Before the 2017 NFL season started, the consensus around the country was the Buffalo Bills were in full rebuilding mode.
Outside of a dominant offensive line that paved the way for star running back LeSean McCoy and company to lead the league in rushing yards per game (164.4), there were question marks at virtually every position, from replacing the entire starting secondary after the departure of Stephon Gilmore, Aaron Williams, Corey Graham, and Ronald Darby, to uncertainty at the wide receiver position with the departure of Robert Woods, and Marquise Goodwin from a thinned-out receiving corps.
Adding to the supposed tank job rumors, first-year general manager Brandon Beane then dealt away Sammy Watkins and Darby for E.J. Gaines, Jordan Matthews, and a second- and third-round draft pick, giving Buffalo six picks in the first three rounds of the 2018 NFL draft.
Former second-round linebacker Reggie Ragland was dealt to the Kansas City Chiefs, and top backup running back Jonathan Williams, who was expected to shoulder much of the load carried previously by Mike Gillislee, was a surprising September cut.
Then, Friday night, the Bills shipped former first-round pick (No. 3 overall) Marcell Dareus to the Jacksonville Jaguars in exchange for a sixth-round draft pick that could turn into a fifth-rounder if Dareus stays with the team the rest of the year, and if the Jaguars make the playoffs.
Before the season began, the national media bought into the notion of the Bills tanking to land a franchise quarterback, even though incumbent starter Tyrod Taylor guided the offense well enough in 2016 (10th in scoring average at 24.9 points per game) that even an average defense could have been enough to win a few more games and turn a 7-9 record into 9-7 and a possible playoff berth.
USA Today Sports projected Buffalo to go 4-12, Sports Illustrated boldly predicted a 4-11-1 record, ESPN felt Buffalo would go 5-11, the Sporting News saw a 5-11 record, and none of Sports Illustrated’s writers felt the Bills would snap their 17-year playoff drought.
Despite all the outside noise about the Bills tanking, McCoy and McDermott both were adamant that nobody inside One Bills Drive ever doubted Buffalo’s ability to win games in 2017, despite the outside pessimism. McDermott took it a step further, saying the word tank wasn’t in his vocabulary.
“I just think that’s probably more of what’s been said about these guys outside of this building. What was said in preseason, where we’re tanking, all along we said we’re building a team and not tanking,” McDermott said Monday following the Bills’ 30-27 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team’s fourth win in six games. “I think that guys they embrace that, they embrace that underdog mentality, that underdog role, and honestly, I think that’s how they approach every week. Like I’ve said, and you heard me say this in the locker room Sunday, there’s guys that have been told they’re not good enough by other teams. I know this, I’ll take them on my team any day of the week.”
McCoy, Buffalo’s dynamic tailback who has amassed 590 all-purpose yards of offense this year (370 rushing and 220 receiving), is still searching for his first-ever playoff win after three setbacks with the Philadelphia Eagles.
The tanking talk definitely made its way inside the locker room, where McCoy said he and his teammates heard the national media discussing their 2017 chances in dismal terms. Like McDermott, McCoy said the national doubters served as extra motivation for the 53 players inside the Bills’ locker room.
“It’s a small group of guys and everybody’s pointing out that we’re not going to be that good, only going to win four games. You know, you hear that. So I think it makes us rally more together,” McCoy said. “Because [of] the moves maybe. Like ‘Aw, they’re trying to tank’ you know, and getting more [draft] picks. I mean, that’s how you look at it. As players, we come here every day for hours, trying to win. You kind of hear the tanking word, so it can rub you the wrong way if you let it,” McCoy said. “You know how much hard work you put into it training, off-season working out, during the season, the hits, all the maintenance you have to do on your body. The tanking word can kind of, you can take it in a negative way. Players like us, we just want to win. We do a lot to be here; we’ve got families to take care of, so we put a lot of hard work and effort into this game.”
The Bills (4-2) host the Oakland Raiders (3-4) at 1 p.m. Sunday at New Era Field in a big AFC showdown. The Bills currently sit in fifth place in the AFC, a half-game behind the New England Patriots for first place in the AFC East.