Just a few short years ago, the Bills were the laughingstock of the NFL. Today, they’re preparing for their second playoff game in three seasons. The team has come so far, so fast, that it’s easy to forget just how many things had to happen to get to where they are today. This week, instead of re-capping the meaningless week 17 game against the Jets, I want to jump into the way-back machine and take a quick look at they key events that turned the franchise around and set it on its current course to success.
1.) Bills fire Rex Ryan, hire Sean McDermott . It is easy, or perhaps just more pleasant, to forget just how bad things had gotten at One Bills Drive.
On the heels of the unexpected resignation of head coach Doug Marrone, the Pegulas were forced to search for a new captain for their newly acquired ship. When recently ousted Jets coach Rex Ryan interviewed, Russ Brandon is reported to have said “don’t let him leave the building!”.
The Pegulas didn’t let Rex leave. They signed him as the new head coach of the Buffalo Bills. There was great fanfare and hoopla, with fans envisioning an already strong defense being elevated to championship levels under Ryan’s tutelage. The fervor peaked with Ryan sharing a beer and some wings with Jim Kelly at the Big Tree Inn as TV cameras and magazine scribes looked on. Unfortunately, that marked the high point of Ryan’s tenure in Buffalo.
Week after week, the Rex Ryan led Bills looked undisciplined, unmotivated, and unprepared. The players had a carefree attitude at Club Rex, and who could blame them? The head coach seemingly spent more time attending World Series contests during a game week or riding bicycles built for two with his brother Rob than he did scheming or coaching the Bills to success. After two seasons of the Ryan Brothers circus, the Pegulas had seen enough. They fired Rex Ryan and brought in his polar opposite in Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.
If you’re looking for ground zero for the change in the Buffalo Bills’ fortunes over the past three years, look no further than the hiring of Sean McDermott. Everything that has happened at One Bills Drive since can be understood only if one first examines the choice of Sean McDermott to pilot the Bills into the future.
Whereas Rex Ryan was bumbling, carefree, and loud, McDermott was meticulous, disciplined, and executed his plans with a quiet confidence. His arrival in Buffalo signaled a massive change for the franchise. This crucial change in direction — from Ryan to McDermott — set the table for all that was to follow.
2.) Toxicity yields to stability as Bills dump Doug Whaley, hire Brandon Beane. Doug Whaley did some good things as general manager of the Buffalo Bills. His trade for LeSean McCoy and signings of Lorenzo Alexander and Tyrod Taylor, for instance, paid dividends by contributing to the 2017 run to the playoffs (more on that below).
Whaley, however, did far more harm than good. He oversaw the hiring of two failed head coaches, drafted a failed quarterback, traded a king’s ransom for a failed wide receiver, and absolutely wrecked the Bills’ salary cap situation.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Whaley openly sparred with both Doug Marrone and Rex Ryan, often in full view of press and fans. The situation at One Bills Drive had gotten so out of hand by the final year of the Whaley/Ryan marriage that words like “toxic” and “dumpster fire” were often used to describe the Bills organization. It was the low point of a rotten two decades of football in western New York.
Thankfully, the Pegulas realized that in order for the team to move forward and to restore order and respectability, they needed to rid themselves of Doug Whaley. They kept him around long enough to contribute to the 2017 draft — though the level of his involvement will forever remain a mystery — and then quickly relieved him of his duties.
Gone, too, were his entire front office and scouting staff. Even Russ Brandon, the seemingly fire-proof cockroach that had infested the Bills organization for year after awful, disappointing year, would soon be gone.
In stepped Brandon Beane, who immediately hired an impressive cadre of front office talent to accompany him in Buffalo. From Joe Schoen to Brian Gaine to Dan Morgan to Lake Dawson, Beane assembled a veritable who’s who of future NFL general manager candidates. He also built an entirely new scouting staff from the ground up.
It was clear from day one that Beane would likely work well with coach McDermott, too, since both have them had already had a positive working relationship in Carolina. From the first moment that Beane stepped foot in Orchard Park, it was also clear that a new day had dawned for the Buffalo Bills.
Gone were the toxicity, the chaos, the embarrassing tumult. In their place were professionalism, logical decision making, and a rational team building plan. While the hiring of Sean McDermott represented a major step toward respectability and success for the Bills, the addition of Brandon Beane as general manager assured Bills fans that brighter days were likely ahead.
3.) In year one of the McDermott/Beane era, the playoff drought is broken. In the course of 17 straight years of bad football, the Buffalo Bills accomplished only one thing: an epic playoff drought. The longest active playoff drought in all four major pro sports, actually. Bills fans seemingly couldn’t go a single week during a given NFL season without seeing some sort of “longest playoff drought” graphic pop up on their TV screen.
The drought took on a life of its own and grew to be something of an anvil hanging around the necks of every Bills coach and player. When combined with the aforementioned organizational dysfunction, it all but strangled any realistic hope Bills fans had of seeing brighter days on the horizon.
Into this hopelessness and dysfunction stepped Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane. While they offered a welcome respite from the Rex Ryan days, their first moves upon taking over the Bills all seemed to signal a complete tearing down of the team to the studs, surely to be followed by a three to five year rebuilding project.
While this dismantling and rebuilding effort was much needed and long overdue, it certainly didn’t scream “playoffs!”. In the name of “getting the right types of players on the bus”, the Bills shipped off or opted not to re-sign players like Sammy Watkins, Marcel Dareus, Stephon Gilmore, and Ronald Darby.
The wholesale changes had Bills fans buckling in for a few more tough, playoff-less years….but then a funny thing happened. McDermott’s ragtag group of youngsters, misfits, has-beens and never-weres started winning football games. Gone were the undisciplined efforts of the Ryan years. In their place: a team Bills fans could be proud of. A team that fought hard and executed sound fundamentals and never gave up despite usually being outmatched by teams with superior talent. Then something REALLY amazing happened.
On New Year’s Eve, 2017, the Buffalo Bills broke their historic playoff drought. Sure, it took a heroic and highly improbable pass from Andy Dalton and a bobbing-and-weaving Tyler Boyd touchdown scamper to seal the deal, but it didn’t matter — the drought was over. Bills fans everywhere celebrated as if the team had just won a championship.
Strangers hugged and danced together. Grown men cried. Such was the weight of the drought, and such was the impact of that weight finally being lifted. These gleeful celebrations, alongside those of the Bills locker room and, in particular, Kyle Williams, were captured on camera and are immortalized forever.
This long awaited return to the postseason — improbable as it was, not to mention thoroughly ahead of schedule — erased any skepticism that Bills fans had about the new regime. If a team this lacking in top tier talent and who was only in year one of a complete rebuild could break the dreaded drought and make the playoffs, surely…FINALLY…brighter days must be ahead.
4.) Bills identify and draft the quarterbacks of their offense and defense. With the foundation sturdily built, it was time for the bricks that would make or break the whole house. It was time for the Buffalo Bills to draft their quarterback of the future and the leader of their defense.
With the slew of draft picks that Brandon Beane had stockpiled since arriving in Buffalo, the Bills had flexibility heading into the 2018 draft. Unfortunately, they were the victims of their own success. Their 9-7 record the previous season meant that their 1st round pick was in the 20s.
The second 1st round pick they possessed via their trade with Kansas City was ALSO in the 20s. In a draft in which all four of the top quarterbacks were expected to be off the board by the 15th pick at the latest, this was not good news.
Thankfully, Beane the builder got creative, made the necessary moves, and managed to move up high enough to select the apple of his eye: Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen.
Allen was arguably the most polarizing quarterback prospect of all time. Some looked at his up-and-down career at Wyoming and his scattershot accuracy and saw nothing more than “a parody of a quarterback prospect”. Others looked at his heart, moxie, and all-world arm strength and saw an electrifying playmaker and a potential franchise quarterback.
After spending quite a bit of time with Allen in the pre-draft process, Beane and company concluded that he fit Buffalo perfectly. After some wheeling and dealing, the Bills owned the 7th pick in the 1st round, and used it to draft the Wyoming Cowboy. Buffalo had its quarterback.
Brandon Beane wasn’t done, though. He knew that the Bills defense also needed a leader. He knew that in order for Sean McDermott’s defense to operate to its full potential, it needed a playmaking middle linebacker who could command that side of the ball. With that in mind, he bundled his second 1st round pick with a pick from a later round and moved up to select physical marvel Tremaine Edmunds.
With his speed, size, wingspan, and range, Edmunds was a rare prospect. At only 19 years old, he had only just begun to scratch the surface of his vast and unprecedented potential. Buffalo now had the quarterback of its defense, too.
5.) After taking their salary cap medicine in ’18, Bills strike big in free agency. After setting the foundation and acquiring their offensive and defensive leaders, the Bills still had a lot of gaps to fill in order to field a competitive team in 2019. Luckily, they had ample cap flexibility, thanks to their approach to the 2018 season.
Realizing that it was likely to be a down year as they broke in their new quarterback anyway, the Bills front office decided to use 2018 to completely clean up their salary cap situation. In every instance in which they jettisoned a player and had any kind of option as to how to spread out that player’s dead cap hit, Beane and company opted to pack all of said penalties into the 2018 season. It resulted in a massive dead cap number last season that largely hamstrung the team when it came to free agency. By taking this approach, however, they essentially “took their medicine” all at once, which allowed them to move forward with a clean slate and a bunch of money to spend.
Fortunately for Buffalo, Brandon Beane did not take the path that so many before him had taken. He did not hand out gigantic, ridiculous contracts or try to woo the very best player at any position of need. Instead, he spent judiciously.
The Bills front office targeted what might be considered “value free agents” and refused to overspend. This allowed them to spread their money around wisely, signing the most free agents of any team in the league while also NOT being the team who spent the most in free agency. The team signed some 14 new players, many of whom have made critical contributions to this year’s return to the playoffs.
The Bills added a bit of defensive depth, but the majority of their free agency money was spent on improving the offense. They completely rebuilt their offensive line, leaving only one starter from the previous season in place.
They added offensive weaponry to the wide receiver, tight end, and running back rooms. When all was said and done, only two offensive starters from 2018 remained in place. Their rebuilt offensive line paved the way for a top five rushing offense and provided better protection to Josh Allen. The revamped receiving corps worked out pretty well, too: the Bills’ two leading receivers this year are free agent additions John Brown and Cole Beasley.
Not only has Buffalo’s 2019 free agency class worked out well on the field, it was also an absolute master class in smart spending: Only center Mitch Morse was given big bucks.
Every other player was signed for a reasonable amount, and many of the contracts were either one-year deals or were front-loaded, giving the Bills maximum flexibility to move on from players in future seasons without hamstringing the team’s salary cap situation.
There’s no other way to say it: the combination of smart cap allocation and big on-field production made this year’s free agency class a smashing success, and should realistically put Brandon Beane in the conversation for NFL Executive of the Year.
6.) Bills exorcise “big game” demons, slay Dallas and Pittsburgh. Leading up to the Bills’ Thanksgiving day game against the Dallas Cowboys, their season had gone pretty much exactly to script. They had taken care of lesser opponents while struggling against more talented competition. They had thrown in a few nail biters against inferior teams to make their fans question just how good they were.
After blowing a winnable game against the 2-6 Cleveland Browns on the road, the Bills sat at 6-3. There was just one problem: the easy part of their schedule was over. In the ensuing weeks, they’d need to take on a murderer’s row of high quality teams.
The Cowboys, Ravens, Steelers, and Patriots all loomed on the horizon, and Bills fans everywhere were having nightmarish visions of the numerous epic collapses the team had experienced over the previous two decades. It would be up to the team to prove that they weren’t the “same old Bills”. Prove it, they did.
Up first was the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving, with the whole country watching. Instead of buckling under the added pressure as so many Bills teams of the past had done, they rose to the occasion, thoroughly dismantling the Cowboys in their own stadium. The game was a dream, from Jerry Jones face-palming in the press box, to Cole Beasley having his revenge, to Josh Allen and Tre’Davious White taking big bites of victory turkey on the field after the game. This wasn’t Buffalo’s biggest test of the season, though. That would come two weeks later, on a Sunday night in Pittsburgh.
The Bills were the only team in the NFL not to receive a prime time game in the 2019 season. Their impressive play, however, forced the league’s hand. They flexed the Bills-Steelers week 15 game into the Sunday Night Football slot. The Bills hadn’t had a Sunday Night game in 12 years.
The last time Al Michaels was calling a Bills game, it featured four first half Randy Moss touchdown catches and a 56-10 Patriots victory. Ouch. Luckily, things went a little better this time. The Bills defense suffocated the Steelers and forced four Duck Hodges turnovers en route to a 17-10 win. With that, they clinched a spot in the playoffs with multiple games remaining on the regular season schedule for just the second time in the past 23 seasons.
All wins count toward the final record, and there were other quality Bills victories this season. It was these two games, though, against big time opponents on big time stages, that flipped the season’s narrative, quieted the “but who have they beaten?” critics, and proved that just maybe these weren’t the “same old Bills”.
The Extra Point
It’s almost hard to believe how quickly the Bills have turned their franchise around. From afterthought laughingstock to up-and-coming contenders. From a “toxic dumpster fire” front office to one of the very best in the league. From a 17-year playoff drought to making the postseason two out of three seasons.
Indeed, the Bills have been completely revived — and their pride restored — under Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott. Perhaps the biggest credit of all should go to the Pegulas, who have done everything necessary to turn the team (and its reputation) around.
You hear the phrase “culture change” thrown around a lot in the NFL. This Bills regime, though, has accomplished it more effectively and more quickly than anyone could have anticipated. A complete, thorough, top-down rebuild has changed the course of the franchise.
The Bills, who not so long ago were viewed as one of the worst run teams in the league, are now one of the best run teams in the league. They have stable and caring ownership that is committed to western New York, state of the art facilities, an excellent and forward thinking front office, and a top notch coaching staff.
They have a promising young quarterback, a stable of young offensive playmakers, and a stifling defense. For a team that has given so much to its fans the past 60 years, the Bills are now offering something not seen in Orchard Park for quite some time: hope.
When the playoffs begin and your Buffalo Bills take the field, take just a quick moment — perhaps during one of the infinite showings of Baker Mayfield’s “protect this house” commercial — to look back. To close your eyes and reflect on all that has happened these past three years and to remember just how far the Bills have come, and how quickly.
Then, with fresh appreciation, open your eyes, crack open a Labatt Blue, and toast the new era of Buffalo Bills football. Here’s to Terry and Kim Pegula, to Brandon Beane, to Sean McDermott, and to that return of that old friend: hope.
Editor’s babble: Thanks to Matthew Rule for his beautiful contributions to our blog. You can find Matthew on Twitter @MatthewtheRule.