Kim and Terry Pegula find themselves in quite a pickle, wouldn’t you say? The owners of Buffalo’s two major professional sports franchises had euphoric fans fawning over them after they purchased the Bills and hired a big-name head coach. A year later, your worst fears have come true.
The Pegulas now own two franchises going nowhere rather than just one. The Bills missed the playoffs for a 16th consecutive season with no end in sight. The Sabres entered Tuesday’s games in 26th place in the NHL. They were two points ahead of Anaheim, which had two games in hand and was one stop from the bottom.
OK, so the Sabres are in better shape now than they were two years ago. The same could be said about the Bills’ quarterback situation. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that neither could get much worse. Temporary improvement speaks to low standards more than it points to overall progress.
The cold truth: As it stands now, the Pegulas are in over their heads.
It sounds harsh, but my intention isn’t to tear down ownership while ignoring the Pegulas’ greater body of work. They single-handedly changed the landscape downtown. They pumped millions of dollars into our region, which boosted confidence among other investors and led them to do the same.
They spared Buffalo major headaches and eternal heartache. The Sabres weren’t going anywhere, but the Bills leaving town was a real possibility before they came to the rescue. As one of my former bosses often said, Buffalo without the Bills and Sabres might as well be Utica. Buffalo is thriving because the Pegulas believed and helped others believe.
Praise them for their commitment to a region otherwise dismissed. Thank them for their generosity and vision. Hold them up as civic heroes who deserve a section of the city named after them. They’re responsible for Pegulaville. They restored faith in Buffalo in more ways than anyone would have imagined.
It’s all true but so is this: When it comes to owning professional sports franchises, they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s not their fault. Can you imagine a banker or lawyer – or sports columnist – trying to run a natural gas and oil company? The Pegulas had good intentions for both teams, but pro sports were foreign territory.
And now they need help.
In recent weeks, there has been talk about them hiring a football consultant, a czar, who would provide a thorough examination of the Bills and offer advice. It makes sense but only if the Pegulas hired the right person, fully trusted his ability and accepted his decisions no matter how uncomfortable.
The true value of a consultant isn’t measured by his findings. It’s determined by the action taken by ownership based on his recommendations. The Bills could hire a football czar, but he’s worthless unless they follow his guidance. Before they make such a move, they need to embrace him without preconceived conditions.
Otherwise, what’s the sense in hiring him?
If that means Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley should stay, fine, so long as ownership accepts the possibility the czar decides one or both should be fired. If you’re going to replace Whaley but keep Ryan, the consultant better have a replacement GM who would be satisfied with the current coach.
Sure, it equates to giving full, unprecedented power to someone from outside the organization. It may be terrifying, but it’s not like the people who have been in charge provided the answers. It creates a tricky situation for any owner, trickier yet for new owners who lack inexperience in identifying the right football people.
Maintaining status quo is an alternative, but the Pegulas made that mistake after purchasing the Sabres. It was obvious before they arrived that major changes were in order. Rather than clean house, they were smitten by Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff and ended up spending more money for a lousy product.
If you remember, Terry Pegula talked about winning a Stanley Cup within three years after buying the franchise. It’s laughable now, but at the time the Sabres really weren’t that far away from competing for a title. He had the right idea path before handing Regier an open checkbook and effectively sending his team to the ashes.
People forget the Sabres hired a hockey czar in Pat LaFontaine, who hired Tim Murray as part of a three-pronged management team. It never fully took shape before LaFontaine was swept out the door. Ownership shipped out Sabres President Ted Black, a Pegula crony and LaFontaine adversary, the next year.
Fans wanted to believe the Pegulas learned from their errors with the Sabres, which cost them money and credibility. I’m still not convinced. There’s still a sense they believe money solves most problems. It doesn’t work that way in pro sports. Often, money creates other problems and compromises common sense.
Ownership made a mistake when giving LeSean McCoy a five-year contract worth $40 million to soothe him after he was traded to Buffalo. McCoy is a terrific back, but his new deal put unnecessary pressure on the salary cap. They should have stood firm, knowing good backs were available if he didn’t want to play in Buffalo.
It’s one example for why they’re in a tough spot.
The Bills need to make a decision on Mario Williams, who appears all but gone. They must decide whether Tyrod Taylor is a franchise quarterback before paying him like one. The sooner they sign him, the less it will cost them. If they wait to give him an extension, they’re essentially betting against their own quarterback.
Free agents Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito and Nigel Bradham present similar dilemmas. Stephon Gilmore is among others who have a year left on their deals before they become free agents. All need to be addressed one way or another. The Bills aren’t expected to have cap space to aggressively shop the open market.
What to do?
I would be in over my head, too, which would lead me to hire Bill Polian or somebody else as a consultant. The Bills need someone who doesn’t need the money and, therefore, has no financial stake in the organization. It means trusting him to take a cold, unsentimental and holistic look moving forward with the idea he can prevent the organization from taking a step back.
From the outside, it appeared people entrenched with the Bills and Sabres too often were more concerned with preserving their jobs than working toward the greater good. So far, in case you didn’t notice, the greater good hasn’t been nearly good enough for either team.
Sad but true, for the Bills, it could get worse before it get better.