Doug Whaley and Rex Ryan showed up for the Bills’ postseason news conference earlier this week intent on presenting a united front after reports of friction. Their basic message suggested their relationship was hunky-dory as they continued plowing forward, together as one.
If you’ve paid attention to Buffalo sports teams, you know to pause before taking people in power at their word. Over the years, there have been too many false promises, too many sales pitches, too many declarations that the Bills and Sabres finally had it right when the results showed otherwise.
Along came one report Tuesday in The News that suggested Terry Pegula had issued an ultimatum to his general manager and coach. Another story on the same day said Whaley would sign a three-year contract extension. Naturally, people were confused by the apparent mixed messages. How could ownership put these guys on a one-year clock while adding a contract that extends beyond one year?
Many assumed one of the reports was wrong when, really, both were right. The Pegulas have shelled out millions of dollars in recent years to numerous former employees who were shipped out. For Whaley and Ryan to be placed on watch with multiple years remaining on their contracts wasn’t some wild contradiction.
It was business as usual.
Part of the cost of doing business is incurring the price of mistakes. If anybody understands that concept, it’s Terry Pegula. He made a fortune in the natural gas and oil industry long before purchasing the Sabres and Bills. His solution to a dry well was pulling up the rigs and searching elsewhere. He tried and tried again before hitting it big.
Now he’s a multibillionaire.
And he’s spending like one.
Buffalo fans had grown accustomed to owners caring more about finances than wins and losses. The Bills rarely spent to the cap when under Ralph Wilson, who once refused to pay Wade Phillips $750,000 after firing him. Tom Golisano was intent on breaking even every year before turning a $110 million profit when he sold the Sabres.
Terry and Kim Pegula operate in a different manner. People trying to make sense of their decisions need to alter their thinking, too, and toss conventional wisdom to the side. Whaley and Ryan aren’t necessarily safe solely because they have time left on their deals. If changes are needed, ownership is prepared to write checks.
Look at the history.
Darcy Regier signed a contract extension in January 2013. The message: Regier isn’t going anywhere. He was fired 10 months later. Ted Nolan signed a three-year contract extension in 2014 and was fired after one full season. Pat LaFontaine had a three-year deal and was gone in less than four months.
Christian Ehrhoff, Ville Leino and Nathan Gerbe are still collecting a combined $25 million in buyouts. Tyler Myers was traded two-plus seasons into a seven-year deal worth $38 million after banking about $20 million from Buffalo. Former President Ted Black was sent on his way with a year left on his contract.
The disparity in reports Tuesday on the Bills merely underscored contrasting opinions within the organization. Whaley and Ryan presented a cohesive front, and that’s fine, but obviously One Bills Drive is not One Buffalo. Clearly, people in the upper echelon this week were pushing different agendas, you know, like Whaley and members of the coaching staff.
Whaley has one year remaining on his contract. A three-year extension would run parallel to the four years Ryan has remaining on his contract. There’s a belief that the two contracts need to line up, but really it’s not necessary. At this stage, meaning this very moment, it makes little sense to hand Whaley an extension.
If that changes, if the Bills somehow make the playoffs in 2016, they could sit down with Whaley and sign him to the proper deal. If he decided he would rather work elsewhere, well, see you later. Everybody can be replaced. In fact, it’s unhealthy when people become too comfortable in sports.
This is where the ultimatum comes into play.
Bills fans swallowed Ryan’s nonsense whole, so getting them to ingest another dose of optimism is hardly a stretch. However, the Bills have little chance of making the postseason next year. They’re bumping against the salary cap after mismanaging their money (see: McCoy, LeSean; Clay, Charles) going into this season.
The Bills are expected to save $12.9 million after waiving Mario Williams, but don’t kid yourself. This isn’t addition by subtraction. Williams had a terrible season, but had 43 sacks in four seasons in Buffalo. They might have less cap pressure without him, but they’re not a better team without him.
Williams’ cap savings will likely be redirected to the offensive line and other areas in which the Bills want to retain players. Whaley and Ryan made it clear they’re not going to be big shoppers in free agency. Good luck finding difference makers who want to work cheap for an 8-8 team in a 16-year playoff drought.
The Bills, after failing against lightweights in the AFC South and NFC North and missing the playoffs this year, will have the NFL’s 10th-toughest schedule next season. They also have the 19th pick overall in the upcoming draft, which is the second-lowest selection among teams that failed to make the playoffs.
Folks, that’s the reality.
But at least Whaley and Ryan will have concurrent contracts. Even if you take them at their word and agree they’re on the same page, it doesn’t mean they’re on the right page entering another chapter in franchise history. And that’s why, contracts aside, they should be under orders to make the playoffs or be fired.
That makes the most sense.
It makes no sense to retain members of an unsuccessful operation for the sake of continuity. Whaley and Ryan can put on a show, but ownership should know stability turns into hostility when losses pile up. If the Bills flop again, the next postseason news conference may be held without their general manager and coach.
Whaley and Ryan can hit the door knowing they were together in failure.