Two playoff appearances in three seasons would have been inconceivable not so long ago for the Buffalo Bills.
Just ask the team’s longest-tenured player.
“From the top down, everything has changed,” defensive end Jerry Hughes said. “From the message we get from the coaches and the front office to the facility – how the owners have changed that around, investing time and money so we can go out there and play.”
Above all else, Hughes said, coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane have brought stability to an organization that long lacked it. In Hughes’ first four years with the Bills after being acquired in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts in 2013, he had two head coaches and three different defensive coordinators (four if you include Rob Ryan in 2016).
“We're winning games. The organization is having success,” Hughes said. “This is Sean's third year here and second time in the playoffs. Him and Brandon Beane have done a fantastic job of assembling guys as far as free agency, hitting in the draft. When you look at it from the top down, you can see the changes and it's certainly for the better.
"My first few years here, it was quite the coaching carousel. Coordinators coming in and out, that was the growing pains of the organization. You can see the turnaround. ... All the pieces are coming together.”
Hughes acknowledged he didn’t know what to expect when McDermott, then the Carolina Panthers' defensive coordinator, was hired to be a head coach for the first time. That’s what happens when there is a revolving door at head coach.
“It was just a matter of finding the right mix,” Hughes said. “Now we've got that with Brandon and Sean.”
Hughes is one of just four players on the roster who predate McDermott’s arrival in 2017. The others are defensive end Shaq Lawson, linebacker Lorenzo Alexander and long snapper Reid Ferguson, who was on the practice squad in 2016.
“When the new regime came in, they had a clear direction and idea in mind of the type of guys they wanted to bring in and the type of guys that weren't going to fit in here,” Ferguson said. “They obviously took a look at who was here from that '16 team. They saw something in us that they wanted to keep around.”
Ferguson has gone from being undrafted to earning a spot on the practice squad to now serving as a team captain in less than four years.
“I set high goals for myself because I have a high standard for my performance on and off the field,” he said. “I feel like this coaching staff has helped me bring that to fruition over the past couple years. It's a big honor for me to be one of those four guys they kept around.”
Ferguson was diplomatic when speaking about the contrast between playing under Rex Ryan and now McDermott.
“I don't want to speak bad about anybody, but it is different,” he said. “They have different points of emphasis. I enjoyed my time in '16 with that coaching staff, and I’m thoroughly enjoying my time now.”
Lawson’s performance has steadily improved in three seasons with McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, capped by a single-season best 6.5 sacks this year.
“This group cares about each other. That starts with the coaching,” he said. "Guys take it more seriously.”
Lawson echoed Hughes in saying “everything changed” when McDermott took over.
“It was time to get with it or get out, you feel me? That's the approach they came in with. You're going to do it, or you won't be here,” he said. “I feel like I had to go through a whole lot to be here still. To be one of those four guys left, man, it's an honor because they believed in me. They gave me a chance, and that's the only thing I could ask for.”
Alexander, who has been a part of five different organizations, said the coordination with the Bills’ current front office and coaching staff has been key to the organization’s success.
“Everybody's on the same page,” he said. “It doesn't mean that Brandon and Sean have to get along all the time, but once they make a decision, they roll with it together. It's us, it's not, 'Well, he made that decision and I was thinking this.' They're doing it together. There’s not a whole bunch of ego and pride if you don’t get your way.”
That was not the case under previous regimes. Former General Manager Doug Whaley had very public disagreements with both Doug Marrone and Rex Ryan. Marrone infamously referred to himself as “Saint Doug” for winning at Syracuse and in Buffalo, while nobody loves Rex Ryan more than Rex Ryan.
“They do a great job of having a great synergy as far as how well they work together and how they have a respect for each other's job, not trying to do each other's job,” Alexander said of Beane and McDermott. “They come together, they have the input, and then they have a system set up to wherever the decision is made, the decision is made. Then they roll with it together.”