The biggest game since the 2004 season finale looms for the Buffalo Bills.
A win over the Miami Dolphins, along with some help around the league, would end a 17-year playoff drought. Any deep reflection at this point in the season would feel out of place, but coach Sean McDermott did entertain the idea for a moment Wednesday.
“It’s flown by,” McDermott said Wednesday of his first season on the job. “It’s been challenging and I’ve loved it. Every minute of it. It’s been fun to watch our building hang together, as you’ve heard me say before. That’s part of building our culture, is being able to sustain that through one season and another season. That’s the great part of it that tells me we’re heading in the right direction.”
So what would making the playoffs mean?
“Well I think it would be a step, really.” McDermott said. “I know emotionally, I’ll just take that separately for a second, what it means to the people of this great city. There’s a lot that goes along with that. The part of building this team the right way, this would be a step. As we continue to build and grow, and build that solid foundation – changing the culture, changing the belief – we’re heading in the right direction. It would be a step as we continue to grow.”
Ending a drought that has loomed over the franchise for 17 years would potentially complicate roster decisions in the offseason. It might not be as easy to cut a player — i.e., quarterback Tyrod Taylor — if he’s instrumental in making the playoffs.
“Well, we evaluate everything,” McDermott said, speaking in general and not of Taylor specifically. “You don’t evaluate things just in a vacuum with one thing over another thing. You have to, at the end of the day, do what’s right for the team. That’s what we’ve done since the time we’ve been here, and we’ll continue to do that responsibly moving forward.”
Two years ago, McDermott was the defensive coordinator for a Carolina team that reached the Super Bowl. Last season, the Panthers missed the playoffs with a 6-10 record.
That taught McDermott that all the progress the Bills have made this season won’t automatically carry over to 2018.
“Culture from one year to another year, teams from one year to another year, are almost separate entities,” he said. “Even though you’d like to be able to say that there’s carryover, you want there to be carryover, it’s not guaranteed, though, that there’s carryover from a culture standpoint and from a performance standpoint. That’s why what we do in that offseason with the roster moves we make or don’t make are so important to our future success in building upon what we did in this first year. That’s kind of a science in and of itself right there.”
Whenever the offseason starts, McDermott will huddle with General Manager Brandon Beane and come up with a plan to carry forward the momentum built in 2017.
"I remember standing up here in free agency, one press conference after another of talking about the character of the players that we were bringing in, as well as the drafted players," McDermott said. "You see, that’s really how it starts to get going in the right direction in terms of the culture. It’s so much driven by people — whether it’s players or other staff members, coaches, people in our marketing department, ticketing — it’s really a people-driven part of an ingredient of success, really, in terms of the culture. You got to have that, in my opinion, before you sometimes get the results on the field. The belief comes before the results at times.
"To have a talented football team is one thing, to have a team that plays well together, is another thing, whether that team is highly talented or not. I think that, in the great teams I’ve been around — the Super Bowl teams — some of those were talented, yes. But more than that, they had great chemistry and the culture leads to great chemistry."
Win or lose Sunday, there is reason to believe in what the Bills are building. But that wouldn't dull the sting of an 18th straight year out of the playoffs.
"I think we’ve progressed in a lot of different ways," Taylor said. "Of course, our goal first and foremost is to get to the playoffs and go far into the playoffs. I just think that over this past year, this team has been through a bunch transaction-wise. Emotionally, we’ve been put to the test and I think this team has definitely stayed strong and been able to continue to fight for each other and continue to play well and put ourselves in a position where we’ve taken another step from years past.
"I like where this franchise is heading," veteran center Eric Wood added. "But, huge game this week, can’t get too farsighted here. We have a lot to focus on this week."