Bills' Whaley: 'It's always a win-now mode'

June, 16, 2014
Jun 16
10:00
AM ET
Sammy WatkinsBrett Carlsen/Getty ImagesBuffalo traded a first- and fourth-round pick in 2015 in a bold move to get receiver Sammy Watkins.
As players and coaches trickled off the Buffalo Bills' practice field following an organized team activity last week, one man stayed on the field to run sprints.

In a team-issued T-shirt and shorts, he ran for about 15 minutes over the hum of equipment carts cleaning up after the two-hour practice.

No, it wasn't EJ Manuel or Sammy Watkins on the field.

It was general manager Doug Whaley, the man who has been tasked with turning around an organization that is under increasing pressure to win.

Out of the playoffs for the past 15 seasons -- the NFL's longest active postseason drought -- the Bills need a winning team now. Ralph Wilson, who founded and owned the Bills for 54 years, died in March. There will be a new owner in place by early next year, just in time for the new boss to make sweeping changes if the team can't reverse its fortunes this season.

It would be natural for any general manager in that position, with potentially tenuous job security, to have an increased sense of urgency.

[+] EnlargeDoug Whaley
AP Photo/Bill WippertBills GM Doug Whaley knows teams can no longer give a coach or QB several years to develop.
But when he sat down recently with ESPN.com, Whaley sent the message that the Bills' looming ownership transition hasn't changed his mindset. The urgency was already there.

"Everybody's like, 'Whoa, you're in a win-now mode.' The NFL is a win-now mode," Whaley said. "I disagree when people have been saying it's a win-now mode because of the ownership. It's always a win-now mode in this. So that's something I'd like to dispel as quickly as possible.

"It's a results-based business," Whaley said. "You guys, as soon as we lose two years in a row, you're going to be like, 'This needs change, that needs change,' so it's just a sign of the times, for whatever reasons -- from the constant media exposure to owners that want quick results to fans that are willing to quickly judge because of the transient nature of our business nowadays. So that's fine. I got no problem with that."

Results-based, indeed. Some of the league's decision-makers have noticed the same trend: Patience in the NFL seems to be at an all-time low.

"I've just seen this -- and I believe it is a sudden rise -- of owners letting go of top leaders and key leaders, not because they want to but because of public pressure and the pressure of finances," Atlanta Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli, formerly GM of the Kansas City Chiefs, said at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March.

"I have seen a number of head-coach and general-manager firings over the last several years where owners really didn't want to fire people. They really wanted to give them more time," Pioli added. "They're saying this off the record, behind the scenes, authentically that they don't want to really fire them. However, they're running a business, a billion-dollar business, where they're trying to get stadiums, they're trying to keep fans. There are so many [pressures]."

Speaking on the same panel at the Sloan conference, San Francisco 49ers president Paraag Marathe was quick to agree with Pioli's observation.

"Absolutely. And the thing is, we can sit here and say that, but you'll never get an owner -- very rarely, in public -- be able to say that because they can't," Marathe said. "They say it in confidence, but that's because teams and owners would like to, in theory, on paper, like to say 'Yes, we're going to give a coach the best chance to succeed. He's drafting these players. These players take four or five years to develop.'

"But, at the end of the day, if the team doesn't perform in the first couple of years, there are so many external pressures around the billion-dollar business that they are forced to make decisions sometimes despite the fact that they don't want to."

Much of Whaley's background came with the NFL's most stable organization. He was a scout for 11 seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have been owned by the Rooney family since the team's founding in 1933 and have changed head coaches only twice since 1969.

But that doesn't mean Whaley hasn't watched the league change from afar. Look no further, he said, than teams that draft quarterbacks in the first round, and you'll find three-year plans swapped out for the "What can you do for me now?" approach.

"Before, it would never be thought of to put a [first-round quarterback] in [a game as a rookie], even if he was better than the second string. He'd sit on the bench for a couple years," Whaley said. "You can't do that nowadays."

Whaley says one culprit is the 2012 draft, which produced three immediate-impact starters at quarterback: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.

"Those guys have success their first year, then everybody's like, 'Why can't this guy do it?' And then you're considered a failure if you don't," Whaley said. "But maybe you're not a failure. You just weren't ready yet.

"But because of the 24-hour media circus, then people say, 'He sucks, he sucks.' And then they don't get the chance again. So it's just the business we're in."

As Bills assistant general manager last spring, Whaley helped scout Manuel. In one of his final acts as general manager before retiring, Buddy Nix traded down to select Manuel 16th overall -- but Manuel missed six games during his injury-plagued rookie season, which cast doubt on him growing into the franchise quarterback.

"It was incomplete last year," Whaley said. "I don't think you can truly judge a guy off the number of plays and number of games that [Manuel] started."

Whaley's defining act as general manager could be his bold trade last month that sent the ninth overall pick, plus the Bills' first- and fourth-round pick in 2015, to the Cleveland Browns for the fourth pick.

The apple of Whaley's eye was Watkins, a wide receiver from Clemson. Whaley believes Watkins will help Manuel's development at quarterback.

"[Watkins] is a dynamic playmaker. That's what this game is all about," Whaley said. "We got to score touchdowns."

Strike gold with Watkins and the Bills could be back in the playoffs. Miss -- or have Manuel struggle in his second season -- and not having a first-round pick next year will sting all winter.

So, yes, there is a risk involved -- though Whaley, who briefly worked as a stockbroker before beginning his NFL career, views it differently.

"What you learn from [stock trading] that you apply is, people say risk, but successful people see it as potential," Whaley said. "When you look at it that way, it puts a whole different mindset on it. The most successful people -- not only in business, but in anything -- see potential where other people get scared away and see risk."

For better or worse, that’s life in today's NFL. When others are jogging -- sprint.

Mike Rodak

ESPN Buffalo Bills reporter

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