On New Year's Day, not even 24 hours removed from the Bills clinching a playoff spot and ending a 17-year playoff drought, Sean McDermott already was prepared to issue a warning. It wasn't directed at Jacksonville, their postseason opponent, but long-suffering Buffalo fans.
McDermott helped bring order to a confused and sometime reckless front office along One Bills Drive, where fans for years watched coaches and players change while the results remained basically the same. The Bills finished 9-7 last season and made the playoffs. They were 5-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less.
Buffalo had better teams with similar records in other years that fell short, but it was all good. McDermott made enough smart coaching decisions and had enough snap into place to make the playoffs. The euphoria was wearing off when he was asked whether his success was a sign of things to come.
"No one said this is going to be easy. Sometimes, the second year is harder than the first year because people are now going to try to put us up here," McDermott said, raising his hand to his forehead. "We have so many warts, and the margin of winning is so tight. There's so much work to be done."
He was straightforward. He was honest. And he was right.
McDermott showed up with a similar message Monday when the Bills gathered for voluntary workouts in the ADPRO Sports Training Center.
Wishful fans are inclined to believe teams' success carries over from one year to the next while forming a straight line up the mountain before reaching the top. But it generally doesn't work that way in professional sports.
The Patriots are the exception, of course. They climbed to the top of the AFC East and have refused to leave, but leagues are designed to be cyclical. Salary caps encourage parity, and the events of one year don't necessarily indicate what happens the next.
My advice to fans: Brace yourselves for a bumpy ride. The Bills are in good hands, but odds are against them returning to the playoffs next season. McDermott and GM Brandon Beane intend to build a sustained winner, and they're bound to stumble a few times along the way.
"We don't want to take a step back," McDermott said. "We understand that sometimes that happens. We're not saying we would take a step back intentionally, but we're trying to build it the right way and not just go after the quick fix. With that come some challenges and some obstacles that we have to handle the right way."
Now, what self-respecting Buffalo team would intentionally take a step back? Quick fix? Sorry, wrong sport.
Only four of 12 playoff teams last season in the NFL – New England, Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Atlanta – also reached the postseason in 2016. The only team that defied the math more than the Patriots making the playoffs 14 times in 15 years was the Bills missing them for 17 straight.
If anyone understands the roller coaster, it's McDermott. In his final four seasons as defensive coordinator in Carolina, the Panthers were 12-4, 7-8-1, 15-1 and 6-10. They reached the Super Bowl after the 2015 season and missed the playoffs the following year. Last year, they were 11-5.
"It was a great lesson for me," he said. "You don’t just pick up where you left off. You don't just say, 'OK, we lost in the wild-card round, so we just gave to get three more levels. We need three more players.' Yes, some things carry over – the foundation, to a point. But the culture has to be re-established. The identity has to be re-established."
Fifteen players who played under Rex Ryan remain on the Bills' roster, so there is so much work to be done. The Bills expected to have Eric Wood and Richie Incognito leading the offensive line this season before losing their center to injury and their left guard to retirement. They also traded left tackle Cordy Glenn.
Buffalo is looking for a considerable upgrade at quarterback after shipping out Tyrod Taylor, a mediocrity who never was included in their long-term plan. The Bills have a new offensive coordinator in Brian Daboll, who will be saddled with an inexperienced quarterback running a new offense no matter what happens in the draft.
Indeed, much has changed.
"We're trying to get better every year," Beane said. "We had nine wins. We're trying to get more, but it doesn't always happen for various reasons. This is a new team. We're 0-0. We haven’t had the draft yet. We have nine picks, which I'm excited about. We’re always looking to get the right type of fit."
Could the Bills make a meteoric jump like the Eagles, who finished 7-9 in 2016 before going 13-3 and winning the Super Bowl last year? Sure, it's possible. But the Eagles started the season with Carson Wentz, a franchise quarterback who was terrific in his second year, and finished with an established veteran backup in Nick Foles. Philly also had a great defense under Jim Schwartz.
The Bills are trying to get where the Eagles were two years ago in terms of personnel, and they could be headed for a losing record. Sometimes, a step back is required for a team to take giant leaps forward. Regression is a virtual certainty for the Bills this year considering their inexperience at quarterback.
A.J. McCarron and Nathan Peterman have five NFL starts between them. The Bills are expected to grab another quarterback in the draft. Beane traded up for the 12th pick overall, fueling speculation the Bills again will trade up again for a potential franchise QB or wait for one with their current selection.
Beane made it clear Monday that the Bills could have a successful draft even if they fail to land a franchise quarterback, in part because it would mean used high draft picks to address other needs. It made sense. Regardless, the Bills are expected to stage a three-way quarterback competition going into next season.
Just know that McDermott's confidence in Peterman hasn't waned since the disastrous start against the Chargers. If anything, he could have more faith in Peterman going into his second year. The voluntary workouts held this week mark the beginning of a new season, not the continuation of last year.
Last season was last season.
"We have to turn the page from what happened last year and understand that this is a new team," McDermott said. "It's a new year, new personalities. We have our work cut out for us. We have a long way to go. That really hasn't changed. We have to earn the right (to win), and that starts today."