Brandon Beane's third offseason as general manager of the Buffalo Bills was, by far, his busiest.
He rebuilt the offense with a slew of free-agent signings. He made draft picks that produced immediate offensive contributors. And he put the most defining stamp of all on the Bills' present by parting ways with the most recognizable face of their recent past, LeSean McCoy.
Thanks mainly to Beane's handiwork, expectations among fans and even those with no emotional investment in the team are as high as they've been in a long time entering Sunday's season opener against the New York Jets. That means greater pressure on the GM and the head coach, Sean McDermott, to deliver results far better than last year's 6-10 finish. Some even see the Bills in the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
How heavy a burden is that to carry?
"Nobody's going to put more urgency or expectation than me on what we're doing here to have success," Beane said. "And Sean, I'd be speaking the same for him. We expect so much out of ourselves, and the people that we have under us, that whatever the expectations are, they won't be as high as what ours are. That's real."
So, too, is the fact the revamped offensive line has had virtually no time to build continuity. And that rookies on both sides of the ball are being asked to fill key roles right away. And that most of the team's fortunes depend on quarterback Josh Allen making major strides in his second season.
Beane insists he isn't the least bit fazed by any of it.
"We're pushing every day," he said. "If we lose, we're going to look at ourselves, at what we did wrong. And if we win, we're not the type that's going to walk around and congratulate ourselves. We're still going, 'Man, we won, but we still made some mistakes here. This will bite us later in the year if we continue to do it.' I know that's not telling you a number of wins, but we do know it's year three and we do know that we've been able to put more of our stamp on how we think it should be done.
"With that, we do want to play better and be more competitive. The result of that is hopefully win more games, but there's so many things that go into that. The biggest challenge – and we've said it a lot because we did bring in a lot of new faces, on offense especially – is continuity and jelling. And I think Sean and (offensive coordinator) Brian Daboll and those coaches have done a great job of doing what you can without playing a real game.
"I think we have a hungry group and I like the DNA of our group. But it's a results-based business and nobody understands that more than me or Sean."
In the latest edition of One-on-One Coverage, Beane talked about the vision for the team that he shares with McDermott, the changes that have been made in the past two years, his biggest challenges and how he feels about the state of the roster.
Buffalo News: How much have you learned after two full seasons on the job?
Brandon Beane: I'm trying to truly learn every day by the things that happen here, from staff that have been in other places. And that can be coaches, that can be from talking to players, that can be from talking to other GMs. "Hey, did you guys have this situation?" Something that's not a competitive-type thing.
You're always trying to learn, because so much of this job is you're dealing with things all the time. People look at GM, and they're going, "Oh, they're picking players." And while that probably is the biggest and most important thing, there's so many other things that go into running an organization, from all the departments and the medical field, the equipment room, the video, the personnel, the analytics. All the things that you're responsible for and all the things that come with managing people and trying to get everybody in a vision.
BN: How close is this team to that vision you and Sean had when you took this thing over in 2017?
BB: I think we've definitely increased our depth. If I think back to the first year of doing this, where our roster was, I thought we had some good front-line guys. You don't go 9-7 without having some good front-line guys. But I just felt we didn't have the depth that you need to play an NFL season, so that's where you start trying to build it. And we were trying to do that immediately when I got here, bringing some guys in, swapping them out, trying to find better pieces, churning the bottom of the roster.
Probably over time, as long as you're not battling injuries, you don't have to churn as much of the bottom of the roster because you've got a good feel for your depth. As we enter this year, we have more depth to withstand some of the injuries that do happen now. You can only handle so many of them to your marquee players, but that's probably the difference, I would say, in our team from two years ago.
BN: What other strides have you seen this organization make on the football side?
BB: In the best organizations, you want good communication and properly align everybody so that they're moving in the right direction. Two years ago, that was the start of trying to establish a culture, not just with the players and coaches – which you see out there every Sunday – but with everybody being in lockstep. The guys know exactly what we're looking for at practice: setup, time, how Sean wants to run each drill, the trainers being all in black, so players can easily spot them or a coach can see them and say, "Hey, this player's hurt." A lot of little things like that.
Redoing our analytics department. And it's not just replacing people. It's getting them to understand what we're looking for in personnel, what we're looking for in coaching. Right now, a lot of our analytics is spending a lot of time in the game-plan mode, following what our opponents are going to do. That will really pick up when you get into weeks 3, 4, 5 when teams have put more stuff out. Because so much stuff's hidden in the preseason – new staffs, new coordinators. You look at us this week, we have to look at the Miami Dolphins (because new Jets coach Adam Gase previously guided them) and we also have to look at what the Cleveland Browns were doing last year (when new Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams ran the Browns' defense), and then mesh that with their personnel.
And it's (the analytics people) understanding what we need. The coaches only have so much time to meet with an advance scout who went to (an upcoming opponent's game) and the analytics staff. The analytics guys and the advance scouts have to meet and make sure they're succinct so that the analytics isn't saying one thing and the eye test is saying another. It's making sure everything is mirroring each other so that when they go into (the offices of defensive coordinator) Leslie Frazier or Brian Daboll or Sean McDermott or (special teams coordinator) Heath (Farwell), they're in lockstep. "This is what I've seen from the New York Jets, this is how they're going to play, these are their strengths, their weaknesses." Making sure that we all understand we're on the same page, because coaches only have so much time to game plan and get our players ready.
BN: What's been your greatest challenge so far?
BB: I think the greatest challenge for me is managing roster questions and decisions. You have personnel views and coaching views. And the biggest challenge can be listening to all sides and understanding that sometimes the more talented player is not the best fit for us, whether it's personality, whether he's too raw, he's going to hold us back.
When you're a personnel guy, you're looking for those physical attributes that stand out on the tape or TV, whatever it is. But you also, in my seat, I have to hear what coaches see and the things that concern them. The perfect ones are when the guy's super smart, super instinctive, very aware, has all those intangibles and you match those with the physical traits the scout sees. We look into the character and stuff, but the scouts aren't looking into the habits. Does this guy love football? Does he take care of himself? Is he a pro's pro? The Lorenzo Alexanders, the Kyle Williamses, the Micah Hydes. I think we definitely have improved the number, out of 53, that are those types of people.
BN: Besides winning, what gives you the greatest joy?
BB: I think just people coming to work every day motivated. And I think we have a common goal here. I think people understand the direction that we're going. The first year, whether it's people that you brought on board or people that were already here, they're looking at me and/or Sean, "Is this just another group coming in here, they're going to be here for two or three years and they're out?" So blending that with this new blood from the outside where maybe a certain thing was important, but our motto, our theme or the things we emphasize are different and getting everybody on the same page.
And I would say, even after we made the playoffs, we didn't have everybody on the same page. There were some people that we had to make some change after Year 1, despite the playoffs, that I don't know if they were ever going to reach where we were trying to get them to reach. I would say, going into Year 3, whether it's some moves we've made on the personnel staff, moves we've made on the coaching staff, the moves we've made even in-house with people that either have been here or not, we have a group of people that are working on the football side that are truly going in the same direction going into Year 3.
BN: Knowing all of the variables that we all know about this game and how quickly things can change, what caused you to be so emphatic in saying LeSean McCoy would be part of the team this year despite adding Frank Gore and T.J. Yeldon in free agency and drafting Devin Singletary?
BB: That's a fair question. First of all, I love my players, I truly do, if they're all in and they're working hard. And LeSean embraced the competition. He was well aware of the moves we made. The media naturally ask about guys like that, whether it's their salary cap number, whether it's the age, whatever, there's a lot of questions. There's a lot of guys that (the media) didn't ask about that if you would have asked me, I would have given you a similar answer. There were some guys that we released that were hard releases. They just didn't have the name that LeSean McCoy has for a reason with his history.
It's not to be deceptive, it's truly not. It's, "I'm with my guys as long as they're here and as long as they're doing what we're asking them to do." If LeSean had been causing a problem or something like that, it probably would have been a different answer. But it wasn't. I saw a lot of reasons that LeSean could have been here for this season, but it came down to us assessing that running back group with him and without him, and it was a tough call. It was a tough decision and one that I didn't sleep easy with. But I didn't say it to posture or anything like that. I truly meant what I said when I was asked those questions.
BN: Do you regret saying it?
BB: No, because I meant it and I wasn't lying. You hate if someone was caught off-guard or surprised – him, his representatives. But, again, I've released people here or in Carolina that weren't big names that their agent or the player was frustrated. And they're arguing with you, more the agent generally than the player. "How did this guy make it over my guy?" And they're just not as big names. I don't ever think you say bad things about people in the media unless they've done something that is regrettable – they've broken the law or they've done something, a team violation, that we've had to discipline.
BN: It has to be a bit disconcerting to know you're the only team in the league with four new starting offensive linemen.
BB: I mean, that's not how you draw it up. But, again, at the end of last season, we had to be blind to say that that wasn't something that we had to improve. Because if you can't protect or you can't open holes, it's hard to execute an offense consistently. So goal No. 1, agenda No. 1 was to bring in some experience, add some youth, rework this thing and if it's three new guys, five new guys, whatever it is, we've got to get it fixed.
BN: How good do you feel about the smallish group of wide receivers you have?
BB: Well, they're different kinds of guys. One of the small guys, to start out, is John Brown, who's a speedster. Speed helps you in so many ways. You don't want a slow team. A fast team is much harder to defend. Cole Beasley's got some speed, but he has elite quickness. That has a value. Zay Jones is not a small guy, but can play multiple spots, versatile. Andre Roberts can play multiple spots, also a returner. Robert Foster, we saw what his speed can do. And Isaiah McKenzie, he's got the rare, home-run speed and quicks. Most guys are either straight-line fast or they're quick. He's probably the one guy on our roster that has both of those traits.
It's a matchup league, and I think in this offense, Brian likes to find (favorable matchups), depending on each week. One week, it may be working Cole in the slot on whoever they have. The next week, we may feel we can get behind them with either Robert or John Brown.
BN: With Tyler Kroft, the veteran you added in free agency, still dealing with a broken foot, you're going with rookies Dawson Knox and Tommy Sweeney as your main pass-catchers at tight end. Any discomfort there?
BB: Yeah, that one didn't play out the way you would have drawn up. Tyler rebreaking that foot in that first OTA practice, that was unfortunate for him and for us. He's worked really hard. What a pro he's been to work his way back, because it was an unknown whether we'd be able to pull him off the PUP list (had they placed him on it). Listen, he's not there yet, but he's close enough.
And then, any time you're rolling out there with rookies, they haven't been out there, it's a different speed that they're going to see than even preseason. Lee Smith is such a grounded and big-time leader and he's done a great job. The thing that helps me feel better about (the youth at tight end) is Lee has done a great job of kind of being a mentor and telling these guys what to expect. And I'm sure he's going to coach these guys up this week. How to watch film, what to prepare for. "This is how you've got to block this guy; I've had to block him before." Those types of things. Lee's going to mentor them and we'll see when Tyler's ready.
BN: How confident are you that you're going to see in Josh Allen's second season more of what you were expecting when you made him the seventh overall pick of the draft?
BB: I think you can definitely feel more of his maturity and his growth. Just Year 2 of the offense, understanding the NFL game is totally different from the college game, and I've seen his maturity, a lot in practice but even in the (preseason) games. I know he had the one throw (an interception against Detroit that was nullified by a penalty) that he knows, above anybody, that he can't make. But beyond that, using these outlets that we've brought in here, the Beasleys, the Isaiah McKenzies. Hopefully, these tight ends will be outlets for him as well and, hopefully, we'll be able to stretch the field, too. He obviously can throw it deep and we've tried to give him some weapons there.
But he's done a good job, I think, of showing improvement of even getting his footwork right. He missed some, what I call, layup throws a year ago, even in practice. I'm not even talking about in the games with some of those. And those happen. Sometimes it's those quick hitches and you don't get your feet right, you're trying to get the ball out, you don't have a great grip. I think he's done a great job of working on those things this offseason, not thinking it'll just naturally happen. And you've seen him improve.
I think his decision-making is moving in the right direction. He's a young player, he's not perfect. But it's a quarterback league, too, so I think a lot of teams' success will hinge on their quarterback play. I think, if you don't have one or your quarterback play is struggling, you're probably going to be an inconsistent team. I think that goes for anybody, including us.