Remember the Bills’ season-ending news conference, when Doug Whaley said reports of his strained relationship with Rex Ryan were so much tabloid journalism? I’m beginning to think it was a rare display of honesty.
Why would anyone think that the coach and general manager were at odds with one another? The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Whaley and Ryan were meant for each other, and for this bumbling organization.
They’re both risk takers, men who will stick their jaw out and make bold, unconventional moves. And while Ryan never saw a microphone he didn’t like and Whaley tends to shy away, they’re both masters at spinning the company line for a fan base that’s always willing to lap it up.
Whaley reached for EJ Manuel in the draft. He shocked the world by trading away a first-round draft pick to move up and take Sammy Watkins. He overspent on LeSean McCoy and Charles Clay, since it’s easy to have guts when the owner loves proving he can outspend anyone in the room. He forced Manuel into the backup quarterback role last season.
Oh yeah, Whaley loves gambling, operating on the edge. Don’t Rex Ryan’s teams reflect those same reckless qualities? His first Bills team – especially his defense – played on the edge, walking the fine line between bold and stupid. That was the theme of the season.
So the Shaq Lawson situation is another manifestation of the reckless personalities who run the show. You can blame the medical staff or Lawson or his agent. But this falls on Whaley and Ryan. It’s their masterwork.
Ryan certainly has to take a large share of the blame for this one. He’s the driving force in the organization. Rex needed an infusion of defensive help to shore up his reputation and help him get back to the playoffs. He wore a Clemson helmet to a news conference last year. His son, Seth, is the holder for the national runner-up. On draft night, Lawson talked about his close relationship with Seth Ryan.
So of all people in the NFL, you would have expected Ryan to have the inside scoop on Lawson’s injured shoulder, which had bothered him since he was a college freshman and would eventually require him to have surgery.
But Whaley and Ryan took the big gamble, because that’s who they are. They gambled a first-round pick on an edge rusher who had been red-flagged by many teams in the league and taken totally off the draft board by several.
Then Whaley stood there and lied about it. He called Lawson’s injury “nothing that we’re really worried about.” Never mind that Adam Schefter, an ESPN reporter, had reported the truth about the injury minutes after the Bills made the pick. Some TV guy knew more about Lawson than the Bills’ personnel department? Must have been more of that tabloid journalism.
I don’t believe for a second that the Bills didn’t know Lawson was a big risk. They were betting that he could play as a rookie and the surgery could be put off until after the Bills made another heroic run to 8-8.
They would like us to believe that Lawson hurt himself – what they termed an “occurrence” – making a swim move in a non-contact drill at rookie camp, becoming the first player ever knocked out of action by a tackling dummy. I don’t buy that fairy tale, either.
As I’ve said before, you don’t get the benefit of the doubt when you’ve missed the playoffs 16 years in a row. You get a well-earned skepticism, a belief that it’s not truth that matters, but making as big a splash as possible to sell hope to your fans.
Whaley could have admitted on draft night that Lawson’s shoulder was a real issue. But why spoil all the good feeling about Lawson falling through the draft and giving Ryan an edge rusher who could make everyone forget Mario Williams on days when Mario was actually trying?
The Bills don’t win enough games, but they know how to win a news conference. It goes back well before Whaley. Trading for Drew Bledsoe, pretending J.P. Losman was the answer, drafting Willis McGahee and C.J. Spiller, bringing in Marv Levy to pose as a GM, signing Terrell Owens, it’s a long list.
Things could work out. Lawson might return in November and turn into Bruce Smith. Players come back from injury all the time. But remember, Whaley said on draft night that Lawson was going to start right away, along with second-rounder Reggie Ragland and maybe third-rounder Adolphus Washington.
Three new starters on defense, that’s enough to make fans forget Rex’s defensive debacle of last year. Put it on a promotional ad!
But the knowledge that Lawson could miss half the season makes the pick even more dubious. The Bills needed immediate help on defense after attrition and injury rendered an elite-level D merely ordinary.
Say what you will about Mario Williams. It was asking a lot for any rookie to replace the Mario of his Pro Bowl years. Now, in a season when Whaley and Ryan are under the gun to win, they’ll probably need to make do at outside linebacker with Manny Lawson or some other limited commodity.
How can we take anything they say about injuries at face value? One month after the fact, we find out that Watkins had surgery for a broken bone in his foot. This news, which arrived at the same time as the Lawson bombshell, had to be very troubling for Bills fans.
Watkins tweeted out that he’s fine and expects to be ready for training camp. Asked on Twitter if he expected to be ready for preseason, Watkins said “Of course.” It’s nice to see Sammy is engaging with the fans after trashing them last season, but that’s not terribly reassuring.
The Bills should be very careful with Watkins. By my count, this is the eighth injury he’s suffered since coming to the Bills a little over two years ago. Hip, ankle, back, calf, groin, ribs, glute and now the foot.
At least he hasn’t had any knee injuries or concussions. But Watkins sure gets hurt a lot. It makes Whaley’s decision to give up first- and fourth-round picks to move up five spots in the draft for him even more foolhardy.
That was Whaley’s biggest gamble of all. It’s not about Watkins’ ability. He played at an elite level down the stretch in 2015. But I don’t care if he goes to the Hall of Fame. First-round picks are precious commodities; that deal cost Whaley an asset that could have helped rebuild his defense.
Whaley made it for the wrong reasons, out of desperation. He was trying to justify the Manuel gamble and save his job. That sense of desperation persists at One Bills Drive, where Whaley and Ryan are under pressure to end the playoff drought.
It gets tiresome, hearing how Whaley is willing to roll the dice and Ryan is ready to take on the world. With every compulsive gambler, there’s something hollow beneath the bravado. They all wind up losers in the end.