Secret Sauce: How The Buffalo Bills Made The Jump

Photo: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Not since 1999 have the Buffalo Bills faced a “win-and-in” playoff scenario, but that’s exactly the case when the team faces the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football in Week 15. Meaningful football games in mid-December has not been the norm for the Bills who snapped a 17-year playoff drought in 2017. 

After nearly two decades of turnover within the front office, coaching staff and roster while staring up at the dominant New England Patriots dynasty within the AFC East, Buffalo has finally turned things around and boast a 9-4 record. Any win over the final three games of the season clinches Buffalo’s second playoff berth in the last three seasons.

How has Buffalo emerged from years of below average and mediocre football teams? Let’s examine. 

Culture 

The combination of head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane set out on a mission when they were hired just months apart in 2017 to build the football team the right way. At the center of accomplishing that objective was assembling a roster full of players that had “the right DNA” and “were wired the right way”, buzzy phrases McDermott continuously preached when talking about his team building philosophy.

After working through their first period of OTAs, mini camp, training camp and preseason in 2017, McDermott and Beane had not only a good understanding of who the pieces were to move forward with, but also those to move on from. In a short period of time, Buffalo traded Sammy Watkins, Ronald Darby, Marcel Dareus, Reggie Ragland and others. While some accused Buffalo of tanking because of those moves, it was all a part of a larger plan in building the Bills into a winner. 

With three offseasons of drafting, dealing with contracts and navigating free agency, Beane and McDermott finally have a roster full of “their guys”. The Bills are a closely knit group that promotes a family atmosphere and genuine love for one another. McDermott and Beane have created a wonderful environment that enables players to be the best version of themselves. 

Bills’ owners Terry and Kim Pegula delivered a state-of-the-art world-class performance center last offseason which sent a strong message to the players about how much the ownership cares and is willing to invest in them. 

“In the end we realize all these players are people,” said Kim Pegula. “They have a life off the field. They have a life outside of this facility and outside of Buffalo. They’re real people. They’re human. The health and safety of all the players is paramount, and not just on game day.

“The health and wellness we can now provide here will not only help them through their career, but their whole life. Hopefully this facility shows them the care and well-being that we want for every player whether we have them for a week, a month, a year or their whole career.”

In addition to the new 41,000 square foot facility, Buffalo is heavily invested in sports sciences and load management for its players. Established veterans are frequently given rest days and the entire roster has every resource at their disposal to recover so they can perform at their highest level on Sunday’s. 

From ownership down to the coaching staff, Buffalo has built a culture where players can thrive. There is an undeniable commitment from the leadership to the players that they care about the players and their families at every level. 

When players are in the optimal scenario where their families are closely bonded, an atmosphere of brotherhood is created and the franchise cultivates that environment, you get an organization of people moving in the same direction. At the foundation of Buffalo’s turnaround is the culture that has been created. 

Crushing The Draft 

It has only been three drafts since McDermott was hired, but Buffalo has done a remarkable job of drafting impact football players that have already earned significant roles on the team. 

2017

  • CB Tre White - starter
  • OT Dion Dawkins - starting left tackle and team captain
  • LB Matt Milano - starter

2018

  • QB Josh Allen - starter and team captain
  • LB Tremaine Edmunds - starter and team captain
  • CB Taron Johnson - starting nickel corner

2019

  • DT Ed Oliver - starter
  • OT Cody Ford - starter
  • RB Devin Singletary - starter
  • TE Dawson Knox - starter 

The Bills have enjoyed incredible returns from its recent draft selections that have already become starters without even mentioning the important depth, subpackage and special terms contributions. Combining the Bills’ exceptional drafting with impact free agent signings and Buffalo has a roster that can compete with anyone. 

Building Around and Developing Josh Allen

On top of being a toolsy but raw quarterback prospect from Wyoming that struggled mightily against Power Five competition during his college career, Josh Allen had a lot to overcome as a rookie in 2018. For starters, he primarily received third-team reps until late in the preseason since he was in a three-way competition between himself, Nathan Peterman and AJ McCarron for the starting job. The fate of the competition was for McCarron to be traded prior to Week One and Peterman to win the job only for Allen to replace him during the season opener.

Allen’s top-three receivers - Kelvin Benjamin, Andre Holmes and Jeremy Kerley - entering the season were all released by Week 13. His quarterback coach, David Culley, was never previously an NFL quarterback coach and hadn’t specifically coached the position since his days at UTEP in 1990.

While those are difficult challenges for any rookie quarterback to deal with, I haven’t even discussed how poor Buffalo’s offensive line was in 2018. The Bills lost Cordy Glenn, Eric Wood and Richie Incognito from the previous year and did nothing to replace them aside from adding the perpetually-struggling Russell Bodine and investing a fifth-round pick on Wyatt Teller.

Flash forward to his sophomore season and nearly everything is different. The only offensive starter outside of Allen that carried over from 2018 is left tackle Dion Dawkins. Beane overhauled the offensive line, signing Quinton Spain, Mitch Morse and Jon Feliciano to anchor the interior and drafted Cody Ford to play right tackle. He bolstered the depth up front by inking Spencer Long, Ty Nsekhe and trading for Ryan Bates. 

At wide receiver, Beane blessed Allen with John Brown and Cole Beasley as his new go-to options while Tyler Kroft was signed and Dawson Knox was drafted so Buffalo can be more dynamic at tight end. The running back situation was overhauled by signing Frank Gore and TJ Yeldon while drafting Devin Singletary. 

In addition to vastly improving the talent around Allen, Buffalo also upgraded the offensive coaching staff. While Buffalo maintained consistency with Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator, Ken Dorsey (quarterbacks), Bobby Johnson (offensive line) and Chad Hall (wide receivers) brought new energy to the staff. 

Since replacing Nathan Peterman in Week One last season, Allen has done nothing but grow and develop. Buffalo bet on itself to develop a toolsy but highly inconsistent quarterback in Allen and it's happening right before our eyes. While there is still work to be done, Allen has proven he can learn and evolve as a player. Even the biggest Allen supporters are surprised by the quarterback he has already become. 

Dominant Defense

There are exciting things happening in Buffalo but the best thing about this Bills team is its defense and it’s not particularly close. Currently the No. 3 defense in the league, Buffalo features a dominant unit. 

Continuity has been significant in Buffalo’s success defensively. McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier are in Year Three together in Buffalo and there are key starters at every level of the defense that has also been along for the ride. 

The safety tandem of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer were brought in as free agents entering the 2017 season and they are the quarterbacks of the unity. They are versatile, interchangeable, great tacklers and are masters of disguising coverage and not giving quarterbacks pre-snap clues. Lorenzo Alexander and Matt Milano have been together 2017 on the second level and Jerry Hughes is the mainstay for the defensive line. 

While the core of the unit has developed continuity, the pieces added around them have been significant. Buffalo has invested a first-round pick in every draft since McDermott was hired on a defensive player and they are all impact playmakers (Tre White, Tremaine Edmunds, Ed Oliver). 2016 first round pick Shaq Lawson has emerged as a key part of the defensive line rotation while Buffalo has found help in free agency by singing Star Lotulelei and Trent Murphy. Jordan Phillips has also proven to be a significant waiver wire pick up at defensive tackle, while cornerback Levi Wallace has emerged as a starter after going undrafted in 2018. 

The Bills’ defense is a cohesive unit that plays complementary football at every level. They are talented, well-coached, disciplined and a big reason why Buffalo is playing winning football. 

Written By:

Joe Marino

Director of Administration

Director of Administration & Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-host of the Draft Dudes podcast. Member of the FWAA.

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