Youth, Analytics, and Infrastructure: The Buffalo Bills
The juxtaposition of football in relation to age has always baffled me. There’s an age old adage in the NFL that reads: “Football is a young man’s game”. Without hesitancy, older players are shunned out the door. By the time most players reach the age of thirty, they are considered declining goods. I’ve always wondered why this type of thought process is not thrust upon the administrative side of things. It’s not uncommon to see 60 year old first time head coaches or even 70 year old general managers. With the decision to promote 41 year old assistant general manager Doug Whaley to general manager, the Buffalo Bills may have laid the ground work for becoming one of the NFL’s next great franchises. Or at the very least, it’s most progressive thinking.
Whaley made his way up the ranks in the Pittsburgh Steelers organization where he worked as a scout for 10 seasons. Learning under Kevin Colbert, the long-time Steelers GM, Whaley is primed and ready to make his mark in this league.
The past three seasons have been rather eventful for the Buffalo Bills administratively. In 2009, respected long time college and pro personnel savant Buddy Nix, was promoted to GM to replace Russ Brandon, who himself was promoted to CEO/Team President. Nix, who at the time was 68 years of age, was taking over for a 44 year old Brandon as a bit of a “short order cook”. He was thought to have a short stay, but one that was going to meaningful for the organization going forward.
His first order of business was to find a coach who could turn around an inept offense, while grooming young players. His choice of former Georgia Tech & Dallas Cowboys head coach Chan Gailey, 58, was an off he radar hire to say the least.
In full disclosure, I’m a big Chan Gailey fan. I met him briefly when he was recruiting a high school classmate of mine to go to Georgia Tech. While in the midst of taking a bathroom break, I was spotted by the head coach of the football team who was walking with Coach Gailey. The head coach introduced me as the “best dressed young man in the school.”, Coach Gailey added that I was “a really good looking young man.” Needless to say, he had a fan in me forever after that lol!
Recently fired in the preseason of the previous year by the Kansas City Chiefs, with whom he had just taken the offensive coordinator job a few months earlier, Gailey’s head coaching career looked to be a thing of the distant past. The theory of most skeptics was that this was an act of the ‘good old boy’ network. A 68 year old general manager hiring a 58 year old retread of a coach. These type of pairings rarely bode well for the advancement of the new strategical and analytical way of operating that a few teams are starting to construct these days. And very rarely do these type of pairings result in check-marks in the win column.
In the three seasons that Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey were together, the team finished a melancholy 4-12, 6-10, and 6-10.
As expected, Gailey was relieved of his duties, and the club was left to pick up the pieces to what is respected in many scouting circles as a pretty talented roster.
One thing I must point out about Nix is his penchant for acquiring really talented athletes, mostly from the southeastern part of the United States. In his four drafts, he used all four first round picks on players of that ilk. In 2010, he drafted C.J. Spiller, the running back out of Clemson. He followed that up with Marcell Dareus, the defensive tackle out of Alabama. Stephon Gilmore, the cornerback out of South Carolina, and quarterback E.J. Manuel, the FSU star, rounded out his tenure. The thought process behind this being that Nix is a proud southern man – born and raised in Carbon Hill, Alabama – with scouting roots developed deeply in this region.
Critics tend to imply that his less than progressive way of acquiring talent was a hindrance to the program, I tend to disagree.
Despite the record, I believe that the Buffalo Bills have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. They are as strong in their defensive front seven, especially on the line, with versatile defensive end/outside linebacker Mario Williams serving as an anchor of an athletic and stout line rotation. His 10.5 sacks, came in a year where he was nagged with a severe wrist injury. When healthy, Williams is arguably the best athlete in the NFL from a height/weight standpoint. At 6’6, 292 lbs – his agility, power and quickness make him unstoppable at times. He plays best with his hand in the dirt, in a 4-3 scheme, but rumors of a hybrid defense are being bandied about in Buffalo. Williams is more than capable of playing an outside linebacker position as he did in his final season with the Houston Texans in their 3-4 defense. Interior linemen Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus have the potential to be the premiere pairing at the defensive tackle positions. Dareus can even play the zero technique in a 3-4 defense, meaning he’d be the nose tackle lined head up over the center.
In addition, the linebackers are pretty good in all phases. Versatile players like Jerry Hughes, Manny Lawson and Bryan Scott – will be much needed in a hybrid scheme. Rookie ILB Kiko Alonso, out of Oregon, should mesh well with 2nd year ILB Nigel Bradham – to give the Bills a very athletic pair of inside backers.
The aforementioned Gilmore has all the tools to be a top flight corner. Corners like Ron Brooks, Leodis McKelvin, Nickell Roby, and Justin Rogers are some of the fastest and most athletic guys at the position. Above all, multi-time pro bowl safety, Jairus Byrd, is the straw that stirs the drink. He can hit, he can cover and he has some of the best range in the business. His ball skills are impeccable, which only adds to vast list of tangible and intangible distinctions he brings to this young Bills squad. He’s truly one of the five best players at his position.
There’s talent on the other side of the ball as well. Sixth year vet Stevie Johnson, is a tough match-up on any given Sunday at the Z receiver. Robert Woods, the rookie out of USC, will eventually be his equal in my opinion. His ability to separate by way of crisp route running will be the key reason for his perceived success. Receivers Marquise Goodwin and T.J. Graham, are two of the fastest players at their position. 6-foot-7 inch tight end, Scott Chandler is also a very underrated player. He’s more athletic than most linebackers, and way too big for defensive backs. In addition, running backs C.J. Spiller & Fred Jackson, combine to give the Bills an inside/outside running threat like no other. Spiller, the former top 10 pick, had a breakout season last year in which he gained 1,244 yards on just 207 attempts, for an eye-opening 6.0 yards per carry! His speed is rare, and he finally figured out how to incorporate it into being a complete runner.
There’s one element that sticks out on this roster. The presence of some of the best athletes in the league on each side’s of the ball, lends itself to my theory of having a very formidable roster. From top to bottom, this might be the fastest team in the NFL.
Looking forward, all the pieces now seem to match. They have 45 year old Russ Brandon as the team’s President/CEO. They have 40 year old Doug Whaley as the general manager. Conjointly, 48 year old Doug Marrone was hired to replace Gailey. He’s joined by 33 year old Nathaniel Hackett, who coordinated Marrone’s offense at Syracuse University. Additionally, 48 year old Mike Pettine, the former New York Jets defensive coordinator, was hired to the same position.
Though Marrone garnered most of his attention as the head coach at Syracuse, he first came to my attention coordinating one of the best offenses of the past decade. His work under Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints was some of the most spectacular work done in recent memory. Alongside Drew Brees, the 2006-2008 New Orleans Saints took the passing game to new heights. In the staff’s very first season in New Orleans, the trio of Payton, Marrone and Brees headed an offense that led the league in total offense. Just one season prior, the team was a dismal twentieth in total offensive rankings. They finished fourth and first respectively in Marrone’s final two seasons before accepting the Syracuse job. Marrone helped lay the groundwork for what I believe to be the greatest offense of the decade, and possibly ever. Schematically, Payton and Marrone installed a high tempo, west coast based – vertical offense. The same offense that Marrone is bringing to Western New York, along with his young coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.
Buddy Nix’s last order of business was to leave the Bills with a young franchise quarterback in which he acquired through the draft. He made good on his promise by selecting Florida State’s E.J. Manuel in this past draft. Manuel’s live arm, coupled with his size (6’5, 240 pounds) and athleticism – make for a perfect match in the Marrone/Hackett offense. They will simplify the offense, while speeding up the tempo. Manuel by most accounts is a raw prospect, so him going to a staff used to teaching college kids and veterans alike, could be a positive omen for the future of the program.
The triumvirate of Russ Brandon, Doug Whaley and Doug Marrone – combine to form the youngest front office trio in the NFL. Usually with youth comes fresh ideas. The trio will attempt to implement new ways of finding and developing players as well as advancing their franchise as an entity. I firmly believe this is the first shoe to drop in the new wave of NFL operations. Only time will tell if this youth movement will succeed. But at least it’s a step in the direction of truly making football, a young man’s game.