Lesson of the Week: Tanks, But Buffalo Bills Simply Just Rebuilding Foundation

The Bills haven’t been to the playoffs in 17 seasons. Will 2017 finally be the year?
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Looking at the quarterbacks potentially coming in 2018, I know the temptation is out there to pin the idea of tanking on every bad team that trades or cuts a big-name veteran.

I’m going to tell you, with confidence, that is not what’s happening in Buffalo. And that’s where we’ll give you this week’s lesson: First-year head coaches have to operate a little differently. For Sean McDermott and the other handful of rookie NFL bosses, a little more has gone in to getting to this point than other places with established programs.

Why? Because these early months are when players are figuring out what they can and can’t get away with, and learning to understand what they, if things go right, will be passing down to other players in coming years. And when I reached out to McDermott to talk about that on Wednesday, what he explained sounded a little like buying a fixer-upper and taking it down to the studs.

“It’s in everything we do,” McDermott said. “It’s how we get out of our cars when we come into the building, how we walk, how we talk, how we meet, it’s the teaching that’s going on, the note-taking that’s going on. It’s how we practice, whether it’s training camp, during the season, spring OTAs. It’s how we play, and that’s not only games on Sunday, but it’s preseason games.

“The standard doesn’t change. The standard is a daily standard that’s always there. It’s a challenge, and that’s what we’re in the process of, and that takes time. When we see it, we try and celebrate it. And when we don’t see it, we try and use that to correct it.”

OK, so that’s where you can look at the Bills’ moves over the past month, and explain them without breaking out USC or UCLA tape.

Sammy Watkins, while not a bad guy, had a foot injury that he pushed through last year, and the handling of it led to strained relations between the young receiver and some club officials. Meanwhile, corner Ronald Darby was coming off a disappointing 2016, after the team took a chance on him in the 2015 draft and was rewarded with a stellar rookie campaign. Bottom line, both had baggage—and were gone.

Likewise, star defensive lineman Marcel Dareus was put on notice by the new regime, sent home the day of a preseason game in Baltimore for behavior that’s part of a pattern in his six years in Buffalo. Conversely, later that day, a two-year extension for center Eric Wood—who’s bought in fully and is a team captain—was announced.

Now, the hope is that by McDermott’s second or third year, these sorts of moves won’t be needed. By then, the idea goes, McDermott and Beane will have their people in the building, and veteran players who’ve bought in will be passing down what they’re doing. For now, though, the foundation needed for that still has to be established.

“We’re new, and we’re adding to the roster, and taking away from the roster,” McDermott said. “It’s a little more of a constant, constant, constant focus on the standard. Because if you don’t, that culture’s gonna grow up around you in the form of weeds. If you don’t manage the culture, develop the culture on a daily basis, it’s going to grow around you whether you like it or not.”

McDermott saw Andy Reid do it in Philly in 1999, while he was a first-year NFL assistant, by doggedly sticking to his plan through thick-and-thin. He witnessed it again as Ron Rivera’s defensive coordinator in Carolina in 2011, seeing the rookie coach learn to put his people skills to work, and give players ownership.

McDermott is taking a little bit from both those experiences, and knows the start can’t possibly be completely smooth.

“Over time, when we can show it to the players, and say, ‘OK, that is up to the standard, they can see it and say that’s what it looks like,” McDermott said. “We’re fortunate to have quite a few leaders on this team at the coaching level and the player level, and those guys have done a phenomenal job of carrying forward my message into the locker room. It continues to be a process. It’s not a quick fix.”

The moniker McDermott’s come up with for that standard is “playoff-caliber.” The Bills, of course, haven’t been for a long time.

So the team needed a little shakeup? That shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

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