WHAT: Buffalo Bills
WHEN: August 27
WHERE: Orchard Park, N.Y.
HOW: The Bills are back from their camp grounds at St. John Fisher in Rochester, so this was an easy morning hop on JetBlue from Boston to Buffalo, with a 15-minute drive to the team’s facility, located in the New Era Stadium parking lot.
Lord knows the temptation was there for Sean McDermott. The 44-year-old Bills coach and GM Brandon Beane snapped the franchise’s 18-year playoff drought last fall, their first in Buffalo, and got there by winning four of their final six.
The arrow was pointing up, without question. Which makes their discipline all the more laudable in resisting the natural inclination to ride the momentum into 2018.
“Yeah, that’s the near-sighted view, though,” McDermott said, heading off the field on Monday following a walkthrough and his team’s ugly Sunday showing against Cincinnati. “I understand that. But where I came from in Carolina and before that in Philadelphia, we were able to build and do it the right way. We were able to build a strong, solid foundation. And once we did that, we were able to sustain the success.”
Then, McDermott let himself go a little.
“Heck yeah, you want to go out and spend money,” he added. “But the draft picks, there were only so many left from before we got here. That’s a challenge—we’re not able to depend on those players; they aren’t here anymore. And the cap wasn’t in good shape in order to go out and spend and do some things we wanted. And you don’t want to mortgage, because then you keep having to pay the debt on that mortgage.”
McDermott and Beane haven’t. And they won’t.
That’s why around here this summer, there’s a feeling almost like this is Year 1 2.0. Gone are mainstays like left tackle Cordy Glenn, guard Richie Incognito, center Eric Wood and quarterback Tyrod Taylor. In their places, as everyone saw on Sunday, is a whole lot of the unknown around rookie quarterback Josh Allen.
After last year, that might be tough for Bills fans to swallow. For Beane and McDermott, it’s exciting. And it’s not that they wanted to go through the process of deconstructing the winning team they built in 2017. It’s that they’re moving closer to what they’ve been looking to establish from the start—a foundation that won’t be fleeting.
“You gotta be honest with yourself,” Beane said. “What did we do well, and what are we struggling with? Right off the bat, one thing we struggled with was stopping the run, and we tried to address our front, again not deviating from our plan to get out of this cap situation. We said all along, it’s at least a two-year process—I said two to three, depending on how quickly we could out from underneath some of the bigger deals.”
And that brings us to why the Bills are in this spot, which leads you to some pretty sobering facts that make Beane and McDermott’s approach totally logical.
There are only five draft picks left—five!—that predate McDermott, and only one of those was taken in the first round (Shaq Lawson). Of course, you strike out enough in the draft, and you have to spend elsewhere. The Bills did, which is they’re carrying more than $46 million in dead money on the 2018 cap. In fact, three of the four biggest cap numbers on the ledger are attached to players no longer on the team.
Could the Bills have fiddled around with the numbers? Sure, they easily could’ve kept kicking the financial can down the road. “You can definitely be creative with contracts,” Beane said. “And even though we’ve got a lot of dead money this year, we could’ve been a little more aggressive. We’re trying to build it. We’re trying to do it the right way.”
Beane and McDermott are marked by their own experiences. Both were in Carolina in the early years of Ron Rivera’s term, when the franchise was in a cap mess. They saw Dave Gettleman come in from the Giants as GM to clean it up, and were there as the Panthers’ new model, built around a young quarterback, became sustainable.
That wasn’t easy either. McDermott remembers, in Gettleman’s first year, helping Mike Mitchell—a former second-round pick in Oakland—pump life back into his career. Mitchell was on a cheap one-year deal. McDermott loved his progress and wanted to keep working with him. But Gettleman was resolved to fix the Panthers’ books, and so Mitchell signed a five-year, $25 million deal in Pittsburgh in early ’14.
“That’s the cap situation we were in at the time,” McDermott says. “That’s just what happens when you’re trying to get something turned around.”
Carolina wound up rebuilding on the fly—going 12-4 in Gettleman’s first year, then dipping to 7-8-1 before exploding to 15-1 in Year 3 en route to Super Bowl 50. And they got there on the backs of young, homegrown guys like Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, KK Short, Trai Turner and Josh Norman.
The idea now for McDermott and Beane isn’t much different. They didn’t inherit a Newton or a Kuechly, like Gettleman did. But they feel good about this year’s first-rounders, Allen and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. Last year’s first-rounder, cornerback Tre’Davious White, has flashed high-end potential. They have high hopes, too, for guys like Harrison Phillips and Dion Dawkins. And, they think, the right environment for all the young guys to grow in.
“There’s fertile ground, fertile soil for them to develop on in terms of our culture,” McDermott said. “We needed to continue to develop that, so that they grow, and we can count on them in Years 2, 3, 4, 5 and so on. And then the model is, like everyone knows, you re-sign them and we go from there.”
This doesn’t mean that McDermott and Beane don’t have fond memories of last year. They always will. And both guys know just how they’ll remember it, if this all works out.
“I’d love to look at it as the start of a foundation, laying that bottom floor of a culture,” Beane said. “I don’t think you can totally build a culture and have everything work perfectly in one season. But I do think setting a standard of an expectation, what we expect from the players, what they should expect from us, what we expect from the grounds crew, the equipment guys—that’s what I would like to look back at, that everybody understands their role, and we expect everybody to work at this standard, at this level, and no matter what happens you gotta keep it at that standard.”
That starts with the guys calling the shots. And Beane and McDermott have proven, with the makeup of this second roster of theirs, that they will not waver.
OH, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT: One young player who impressed in camp was versatile 26-year-old Marcus Murphy, who the Bills believe could play a Darren Sproles-type role (not to say he’s Sproles) in the offense. What I love about him is how he first came on Beane’s radar—as a Saints rookie in 2015, he returned a punt for a touchdown against a Panthers team that Beane was working for. The Bills GM kept an eye on him and last November scooped him up and put him on the team’s practice squad. McDermott promoted him to the active roster before the team’s final regular-season game, and now he’s positioned for a nice role behind Shady McCoy.
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STORYLINE TO WATCH: Obviously, the quarterback position is where most people are looking. Allen had a clear shot at winning the starting job on Sunday, and that didn’t really work out for him. But in that rough first half—“[Sunday’s] game is a true example, that’s not how we want to play football anywhere, much less in our home stadium,” Beane told me—lurked a storyline that is just as important in the short term and connects directly to the quarterback decision. How are the Bills going to make it work up front? First and foremost, they need Dawkins to get healthy and build on a promising rookie year at left tackle. And the rest of the guys who’ll be out there will have to be a lot better than they were on Sunday. Otherwise, being patient in getting Allen out there might be best.
TOP POSITION BATTLE: Since quarterback is covered, let’s go with corner here. White is entrenched at one spot. Opposite him, veterans Phillip Gaines and Vontae Davis are competing. Davis is on the back end of a really solid career and has clearly lost a step, while Gaines was a disappointment over his four years in Kansas City, after the Chiefs took him in the third round in 2014. Neither option is outstanding, but the Bills chose to spend the little cap money they had up front, in Star Lotulelei and Trent Murphy, so it’s what they’ll have to get by with at an important spot.
OFFBEAT OBSERVATION: The Bills facility is still decidedly old school looking on the outside (like a giant field house with office space attached to it), but the place has been gutted, and the locker room and much of the football operations area look space age now. And the Pegulas have fenced off a good piece of the parking lot (where the media used to park!), for an $18 million weight room/performance center, which is in the beginning stages of construction. Slowly but surely, this small-market organization is modernizing.
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OVERHEARD: McDermott gets it—his future is now tied to Allen’s. As the rookie quarterback goes, so too will McDermott’s fortunes as a head coach in Buffalo. And he’s cool with that, since he and Beane treated the decision on the draft quarterbacks in the spring with that kind of gravity. “That’s part of it, I understand that,” McDermott said. “That’s the way the league is, that’s the calculated risk you take, so you better do your research and prepare on the front end. That’s a necessary part of it. So far, Josh is off to a good start. It takes time. I’ve been around two other rookie quarterbacks in Cam Newton and Donovan McNabb and had a chance to watch them grow. Josh is going through his own growth cycle right now, and there’s gonna be highs and lows. We’ll try to manage the lows as much as we can, and remain consistent through the other parts so he can grow and continue to develop. … Going back to the vision for how we’re trying to build this, it’s the long-term success of the organization. And Josh is a big part of that. Just like anyone else, he’s gotta earn that and continue to grow and develop and do the right things on and off the field. That’s really the model.” If he does earn it, though, and develop like the Bills hope, that model of McDermott has a much better chance of being successful.
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