After win over Patriots, big decisions regarding Bills
Jerry Sullivan is a columnist
for The Buffalo News
FOXBOROUGH — The platitudes were being tossed around the locker room like dirty socks after the Bills beat the Patriots, 17-9, in Sunday’s season finale, giving them their first win at Gillette Stadium and their first winning season in 10 years.
It’s not easy to manufacture angles after a meaningless game, one in which the Patriots had nothing at stake. I’d hate to diminish a historic triumph, but the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed rested seven starters, including top receivers Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, and played quarterback Tom Brady for only a half.
So the reporters were reduced to asking the Bills’ players if this win might be a culture-changing event for a beleaguered franchise, a galvanizing moment that could propel them to greater things.
You know, something to “build on.”
Doug Marrone said winning removed “a little bit of that taste” from the crushing defeat in Oakland the week before. Actually, I was thinking of that game for much of the day. Until the Ravens rallied to beat the Browns, we were looking at a five-way tie for the final AFC playoff spot at 9-7.
The Bills would have lost any tiebreakers at 9-7. But it also would have meant that the loss to the Raiders had cost them a playoff spot. Bills fans can thank Baltimore for winning and sparing them that regret.
Anyway, we’ll find out if this is something to build on, and who will be mainly responsible for building it.
It’s up to the new owner, Terry Pegula, to decide if his team has demonstrated enough progress to keep his football operation intact. If Pegula would allow a meaningless season finale to affect vital decisions on his $1.4 billion investment, they’re in more trouble than I imagined.
At this point, I don’t know what to think. There’s been so much rumor and innuendo going on behind the scenes, it would not surprise me to wake up Monday morning to rumors that Angelina Jolie had been hired as a Bills consultant.
From what I can gather, Pegula really did learn from his early mistakes with the Sabres. At the very least, he has reached out to Bill Polian through an intermediary to determine if the former Bills general manager would be interested in coming back to the team in some capacity.
Polian has repudiated a report on ProFootballTalk.com that suggested he could be hired by the Bills as soon as Monday. Polian told The News that he’ll continue to work “tomorrow and next week and the weeks thereafter for ESPN.”
Well, that might take us as far as February. Polian, the architect of the Bills’ Super Bowl teams, is a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The vote is on Jan. 31 in Phoenix, the day before the Super Bowl. He would not want a presumed return to the NFL to compromise his chances at such a coveted honor.
Russ Brandon, the Bills’ president, said the Polian rumors were just noise. “It’s like the National Enquirer,” he said in the Bills’ locker room after the win.
Nothing is imminent. There’s no guarantee that Pegula will make Polian an offer, or that Polian, who is 72, is interested in getting back into the league. I suspect the national gridiron gurus will be spinning all manner of rumor and speculation about the Bills’ plans over the next month or so.
Still, I have a strong feeling that a job is there for Polian if he wants it. The prospect of running an NFL team again would have to be enticing. But he’d want to know what he’s in for, what the job would entail, and whether he’ll have the kind of power he was accustomed to in his previous NFL stops.
Polian might want to talk with Pat LaFontaine, who came to the Sabres as a newly empowered president of hockey operations and departed shortly after.
Power is an issue these days at One Bills Drive. Marrone and general manager Doug Whaley aren’t on good terms. Brandon was ceded full control of the franchise by the late Ralph Wilson two years ago on New Year’s. Brandon relishes being heavily involved in both the business and football sides.
But if Pegula brought in Polian or some other outside, veteran football man to oversee the operation, Brandon likely would be relegated to his role as a business and administrative executive, where his brilliance is well-established.
Brandon is in no danger of being put on the street. He has deep roots in the business community. He has helped regionalize the franchise and keep the business side booming despite the Bills’ 15-year run of on-field disappointments.
Twice during a gathering with writers after Sunday’s game, Brandon referred to his role in business and administration, as if he were already separating himself from the football decision-making and preparing for the eventual diminishing of his role.
I’ve advocated the hiring of an outside football man — a “fresh set of eyes,” if you will — since Pegula bought the team. Pegula didn’t seek out that kind of hockey knowledge when he bought the Sabres, and he’s still paying for it.
The fact the Bills won nine games doesn’t change that. Polian would be an ideal choice to help them “build on” this season. He might want to restructure the personnel department and bring in a lot of his own people to run the show.
That would be bad news for Whaley, who has made some good moves but blundered on some very big ones. Polian is said to be fond of Marrone, so it’s hard to see Whaley surviving if Polian takes over control.
Pegula would be lucky to get Polian, the greatest executive in NFL history. Critics say he’s too old, and that the game has passed him by. That’s absurd. His intensive work with ESPN has kept him intimately involved with the game. He always knew a football player when he saw one. That hasn’t changed.
Polian’s basic principles about how to run an organization haven’t changed. He lost favor at the end with the Colts, largely because he empowered his son, Chris, as general manager. The Bills should be wary of repeating that. Chris Polian, pro personnel director in Jacksonville, shouldn’t want it, either.
This might be all idle speculation, but I doubt it. I don’t believe the Polian story was fabricated out of thin air, any more than I felt the story about tension between Marrone and management was invented, either.
From what I understand, people in the NFL have been urging Pegula to find a respected football man to help with the transition as owner. This isn’t the NHL.
The NFL gets heavily involved with its franchises and tries to make sure they’re operating in the most efficient way possible.
You want a culture change with the Bills? It doesn’t come from beating a watered-down Patriots team that’s going through the motions. You don’t celebrate going to 9-7 against a Patriots team that has won at least 10 the last dozen seasons.
Pegula might be on to something. If you want to build on a winning season, you can do worse than hiring the best architect in the history of the league.