Harris: Copying of Steelers continues

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Buffalo Bills paid the Steelers a significant compliment this week.

Making longtime Steelers employee Doug Whaley their assistant general manager was a stroke a genius for a franchise seeking to emulate one of the NFL's most successful organizations.

If the Bills couldn't hire Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert, then who better to steal away than Colbert's right-hand man?

Whaley was a part of two Super Bowl teams and brings a wealth of scouting and personnel knowledge to the Bills, who haven't gone to the playoffs since 1999.

The Upper St. Clair and Pitt product is Buffalo's second major hire with Steelers connections since the end of the regular season.

After failing to woo former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, the Bills settled on former Steelers offensive coordinator Chan Gailey as their new coach. Cowher recommended Gailey for the Steelers' coaching vacancy when he left following the 2006 season, and he did the same in regards to the Buffalo job.

Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson's decision to hire Gailey and Whaley is the second-hand smoke the Bills wanted, hoping something good will rub off from their Steelers' connections.

Buffalo, which has been a 4-3 defensive team since 2001, is switching to a 3-4 scheme, a Steelers trademark. The Bills are moving former Penn State standout Aaron Maybin from end to outside linebacker, but their defense lacks a prototypical nose tackle in the middle.

Given Whaley's ties to the Steelers and the fact that Casey Hampton is an unrestricted free agent, could Hampton end up in Buffalo if the Steelers fail to re-sign him?

There are other free agents who played with the Steelers in 2009 who could help Buffalo's defensive transition, players such as free safety Ryan Clark, strong safety Tyrone Carter and defensive end Nick Eason. They were all scouted by Whaley, whose responsibilities with the Steelers included evaluating pro players, including Clark, Carter and Eason.

The 3-4 defense is complicated, and it takes years to learn for players not familiar with the system. Bringing in personnel familiar with the 3-4 can accelerate the learning process and make the transition easier.

Buffalo is the latest team to attempt to emulate the Steelers.

Washington hired long-time Steelers defensive assistant Lou Spanos as its linebackers coach. Spanos will be reunited with new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett the two worked together with the Steelers.

And like Buffalo, Washington is making the switch to the 3-4 next season.

If Clark, Carter and Eason don't re-sign with the Steelers, Washington could be another potential destination.

The NFL is a copycat league. In 2009, 13 teams played the 3-4 as their base defense. Buffalo and Washington will increase that total to 15.

The top five defenses in the NFL this season in terms of points allowed played a 3-4 scheme. Buffalo was the only team in the AFC East that didn't play a 3-4.

Another team in the AFC East took a stab at a Steelers coach without success. Miami wanted Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler as its new defensive coordinator. It would have been a promotion for Butler, who received permission from his bosses to interview with the Dolphins.

Butler, however, decided to remain with the Steelers. As the likely successor to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau when he retires, Butler rebuffed Miami's advances.

Butler's decision made sense. He didn't go for the quick buck. He chose patience over instant gratification.

After all, why should Butler leave to coach a team attempting to be like the Steelers, when he can stick around and coach the real thing?

His decision is a compliment that trumps the rest.