At the risk of sounding like a cinematic preview, we'll start here: What would you do if you knew you would be fired within the year? How would you act? What decisions would you make? How much would your risk tolerance rise?
As the NFL draft approaches, there are key employees of one franchise who can and should be asking those questions. The Buffalo Bills have been in a unique transition period since owner Ralph Wilson's death in March. Wilson's family has opted against inheriting the team, the search for a buyer is well underway and a daunting industry precedent faces its current decision-makers.
The chart illustrates repercussions of the past four NFL teams to be sold, not including family inheritances. In summary: The general manager/personnel director and coach were replaced within a year in seven of eight possible instances. (In the eighth, the Miami Dolphins botched an attempt to hire Jim Harbaugh, cornering themselves into another year with coach Tony Sparano in 2011.)
So if history can be a guide, Bills general manager Doug Whaley and coach Doug Marrone have a different long-term outlook than any other leadership duo in the NFL. Barring a dramatically improved 2014 season, they won't have one. Sooner rather than later, new owners install their own handpicked decision-makers, largely independent of performance or reputation. (The most dramatic example: Jerry Jones firing Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry in 1989.)
I'm fascinated to see how the Bills approach this week's draft, a time when teams implement their long view. Will Whaley and Marrone act conventionally and in essence build for another regime's future? Or will they take some risks and think in unconventional ways, whether they are motivated by self-preservation or simply the freedom from consequence?
That's why I was more intrigued than I was shocked during Tuesday's NFL Nation mock draft, which began with a bold move by Bills reporter Mike Rodak. The details can be found here, but in essence Rodak sent five draft picks over a three-year period to the Houston Texans in exchange for the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, with which he selected South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
The conventional response, of course, is that no team should mortgage its future for a non-quarterback -- no matter how rare a talent Clowney might be. The Bills, however, aren't in a conventional situation, and I for one hope they capitalize on it.
This is not to endorse trading up for Clowney as much as it is to support the idea of going for broke. What do the Bills' decision-makers have to lose?
When you look at the roster, centered around a questionable commitment to quarterback EJ Manuel, you sense that their best chance for competing in 2014 is with a dominating defense. In this particular case, imagine Clowney -- or even Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack -- lining up with a defensive front seven that already includes Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kiko Alonso.
Remember, this is a defense that finished 2010 ranked 10th in the NFL in terms of yards allowed. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was hired as the Cleveland Browns' head coach and has been replaced by the highly qualified Jim Schwartz.
It's almost crass to suggest that Whaley and Marrone would be motivated purely to convince the Bills' next owner to retain them, and I don't know that to be the case. Whaley, for one, is entering his first draft as an NFL general manager and might not be willing to act counter to convention.
But the circumstances are ripe for the Bills to part from the crowd, think independently and not worry about the consequence of reaction. Let's assume Whaley is fired and, two years from now, interviews with another owner for a general manager job. Asked to defend or explain an unconventional 2014 draft, his answer should be easy: I wasn't worried about getting fired or what the public might think. I had an opportunity to draft an elite player to build on our team's strength, and I took it.
This wouldn't be self-preservation as much as capitalizing on a rare instance to make decisions in a vacuum, knowing your job evaluation is already written. Unfettered by a fear of getting fired -- chances are that it's just a matter of time for Whaley and/or Marrone -- how would you act? Boldly, I hope. We'll see.