Bills showing signs of united front after off-season overhaul
In this Oct. 1, 2017, file photo, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Jordan Matthews (87) celebrates his touchdown with running back LeSean McCoy (25) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta. For a team that featured 29 newcomers on the roster to open the season, the Buffalo Bills have shown unexpected signs of being a close-knit group in getting off to a better-than-expected 3-2 start entering their bye week. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
The Associated Press
Published Thursday, October 12, 2017 10:21AM EDT
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Quarterback Tyrod Taylor is amused by the cacophony emanating from the locker room after practice each Friday, when players can choose whatever music they prefer.
In one corner, receiver Jordan Matthews is freestyle rapping amid a circle of teammates. Elsewhere, the rousing wail of bagpipes can be heard coming from speakers at punter Colton Schmidt's stall.
Jarring as it might sound, it's music to Taylor's ears. To him, the din represents how comfortable players are in sharing their individual voices, and how quickly the Buffalo Bills have shown signs of forming a tight bond following an off-season roster purge under new coach Sean McDermott.
"I think coach has created an environment where he lets us be ourselves," Taylor said. "I think on the field it shows. We've been through some ups and downs and we've been able to stay in the right frame of mind."
The Bills (3-2) aren't close to perfect entering their bye week. They have particular concerns regarding an anemic offence that was struggling before injuries sidelined Matthews (broken right thumb) and tight end Charles Clay (left knee).
And yet, Buffalo's off to a better start than expected after beginning the season with 29 newcomers.
The show of unity has been evident from the season opener, when Bills players decided to forego personal introductions before home games, and chose to emerge from the tunnel as a group.
"This year especially, we wanted to come together," centre Eric Wood said. "There was a lot of talk of us tanking and whatnot. And we wanted to show we're going to fight together. This is the closest team I've been on."
The Bills haven't yet flinched in the face of adversity for a team in the midst of a 17-year playoff drought -- the longest active streak in North America's four major professional sports.
On the field, Buffalo has overcome a thinly experienced roster by relying on an opportunistic defence and clutch kicking from newcomer Stephen Hauschka to win three games by no more than 10 points. The two losses have been decided by a combined margin of 10 points.
Off the field, the Bills have not wavered after receiver Sammy Watkins and cornerback Ronald Darby were dealt in separate trades in August, or when receiver Anquan Boldin abruptly retired a little over a week after Watkins was dealt.
And then there was how the Bills came together in the wake of President Donald Trump's criticizing NFL players protesting during the national anthem.
With McDermott, general manager Brandon Beane and owners Terry and Kim Pegula present, the Bills held a 90-minute voluntary meeting during which players voiced their opinions on whether to protest before their game against Denver the following day. When no consensus was reached, the players decided to do what each felt best without anyone being judged.
Linebacker Jerry Hughes credits that meeting for bringing the team even closer.
"We came together when things kind of started to pull at the team," Hughes said. "If it wasn't for that meeting that the coach and owners put together, we would've probably been doing what we've been doing in the past, which is finger pointing."
Dysfunction prevailed the previous two seasons under former coach Rex Ryan. Watkins openly complained about lacking catches and defensive end Mario Williams questioned whether he fit the defensive scheme.
McDermott gets credit for fostering a united front. Foreseeing how many new faces would join the roster, he placed an emphasis on everyone getting to know each other, short of issuing "Hello, My Name Is:" stickers.
Though coaches are limited to how much interaction they can have with players during voluntary workout periods in April, McDermott received NFL approval allowing him and his staff to join players in non-practice, team-building sessions.
McDermott also established the practice of having players introduce themselves and share their backgrounds during team meetings. The personal speeches proved popular.
Running back Mike Tolbert said they not only allowed him to get to know his new teammates, but also gain insight into what made them tick.
"You can sign with a new team and play football for anybody," said Tolbert, an off-season free-agent addition. "But when you actually care about the person next to you, it makes you play that much harder."
Five weeks in, the Bills have taken steps toward meeting the modest goals Terry Pegula set in August, when saying the only objective he had was for the team to start earning respect around the NFL.
"It comes down to building trust," McDermott said.
"There's always going to be areas that come up, whether it was the protest situation or whatever it is," McDermott said. "There's always going to be people trying to tear you apart. But if you don't have that trust built up, you'll crumble, and especially for a new team."
No more was that evident than when Hughes had the team's back in accusing Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly of attempting to divide the Bills for criticizing running back LeSean McCoy for sitting during the anthem.
"Jim obviously feels a certain type of way, but that's not going to change us, who we are, who we play for," Tolbert said. "For (Hughes) to represent us as a whole in the exact way we all would say it, we appreciated that."
The job of building the Bills into contenders is far from over, McDermott acknowledged, though he sees glimpses of a foundation forming.
"There's only so many things you can get right in the first year," McDermott said. "So let's make sure we're building that solid foundation, and that's one of them: the mindset of our team."