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.
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.”
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.”
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.