Jerry Sullivan: A dysfunctional, dreary day for Buffalo sports – Buffalo News
Over the years, through harsh experience, I’ve learned that as bad as things might seem with the Buffalo sports teams, they can always get worse.
After Doug Whaley’s season-ending press conference on Jan. 2, I called it the low point in Bills history. But Thursday was the topper, a crowning day of dysfunction, a singular low for our professional sports franchises.
First came the stunning news that the Sabres had fired both general manager Tim Murray and head coach Dan Byslma. It was a bold move by the Pegulas. I didn’t think they had the guts to fire Bylsma so soon after whacking Rex Ryan, heaping a double dose of humiliation on their sporting empire.
This means both of the recycled men the Pegulas hired in 2015, making them easily the highest-paid Buffalo head coaches ever in their respective sports, were let go after just two years on the job.
Later in the morning came news of a bizarre incident involving Bills offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, who was found in a field after climbing an electric fence near the scene of an accident on Route 400 and taken to the hospital for observation.
On a suitably grim and miserable day, the Bisons’ 1:05 p.m. home game was called because of heavy rain, which flooded the team’s clubhouse due to a sewer issue on the street. They had to dry out the locker room to test the air quality.
What next, a cloud of locusts descending on HarborCenter and its environs?
By the time Sean McDermott showed up a half hour late for the 1:30 pre-draft luncheon, the local sports scene was in turmoil. And with Murray and Bylsma out of work, McDermott was suddenly the most empowered man in Pegulaville – before coaching his first NFL game.
One GM was fired and the other was invisible. Whaley is technically the top leadership figure still standing, but he was nowhere to be found. The draft luncheon, historically the domain of the GM and his various scouts, had been passed off to McDermott, now the “single voice” of the franchise.
It’s amazing to think Whaley is still employed and Murray is gone. Of course, Whaley has been diminished in the organization. From the day he was hired, it has been clear that McDermott’s vision is now the one driving the football operation.
But if they fired Murray, a popular GM who presided over the tank and was given an inflated amount of credit for improving the team, how could Whaley still be on the job after his continued bungling of the Bills’ roster?
Why is Whaley still here, if he’s lost his clout and been muzzled in public? The draft is his baby. It was odd to attend the annual draft luncheon, which lacked the typically breezy give and take of years past, when the GM and scouts actually knew about college players and were able to discuss them, albeit in a vague and non-commital manner.
McDermott, who has been getting tips from a PR consultant, droned on for half an hour, using the word “process” 19 times. “Process” is a word coaches use when they want to remind people that winning doesn’t occur overnight, and you don’t fire coaches in, oh, two years.
He denied that Whaley’s absence from the luncheon was a reflection of the veteran GM’s dwindling sway at One Bills Drive.
“No, not at all,” McDermott said. “This is, this is absolutely a team effort, 100 percent a team effort. Doug and I have had great meetings.”
He said they’re all in it together, and that draft decisions are made by consensus. That’s what they always tell us. I remember Tom Donahoe and Russ Brandon reminding us, these aren’t the GM’s decisions, they’re the Bills’ decision.
But McDermott said he’s a big believer in the Bills’ new “one voice” philosophy, which makes him the spokesman on all relevant matters. I imagine the Pegulas want to limit Whaley’s public utterances, but if he’s got the final say on personnel, as McDermott contends, what’s the harm in him (and his scouts) illuminating the media in advance of the draft?
“At the end of the day, we agree,” McDermott said. “That’s what we do. Iron sharpens iron, at the end of the day. We go out and say, this is how you feel, this is how I feel, and we iron it out.”
Don’t you understand how that sounds, I asked him? You talk about a singular voice in public, but we’re supposed to believe it’s a democracy behind closed doors? It’s hard to fathom.
“That’s what great teams do, 100 percent,” McDermott said. “They have healthy conversations and continue to hammer things out, because at the end of the day, if you do that you come to the right decision for the football team.”
Sure, and I guess Bill Belichick decides by consensus in New England. I’m not swallowing the notion that he and Whaley are equal. If so, this is a strange way to show it. It’s puzzling how their PR guru would think was a good idea to give one guy the voice and hide the other in the back room.
McDermott has unprecedented power over personnel. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine him taking on this mess. Maybe the Pegulas will keep Whaley around for awhile for appearances sake, but I suspect they’ll add him to the discard pile in due time and let McDermott bring in his own guy.
When he came to Buffalo, Terry Pegula said he didn’t like firing people. You wouldn’t know it. Whoever replaces Bylsma will be the ninth head coach he’s had on his two major pro teams since buying the Sabres in 2011, if you include Anthony Lynn’s modest one-game stint as Bills coach.
While this latest purge was a bold one, it perpetuates the general dysfunction of their two major pro franchises and heightens the perception that the Pegulas are over their heads owning multiple sports teams, a laughingstock. After six years, they still don’t get it.
They hired Pat LaFontaine to be president and set up a modern, expanded Sabres front office, with the GM answering to a boss. Then they ran LaFontaine off and went back to the old model, giving Murray too much power. It came back to bite them in a big way Thursday.
Now they’re doing the same thing with McDermott, only worse, undercutting the GM and having him report directly to ownership. He’s the power, the singular voice, and he hasn’t even coached his first game.
On a dark day in Buffalo sports, the Bills’ new head coach stood before us, empowered beyond his means.
What is it they say about people who repeat their mistakes and expect a different outcome?