It’s hard to believe that just over one year has passed since the Buffalo Bills hired Sean McDermott to usher in a new era and develop a culture opposite from what his predecessor, Rex Ryan, had established. Ryan’s brash, unapologetic and unpredictable personality was reflected by the underwhelming product he fielded throughout his short-lived tenure in Western New York
General Manager Doug Whaley saw his reputation as a bold decision-maker that wasn’t afraid to swing a deal morph into an ugly joke. When the dust settled from those bold, headline-grabbing trades, Buffalo was left with a top-heavy roster littered with inflated contracts rewarded to underachieving players.
The Bills fired Whaley seemingly before Mr. Irrelevant’s name was finished being announced at the conclusion of the 2017 NFL draft.
Little more than one year has gone by since then, but to the BillsMafia, the beer is a bit colder, the wings a bit tastier and the future brighter than imagined possible in such a short span.
Laying the foundation
The best screenwriters in Hollywood couldn’t have written a more dramatic outline for the Bills’ first season of the “McBeane” era. McDermott, in his first year as a head coach, initially annoyed fans and media alike with his incessant coach-speak during press conferences.
He offered little information, leaving writers digging deep into his transcripts for meaningful quotes, staying close to the vest and presenting a message far different than Ryan’s sideshow act.
While McDermott wasn’t making many friends or generating the hype that Rex was able to shortly after being hired, he didn’t sway, repeating his message with consistency, calmly explaining that turning the team around would be ‘a process’ and stressed the importance of players buying into the ‘program’ in order to establish a winning culture.
What began as a goofy phrase quickly evolved to a mantra and ultimately, an identity, that the entire Bills’ organization adopted.
Trusting the process allowed the team to end a nearly two-decade-long playoff drought and while they were defeated in the Wild Card round, the new regime already established trust from a dedicated fanbase that’s been sold more hope than wins in recent history.
A culture was established and for the first time in years, the team looks like there is a true, defined vision for what the identity of the franchise would be.
Beane was ruthless in his construction of the roster, trading away the team’s marquee players and essentially wiping away the remnants and memories of Whaley’s mistakes. Sammy Watkins and Marcell Dareus are two talented young players but hadn’t and likely would never live up to the absurd price tags Whaley attributed to them. Shipping them off for draft picks showed that Beane – right or wrong – was going to build Buffalo’s roster from the bottom up with his style of player.
Brick by brick
With a tumultuous season featuring a dizzying flurry of transactions in the books, Beane might as well have said “hold my beer” when asked about Whaley’s “boldness.” But while the majority of Whaley’s trades were surprising due to shock value, Beane’s have been calculated. Each was made with a purpose, and while the value acquired is debatable, the logic and thought process behind the transaction has been clearly evident.
As training camp approaches and Buffalo embarks on the second year of the “McBeane” era, it’d be hard to find another NFL team that’s undergone as much turnover as the Bills have.
Of every player to see meaningful snaps with Whaley and Rex calling shots, LeSean McCoy, Jerry Hughes and Kyle Williams are essentially the last men standing. But amidst the drastic roster overhaul, the Bills quietly laid a foundation to build upon and facilitate a team that can compete in the long-term. Nearly half of the 90-man roster Buffalo takes into training camp will be under 25-years old this year.
After two drafts, Buffalo added starters at premier positions. Tre’Davious White looks like a budding superstar at cornerback and Dion Dawkins’ impressive rookie season was all that Beane needed to see in order to feel comfortable trading away veteran left tackle Cordy Glenn and his big contract.
Trading Glenn put the Bills in position to make what will ultimately be the trade that defines this era and makes or breaks Beane’s career – the deal to move up to the No. 7 overall pick and select Josh Allen, who needs to emerge as the team’s franchise quarterback and bring Buffalo back to the glory years when Jim Kelly was commanding the huddle.
No pressure, kid.
Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds was a star at Virginia Tech and the 20-year old has enormous potential and should be a premier defender for the foreseeable future. Harrison Phillips dominated at Stanford and should be able to make an early impact alongside defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who signed a five-year, $50 million contract as an unrestricted free agent.
Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer were identified as franchise players during last year’s free agency period and lived up to, if not exceeded the contracts they signed to in their first season patrolling the back end of Buffalo’s secondary.
Ultimately, none of what Beane and McDermott did to put the pieces in place for the Bills’ future means anything unless quarterback Josh Allen can develop into the franchise quarterback the team has desperately longed for since Jim Kelly retired.
Arguably the most polarizing prospect in the draft, Allen stirred more divisiveness among analysts than most passers in recent years. The Wyoming Cowboy has rare physical ability. He’s 6-foot-5, 232-pounds with a rocket for an arm and possesses impressive athleticism and movement skills, rounding out a skill set prototypical of what NFL executives covet in a modern quarterback.
However, his on-field production was the subject of heavy scrutiny. In his two years as the starter, Allen completed just 56.2-percent of his passes – a cause for concern and below the 60-percent threshold that most view as a baseline when projecting college-to-pro success. He threw for 5,066 yards and 44 touchdowns but threw 21 interceptions.
Accuracy is going to be something Allen must improve, otherwise, he doesn’t stand a chance. Still, he has incredible arm talent that shows up each time he plays. He makes throws that most of his NFL peers simply can’t make, but his decision-making leaves a lot to be desired.
He’s a work in progress with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Buffalo ruined EJ Manuel, who had a similar outlook coming out of Florida State in 2013. This time around, the Bills need to be as patient as possible and make sure Allen has the adequate time to realize his full potential without stunting his growth by prematurely thrusting him into a situation he isn’t prepared for.
If Allen develops as planned, everything else falls into place. But as the team has preached, it’s important to trust the process and be patient as the majority of the players expected to be key contributors and franchise cornerstones are barely over the legal drinking age.
This is a roster carefully constructed with talented, young players. There will be growing pains. But if this rookie class can emulate the success of last year’s, Buffalo could potentially have the makings of a long-term contender given the combination of talent, youth and salary cap situation that rookie deals allow.
So enjoy watching a new era of Buffalo Bills football. But remember, it’s always going to be a process. Just ask Coach McDermott.