Managing expectations has been at the core of the Buffalo Bills’ message to fans for the better part of the two years since coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane arrived.
They’ve been consistent in stressing the importance of building methodically and carefully, with an eye toward succeeding for the long haul, rather than shooting for instant gratification with splashy moves.
The latest example was the letter Beane sent to Bills season-ticket holders this week to outline the team’s plans for the offseason.
Aware of the highly anticipated free-agent shopping to be done with roughly $80 million in salary-cap space – fourth-most in the NFL – the Bills remain strident in their efforts to squash any notion they’re on the verge of a cure-all spending spree.
The operative sentence in Beane’s letter was this: “The sole focus is to build the Buffalo Bills into a championship contender and help create a culture aimed at long-term, sustained success.”
Translation: Cool your jets on thinking the Bills will be cherry-picking other rosters for game-breaking wide receivers, dominant offensive linemen, a reliable tight end, a top-level running back, a transformative edge rusher, and a cornerback who can play as well as the one whose interception sealed the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl victory last Sunday – yup, that former Bill named Stephon Gilmore.
Plenty of logic is behind that philosophy. Anyone who thinks the Bills are only a few pieces away from showing they have the makings of a contender is delusional. The massive reconstruction of the offensive line, alone, is enough to push that timetable to 2020 at the earliest. And that assumes Josh Allen will be well on his way to proving with certainty that he was worth the seventh overall pick of the draft.
The fluky wild-card playoff appearance after the 2017 season should never have clouded any thinking about where the Bills were in 2018 or where they are now. McDermott provided an emphatic reminder after only four games last year, when his team stood at 1-3 following a 22-0 loss at Green Bay.
“As hard as it is, you’ve got to understand where we are in this build,” he said at the time. “You don’t go around things like this. You’ve got to go through them. You’ve got to work through them together and you’ve got to stay tough mentally.”
In succeeding weeks, McDermott never wavered from that stance. As the season progressed, the Bills clearly showed their dedication to a longer view by putting younger players on the field, besides Allen, and by jettisoning their two older wide receivers, Kelvin Benjamin and Andre Holmes, late in the year.
Beane stuck to that theme in his letter.
“We have work to do and we know it,” he wrote. “Although we were very encouraged by our development and growth this year, we certainly have areas of need in all three phases.”
During their season-ending news conference on Dec. 31, Beane and McDermott used the word “judicious” in reference to their approach to free-agent spending. Beane mentioned it three times himself. In his letter to season-ticket holders, the GM used “calculated” for the same purpose.
How much, if at all, they’ll be appeased by the direct communication on Bills letterhead is hard to gauge. Not coincidentally, renewal notices for season tickets were distributed soon after Beane’s letter was sent. Even those who choose to keep their seats despite an average price increase of 2.11 percent after an average increase of 3 percent for the 2018 season aren’t necessarily doing so because they agree with “judicious” and “calculated” spending in the open market.
Still, it makes perfect sense for Beane and McDermott to utilize every available platform to reinforce how they intend to go about business and not leave it to others to create a narrative for them. Bill Polian, the Bills’ Hall of Fame general manager, vividly recalls doing something similar during a news conference with fellow Hall of Famer Marv Levy after Levy’s second season as coach.
“The strategy is to make sure that the fans understand what the philosophical approach is and, as closely as you can, what the specific approach is toward rebuilding the team,” Polian said by phone. “The fans deserve that. It's both good business and smart public relations. And it gives them a framework with which to view free agency. After all, it's Sean and Brandon that are going to set the tone, not some commentator on the outside.
“By outlining what their thoughts and parameters are, they set the tone and direction in fans’ minds for the offseason. Now, if you don't achieve everything that you enumerated, then obviously people have the report card. And people in (the media) are going to say, ‘Well, they didn't do this, and didn't do that, they didn't do the other thing.’ But that always happens anyway. To involve the fans and make them aware of what the plan is going forward, I think, is tremendous.”
To be certain, the Bills will open the checkbook. However, as Beane stressed in his letter, the thrust of what they plan to do to improve on last year’s 6-10 finish will be geared around their 10 picks in April’s draft.
For Beane, this will be only the second draft he has overseen with the Bills because his arrival didn’t come until after his predecessor, Doug Whaley, and McDermott drafted in 2017. It’s fair to think Beane should get at a minimum three drafts on his watch.
His letter strongly suggested that, at least within the Bills’ organization, there is sufficient patience to continue to trust the “process” and allow it to play out.
“The previous two draft classes have begun a new foundation of young players on our roster,” Beane wrote. “We are encouraged by the development thus far by players like Josh Allen, Tremaine Edmunds, Tre’Davious White and others. Each of them was given an individual plan of improvement at season’s end and they understand they have a lot of work in front of them.
“We have opportunities to improve our team this offseason and the Pegulas, Sean (McDermott) and I are all on the same page and determined to bring winning football to the city of Buffalo. Thank you for your loyal dedication to this franchise.”
Whether that dedication will allow for a tempering of expectations is anyone’s guess.