ATLANTA, GA – If you’re not trusting the process yet, it may be time to. Following a stunning 23-17 road win over the Atlanta Falcons, the Buffalo Bills are now 3-1 on the season and sit atop the AFC East standings all by their lonesome.
Just as we all predicted.
A month and a half ago the Bills were considered a team in the midst of a tank for the No. 1 overall pick. They had traded away their top wide receiver Sammy Watkins and cornerback Ronald Darby. Days later veteran wideout Anquan Boldin announced his retirement after signing with the franchise just 10 days prior. With a new head coach, a new general manager and a ton of roster turnover, Buffalo looked the part of a team on the brink of a rebuild, a notion both first-year head coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane have emphatically denied.
After a 3-1 start to the season, now we see why.
“I would say hold your horses a little bit. It’s one step at a time,” McDermott responded when asked how he feels about this being the biggest road win for the franchise since it made four consecutive trips to the Super Bowl in the early 90s. “This is a great win, what more can you say. It is a great win but it is the next win.
“I’m happy for the team. Those guys worked hard, the coaches worked hard, the players worked extremely hard. We have a group of hard workers. The coaches put together a good game plan across the board and they stayed with it. This is a tough place to play. They are the defending NFC Champions, with one of the top quarterbacks in the league.”
McDermott has a point. With the franchise in the midst of a 17-year playoff drought, Bills fans know all too well that a hot start to the season doesn’t guarantee anything. In 2008, Buffalo started the season 5-1 then followed it up with four straight losses and won just two more games the rest of the way. At 7-9 they were spectators come January. In 2011, a 5-2 start to the season earned then quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick a massive contract extension worth $59 million over six years, only for Buffalo to drop the next seven games in a row and finish the season 6-10. As center Eric Wood knows, things can change in a hurry.
“I’m very weary about ever looking past just the next game,” Wood stated. “I know our fast start in 2011 we had a rash of injuries mid-year. I would like to think we have a lot of quality depth players now. Hopefully we’d be able to withstand that if that did happen, but you just can’t really worry about [the fast start.] I feel like we’re getting better each week and as long as we focus on that – I know that’s cliché – but with new schemes, new players there’s no reason that we couldn’t do that.
Still, the vet, in his ninth season with the Bills, recognized how big of a win this was for the team.
“That’s a really good team we went against at their place, that’s a really big win for us,” he said. I don’t know comparison where it ranks up there [during my time here], but on the road, that’s a really big win.
“I don’t think we’re going to sneak up on anybody anymore after the last couple wins. But I don’t think we were on film either … I think our film probably flashes more than the perception in the media. I’m sure we’ll get some attention from this, but we’ll still be our small market team and that’s fine with me.”
There’s certainly some truth to that. On video, opponents see a suffocating defense that has surrendered a league-low four touchdown’s this season and only 13.5 points per game thus far. Buffalo’s pass rush – led by DE Jerry Hughes, who forced a strip-sack on Falcons QB Matt Ryan this weekend that turned directly into points on a scoop-and-score play by CB Tre’Davious White – is an absolute nightmare. As a unit the defense has 11 sacks this season. And then there’s the secondary. Filled with new faces like White, fellow CB E.J. Gaines – who came over in the Sammy Watkins trade – as well as safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, the back end of the Bills defense is athletic and versatile. Their six interceptions are tied for fourth most in the league to this point.
“I go back to phase one when I first got here, I knew we had a chance to be successful because of the front seven that we have,” White said. “Guys are getting pressure on the quarterback. And that’s just been making our job so much easier on the back end this whole season.”
Meanwhile, the Bills offense may not be lighting up the scoreboard, but piggy-bagging off a dominant defense that keeps them in any game, Tyrod Taylor and company are able to do just enough to win games. What certainly can’t be overlooked is their ability to protect the football. After finshing Sunday’s win over Atlanta without a turnover, Buffalo set a franchise record for consecutive quarters without one (15). Their turnover differential of six currently ranks second in the league.
Mix in a kicker in Stephen Hauschka who makes a 55-yard field goal look like a chip shot and Buffalo may have something here.
“I think whether you look at this game, one that we pulled out, or whether you look at Carolina, one that we couldn’t pull out at the end, I think you see the same type of mentality and that’s a team that plays hard until the end of the game,” Hauschka said after Sunday’s win. “It’s a team that gets turnovers and takes care of the ball themselves. Got a bunch of great players; guys who don’t get too high, too low and I think this process (there’s that word), if we continue on this, we’re going to do a lot of great things.”
Let’s give credit where credit is do. This surprising 3-1 start to the season wouldn’t even be possible without the leadership and guidance of head coach Sean McDermott. McDermott took over in January with a plan to change the culture at One Bills Dr. A franchise that for nearly two decades has been synonymous with losing, failure and dysfunction. With his tactful mantras like “playoff caliber,” “earning the right to win,” and of course “trust the process,” McDermott, in just nine months time, has this team heading very much in the right direction. The direction of winning. But what’s most surprising perhaps is how quickly he’s turned this organization around. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a winning football team. Even McDermott has admitted that his “process” is going to take time. But maybe, just maybe he’s defied the odds.
“I said last week: it’s a very tight nit group of guys,” Wood reiterated. “I think they did a great job bringing in the right types of guys that all mesh well. Every person they brought in has a certain type of work ethic, they act a certain way and we all get along because of it, because we respect each other, we trust each other”
This team is probably one of the most selfless group of guys that I’ve been around ever since I started playing competitive anything,” said White. “These guys are willing to put it all on the line for each other. I love being around this atmosphere.”
“This is a different team. It’s a new coach, a bunch of new players and a new mindset here going on at One Bills Dr,” Hauschka stated. “This is what we’re all about. Playing really hard, preparing even harder and just trusting ourselves during the game. You can’t always control the result. Things aren’t always going to be perfect, but I think this team is going to find a way to get it done more times than not.”
To most outside the Bills locker room, 2017 was simply seen as a throwaway season. Inside of it though, McDermott has this team believing that they can be great. It’s time for everyone else to jump on board. It’s time for everyone to trust the process. This Bills team is for real.
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