Kyle Williams saw flimsy construction after flimsy construction that the architects always tried passing off as solid and sound. The structures would look nice on the outside, yet something was constantly missing. There was a lot of flash, plenty of eye-catching elements, but no real foundation. Nothing to serve as bonding to keep it upright for the long haul.
And it would collapse, again and again, through Williams' first 11 seasons as a defensive tackle with the Buffalo Bills.
Then, in 2017, came the change. New architects arrived, in the form of coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane. The philosophy shifted from haphazardly collecting recognizable names from free agency, trades and the draft to finding players who actually fit well together and understood the concept of team.
In his mid-30s and carrying his share of scars and scar tissue from the wicked world of interior-line play, Williams had accomplished enough individually to have no problem walking away rather than go through another leadership change on a perpetually floundering franchise. But he kept an open mind to what the new men in charge were selling.
"What Brandon and Sean shared with me right after they got the job, and really motivated me and really endeared themselves to me, was, 'Hey, this is our vision. This is the kind of football team we want. These are the kind of guys we want on our football team. And that's what we're going to pursue,'" Williams said. "They've got a plan. They don't do anything just to do it or to sell tickets or to make a splash. That's not what they do. Any decision, any move they make, is part of a greater plan and a greater vision that really inspired me, at 34-35, years old to come back and play a couple of more years.
"And more than anything, over three years, what they've done is they have not deviated from their vision or from their direction. It's like, 'This is what we believe, this is the way we're going to go. We're not going to deviate for any reason. Ups and downs in the road, rocky seas, this is direction we're going.' And I think that's something to be commended and to be excited about."
Williams got to be a part of his first NFL postseason appearance after the '17 season in a wild-card game at Jacksonville. As fluky as it was, with the Bills benefiting from a last-second miracle win by Cincinnati moments after their victory at Miami, McDermott and Beane had the first tangible result of their blueprint of rebuilding a team and a culture.
Williams retired a year later, after his 13th season, but he was confident that neither the playoff loss to the Jaguars nor the 6-10 record of 2018 signaled another collapse. And they didn't. The Bills finished the 2019 season with a 10-6 record for the franchise's first 10-win season since 1999 and another wild-card spot, this time secured with two games left on the schedule.
Finally, the Bills have something sustainable in place. Consider the "Playoff Caliber" logo that McDermott had showing up on shirts and video boards throughout team headquarters during his first two-plus seasons. Since the Bills clinched the postseason berth that set up their wild-card game against the Houston Texans on Saturday, "Championship Caliber" has appeared on video boards. It joins a long list of McDermott-isms that includes "process," "growth mindset" and "defend our dirt," which was accompanied by containers of dirt distributed to each player.
"Anyone can tell you that the house is on fire," McDermott said, "but the better thing to say is, 'How are we going to get it out?' And then, 'How long is it going to take to get it out?' "
Finding their guys
Not only has the Bills' roster cleared of salary cap bloat that allows for present and future upgrading, but it's also loaded with players who have the character traits that McDermott and Beane firmly believe provide the cultural influence for long-term winning.
"People that are passionate about football and they're ... guys that you can depend on," McDermott said. "I don't think it's anything fancy and they come in all different shapes and sizes. And that's, to me, how Brandon and I tried to put this together. It's not what they look like on paper. It's how they fit together, the pieces fit together. If you're passionate about what you do, you usually have a chance to be pretty good at it."
"It's working towards a common goal rather than individual goals," center Mitch Morse said.
Make no mistake, however. For McDermott and Beane, finding the right kind of football players for their program doesn't supersede the essential requirement of finding those with talent.
"You've got to be able to play the game, and then have these other qualities about you," McDermott said. "The player factor is important. You've got to be able to do your job and you've got to be able to make plays. All good coaches worth their salt would admit that they're good coaches when they've got good players. And you can put me in that category.
"And let me just be clear: We don't just overlook guys that can play. We spend time on those guys, making sure that the other part of it we know is not what we want before we just move on. Some people have it more than others in certain areas that we look for, but that's what makes the team and how it fits together so important. Because I may be strong in one area where you're not as strong and my strength covers up your weakness and your strength covers up my weakness. I think Brandon does a really good job of trying to blend that."
McDermott has not been shy about reminding anyone willing to listen that he and Beane have had to clean up after the recklessness of their predecessors.
When the Bills did not make a trade at the deadline in October, McDermott said, “There have been way too many years of irresponsible decision-making. Let’s just put it that way.”
Then, after the Bills beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 15 to clinch playoff spot, he said, "Coming to Buffalo two and a half years ago, a lot of people said, ‘Why are you going there? You’re not going to be able to get it turned around.’ We got it turned around with a lot of work yet to do."
The turnaround began with a sturdy foundation, thanks to a defense McDermott set out to fix immediately – with safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer the first two free agents signed in '17 and cornerback Tre'Davious White becoming McDermott's first draft pick – followed by an offense that was rebuilt from top to bottom in the past two years.
Beane and McDermott used the draft for a franchise quarterback (Josh Allen), a centerpiece for the defense (middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds), Williams' successor (Ed Oliver), a featured back (Devin Singletary) and a tight end (Dawson Knox). They used free agency to revamp the offensive line, highlighted by the acquisition of a center from the Kansas City Chiefs' offensive machine (Morse).
Along the way, they made changes to the coaching, player-personnel and training staffs. The idea was to make certain that everyone fully bought in to the concept of "One-Eleven." No individual is larger than the team and the ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl.
"The way Brandon and I saw it together was by making sure, in Year One, we had as many people as we could that were our type of people on the staff end of things and the player end of things," McDermott said. "We didn't want to come in right away and just start subtracting before we got a feel for who some of the people were, honestly. So that took some time. It took, in a lot of ways, me with the team day to day and Brandon with figuring out our cap situation to the nth degree, our draft situation and then our medical situation in spending time with the medical staff to find out who's been hurt, how long have they been hurt, how much can we depend on them."
This was the sort of responsible thinking the Bills desperately needed at the top of their football operation after living with decisions from previous GM Doug Whaley, who thought trading up to the fourth overall pick of the 2014 draft for wide receiver Sammy Watkins would make EJ Manuel a better quarterback. It didn't, and both are gone. Watkins going to a reporter to issue a complaint that he wasn't getting enough targets, alone, was enough to convince McDermott and Beane to ship him off in a trade with the Los Angeles Rams in August 2017.
Whaley also believed the Bills struck gold when the Philadelphia Eagles offered to trade star running back LeSean McCoy for linebacker Kiko Alonso. McCoy helped the Bills have an NFL-best rushing attack, but that wasn't enough to make the team a winner in his first two seasons, 2015 and '16. McCoy also placed a high public priority on his individual achievements and carried off-field baggage.
Add in the circuslike atmosphere that mostly came with the 31 games in '15 and '16 under coach Rex Ryan, and team owners Terry and Kim Pegula had a clear idea of the direction they needed to go. McDermott's credentials as a longtime assistant coach, including defensive coordinator stints with the Eagles and Carolina Panthers, were strong enough in their own right.
However, his background as a standout high school wrestler was what stood out the most when the Bills were reviewing candidates to replace Ryan.
"The first thought I can remember about Sean, even before I met him when we were looking at coaches to interview, was when I saw his wrestling career stats and was like, 'OK, this guy here is a pit bull,'" Terry Pegula said. "Because wrestling, to me, is the toughest sport you can participate in, not only from the physical standpoint, but there's the mental preparation. Plus the fact that you're basically doing it front of nobody most of the time, unless you get to a level of NCAA championships, or whatever, when lot of people are watching.
"I won't call it a thankless sport, but there's not a lot of fan participation like football. So to me, this was going to be one interesting guy to talk to. And, basically, when we talked to him, I felt the same vibe that I thought was going to be there. Sean's detailed. He treats everybody the way he wants to be treated. He's tough, but he's a pancake, too. He believes in people."
Though McDermott's football acumen was an obvious major factor in convincing the Pegulas he was the right man for the job, his people skills carried plenty of weight as well.
Terry Pegula has since come to appreciate that McDermott has a way of connecting with players and bringing the entire team together that separates him from his peers.
"He's a good example of a modern-day coach," Pegula said. "Society's changed. Could some of the old-time coaches that came up in many sports, the tough guys, could they survive today? I don't know. But Sean knows how to deal with today's athlete. And I think that's a gift of his.
"He cares about his players, he really does. I see some of it, in (reading comments from them), that they can feel that. And you can see that anybody who has done what he's done with his wrestling career – I hate to keep going back to that, but I will – it shows that he's dedicated and he's mentally tough and that he's not asking you, as a player, to do anything any different than he ever did in his life. And I think that's a good trait to have as coach."
From the outset, McDermott said he wanted to avoid a "great divide" between himself and the players.
"It’s important that the guys know I’m a normal guy," he said early in his tenure. "I’m a human being that has a family, and I want them to see that."
McDermott made the decision to remove video games from the team's locker room as soon as he started, but he kept the pingpong table and often challenged his players as a means to get to know them. He also had a secondary office added next to the dressing room so he could be more accessible to players.
Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who is finishing his 13th and likely final season in the NFL, saw the immediate change in culture that came when McDermott arrived after Alexander's first season in Buffalo.
One big step McDermott took in gaining the respect within the locker room was forming a leadership council consisting of players with whom he consults for input on team issues.
"I think the biggest difference is just the emphasis on relationships and love and respect. Those are really the foundations of our team," Alexander said. "To kind of give a clear picture, (offensive tackle) Conor McDermott was in our locker room for two years and he has since moved on (to the New York Jets). And he said, 'It's good over here, but we're just not as close.' And I know that from being in other places.
"In this locker room, there's really no cliques. Guys blend very well from offense to defense, from positions, white, black. It's really not segregated at all and I think that's because of what Sean has really set up."
Caring and love
Since his arrival, McDermott has made a ritual of teammates standing up in meetings to share their personal stories. Often, a projector is used to show a photograph or two of a person or persons important in a player's life.
"When guys get up to share their story, you always seem to find some parallel in your life or maybe the same experience where you can latch on and really feel like you can reach out or talk to a guy or hang out with a guy," Alexander said. "And I think the emphasis of that over the years has really brought this locker room really close. And you don't get that everywhere. Other places, you just come to work, do your job, which is OK, and then go home. But Sean has really put the emphasis on loving, knowing each other's family, supporting each other.
"That goes a long way as far as going out there and playing a game where you're really putting your health on the line and supporting your family on the line every time you step on the field. That is core of what we do and everything else is built around that thought. Obviously, it's still a business and you still have to deal with the reality of the NFL, but when you know where the coach is coming from or your know a player personally, it doesn't come across as cutthroat. It's just a different vibe to it."
It's a vibe Morse noticed soon after signing as a free agent last March. As far as he is concerned, the "family-first" atmosphere created by McDermott has played a major part in the Bills' success this season.
"Caring about one another as people is going to go correlate to the football field," Morse said. "If you don't care about each other, you don't earn each other's trust. If you don't get to know people, how can you truly expect for someone to truly feel like you have their back and vice versa? It's a family environment, but at the same time, a competitive environment and finding that bell curve between competitiveness on the field and truly caring about each other off and on the field."
Another trademark of the past three seasons with McDermott and Beane in charge is consistency. Williams has seen what can happen with owners, coaches, GMs when a franchise comes upon hard times. He witnessed it too often with the Bills, but also has seen it with many other NFL clubs.
"They waffle and then they try to change and they start grasping at straws," Williams said. "And that's when you see guys who get let go."
By all accounts, McDermott and Beane are staying put well beyond this season. Each signed a five-year agreement that runs through 2021. If contract extensions for them aren't already in the works, they would seem to have a good chance of getting done in the near future, especially if the Bills were to advance in the playoffs.
Having spent the past season as a consultant for the Bills' defensive linemen and front seven, Williams has had a fairly close view of the inner workings of the team. He likes what he has seen in all aspects of the job McDermott and Beane have done to build a contender.
"It's been fun to watch," Williams said. "And I look forward to watching as it keeps building, as they keep adding pieces."