Mike Mularkey laid it on the line the moment his team arrived for meetings last Monday. The Bills' record spoke for itself. There was no use hiding from it. They hadn't won a road game all season. So maybe it was time to change a few things, to tweak their preparation and get this road monkey off their backs once and for all.
Mularkey told the players it was mainly their responsibility as pro athletes to prepare for a road game. But he also knew that a head coach sets a tone for his squad, particularly on a western trip. One thing about the guy, he's not afraid to ask for advice. Early this year, he brought in NFL officials to work practice, an idea he'd borrowed from Jets coach Herman Edwards.
He called Eagles coach Andy Reid, who told Mularkey he often fed his players cheeseburgers when they arrived on the West Coast, something to hold them over to dinner after the three-hour time change. So when the Bills got to their hotel early Saturday afternoon, they had a pile of cheeseburgers waiting for them.
Mularkey took things a step further. In addition to cheeseburgers, he gave his team a little mental nourishment. Saturday evening, between team meetings, he took the team on a mandatory walk along the Seattle waterfront. He figured it would be a good way to stretch their legs, clear their heads and maybe bond a little closer as a team.
"I just felt being on the plane all day, we needed to get the blood flowing," Mularkey said. "In the middle of meetings, we just took a stroll. We were in a pretty part of town, and I think it was good for all of us to get some fresh air."
I don't mean to make Mularkey out to be the next Tony Robbins, but apparently it made a difference. You know the old saying: You have to learn to walk before you can run. Late Sunday afternoon, the newly bonded Bills ran all over the Seattle Seahawks, 38-9, at Qwest Field.
Maybe it was the cheeseburgers, or simply the law of averages. The Bills had won four straight home games. Sooner or later, they were bound to play a good game away from Ralph Wilson Stadium. But no one could have expected a victory of this magnitude. This was the Bills' most complete game of the season, home or road. It was Mularkey's finest hour as a head coach, a coaching clinic by the entire Buffalo staff.
Burgers and strolls along the pier are nice. But the best team bonding takes place on the field. Planning and executing are the best team-building exercises of all. And the Bills were prepared for the Seahawks. Offensive coordinator Tom Clements put together a game plan that put the Seahawks on their heels and took the home crowd out of the game early.
"Yes, we did take them out of the game quickly," said defensive tackle Sam Adams, who began his career in Seattle and still calls Washington home. "That was the whole point. We had to take them out of it really quick because if they had gotten it going, it could have gotten real ugly."
It got ugly -- for Seattle. The Bills came out in a no-huddle and marched to a touchdown -- the first of four by Willis McGahee -- on their opening possession. It was the first time all season they'd scored on the road in the first half, a sure sign that they were prepared. The early TD set the tone, and the Seahawks never recovered.
Once the Bills got the Seahawks down, they never let them up. Seattle came into the year as a chic pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. But if anyone looked like a playoff contender, it was the Bills. A team that had scored 36 points all year on the road put up 38 in one remarkable afternoon.
They threw the whole playbook at Seattle. They threw everything but the left-over cheeseburgers. They ran a bunch of reverses. They called a sneak lateral to McGahee on fourth-and-1 for a TD. They started the second half with an onside kick that was so well-executed kicker Rian Lindell recovered it himself.
"The onside kick to me was a way of making the statement that we came here to win," guard Ross Tucker said. "We were up by two touchdowns, but we were not going to milk that and just get out of here with a win. Personally, I was skeptical of the call, but when we got the ball I thought it was the greatest kick ever."
As Mularkey knows, those trick plays can blow up in your face. But they also show an unbending faith in your team. That's why Mularkey insisted the Bills were still in the playoff race at 3-6. That's why he stuck by Drew Bledsoe, who despite three interceptions played his finest road game in more than a year.
"You have to give (Mularkey) a lot of the credit," said linebacker Takeo Spikes, "because your team is a reflection of your head coach. He wanted us to be more mentally in tune, and I think we did that. You could sense the mental focus getting on the bus. You could just feel it in the locker room."
The coaches had them primed and ready. Clements and Mularkey had a bold, inventive offensive plan. The defense finally played like an elite unit on the road. Ponder this stat: The Bills have not allowed a touchdown in the third quarter this season. They've given up four field goals, that's all. That tells you Jerry Gray is making some adjustments at halftime.
They're still only 5-6. Before the year, I said they'd struggle to be average. They're better than average now. They're finally playing like a contender. Put aside that horror show in New England and they've won four games in five weeks, scoring 125 points in the wins. McGahee has been a big reason. So has Lee Evans, the best player on the field in the first half. Whatever your feelings on Bledsoe's future, his play since the Patriots debacle has been inspirational.
But Mularkey deserves credit for holding them together. They're still a long shot for the playoffs. But the coach has established a culture of belief on his team. That's something they can build on, regardless of what happens over the next five weeks.
"I think we have the league where we want 'em," Adams said. "They don't respect us or think we can get it done. But in order to beat us, they have to take it from us, and we're not giving it up that easy."