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A Beginner’s Guide to the Bills’ Surprising 5-1 Start

Shrewd free-agent acquisitions, a commitment to stretching the field offensively, and performance reviews—yes, performance reviews—have contributed to Buffalo’s rise in the AFC in 2019

Scott Laven / Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills have made the playoffs once since 2000. They have not won a playoff game since December 1995—five months before their current starting quarterback was born. Building a winning roster, as the current regime has done, is an accomplishment.

The Bills’ 5-1 start is the most surprising development in the AFC this season. Their record is better than the leaders of every AFC division except their own. They have, according to FiveThirtyEight, a 79 percent chance of making the playoffs. I talked to the Bills front office and staff about how they built the roster—and their organization. If you’re looking for a guide on how the AFC’s most surprising team got here, it’s this:

They solicit feedback.

Having good football players is always better than having good vibes, but good vibes make a difference once you have good players. When I talked to coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane, they described a peculiar type of NFL working environment, one where McDermott solicits reviews about all of his methods from his players. He got the idea from his brother, Tim, who works for the Philadelphia Union of MLS.

“He works on the business side there, and he helps me a lot. And I heard about 360 reviews, and it made a lot of sense,” McDermott said, referencing a process where employees review their superiors on top of the normal managerial review process. He continued: “The only way to really get better is to open up your eyes and ears to what is going on. I’ve been in places before—I think it comes with the job, it’s inherent in leadership—where people don’t want to bring things up to the boss,” McDermott said. “Or they think the boss knows. I said this to our staff a number of times because I’ve been in their shoes. You see something and think, ‘Surely, the head coach knows about this and chooses not to do something about it,’ but the only way to lead the right way is to have the right pulse for what’s going on, that’s how you continue to grow.”

McDermott said he’s heard too many stories of coaches getting fired and a subordinate finally telling them what they were doing wrong. Or a coach who doesn’t ask for advice until he’s fired. “Instead of that, why not do that every year?” McDermott told me. Feedback from players has resulted in the Bills having later meeting times and allowing for more rest. Beane said it caused the team to change its travel schedule and weekly schedule—like having Mondays off in the second half of the season, for instance. “You have to be open to criticism,” Beane said. “In today’s age, you have to have an openness between front office, coaches, and players. That’s just the way it works now. The money you’re paying players, they have a certain leverage, power; especially the ones you’re paying big money to. So if you don’t have that relationship, I think some of these teams, that’s where you see a split.”

McDermott said he brought in two speakers to teach his staff to connect better with millennial and Generation Z players (McDermott said he refers to those notes often, not just for his players, but for his own kids).

The team’s offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, told me all of this has led to a more open process when, say, a quarterback has an idea, and they discuss the merits of it. “Good communicators, no egos. This is a really good team to be a part of in the preparation process,” Daboll said.

They understand defense.

Now, to the players. Beane and McDermott were hired in 2017 (though Beane didn’t have control of the 2017 draft since he was hired in May). In the past two drafts, Beane has focused on athleticism by selecting linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and defensive lineman Ed Oliver in the first round. Beane thinks that the sport has become a “seven on seven” league instead of 11 on 11, by which he means the type of pass-only leagues played at the youth levels, which have helped influence the NFL game. He thinks an athletic secondary is crucial since coordinators and quarterbacks can neutralize a good defensive front by getting the ball out quicker than ever. Basically, having athletes all over the field is more important than ever. “It’s hard to have these slower, physical, players out there,” Beane said.

“Look at linebackers: You used to have those big, thick, Mike linebackers, and you aren’t going to run down their throat,” Beane said. “Well, now that guy has to cover [running] backs and [slot receivers]. It’s hard. You’re looking for those athletes at safety. You used to have a box safety and a deep post safety—not that some teams don’t have that—but I like our tandem [Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer].” Beane thinks that because teams rely on quicker, shorter passes, tackling is one of the most important traits in a modern player. “At some point, teams are going to find you and go after you if you can’t tackle.”

The results on the team’s efforts at building its defense: The Bills are off to their best defensive start since 1993. Oliver is among the best at pressuring the quarterback from the interior line. Cornerback Tre’Davious White is the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week (and leads the NFL in passer rating against).

They built around Josh Allen effectively.

First, a stat:

Josh Allen, the no. 7 overall pick in 2018, is one of the more controversial draft picks in recent memory. The debate over his selection in a quarterback-heavy first round will probably continue for years—particularly while some selections, like the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, look like MVP candidates, while others, like the Dolphins’ Josh Rosen, look like they may not be a long-term starter. What we do know is that the Bills can apparently win games with Allen, and the supporting cast around Allen is helping him be the best version of himself.

The first thing to understand about the Bills’ approach to free agency is that they like veterans. Beane and McDermott spoke to me about their emphasis on getting midlevel veterans, who are underrated in an era increasingly emphasizing youth. Both referenced the New England Patriots’ love of getting smart veterans to fill gaps in the roster.

The Bills acknowledge that this is a crucial moment to build a roster around Allen: “It’s an important time before you do have to try to pay a quote-unquote franchise quarterback.” The rookie wage scale means that Allen makes $4.8 million in a league where veteran starters make as much as six times that. “The first thing we had to do was fix our front. Mitch Morse was our biggest signing,” Beane said, referencing the former Chiefs center the Bills signed for four years and $44.5 million. Beane said he often talked with Allen about not holding on to the ball until the last second—which gives defenders the opportunity to hit him legally. “I said, ‘Go ahead and throw it, so you don’t have to take that hit,’” Beane said. “Because the compound effect of those hits can make a difference.”

Keeping Allen upright is important, but so was opening up the offense. Beane said the early part of the Bills’ 2018 season was instructive: He thinks before wide receiver Robert Foster’s emergence as a deep threat, opponents were “squatting” on the offense because the Bills couldn’t spread defenses out. So along with Foster, the team signed wide receiver John Brown and slot receiver Cole Beasley. “You know how important the slot is when you see what New England does. We never found in year one with Brian [Daboll] a true slot that teams had to worry about, and the hope was that Cole Beasley would solidify that.”

The result: Passes to Brown have a 103 quarterback rating this year, according to Pro Football Focus. Allen is, as referenced above, the highest-graded passer on short and intermediate throws. And the Bills are the surprise darlings of the AFC. The 360 reviews will likely be pretty good this year.