As I’ve written many times, I’m grateful Terry and Kim Pegula purchased the Buffalo Bills because Jon Bon Jovi or Donald Trump eventually would have brought moving vans to Orchard Park had they won the bidding war for the National Football League franchise three years ago. And despite all the agita this team has caused through the decades, I can’t imagine Western New York without the Bills.
There’s no doubt in my mind the Pegulas sincerely want to revive both the Bills and the National Hockey League’s Sabres. They’d love nothing more than to bring a Lombardi Trophy and a Stanley Cup to Buffalo.
But desiring and doing are drastically different things, and there have been times when these neophyte owners have seemed as overmatched as a Pop Warner blocker against Bruce Smith. The learning curve has been steep for the Pegulas. They’ve been bowled over several times.
The firing of Bills General Manager Doug Whaley a day after the NFL Draft is a step in the right direction. Just wish it had been done a few years earlier. It wasn’t all bad under Whaley. He showed a keen eye for discovering talent off the scrap heap. Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander and running back Mike Gillislee come quickly to mind. He also fleeced the Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts when he acquired LeSean McCoy and Jerry Hughes.
But Whaley’s strikeouts out-numbered his hits. Several came with the bases loaded. His drafting of quarterback EJ Manuel in the first round in 2013 was disastrous. And, please, let’s stop with the narrative that he had nothing to do with this pick; that this was all on his predecessor, Buddy Nix. Whaley is on record taking credit for the pick. Then he deflected blame after it became apparent Manuel was a bust.
Whaley told me on at least two occasions he believed Manuel would become the Bills franchise quarterback. The former Pittsburgh Steelers scout even likened him to Ben Roethlisberger. Whaley also botched the drafting of wide receiver Sammy Watkins, squandering two first-round picks on a guy who unfortunately has nearly as many injuries (10) as touchdown receptions (17) in three seasons. Sadly, Whaley could have chosen three-time Pro Bowler Odell Beckham Jr. had the Bills stayed put during that wide receiver-rich draft.
Beyond that, Whaley bumped heads often with his head coaches. He was constantly fighting his little turf wars, pointing out ad nauseam that HE—not THEY—controlled the 53-man roster. Admittedly, Doug Marrone and Rex Ryan weren’t easy guys to work with, but Whaley wanted control he hadn’t earned. Marrone was not on board with either Manuel or Watkins, reportedly storming out of the Bills draft room when Whaley made the trade to select Watkins.
And let us not forget—how could we?—that embarrassing, laughingstock of a news conference when Whaley expected us to believe he wasn’t “privy” to Ryan’s firing.
It’s pretty obvious the Pegulas are putting all their chips on rookie head coach Sean McDermott. It’s a huge risk, considering McDermott has never been an NFL head coach. Yes, he was a solid assistant and talent evaluator, and he has come across as a confident, assertive leader in news conferences. But we won’t know if he’s the next Marv Levy or just another name to be added to the run-on sentence of failed coaches the Bills have paraded during this 17-season playoff famine. One of the best things he has going for him so far is that he isn’t a blowhard like Rex. But we won’t know if McDermott’s the guy until he’s faced with those crucial fourth-and-two decisions at the 50-yard line.
I know this has become a tired rant of mine, but I think the Pegulas would be best served by hiring a person with a proven track record of success to run the football operations. Same goes for the hockey team. They should report directly to Terry and Kim—and no one else.
I’m well aware that Russ Brandon, the president and managing partner of Pegula Sports and Entertainment, has become the favorite target of Buffalo sports fans on social media and talk shows. His forte is marketing and business development, and if he hadn’t done such a good job of keeping the Bills franchise solvent, the team might not have been in the position to negotiate the lease with Erie County and the state that made it difficult for anyone who succeeded late owner Ralph Wilson to move the Bills immediately. That said, I don’t believe Brandon should have a say in on-field or on-ice personnel moves. Leave the football operations to the football people and the hockey decisions to the hockey people.
The purging of Whaley and Co. clearly overshadowed the Bills draft. It’s ridiculous assigning grades immediately after the last pick. We really won’t know for several years. I will say this, though: I like that they traded down and were able to pick up another first round pick for 2018. That draft class will feature top-rated quarterbacks Sam Darnold (Southern Cal), Josh Rosen (UCLA) and Josh Allen (Wyoming).
So, they might finally land their elusive franchise QB then. Or maybe they’ve already found him with this year’s selection of Nathan Peterman in the fifth round. A lot of people are high on the former Pitt star, who threw for 5,236 yards and 47 touchdowns in two seasons and engineered an upset of national champion Clemson while running a pro-style offense.
“I think he’s going to be a real good pro quarterback,’’ said Jon Gruden, the former Super Bowl-winning coach and current ESPN analyst. “I’m smitten with him a little bit as a player.”
If Peterman is for real that would greatly ease the burden on McDermott and the Pegulas. It’s funny how a franchise quarterback can take care of a lot of dysfunction.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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