Right down to the waning moments of the final drive, when Sean McDermott still had a strategic timeout to burn in order to ensure that officials didn’t make a horrendous mistake that might cost the Bills a playoff win (the refs made the mistake anyway, and also claimed they stopped play on their own), there wasn’t a moment where the Bills’ quickly-evaporating lead on Saturday felt inevitably doomed.
Maybe that’s a personal perception—as emboldened as Bills Mafia has become during the team’s rise to prominence in the AFC, it would be understandable if old fears and visions of catastrophic, unfathomable losses tend to linger in long-time fans’ psyches, whereas the rest of us schlubs who picked the team to win seven games are arriving late to the party—but it’s been difficult to shake collective memories of this franchise when it comes to the Bills of 2020 and beyond. There is a palpable elasticity to bad and mediocre teams that oozes through the television. Leads are never insurmountable. What is working for them at the moment is never permanent. (See: wild-card weekend last year.) It’s why most of the league’s middle-class franchises remain indisputably middle-class.
But what we saw on Saturday was a culmination of sorts; a recognition that there may not have been a better, faster and stronger franchise rebuild in modern NFL history than what the Buffalo Bills have done under their current head coach and general manager (Brandon Beane). With McDermott, his defense, his quarterback and his coordinators, everything feels buttoned-up in the way a good Patriots team feels buttoned-up. If someone were to argue that they were the heir apparent to the Belichickian throne atop the AFC East, it’s a thought that sounds far less ridiculous this afternoon than it did on the day Buffalo announced McDermott’s hiring back in January 2017.
Since then, the franchise’s work has been nothing short of astonishing. It took an end-of-2016 roster transitioning from its destructive blowhard of a head coach, who seemed to fancy nebulous concepts of toughness and grit over calculable, scheme fit strategy, and churned it into one of the best defenses in the sport year-in and year-out. They traded up to No. 7 in the 2018 draft, took the rawest of the year’s top quarterback prospects and converted him from a career 56% passer at Wyoming (in an amenable conference with a scheme fit tailored to the best of his bucking bronco playing style) into one of the game’s most unstoppable players. Each year in the NFL, Josh Allen’s Bad Throw Percentage has declined by at least 4%, while his attempts skyrocket. His on-target passing percentage, which nearly topped 80% in 2020, has also gotten better each year in the NFL (as have less telling metrics, like completion percentage, touchdowns and touchdown to interception ratio). One could make a legitimate argument that, aside from Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes, no quarterback in the NFL was more efficient or devastating to opposing offenses, which is an incredibly long way to come from, say, 2018, when on a similar grading scale, Allen was much closer in comparison to Blake Bortles and Sam Darnold.
Look around the NFL administrative landscape and take a moment to realize how extraordinarily rare it is to find a defensive coach smart enough (and with enough personality and cachet) to hire an offensive coach good enough to spearhead that kind of QB development. Think about how few and far between front offices are that can routinely float McDermott players like Matt Milano and Jordan Poyer, the defensive tandem that swarmed Zach Pascal and ripped the football out of his arms late in Saturday’s game on a play that should have ended the game if not for a head-scratching moment of officiating incompetence. Those are players coveted by a head coach who understood how to use them. To the rest of the world, they were relative castaways. The former, a fifth-round linebacker considered too small and slow to excel at the NFL level who turned into one of Buffalo’s most versatile and productive defenders. The latter, a journeyman safety who, on the eve of signing with the Bills in 2017, was considered the league’s 69th-best safety by Pro Football Focus and is now perpetually mentioned among the league’s elite.
Then think about the timeout, and how rare it is when that coach can also deftly handle in-game situations. One might argue that McDermott’s timeout usage alone in comparison to Frank Reich’s on the Indianapolis sideline changed the game’s entire landscape.
And with all of that, think about what is possible for the future. Think about how much better the Bills already are than we expected them to be three years ago. Think about what we may see when they host another playoff game next week. Think about three years from now.