Sean McDermott started his Thursday press conference asking reporters to give their name and affiliation before asking a question.
The Buffalo Bills’ coach believes it’s important to address people by name, so it was his way of trying to memorize as many of them as he can.
“As we go forward, I really want to get these names down,” he said. “I’m working on it.”
It was a reminder that McDermott hasn’t been here all that long. Given all that’s transpired since he was hired just over four months ago, that’s easily forgotten. In that short time, the Bills have replaced their general manager and entire scouting department, restructured their starting quarterback’s contract and taken on the massive task of reshaping the roster to the coach’s liking.
Significant progress has been made in that regard. Of the 68 players who appeared in at least one regular-season game for the Bills in 2016, exactly half of them, 34, are no longer part of the organization. Of the 53-man roster for the season finale against the New York Jets, 22 are no longer on the team.
The team has started giving out color-coded, flip-card-style rosters to reporters covering practices this spring. That’s a good thing, because the new faces (even if hidden by helmets) aren’t limited to the suits at One Bills Drive. Some consultation is necessary to confirm who is on the field.
“If you look at our roster, I mean, from top down, it’s all new faces,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “I mean the whole secondary is different. A bunch of the linebacker corps is going to be different. … You have to take it year by year, good, bad or indifferent and always step up and try to reinvent yourself for that next season.”
That reality was driven home Wednesday with the release of Cyrus Kouandjio. While the former second-round draft pick never established himself as a starter – and then had a disastrous offseason — his release was a reminder that there is still a big part of the Bills’ roster that was acquired by a different front office for a different coaching staff.
“Well, I don’t know if you’re ever finished, right?” McDermott said Thursday when asked how long he thinks it will take to completely remake the roster. "It’s never a finished product. That said, it takes time.
“You look at all the different aspects of building a roster, it’s not just the guys that are on the team. You have to look at draft picks, and you know, what draft picks we have for next year. Do we have all of them? Are we one short?
“And then, salary cap. So there’s a lot of facets of building a football team that can not only be successful, but also sustain success. So that’s a constant conversation that happens daily.”
McDermott, who is a seasoned Western New Yorker compared to new General Manager Brandon Beane, said those talks can take place anywhere. Even on the racquetball court at 6 a.m.
“One of our first meetings Monday morning started with him beating me 3-1,” McDermott said. “So we got off to a, what he would consider a good start and what I would consider a rocky start in our relationship.”
Don’t worry. This isn’t another example of coach-GM strife.
“They’ve been healthy,” McDermott assured of his conversations with Beane. “They’ve been productive. The neat part about it is, really, we’re aligned philosophically, as I’ve said before, on how we want this to look and Brandon continues to put together his staff and I’ve been impressed with the caliber of the staff that he’s been able to put together at this point. Very impressed.
“Those" meetings "will continue, our days will continue to go forward, and we’ll continue to get some things looking like the way we know we want them to look throughout the building.”
"We’re going to build it from the ground up," Beane said at his introductory press conference earlier this month. "Rome wasn’t built in a day. We’re not trying to do this tomorrow. We’re going to try to do it the right way and when it’s meant to be, we’ll get there, and I think everybody will see success."
So that process isn’t limited to the 2017 team. As the trade down with Kansas City that netted the Chiefs’ 2018 first-round draft pick showed, McDermott and Beane have their eyes on the future.
“I would say it’s 50-50,” McDermott said about the decisions made this offseason being focused on 2017 or future seasons. “There’s short-term decisions and there’s long-term decisions. From a leadership standpoint, I know Brandon and I make decisions with that in mind all the time.
“I think most of the coaches out there would feel the pressure to get here, and you know, the immediate fix. And sometimes that’s a band-aid, and I’m not really into that approach. I’m into what’s best for this organization, both in the short and long term. You know, sustaining that success for many years to come for this city and these fans.”
Some might call that middling things. The decision to bring back Taylor, for example, is one that exclusively is designed to help in 2017. Same with veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams coming back. Those things don’t happen if the Bills didn’t think they could be competitive in the upcoming season.
Williams, however, is entering the final year of his contract, and Taylor very well may be. The team can get out of the restructured contract the quarterback signed for a manageable charge against the salary cap in 2018 if Taylor does not show significant progress as the starter. In that sense, the deal he signed is “50-50” in terms of building for the upcoming year and future seasons.
The Bills have also taken steps toward correcting their miscalculations in regards to the salary cap. By not reworking the deals of players like Marcell Dareus and Cordy Glenn, the team stopped “kicking the can down the road” the way it did with tight end Charles Clay’s deal.
That means that if Dareus and/or Glenn fail to produce at a level commensurate with their pay, the team can move on from them earlier than they would have been able to if they restructured their contracts for cap space this offseason. The decision not to pick up wide receiver Sammy Watkins’ fifth-year contract option can be viewed the same way. By failing to do so, the Bills sent a clear message that the only way they will pay him is if he produces.
Of the 10 players currently on the active roster with the biggest salary cap numbers, the Bills aren’t seriously committed to any of them for more than the next two years, meaning they could release them with a manageable “dead money” charge on the next year’s salary cap.
Kouandjio was a mild surprise only because of his draft status, but it’s likely there will be far more accomplished players following him out the door sooner than later. McDermott and Beane will undoubtedly want to bring in “their” own guys, while also giving the team more flexibility under the salary cap.
“Your job is on the line any time you have a massive turnover like we did,” Alexander said. “The biggest thing is, eventually everything is going to show up as far as who you are. So it’s really a chance to reinvent yourself if you had issues in the past, or to continue to be who you are and be consistent every day as a football player. That emerges any time you have that type of change.”