Ben Liebenberg/AP
Ben Liebenberg/AP

‘We’ve Got to Win Now’

Inspired by his mentor Bill Nunn, who died two days earlier, Bills GM Doug Whaley pulled off the biggest trade of the 2014 NFL draft to select wideout Sammy Watkins. The move announced to the rest of the league, and to long-suffering fans: Buffalo is tired of losing

The words of one of the great scouts in NFL history—and one of the trailblazers for all African-American personnel people in football—echoed in the head of Buffalo general manager Doug Whaley when he made the gutsiest move during the first round of the 2014 NFL draft on Thursday night.

Do not ever, ever be afraid to make a big move if you believe in it strongly.

Bill Nunn Jr., a 46-year scout for the Steelers, drilled that into 23-year-old scouting intern Doug Whaley in Pittsburgh in 1995. And he continued to be the biggest mentor of Whaley’s career when Whaley returned to the Steelers as a pro personnel scout several years later. Whaley, like his mentor, is black. Nunn died Tuesday in Pittsburgh of complications from a stroke. He was 89.

“I would never be sitting in this draft room right now, and I never would have been in position to make this move tonight, without Bill Nunn,” Whaley said from the Bills’ draft room 90 minutes after pulling the first mega-deal of the 2014 draft.

The Bills, scheduled to draft ninth, traded up five spots in the first round with Cleveland at No. 4, and took the best wide receiver in the draft—Clemson’s Sammy Watkins. It cost plenty. Buffalo surrendered first- and fourth-round picks in 2015. It was a colossal price to pay. The Bills haven’t made the playoffs in 14 seasons. If they continue their brand of football mediocrity in 2014, and win five or six games, Whaley will have sent a top-10 pick to Cleveland for moving just five slots in this draft.

Long-time Steelers scout Bill Nunn mentored Bills GM Doug Whaley, who pulled off a bold trade in the 2014 NFL Draft. (Bill Wippert/AP::George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
Longtime Steelers scout Bill Nunn, who died on Tuesday at 89, mentored Bills GM Doug Whaley, who pulled off a bold draft-day trade on Thursday. (Bill Wippert/AP :: George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

But there’s much more to this gamble than what shows on the surface. Whaley felt the burden of recent Bills history. Of the massive fan frustration. Of the death this year of owner Ralph Wilson, who’d entrusted him with the GM job in 2013, and of the feeling of front-office staffers that they owe Wilson something. Of the team’s being a doormat for a decade and a half—just one winning season in this century—after winning four AFC titles in the ’90s.

I wish the people of western New York could have heard Whaley’s voice from the draft room on Thursday night. It was almost beseeching. Whaley’s a Pittsburgher, born and raised and schooled there, but he sounded like a factory worker from Tonawanda when discussing why he had to make this move.

“We’ve got to win,” he said. “We’ve got to win now. Fourteen years of not making the playoffs. Fourteen years. The people here deserve so much more. We need to give them more. We need to give them a winning team. We need to do it for the people of this region, and we need to do it for Mr. Wilson.

“I understand how big the deal is. I’m a competitor. I like our odds. I like our chances. The information we had made the decision for us. The player made the decision. I think I made the best decision for the Buffalo Bills. I can live with that, however it turns out.”

“Fourteen years of not making the playoffs. Fourteen years,” Whaley said. “The people here deserve so much more.”

Whaley said he and the Bills’ brass made the decision Tuesday to try to move up high in the draft, even if it took next year’s first-round pick to do so. He had some talks with Cleveland earlier in the week. “But they intensified once Jacksonville was on the clock. I’d say we reached the final deal with about five minutes left in their [10-minute] period. We had two players targeted, and if they were still there, we were going to try to make the deal.”

Whaley wouldn’t say who the other player was, but he did make one thing clear: “Sammy was the top-rated player on our board.”

The Bills began to fall in love with Watkins last fall, after Whaley scouted the Clemson-North Carolina State game last September. Watkins had a good but not starry game—10 catches, 96 yards, no touchdowns. “What I saw is the way an NFL wide receiver should look,“ said Whaley. And the affection grew at the Clemson pro day this spring. “He made a catch with unbelievable body control—it’s hard to describe exactly what he did, but the body control was just amazing. I said to one of our scouts, ‘What else do we need to see?’ And we left. We left before the workout was over, because we knew.”

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Nunn, Whaley’s mentor, was instrumental in finding players from predominantly black colleges when few scouts went there in the ’70s. His coups: Hall of Fame wide receiver John Stallworth from Alabama A&M in the fourth round of the 1974 draft—Nunn found 1973 college tape of Stallworth that no one else had—and L.C. Greenwood (10th round) and Donnie Shell (undrafted free agent) in other years. “I’d just listen to Bill for hours tell stories, and there was always a lesson in them,” said Whaley, the sixth African-American GM in NFL history. “I soaked everything in. When I first met him I was a 23-year-old kid brand new to the business, and here I was with the first high-level African-American scout in football history. What he meant to me I can’t put into words, but it was so important to him that a scout have convictions.”

Whaley needed those convictions Thursday night, when he traded what could be a top-10 pick in 2015 to move five spots to get the player of his dreams. Now Watkins will be the keystone in a revamped receiving corps. Stevie Johnson might be sent packing after a mediocre 2013 season, and youngsters T.J. Graham and Robert Woods will have to make a leap and play better or teams will simply be able to put enough defensive pressure on Watkins to neutralize his impact. The biggest help, of course, will be to quarterback E.J. Manuel, who now will have a fighting chance in his second season as the Bills’ quarterback of the future.

There is no wait-till-next-year for Buffalo now. It’s wait-till-now. There’s a bolder sheriff in town, a well-mentored one, and the heck with next year.

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78 comments
RosaNosabe
RosaNosabe

With the bold move of moving up for Sammy is significant, it's EJ's development to be that franchise QB they drafted him to be that's more critical

BernieDennis
BernieDennis

For as much grief that has been written about Doug's willingness to pay a steep price for a risky down payment on winning i only say..."way to go" .... now that the team is for sale they have no more room to plan for winning in year 3...it's about winning now and the bill's are in that circumstance...how else to survive an ownership change than by winning....this is an easy decision to pick at...but if you've pushed all your chips betting on EJ then why not give him a true number one to throw to...The Bill's FO had the ultimate wake up call this spring...and apparently they got the message...win or be gone...truth is Doug made the only move a person in his position could...i for one am hoping he nailed it...

fuggetaboutit909
fuggetaboutit909

why did the bills trade that much..... this is by all accounts a wide receiver deep draft.  then to go ahead and trade that much for a seldom used RB (brown) from the eagles?????   neither watkins nor  bryce brown should be busts BUT overpriced is overpriced..... 


think about how little they got back for steve johnson and how much they gave up for both guys and you probably get where I am coming from..... I know both guys will be on rookie deals BUT you usually don't win superbowls by overpaying in any way shape or form.

MichaelCraney
MichaelCraney

Great teams come together in strange ways. 


The last go round for Buffalo, Kelly and Bruce Smith were first rounders; Thurman Thomas was a second round, while Andre Reed a 4th. 


Not to knock the price paid for Watkins --- if you know you've got a pro-bowl guy, I guess it's OK to pay a lot for him. 


BUT:


1) Great teams are built from the inside out. You never hear anyone saying "wow, that team got deep into the playoffs despite a crappy O-line". Never happens -- deficiencies anywhere else can be worked around, but not the offensive line. So, I assume that Buffalo must already have a great O-line if they're shooting two 1sts on a wide receiver. If not, he may never get the ball, because his QB is running for his life. 


2) You build great teams by being extremely smart in rounds 3-7. Consistently bad teams draft great position players in the early rounds, never improve their teams, resulting in the position player getting the H out of Dodge the minute their contract is up. Consistently good teams manage to find great talent late in the rounds, taking advantage of the bad team's willingness to make stupid, careless deals with their mid and late round picks. 



BTB117
BTB117

Peter it was an excellent read and I really appreciate the local touch with "Tonawanda Factory Worker!" I've been very skeptical of Whaley since he helped Buddy Nix re-sign Ryan Fitzpatrick but last night with that trade and that statement about how we need to win now speaks volumes! I've been wanting someone in that office to have that sense of urgency and he showed it and I love it!

It is about time that we went up and got ourselves not a nice player or a quality player, but THE PLAYER and he did that. I would do that trade over and over again. I will blame him and his staff if Manual doesn't pan out but if Watkins doesn't it will not be for a lack of effort. It's a great move and finally something to be excited around here!

rskins09
rskins09

 Think Sammy  Watkins  will be a superstar ..One of only five freshman in college who made the all-america team their freshman year ....Hershel Walker was another ..Freshman year you could tell he was going to play on Sunday ......

John Moran
John Moran

Buffalo always scares me no matter what their record is.

watson81
watson81

What does the race of the GM or his mentor have to do with the story?

parkerstreet
parkerstreet

You guys who discount Watkins don't really know what you have. This guy is electric. True, they are more than one player away from contending, but they are one helluva player closer. I've spent the past 3 years as a non-fan of him and of Clemson, and believe me, I'm glad he's now in the NFL. Sammy Watkins still has tremendous upside to add to his already present gifts. Pro Bowler by year 2 if they can get the ball NEAR him.

blackcatcrosses
blackcatcrosses

This was an awful move for a shiny hood ornament. The Bills are more than one player away.

tonybot3
tonybot3

Not a Bills fan, but i think EJ Manuel is decent.... above average... good enough.  

Not sure what other pieces that team is missing, but it doesn't bother me that they are rolling with Manuel.

RochesterPizzaguy
RochesterPizzaguy

Believe me, I hate to say it, but the Bills' ineptitude continues. They're going to be missing that draft pick next year. Watkins looks good, but there were other good picks available and I don't think he's worth what they gave up to get him. It all starts with the QB. They've basically gone all in on Manuel but to call that a risk is an understatement.

therednorth1
therednorth1

The full quote actually reads "We've got to win now or else I get fired."

JubJub
JubJub

The won't win NOW, the year after that, or the year after that.  E.J. Manuel isn't very good, and neither is the rest of the team.  

Bernard4195
Bernard4195

There is a ton of hype around Watkins, much of it due to the break out he had at the orange Bowl vs the Buckeyes.  What many pundits aren't discussing is (1) OSU's pass defense was atrocious all season; (2) their starting safety and captain was lost earlier that season to a broken ankle; (3) Bradley Roby, their all American CB was out with an injury: (4) their starting DE was out due to suspension so they got little pressure on the QB; (5) Watkins was covered by a freshman making his first career start.

Redskins
Redskins

Too funny! I guess when you have been leading the Johnny Football hype for months, and Mr. Sure Top Five tumbles, you write about the Bills.

jsmarkley
jsmarkley

"Bill Nunn Jr., a 46-year scout for the Steelers, drilled that into 23-year-old scouting intern Doug Whaley in Pittsburgh in 1995 .... Nunn died Tuesday in Pittsburgh of complications from a stroke. He was 89."

So, he was able to magically age 43 years in the span of 19 years? 

Braktooth
Braktooth

@MichaelCraney That's usually true, but Seattle's line was pretty crappy this year. It won't be good next year either, but they've done all right.

fuggetaboutit909
fuggetaboutit909

@MichaelCraney that is pretty much NFL GM 101 isn't it..... funny how many mistakes GMs still make.  usually because something is getting in the way of basic principles that usually lead to winning teams.... oh like the sale of a team, need to "excite" a fanbase, job security, crazy-owner, etc etc etc.

rskins09
rskins09

     Adrian Peterson was another ...........

melemming
melemming

@watson81  May be it's the rarity in the NFL to have black GMs.  That would be something to mention!

Sexyjunky
Sexyjunky

I was thinking the same thing. Maybe the author thought it would give the story more relevance. Dunno.....

rskins09
rskins09

@parkerstreet    Your right ..His freshman year @ Clemson I knew he'd be playing on Sunday ....Separation speed is unbelievable ..Darrel Green (former Redskin)  would have a hard time catching him  from behind ..

NWBill
NWBill

@blackcatcrosses  That's ridiculous. Buffalo made a move to get the BEST skill position player in the draft yesterday - how is that an "awful" move?


Please be a little more open-minded about Buffalo ...this was a gamble, sure ...but it's a smart gamble with a guy that has world-class talent. Now, if they had done what Jacksonville did yesterday, I'd be pulling my hair out. As soon as I saw this come over the wire, I KNEW it was the best thing they could possibly do!


Cleveland helped themselves out yesterday, too ....but I think Manziel is much more of a risk than Sammy Watkins is. With QBs, you never really know what's going to happen. With Watkins, all he has to do is get on the same page as EJ Manuel - that's it. The rest will come. If nothing else, Sammy Watkins is a MUCH better football player than Stevie Johnson ...who is now a 49er. So, in one fell swoop, we get a top 5 pick with world class talent and upside ...and clear off the books an aging, questionable player who probably wasn't 100% sold on Buffalo in the first place.

EdwardKirby
EdwardKirby

@blackcatcrosses I agree. The new owners of the Bills are going to need a new GM before they get a new stadium.

Meanwhile, the Browns hit the jackpot with this one. They will -- once again -- have two first round picks next year, and there's a good chance that one (or both!) could be top ten picks.

EdwardKirby
EdwardKirby

@therednorth1 He may get fired anyway, as new ownership comes in. This is what is called "a Hail Mary".

NWBill
NWBill

@JubJub  If you think EJ Manuel isn't very good, then you must know more about QBs than Jon Gruden, and the Bills - because they disagree. Gruden loves this kid, and he's FULLY healthy now, with a year under his belt. And now he has a much-improved receiver corps to work with; +Watkins and Williams, -Johnson.


I'd take Gruden's and Buffalo's assessments over yours any day of the week - and twice on Sundays.

wjordan
wjordan

@Bernard4195  Break out game?!?! You sir are foolish. Sammy put up stellar #'s his whole Clemson career. He wasn't drafted 4th over all based on 1 game. Sammy was drafted 4th because of his work ethic, leadership, and not to mention his breakaway speed, strong hands and natural talent as a wide receiver. 

NWBill
NWBill

@jsmarkley  Please practice your reading and comprehension ... I suggest the Khan Academy. Or maybe reading some nursery stories to get yourself started.

Come back to football when you know what you're talking about.

JohnJones4
JohnJones4

@jsmarkley  Since you are clearly illiterate, I wonder who typed that comment out for you.

NWBill
NWBill

@Sexyjunky  It's because of the history involved - Nunn is a LEGEND in scouting circles, and he practically perfected the "scout small colleges to find gems" approach. His race, and Whaley's, comes into play because back when Nunn started, racial conditions in this country were WAY different than they are now. The other point of the story is that, to understand Doug Whaley, you need to learn about Bill Nunn. Wouldn't that be an advantage to any GM dealing with Whaley?


Learning about people in your life MUST involve understanding the CONTEXT in which they live(d); wouldn't that make sense to you?


To understand Kobe Bryant, for instance, you should know a lot about Michael Jordan. To get Michael Jordan, you should learn about Oscar Robertson. There's a thread down through history there where context fills in the spaces, and the player becomes more real to you.


Same thing here. I heard about Nunn WAY before I ever first heard about Doug Whaley; but, knowing that Nunn tutored him, I know a lot more about how Whaley thinks and approaches his job; I'm sure Mr. Wilson did the same thing before he hired him as GM.


It's all about context. And now, after yesterday, the rest of the league has learned a lot more about Doug Whaley - wouldn't you say?

NWBill
NWBill

@EdwardKirby @therednorth1  That's BS. Anyone who thinks Doug Whaley did this SOLELY for his job, is clueless about how football works, and how GMs do their jobs. His job is to get Doug Marrone the BEST players he needs to win - NOW, TOMORROW, 2 YEARS from now ...it doesn't matter. Three years ago, Buffalo had so many holes, they could be called the Buffalo SwissCheezers. The last couple of drafts, along with Mario Williams coming to town, have DRASTICALLY filled in quite a few of those holes. There are still more things to do ...but when you look at where they are NOW, as opposed to where they were before ....it's MUCH better.

Sammy Watkins is another piece of the puzzle to fill in and get them back to where they want to be. They took a shot, and I think it was a great one; I would have done exactly the same thing, given their situation and Watkins' talent level. Would have traded Johnson, too (or cut him if I couldn't trade him).

Now, it's all about getting some OL help, and filling in some more thin areas ....and this team can really compete in 2014.

Merv
Merv

@NWBill  Has Gruden ever met a QB he hasn't fallen in love with?

KristinDiggins
KristinDiggins

@wjordan @Bernard4195  So its foolish to point out that Watkins had a break out game on national TV in a BCS bowl that almost every talking head on TV refers to when discussing Watkins' potential?  No where in my post do I state he is not a stud WR, just pointing out the love he got for that game is over-stated given the defense he was facing.  Before calling someone foolish for stating a simple fact, maybe take a class in reading comprehension.  

BrownTrout
BrownTrout

I agree Jordan. Some of these posters don't know squat about football. Given that, he is still going to the Bills....and their history of losing!

BillRobinson
BillRobinson

@Kristin

The percentage of blacks in football is far greater than the population as a whole, I.e., they are still underrepresented by that measure. I like @NWBill's explanation best.

watson81
watson81

@NWBill  Knowing that Nunn tutored Whaley goes to the scouting philosophies and techniques that may have influenced the pick and that is a relevant point.  But you still haven't told us what difference their race makes.  Isn't Nunn a revered scout because of the philosophies and techniques that he passed on to all of his pupils? Is Bill Walsh somehow more influential as he relates to Mike Holmgren than he is as he relates to Dennis Green?  Tell us about Whaley's mentor and what it is that Nunn taught him, but really, what difference does their race make?

TrentHill
TrentHill

@KristinDiggins @wjordan@Bernard4195Watkins was a top 5 pick before the Orange bowl.  He was a Biletnikoff finalist.  To say it was a break-out game is ridiculous.  He had an amazing game, but he had many throughout his career.  But 16 receptions, 227 yards and 2 tds on a stage that big is a hell of a game, I don't care who the defense is.

BillRobinson
BillRobinson

@BrownTrout

Gotta love a guy with your screen name. And best wishes to the Bills.

AllThingsConsidered
AllThingsConsidered

@BrownTrout  You need impact players to turn around a franchise. Sammy Watkins is certainly that. Good move by the Bills. It could be the beginning of a Bills reversal of fortunes. I'm not a Bills fan, but I'd like to see it happen. They deserve it.

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