If you came into this season believing that the Bills were using 2017 to begin another rebuild, you probably weren’t alone. In the offseason, the franchise with the NFL’s longest playoff drought (17 years now) forced its starting quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, to take a pay cut and let cornerback Stephon Gilmore, Pro Bowl linebacker Zach Brown, running back Mike Gillislee, and a whole slew of receivers leave for other teams. Buffalo fired its general manager, head coach, and most of its coaching staff — and the team’s new staff, headed up by new GM Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott, didn’t take too long to subsequently trade away a handful more of its most recognizable names in wide receiver Sammy Watkins, linebacker Reggie Ragland, and cornerback Ronald Darby. Oh, and then Anquan Boldin, who’d been signed to help give the team some veteran assistance in the receiver corps, abruptly retired.
By the time the dust settled and the regular season rolled around, LeSean McCoy was just about the only real household name left on a team based in Buffalo, New York, so you’ll be forgiven if, even before the season had started, you’d stopped paying attention to the Bills. This looked like a squad that simply did not have the talent to compete, particularly in a division with Tom Brady and the Patriots, who’d seemed to do the exact opposite of what Buffalo had done all offseason, acquiring veterans like Gillislee and Gilmore, Brandin Cooks, Dwayne Allen, and Rex Burkhead.
Remember when Gilmore & Gillislee went to NE, Boldin retired, Darby & Watkins were traded and this was a “throw away” season for the #Bills?
— Brian Billick (@CoachBillick) October 1, 2017
But we’re now a month into the season, and while we sit here trying to figure out how superstar-studded teams like the Patriots, Seahawks, Cowboys, Giants, and Raiders have struggled to find their footing out of the gate, the relative no-namers in Buffalo just knocked off the Falcons, 23–17, to push their record to 3–1, and they own the sole spot atop the AFC East.
In the sports lexicon, “rebuild” almost always carries a negative connotation. But based on the incredible amount of turnover they’ve seen this year, there’s really no other word you can use for what Buffalo has undergone: In all, eight players and more than 3,200 total snaps from last year’s offense left in free agency or via trade, and 12 players and 6,460 snaps from last season’s defense walked out the door. Add in scheme changes on both sides of the ball and it was natural to expect plenty of growing pains.
Predictably, the offense has often looked out of sync, and new coordinator Rick Dennison’s much-changed unit remains a work in progress. The league-best run game from last year has yet to gain much traction behind the Bills’ talented offensive line, and McCoy has mostly been held in check — on 68 carries, the five-time Pro Bowler and 2013 NFL rushing champion has averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and scored zero touchdowns. Instead, Taylor’s mostly been tasked with carrying the offense. The seventh-year signal-caller is still working to gain chemistry with newcomers Jordan Matthews (acquired in the Darby trade with the Eagles), Zay Jones (a rookie), and Andre Holmes (a free-agent pickup), but has made some big plays with his legs and was an efficient 12-of-20 for 182 yards and a touchdown (to Matthews) in the win over the Falcons.
While the Bills offense hasn’t lit up any scoreboards, it also hasn’t turned the ball over in the last three weeks. And hey, it hasn’t hurt that kicker Stephen Hauschka, signed as a free agent in the offseason, has already connected on three field goals of at least 55 yards in the past two weeks, including two in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win.
What’s been less predictable, though, has been the incredible play of the defense — a stout, ball-hawking group that’s driving the Bills’ success. Buffalo did retain some talent from last year’s team (veteran defensive linemen like Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus come to mind), but McDermott has done an incredible job of incorporating several groups of players — the leftovers from last season, the free agents and draft picks signed and selected under former GM Doug Whaley, and the players acquired under Beane — into the Bills’ new systems.
It’s meant that instead of the fractured, confused group that you might expect to see considering the circumstances, through four weeks, the Bills have been one of the most dominant defensive units in the NFL. With one game left on the slate for Monday night, the Bills rank first in the league in points allowed (13.5 per game), 10th in yards allowed (307 per game), fifth in yards per play (4.7), tied for eighth in sacks (11), third in passes defended (32), and tied for third in interceptions (6).
Stalwart defensive end Jerry Hughes, a holdover from Rex Ryan’s defense, looks at home rushing the passer in McDermott’s 4–3, and has already racked up three sacks. So does the Bills’ first-rounder from last year, Shaq Lawson (who missed Sunday’s game with a groin injury), who has looked solid on the strong side and has collected two sacks of his own. And 34-year-old linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who racked up 12.5 sacks last season, has grabbed a pair of sacks and a forced fumble.
As for the newcomers? Cornerback E.J. Gaines, acquired in the Watkins trade, has proved to be a playmaker in the Bills’ secondary, with two forced fumbles and a pick so far this year. Free-agent safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer have both hit the ground running as well; Poyer’s already picked up two sacks and an interception, and Hyde is tied for the league lead with three picks thus far. Rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White has been an impact player in his first few games, too, and is tied for the league lead in pass breakups (nine). He scooped up a (controversial) Matt Ryan fumble and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown Sunday.
McDermott and his staff have managed to get highly disciplined play out of what looked like a ragtag group coming into the year. They’re flying around, creating turnovers, and tackling well. Buffalo’s “brand” of football is not super exciting right now — Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd recently listed the Bills among the league’s most unwatchable teams because of its low-scoring offensive group — but it’s been effective.
It’s too early to jump all the way onto the Bills’ bandwagon. The offense needs to start carrying some of its own weight; the defense needs to prove it’s here to stay. Plus, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Buffalo start hot only to fade later in the year. Hot starts are actually Buffalo’s thing — they started 4–2 in 2015, 3–2 in 2015, 5–3 in 2014, and 5–2 in 2011, only to miss the playoffs each and every time.
But for now, the Bills are, at least, an interesting contrast to a lot of teams. Instead of looking at a roster with a bunch of big-name stars and asking, “Why are they so bad?,” we can look at this 3–1 Bills squad, with no clear MVP, no fantasy-stat monster, and no transcendent playmaker (so far) to lean on, and ask, “How are they so damn good?”