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'It was a bad, bad situation'
Sean McDermott isn't talking about 13 Seconds. So, Go Long reached out to players who will. Here's the inside story and what it says about the team — and head coach — into 2022.
The only thing more bizarre than how the Buffalo Bills lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC divisional playoff round may be how this loss was handled the next 48 hours.
Obviously, Sean McDermott owed more to the public. Football is religion in Western New York where locals show up at the airport to greet the team after wins and losses to unhealthy extremes. Not to mention the hefty bill they’ll soon foot to fund a new stadium. This 42-36 overtime defeat inflicted the sort of emotional scars that will never heal. Take a drive through Orchard Park, N.Y. and people still fly a Bills flag at half-staff, still agonize over the surreal defeat at Spot Coffee en masse, still look like they encountered the devil himself at the mere mention of Thirteen Seconds. And what did the team’s head man have to say about one of the most epic choke jobs in pro football history? This inexplicable, spear through the heart that ruined one of the city’s best chances at its first championship?
In the immediate aftermath, McDermott refused to get into specifics, saying, “We need to execute better and that starts with me and goes all the way down. … Obviously they made a couple plays down the stretch. So, I’ll just leave it at that right now.”
Two days later, he added nothing: “Our execution, I wish was different. I wish our execution was different.”
Five weeks later, his talking point didn’t change one iota.
No amount of filibustering on and on about the fans will change the fact that he supplied those same fans zero explanation for their torment. But, fine. That’s his prerogative, I suppose. Surely, McDermott said more to his team behind the scenes. Surely, he stood in front of everyone and detailed what went down those fateful 13 seconds and/or provided a sense of real closure because, after all, these are the people who matter most. The players and the coaches who’ve sacrificed so much for him in the name of accountability.
Only, he did not. He held a generic, “We’ll grow from this”-themed address. The position coaches met with their players, then with the personnel department for year-end summaries on each player and… goodbye. Have a nice offseason. That’s it. Nothing was shared openly amongst players and coaches alike. Everything ended very “abruptly,” one team source said.
Many were left wanting more.
“You preach accountability,” one player said. “But you don’t practice it.”
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Since that night, we’ve all assumed that the Bills knew what went down at Arrowhead Stadium and were upholding a unified front to protect secrets within when — in reality — so many of the men who poured their blood, sweat and tears into the organization have been left completely in the dark. The touchback that teed up Patrick Mahomes’ heroics was not discussed. Neither was the docile defensive alignment that followed. With those 13 seconds shrouded in mystery, players were forced to investigate themselves. Many, of course, declined to speak which is understandable considering their boss has refused to utter a word of substance on the matter. There’s little upside. But several did share their findings with Go Long on the condition of anonymity.
The conclusion? This loss is on the head coach. Not the players. The coach. As the page turns on the football calendar this month, that is a concern.
Instead of nursing what should’ve been a months-long hangover from a Super Bowl parade through downtown Buffalo, it’s back to the drawing board at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. And if ownership were to construct an honest pecking order of the most important people in the organization on that drawing board right now, they’d have to start, No. 1, with the quarterback. Nobody in the NFL possesses Josh Allen’s blend of gifts. The 6-foot-5, 237-pound, linebacker-hurdling, 25-year-old possesses a right arm that could kill a man and all of the intangibles an NFL team could desire out of its richest employee. He is already the MVP favorite in 2022 and would easily usurp Byron Brown as a write-in candidate for mayor. No. 2 would need to be the general manager who drafted him. Brandon Beane cleaned up a messy salary cap and surrounded his Transformer of a quarterback with playmakers.
Boldly, too. Beane is unafraid.
And the more you learn about this historic collapse, the more it appears the head coach once empowered as the judge, juror and executioner at One Bills Drive should be No. 3.
No coach can clap their way through this loss. The pressure, in 2022, is squarely on McDermott.
As players watched Super Bowl LVI, three weeks after their defeat, it was as if Matthew Stafford and Joe Burrow were personally pouring salt into their wounds because the game, eh, was OK. Nothing remotely close to the epic they staged with the Chiefs. They’re confident they would’ve beat either squad. Said one player: “Everybody knew that if we just beat Kansas City, we would’ve beat any team.” And another: “We definitely would’ve won the Super Bowl.” As much as the talking heads love repeating the fact that we’ll see Allen and Mahomes duke it out in games like this forever, players know the hard truth.
It’s damn hard to get to this state of mind, to knowing you had a team capable of winning it all.
Back when Buffalo entered the 2019 playoffs, McDermott made a point to trumpet the team as “Championship Caliber.” The words were plastered all over the facility and broadcast by the team itself with a promo video. “That’s the only standard here now,” a tweet read from the team’s account. Since then, the Super Bowl window has been wide open. That night of Jan. 23, 2022, in Kansas City, players most certainly were Championship Caliber.
The coaching, however, was far from it.
“You don’t get over,” one player said, “a game like that.”
Here’s what happened, and where the Buffalo Bills go from here.
When Josh Allen rifled a touchdown over the middle to Gabriel Davis with 13 seconds left, an air of finality swept over Arrowhead. “There it is!” shouted play-by-play man Jim Nantz as McDermott held a resounding “No. 1” into the sky to beckon the extra point team onto the field.
The coach struck the pose a tick longer for effect.
As he should. The Bills were set to host an AFC Championship Game.
The Chiefs mascot banged his head on the goal post. Patrick Mahomes started to warm up. High above, Allen’s family and friends went bonkers in a suite. Down below, the quarterback himself held Davis for a tight embrace and, honestly, “13” isn’t the number everyone should be agonizing over. From the moment Davis caught the pass to the moment the ball left the right foot of Tyler Bass exactly 126 seconds of real time passed. An eternity for a head coach who is so process-oriented, so obsessed with the minutia. He was hired for this moment.
One tackle on special teams, one stop on defense and the party was on.
Immediately after the PAT, the kickoff team huddled together with special teams coordinator Heath Farwell instructing them to run “Squib Left! Squib Left!” That is, the kicker would hit the ball low and hard to force the Chiefs to return it and, of course, burn time off the clock. As those 10 players took the field, they were expecting what most everyone at home was expecting: a squib. To their shock, the ball sailed out of the end zone. Watch a replay of the Coaches View on NFL Game Pass and you’ll even see one confused player, Siran Neal, throw his hands up.
That’s because the message, somehow, did not reach the kicker himself: Tyler Bass.
Afterward, Bass wasn’t in the mood to talk about the kick with teammates and he didn’t respond to comment for this story, as well. When McDermott dropped that “execution” line a second time, Bass caught plenty of flak publicly because, in coachspeak, this word is often code for a bad play being a player’s fault. Yet, the players I spoke to believe Bass was doing what he was told. “To be honest,” one said, “that’s all we do. What we’re told.” And through their own investigating, multiple players say McDermott called for a touchback at some point during those 126 seconds.
“What I’ve been told by many players on the team,” one veteran said, “and some special teams players, is our special team coordinator Heath Farwell, that’s his job, right? He’s aware of the situation. He has studied that. So, he tells McDermott to kick the squib. And McDermott said to kick the ball out of the field. So then, Farwell is arguing the case for why we should kick the squib. But then also you’ve got special teams on the other side and he has to get them together and give them their pep talk and play call and what they’re trying to do. He’s on the other side and telling them to do that, and then he runs down and goes back and in the midst of all this confusion, the kicker didn’t get the information that he needed to kick the squib. So that’s what happened. They get out there and didn’t kick the squib.
“It was a bad, bad situation.”
A squib and a tackle around the 30- or 35-yard line, he adds, “changes the whole dynamic” of the game. With less time, the Chiefs may have had no choice but to attempt one Hail Mary or lateral their way down the field.
Another player confirmed this story, adding that Farwell had everyone ready for the squib.
“He was telling them how to line up for the squib,” this player said. “And I guess McDermott had the last say and I don’t know if McDermott translated that to Heath because Heath was prepared for the squib in his mind and McDermott was like, ‘Kick it out.’”
One player was a bit more diplomatic, citing a “miscommunication.”
“I’m never one to point fingers,” he said. “It’s nobody’s fault, but I think everybody knows what should’ve been called and it wasn’t.”
Farwell is no longer in Buffalo. He resigned and is now the special teams coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Players said he was unhappy in Buffalo and left on his own accord. They repeat that he was trying to do the right thing in that kickoff moment and deserves no scorn.
But, OK. Let’s be real for a moment. Thirteen seconds is just that: Thir…teen…freak…ing seconds. The Bills still had no business letting Kansas City get into field goal range from its own 25-yard line that quickly. When the two teams lined up on first down, the Bills appeared to be playing a soft coverage and frantically called their second timeout. The CBS camera zoomed in on McDermott, who was visibly speaking into the headset. The Chiefs had all three of their timeouts, so there was no benefit to forcing a completion into the middle of the field. All 53 1/3 yards across the width of the field were fair game.
Yet, when the players lined back up, there was an odd sight. Cornerback Levi Wallace was aligned in a manner, it appeared, to force the action inside. The Bills rushed four with the other seven players way off the ball. As if in a mass retreat.
This allowed wide receiver Tyreek Hill, one of the fastest humans on the planet, to catch a short pass and zoom upfield for 19 yards. The ball was placed at the 44-yard line and the Chiefs called a timeout with eight seconds remaining.
The camera panned back to Allen. He looked nervous. He breathed heavy.
As the teams lined up, Wallace was again aligned off and to the outside. And, again, the Bills took a look at how the Chiefs were lined up before calling another timeout. What seemed to be a head coach playing chess was nothing but elementary checkers. During the timeout, a mic’d up Travis Kelce was later heard telling Mahomes that — if the Bills played it like this — the seam was wide open. KC and Buffalo lined back up, Wallace still lined up off and outside and Mahomes shouted, “Do it, Kelc! Do it! Do it, Kelc!” as color man Tony Romo noted the vulnerability in real time on the Telestrator. Then, the tight end cruised up the seam to gain the easiest 25 yards of his life. It also didn’t help that the coaches had safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde line up somewhere near Dorothy Gale’s displaced house across the border in Kansas. One was 26 yards off the ball, the other 31 yards off. As one player later said, “What are you scared of, getting beat over the top like that? That wasn’t happening.” Nor did it help that the Bills rushed four. Mahomes needed to throw the ball instantly regardless — an extra body could’ve been used in coverage.
Kelce got down with three seconds left. Harrison Butker drilled the 49-yard field goal.
Then, into overtime, a defense that ranked No. 1 in yards allowed showed no resistance. Andy Reid embarrassed his old understudy with a dizzying eight-play, 75-yard drive capped by an insanely underrated throw by Mahomes to Kelce in the corner of the end zone. The linebacker that the Bills inked to a four-year, $41.5-million contract for this exact matchup, Matt Milano, was actually in really good position. And it didn’t matter.
The question here is obvious: What was Levi Wallace thinking?
Coordinator Leslie Frazier calls the defense in Buffalo but this unit, since Day 1, has obviously been built in McDermott’s vision. The former William & Mary safety has been fully submerged in the defensive X’s and O’s since entering the NFL in 1999. Arguably his greatest strength is his ability to teach defensive backs, too. And here he had 71 seconds of real time before Hill’s play and 110 seconds before Kelce’s catch to get the defense right. He could’ve spoken individually to each player if he so chose. Instead, an extremely soft defense was deployed at the worst possible moment.
Every player I spoke to emphatically shot down the notion that Wallace was at fault.
True, nothing seems out of whack before the ball was snapped. The alignment was very uniform. No players scurried to and fro before the ball was snapped. No coaches are waving their arms at players to move up.
As teammates explained, Wallace is the last player on the planet who’d go rogue. A classic overachiever who could reap the rewards in free agency this month. Wallace is not particularly big (6-0, 179) or fast (4.63 in the 40) or athletic (33-inch vertical). Twenty-eight cornerbacks were drafted in 2018 — Wallace was not one of them. He clawed his way onto Buffalo’s practice squad and worked his way right into the starting lineup by following the book. By trusting coaching, his technique and playing within the defense. The last three seasons, Wallace has 147 solo tackles, six interceptions and 27 passes defensed. He played 92.1 percent of the defensive snaps in 2021 and the excellent sports contract site Spotrac estimates his market value this spring at $9.6 million per season. Whereas an injury to a No. 1 corner like Tre’Davious White nukes other teams’ seasons, the Bills chugged right along in 2021 with Wallace, Dane Jackson and Taron Johnson.
A major credit to McDermott and Wallace both.
Wallace is described as one of the most fundamentally sound players on the team.
“Levi never goes rogue,” one defensive player said. “That’s why Levi has been our starting corner. Let’s be honest, he’s not the most physically gifted guy. He doesn’t make any errors. He knows the defense well. He’s lined up like that for a reason.”
Added one other player: “No, no, no, he didn’t do that on his own. We do everything we’re coached to do. Nobody goes rogue. Why would you?”
Frazier calls the defense but obviously McDermott wasn’t exactly ordering a popcorn from a vendor in Section 120 through those two timeouts. He’s clearly an active participant and, if he didn’t intervene to make sure his defense was positioned to disrupt KC’s speed, he should have. Probably no coach in the NFL has been thinking about how to stop Mahomes, Hill and Kelce more these last years and… that was the grand reveal? In the AFC Championship one year prior, McDermott coached scared by kicking chip-shot field goals. That side of him reared its ugly head again — the Bills killed two possessions in this shootout by punting on fourth and 4 and fourth and 1. But this time around, he discovered a new way to coach scared. A defensive end could’ve been told to drop a shoulder into Kelce off the line to derail his timing. Cornerbacks could’ve been instructed to be physical at the line. If anything, a defensive penalty helps Buffalo. Going full Mel Blount at the line of scrimmage would’ve been a phenomenal idea. Those safeties should’ve been defending a field goal, not a touchdown.
Instead, players were put in position to lose the game.
And this is all from a head coach who lives in the details, who eats, sleeps and breathes situational football. Back to his days as Reid’s gopher in Philadelphia, McDermott was at the Eagles facility as early as 4 a.m. He seems to know the duties of everyone in his own building from the janitor to the quarterback in a May OTA, let alone a January playoff game. As one source familiar with the inner-workings of the team puts it, nothing of importance at One Bills Drive happens without McDermott’s approval. He’s aware of everything, right down to what reporters are tweeting during a punt period at practice. Thus, this does not compute. How does this same micromanager freeze up when the season is on the line?
With everything on the line…
…with a chance to host a conference championship…
“…you fold,” one defensive player said, despondently. “You fold.”
This player believes the heightened Super Bowl expectations in Buffalo may have something to do with it. Initially, McDermott’s oversized face greeted everyone at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, replacing Tyrod Taylor on the massive New Era ad. When McDermott was hired, he promised to be the calm, steady “one voice” representing the franchise. Unlike his predecessor, he made no public promises. Buffalo basically swapped a night on Bourbon Street for a trip to the DMV. Unlike his predecessor, he built a contender. Whereas Rex Ryan’s decked-out Bills truck always seemed to leave the facility a few hours too early, McDermott is a workaholic. Even as a defensive coordinator in Philly, he once said he sleeps in the office during the regular season. “I don’t go home during the season until later in the week,” he told B/R then.
Upon being hired by the Bills, he said his alarm clock blared as early as 3 a.m.
This hard pendulum swing the other direction — in every way — was understandable and helped morph these Bills into a winner. Most players hated playing in Ryan’s defense, too. It was a confusing, chaotic mess. With checks on checks on checks, there was too much thinking and not enough playing on pure instincts. Comparatively, McDermott’s scheme is straightforward and sound.
But, hey, a little more sleep would help. Perhaps, the pressure is building to a point where Sean McDermott cracks when the lights are brightest. That’s one player’s theory. After that “Caliber” declaration, in 2019, the Bills squandered a 16-0 third quarter lead in Houston. In 2020, McDermott settled for those field goals on fourth and goal from the 2-yard line and fourth and 3 from the 8-yard line— blinked — and suddenly trailed, 38-15. This year, Allen matched Mahomes’ haymakers and the roof caved in with 13 seconds to go. McDermott is trying to keep the rest of the world at bay but, as suspected, some players weren’t thrilled with McDermott’s use of the word “execution.” When asked if he interpreted the use of this word as the head coach blaming players, one veteran said, blankly, “of course,” before re-creating one wild scene after the game in which McDermott actually did take some accountability for a brief moment.
After Kelce caught that touchdown, the Bills trudged into the locker room in total shock.
The volume level was high.
“Emotions were up in the air,” one veteran said. “Everybody was angry and upset and Stefon Diggs was having an argument with a defensive player — just saying that he was upset with the call — and then Jerry (Hughes) stepped in. There was a big uproar and people were about to throw hands. (McDermott) comes in and says if you’re about to blame anyone for what happened, you should blame him. But that was the only time that he took accountability. There was no public accountability after that. In our exit meetings and interviews, he never really highlighted that as well. He never broke down why we didn’t kick the squib. It was like a ‘Thank you for an amazing year. You guys are great. We’ll see what happens next year.’”
A good number of players were present so it’s possible McDermott viewed this as sufficient accountability on his part.
Players all took their pads off for the final time, held a team prayer and headed onto the plane back home.
Don’t hold your breath for substance to be shared publicly. The Bills are taking their cue from the person who decides whether or not they have a job.
Further, the very nature of covering an NFL team these days makes it easier for teams to conceal information. The last two years, the league used the Covid-19 pandemic as a means to shut down open locker room to the media. Typically, this is where relationships are formed and reporters are able to get answers to the questions taxpaying fans deserve. Zoom press conferences administered by teams are too often tepid, poll-tested productions. For decades, “locker room clean-up day” has served as a perfect opportunity to get those answers on everything from injuries players gritted through all season that nobody knew about to full explanations on what happened in a playoff loss. On the Green Bay Packers beat, I can remember tight end Brandon Bostick refusing to hide from his gaffe in the 2014 NFC Championship Game. He discussed it openly right after the game and the next morning… as alllll of the death threats spammed his cell phone and his head coach refused to take blame. Same for Hyde the year prior when he dropped an interception that would’ve won a wild card game against San Francisco.
In lieu of this, Bills players were made available to beat writers who cover the team regularly on Zoom. Not much was said.
But don’t get it twisted. This defeat was ripe with emotion.
What got the wheels turning here was the final episode of our Go Long show with Bills wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie — a player who was not interviewed for this story. Four days after the loss, at Mister’s Bar & Lanes, folks could see and hear a player in an authentic state of disillusionment. McKenzie said then that many players genuinely had no clue what happened those final 13 seconds.
You catch the full episode right here, icymi.
“In those tight moments, you would think everybody was communicating with detail,” McKenzie said then. “Like, ‘OK, we’re doing this, we’re doing that.’ Make sure everybody knows because we emphasize it during the week. You talk to the defense. You talk to the special teams, ‘Hey, you do this, you do that, this is what we’re doing.’ I don’t know if everybody was on the same page.”
He acknowledged his head coach’s obsession with detail, too, saying he sees it “every day.”
“He’s very detailed. He makes sure the whole staff tells their guys, ‘Hey, do this, do that.’ To the T. … Like they say, it’s above my pay grade. I took a pay cut I deserve to get cut out of the mix.”
When I chatted with tight end Dawson Knox for a different story that’ll appear in this newsletter at a later date, this game was brought up of course. He started by defending the Bills’ defense.
“There are so many things I could say about that I’m probably going to refrain from,” Knox said. “Our defense was so incredible all year. That’s one of those things that’s so unfortunate for them. They were ranked first in everything. The whole year. First in scoring defense. First in takeaways. First in like eight categories. Something stupid. To have no Pro Bowlers was kind of nuts. And to just finish the year like that, they’re going to naturally get a lot of hate from the media and fans are going to doubt them. But it’s going to make them forget about the incredible year that they had because we wouldn’t have got to where we were without that defense. It was never one person’s fault. It’s obviously something we want back but I think it’s something that can be used as fuel to light a bigger fire to carry us through next season.”
When asked if the players received an explanation on the touchback and the defensive alignment, Knox made a good point. Playoff losses are different because teams don’t gather to watch film the next day—they’re cleaning up those lockers. So, there are corrections and critiques broadcast for all in a formal setting. Nor are players in a rush to get together and watch a playoff loss for fun.
“Your season’s over,” Knox said. “Everyone’s pissed. Everyone starts planning vacations. … So, no, there wasn’t any type of meeting on, ‘Oh, we should’ve changed this or changed that.’ It just kind of was what it was at that point. We were in shock. Still in shock obviously.”
When I said I’d want to know what the hell happened as a player, he offered a similar take as McKenzie.
“We’re definitely on the same page with you there,” he said. “As of now, it’s just an unspoken tragedy.”
Players like Knox are staying optimistic. He said that this can be a good thing in the grand scheme of things and that the Bills will find a way to “use it to get to where we want to be next year.” What a treacherous seven months that’ll be, though. Legacies are defined in the postseason and it’s impossible for anyone to be a prisoner of the moment when it comes to this game.
Anecdotally, I’ve heard from locals who attended Buffalo’s “Wide Right” Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants 31 years ago insist this loss was worse and a recent poll at WGR 550 Radio asking locals which Buffalo sports heartbreak hurts the most was probably closer than most anticipated with Scott Norwood’s missed kick drawing 48 percent, “13 Seconds” gathering 40 percent, the Buffalo Sabres’ controversial “No Goal” loss in Game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals to the Dallas Stars drawing 9 percent and the Music City Miracle only getting 2 percent.
The aftermath was quite different that night in Tampa, Fla., after Norwood’s infamous kick sailed right.
Inside the locker room, Norwood answered questions for nearly an hour about the kick. And he did so — reporter after reporter — with unbelievable honesty and grace. At the absolute worst moment of his life, a moment that’d shape his life forever, Norwood didn’t hold anything back. He’d later say that’s simply how he was raised, that it’s easy to stand there and answer questions when things go great. “But how do you react when things don’t go as planned? I believe you have an obligation to stand in there, good times or bad. … It’s not always fun, but you can’t just soak up the sunshine in life. Sometimes, you got to soak up a little rain, too.” That sort of grace had 30,000 fans chanting “We Want Scott! We Want Scott!” at Buffalo City Hall when that team was honored. Special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven was so blown away that he named his adopted son (“Tobin Scott”) after the kicker. It's no wonder that DeHaven himself handled the Music City Miracle nine years later in similar fashion. His mistake was pooching a kickoff to the Tennessee Titans. Wade Phillips fired him the next day and installed his friend, Ronnie Jones, who had never held the position before.
What a contrast to today.
At the NFL Scouting Combine this week McDermott was asked by The Athletic’s Tim Graham about the end of the KC game and he again noted “execution.” He then paused and added that it “starts and ends with the head coach.” When pressed on the team’s vague messaging, and the fact that fans are seeking the specifics behind the blanket term, “execution,” McDermott didn’t budge.
“I believe I’ve addressed it to the point it needs to be addressed,” he said.
Oddly enough, one source said that McDermott often shares more with the media than he does his own assistant coaches. A remarkable feat for someone who has mastered the art of saying nothing in a press conference. When McDermott was asked after the Bills’ 14-10 loss to the Patriots in 55 MPH winds if his offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, was doing a good enough job, he said the Bills didn’t take advantage of their opportunities and pointed out that the offense was 1 of 4 in the red zone. One source said those comments were far more than anything McDermott shared with his staff internally.
The infrastructure Rex Ryan left behind was caving. McDermott deserves credit for building a culture with an all-in drumbeat that players sincerely followed. But he’s also entering Year 6 now and people underneath the head coach certainly picked up on the hypocrisy. This sort of finish to a season demanded more than a word salad from a head coach who speaks often about accountability. Football is played by humans, not cyborgs, and there were players and coaches alike disappointed in their boss’ silence.
“This doesn’t add up,” said one team source on the 48-hour aftermath. “Here’s a guy who stresses process and detail and then you’re on the cusp of hosting the AFC Championship and there’s an epic meltdown and, not only are you left questioning it, there’s almost no reference to it ever happening. Just like, ‘Yep, season’s over.’ What’s the explanation?”
McDermott has cycled through a lot of assistant coaches over his five years in charge.
When one is asked what it’s like to work with him as a boss, he chooses not to answer.
“If I have anything bad to say, I’d rather say it to his face. Read into that as you may.”
Added one player: “I didn’t notice it (during the season) because everybody was flying the Buffalo flag and teamwork and family and stuff like that but, once the season was over, a lot of people were being more vocal within the organization of their displeasure toward Sean McDermott. That was so surprising for me.”
This same player does believe time can heal and doesn’t expect a mutiny by any means.
He sees players buying what their coach is selling come training camp. This isn’t a roster overflowing with volatile personalities. Many, in fact, are carbon copies of their coach. Given cap constraints, there’s going to be quite a bit of turnover, too. Each season and each team is different. Lastly, this vet correctly points out that when a coach controls your livelihood you tend to do what he says. A 23-year-old playing on the league minimum, for example, isn’t going to pop off. He doesn’t believe the pain of “13 Seconds” will carry over to next season.
Still, heartbreak to this degree is ultra-, ultra-rare in all of sports. This can go two directions.
For good. After Miami Heat shooting guard Ray Allen drilled a corner 3 to tie (and stun) the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, and Miami went on to win Game 7, the Spurs somehow conjured the energy and motivation to climb all the way back to the Finals to face the Heat again. They took the 2014 rematch in five games. Or, for bad. This heartbreak could also linger. The Seattle Seahawks never recovered from Russell Wilson’s goal-line interception in the Super Bowl. In that case, there was a distinctive schism between offensive and defensive players.
It’s true that other teams would sell their souls for Buffalo’s current set-up. Let’s not forget that the Bills spent most of the previous 20 years in the quarterback doldrums. And after doing everything they could to flank Josh Allen with weaponry to elevate his game, it’s obvious now that Allen is capable of elevating the play of everyone else. It wasn’t always perfect in 2021. He threw 15 interceptions and his completion percentage dipped six percentage points but by air (4,407 yards) and ground (763 yards) — with 42 total touchdowns — Allen was playing better than anybody in the NFL when it mattered most. Diggs will probably want more money soon. Cole Beasley could be a cap casualty. Everything gets tougher financially when a team pays its quarterback but the Bills can rest easy. Allen warrants this six-year, $258 million pact.
The front office hasn’t been perfect, either. This was a team with 23.08 percent of its cap allocated to the defensive line into 2021 that also drafted four defensive linemen in the first two rounds since 2019, and Mahomes hardly broke a sweat two postseasons in a row. Overall, however, Brandon Beane has found his head coach more than enough talent to win. In both free agency and the draft, the roster is full of hits. Beane might’ve uncovered a budding star with the 128th overall pick in the 2020 draft. Gabriel Davis should be the No. 2 receiver next season. Knox (96th overall), Spencer Brown (93rd), Bass (188th), Devin Singletary (74th) have all been hits on offense.
Allen isn’t going anywhere. Beane, either.
It’s on McDermott to deliver in 2022.
Nobody’s saying the Bills need to fire a coach who’s gone 49-32. That’s obviously foolish. But these gaffes should turn the thermostat up a few degrees. The deity status McDermott once had in town has mostly evaporated and more postseason defeats will at least force the organization to ask itself tough questions if, well, a brilliant offensive mind like Sean Payton suddenly expressed interest in coaching Allen. Teams in all sports challenge themselves to get better when they possess a supernatural talent. It’s an extreme example, but the Los Angeles Lakers replaced Paul Westhead for Pat Riley (to unlock Magic Johnson) and the Chicago Bulls replaced Doug Collins for Phil Jackson (to make Michael Jordan a winner). The Green Bay Packers should’ve fired Mike McCarthy four of five years before they did, in retrospect.
It's time for the Bills to view their franchise through the prism of their quarterback. Not the coach.
Allen has completely changed the calculus of hope around here. A half-decade ago, you’d have to swim the Niagara River, hike Chestnut Ridge and zip down every slope at Holiday Valley to find a single fan in Western New York bold enough to say publicly that they want a dome. Now? That was a very normal conversation had this past season — and the reason is Allen. (Note: it’s not happening.) A generation borne in the drought that grew to expect the worst now expects their quarterback to put on a cape and do exactly what he did against the Chiefs in firing a go-ahead touchdown on fourth and 13 with 1:54 left and then, when KC answers, drive his offense 75 yards in 49 seconds.
The problem is how incredibly difficult it is to get back to that moment.
There could be a leadership void to fill on defense. The player who helped diffuse that locker room skirmish, Hughes, is described as this unit’s rock. One player calls him the most “passionate” and “vocal” player he ever met. Because of his experience, he was one player able to vocalize any frustrations to the coaching staff which was appreciated by teammates. Also hitting free agency are Mario Addison, Emmanuel Sanders, Harrison Phillips, Wallace and McKenzie.
The coordinator who helped groom Allen is off to New York. It’s hard to say how much input McDermott has on the quarterback position. He started Nathan Peterman twice. New OC, Ken Dorsey, will be an unbelievably important force day to day.
Then, there’s the rest of the AFC. Allen is special, but he’s not alone.
Justin Herbert threw 5,000 yards in his second season. He turns 24 years old next week. Lamar Jackson, the 2019 NFL MVP, was on pace for his third straight 1,000-yard rushing season before an ankle injury sent him to IR. The Ravens will need to pay him big bucks but no team replenishes a roster with talent quite like the well-oiled machine Ozzie Newsome built two decades ago. Joe Burrow brought his swagger to the entire Cincinnati Bengals team. They were in the Super Bowl, remember? No doubt, the Bengals take issue with any suggestion that the Bills lost a shot at a Super Bowl that night at Arrowhead. Could one of the second-year quarterbacks, Trevor Lawrence or Mac Jones or Zach Wilson, make the same jump in ‘22 that Allen did in ‘19? It’s plausible. Could Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson enter the chat? Again, plausible.
A healthy Derrick Henry makes the Titans a Super Bowl threat once more. Even a B or B+ addition at quarterback makes the Pittsburgh Steelers a contender, too.
And oh, hello, Patrick Mahomes.
Those who’ve been with Go Long since our launch may recall the detail on how the McDermott Era began. Owner Terry Pegula loved Mahomes — before anyone else — yet, after securing control of the 53-man roster over GM Doug Whaley, McDermott made it clear he wanted to win in Year 1. So, Tyrod Taylor was retained as the starter. Empowered with final say on draft day, McDermott had zero interest breaking in a rookie quarterback from Texas Tech. Rather than go full Jerry Jones, the owner let McDermott plant the seeds of his “process.” The Bills traded out of the 10th overall pick where, of course, the Chiefs selected Mahomes. Whaley was fired, Beane was installed and Beane led the quarterback search that led to Allen.
That’s one hell of a consolation prize, to be sure. Yet there’s also no denying McDermott pushed away the player who stunned the Bills those final 13 seconds. Into OT, he then drove right down the field on the defense the coach spent five years building.
Mahomes may haunt the franchise for a long time.
Gone are so many coaches, so many personnel men and, soon, many players. How long is that Super Bowl window open? Honestly, that’s up to the head coach, and how he executes the next time a season is on the line.
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