It can be done!
My intention this week was to discuss the ramifications in the hiring of an NFL head coach, something several teams will do once this season concludes.
Why it’s so difficult. Why some teams succeed, others fail.
But what better week to shine the light on a team that has hit a home run in not only selecting a new head coach, but rebuilding a lowly franchise to the ranks of a Super Bowl contender. It’s not likely to happen this year, but beware the potential of this team.
It’s the Buffalo Bills, of course.
This past weekend, the Bills captured their first division championship in 25 years.
It was no surprise. I take no bows in my forecast prior to the season that the Bills would end the Patriots domination of the AFC East, much less the entire league.
You could see it coming. Last season, the Bills won 10 games and earned a playoff berth. But it was obvious better things were ahead and they were.
It all began in 2017.
That’s the year Bills ownership selected Sean McDermott as their head coach.
Now, normally, that path doesn’t really work.
Teams who choose their General Manager first, are usually the wisest. In the more traditional chain of command, the owner picks the GM, and together they identify the kind of head coach they want to run the team on the field.
So, the General Manager, who builds the team through the draft and free agent signings, works with the head coach and the two are in concert with one another.
If a GM is hired after the head coach, the two may be at odds on the way to go, and if the head coach takes precedence over his supposed boss, that’s a recipe for failure.
But the Bills did it right. While they did pick McDermott first, their GM hire came from the same place, and the two were on the same page from the start.
Both Mc Dermott, and the General Manager, Brandon Beane were with the Carolina Panthers and both had been successful.
McDermott was the defensive coordinator for seven years, and Beane had been the club’s assistant General Manager at the same time. That period, included a Super Bowl 50 appearance.
Many observers forget how much of a winning franchise the Panthers have been, including winning division titles three consecutive years from 2013-15, and a playoff appearance in. 2017. Also remember, the head coach was Ron Rivera, who just happens to have his Washington Football Team in the lead for an NFC East crown in his first go-around as head coach of that team. Regardless of the lowly stature of that division, the race has been up for grabs with teams having losing records. But, if Washington can outlast the likes of the Cowboys and Eagles, the achievement is significant.
But enough about Rivera.
We’re talking Bills.
To put it simply, Buffalo had a plan.
A plan borne out by the intelligent selection of players who were well-scouted and deemed to be a good fit in a rebuilding program that included the intangibles that winners seem to identify.
Everyone knows the top athletes and best performing college players and pro free-agents seem the obvious way to get better.
But there’s always more.
The little things that seem natural and clear appear to be no-brainers.
Like loving the game of football.
Like having an unselfish attitude.
Like realizing the team comes first, that the prima donna style we see so much is contrary to ultimate team success.
Oh, players’ attitudes do change. But that’s for the team’s to deal with.
The Bills didn’t declare that they were intent on putting a winner on the field sooner than later.
That they weren’t in the for the long rebuild.
No, they revamped the entire roster.
In fact, on the day Sean McDermott and the Bills ended their 25-year division-title drought, there was only ONE player still on the roster at the time the head coach took the reins in 2017.
Yet, four years, (three actually, when you consider how well the Bills reformed last season), seems like an awfully short time to jump from laughing-stock to championship contender.
Buffalo has really written the book on how to rebuild.
It’s textbook all the way.
They knew that defense keeps you in any game.
They realized that without a solid offensive line, there is no way an attack can materialize without reliable protection against the rush on the quarterback, or driving forward to allow runners to gain appreciable yardage.
They didn’t have to be told that without a franchise quarterback you didn’t have a chance.
They found him in Josh Allen, who became the seventh overall draft choice in 2018.
Allen was one of the many QB’s selected that year, but was unheralded compared to the others.
The others were named Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen (who has fallen out of sight), Mason Rudolph (currently, the Steelers backup), and Lamar Jackson.
Allen was not considered to be an accurate passer, something experts consider the number one trait a QB must have.
His style was throwing the deep ball, something he did not do well initially.
Sounds like a bust in the making.
But the Bills did what all the good ones do.
They coached him.
Broadcaster Tony Romo, for example, was one of those called in to work with Allen.
The emphasis for their young signal-caller was to utilize the short passes. They knew they had a man with more than adequate size, 6-5, and a leader who could move out of the pocket if necessary.
It’s not rocket-science. When an offensive line is effective, and a running game is a threat to keep the defense honest, a quarterback with adequate protection or better, can employ the short passes to set up the long strikes.
So, the Bills established a defensive as their foundation, and went about upgrading their defense. Giving their young quarterback receivers who would be threats.
They also boosted their special teams. Sometimes the forgotten element of the game.
Kicking, covering kicks, the return game. The so-called little things that often turn a game around.
Can there be unforeseen pitfalls that lie ahead that could derail the Bills march?
Key injuries always loom.
The changing of player attitudes are always front and center.
But that’s for the coach and GM to deal with.
Ultimate success is never automatic.
The one unfortunate aspect to the Bills leap this season is that their loyal and fabulous fans in western New York, have not been able to see their heroes in person.
I’ve always considered the Bills franchise, with the weather, the size of the city, and their past relative success, to be the AFC version of the Green Bay Packers.
Green Bay has been labeled Titletown from the time Vince Lombardi led the Packers to their string of NFL Championships and Super Bowl triumphs.
But all the Bills need is to finally capture one Lombardi Trophy to get in the conversation.
They may have their best opportunity right in front of them.
It might not happen this season, with the Chiefs being as powerful as they are.
But you never know.
In any event, it’s a great time to be a Bills fan.
It appears that the best is yet to come.
You wonder whether other teams, who are where the Bills were four years ago, might take a page from Buffalo’s playbook.
Every situation is different. Calls for a different plan.
But that talk is for another day.
Right now let’s salute the Bills.
And leave it at that.
AFC East Champs!