At long last, the offseason is now a thing of the past and the Buffalo Bills have returned to St. John Fisher College for the start of a brand new training camp.
This time around, the Bills have a brand new head coach, a brand new general manager, and really, what seems to be a refreshed organizational approach compared to the way things have been run for years on end. The two keys to turning it all around for the franchise are none other than head coach Sean McDermott, and general manager Brandon Beane — two men that worked with one another in Carolina for several years before agreeing to come to Buffalo.
In the weeks leading up to training camp, both McDermott and Beane sat down with reporters to discuss a bevy of topics. My seven takeaways from the Bills new head coach and general manager:
1) The sole focus is on finding that quarterback
- Most of the roster building questions were asked to Brandon Beane — predictably so — but it really all centered around the biggest topic that has defined the Bills for the past two decades: finding a franchise quarterback. The ‘how’ is less important because that’s a different conversation for another time, but the fact that they need one is very much on the mind of Beane.
“It’s a quarterback league, I mean who are we kidding? To your point, if you look at the playoffs teams, the consistent guys that at least qualify for the playoffs or are close every year, most of them have QBs, most of them have a legit quarterback. If you want to use the word franchise, whatever word you want to use, so I understand that. Cam in Carolina was, is, a franchise quarterback. If you’re a GM, you have to find a franchise quarterback. It obviously helps keep you on a consistent playing field if you have one, so I get that.”
Now, this isn’t to rule out Tyrod Taylor from the equation just yet. Beane highlighted Taylor’s work ethic and showed a willingness to see how Taylor performs in camp and during the 2017 season. However, as we have grown accustomed to with the quarterback and this regime, there were no promises given to anything past this year — and that isn’t likely to change unless Taylor shows a heap of progress this season. And he’ll certainly need to do so in one area in particular…
2) Beane reiterates his desire for a pocket passer
- Back in May, I sat down for a 1-on-1 interview with the Bills GM. We didn’t get much into Tyrod Taylor as a quarterback, but I was more interested in what he wanted out of a quarterback. And back in May, Beane said the biggest attribute he wants out of a quarterback is to have the ability to throw from the pocket. This time around, even when Taylor’s name was brought up, he didn’t shy away from his opinion.
“To be in this league, whether its Tyrod or name the quarterback, you have to make plays consistently from the pocket. The quarterbacks that are succeeding year after year after year consistently make plays from the pocket. That’s what, whoever the franchise quarterback is going to be, that’s what he’ll have to do.
To me, this is the biggest flaw of Taylor’s game — and in my opinion, really has to be one of the main factors that the Bills haven’t committed to the quarterback for more than one year at a time. I like Taylor’s ability and I think he’s carved a solid niche for himself with the Bills. But it almost feels like he’s leveled off from what we first saw him as. That progress in the pocket just hasn’t been there, and all too often, I recall numerous instances where Taylor has a clean pocket for about another half-of-a-second — and a receiver coming open — but in the effort to limit negative plays and take a sack, he leaves the pocket prematurely. This, in my opinion, will have to be the top area he has to prove himself to the new head coach and general manager.
3) McDermott isn’t running away from the playoff drought
- In recent years, there have been some fans that weren’t exactly thrilled when the Bills tried to distance themselves from the playoff drought as if it shouldn’t have counted for the new ownership group. That line of thinking is now a thing of the past. Fans want the team to own the drought, and that’s just what head coach Sean McDermott is doing.
“So there's history and then there is, 'OK, how do we handle it going forward?' And as a head coach I believe that the minute I was hired I own that, right? I'm a part of that. So to try and separate one's self from that I think is the wrong approach. That said, as a team going forward, we have to focus on what's immediately in front of us and the vision for the future. And so creating the right dynamic around the present team is important in terms of our focus, our mindset.
So, from that perspective, McDermott gets “it,” but also was careful to not let it define the current team — as we’ve seen from some of the Bills teams in recent memory. It’s important for McDermott to understand and welcome the history behind it, but also with an approach as to how to distance themselves from it. The Bills have rid themselves of most of the ties to playoff drought and are starting anew at a lot of different positions — and are trying to instill a belief and a work ethic around the building that won’t let them fall prey to the missteps of years past. It’s certainly easier said than done, but it seems with how much McDermott talks about keeping the long-term of the team in mind, he knows it’s not going to happen just overnight.
4) The need for Dareus to buy in
- There isn’t much doubt that when you list the most talented players on the Bills roster, Marcell Dareus is one of the first two or three players listed. When fully healthy and motivated, Dareus is an imposing and dominant figure on game days. The trouble is, Dareus has gotten himself in hot water off the field repeatedly, and it appears with a new head coach and a general manager, he’s gotten to a fork in the road. The leeway that he might have had with past regimes likely won’t be as much under McDermott and Beane, and he needs to prove that he can be as dominant and dependable off-the-field as he can be when the ball is snapped. He’s a complex issue, and Brandon Beane knows it:
“Hopefully the new regime, the new culture, the new way of doing things -- what you'd like to see if for Marcell to jump on board. And not only do it himself, but he's been in the league long enough, you'd like to see him grabbing some others. First of all, before you can lead, you have to do it yourself. I'm not just talking about Marcell. That's anybody. But he's gonna be given every opportunity. He is very talented where he was drafted, where he was paid. He's a talented guy, and he's shown what he can do. Obviously, it's up to us to try to get that out of him, find out what makes him tick. We got to communicate with him to help put him in the best situation. It's a two-way street. Some of it is on us, some of it is on him.
This is an incredibly big year for Dareus, who has to prove to his new bosses that he can become the person they want him to be. It’s certainly time to get there: Dareus is nearing the end of his 20s and has been in the league for quite some time now. They need him to become the dominant force he has all the potential in the world of being. One thing I’ll be very interested in watching at training camp: the upcoming working relationship between Dareus and defensive line coach Mike Waufle, an ex-Marine. Dareus will certainly be held accountable by him, that’s for sure.
5) Bills looking for more than just a few leaders
- The accepted value of leadership within a team or an organization is a handful of people that will put the rest on their backs and help motivate them to the desired result. While Sean McDermott desires that of his team, he also has a bigger picture in mind.
“We’ve got certain leaders on this team that many of you talk to on a weekly basis. We’re also developing the second crust of leaders and that’s what helps you win now and win long-term. It’s not talent for later. It’s a blend. It’s like you have salt water over here and fresh water over here. It becomes that brackish water. That’s how you build any team, really. Watching some of the programs that have done that, I’ve seen that. Chemistry doesn’t all of a sudden just show up. Culture doesn’t all of a sudden just show up. Culture is built over time. It changes every year, but when you have the culture, the chemistry comes off of that culture, and that’s the important part.
It’s notable that McDermott understands that it’s not just going to happen overnight, or by just a good few weeks of training camp. Those acts have to become habits, and with it comes the accountability throughout the organization — from the leaders down to the bottom of the roster. Accountability is something that was lacking under Rex Ryan. There was far too much finger pointing, and that tone was set from the head coach-general manager relationship, and it bled into the rest of the locker room. Now, with NFL teams, the one thing that goes hand-in-hand with cultures getting established is winning football games. So, if McDermott truly wants his team to buy all the way into what he’s selling — which I believe is a good message and a good ideology of how to build a locker room — then the results will have to be seen on the field. It’s all much easier said than done, which is why so many head coaches flame out in the NFL. He’s got the right approach, now he just needs the complexities of the locker room to be simplified with one common bond: winning.
6) What Beane’s done to learn the truth about draft prospects
- In the current era of the NFL and the process of drafting players, it’s quite easy to be fooled by a player. By this point, most every big named draft prospect is schooled by their agents and drilled on any and all potential questions from NFL teams, to the point where most of it just comes off as rehearsed and unauthentic. Which is why, when a franchise has to try and figure out if the person they’re drafting is the right personality fit for their organization, they have to go deeper. And they even have to channel their inner Sherlock Holmes.
“Well I think first of all, you ask people and you do your due diligence all the way back to high school on these guys. When we went through the Cam Newton deal, we talked to people from Florida, from his high school, from Blinn, obviously Auburn. We talked to players. We talked to coaches. We talked to trainers. To equipment guys. We picked a lot of different areas. People who Cam couldn't be prepared like, 'Hey, I better treat this guy well,' or it's gonna cost me a chance to be the No. 1 pick in the draft. People are going to show their true colors. Obviously the time with this person in a 1-on-1 or whatever scenario it is, classroom setting, will be a part of it, but that's only part of the equation. You got to do your own -- it's a little bit like you're a private investigator with these guys. You're asking anybody and everybody. If you talk to enough people, you'll figure it out, who this guy is. You'll have a good, gut feeling of what you're drafting as a man, as a character, as a leader, all of that stuff. You change up the settings. It's not like, if we're looking at a quarterback in the draft, or whatever position, we're not necessarily going to visit with him one time, in one setting. We'll mix up the settings, mix up the people. Sometimes you might see if you can put him in a stressful situation and see how they react.
File this quote away for the time leading up to the draft, but it’s interesting the lengths NFL teams have to go to try and make sure the person they’re drafting and giving a considerable amount of money to. Especially if the Bills are in the market for a quarterback, you know Beane has at least been a part of a team that successfully found a dependable franchise player.
7) McDermott says he won’t be a micro-manager
- It’s been pretty well-documented, but Sean McDermott is trying to establish a different sort of culture over at One Bills Drive. And one important thing to him is to make sure that he’s not overstepping on the assistant coaches that he wants to put a lot of trust in. You see it from time to time with some coaches. They might be a coordinator and turning into a head coach, but rather than letting their offensive or defensive coordinator handle all their responsibilities, the head coach tries to do both his job, and the job he just came from. It’s a different skill-set with different responsibilities. Usually, micro-managing head coaches flame out pretty quickly in the NFL because they burn themselves out. McDermott said he learned that lesson from his last stop.
“One of the things I learned being around Ron Rivera is to give people enough space. If you want people to be the best version of themselves, there has to be enough space so they can be that, to express their true personalities. I felt Ron struck a nice balance there with that, that he let me be the head coach of the defense. That was one of Ron's greatest strengths and probably my greatest takeaway from Ron. When you coach and go through experiences, I remember coaching Brian Dawkins, and he's older than I am. I was in my young 20s. I remember Brian when I walked in the room, he was probably looking at me, like, 'What's this guy going to tell me that I don't already know?' But over the time, you work hard and try to help the players, and Brian and I struck a nice relationship. What I learned is sometime you've got to give players one or two things and let them play. No different with your staff. You give people enough space to do their jobs. You develop trust that way. That's important to us as we move forward, that there's something called 'the speed of trust' that people trust I'll do my job and they're going to do their job. At that point, we become efficient as an organization.
Just from a human perspective, that line of thinking makes sense. People want to believe the jobs they are doing is of the utmost importance, and as a leader, you can’t continue to snatch up all those responsibilities for yourself. We’ll get to see exactly what type of leader McDermott is, but I like his approach in giving his staff and players the wiggle room to learn, grow, and sometimes make their own mistakes. After all, it’s the mistakes you learn the most from in any line of work.