Smells like team spirit

Bills show signs of united front af­ter off-sea­son over­haul

Kingston Whig-Standard - - SPORTS - JOHN WAWROW

OR­CHARD PARK, N.Y. — Quar­ter­back Ty­rod Tay­lor is amused by the ca­coph­ony em­a­nat­ing from the locker room af­ter prac­tice each Fri­day, when play­ers can choose what­ever mu­sic they pre­fer.

In one cor­ner, re­ceiver Jor­dan Matthews is freestyle rap­ping amid a cir­cle of team­mates. Else­where, the rous­ing wail of bag­pipes can be heard com­ing from speak­ers at punter Colton Sch­midt’s stall.

Jar­ring as it might sound, it’s mu­sic to Tay­lor’s ears. To him, the din rep­re­sents how com­fort­able play­ers are in shar­ing their in­di­vid­ual voices, and how quickly the Buf­falo Bills have shown signs of form­ing a tight bond fol­low­ing an off-sea­son ros­ter purge un­der new coach Sean McDer­mott.

“I think coach has cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment where he lets us be our­selves,” Tay­lor said. “I think on the field it shows. We’ve been through some ups and downs and we’ve been able to stay in the right frame of mind.”

The Bills (3-2) aren’t close to per­fect en­ter­ing their bye week. They have par­tic­u­lar con­cerns re­gard­ing an ane­mic of­fence that was strug­gling be­fore in­juries side­lined Matthews (bro­ken right thumb) and tight end Charles Clay (left knee).

And yet, Buf­falo’s off to a bet­ter start than ex­pected af­ter be­gin­ning the sea­son with 29 new­com­ers.

The show of unity has been ev­i­dent from the sea­son opener, when Bills play­ers de­cided to forego per­sonal in­tro­duc­tions be­fore home games, and chose to emerge from the tun­nel as a group.

“This year es­pe­cially, we wanted to come to­gether,” cen­tre Eric Wood said. “There was a lot of talk of us tank­ing and what­not. And we wanted to show we’re go­ing to fight to­gether. This is the clos­est team I’ve been on.”

The Bills haven’t yet flinched in the face of ad­ver­sity for a team in the midst of a 17-year play­off drought — the long­est ac­tive streak in North Amer­ica’s four ma­jor pro­fes­sional sports.

On the field, Buf­falo has over­come a thinly ex­pe­ri­enced ros­ter by re­ly­ing on an op­por­tunis­tic de­fence and clutch kick­ing from new­comer Stephen Hauschka to win three games by no more than 10 points. The two losses have been de­cided by a com­bined mar­gin of 10 points.

Off the field, the Bills have not wa­vered af­ter re­ceiver Sammy Watkins and cor­ner­back Ron­ald Darby were dealt in sep­a­rate trades in Au­gust, or when re­ceiver An­quan Boldin abruptly re­tired a lit­tle over a week af­ter Watkins was dealt.

And then there was how the Bills came to­gether in the wake of U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s crit­i­ciz­ing NFL play­ers protest­ing dur­ing the na­tional an­them.

With McDer­mott, gen­eral man­ager Bran­don Beane and own­ers Terry and Kim Peg­ula present, the Bills held a 90-minute vol­un­tary meet­ing dur­ing which play­ers voiced their opin­ions on whether to protest be­fore their game against Den­ver the fol­low­ing day. When no con­sen­sus was reached, the play­ers de­cided to do what each felt best with­out any­one be­ing judged.

Line­backer Jerry Hughes cred­its that meet­ing for bring­ing the team even closer.

“We came to­gether when things kind of started to pull at the team,” Hughes said. “If it wasn’t for that meet­ing that the coach and own­ers put to­gether, we would’ve prob­a­bly been do­ing what we’ve been do­ing in the past, which is fin­ger point­ing.”

Dys­func­tion pre­vailed the pre­vi­ous two sea­sons un­der for­mer coach Rex Ryan. Watkins openly com­plained about lack­ing catches and de­fen­sive end Mario Wil­liams ques­tioned whether he fit the de­fen­sive scheme.

McDer­mott gets credit for fos­ter­ing a united front. Fore­see­ing how many new faces would join the ros­ter, he placed an em­pha­sis on ev­ery­one get­ting to know each other, short of is­su­ing “Hello, My Name Is:” stick­ers.

Though coaches are lim­ited to how much in­ter­ac­tion they can have with play­ers dur­ing vol­un­tary work­out pe­ri­ods in April, McDer­mott re­ceived NFL ap­proval al­low­ing him and his staff to join play­ers in non-prac­tice, team­build­ing ses­sions.

McDer­mott also es­tab­lished the prac­tice of hav­ing play­ers in­tro­duce them­selves and share their back­grounds dur­ing team meet­ings. The per­sonal speeches proved pop­u­lar.

Run­ning back Mike Tol­bert said they not only al­lowed him to get to know his new team­mates, but also gain in­sight into what made them tick.

“You can sign with a new team and play foot­ball for any­body,” said Tol­bert, an off-sea­son free-agent ad­di­tion. “But when you ac­tu­ally care about the per­son next to you, it makes you play that much harder.”

Five weeks in, the Bills have taken steps to­ward meet­ing the mod­est goals Terry Peg­ula set in Au­gust, when say­ing the only ob­jec­tive he had was for the team to start earn­ing re­spect around the NFL.

“It comes down to build­ing trust,” McDer­mott said.

“There’s al­ways go­ing to be ar­eas that come up, whether it was the protest sit­u­a­tion or what­ever it is,” McDer­mott said. “There’s al­ways go­ing to be peo­ple try­ing to tear you apart. But if you don’t have that trust built up, you’ll crum­ble, and es­pe­cially for a new team.”

No more was that ev­i­dent than when Hughes had the team’s back in ac­cus­ing Hall of Fame quar­ter­back Jim Kelly of at­tempt­ing to di­vide the Bills for crit­i­ciz­ing run­ning back LeSean McCoy for sit­ting dur­ing the an­them.

“Jim ob­vi­ously feels a cer­tain type of way, but that’s not go­ing to change us, who we are, who we play for,” Tol­bert said. “For (Hughes) to rep­re­sent us as a whole in the ex­act way we all would say it, we ap­pre­ci­ated that.”

The job of build­ing the Bills into con­tenders is far from over, McDer­mott ac­knowl­edged, though he sees glimpses of a foun­da­tion form­ing.

“There’s only so many things you can get right in the first year,” McDer­mott said. “So let’s make sure we’re build­ing that solid foun­da­tion, and that’s one of them: the mind­set of our team.”

DAVID GOLD­MAN/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Buf­falo wide re­ceiver Jor­dan Matthews cel­e­brates a touch­down with run­ning back LeSean McCoy ear­lier this month. For a team that fea­tured 29 new­com­ers on the ros­ter to open the sea­son, Buf­falo has shown un­ex­pected signs of be­ing a close-knit group in get­ting off to a bet­ter-than-ex­pected 3-2 start en­ter­ing their bye week.

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