Brandon Beane needed a minute to compose himself.
The Buffalo Bills’ general manager doesn’t speak publicly very much during the season, so when it was his turn during the team’s end-of-year press conference, Beane had a lengthy list of thank-you's.
He started with coach Sean McDermott and his staff for the job they did in leading the team to a 10-6 record and a second playoff berth in three seasons.
He continued with owners Terry and Kim Pegula, thanking them for their unwavering support and commitment to supplying whatever resources Beane and McDermott feel is necessary to win.
It’s when he got to the fans, though, that Beane paused.
“I’m just blown away by our fans,” the GM said. “I know our players are. I’ve never heard players talk so positively about their fans.”
The Bills’ charter flight landed back in Western New York after the 22-19 overtime loss to the Houston Texans at about 2 a.m. Sunday. Greeting them at the airport, which has become somewhat of a tradition after big games – win or lose, were die-hard members of Bills Mafia.
“If you just walked up on that scene you would have thought we won the game,” Beane said. “I get emotional because I felt bad for them.
“I feel really bad that we didn’t win that game. … To have Bills Mafia, Bills Nation support us all season long. It’s unmatched. I’m very appreciative, our players, our entire building. I know Terry and Kim are as well. I apologize that I got a little bit emotional, but I feel bad that we didn’t get that win, but I promise you our guys are hungry and we’ll be back.”
The overtime loss to the Texans doesn’t have a catchy name (yet) like “Wide Right” or the “Music City Miracle,” but it’s somewhere on that list of most painful defeats in franchise history. That pain was evident when Beane and McDermott spoke, almost 72 hours after the game.
“It has been a painful couple of days for all of us,” McDermott said. “I recognize that, and my hope is that in time, if it’s handled the right way, the pain will turn into strength and that strength will turn into growth.
“I think that’s what really separates the winning organizations, the winners in our lives and our world, those painful moments turn into strength and the growth that comes from that is what continues to move us forward as an organization and as a fan base and as a team overall. There’s a lot we can learn from that game. We need to keep our team together, as many pieces as we can, and then approach this season with a tremendous amount of urgency as we continue to grow and build this football team and this organization into what we want it to become.”
That’s as impassioned of a response as you’ll hear from McDermott, who can be somewhat robotic during his in-season press conferences. It reflects the importance of this offseason. With $90 million in projected cap space and a young nucleus, it’s easy to look at the Bills’ roster and conclude it’s a team on the rise.
McDermott, though, realizes that with each new year comes a new set of challenges. Of the eight teams remaining in this year’s playoffs, just one of them – Kansas City – reached the divisional round last year.
“That’s the truth of our league,” McDermott said. “Now it's about where we go from here. I'm excited about what's ahead of us. As much as we can carry over from the foundation that we've built is important to our future success, but there's also an understanding of every year is a new year and every team has their own team, is their own team and has their own identity.”
In other words, just because the Bills were a playoff team in 2019 does not mean they will be so again in 2020. The team’s schedule, which includes four trips to the West Coast, looks more difficult – at least on paper. The team also won’t be overlooked coming off a 10-6 season – which is a lesson Beane and McDermott learned the hard way in Carolina. The Panthers made the Super Bowl after the 2015 season, then went 6-10 the following year and missed the playoffs.
“One of the big tests for teams that start making the playoffs is, other coaches when you play them the next year, will use that as a measuring stick. ‘This is a team that won the division or advanced into the playoffs or whatever, so you're going to get everyone's best next season,' ” Beane said. “You have to be prepared for it. There's no sneaking up on anyone or people underestimating the Buffalo Bills, so that'll be a different test and we didn't always answer that in Carolina. Sean and I talked about that. That'll be something that we'll definitely focus on this offseason into training camp.”
“That's where the urgency has to come in,” McDermott said. “We can't sit back, nor will I ever sit back, or Brandon sit back for that matter and say, 'hey, this is where we are, we're good and we just need to take this much more.' That's not how this team works.”
First up on the to-do list is figuring out whom the Bills want to bring back. The team has a few key free agents – among them running back Frank Gore, left guard Quinton Spain, cornerback Kevin Johnson, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and defensive end Shaq Lawson.
After that, Beane has to decide how aggressive he wants to be in free agency. He said Tuesday he doesn’t feel the Bills are “one player away,” which is reasonable given where the team’s offense ranked. Adding reinforcements to help quarterback Josh Allen, though, will be a high priority. To that end, Buffalo’s success in 2019 should help.
“It's funny, last year I had to defend Buffalo up here,” Beane said of the Bills’ attractiveness as a free-agent destination. “I think people see and understand what we're building up here. People across the league see that we have a young quarterback that's developing and growing – I think those can be attractive pieces. You look at what Green Bay did all those years with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers and that group. If you have a quarterback, someone to build around, I think those are attractive things. I think people see that we play selfless football and we have guys that are going to fight. … ”
That’s a point both McDermott and Beane made separately during Tuesday’s press conferences. Although the loss to the Texans had its fair share of ugly moments for the Bills, the team fought for 60-plus minutes, according to the coach and GM.
“As I told the team and as I told you guys after the game, we'll never stop fighting,” McDermott said. “That's been my career to this point and I expect the Buffalo Bills to never stop fighting.
“We’re hopefully considered a young team on the rise and an attractive place,” added Beane. “It's not for me to determine, but that would be the part that I would sell for anyone that was looking at Buffalo."