitely not more powerful than the NFL, whose presence was felt in every conversation.
However they got there, the Bills and the News are in a better place. The Pegulas no doubt decreed that it would be so, and they worked to accomplish it.
We’ve seen calm, deliberate, methodical progress rebuilding the team: Purposeful and incisive moves in free agency to rebuild the defense. The Taylor and Glenn trades, cleaning out quality players from the old regime that didn’t quite work and adding to draft capital. The bold moves in the draft to acquire the keystone players for the future offense and future defense.
All this, and no hysteria. What’s the last piece of news that Bills fans in general would describe as a disaster? Not drafting Allen; although certainly some people believe it was a mistake, no one’s calling it a disaster. Not the Taylor trade, or the Glenn trade. The last disaster was the decision to start Peterman, and McDermott recovered miraculously from that. Other than Peterman, the last disaster was pre-McDermott.
Things have changed, and Mr. and Mrs. Pegula deserve the credit, right along with their GM and Head Coach.
The Rockpile Review is written to share the passion we have for the Buffalo Bills. That passion was born in the Rockpile; its parents were everyday people of western New York who translated their dedication to a full day’s hard work and simple pleasures into love for a pro football team.
Editor’s babble: Thanks to Mark Korber for his Rockpile Review and terrific contributions to our blog. You can’t find him on Twitter, so please feel free to use the comment section to let Mark know your thoughts about his articles. Thanks for reading!