In this day and age of results-oriented everything, professionals in the vast majority of fields have short shelf lives when there’s a lack of clear and identifiable production.
Your lasting power greatly diminishes, becoming weaker still, when you take a position of decided concernment well into your senior citizenship.
When the Buffalo Bills named (internally, almost predictably) a seventy year old Charles ‘Buddy’ Nix their General Manager in early 2009, support and positivity were scant. Media members, local and national, were broken records with their terms of negativity and confusion. Deemed an uninspired hire, a white flag, and a ‘typical Wilson move’ by many, it’d be safe to say that Nix was an unpopular addition at best. Unpopularity is a generous way to describe the feelings held by many who wanted a name bearing greater notoriety or an enigma with more sand in his hourglass than Ralph’s ultimate decision in Nix. Those who adapted, had a level head, and chose to educate themselves learned to embrace the situation only to be painted as homers, idiots, or delusional.
Then he spoke.
In Nix’ inaugural discussion with the Buffalo media following his promotion from the scouting staff, he conveyed a certain attitude and mindset (surely not hindered by his blunt-yet-colorful delivery) that surprisingly sat well with the majority. Fans and talking heads alike found themselves warming to him for things as simple as his demeanor and way with words. Now, two-and-a-half years later, he’s (along with just-as-questioned head coach Chan Gailey) turned around this roster and has the team looking playoff bound for the first time in more than a decade. Despite the duo’s pair of last-place finishes in the East and grandiose 10-22 record, hopes are high and hype is building.
When Nix took the helm, he inherited a roster that was sloppily strewn together with players who wouldn’t even make it out of most teams’ training camps, guys that were purportedly chosen for their fit into the schemes of Dick Jauron’s ineffective defenses and atrocious offenses. In giving Jauron such authority in collecting personnel, acting GM Russ Brandon made it blatantly obvious that he had a very weak football background and lacked the necessary occupational knowledge for the position which he took over from Marv Levy in 2007. With Brandon’s moves often being predicated on a marketing and financial standpoint, it was clear that this wasn’t his bag – ultimately being shifted to CEO by owner Ralph Wilson, leading to the in-house promotion of a football mind – someone who knew the game and knew what it took to build a team from the ground up. Where better to look for said mind than in the direction of a former player, coach, talent evaluator, and assistant GM? Granted, Nix’ time as a player ended fifty years ago and his final season on the sidelines had him presiding over a young Terrell Owens in his freshman year of college way back in 1992. Still, his most valuable experiences to qualify him for the position came from his time in the NFL between that final season of coaching and his retirement in 2008, where he worked in various capacities under GM John Butler in both Buffalo and San Diego. For the seven years covering his first stint with the Bills, Nix was one of Butler’s many scouts, mainly scouring schools in the southeast. Being from Alabama and coaching in Tennessee, this was the comfort zone in which he operated for the remainder of the nineties before joining Butler for a venture out west in an attempt to restore the San Diego Chargers in 2001.
With the Chargers, Nix was initially the team’s director of pro personnel while maintaining a partial role in Buffalo West’s initial draft, which netted them a couple of guys you may have heard of – tailback LaDainian Tomlinson and quarterback Drew Brees. When Butler passed away in 2003, Nix’ duties expanded as he was promoted to the role of Assistant General Manager, adding the scouting collegiate athletes to his previous workload and making him a key voice in the draft process. Nix remained in that capacity with San Diego until 2008, when he decided it was time to move on and retire, leaving behind a stunning turnaround of a Chargers team that had just a single win the year prior to his arrival. Under Nix’ tutelage, the team sent dozens of players to the Pro Bowl and had quickly grown into a perennial playoff participant.
That’s the stuff that fickle fans and on-the-ledge media types were quick to forget when he was named General Manger here less than a year removed from ending his retirement to re-join the team’s scouting department. The man has a track record, and since taking over the Bills at the end of the 2009 season, his expertise has shown. Quickly, Nix completely re-tooled the coaching staff and re-evaluated the college scouting department. Soon after getting an idea of what Gailey and the rest of the new coaches were planning on doing, he began trimming the fat on the roster and following his philosophy of building through the draft. The entire 2010 season seemed like an extended training camp, with Buffalo playing trial and error with dozens of players throughout the year, signing and releasing a few someones seemingly every few days. The previous faces of the franchise – players like Aaron Schobel, Trent Edwards, Marshawn Lynch, and Lee Evans – were sent packing in various ways, much to the dismay of the fans. Trudging through two seasons riddled with a young, yet-unfinished roster and dealing with numerous injuries, the team finally began to look respectable last season before – again – more injuries and a severe lack of depth hindered them from capitalizing on any momentum gained. The process still ongoing and realizing he needed to lock up the home-grown core of his club, Nix managed to extend the contracts of his star receiver, nose tackle, and runningback in Steve Johnson, Kyle Williams, and Fred Jackson. Along with that, he managed to negotiate with Ryan Fitzpatrick a very team-friendly contract which does pay him handsomely but gives the team the opportunity to cut all ties without penalties in any offseason of the deal.
Keeping players of merit, players to build around, with the team was not even close to a priority over the past decade. Doing so shows real progress in beginning to look like a real NFL team again. Striking gold again, Nix had what is regarded nationally as a very strong draft this offseason as well as an active free agency period laced with smart moves for the up-and-coming team. With his acquisitions of stars like Mario Williams and Nick Barnett, young talent on the rise in Marcell Dareus, CJ Spiller, Kelvin Sheppard, and Stephon Gilmore, and solid depth with Vince Young, Shawne Merriman, and Chad Rinehart amongst many others, Nix has finally put together a group of individuals that, on paper, seems ready compete with some of the best teams in the league. Speaking of depth, that’s been a major weak (read: nonexistent) link over the years. When you struggle to find players decent enough to start for your team, it (and this should surprise noone) is next to impossible to keep a reliable bench. Nix has managed to bring in veterans such as Lee Smith, Chad Rinehart, and Tashard Choice – to play roles and step in when necessary – as well as young draftees like Zebrie Sanders, Tank Carder, and Nigel Bradham whom can get valuable playing time in spots while they learn to perfect their craft and become better players. This simply isn’t something that Buffalo has had in quite some time. It seems almost a luxury for us to have a group of 90 guys that will actually be difficult to cut down by opening day. It speaks to the level of turnaround that Buddy Nix has brought to this roster, though. When he and Gailey took over, they had a hard time simply filling their allotted 53 man roster. Now, they’re in the position to need to cut ties with legitimately decent football players and that’s not a bad place to be considering the alternative.
Improvements be damned if they’re for nothing, though. Hype is empty without fulfillment. Hard work goes unnoticed without results. I’ve got to imagine – anyone logical has to – that this is the make or break year for Nix and Gailey both. They’re set up for success. Wilson has overturned his billfold and tipped over his wine jug of pennies to give Nix what he needs to fill the gaps and boost the weaknesses. They have the second weakest schedule (only to New England, who in their defense does get to face us twice a year) as decided upon by the league, and the strongest overall group of players they’ve had in ages. To stay healthy and still miss the playoffs would be an absolute disappointment. No talking – no anecdotal diatribes or comically dated one-liners – could save Nix in that case. How would he be able to use any sort of verbiage to explain why, when given all of the tools and favorable circumstances, his team still flopped? In this league nowadays, a regime is given three years to turn a club around, on average.
We are entering year three with ten wins, no playoff berths, two last-place finishes in the East, and a veritable overabundance of hope. With the on-field record and incredibly high – yet just as attainable – expectations, failing to earn a postseason bid for yet another campaign could and likely would prove damning for Nix’ time here in Buffalo. It’s the nature of the business today and, though we may not all agree with it, that’s just how things are. Impatience and desire for the next in line aren’t emotions solely reserved for our quarterbacks anymore.
Stay frosty, Doug Whaley – in the verbal firing range that is Western New York, you’re next.