Whenever Andre Reed is around Ed Oliver or Josh Allen or pretty much any current Buffalo Bills player, he knows it's a virtual certainty they'll ask him to reach into the team's past.
What were those Super Bowl seasons like? How did those teams get to that level? Why were you able to stay so good for so long?
"So I can bring a little bit of that to the team now," Reed said by phone from his home in San Diego. "It's all love, man. I'm not in Buffalo as much as I used to be, but that's what I get from their players now. 'How did you do it?' "
Before the Bills' Nov. 24 game against the Denver Broncos at New Era Field, the Hall of Fame receiver was on the field talking with players, coaches and club officials. When Reed and coach Sean McDermott saw each other, they hugged and exchanged pleasantries. Before going their separate ways, McDermott wanted Reed to know how much he appreciated the knowledge Reed and other former Bills willingly shared with McDermott a few weeks after he was hired in 2017.
The team had arranged for Reed, fellow Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas, as well as Cornelius Bennett, Darryl Talley and Steve Tasker to have dinner with the coach at Sear. The idea was to create a casual setting where the members of those great teams would feel comfortable enough to share the ingredients of the secret sauce.
"I just want to thank you," McDermott told Reed during their chat. "I remember that first meeting that we all had and we talked about, not only how good of a team you guys were, but the camaraderie you guys had. That's what I want to get here because that is definitely going to breed success. As long as I'm here, that's what I want."
The Bills would beat the Broncos on the way to finishing with a 10-6 record and clinching their second postseason berth in McDermott's three seasons at the helm. Although the Bills lost their wild-card playoff game against the Houston Texans, there's optimism about their future, rooted in the leadership of McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane and the roster's talented young core.
"If I had to say just one word, I would say, 'progress,' " Reed said of what he saw from the Bills in 2019. "Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott, from the time that I met both of those guys, said that they were going to change a lot about the whole situation in Buffalo from what it was before they were there."
In the latest edition of One-on-One Coverage, The Buffalo News spoke with Reed about the Bills' receivers, the team's dominance in the 1990s, the recent passing of fellow former Bills receiver and scout Elbert Dubenion, the Hall of Fame credentials of Steve Tasker and Reed's efforts to encourage youngsters to read.
Buffalo News: Some people see similarities between the current Bills and the team from the late '80s that was on the verge of becoming a serious Super Bowl contender. How do you feel about those comparisons?
Andre Reed: I think it's a fair assumption, but kind of unfair, too, because people in Buffalo and around the league, to a certain point, are going to always look at the team now and compare it to those teams. And that's kind of an unfair thing to do. We had a lot of veterans on the team and, basically, Buffalo is a pretty young football team now.
You've got to look at it from the standpoint that they're still growing to find each other, to play as a team, to embrace what's happening. The ups and downs of the season are all harder on young kids that have never been there before. And the job of the organization and the coaching staff is to make sure these guys are always, always on the same page, knowing that when it's good, it's good, but when it's bad, you need to kind of muster up something a little more. As a veteran team, I think it's a little easier to do that than as a young team.
Their biggest step this year, I think, was when they went to Dallas on Thanksgiving and beat the Cowboys. Dallas was not the team that people thought they were going to be; they had their own problems internally and all that kind of stuff. But it's hard to beat Dallas in Dallas, especially on Thanksgiving, and they went in there and pretty much dominated the game to a certain point. That kind of really showed me what kind of team they are and what the possibilities are of what they can do going forward. And then those two games against the Patriots, they should have beat them twice.
I think learning from your mistakes and some of the mistakes you make against good teams, that's going to take some time to do … where they go, "OK, we didn't win the game because of this reason. It's not that we played bad. It's we just didn't make that play at that particular time that could turn the game around for us to win." That game against Dallas and then the two games against the Patriots, (had the Bills won), we'd be talking about them in the playoffs right now. No doubt about it.
BN: Wide receiver is a spot frequently mentioned as a key area of need this offseason. What's your perspective on that?
AR: I think getting a wide receiver, whether through free agency or in the draft, I guarantee you that's a priority for them, to give Josh more targets. I think they did a really good job (of addressing the position last offseason). Again, big kudos to Brandon and Sean for bringing in John Brown and signing Cole Beasley. Robert Foster didn't play that much this year, but he's an important part of that team. Whether he's going to be an important part next year or not, we don't know. But them all getting to know each other more, I think, it'll be a much better next year.
BN: Do you feel the Bills need to find a true No. 1 receiver or do they have one on the roster?
AR: That's a pretty good question. If you look at the league, you have to say every team has a No. 1 guy. In Cleveland, they have Odell (Beckham Jr.). Jarvis (Landry) is 1A. In Tampa, you've got two guys, Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. So having a No. 1, obviously, is vital for every team. But I don't think it's really the most important thing. I think continuity is really important.
I mean, look at me. I had James Lofton, I had Don Beebe on the outside. Even though it was hard, it made my job easier in the middle when I had that kind of presence on the outside. A true No. 1? I guess you could say John Brown's it. But maybe in the sense of being a bona fide, that-guy's-going-to-change-the-game-every-single-play-he's-out-there, I don't think John Brown is that if we compare him to other No. 1. But he has definitely done the job as a No. 1 for the Bills this year.
Cole Beasley has done a pretty good inside the hashes and is always a chain-mover on third down. That only makes it better for the guys on the outside. I thought he did a great job this year. I think towards the end of the season, probably the last maybe five to six games, he got lost a little bit. I think they could have used him a little more coming down the stretch. I think that definitely will be a subject that they talk about next year because he's really been a factor against really good defensive teams in the box, linebackers and defensive backs covering him. That could open it up on the outside for John Brown and for the other guys a little bit more.
The tight ends, I think they could have used Dawson Knox a little bit more this year. That game against Cincinnati, he really kind of showed himself. He kind of disappeared a little bit after that. (Reducing drops) will come with repetitions. More reps and being comfortable out there, especially in the offensive scheme. He'll be a lot better next year.
BN: What did you see from Duke Johnson?
AR: He came in and did a pretty good job. I think, if they re-sign him, he'll even be more of a factor because of his big body. You need that kind of presence in the red area, inside the 20, that kind of guy. He has a lot of enthusiasm. The guy catches a 10-yard out and he's like it's a 50-55-yard touchdown. So you need that on the team.
They could have used him even a lot more during the season if he was on the (active) roster. He's like Mike Evans, he's like some of these other big-body receivers that are in the league now. I hope that they re-sign him and he's a part of the team next year, and he gets a lot more reps and he gets a lot more playing time.
BN: What did you see from Josh Allen in his second season?
AR: Josh Allen, I think, definitely took a major step forward in a lot of ways. Maturity-wise, the way he played the game. I think he did a pretty good job to put the team on his back a lot of times. And the whole team, the whole organization can look at him and say, "Yeah, this is the guy that we drafted in 2017 that we thought that would make this kind of progress in his second year." And he has.
I think confidence-wise, he needed that. He needed confidence from the organization, from Sean, from Brandon, from (offensive coordinator Brian) Daboll. He took that step and everybody fed off of that. Jim was that kind of guy, too. But we had Hall of Famers.
BN: How impressed were you with Devin Singletary?
AR: He was a big surprise. That kid is very elusive. He kind of reminds me of a young Thurman, no doubt about it. He's hard to tackle. He's very elusive inside the hole. He makes a five-yard gain look like a 30-yard gain. And I'm sure, having Frank Gore back there as a mentor for him, has really helped him. Next year should be better for him. I think he should be the feature back next year.
BN: When you think of your time with the Bills, what's the first thought that comes to mind?
AR: That Buffalo was kind of the perfect spot for me at that time. Not only team-wise, but just me as an individual. Because it really reminded me of where I came from (Allentown, Pa.): blue-collar, people working hard, 9-to-5ers. Work all week. And then they go to the football game. That's Buffalo right there. It's been like that since that team has been there, for 60-plus years now.
I'm blue-collar. Who knows, if I'd have gone to Miami or played out here in San Diego or played with the Raiders, who knows if it would have been like that? I think Buffalo was a perfect spot for me at the time. Twenty-five, 30 years later, it's documented what we did. It's documented that the players that we had, the organization, there's Hall of Famers all over the place. And 25-30 years later, people always come up to me and say, "Hey, I remember when you played. Those were great teams. It was a great organization. You guys went to four Super Bowls, you didn't win, but you guys were a team that had to be reckoned with. You had to beat Buffalo to get to the Super Bowl."
That's the good thing that I think about. It wouldn't have happened without those guys and it wouldn't happened without those fans and that organization – the Marv Levys, the Bill Polians and all that. We're our own dynasty.
BN: Elbert Dubenion, the former Bills standout receiver and scout who put you on the team's radar before you were drafted in the fourth round in 1985, passed away on Dec. 26. What are your thoughts about him?
AR: Let me tell you, he was a great football player in Buffalo, but it doesn't really give him any credit for what kind of guy he was. And I remember he came to Kutztown and scouted me – this little, small kid from Kutztown University, a little town in Western Pennsylvania – and really told the Bills' organization about me and what kind of player I was and what kind of person I was, and gave me a chance. And every time I saw him, he said, "Yeah, you still remember when I came and saw you and worked you out?" And I said, "Let me tell you, Dubie, I'll never forget that because you saw something in me maybe 31 other teams didn't see."
He said a lot of things to me. One thing he said was, "It doesn't matter where you're from. If you're willing to work hard and put in the extra time when nobody's looking and tend to details, you can play in this league a long time." I was a very detail-oriented guy. I got that not only from my upbringing, but from a mentor like Dubie. I remember those words because, as a young kid, a guy talking to you in that manner, he saw something in you that maybe you didn't see in yourself. And he said, "Just keep working hard. And if it doesn't happen for you, you can never say to you didn't put 100% into it."
BN: He also could relate well to you because he wasn't a big-school guy, either, having played at Bluffton in Ohio.
AR: That's even smaller than Kutztown. There were five cows in Kutztown, there were two cows in Bluffton. And I think that small-school mentality that I had really resonated with him and vice versa. We both knew that. When they drafted me, he actually was one of the first guys I saw at training camp, too. He was like, "Welcome to your whole life right now." And I didn't want to let him down because he came and scouted me. When I got inducted to the Hall, I got a call from his wife and I told her, "With him giving me those words of wisdom, he's got a lot to do with my Hall of Fame career. There's no doubt about it."
BN: Did you ever get to watch any film of him playing?
AR: Over the years, I actually did. Old black and whites. They didn't call him "Golden Wheels" for no reason. He was running past people. He'd catch the ball, he was very elusive in the open field. And I think, really, we kind of resonated with each other because of that, too. He saw film of me as a quarterback and that I was elusive running with the ball. And that was really my signature. But I'm just so grateful that he even blessed me with his presence as a person, not as a football player.
BN: Once again, Steve Tasker couldn't get past the semifinal round for induction into the Hall of Fame. What's your view of his Hall worthiness?
AR: This guy was an important factor in every single game, because one out of every four plays was a special teams play. Steve Tasker not only is the best special teams player ever, but he a lot of times accounted for wins by himself. He changed the game just like Cliff Branch, who didn't make it who should also be there. He was a game-changer. Matthew Slater (a special teams standout for the New England Patriots) and all these guys playing the league now attribute their success to what Steve Tasker did.
Every time I talked to Steve about (being shut out of the Hall), he would be like, "I don't want to talk about that." I would go, "Well, they said that to me, too." I think there's no more deserving guy that would represent that position, a straight-up special-teamer, better than Steve Tasker. Steve impacted every single game that he played in, and I think he should get the same recognition and be looked at the same way as a receiver or running back or a defensive back. Anybody. And that would open the door for the Devin Hesters and the Matthew Slaters maybe down the road.
BN: What are you up to these days?
AR: I'm doing my "Read with Reed" reading program through the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. We have impacted probably 4,000 to 5,000 kids a day with our reading program in the past two years. We're going into our third year of inspiring kids and telling them how important reading is for their futures.
We have an incentive-based program where you have to read a certain amount of books in a certain amount of time, and then the kids that read the most books get to go to an NFL game with me and (co-founder and brand manager) Theresa (Villano), and we get on the field. They see pregame, they meet the players that they want to meet. They just experience something they probably wouldn't have experienced before. And the last name's Reed, too, so there you go.
BN: What made you want to focus on reading?
AR: When Theresa and I talked about this a couple years ago, I said that I didn't remember my mom reading to me when I was at home as a kid. And that's really important in the structure of a family. You come home from school or whatever, you do your homework, and there's books around that your parents can read to you. I didn't have that.
And I wanted to tell these kids my story that I didn't have my mom reading books to me or my dad reading books to me because there was a lot of other (family) drama going on. So the kids read these books, they move their football (indicating how many books they've read in a given period), they score a touchdown, and then they get rewarded. We've done a supersized reading rally in every Super Bowl city for the past three years, so we'll be in Miami doing it.