Absent the sort of background he has, now in his 23rd NFL season and seventh as Bills head coach, last week might have seemed like a lot to Sean McDermott.
The loss to the Jets on Monday night was only the beginning, and the resulting questions on Josh Allen, as if he were coming out of Wyoming all over again, would be the easy stuff. The mid-week lawsuit filed by former NFL Network reporter Jim Trotter put team ownership in the crosshairs on a sensitive topic that’d resonate in any locker room. The viral video that showed up on social media would make star receiver Stefon Diggs a topic of conversation again.
Were the Bills coming apart at the seams?
McDermott was confident they weren’t.
“You’ve been around the NFL,” the Buffalo coach said, unwinding late Sunday afternoon. “The short weeks are tricky, especially after a loss. You want to put a lot of time in, but you can't, because the players need to be fresh. Your work on the field isn’t as much as you’d like it to be in order to make some adjustments, and it’s already the season. That makes it to where you’re trying to develop more fundamentals. It makes it hard.”
But, on the flip side, it also would give McDermott a window into where his team was.
“I thought the guys really did a great job from a leadership standpoint,” he continues. “And that’s always good to see.”
McDermott didn’t want to get granular on all the week’s happenings in Orchard Park, but what he said there, doing so subtly, was simple: His Bills kept their eyes on the prize.
It was apparent, as he saw it, in how his scout team battled Thursday with the starters, through the little on-field work the players got coming out of the loss in New Jersey. And it was obvious Sunday, as Buffalo methodically dismantled the visiting Raiders, who came in riding high after opening the season with a win in Denver.
The 38–10 win wasn’t some sort of confirmation that the Bills are about to win their fourth-straight AFC East title, much less fulfill the locker room’s Super Bowl aspirations of the last couple years. But it’s fair to say that it did give McDermott some affirmation.
For starters, his quarterback served up plenty for the coach. After falling on the sword for all that went wrong in the ugly loss to the Jets—and most notably, his four turnovers—Allen showed that his willingness to accept culpability wasn’t just lip service. And that came to life right away, both in the week of preparation for the Raiders, and the game itself.
“He prepared,” McDermott says. “He went right back to the drawing board from a preparation standpoint. And he was humble in his approach. He checked the ball down early in the game and played very disciplined.”
In other words, a week after playing like the wild bronco of a quarterback he was coming into the league, he used the guardrails of his offense to morph back into the thoroughbred he’s become. There were some wow throws Sunday—his 11-yard, sidearm touchdown dart to Khalil Shakir was one—but more so there was what McDermott called a mature game from Allen, who picked apart a Raiders defense that forced him to work the ball down the field with a death-by-1,000 papercuts approach.
Allen piloted touchdown drives of 7, 11, 8, 15 and 11 plays, and finished with a workmanlike 274 yards and three touchdowns on 31-of-37 passing.
Then, there was the guy he went to, as he usually does, when it mattered most. Diggs, caught up in drama leading into a game again (and, this time, it wasn’t drama of his own making), responded with an afternoon that almost seemed drawn up to send a message on who he is and where he stands.
His seven catches for 66 yards weren’t flashy. No one will remember this as a signature Diggs performance. But they did show where he stands now—as the guy Allen will go to when it matters most, and one who’ll deliver in those spots, as he did with three of those seven catches converting third downs on touchdown drives as the Bills started to pull away from the Raiders.
“The guy loves football,” McDermott says, on what centered Diggs during the week. “He’s got a really unselfish approach. That could have, if he didn’t handle it the right way, become a distraction. It was to begin with. But it could have become a bigger one.”
It wasn’t, because, as McDermott said, Diggs wasn’t gonna let it get in the way of football.
And then, there was the other part of what he and GM Brandon Beane have built over the last seven years, something that showed up with a play that turned the game.
It would’ve been pretty easy for the Bills to go into a hole from then jump Sunday. After the Monday night mess, Buffalo’s defense yielded a five-play, 75-yard drive to Jimmy Garoppolo and the Raiders’ offense, and the offense followed that up with a three-and-out.
Enter 2022 third-round pick Terrel Bernard, Tremaine Edmunds’s replacement at middle linebacker, and another player developed through the Bills’ system.
On second-and-8 from the Raiders’ 30, with Las Vegas up 7–0, the Raiders called a screen to Ameer Abdullah. The line let Buffalo defensive tackle DaQuan Jones burst forward into Garoppolo’s lap. Edge rusher Greg Rousseau was right behind him to get a hand on the ball and deflect it. Waiting behind him, in Abdullah’s hip pocket, was Bernard, who was ready for his moment, even with every excuse not to be.
“He played the bulk of the training camp up until before the first preseason game, and then he went down with an injury,” McDermott says. “He missed a lot of time. He’s done a really good job to this point of really studying the game during the week, working hard to get himself ready to go and earn the respect of his teammates.”
By halftime, it was 21–10 Bills. Seconds into the fourth quarter, that edge had grown to 31–10. And as the clock wound down, with the game in hand, McDermott could take stock of what the week showed him about his team.
A team that was a little more resilient, as it turns out, than a lot of people realized.
“They set their mind,” he says. “Their mind was right. Nobody likes to lose. It’s a new team though, still. I know it’s been seven years, but it’s a new team, New players. New staff. Now, they’re trying to learn how to come together and grow and find a way to win a game every week. And I think that’s really where we’re at.”
Which is a lot better place than they were just a few days ago.
Not that it surprises the guys in that building, much less their coach.