ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills think they have the right men to lead them out of the abyss in which they were trapped for 17 years. Of course, Bills fans have heard this before, so while there is the natural bump in optimism as training camp and a new season nears, there is also skepticism from many who will hold off judging Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane until they see something positive on the field.
To their credit, McDermott, in his first year as a head coach, and Beane, in his first year as a general manager, understand what they face in a town that has been beaten down by a millennium of no playoff appearances.
"There's history and then there's, 'OK, how do we handle it going forward?'" McDermott said. "And as a head coach I believe that the minute I was hired I own that, right? I'm a part of that. So, to try and separate one's self from that I think is the wrong approach. That said, as a team going forward, we have to focus on what's immediately in front of us and the vision for the future. And so creating the right dynamic around the present team is important in terms of our focus, our mindset."
Both McDermott and Beane enjoyed success in their previous stops in the NFL, McDermott with the Eagles and Panthers, Beane primarily with the Panthers. They have been to the playoffs, they have been to the Super Bowl, and neither can fathom what it was like for the Bills, a team that has not gone to the playoffs since the 1999 season.
"Well, there's nothing we can do about it," Beane said when asked about the playoff drought. "But you have to understand it, and I appreciate it from the sense of, I hated when we went three years without making the playoffs (in Carolina). So I can't imagine 17 years, the agony, the pain, whatever word you want to describe it. That's brutal. I've talked to employees who have been here through the whole tenure and you try and understand all of what's going on from a culture, not only in this building but this town, just everything that has come to 17 years without a playoff appearance. Sean and I are focused going forward because there's nothing we can do about the past, but we want nothing more than to look out there and see the excitement in the city, in this building, for everything we're doing."
It truly is a new era for the Bills. Owners Terry and Kim Pegula tore the front office down and approved its rebuild. In addition to firing Rex Ryan and all but one of his coaches, they also jettisoned general manager Doug Whaley and almost the entire college scouting and pro personnel departments. McDermott and Beane were given free rein to build their respective staffs, so now the organization should be in lockstep, with every aspect of the football operation pulling in the same direction, free of personal agendas.
Of course, while McDermott and Beane already made an impact on the roster, the bulk of the key players are holdovers from the Ryan-Whaley operation. The most important of those is quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who restructured his bloated contract to return as the starter, rather than face the likely release from the team he was facing prior to the start of the new league year.
In essence, he has another year to prove0 that he can be a functional, long-term performer at quarterback, and if the Bills can stay healthy, he'll have a chance with weapons such as LeSean McCoy, Sammy Watkins, Zay Jones, Charles Clay, and a solid offensive line.
On defense, the Bills were massive underachievers under Ryan, who stubbornly tried to reinvent a unit that had finished fourth overall in the NFL in 2014 and drove it down to back-to-back yardage rankings of 19th. McDermott has switched the Bills back to the 4-3, which is better-suited to their personnel, and it should bring out the best in linemen Jerry Hughes, Shaq Lawson, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams.
Linebacker is a trouble spot, unless 2016 second-round pick Reggie Ragland - who missed his entire rookie year with a knee injury - can step into the middle and be an every-down performer and signal-caller. And the secondary is almost totally revamped with only one starter returning, third-year cornerback Ronald Darby, who did not have a very good 2016 season.
"We're building; every year we are working to win," said McDermott, who refused to term his first season in Buffalo a rebuilding year. "That's not where we're going with this. That's not it at all. It's about winning football games. It's hard. It's a challenge when you say, 'Hey, we focus on the process and the scoreboard takes care of itself' because we're evaluated by wins and losses. But I just know, being a part of two winning organizations before coming here, that in order for us to win we have to focus on that. That'll translate into wins soon enough."
TOP THREE TRAINING CAMP GOALS
--Keep Sammy Watkins healthy. The wide receiver is embarking on a huge season. The Bills declined his fifth-year option, so essentially, he's in his walk year. Injuries have sabotaged his career, and he's coming off a second foot surgery which forced him to miss most of the offseason program. In training camp, Watkins must stay healthy and prove he is ready to become the star the Bills thought he would be when they picked him No. 4 overall in 2014.
--Get the defense on track. The switch from Rex Ryan's 3-4 to Sean McDermott's 4-3 seems like a step in the right direction because the Bills' personnel is better-suited to the 4-3. It puts everyone on the line back into more normal positions, and Reggie Ragland - back after missing his entire rookie season - should fit better as the middle linebacker. Still, it's a new scheme, and the Bills have to prove they're on the same page and that they can excel in the new defense.
--Get Tyrod Taylor to take his game up a notch. Taylor has been reunited with offensive coordinator Rick Dennison whom he worked with in 2014 in Baltimore. Taylor has given the Bills two decent seasons, which have included more than 1,000 yards rushing and only 12 interceptions. However, he remains limited in the downfield passing game, and if he's going to be the Bills' long-term answer at quarterback, he must have a great camp and a great regular season.
PROJECTED CAMP DEPTH CHART
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- LeSean McCoy, FB Patrick DiMarco. Backups -- Jonathan Williams, FB Mike Tolbert, Cedric O'Neal, Jordan Johnson, Joe Banyard.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Charles Clay. Backups -- Nick O'Leary, Logan Thomas, Keith Towbridge, Wes Saxton, Jason Croom.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Sammy Watkins, Zay Jones. Backups -- Andre Holmes, Philly Brown, Jeremy Butler, Walter Powell, Brandon Tate, Dezmin Lewis, Rod Streater, Brandon Reilly, Rashad Ross, Daikiel Shorts.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Cordy Glenn, LG Richie Incognito, C Eric Wood, RG John Miller, RT Jordan Mills. Backups - T Seantrel Henderson, G/C Ryan Groy, G/T Dion Dawkins, C Patrick Lewis, G Vladimir Ducasse, T Michael Ola, G Jordan Mudge, G Greg Pyke, G Zach Voytek, T Cameron Jefferson.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DT Marcell Dareus, DT Kyle Williams, DE Jerry Hughes, DE Shaq Lawson. Backups - DT Adolphus Washington, DT Jerel Worthy, DE Ryan Davis, DE Jake Metz, DE Max Valles, DE Marquavius Lewis, DE Ian Seau, DT Deandre Coleman, DT Nigel Williams, DE Eddie Yarbrough.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - MLB Reggie Ragland, OLB Gerald Hodges, OLB Lorenzo Alexander. Backups - MLB Preston Brown, OLB Ramon Humber, MLB Carl Bradford, Anthony Harrell, Jacob Lindsey, Abner Logan, OLB Matt Milano, MLB Tanner Vallejo.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Ronald Darby, CB Tre'Davious White, SS Micah Hyde, FS Jordan Poyer. Backups - CB Kevon Seymour, CB Leonard Johnson, CB Shareece Wright, CB Charles James, CB Greg Mabin, CB Marcus Sayles, CB Bradley Sylve, S Colt Anderson, S Shamiel Gray, S Trae Elston, S Joe Powell, S B.T. Sanders.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Steven Hauschka, P Colton Schmidt, LS Reid Ferguson, P Austin Rehkow, KOR/PR Brandon Tate.