MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Riding up the escalator at the airport early Saturday morning, I took my customary gaze to the right, where the smiling mural of Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor welcomed me to the second floor and the departure gate.
I wondered how soon Taylor would be departing Buffalo, as Sammy Watkins, whose image had once adorned that airport wall, had done several months earlier. Who would be the next Bill to merit the honor? Maybe someone more secure, like head coach Sean McDermott?
It occurred to me how few legitimate young stars there are on this Bills team, and how remarkable it is that on Sunday against the Dolphins they will be playing a regular-season finale with a playoff spot on the line for the first time since the 2004 season.
That year, they made a late run from 3-6, winning six in a row under first-year head man Mike Mularkey before faltering at home in the finale against a Steelers team that had clinched home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs and played a lot of backups.
The hope and promise of that '04 squad proved to be illusory. After the season, Tom Donahoe cut quarterback Drew Bledsoe and moved on to J.P. Losman, whom he had traded up for in the previous draft. It was 10 years before the Bills finished with a .500 record again.
The experience taught me not to overreact to a single playoff push, or any temporary run of competence in a dysfunctional franchise. That 9-7 season proved to be just a momentary surge in what became the longest playoff drought in American professional sports.
I'm not saying the drought will last another decade, or another day. But regardless of what happens Sunday, there's no guarantee that the Bills will maintain the modest level of success they achieved in the first year under McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane.
McDermott knows it, too. From the start, he and Beane made it clear that while they wanted to win right away, they were looking to the future. Their long-term vision was to build something sustainable, a team that wasn't content to simply reach the playoffs but one that could compete for the Super Bowl on a consistent basis.
They're a long way from that goal, whether they sneak into the playoffs in a down year for the AFC or not.
"It would be a step," McDermott said Wednesday. "I know emotionally what it means to the people of this great city. And as we continue to build and grow and build that solid foundation – changing the culture, changing the belief – it would be a step."
McDermott conceded that one season rarely blends smoothly into the next. It's hard to know for certain if you're heading in the right direction. In the volatile NFL universe, where fortunes shift quickly from one year to the next, you take nothing for granted.
"One of the great lessons I learned from the Super Bowl in Carolina was the culture going from one year to the next," McDermott said. "Teams going from one year to another year are almost separate entities. Even though you'd like to say there's a carryover, it's not guaranteed from a culture standpoint and a performance standpoint.
"That's why what we do in the offseason, the roster moves we make and don't make, are so important to our future success in building upon what we did in this first year."
It's far more common for teams to slip back after surging to a playoff spot than the other way around. McDermott was defensive coordinator on the Panthers team that went from seven wins to the Super Bowl in the 2015 season. A year later, they won six games.
There are countless examples in recent times of struggling franchises having a one-year rise and then regressing. There are two prime examples in the AFC East. Two years ago, the Jets went 10-6 with Ryan Fitzpatrick, then fell apart again. The Dolphins squeaked into the playoffs last season, but reverted to playoff impostors this season partly because they lost quarterback Ryan Tannehill to a season-ending knee injury in training camp.
The Raiders went 12-4 last season after finishing under .500 for 14 straight years, then disappointed badly this season. The Giants won 11 game a year ago and went to pieces. The Bucs were a chic playoff pick after winning nine games last season, their first winning season in six years. They enter Sunday's finale with four wins.
Success can be fleeting in the NFL. Eight of last year's 12 playoff teams won't make it this season. The top five seeds in the NFC all missed last season. It's no great achievement to make the playoffs in a league of such parity, and a continued astonishment that the Bills could go 17 years without making the field.
Breaking the playoff drought would be a significant psychic benefit. But it would be more the lifting of a burden on a community and its fan base than proof that the franchise is finally turning the corner toward long-term respectability.
It's a testament to McDermott's ability to sustain his players' belief and generate big plays from his defense. The talent level is well below that of a legitimate title contender. They have cut ties with nine former first- or second-round picks since McDermott came to town and have the fewest homegrown players of any NFL team.
"We understand this is a total overhaul and this is first year for Coach McDermott," said defensive end Ryan Davis. "So to make the playoffs after this long of a drought, and a completely different roster, that's saying something. You got to give the man credit for the direction and the vision that he and the GM and ownership have.
"There's a lot of building left," Davis said. "It's easier said than done. Facts are facts. But we're right here in the hunt and in the thick of things."
Yes, it's a step. But after an unexpected good year, the next step isn't usually forward, especially when you have a losing culture, a thin roster and no franchise QB. They're 32nd in the NFL in passing, 29th overall on offense and 25th on defense. It's virtually unheard of for a team to finish that low in both categories and make the playoffs.
Taylor is almost surely gone. How far along can a team be when it's still chasing a franchise quarterback, as the Bills have done since Jim Kelly retired 21 years ago? They played the Pats twice this season and lost by 20 and 21 points. We tend to measure progress by how close they are to New England. So how big a step can it be?
In reality, they're closer to the Browns, Jets and Bears, who are either searching for the right QB or waiting for him to develop, than they are the top teams in the league.
McDermott keeps talking about the process, the process. He wants to remind impatient Bills fans that it's going to take time. They're building a culture, but they're rebuilding an old, depleted and limited roster. There will likely be more short-term suffering while McDermott and Beane continue to build that culture, and as they have shown, no player will be off-limits regardless of whether the Bills make the playoffs.
McDermott said any new acquisitions will be players who want to help the team grow and who want to learn. "People that have that type of DNA or at least have that somewhere down in there that they can be developed in some way, shape or form," he said.
But he also noted that one key for this offseason was to not allow the younger players to think they have winning figured out.
"Part of it is human nature where we you taste it a little bit and sometimes the relaxation syndrome sets in," McDermott said. "I think that's a challenge for our young players, where at times in this league, they think, 'I know what this league is about.' No, you don't. That edge is important."
In his introductory press conference last January, McDermott said the Bills needed to earn the right to win. He and Beane are rapidly turning over the roster. Regardless of the results on Sunday, his team has a lot of earning to do.
"That's right," he said. "Absolutely. We take an active approach and that's not going to change, whatever happens this weekend. We're going to stay on the hunt, stay hungry, and we're not going to rest until we get to where we're trying to go. And that takes time."