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Kimberley A. Martin: Bills looking to change the narrative — and outside perception

There were no boisterous celebrations, no rowdy behavior and no arrogant remarks about a division-rival that appears to be headed toward the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft.

Instead, what you found in the Bills’ postgame locker room Sunday was quiet confidence, cautious optimism and a collective understanding that a Week One win over the New York Jets is simply the first step in a process that’s sure to be long and arduous for players and coaches alike.

After their 21-12 victory at New Era Field, Bills players praised head coach Sean McDermott for being the type of leader they want to follow and credited him for bringing a clear focus and direction to their team. But McDermott’s vision has yet to take shape fully. Not even close.

True change won’t come until the outside world sees the Bills the way they see themselves.

“There’s been a bad stigma around this organization for a long time,” said fullback Mike Tolbert. “And Coach McDermott is trying to change the narrative, the way people see us, what people think about us.

“Just changing the way the outside world views this logo. Just changing the way everybody sees us as an organization, as a team, as a city.”

Tolbert was once one of those outsiders, unaware of what the folks of Western New York were really like and what the Bills were all about.

“As an outsider, you hear about the cold, you hear about the fans being crazy. You see the guys jumping on tables and having a great time during the tailgating,” said the 31-year-old, who signed a one-year deal in March after five seasons in Carolina. “So you hear about all that, but you really don’t know too much about the football side of it until you’re actually here.

“And that’s something that I’ve learned to appreciate, something that I’ve come to respect so much more. I used to look at the Buffalo logo and just see another logo. Now I see family, now I see friends, now I see a place where I could see myself long-term.”

McDermott’s tenets are simple, but critical: be disciplined, be committed to the teammate beside you, and always have a winner’s mindset.

Those very traits are the bedrock of what he’s trying to build in the Bills’ locker room. But talk means little if it isn’t accompanied by sound coaching, solid drafting and sustainable success.

When Rex Ryan became a first-time head coach in 2009, he tried to make “Play Like a Jet” a slogan synonymous with smashmouth football. And when he was fired by owner Woody Johnson in December 2014 and hired weeks later by Kim and Terry Pegula, Ryan let everyone in Western New York know that he was building “a bully” here in Buffalo.

Two years later, it’s now McDermott’s team.

“We’re building something special here,” said guard Richie Incognito.

But along with that optimism came a much-needed dose of reality from him and others. “We’re excited,” Incognito added, “but we know we have 15 more opportunities to go out and earn as many wins as possible. So it is business as usual.”

Wins — not words — will ultimately determine the length of the McDermott era.

The Jets tried to sweep Ryan’s failed expectations under the rug by turning to Todd Bowles, a defensive-minded disciplinarian who's respected around the league. Now, the organization is in Year 3 of the Bowles-Mike Maccagnan partnership and a rebuild project that is taking far longer than frustrated fans anticipated.

Three hundred and forty-five miles away in Orchard Park, the Bills are raving about McDermott the way Jets players had advocated for Bowles in his first year. “A lot of coaches can be great coaches, but some of them lack leadership,” said running back LeSean McCoy. “…The best thing about him, I think, is his leadership. You know we follow him so it’s cool to see him get his first win. It’s big for the team, it’s big for him. I think many more (are) in the future.”

McCoy and his teammates are saying all the right things right now, and they appear to have fully bought in to McDermott’s plan for the weeks ahead.

Now, the challenge is convincing everyone else.

“I want them to see us as the city is,” Tolbert said. “A blue-collar city that works hard. I want them to see our team the same way. We’re a hardworking team that’s going to give you everything we’ve got every single day.”

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