In the face of potential problems, Lorenzo Alexander refused to be anything but positive.
“There’s going to come a day where we can’t stop nothing. And we’re going to need them to put up 40 points,” the Bills' veteran linebacker had told me, while discussing the team's offensive woes in their Week Two loss to the Panthers.
“That’s why it’s a team.”
At the time, the offense’s struggles were noticeable. But now, they’re an undeniable trend.
There’s reason to be concerned about where this team is and where it’s headed coming out of the bye week. And right now, it’s unclear if that “brotherhood” the Bills spent all offseason building can withstand the tough times ahead.
For weeks, players were nothing but optimistic. After every hard-fought win, and even after that frustrating 9-6 loss in Carolina, they preached the importance of staying focused, staying together. While head coach Sean McDermott was reminding us all about "the process," his players were insisting that this Bills team was unlike those of the past.
Almost all of the guys in the locker room had bought in to McDermott’s message, they said, and this year was the beginning of something unique.
“What Sean McDermott is building here is an amazing thing,” kicker Stephen Hauschka told me days before the Bills upset the Denver Broncos, 26-16, in Week Three.
Hauschka seemed like a reliable source, considering he spent six seasons watching Seattle head coach Pete Carroll turn the Seahawks into a Super Bowl champion.
“I’ve seen a lot of head coaches; I’ve seen a lot of cultures around the league,” Hauschka said, “and what coach McDermott is doing here is special. And it’s going to last.”
But poor performances and mounting losses have a way of eroding the friendship, the trust, the teamwork that head coaches often harp on. The feel-good vibes that follow victories can quickly be displaced by lingering resentment — often directed at specific individuals, sometimes even entire position groups.
In some ways, the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time.
These next few days will provide ample opportunities for self-reflection and self-scouting, not only for players but for the coaching staff as well. Their rushing attack has been abysmal since Week One, their quarterback play has mostly been mediocre, and their wide receiver production has been nonexistent. Star running back LeSean McCoy — who’s currently averaging 3.1 yards per carry — admitted after Sunday’s 20-16 loss in Cincinnati that he is angry at himself, while quarterback Tyrod Taylor shouldered the blame for squandering another defensive gem.
“The defense did a great job getting us the ball back,” Taylor said after getting sacked six times and posting a 63.6 rating vs. the Bengals, “and on offense we laid an egg.”
There are just so many unanswered questions when it comes to this team and its biggest stars — and truth be told, we don’t know the answers.
Neither does McDermott.
“Our hope (is the time) should allow us to grow and evolve into the team that we’re trying to become, and that’s still a process. That’s going to take time, but that’s important,” the coach said on Monday. “This will be a big week to put in our work, a lot of it being off the field, but it starts by being humble, being honest with ourselves, and saying, ‘Hey, what can I do better? What can we do better?’”
The Bills’ rebuild was rooted in hard work, disciplined play and genuine respect for the man beside you. But it’s too soon to know if that foundation will start to show cracks as they enter a long, relentless stretch of must-win games in a wide-open AFC East division.
Over the past six weeks, however, players seemed fully invested in the vision for the future and their chances of being playoff contenders.
“We harp on it each and every single day,” Alexander told me not too long ago. “People think it’s corny, but the family, the relationships, the love — everything is based on that. We have great buy-in. Sean has done a great job of painting that vision and really being deliberate and intentional about creating that — whether it’s having guys sharing stories, team-building activities. Or the little things in practice to make sure that we’re coming together. Changing our lockers around so you’re next to different guys, different positions.
“… So now it’s a different vibe when we’re out there playing. Because now I feel like you really are my brother, versus me just saying that because we’re in the same locker room.”
Following the bye, three of their next seven games will played be on the road. They'll face one game-changing quarterback after another, from Jameis Winston to Derek Carr, Drew Brees to Philip Rivers, Alex Smith to Tom Brady. And over their final 11 games, McDermott & Co. will be challenged in ways they never anticipated.
“What you see, I think, is programs that build a culture, they build players, they build a work ethic,” Hauschka said just weeks ago. “There’s so much work that goes into being a good NFL team, and the teams that really buy into that, and put in all of the hard work and can back it up with their play, those are the teams that are going to succeed in the long run. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Eventually, we’ll know if the foundation they’ve set is as firm as they say, or as flimsy as some fans may fear.