We all deal with expectations.
Whether personal or societal, at home or at work, expectations are something that will all face. Someone expects something out of all of us.
The Buffalo Bills are no stranger to expectations. As the heartbeat of a success-starved region, fans typically have lofty expectations for their beloved Bills. For most of the 21st century, those expectations largely boiled down to “don’t be an embarrassment,” or “don’t let the playoff drought stretch to 10, 11, or 12 years,” (it would ultimately reach 17).
But the expectation has shifted a bit in recent years. The team has looked competent since head coach Sean McDermott took the reins in 2017, appearing in the postseason in three out of his four years in charge. Competent may be underselling it a bit – the team, at times, has looked genuinely good, and at other times, legitimately dominant, as though the championship aspirations it often preaches about are not unfounded.
Buffalo’s coming off a season that was objectively its best in recent memory, and subjectively its greatest ever. The Bills finished the 2020 season with a 13-3 record, their best since 1991, and came within one game of the Super Bowl. Josh Allen, a quarterback who just a few years ago was dubbed a “project” who many could’ve sworn would be out of the league by 2020, finished the 2020 campaign second in MVP voting, his 4,500 passing yards and 45 total touchdowns placing him at or near the top of the league in those statistics. Stefon Diggs was electric in his first year with the team, leading the NFL in both receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,525).
Simply put, the Bills were dominant last season.
And thus, expectations for Buffalo are astronomically high as it enters the 2021 season.
You don’t have to look particularly hard to find national pundits or analysts predicting postseason glory for the team. An incredibly strong regular season, an MVP Award for Allen, the Bills’ first Lombardi Trophy – these are the things that are being consistently projected as we approach the new campaign.
It’s a pretty drastic switch for a Buffalo team that’s often been overlooked, that long carried a chip on its shoulder derived from its lack of national recognition. People who predicted the team to finish on the outside looking in last season expect the Bills to win the whole thing this year.
The outside noise has perhaps gone from nonexistent to overpowering.
And how are the Bills dealing with this?
The same way they always have – by drowning it out entirely.
“I couldn’t tell you who’s said anything about us,” Allen said while talking to reporters on Tuesday. “I’m focused on Week 1 against the Steelers and trying to be the best quarterback and best teammate I can be for this team. We have lofty goals, it doesn’t matter what anybody else says about us, or what we’re going to accomplish. It’s ultimately up to us and what we do on the field.”
The 2021 season is perhaps the first in a number of years in which the Bills cannot be described as an underdog. In years past, the team was ‘sneakily’ good, a squad that could come out of seemingly nowhere and beat any given team on any given day.
But there’s nothing sneaky about a team that won 13 contests and appeared in the AFC Championship game last season.
Buffalo has evolved from an underdog into a favorite, and while it hasn’t yet gone from the hunter to the hunted, there’s definitely a target on its back. This new role, while different for the Bills, has been embraced.
“We know, being on the other side, everybody wants to be the underdog,” Diggs said Tuesday. “People say they don’t want to be the underdog, but it’s easy being the underdog. It’s harder when you’re playing well and people know that you can play well, and then you have to live up to a standard of playing well each and every day, each and every game.
“For us, last year is over. We can’t translate those wins. But what we can do is take what we did from the good side of it and translate it to this year, and the things that we didn’t do well, keep it in the forefront of your mind. We didn’t do x, y, z well, let’s make sure that’s a point of emphasis going into the year.”
There’s been a palpable energy in Western New York as the new season has approached, and that’s because it’s not just a new season that’s approaching, it’s perhaps the season. Given all the circumstances – Buffalo’s past success, its quiet, but strong offseason, its ever-present commitment to improvement – it looks as though this year could perhaps be the one in which the team finally gets over the hump, the campaign that finally ends with the Bills standing on a podium and hoisting the Lombardi Trophy over their heads.
The team, while aware of its talent and capabilities, isn’t focused on this. Instead, it’s focused on the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“It all starts Week 1,” Allen said. “It’s [a] one week at a time approach. Coach talks about our standard, which is playoff-caliber. In order to win the whole thing, you need to get into the playoffs, and in order to get into the playoffs, you have to win, probably 10 or 11 games. The most important one’s the next one. It’s a team that’s dang good. We know that, but it’s all focused on the Pittsburgh Steelers. To be honest, I couldn’t tell you who we play next. It’s been all of them for the last few weeks now.”
While Buffalo is largely ignoring the external expectations currently being spewed, it’s paying attention to its internal expectations, which are arguably higher than what anyone else could expect out of them. That being said, the team isn’t allowing itself to put the cart before the horse. It knows that, in order to get where it wants to go, it needs to play well in the regular season. In order to live up to the internal and external expectations of playoff glory, it needs to first get to the playoffs.
But the Bills are still thinking about the postseason. They’re still dreaming about playing in, and ultimately winning, the Super Bowl.
After all, if they weren’t, what would they be playing for?
“We didn’t win the whole thing last year,” Allen said. “We know that there’s more work to do. To hear stories from [Brian Daboll] and even a guy like Emmanuel [Sanders], guys who have won it, the feeling that they get, it’s something that I dream about, having that type of feeling. That’s what drives us every day.”