The Buffalo Bills may be one of the least celebrated teams in the NFL, but they’re clearly in a new era of team history. The days of ‘The Drought’ are behind us, and our newfound capacity for winning is intoxicating, but a question remains: How did we get here? The Bills may be without a Lombardi in the cupboard, but they’ve seen a fair share of success in their 60+ seasons as a formal team. In four separate and distinct periods, the Bills have been a championship-caliber team with leaders who have operated under their own philosophy on how to build a team that plays winning football. How did they do it then and how did we do it now?
The First Saban Era
Louis Henry Saban was a former linebacker, and his playstyle matched his coaching methods. In his first year with Buffalo (1962), he would make moves that defined the team’s success for many years. Always stressing the importance of offensive cornerstones and defensive system play, Lou obtained RB Cookie Gilchrist after nine years in the CFL and signed the injured QB Jack Kemp from the Chargers via the waiver wire. He picked up a huge infusion of young defensive talent to fit his vision, and, with the help of these new rookies and veterans, Saban defined Buffalo football for the first time. Lou bartered with team ownership for more time, understanding the need for development in his younger talent and the need for Kemp to return to full health. After a 0-5 start, he won all but one game through the rest of the season. Saban’s willingness to double down on defense through the draft and sign established success on offense became a proven method for future generations, as it brought Buffalo to three consecutive AFL championships, the 1st and 2nd of which, we won. Those seasons also won Saban 2 COY honors. His second tenure in Buffalo didn’t yield the same level of success, but his ideology of taking away the one thing opponents do best was near-revolutionary in the early days of professional football.
The Knox Era
To call this an era is to stretch the definition a little, but to ignore this period of Bills’ history would be a mistake. After a lackluster set of seasons through the 70s behind O.J. Simpson, the Bills saw brief success under Chuck Knox. Though controversial at the time, Knox’s involvement with the O.J. Simpson trade was actually limited. Tensions had been boiling for some time, and it was perfect for Knox to move him in exchange for five of San Francisco’s draft picks. Two of the players taken because of the move were RB Joe Cribbs and LB Tom Cousineau, who is important in Bills history whilst never playing a snap (a story for another time, however). Knox brought back that defensive stoutness against the run that had brought Buffalo so much success under Saban and preferred to build through the draft to obtain young talent. Chuck may have made Buffalo a good team again but couldn’t get past the divisional round of the playoffs during his brief tenure, losing in both 1980 and 1981.
The Levy Era
After another five years of insignificance, highlighted by a stretch where Buffalo won six games in almost three years, the keys to the team were handed to Marv Levy. His 1986 takeover was a changing of the winds, despite going 2-5 as he finished an already ruined season. He chose to use his time working with the dregs of a forgotten season to evaluate his available talent more clearly. In his first season at the helm, Levy had clearly made his decisions. He did what every single great coach had done before him and capitalized on young defensive talent. DROY and overall ROY Shane Conlan was one of his first major acquisitions. In his second NFL season, Jim Kelly became the franchise QB Levy would build around, and he had found his cornerstones in DE Bruce Smith, LB Darryl Talley, and WR Andre Reed already on the roster.
The team, under Levy’s veteran leadership, turned their record around in just a single season and made the playoffs immediately after in 1988. Drafting RB Thurman Thomas was the final piece of an immaculate puzzle, but the selections of TE Keith McKeller (The actual ‘K’ in K-Gun) and obtaining of LB/DE Cornelius Bennett were absurdly important to the success that followed. Levy knew what he had built by deconstructing the roster, keeping what was important, and building the rest via the draft, so he chose to snag every piece of available talent to surround them all with in order to compete for a championship. This method, where he focused on a single-faceted defensive ideology, which he executed well, and poured talent into the offense by the gallon once the defense was ready to compete, led to one of the most successful and dominant periods in NFL history. The Buffalo Bills’ 1990-1993 consecutive Super Bowl runs have never been equaled in number.
Now, it’s been clear that the roster-building philosophies (whilst executed differently) have been similar amongst these 1900s Buffalo teams, but over the course of the 2000s, the NFL changed in a way most sports haven’t. The K-Gun offense helped spark a new wave of offensive strategies, and the sport morphed into a pass-heavy league that no one could stop for long. Buffalo muddled in mediocrity for the better part of two decades before anything changed.
The McDermott Era
In a seemingly unending cycle of Coaches, QBs, and GMs, Sean McDermott stepped up to the plate. His philosophy was made apparent very quickly, as he took over draft control from then-GM Doug Whaley. Selecting guys who fit his strategy meant that some of his moves looked like head-scratchers, but CB Tre’Davious White fought for DROY all the way to the end. A focus on creating an empowered secondary to take away the thing that other teams did best meant that McDermott and his new GM Brandon Beane had only nine players left over from the previous roster in under a year. A year later, shortly after selecting more cornerstones in QB Josh Allen and LB Tremaine Edmunds, the roster was unrecognizable. By building through the draft, ensuring you have the time to endure hard seasons as you work on future victories seemed a breeze. The ownership knew that something had to change and allowed the new dynamic duo the time to see their vision take shape.
They followed the Levy blueprint, adapted to the modern game, and are now sitting in limbo, waiting to see if the team they’ve built has what it takes to finally take Buffalo all the way to the big game … and win. But McDermott does something a little different than that of ages past. He and Beane follow one consistent theme in each draft, where they prefer to build their rosters: bet on traits and teach the game to the youth. It worked with LB Matt Milano and OT Dion Dawkins, then again with Josh Allen and (though the jury may still be out) Tremaine Edmunds. DT Ed Oliver is another example, as is DE/LB A.J. Epenesa and DE Gregory Rousseau. They may have a type, but, as with their initial dream for this team, they have earned the right to see that vision through to fruition as well. Buffalo will be contending for a Super Bowl in 2021-2022 on the groundwork laid down by a few seasons of consistent roster-building and reasonable football philosophy.