How the Bills created stability and regained the AFC East throne

Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

The Bills are an interesting case study for teams in a rebuild. The classic NFL structure has a team hiring a GM first, then the GM (in conjunction with ownership and maybe a club president) hires the coach. But that structure over the last decade has had some notable, and successful, exceptions. Kansas City (Andy Reid), Seattle (Pete Carroll) and San Francisco (Kyle Shanahan) hired the coach first, and the coach helped find the GM. Buffalo did the same. Four months after giving McDermott a five-year deal to coach the team, owners Terry and Kim Pegula gave Beane a five-year deal to be the general manager.

Talking to Beane on Saturday night, I found it interesting that he brought one very specific point in his interview with the Pegulas. It’s something they wanted to hear, and needed to hear, from a bright and respected young (40 years old) personnel man on the cusp of getting a GM job somewhere.

“When I interviewed with the Pegulas—and I think Sean’s interview was probably similar—we were talking about stability and it’s gonna take time,” Beane said. “We’re gonna revamp this roster. You can’t sit there and say, ‘In four years we’ll win a division championship. In six years, an AFC Championship.’

“One thing we discussed in that interview was how many head coaches, how many GMs, had been through here? I said, ‘You just bought the team. This is not on you. But every time we turn over the coach, every time we turn over the GM, we’re doing Coach Belichick and his great staff a favor. Every AFC East team that churns their head coach and GM over, that’s doing him a favor because stability is so important.’ Look at the teams that constantly win: New England, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Green Bay. Stability was the number one, most important thing to me—stability and then just drafting, and staying true to the culture we’d try to build and foster.”

Saturday’s rout of the Broncos was fitting in a lot of ways to what this team has become, right down to the bus ride to Invesco Field. “Our fans can’t even go to the games this year,” Hughes said, “but when we boarded the buses this morning at the hotel—thousands of miles from home, in Denver, Colorado—we’ve got Buffalo Bills fans cheering for us. I mean, COVID sucks, and I feel for our fans because they can’t be there in this great season. But they find ways to support us.”

Josh Allen threw for 359 yards and two touchdowns and ran for two more, but he wasn’t the only Buffalo pulverizer. The Bills grinded out 182 rushing yards too, and they’ll need to be able to do more balanced offensive things to be a great team in the postseason.

The Allen story is a rarity—a quarterback who had major accuracy issues in college and his first two years as a pro, but went to school in the offseason to fix it. He consulted mechanics maven Tony Romo and his own throwing tutor, Jordan Palmer, in the offseason. (“To make drastic changes in your mechanics, you’ve got to be coachable. And Josh worked on it every day,” Palmer said). Allen’s 70-percent day in Denver typified his season. He’s up 10 percentage points in accuracy (.588 last year, .687 this year) and 10 touchdowns (20 last year, 30 this year, with two games left) and looks like a much more comfortable player than he was.

When Allen broke into the NFL two seasons ago, he relied too much on his fastball. But Saturday he showed the range he’s developed. When he needed the fastball, like on the 22-yard touchdown dart to Jake Kumerow fit perfectly between two Broncos, he had it. Allen also had the perfect loft on a 27-yard completion under a heavy Denver rush.

And, of course, Allen has a franchise receiver now in Stefon Diggs. The 11-catch, 147-yard day for Diggs went almost unnoticed because Diggs seems to do it every week. He leads the NFL in catches (111) and receiving yards (1,314), when every defense he sees lines up to try to stop him.

I told Beane I’d been critical of how much he traded to Minnesota to get Diggs: the 22ndnpick in the first round, plus fourth, fifth and sixth-round picks. (The Vikings threw back a seventh-rounder to Buffalo in addition to Diggs.) There was the point of a favorable contract—a deal that runs through 2023 at an annual average of $14.4 million—and this factor I hadn’t considered.

“We were picking at 22,” Beane said. “By what we gave up in a draft, on the draft-trade value chart, giving up the five and the six and then the four next year, and getting back the seven, would’ve got us to about the 17th position. In my mind, I wasn’t convinced that we were gonna find a player of his caliber at 17, 18, wherever we could’ve traded up to get. That was the genesis for it.”

The pre-draft gossip had the three top receivers in the draft—Henry RuggsCeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy—gone by about mid-round. The next guy, probably, was Justin Jefferson. In retrospect, Beane couldn’t have known he’d have been able to get Jefferson at 22, and obviously didn’t think he was worth the price to trade up to ensure getting him. Of course, Jefferson has been the best rookie receiver in football, picked by Minnesota in the slot Buffalo dealt. One more factor, from Beane: “This was an offseason that the pandemic was starting and we weren’t sure what kind of offseason we were gonna have. How much of an impact was a rookie receiver going to be able to make? We got a quarterback on a rookie contract. I just thought it made sense for us to add a proven commodity and Stefon was looking for a fresh start.”

The Bills not only might have the best wide receiver in the game this season in Diggs, but also the best slot receiver in Cole Beasley. The ex-Cowboy is having a sneaky great year: 79 catches, 950 yards, while making a team-friendly $4.4 million.

One last point I find interesting about the Bills: their reverence for special teams, their high regard for field-position football. When you have an explosive offense like the Bills, it’s rare to hear the GM get asked about one or two significant under-the-radar player acquisitions and have him mention . . . the return specialist?

Andre Roberts,” Beane said. “He’s really changed field position a lot for us. Our special teams coming into this game, we’ve ranked in the top 10 in all four main ones—punt and punt return, kick and kick return. Most people talk offense, defense. People don’t talk about our special teams enough.”

The Bills will be a formidable foe in January, with a strong-armed and maturing quarterback, a defense allowing 21.5 points a game over the last half-season and those special teams. A shame they won’t have their fans in-house for their first home playoff game in forever (a 1996 loss to Jacksonville), but, as Hughes said, “They’re the Bills Mafia. They’ll figure out some way to celebrate this.” It started with a 1 a.m. airport-welcome for the team Sunday, fans not socially distant but appearing masked on a 23-degree night. As the Bills deplaned and headed home to sleep, it felt like the start of something big in Buffalo.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.