The year was 2017. The Pegulas still were just beginning their run as the new Buffalo Bills owners, but they were already forced to make their second head coach hire. Rex Ryan had talked a lot but never backed it up with production on the field. Players were running their mouths against each other and the coaching staff and the whole situation was a mess, necessitating a complete overhaul.
Gone were Ryan and all his staff. Sean McDermott, coming from the Carolina Panthers, was tabbed as the team’s new head coach, and it became pretty clear who’s been running the show since that point. Figures like Russ Brandon and Doug Whaley faded away and left the organization, and Brandon Beane, also from Carolina, was hired as the new GM. The duo would quickly turn things around, ending the 17-year playoff drought and reaching the postseason two times in three years.This alone could have won over Bills Mafia’s hearts, but this wasn’t all they offered.
“I’m not into making promises; you’ll find that out soon enough,” said McDermott in his introductory press conference. “The promises I’ll make is we’ll be competitive and we’ll work hard every day. We’re going to compete on a daily basis. We’re going to build a culture, a daily standard of winning in how we do things. You have to earn the right to win in this league, and I’ve learned that,” he concluded.
Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott on 𝐓𝐚𝐥𝐞𝐧𝐭 ⬇️— Jaycob Ammerman (@Jammer2233) August 24, 2018
“Don’t talk to me about talent,
don’t talk to me about potential,
you show me 𝐓𝐚𝐥𝐞𝐧𝐭 & 𝐇𝐚𝐛𝐢𝐭𝐬,
I’d say we got something.” pic.twitter.com/lv9FPAgVIh
Three years later, we can clearly see one of the main reasons McDermott won Bills fans’ trust: he’s a ‘no nonsense’ guy who embodies Buffalo’s mindset of never being outworked by other people. Marv Levy’s 90s mantra — “when it’s too tough for them, it’s just right for us” — finally makes sense to Buffalo’s football team again.
McDermott went after high-character guys who were overlooked through their NFL careers and wanted to prove themselves. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, today team leaders and one of the top safety tandems in the league, were signed on team-friendly deals after their previous teams moving on from them. A strong first draft class was selected, with Tre’Davious White, Dion Dawkins, and Matt Milano the highlights.
"If you come to Buffalo you'll become the best version of you that you've ever been before, on and off the field." Buffalo Bills Head Coach Sean McDermott speaking to Free Agents and the #NFL draft class. 👊#BuffaloBills #Billsmafia #BuiltinBuffalo #OneBuffalo #TrustTheProcess pic.twitter.com/AdXlHuSdKg— Built in Buffalo (@BuiltInBuffalo_) February 27, 2020
He quickly earned the respect of the team’s longtime veterans — mainly Kyle Williams, Eric Wood, and Lorenzo Alexander — by forming a player committee to connect the players to the coaching staff. Soon, Beane was added to the picture as the team’s new GM and the fan base finally felt this team had a well organized plan for the first time in recent memory.
Connecting with the Past
McDermott’s moves to create a winning culture in the locker room and Beane’s actions to fix the salary cap situation were well appreciated by the fanbase, but McDermott knew he needed to connect not only with his new players. It’s been a long time since the Bills were seen as a winning franchise, and the head coach wanted to bring that history to his team.
One of his first actions was to invite seven of the 90s Bills greats to a dinner. Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Cornelius Bennett, Bruce Smith, Darryl Talley, and Steve Tasker reunited with the recently appointed head coach and talked. As the stories came out in a friendly environment, McDermott listened and tried to pick up the knowledge from these former players about What made that team great.
#Bills QB Josh Allen and HOFer Jim Kelly on media criticism of the team's 7-3 record:— Adam Benigni (@AdamBenigni) November 21, 2019
JA: "7-3 is a whole lot better than being 3-7"
JK: "You got that right."@viccarucci joins for the extended interview in just a few minutes at six @wgrz @TBNSports #BillsMafia pic.twitter.com/sLVLovRt5f
In the process, he started to form a bond with them and establish a relationship with an important part of the franchise’s history. Nowadays, the doors are still open those men, and they’re contributing to the team’s success. Last offseason, Kelly was brought in to offer some knowledge about the famous K-Gun offense and how some of their principles could be utilized by Brian Daboll and Josh Allen in today’s offense. Re-establishing a connection with those greats was definitely a home run by McDermott.
Connecting with the Fans
McDermott and Beane knew they needed to earn the respect and confidence from their players. They also needed to connect with the fans, which wasn’t an easy task, by any means. After years of mediocrity and yet another rebuilding project on the horizon, the fan base wanted a quick turnaround and not more painful losing seasons.
On the field, McDermott was able to lead an overachieving group of players to playoff contention, but off the field he started to earn the fan base’s respect with the way he acted in the community. The head coach could be seen before home games in the tailgates interacting with the fans and showing how he cared about the community and that he was becoming one of them.
Another way Beane and McDermott showed the fan base they cared about the Bills community was the way they treated Ezra Castro, A.K.A. Pancho Billa. He represented Bills Mafia with his love for the team, following them even through a battle against cancer. In 2018, Pancho was invited by Andre Reed and Fred Jackson to announce the team’s third-round pick, Harrison Phillips, who became close with Castro after that day.
Last year, already in a difficult stage of his treatment and from his hospital room, Castro received a call from the franchise’s owner, Terry Pegula, and had the opportunity to call Ed Oliver, the team’s first round pick, on draft night.
Although Pancho unfortunately lost his battle, he went through this process feeling as a major part of the the team, thanks mostly to Beane and McDermott’s desire to connect the team to the fan base.
Honoring the Role Models
When McDermott came to Buffalo, there was one player that already had survived multiple regime changes. No matter the coaches, GMs, or even owners, Kyle Williams had been there playing his heart out for the Bills, giving his all and being an mainstay in the locker room, on the field, and in the community.
McDermott and Beane quickly discovered why the longtime veteran survived all the difficult times and continued to be a cornerstone for the franchise. His unique work ethic, character, and mindset were unquestionable, and the production on the field still was there. It made Kyle the perfect team captain, essentially an extension of McDermott on the field.
Alongside Beane, the head coach found ways to honor and reward the longtime fan favorite. Kyle received a new deal to finish his career in Buffalo, and even on the field he got some special plays designed to highlight his presence and allow the fan base and his teammates to celebrate his legacy.
The team didn’t need a Kyle Williams goal line touchdown run at Miami in 2018. We’ve seen Josh Allen score on QB sneaks there, and one of the running backs would be more capable of making that play. But at the time it could have been be Kyle’s last game, and McDermott wanted to honor him. Kyle delivered, scoring the first rushing touchdown of his illustrious career.
Later on the same day, when a Cincinnati Bengals touchdown guaranteed the first playoff appearance in Williams’s career, the images showed how genuine the coaching staff’s appreciation was for the defensive tackle. They were happy for their feat, but they were also really emotional about Kyle finally achieving a longtime goal.
In 2019, with Williams back for a “Last Dance”, McDermott again made a point to send him off in the right way. A pass play was called for Kyle, and he delivered again, making the catch and celebrating his small gain like a playoff victory. The New Era Field crowd erupted in joy, and moments later, the head coach called a timeout with the sole intention of taking his captain off the field in a way that he could feel Bills fans’ love for him. Williams was invited to help during last season’s training camp, and the way he was treated surely caught the players’ and fans’ attention.
Lorenzo Alexander also received one last deal before retiring this year and should be involved with the team going forward, just like Williams and Eric Wood were. Other players like Jerry Hughes and Jordan Poyer had their performances rewarded with new deals, and it’s been clear to the fans how Beane and McDermott have done their jobs the right way.
Buffalo’s front office haven’t been this organized in a long time, and finally the team seems destined for sustainable success. More importantly, the players feel like part of a family and, after embracing this team through an incredibly deep valley, Bills fans feel rewarded. They feel like a part of the team’s turnaround and can trust “the process”, led by Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane.