Let's revisit the first day of training camp, when Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane addressed the media in back-to-back sessions at St. John Fisher College. The Bills coach and general manager sounded like they spent the night cramming for an exam on football clichés.
McDermott rolled out phrases like "building an identity" and "focusing on the process" and "camaraderie" and "culture" while building a team. Beane talked about "chemistry" and "team bonding" and "harmony," completing the corny cliché hat trick in a memorable 10-second span.
To me, it sounded like noise. It was nothing against them. Both were likable fellows with good intentions, but people in Buffalo had heard similar nonsense in various forms throughout the Bills' 17-year playoff drought without seeing any discernible difference in their results.
Anybody could take coach (fill in the blank here) and the time period (here) while predicting their record (here), knowing the Bills would be mediocre or worse. Fourteen times during this wretched streak, they finished between 6-10 and 9-7, and there were no indications they would be better this year. None.
My message during camp, while predicting the Bills would finish 5-11, was that nonstop drivel had grown tiresome. You can thank Rex Ryan for babbling me into submission in less than two years. Why would it change? The same people who hired Ryan also hired McDermott, who had a major say in the hiring of Beane.
Enough talking, I said. The Bills needed to prove people wrong by performing on the field better than they had behind the microphones.
When Beane traded Sammy Watkins for E.J. Gaines and Ronald Darby for Jordan Matthews, the transactions were sold as the Bills stockpiling draft picks more than a celebration of the players they acquired. The Bills proved they had competence at the top. Congratulations for being on par with every other team.
Well, what do we have here?
The Bills are 5-2 and the surprise of the NFL. They have made prognosticators like me look foolish. They took down Atlanta, the reigning NFC champions. They rallied late in the fourth quarter to beat Tampa Bay. Sunday, they buried Oakland, the trendy choice to win the Super Bowl.
If they beat the Jets on Thursday night, after having won the season opener at home, the Bills will be 6-2 for the first time since their last Super Bowl season. The Jets are better than expected, too. The schedule will get tougher with New Orleans, Kansas City, the Patriots twice and a road game against the Chargers in the coming weeks.
But there's no denying that McDermott and Beane have pushed the right buttons through the first seven games while staying true to their intentions and constructing a team on the fly. You would be hard-pressed to find an executive and a coach in the NFL who has accomplished more than they did through seven games.
"It's fun to be a part of, it really is," McDermott said Monday. "You know, 5-2, no one gives out awards for 5-2, so we have to keep that in mind. Having said that, I'm extremely proud of these guys. They've worked hard and earned everything that they've got so far and, for that absolutely, I'm extremely proud of them."
You can sense something different, something special, about the Bills after watching them four of their last five. They appear more equipped for the tough road ahead than any Buffalo team in years. They're playing with the passion of their coach and the spine of their general manager.
Another sign came Sunday when the Bills erupted like a bunch of kids rallying around some bench warmer on the JV after Brandon Tate caught a 24-yard pass along the sideline on second-and-20 in the third quarter. The Bills finished the drive for a 27-7 lead, but it was after the catch that it was evident the Raiders were in trouble.
"You don't see that every day around the NFL. You don't see that every day around professional sports," McDermott said. "I go to my son's game on the weekend, and you see some of that. It's so authentic and pure and just raw – just guys loving to play the game. It's what's right about sports, and professional sports. There's still heart, there's still soul, there's still spirit involved. I love that part."
The Bills looked like a stronger team Sunday, two days after Beane made the bold and smart move to trade away Marcell Dareus and his hefty contract. Beane showed his players that he believed in them. They had a greater confidence in themselves and one another when faced with adversity. That's how you build camaraderie.
Buffalo is winning with relentless defense, a sound running game and methodical passing game. You don't hear people moaning about Tyrod Taylor's pedestrian numbers because the Bills are working within his limitations. They're plus-14 in turnover differential. Stephen Hauschka has been one of the NFL's best kickers.
The Bills, and by extension their fans, should enjoy every minute of their success while they can. Chemistry is a tricky yet important component when it comes to winning. It strengthens a team like nothing else, including talent. It's something in sports that's easier to identify than explain.
And it appears to be just right.
McDermott genuinely cares about people, of that I'm certain. If that's obvious to me, it must be getting through to his players. He deserves credit for uniting them, and Beane deserves credit for finding competitive, team-first contributors who refuse to buckle like so many teams of the past.
In other years, the Bills would have found a way to lose to Atlanta and folded late in the game against Tampa Bay. They might not have recovered after Oakland scored on its opening drive, but these Bills rattled off 27 consecutive points. Together, they have become a team that appears greater than the sum of their parts.
And that's how teams become dangerous.
The Bills aren't the most gifted collection of players, not by any measure. They had more talent last season under Ryan with Watkins, Dareus, Darby, Robert Woods and more. The Falcons, Buccaneers and Raiders could argue they had more talent. This team is playing for more than themselves.
It makes a huge difference.
"I'm happy for them," McDermott said. "I'm happy for the fans of this team that they've gotten after yearning for something for so long. Yeah, I'm fired up about that. I know I don't show a lot of emotion up here (at the lectern), but I'm pumped. It's a result of putting in the work."
The numbers that matter most are 5-2, which is the Bills’ record. But it’s not a coincidence when attached to this number: 22. That’s how many players remain from last year’s roster. For the most part, the Bills are no longer haunted by 17 straight seasons in which they missed the playoffs.
For years, a vast majority who had played in Buffalo the previous season had been reminded by past failures. The majority of players from last season are gone.
Micah Hyde doesn't know losing. The Packers reached the playoffs each of his four years in Green Bay. Patrick DiMarco played in a Super Bowl. McDermott and Beane helped build a Carolina team that reached the Super Bowl. Stephen Hauschka won a Super Bowl and played in two.
Rather than reiterate how the Bills have missed the playoffs for 17 years, and counting, there's a greater sense this season that they've won five games, and counting. They have embraced the process and come together in harmony, building chemistry and bonding more in three months than any time in years.
Finally, it's not just talk.
The culture has changed.
They sure showed me.