With news of new Buffalo Bills free-agent signings coming in rapid-fire succession throughout the day on Monday and Tuesday, it’s been a great time to be a fan of the team. At the close of the 2018 NFL season, Bills fans realized that the team had major work to do if it wanted to compete in 2019. Bills fans also knew that the team, led by general manager Brandon Beane, had plenty of salary-cap space with which to add players.
While there was cautious optimism throughout Bills’ fandom, we heard an awful lot of the same old refrains: Buffalo isn’t a destination city for free agents, so the team has to overpay players to come. They also would be used as leverage to drive up deals, ultimately watching coveted targets sign with rivals after shopping a competitive offer from our beloved Bills. And also, after a mediocre-at-best free-agent period last season, there were legitimate questions about the Bills’ Pro Personnel department and its ability to evaluate NFL talent.
Well, if the early returns are any indication, it’s safe to say that the team is on the right track.
Anyone watching a Bills game last season knew that the team needed to revamp its offensive line—and that the wide receivers were a hodgepodge of average-at-best players combined with some younger, “upside” types. Those same people also knew that the team had issues at tight end. In short, the Bills needed an offensive face lift—for the second consecutive year—and fans were skeptical as to whether the front office would deliver changes.
This skepticism is borne from years of neglected rosters and failed regimes. Depending on your age, it’s possible that you haven’t witnessed a truly competent Buffalo front office since the late 1990s, when John Butler and A.J. Smith were still around before moving west with the San Diego, now Los Angeles, Chargers. If you’re a young pup, you may not remember any groups before the Tom Donahoe era; or worse, your first Buffalo memory may involve Marv Levy’s failed turn as general manager. Maybe it’s the Russ Brandon debacle that you turn to as the epitome of failed regimes, or maybe it’s Buddy Nix trashing his starting quarterback on a prank phone call, or Doug Whaley overpaying (and overdrafting) players who never panned out in Orchard Park.
Whatever the case, our Bills fan PTSD runs deep when it comes to trusting that the front office is doing things well. It feels like we’ve been opining for offensive-line help since George W. Bush’s presidency, and wide-receiver help for at least the last five years, and quarterback help since...well, since Jim Kelly called it a career.
So when Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott came in preaching about a “Process” that would take at least three years, we rolled our eyes. We mockingly made “The Process” a catch-all for every move, failed or otherwise, that happened under their watch. The only people more stunned by Buffalo’s 2017 playoff berth than its fans, arguably, were its decision makers, and they told us to temper our expectations in 2018. They were right, but we didn’t listen.
Bills fans were angry and embarrassed as we watched the latest incompetent front office/head coach tandem bungle yet another promising young quarterback’s development. How could the Los Angeles Rams have Sean McVay and Jared Goff, the Kansas City Chiefs have Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes, and we were stuck with Sean McDermott and Josh Allen? Even the poster-child for NFL incompetence, the Cleveland Browns, had Baker Mayfield and the wherewithal to fire perennially awful head coach Hue Jackson. Bills Mafia was negative.
How were we supposed to trust this regime to spend over $80 million in salary cap space? Its defensive-minded head coach, who said that the team merely had to threaten to score 21 points per game in order to compete in an NFL where the 16th-best scoring offense scored 23.1 points per game, would ruin the whole thing. The general manager did nothing to help the offense the previous offseason, leaving the young quarterback, Josh Allen, swinging in the breeze with inferior talent around him. While the Rams were adding players like Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, the latter of course a former Buffalo Bill, we were adding players like Isaiah McKenzie and Victor Bolden Jr.
But then, a funny thing happened. Buffalo’s front office went out and did exactly what it set out to do. Yes, they signed yet another geriatric running back, adding the somehow simultaneously aged and ageless Frank Gore. Yes, they signed a tight end, Tyler Kroft, whose career numbers won’t command much attention. They also added a former first-round pick at corner, Kevin Johnson, to compete with young Levi Wallace on the outside. They added Washington swing tackle Ty Nsekhe. They signed one of the top two centers on the market, Mitch Morse. They signed two wide receivers, John Brown and Cole Beasley, whose skill sets fit exactly what the team needs. They’ve signed two interior offensive linemen, Spencer Long and Jon Feliciano, who can serve as either starters or backups on what should be a much better unit.
Sure, it’s only March, and it’s possible that the Bills’ front office has once again invested in all the wrong players. But when was the last time you remember the Bills being a major player for so many highly valued free agents? When is the last time that Buffalo felt like a destination rather than a place to rehab a career before leaving for greener pastures?
Maybe it’s time to give this front office its due. Maybe we should take a moment and acknowledge that they had a plan, they stuck to it, and they are now executing it to the fullest extent. Maybe it’s time that we learn to trust the football people again in Western New York. They understand that they have a young quarterback with all the tools, and they understand that he needs help. They have acquired a ton of that help already, which sets them up to draft the best football players available in the NFL Draft in April.
Unlike previous regimes, they won’t have to reach and pick a wide receiver in the top five, nor will they have to take a running back in the top ten. The cupboards are not so bare that the team has to reach; instead, they can snag good football players at all their other positions of need—interior defensive line, edge rusher, offensive tackle, and tight end. To quote our own resident draft guru, Dan Lavoie, from a Slack discussion earlier this week: “Anyone want to take a guess as to where the real blue-chip draft prospects are in this draft?”
For once, it seems that the Bills have a group of decision makers who “get it.” They inherited a roster rife with bloated contracts for underwhelming players, and have gone through the messy, dirty work of turning over that roster. Yes, it’s only March, but it’s fitting that on the precipice of spring, the season of change and rebirth, the Bills would reshape their roster and their image in one fell swoop. Hope springs eternal in March for NFL teams, but this feels different. This feels like a giant leap forward after so many years of treading mud.
It’s nearly springtime in Western New York, Bills fans. Let’s be excited.