Back in fall 1998, I was excited to do my first segment of CBS’s The NFL Today. In May I was let go by the Eagles after I traded for Hugh Douglas and drafted Tra Thomas, Allen Rossum, Jeremiah Trotter, Brandon Whiting, and Ike Reese. I was not bitter (yes, I was) and I moved on. The NFL had just returned to the network after a four-year layoff, and I had what I felt was some real juicy gossip regarding the comings and goings of general managers around the league. But as I rehearsed my segment with Jim Nantz, I could sense he wasn’t as excited as I was. I wasn’t getting that charming “Hello friends” Nantz voice. Sensing he was less than thrilled, I asked him what was wrong. He said, “Look, Michael, all this general manager stuff is interesting to you and important, but to most fans and the little old lady in Des Moines, Iowa, watching this show, they could care less. Fans care about only two things: Who is their quarterback, and who is their head coach. Not the general manager.” Nantz was right then, and he’s right now.
When I read about a GM’s firing or hear one give their state of the union address about the team, I often think of Nantz’s words and remind myself that the best thing a GM can do is work behind the scenes to help the coach win. Give the little old lady from Des Moines what she wants. In football, the head coach and quarterback are the lead actors; everyone else should play a supporting role.
What occurred the day after the draft in Buffalo with the dismissal of GM Doug Whaley and his scouting staff might seem like a matter of poor timing. But in reality, all parties involved knew it was going to happen. It comes with the territory, or as Hyman Roth told Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part II: “This is the business we have chosen.” Yes, it appeared insensitive to fans due to the timing after the draft, and yes, it looked like a snap decision. However, there was nothing snappy about this decision.
In fact, it had been in the works for some time. Whaley survived a power struggle with former Bills head coach Doug Marrone when he opted out of his deal in 2015 after the sale of the team was finalized. Then Whaley survived the Rex Ryan administration, which made him vulnerable to any coach that was hired.
The lack of a public announcement before the draft was intended to protect the sensitive data Whaley and his scouting staff had assembled. Whaley being out after the draft was not privileged and confidential information among NFL insiders; it was far from a secret. What saved him for a few months was that the run-up to a draft is about an accumulation of scouting knowledge. Whaley had a vast amount of valuable information at his fingertips. Why pay everyone and then let them share your secrets around the NFL? Unless, of course, you’re the team in our nation’s capital, which operates differently. When Washington fired GM Scot McCloughan in early March, the team knew he would help other teams with his draft knowledge. They didn’t care. A typical Dan Snyder move.
This was not the case in Buffalo. I honestly believe the Bills wanted the marriage of Whaley and recently hired head coach Sean McDermott to work. At the combine, McDermott said the same: “I’m definitely banking on Doug and his staff,” McDermott told reporters. “I mean, they do a great job and that’s part of the equation. And having said that, as a coach and a head coach, I think you’d be missing out on something if you just basically excused yourself from those conversations, and that’s nothing close to what I plan to do.”
When Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula first met McDermott, it was love at first sight. They instantly knew he was their next head coach. Whaley might have been involved in the process, but when it comes to hiring a coach, the owner normally makes the call. And in this case, this was all the Pegulas.
To most NFL insiders, Whaley and McDermott seemed like an odd-couple partnership, in part due to their having never worked together and because they have different football backgrounds. Even though both men started their NFL careers in the state of Pennsylvania — Whaley with the Steelers and McDermott with the Eagles — they were miles apart. About as far as Pittsburgh is from Philadelphia. As time passed and the men began working side by side, this Felix and Oscar pairing had zero chance of working. Whaley was all about scouting players; McDermott is about building a team. Scouts don’t always know how to build teams. They know only how to pick players. And a scout focused primarily on scouting players can succeed only in a fantasy draft. After a few months together in Buffalo, it was clear there needed to be a divorce.
When a change occurs in the head-coaching chair, a new boss means new rules, new ways of operating, and, most of all, a new culture. Remember in the first season of The Sopranos when Uncle Junior takes over as the new boss of the North Jersey family and his henchman Mikey Palmice storms a card game? After bashing someone’s head in, Palmice announces: “The party’s over. Junior Soprano is the new boss and he ain’t respectin’ old arrangements.”
McDermott didn’t respect the old arrangements when he set foot in Orchard Park. He was clear on how he wanted the organization to operate when he interviewed for the job — in front of Terry Pegula and Whaley. This was not a backdoor attempt to gain power; it was the only path to success that McDermott could see as he became a new head coach. He wasn’t just looking to be “in charge of the assistants.” Under new leaders, old arrangements quickly become a thing of the past. Clearly, like Uncle Junior, McDermott is the new leader.
When a new coach enters an organization, all the players must know they work only for the head coach. No back channels can exist. I have lived it the other way, and, trust me, it doesn’t work. After spending almost 10 years in “Raiderland,” where the players believed they worked exclusively for the owner instead of the head coach, unsolvable problems occur. Chaos was always on the doorstep. The NFL is a paramilitary organization that works best when the head coach has five stars commanding the troops.
In football, a successful partnership between the head coach and GM starts with a philosophical connection. I was a more effective personnel man working for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick; we share the same vision for what it takes to win in the NFL. When I wasn’t with Bill, I was horrible working with … I’ll leave out the name, as it pains me to even remember. The cohesiveness between coach and GM is vital to an organization. Pete Carroll found it with John Schneider in Seattle, Ted Thompson found it with Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, and the Steelers have always had it with whoever is their GM — in this case, Kevin Colbert — and their head coach, Mike Tomlin.
The finest organizations in the NFL — Pittsburgh, Green Bay, New England, Seattle, Kansas City, Denver, Baltimore, and the New York Giants; or as I call them, “the Magnificent Eight” — are always aligned. Internal fighting does not exist between management and coaching staffs. Therefore, when complicated issues arise, and they always do on a football team, the team has a way to correct them, not blame another department. When the “blame game” starts, it’s over — coaches blame scouts, scouts blame coaches, owners blame everyone. And sooner or later, there are no survivors.
Buffalo hasn’t had the alignment needed to compete at the highest level for 15 miserable years, in part because former owner Ralph Wilson loved the traditional approach: coaches coach, scouts scout. The front office drafted the players and controlled the roster, and the coaches coached the team. It’s a baseball-ish management structure. And it might work in baseball. But not in football, as Bills fans have painfully come to realize. The Pegulas have, too.
All that changed with the hiring of McDermott, who was brought up in the Andy Reid school of assistants. He understands the importance of having one vision and the need to have an entire organization operating under one set of rules. Just read what he said after the draft: “We’re going with that one-voice approach, and streamlined and aligned on what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we’re doing it.”
Good for the Bills. They may finally have a chance to catch the Pats. Not because Whaley was bad at his job, but rather because he was picking players, not building a team. Being a GM in the NFL is not like being a fantasy football owner. There has to be an understanding of the essentials needed for a team to succeed. And when the head coach and GM don’t agree on those essentials, there is chaos, followed by losing.
As Nantz told me years ago, no one cares who the GM is; if you’re winning, they care about only the head coach and quarterback. Now all the Bills need under Uncle Sean’s direction is a QB.