Nothing like a major Bills crisis to stir the disgruntled masses. This was the busiest week of the year for the Mailbag, perhaps the liveliest since Doug Marrone walked out with $4 million on New Year's Eve two years ago.
The submissions were more savvy than normal. Am I suddenly attracting a smarter crowd? The main target wasn't Tyrod Taylor or Rex Ryan this week. The great majority of the tweets and emails pointed higher in the organization, to the general manager, the team president and even the scouting department.
Most fans have watched the organization spin in circles long enough to know the problems go deeper than coach or quarterback. Doug Whaley and Russ Brandon have apparently sold ownership the fiction that the Bills have a deep, gifted roster. Discerning customers know better.
It's likely that Ryan will be fired after the season, if not sooner. He and his twin brother, Rob, celebrated their birthday last Tuesday. That happy occasion, plus the holiday season, might have given the Pegulas pause.
On to the Mailbag:
Evan Gibson asks: I understand all the talk about Rex and Tyrod being cut loose, but how in the world does Doug Whaley get a pass? Why do you believe he's safe in all this?
Sully: I've had several emails from people saying the media has been too soft on Whaley. I've called him stubborn and reckless. I said he allowed his defense to regress while fawning over EJ Manuel. I've said more than once that he should be fired for the Sammy Watkins trade alone.
But the Pegulas, who need to believe in someone, think otherwise. Presumably, Whaley is on solid ground with ownership, maybe because he's so good at schmoozing them in public settings. Whaley has a roster that's top-heavy in overpaid players, lacking in depth, and short on value picks from his drafts.
I can't think of a single Whaley draft pick who has outperformed his draft position. Ronald Darby, perhaps, but he regressed in his second season.
You can credit Whaley for some decent free-agent pickups, like Zach Brown, Lorenzo Alexander and Mike Gillislee. But the defense has been a disaster in its last five losses, so how great do those defensive pickups seem now? And there's nothing easier to find these days than a serviceable backup running back.
It's not as if Whaley has been a disaster, but he has been no better at his job than Ryan. He has been at odds with two coaches (Ryan and Doug Marrone) in his three full years as GM. His team is bound to get worse before it gets better. He won't be the Pegulas' Golden Boy for long.
Bill Perry asks: Do you think Doug Whaley should be deciding on Rex Ryan's future? I believe he is too tied to "his guys" on the roster and may blame Rex for their ineffectiveness.
Sully: Well said, Bill. No, I do not believe Whaley – or Brandon – should be involved in picking the next head coach. They're the ones who led Pegula to Ryan in the first place – soon after the owner was considering handing control of the operation to Bill Polian.
If the Pegulas trust Brandon and Whaley to deliver another head coach, they deserve to fail. Pegula's instincts were right when he looked for a veteran outside football man to help lead the Bills in a new direction. But when he lost Polian, he took the lazy way out, and he's back where he started.
You're right about Whaley being loyal to his own players. That's typical of weak general managers, who hold on to their mistakes in an attempt to justify an earlier mistake. The entire saga of EJ Manuel is a regrettable example.
* * *
@EWSchultzLaw asks: Time for a complete Bills housecleaning? As in, include Russ Brandon in a purge? He has been the "continuity" of this drought.
Lou Speranza asks: Is Brandon, who has sat in on all Bills weekly meetings for 20 years, getting a pass on blame for 17-year nightmare?
Sully: I've probably gotten as many of those Brandon comments as questions about Tyrod's inability to throw from the pocket. Fans realize that Brandon has been around for the entire drought – and that despite the franchise's chronic dysfunction, he has become promoted and increasingly empowered along the way.
When the Pegulas made Brandon president of both the Bills and Sabres, it was assumed that his role in the football operation would diminish. Evidence suggest that he's still very much involved with the Bills.
Brandon is a jock to the core, a competitor. His dream when he worked under John Butler was to become a general manager some day. He got his chance to be GM in 2008-09, with modest success, then stepped aside for Buddy Nix – in the words of the late Ralph Wilson, "a general manager of football."
You're right. It's high time for a housecleaning, which would involve actually separating Brandon from the football side. The Pegulas rely on him. He's been very good for business. But there's no denying that Brandon has also been a constant in the longest playoff drought in major pro sports.
* * *
@EricEsch asks: This "source" that keeps feeding Jason LaConfora all of these tips on the Bills. What is that?
Sully: These leaks generally originate in the front office of the team involved. Sometimes, it's agents who are talking. But I know from experience that national writers spend a lot of time talking with general managers and other personnel guys over the phone.
That doesn't necessarily mean that Whaley is talking, but from what I understand, he's not averse to running his mouth in public. He and Ryan are not on good terms, so it's no surprise that national writers would put out the notion that Whaley had provided his head coach with playoff talent.
I learned early in the profession to be wary of these source relationships. It often results in the writer getting most of his "inside" stuff from management, and being favorable to the GM's side in a crisis.
* * *
Brian Cameron asks: Does Dareus really think Bills fans want to hear guarantees from him? Does he really think we didn't notice his lack of effort against Pittsburgh? Is he not one of the more frustrating Bills in recent memory? Will any team take him off our hands?
Sully: I don't imagine Dareus knows, or cares, how disgusted many fans are with his juvenile act. Guaranteeing victory over a winless team is a joke, an insult to the Bills. It strikes me as Marcell's attempt to convince the public that he actually cares passionately about winning.
His effort against the Steelers was laughable. He wasn't alone, of course. But Pittsburgh ran right up the gut and Dareus got run over. He was one of a number of Bills who didn't seem willing to pay the physical price. I can't imagine a more frustrating player, though Mario Williams was close.
And there's virtually no chance another team would take on Dareus, who has five more years on his contract at an average of around $16 million a year.
* * *
@BobFranasiak asks: Does the recent success the Sabres have experienced since Jack Eichel returned make them a sure-shot to make the playoffs?
Sully: Far from it. The Sabres have been much better since Eichel returned, but they dug themselves a hole when he was out. Heading into Friday's game, they were 11 points behind Washington in the wild-card race.
At least they're in the Atlantic Division, the weaker of the two in the East. The Sabres were seven points out of third (the top three get in automatically) as of Friday, with four games in hand. They probably need to play .600 hockey the rest of the way and get to third in the division.