Sean McDermott didn’t use the exact word, but he came close. Close enough to capture the gloomy state of affairs at One Bills Drive.
“As hard as it is, you’ve got to understand where we are in this build,” the coach said to the thinnest Wednesday media turnout of the season.
McDermott said “build” rather than “rebuild,” yet there was no mistaking that, a quarter of the way through the schedule, he sees his team in the same place the rest of us have seen it since well before the season began: in transition.
The Bills are 1-3. All of their losses have been blowouts. Their offense is abysmal. Their defense isn’t a whole lot better.
They’re starting a rookie quarterback and have new faces throughout the roster, seemingly adding them on a weekly — if not daily — basis.
If that isn’t rebuilding, I don’t know what is.
You get the distinct feeling that McDermott knows. He and General Manager Brandon Beane have tried saying all of the right things about being fierce competitors, about never accepting the widely held assumption the team would likely take a step back, about always looking to win.
Yet, it’s impossible to ignore the reality of a roster in short supply of quality talent at most positions, especially on offense. For all of the lumps the Bills have taken the past four weeks, there are probably many more to come, perhaps as soon as Sunday when they face the 3-1 Tennessee Titans at New Era Field before playing another stretch of back-to-back road games.
At times, McDermott’s news conference felt more like a pep talk than a briefing. Maybe he was trying to send a message to his players, as well as to a fan base whose skepticism is understandably growing.
“You don’t go around things like this,” he said. “You’ve got to go through them. You’ve got to work through them together and you’ve got to stay tough mentally.”
Sunday’s 22-0 pounding at Green Bay was hardly a monument to mental toughness. The same could be said for the 43-7 season-opening humiliation at Baltimore and the 31-20 defeat against the Chargers (which will be forever remembered as the Vontae Davis Halftime Retirement Game).
Josh Allen had that impressive coming-out party at Minnesota, although his pants-splitting encore at Lambeau Field has made what he did a week earlier look like the heavily favored Vikings were simply caught taking a three-hour nap.
Like it or not, Allen’s is the face of the Bills’ rebuild, although some of his teammates insisted Wednesday they have no intention of settling for a losing season.
“I wouldn’t ever like to think that you’re rebuilding,” safety Jordan Poyer said. “I think everybody wants to win and we know we can win.”
“Oh, no, we want to win games,” said safety Micah Hyde. “I think, throughout the way you develop, but you’ve got to go out there and compete each game, knowing we’re not getting paid off moral victories.”
McDermott said he wasn’t out to paint a picture that everything that happened at Green Bay was “all bad,” although he didn’t spend a whole lot of time looking for the good. The coach stuck to his theme of coming to grips with what his team is going through.
“These moments, if you learn from them, these scars that we’re taking on, if you get to use them in the right way, you’ll look back and say, ‘That was good for us. We got the right education early and the guys learn from it,’ ” he said. “Those teams, those individuals that stick with it, usually come out on the right end of it.”
The question is, what exactly are the Bills sticking with?
McDermott spoke repeatedly about the Bills having to “double down” on the things they believe in. “Fundamentals, mindset, the plan,” he said. “I do want to see us grow, that four games from now we’re in a different spot than where we are now — fundamentally, technique-wise, developing these young players.”
Those are generalities. When seeking the cause of a train wreck, you tend to prefer specifics.
For instance, what steps, if any, are the Bills taking to fix the problems with their receiving corps and offensive line? When are they going to have a committed running game to help take pressure off of Allen? How soon before they find a consistent pass rush?
There’s so much to sort out over the next 12 weeks, including one of the most troubling voids of them all. Who are these Bills?
“I mean, we’re still building an identity,” offensive lineman Ryan Groy said. “We’ve been (on the) highest of highs and lowest of lows. We’ve kind of seen everything in four games as you can. So we’ve got to be consistent and keep growing and really find what we’re good at and what we do best.”
Since the start of the offseason, the Bills’ roster has looked like a pop bottle that is constantly shaking. Beyond the two most notable players they traded away (quarterback Tyrod Taylor and offensive tackle Cordy Glenn), their offensive line has dealt with the surprise exits of its two most senior members, retired center Eric Wood and guard Richie Incognito.
The handling of their personnel situations since has raised all sorts of questions.
Jeremy Kerley spent the offseason, training camp and preseason taking the majority of repetitions at the slot receiver spot, one of the more critical pass-catching positions in Brian Daboll’s offense. Then he was released, leaving no one else with sufficient exposure to the scheme to take his place.
Trading AJ McCarron to Oakland left the Bills with little experience behind Allen, and perhaps even a potential disaster at backup quarterback given Nathan Peterman’s ugly start against the Ravens. The clear plan was for Peterman to handle at least a quarter of the season, but it only took a little more than a half to recognize that that was a mistake.
Davis was supposed to have been the cornerback answer opposite Tre’Davious White. And then came that bizarre decision to quit football before the second half kickoff against the Chargers.
There seems to be a whole lot of trial and error in this “build.” On Wednesday, the Bills acquired defensive tackle Jordan Phillips off waivers from the Miami Dolphins and released another DT, Robert Thomas. McDermott has constantly preached the importance of having good-character players, but Phillips' most notable activity with the Dolphins came in last Sunday’s loss against New England when he had an angry sideline exchange with his position coach after being pulled from the game.
Before the claim of Phillips was announced, someone asked McDermott if part of building was as much about determining the “dead weight” to cut as it was about determining who can play.
“We're trying to develop a culture here and the culture, to me, trumps strategy,” he said. “That’s what I believe in wholeheartedly. It doesn't mean we have choirboys. It means we've got guys that love football and do the things the right way for the most part.
“We’re trying to build something that does take time, but overall guys (have) got to be committed to the process and that means staying mentally tough in moments like this where you start a season 1-3, and it hasn’t always been easy. But I’ve been through this before. I can tell (the players) that.”
McDermott can only hope what they hear convinces them that all of the “scars” from this construction project are worth it.