They passed on ‘Michael Jordan.’ Now, the Buffalo Bills take a ‘kill or be killed’ mentality into the AFC title game. How did they get here?

A team captain (Dion Dawkins) and a team legend (Darryl Talley) help connect the past with the present to explain how the Bills are one win away from the Super Bowl.

Honestly, it’s strange to hear at first. Right there on the phone is a captain for the Buffalo Bills — left tackle Dion Dawkins — setting the biting tone for the AFC Championship.

Buffalo is one win away from the Super Bowl and the mentality is very clear.

“It’s kill or be killed,” Dawkins says. “We have one more game ahead of us. It’s the next game. We understand what is on the line. It is kill or, honestly, be killed. They’re going to get the best of us which I’m pretty sure they’re going to give us the best of them. It’s all confidence. No cockiness. We’re just confident in what we’re capable of doing if we put our mind to it.”

Dawkins has been saying these words — kill or be killed — to everyone all week. He wants his team to think this way. He wants the Bills to strut right into Arrowhead Stadium and smash the defending champions.

“It is truly that,” he adds. “It is kill or be killed.”

Which sounds even crazier when you really think about where this all began. Regimes that start like this have zero business playing in championship games. None. If you take over as a head coach, as Sean McDermott did in 2017, and one of the first things you do is pass on Patrick Mahomes, historically, that’s a wrap. There’s no need to rehash the nitty-gritty details of how this all went down. If you’d like, feel free to check out our two-part series to debut Go Long or the first episode of our podcast with the two personnel men right there with McDermott then. Yes, the man who owns the team loved Mahomes when nobody else in the world really did. (Which is remarkable.) No, he would not interfere in Jerry Jones-fashion. (Which is even more remarkable.)

Dawkins himself refers to Mahomes as Michael Jordan in this chat. Passing on MJ is the kind of mistake documentaries are made of. Now, a short three years later, the Bills are on the cusp of reaching their first Super Bowl since 1993.

How?

In sum: Culture, Accountability and Josh Allen.

One pillar from the past (Darryl Talley) and one pillar of the present (Dawkins) helped connect the dots with Go Long this week— and, it turns out, these 2020 Bills sure are a lot like those 1990-1993 Bills. Start with McDermott’s introductory press conference. He said a lot of things coaches are supposed to say in this setting. (No, he didn’t go full Dan Campbell.) You can read the full transcript of his first address here.

He said things like…

“I am looking to build a culture of winning and that starts insides these walls and extends to our community.”

“I have gone to two Super Bowls. I know what that looks like, smells like and taste likes.”

“I am going to build this culture along with the people in this building to develop a daily standard of winning in the way we do things. We have to earn the right to win in this league and I have learned that. So I just believe in the process.”

“I believe in doing things a certain way and it starts with myself. As a leader, if you don’t hold yourself accountable, then it all breaks down from there.”

Which was pretty much the same exact thing all the other coaches hired in this 2017 cycle said. And three of those coaches — Anthony Lynn, Doug Marrone and Vance Joseph — have all been let go since because turning words into action is never easy, especially when you follow up that Mahomes miss by starting Nathan Peterman twice. But McDermott and GM Brandon Beane were able to pull this off. Their words, clearly now, have had substance all along. Because when you see completely new role players from the depths of the roster winning games, it’s no accident. It’s a pattern. It’s an extension of culture. (And that’s coming from someone who loathes the general oversimplification of “culture” and “process.”)

Clearly, something worked in Buffalo. Something said resonated.  

That decision to trade out of that 10th overall pick did not bury this franchise like it could have. Like, say, it did six teams picking in that top 10.

The Bills recovered.

“That’s life,” Dawkins says. “Everybody can’t have the Michael Jordan of a draft. Or an Allen Iverson. Or a Magic Johnson of a draft. Or even a LeBron James. So, guys honestly just need to trust in what they have and understand that everybody is in the NFL for a reason. And if they’re taught the right way and if they’re loved on the right way and the coaches genuinely care, then there’s guys who can pull that greatness out at any time. For anybody to get to this level, they have some type of greatness in them. The coaches bring that out.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the point.

Wide receiver Stefon Diggs, undoubtedly, morphed this team into legitimate Super Bowl contenders. But he couldn’t do it alone. There are ungodly receiving talents on so-so teams every season. The personnel staff, here, has proven it can find players wired a certain way and the coaching staff has proven it can extract every bit of that “greatness” out of those players. The Bills max out the talent inside each of their players. Just run down the roster. It’s full of veterans — like Cole Beasley and Daryl Williams and A.J. Klein and, of course, Jordan Poyer — who have resembled completely different players in Buffalo vs. anywhere else.

There’s Taron Johnson, a 121st overall pick, changing two crucial games with two pick-sixes.

There’s Gabriel Davis, a 128th overall pick, tight-roping the sideline for two massive receptions at the end of the first half vs. Indy.

And even throw a 188th overall pick, Tyler Bass, in there. Their kicker seems to relish pressure moments.

Such is a trait all Super Bowl Champions have. Pick any winner from the last decade. The Packers don’t win a Super Bowl without Desmond Bishop shoestring-tackling DeSean Jackson in the wild card, nor do the Patriots pull off “28-3” if Chris Hogan doesn’t catch a crucial third-and-10 pass on the game-tying drive late, nor do the Eagles stun those same Patriots a year later without Corey Clement’s 100-yard day.

So what does this really look like up close? How do you build to this point? To Dawkins, it’s all about a group of players “mastering” their routines. Day in, day out. The 26-year-old who signed a four-year, $60 million contract last August has relished his leadership role in the locker room and he knows he is not alone.

“I take it personal,” Dawkins says. “Guys definitely lean toward me and look at me for answers and, honestly, positive vibes. I care. I just truly care. I think that guys can sense that I truly care and I think that’s what brings guys closer and I’m just one. There are so many others.”

Dawkins believed this team could legitimately win a Super Bowl Day 1 of this all, back in 2017, the year he was drafted.

And this year, he adds, “is an extremely special year.”

Granted, the #Process virtues espoused at One Bills Drive all along were difficult to quantify — especially when the team went 6-10 through 2018. When the roster was really gutted. The message at this particular podium can always sound pretty cliché, nebulous. But we’re seeing what all this talk about accountability and playing together means now. The Bills are 15-3. The Super Bowl is right there. And one player from Super Bowls past — Talley — promises all of this talk does translate to the field.

The first time the two of us chatted, when I was a beat writer at The Buffalo News, Talley was not shy. He absolutely skewered those 2015 Bills under Rex Ryan after a loss in Philly dropped their record to 6-7. “Everybody’s doing their own thing,” he said then. The utter lack of any togetherness — whatsoever — pissed him off. So, no, this is not a legend from the past who’ll toe the company line. Talley tells it like it is.

And since the early 90s, the Bills have been searching for this trait. This togetherness.

Talley, a two-time All-Pro, absolutely sees it now.

The way Talley puts it, if guys weren’t truly fighting for one another on his teams, they’d have to answer for it in the locker room. Outsiders famously labeled them the “Bickering Bills” for going at each other in the press. But to him, those jabs were necessary. To him, that’s a team simply raising its standard.

“We weren’t fighting,” Talley says. “We were just telling ‘em, ‘Look. We expect this out of you. We expect more out of you than what you’re giving.’ So we did that and nobody had done that to each other before. We were the first group to do that. And I think that held us together and made us all want to fight for a common cause.”

It takes arguments. Conflict. “It takes,” Talley adds, “getting into fights. But that’s how you learn who’s in your camp and who’s not in your camp.”

The 2020 Bills got to this point. Somehow. Talley sees a calloused team that’s playing together like his teams did through four straight runs to the Super Bowl.

“When you have guys who are willing to lay it on the line,” Talley says, “and say, ‘OK, look. I’m going to let you hold me accountable. Hold me accountable because I am going to be able to do this. I am going to do it.’ Then, it’s not like you’re backing into something. We’re walking in and coming in through the front door.”

Anybody can have a plan. Anybody can talk about these things at a podium.

Ryan certainly did. Ryan was quite masterful at articulating a kill or be killed-like plan. Ryan got this Bills fan base hyped up beyond belief — to the point where fans even raised money for the Guinness Book of World Records to be on hand in an attempt to set the record for the loudest stadium ever.

But, as Talley says, then the punches start flying. Then you get smacked directly in the jaw. Whenever Ryan’s Bills were smacked — like that Week 2 Guinness game against the Patriots — they could never recover. They were beat down through 8-8 and 7-9 seasons and Ryan was fired. McDermott’s Bills took their punches, too. Through a three-game losing streak in 2017, they were outscored by a combined 80 points, yet recovered to end the franchise’s 17-year playoff drought.

The next season wasn’t pretty, either, with so many vets dumped from the payroll.

Says Talley: “Once you get hit in the mouth, then you see who’s going to do what and who’s going to play. Everything is fun and games until you get hit in the mouth. Once that happens, the game’s on.”

The Bills wobbled back to their corner, got a shot of water, had that swollen eye tended to and the No. 1 reason they were able to storm back into the center of the ring after the Mahomes gaffe, after every early setback, was who they did end up with at quarterback: Josh Allen. They needed to hit in ‘18 and, by all accounts, certainly have. No talk about culture and togetherness amounts to much if the Bills draft Josh Rosen instead of Allen — a choice so many fans would’ve preferred at the time. This season, Allen was an MVP candidate with a 69.2 completion percentage, 4,544 passing yards and 37 touchdowns with only 10 picks and a 107.2 passer rating.

The turning point for this franchise, to Talley, was that QB sneak on Thanksgiving Day a year ago. When Allen picked up a fumble and bashed through the teeth of the Cowboys’ defense, he was sold. He told his wife, right then, that this was Allen telling the world he had arrived. And the only difference between this quarterback and his quarterback (Jim Kelly) is that Allen is a much, much better athlete. (“Jim couldn’t run!”)

Says Talley: “You see the same type of toughness. That’s the kind of quarterback I want. I want a guy who’s willing to stick his face in there, and willing to do what they say not to do — to win.”

Buffalo gambled on Allen’s continued progression and that gamble keeps paying off. His jump in accuracy is historical — a 52.8 completion percentage to 58.8 to 69.2. All of Allen’s raw intangibles meant something to Beane, to McDermott. They expected this style of play to elevate the play of everyone around him. (They were right.) And they expected his work ethic to spark that drastic improvement in accuracy. (They were right.) Because, it turns out, no equation in the analytics department can quite measure this effect.

Guys wanted to fight for Kelly then. Guys want to fight for Allen now.

Both Talley and Dawkins insist there absolutely is something to that dynamic.

“When you have a guy,” Talley says, “who’s willing to stand up and say, ‘This is what I’ll do. This is what I need from you,’ what else can you ask for?”

Adds Dawkins: “He’s a master of his craft. He just trusted in his process of growing. He didn’t let anybody rush him. He didn’t let anybody force him into doing anything he didn’t want. He was just able to be himself. Josh, honestly, took that lead from other guys bettering themselves and other caliber of players getting here. All of the weight isn’t on Josh’s shoulders anymore. And that’s not to say that anybody who was here wasn’t good but all of that output of our offensive game doesn’t fall on Josh’s shoulders. There are so many people.

“We have Cole. We have Diggs. We have Singletary. We have Knox. We have Gabe. We have Smoke.”

And don’t forget about Isaiah McKenzie, too.

All of this talent helps.

And central to everything is a belief. An attitude. It’s a little freaky, isn’t it? The Bills have faced the Chiefs in the AFC title game exactly 27 years apart from 1967 to 1994 to 2021.

This group hopes to kill to see another day, too.

“We have 120 minutes left to win it all,” Dawkins says. “Everything is right here if we want it.”

There’s only one thing in their way, now: Mahomes.

Give a gift subscription

Share Go Long with Tyler Dunne