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Analysis: Brandon's tenure with Bills is a tale of conflicting results

Russ Brandon's 20-year run as an executive with the Buffalo Bills produced some amazing accomplishments on the business side and colossal failure on the football end.

Fans will forever see him as the face of The Drought, as the primary reason the Bills went 17 excruciating years without making the playoffs before their wild-card appearance after last season.

Unfortunately for Brandon, who Tuesday resigned as managing partner and president of the Pegula sports empire that owns the Bills and Sabres, his association with the bleakest stretch in Bills history casts an imposing shadow over the impressive achievements he made in sales and marketing.

Despite residing in one of the smallest markets in the NFL, the Bills have expanded their reach and maximized revenue opportunities. It was greatly due to Brandon's efforts that the Bills managed to sell a larger percentage of season tickets in the drought-ridden 2000s than they did in the Super Bowl years of the 1990s. The team actually hit its highest mark for season-ticket sales in 2015, after 15 straight non-playoff seasons. And it was Brandon who had plenty to do with helping the Bills' value reach the point where they were able to fetch one of the highest prices paid for an NFL team, $1.4 billion, from the Pegulas.

None of that registered with most of the fan base.

The predominant feeling after Brandon soared from executive director of marketing and business development to overseer of all aspects of the team was the less he was involved with football, the better off the Bills would be.

As recently as last week, when General Manager Brandon Beane listed Brandon among the people who would be in the Bills' draft room while picks were made from Thursday through Saturday, the keep-Brandon-away-from-football sentiment was as strong as ever. It was not the storybook way "Rusty" Brandon, the kid with big dreams from the small town of East Syracuse, envisioned the incredible ride in the world of sports would end.

The overwhelmingly negative reaction to Brandon's being included among those inside the Bills' draft room, along with relief expressed by fans who didn't see him in team photos or videos of the room during the draft even though he was there, was known to bother him greatly. However, during a 2016 interview with The Buffalo News, Brandon gave the following answer to a question about how he deals with being associated with the Bills' struggles: “Criticism is part of the job description in pro sports, and I respect that part of our business."

The fact is, once Sean McDermott took over as coach last year and Beane became GM shortly thereafter, Brandon had very little to do with the football portion of the Bills' operation and was focused almost exclusively on business. A person close to the situation told The Buffalo News that McDermott wanted it that way, with Terry and Kim Pegula granting his wish that neither Brandon nor the GM at the time, Doug Whaley, be present during McDermott's initial meeting with the owners.

It also was no coincidence the change in Brandon's responsibilities came just before the ouster of Whaley, one of Brandon's closest friends in the organization. He was fired the day after the 2017 draft.

Still, when assessing Brandon's tenure with the Bills, it is only fair to discuss its positives as well as its negatives.

THE POSITIVES

After graduating from St. John Fisher College in 1989, Brandon rose swiftly through the sports-marketing ranks from minor-league baseball with the Rochester Red Wings to Major League Baseball with the Florida Marlins to the Bills.

He quickly formed close ties with late team owner Ralph Wilson and late general manager John Butler, who Brandon said took him under his wing and encouraged him to learn all aspects of the business so that he would be prepared to one day become president of the Bills — or another NFL team. Brandon was known for being highly ambitious, so the chance to be exposed to as many elements of the franchise as possible was something he readily embraced.

In 1998, after only a year with the team, Brandon played a pivotal role in pushing the "Business Backs the Bills" ticket-selling initiative to extend the team's lease with Erie County for their stadium in Orchard Park over the finish line.

With his influence steadily growing, Brandon spearheaded the move of the team's training camp from Fredonia State College to his alma mater, St. John Fisher. It was the beginning of an agenda to not only make him a hero with the school's administration and fellow alumni, but also to regionalize the Bills and give them a stronger connection to fans and businesses in Rochester. Combined, Rochester and Southern Ontario account for a little more than 30 percent of the Bills' ticket base.

That regionalization push reached a whole new level in 2008, when the Bills agreed to play a series of preseason and regular-season games in Toronto.

Although it is remembered as a public-relations disaster — with season-ticket holders and other fans in Western New York outraged about having a home game moved across the border and exorbitant ticket prices and poor game-day experiences helping to keep seats empty — it was a massive financial success. In the six years of the series, the Bills' average take was $9.75 million per game.

THE NEGATIVES

In some ways, Brandon's legacy has suffered, at least in part, because of the ambition that led him to want to be so much more than a "marketing guy." He has long pointed to Butler as a mentor and someone who made the possibility of one day becoming president of a major professional sports team seem more like a foregone conclusion than a goal.

During the 2016 interview with The News, Brandon said: "It was like being in school. Like, he’d call me down and give me 10 questions on the CBA. He said, ‘You need to make sure you’re on top of this.’ He’d call you down and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to watch film and you’re going to call out every defensive front. You need to know what a scout’s life is like and you need to go on the road with some of our scouts. I’m taking you out with me and to learn that side of the business.’ I wasn’t going to ever be a scout, but I damn sure made sure I respected and knew every single thing that they went through. And I have such great appreciation for that side of the business. And that was all part of, really, looking back at it, John’s mentorship to me because he used to say to me all the time, ‘You will be a team president.’ ”

In 2006, Brandon became the Bills' vice president of business operations. Two years later, he was named chief operating officer. In 2009, after Bills Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy left a brief stint as general manager, Brandon stepped into that role.

And he began being judged in an entirely different way. No longer was he the whiz kid who knew how to make money for the team. Now, he was a "football guy" but without a football background. That didn't play well in a town that had the highly respected Butler and one of the greatest GMs in NFL history, Hall of Famer Bill Polian.

Nevertheless, Wilson continued to view Brandon as a rising star, making him chief executive officer in 2010. Finally, in 2013, what Butler predicted came true: Brandon was named the Bills' president.

[The 2016 interview: Russ Brandon gets down to business with his full plate for Pegula Sports and Entertainment]

During the time that he was involved with football, there were others who had titles that put them in charge of player-personnel -- Tom Modrak and former GM Buddy Nix -- but everything flowed through Brandon. The team became known for making moves that were more about flash than soundness, such as the signings of Hall of Fame receiver Terrell Owens and defensive end Mario Williams.

It was Modrak who brought Whaley to the Bills, but it was Brandon who was responsible for Whaley's ascension to GM in May, 2013. Whaley and Brandon were extremely close socially and professionally, and Whaley's infamous decision to trade up from the ninth to the fourth overall pick of the 2014 draft to select wide receiver Sammy Watkins — so he would make '13 first-rounder EJ Manuel a better quarterback — left as much a stain on Brandon's career as it did Whaley's.

Then came the sudden resignation of coach Doug Marrone after the '14 season, during which the Pegulas became the Bills' owners. Rather than do a thorough house-cleaning that was long overdue, Brandon opted, instead, to utilize his position to steer the Pegulas to Rex Ryan as Marrone's replacement. Brandon and Whaley were satisfied that, unlike Marrone, Ryan would essentially stay out of their way and allow them to run things on the football side as they had previously.

Ryan proved to be a disaster, as did contract signings that put the Bills in salary-cap hell, and was fired after only two seasons.

“My mindset was always control what you can control," Brandon said in '16, in response to a question about whether he was concerned he might lose his job after the Bills were sold. "We were very confident, as a group, that we had built a business model that was sustainable in Western New York to put the team in position to be sold and kept in Western New York. Mission accomplished.

"On a personal front, I wasn’t worried about myself, because I knew that there’d be opportunities if it wasn’t here. But it meant more to me that the team was here for our community than what happened to me. But my goal was very simple. I always wanted to be here and to stay here."

At the moment, "here" does not include the top jobs he once held with the Bills and the Sabres.

Russ Brandon resigns from Bills, Sabres after internal investigation

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